Sunday, February 28, 2010

Demise of the Druid pack

The wolf pack that has dominated Yellowstone's Lamar Valley almost since reintroduction is now virtually extinct. Read it here at Ralph Maughan's Wildlife News. It's a very violent soap opera out there.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Friday photo

Firehole River, Yellowstone National Park. January 2005.

More peculiar ice formations. My best guess here is that the snow and ice accumulated at the end of the branches while the surface of the river was thinly frozen; then perhaps there was just enough melting to allow the river ice to break up and remove the foundation that these shapes had been built upon. For that to work, I think the surface of the ice would have to have been covered with snow, so that these formations didn't directly attach to the river ice itself (as they don't appear to be broken). Does that make sense?

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Colliding galaxies

This is what happens when God has to spend his time worrying about gay sex:

Nothing to be afraid of

On State Street today, I encountered a couple folks holding up one of those Obama-with-the-Hitler-moustache posters.* Our 7-second conversation went something like this:

Me: "Aren't you afraid of being arrested?"
Him: [utterly confused look] "Arrested? No, I'm not afraid of being arrested."
Me: "Guess he's not much of a Hitler, then, is he?"
Him: [utterly confused look persists - he still hasn't taken my point]

Coincidentally, I encountered this Mark Twain-attributed quotation not five minutes later:

“You can't depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.”

* I was going to insert a Google image, but they all seemed to link back to crazy wingnut sites; never mind, you know what they look like.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Last Canadian WWI veteran dies

John Babcock, Last Canadian World War I Veteran, Dies at 109

I'm struck by this statement:

“A sergeant and officer came through and they told us about ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade,’ and they asked me if I would like to sign up,” The Ottawa Sun quoted Mr. Babcock as recalling. “It was the thing to do, and I didn’t know any better.

Could anything speak more to the macho naivete of a male teenager? Using the story of six hundred lives thrown away on a hopeless frontal assault on entrenchments, in order to cajole a youngster to join a war where officers were throwing away thousands of lives on hopeless frontal assaults on entrenchments?


I've been catching up on a truly horrendous copyright judgment out of Australia a couple weeks ago: Colin Hay, Ron Strykert, and EMI records were found guilty of plagiarism for borrowing a couple of bars from a children's song in Men at Work's iconic "Down Under."

Here is the song in question, "Kookaburra."

If you can already place that in "Down Under," then congratulations, go to the head of the class, you are a world class expert on 1980's popular music. For the rest of us, listen to Men at Work and try to spot the borrowing: "Down Under"

Did you catch it? It's in the flute riff at 0:53. Eleven entire notes, not even part of the song's melody. For that, the Larrikin Music Publishing firm claims they're entitled to $33,000,000, despite having had nothing to do with writing or publishing those notes in the first place. Marion Sinclair, the woman who wrote "Kookaburra" for the Girl Guides in 1935, never even bothered filing on the copyright until decades later. After she died in 1990, Larrikin acquired the copyright and started looking for people they could enforce it upon:.

The company has hit the jackpot since buying the rights to Kookaburra in 1990 for just $6100. Mr Lurie estimates Larrikin has netted "hundreds of thousands’’ of dollars from licensing agreements with publishers and authors around the world, who had always considered it to be in the public domain.

"It’s earnt a hell of a lot of money for us since we’ve bought it," Mr Lurie said.

Lurie also says,

"Of course it would be disengenuous for me to say that there wasn’t a financial aspect involved, (but) you could just as easily say what has won out today is the importance of checking before using other people’s copyrights."

Did you hear that last line in the faux-innocent voice of Eric Cartman? I did. Publishers like to talk about piracy, but this is piracy! Not that petty shoplifting stuff that the RIAA likes to complain about - I'm talking Old School, let's sail around and find someone productive to plunder piracy.

Now, Larriken are music publishers, not musicians, but I'll bet they know the difference between musical borrowing and musical referencing, and that this incident is clearly the latter, placed in the accompaniment not because they couldn't think up their own tune, but because of the Australian flavor it would evoke. Never mind; they found a judge who doesn't understand that and they can laugh like Kookaburra all the way to the bank.

Copyright is supposed to encourage creative production by ensuring that the creator profits from his creation. Fair enough. But this copyright trolling - a close cousin to patent trolling - does the opposite. Of the three parties involved - Hay & Strykert, Sinclair, and Larriken - clearly the most creative are being pillaged by the least creative.

[PS. Forgot to mention that the parties are supposed to appear before the judge again this week after negotiating damages. I'll have the update as soon as I see it.]

[Update: The decision is now under appeal.]
[Update 2011: The appeal has been lost]

Progress and tradition

U-M Library to remove card catalog

UM Libraries are removing the card catalog, last updated in 1988, from its basement location in the graduate library. My younger colleague asks, "What card catalog?"

Monday, February 22, 2010

Nature's mysteries

Curious icicles hanging from my roof this evening:

The round hook-shape would seem to be the effect of water freezing to the side of the raingutter before descending to form the straight icicle form. What surprised me, though, is the fact that the icicles now point away from the apartment. Compare that to this photo:

Here, the weight of the sliding snow has caused the icicles to curl inward, toward the building. But the icicles on my apartment have somehow managed to rotate outward. I have no idea what can cause them to move that way.

How to handle vice

Heidi sent me this story:

Swiss prostitutes trained to use defibrillators

My first thought is, that doesn't sound like any of the Swiss in my family. My second thought is, you can save lives by regulating vice rather than trying to stamp it out, which is not a brand-new thought, admittedly, but well worth hearing over and over again until it someday sinks in.

Happy Birthday, Frederic Chopin!

Still soundin' good at 200 years!

Saturday, February 20, 2010

"Sonic Boom Meets Sun Dog"

I have to share this video, found at Bad Astronomy:

Friday, February 19, 2010

Friday photo

Grand Teton, October 2004

The highest peak in the Teton range, at 13, 755 feet above sea level. Not the cleverest photograph of a mountain, but I always liked the strip of cloud and the shadow it cast on the peak.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Then and now

A couple of weeks ago I posted on the Flickr pool "Looking into the Past". I'm getting a chance to do some similar work now:

One of our librarians wanted to create a poster of an "architectural history" of medicine at the University of Michigan, displaying photos of major medical buildings. I'm taking that a step further: creating photos that juxtapose the past with the present, and a KMZ file that can be displayed in Google Earth to locate each building's footprint on a current map.

I start with a Sanborn map fitted to the street grid and any still-existing landmarks. Then I plot the shape of the buildings according to the map, like so:

After that, it gets complicated. I can measure the true dimensions of a building and compare that to the apparent dimensions of the same building in a photograph to calculate the angle at which the photographer was viewing it. Or, as in the photo at top, I might be able to see the corner of one building lines up with a certain section of another building or landmark. If I have more than one line, I should be able to triangulate a nearly exact location for the camera:

Of course, it's not really exact, due to errors in my calculations, my alignment of the Sanborn map, and small inaccuracies in the Sanborns themselves. But it's surprisingly close and saves a lot of time when I go to reshoot the scene. When you're trying to match up two photographs, it only takes a small difference in vantage point - like ten feet - to spoil the effect, so if I had to do it all by guestimating, it would take an enormous amount of trial and error before I found the correct spot.

Even then, the trouble isn't over. The new photo and the historic photo have different dimensions, so one of them will have to be resized. How much? It can be tough to tell. In the example above, I originally had the old buildings much too large and only realized it by comparing the sizes of the two figures on the sidewalk. After I made the adjustment, I went back to Google Earth and drew some new lines, confirming that yes, most of the third building would have been visible around Angelo's restaurant.

Here is what the scene looks like today, with the Taubman Medical Library partially obscured by Angelo's:

The historic photo, showing the University Hospital in 1915, can be seen here at the Bentley Historical Library site.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

on Patrick Buchanan

I first started paying attention to Patrick Buchanan back in 1990, when I read his bio-up-til-then, Right From the Beginning. In that book, Buchanan boasted how his overbearing father had instilled authoritarian beliefs into him from the cradle and - Buchanan was proud of this - he had never passed through any questioning stage of life that would make his views truly his own. There was almost nothing the man could have said about himself that would have caused me to respect him less.

Just to reinforce my disdain, Crooks and Liars has a video of Buchanan proudly declaring his contribution to America - making the Republican Party beholden to the two most divisive elements in the nation, racists and religious fundamentalists.

BUCHANAN: I‘ve helped put together two coalitions, one for Reagan, where it was basically Evangelical Christians and all these protestants down there who didn‘t like a lot of folks also. You‘ve got to bring them in. Also with Nixon, we brought the whole Wallace movement, whatever you say about it—at one point it was at 23 percent. He got 13 percent of the vote.

WALSH: That was a racist movement.

BUCHANAN: You call them all that.

Well, what would you call the followers of man whose most famous slogan was "Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever"? Hmmm?

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Wide World of Sports remembered

I'm watching the Olympics right now on NBC. The biathlon is on, a very different type of biathlon than the one I've competed in. In half an hour, women's ice hockey will come on over on the USA network, featuring the USA v. Finland. Later, Finland will play Russia on CNBC.

Or I could watch the Daytona 500 on Fox. In college basketball, I currently have four games to choose from; if I want to be entirely bored, I could check out the Golf Channel. Hooray for cable!

It's probably the ski jumping that put me in mind of ABC's Wide World of Sports - the image of Ukrainian Vinko Bogataj crashing off the ramp will, for sports fans of a certain age, forever represent the "agony of defeat." Back in the day, there were only three networks and sports programming was limited. No Entertainment and Sports Programming Network, or ESPN, yet; no FoxSports, no TNT, no ESPN2 searching for late night material, let alone ESPN8. No Golf Channel or Speed Network. But every Saturday afternoon, Wide World of Sports was there, "spanning the globe to bring you the constant variety of sport." The show was as global as it was various, featuring auto racing, ice skating, soccer, gymnastics, curling, rodeo - almost anything might show up, and it was on WWS that I first marveled at the words "live via satellite" on my tv screen.

Somewhere in those many years that I didn't have television, Wide World of Sports went off the air, undoubtedly because of the rise of cable sports programming, almost a form of patricide. But it was always a Saturday staple in our house and I still get a thrill at the opening theme. So for those, like me, who grew up on Wide World of Sports, here's a delicious bit of nostalgia:

How to win at moguls

I thought I had blogged this video some while ago, but I can't find it now: no matter how you move its body about, a chicken keep its head in the same location:

Pick up a child and see how well he can hold his head still while you move his body back and forth. Humans just can't do this. I don't know what's going on in a chicken brain that causes neck muscles to move in exact compensation for the head's movement, but we don't have it.

Except for moguls skiers. Watch this video of Hannah Kearney winning gold in the moguls last night and compare the up-down motion of her skis to how level her head and shoulders remain.

It looks like her upper body is passive, but it takes an incredible amount of physical activity in the hips and knees to counteract the motion of the feet and ankles so consistently. If all that motion and energy were transferred directly to the upper body, it would be impossible to maintain balance.

So now you know what it takes to be a world champion moguls skier: a daredevil spirit, a hydraulic spine, and chicken DNA.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Friday photo

Bristlecone Pine, California. June 2005.

If you want to put human history into perspective, just reflect on the bristlecone pine. High up in the White Mountains of California is a tree that the US Forest Service has chosen to call "Methuselah," because it is oldest known tree in the world. It's almost an insulting moniker, to tell the truth. Methuselah of the Bible was reported to be 969 years old when he died. When the Methuselah tree was a mere 969 years old, there wasn't even a Bible yet. There was no code of laws from Hammurabi yet and it would be at least another 800 years before the House of David ruled in Judah; bronze represented the peak of the metallurgical arts. That's what we call ancient history, when this tree was already nearly a thousand years old. If the core samples are correct, the Methuselah tree sprouted in the year 2831 BC, before the Egyptians had gotten around to thinking, hey, we could stack some towers on top of each other and call them pyramids.

It's one of the few experiences that I consider awe-inspiring - contemplating a living thing whose lifespan has encompassed almost all of what we consider the History of Civilization. When I first encountered the sequoias, their age always impressed me even more than did their size. Some of them are well over 3000 years old, about the age that King David would be if he could have kept adding growth rings down to the present. Amazing, yet the oldest sequoias are young compared to the oldest bristlecones.

The tree in the photo above might be Methusaleh , although it probably isn't. When you visit this grove, the Forest Service literature explains that they're just not going to tell you which tree is the oldest one, because there are a lot of assholes out there who might think it cute to vandalize such a special tree, and for all they know, you might be one of those assholes, so you're just going to have to get by without knowing for sure. They're more diplomatic about it, but that's what they really mean, and they're entirely correct, of course.

The most amazing thing about bristlecones is how underwhelming they are on first sight. Even the oldest - especially the oldest - are just rather squat and twisted, thick but short. The oldest trees live in dry conditions and add only a thin ring of growth every year, resulting in a dense wood that resists decay and insect infestation. Many of them have been nearly girdled, with only a narrow strip of bark keeping the entire tree alive; if you look at the photo again, you'll see that most of the bark is gone, yet the tree still lives.

Because they preserve so many years of growth rings, bristlecones are a perfect subject for dendrochronology, the science of discerning the patterns of wet and dry years by identifying the wide and thin rings in trees. The living tree allow you to peg the record to the present day, while the rings of long-dead trees can be matched up with those living trees to push the record back even farther, in some regions back to 10,000 years with accuracy to the very year. It's an impressive climatic record. At the top of this post, I had to use ancient Near East history to provide context for the Methuselah tree, because no comparable written records exist for California. But there is a historical record there, nonetheless. The bristlecone pines have witnessed thousands of years of that history and are still able to tell us about some of it.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Discovered in the archives

Early draft of the Constitution found in Philadelphia

Where better to find a draft of the Constitution, anyway? Researcher Lorianne Updike Toler, working with the James Wilson papers at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, managed to piece together some long-separated papers and restore the draft.

Wilson, a Scottish-trained lawyer, was one of the more active members of the Philadelphia Convention and, as a member of the Committee of Detail that refined the final language - the language that scholars and justices squeeze for every last drop of nuance and guidance - had a profound influence on the Constitution's final form. It is no accident that drafts of the document would be in his hand.

Wilson's two previously-known drafts had been separated from his papers a long time ago, without realizing that the upside-down writing of "We the People", which appeared on the pages of the second, actually represented the beginning of a new draft. The following pages, sundered from their opening, weren't readily recognized as another complete version of the Constitution and remained with the rest of Wilson's papers, until Toler identified their relation.

[Via the Archives Listserv]

Friday, February 5, 2010

Friday photo

Castle Geyser, Yellowstone National Park. January 2004.

Here's an image I've always liked, from the instant I spotted it across the Upper Geyser Basin. The low winter sun backlights the spray from Castle Geyser, which is falling downwind in a moderate breeze, and creates an impression of a feathery curtain.

Castle is easily the most photogenic geyser in the Upper Geyser Basin. The cone is a bit over 12 feet high, which must represent several thousand years of eruptions, and bears enough resemblance to an old castle turret to have gained its name from the 1870 Washburn Expedition. Major eruptions occur a couple times a day, shooting water 30 or more feet into the air, with a generous steam phase following, and the nearby boardwalk allows the viewer to enjoy the show from the very front row. I'm sure I have more photographs of Castle than any other geyser.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Beating a burning horse

Because God gets really pissed off at people who pay close attention to His work.

I suppose the pastor here would insist that he's offering this warning out of concern for my soul, and that he feels terribly sorry about poor ol' Chuckroast, but I can't help but read this sign as gleeful and gloating.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Taking care of your own

On the Titanic, lifeboats were all but reserved for first class passengers. At Eastern's Student Center, there's a slightly different hierarchy.