12 December 2017

Cochlea


"An image of a newborn rat cochlea with sensory hair cells (green) and spiral ganglion neurons (red), magnified 100x."

Eighth-place winner in the 2017 Nikon Small World photography competition.

Photo credit: Dr. Michael Perny, Bern, Switzerland.

Audubon describes a profusion of passenger pigeons in early America - updated

In the autumn of 1813, I left my house at Henderson, on the banks of the Ohio River, on my way to Louisville... The air was literally filled with pigeons; the light of noonday was obscured as by an eclipse; the dung fell in spots, not unlike melting flakes of snow, and the continued buzz of wings had a tendency to lull my senses to repose.

Before sunset I reached Louisville, distant from Hardinsburgh fifty-five miles. The pigeons were still passing in undiminished numbers and continued to do so for three days in succession. The people were all in arms. The banks of the Ohio were crowded with men and boys incessantly shooting at the pilgrims, which there flew lower as they passed the river. Multitudes were thus destroyed...

It may not, perhaps, be out of place to attempt an estimate of the number of pigeons contained in one of those mighty flocks, and of the quantity of food daily consumed by its members. The inquiry will tend to show the astonishing bounty of the great Author of Nature in providing for the wants of His creatures. Let us take a column of one mile in breadth, which is far below the average size, and suppose it passing over us without interruption for three hours, at the rate mentioned above of one mile in the minute. This will give us a parallelogram of 180 miles by one, covering 180 square miles. Allowing two pigeons to the square yard, we have 1,115,136,000 pigeons in one flock. As every pigeon daily consumes fully half a pint of food, the quantity necessary for supplying this vast multitude must be 8,712,000 bushels per day...

Let us now, kind reader, inspect their place of nightly rendezvous... The dung lay several inches deep, covering the whole extent of the roosting place, like a bed of snow... As the period of their arrival approached, their foes anxiously prepared to receive them. Some were furnished with iron pots containing sulphur, others with torches of pine knots, many with poles, and the rest with guns.. Suddenly there burst forth a general cry of “Here they come!” The noise which they made, though yet distant, reminded me of a hard gale at sea passing through the rigging of a close-reefed vessel. As the birds arrived and passed over me, I felt a current of air that surprised me. Thousands were soon knocked down by the pole men. The birds continued to pour in. The fires were lighted, and a magnificent as well as wonderful and almost terrifying sight presented itself. The pigeons, arriving by thousands, alighted everywhere, one above another, until solid masses as large as hogsheads were formed on the branches all round. Here and there the perches gave way under the weight with a crash and, falling to the ground, destroyed hundreds of the birds beneath, forcing down the dense groups with which every stick was loaded. It was a scene of uproar and confusion. I found it quite useless to speak, or even to shout to those persons who were nearest to me. Even the reports of the guns were seldom heard, and I was made aware of the firing only by seeing the shooters reloading.

No one dared venture within the line of devastation. The hogs had been penned up in due time, the picking up of the dead and wounded being left for the next morning’s employment. The pigeons were constantly coming, and it was past midnight before I perceived a decrease in the number of those that arrived... Toward the approach of day, the noise in some measure subsided, long before objects were distinguishable, the pigeons began to move off in a direction quite different from that in which they had arrived the evening before, and at sunrise all that were able to fly had disappeared. The howlings of the wolves now reached our ears, and the foxes, lynxes, cougars, bears, raccoons, opossums, and polecats were seen sneaking off, while eagles and hawks of different species, accompanied by a crowd of vultures, came to supplant them and enjoy their share of the spoil.

It was then that the authors of all this devastation began their entry among the dead, the dying, and the mangled. The pigeons were picked up and piled in heaps, until each had as many as he could possibly dispose of, when the hogs were let loose to feed on the remainder.

Persons unacquainted with these birds might naturally conclude that such dreadful havoc would soon put an end to the species. But I have satisfied myself by long observation that nothing but the gradual diminution of our forests can accomplish their decrease.
The latter proved to be a prescient comment.  The last known passenger pigeon died in 1914, as a result of combined predation and habitat loss.

Text excerpted from Audobon's Ornithological Biography, via Lapham's Quarterly.  Image source uncertain, via The Scientist.

Addendum: Reposted from 2013 to add some salient paragraphs from an essay in Harper's Magazine (November 2015) entitled "Rethinking Extinction: Toward a less gloomy environmentalism" -
The birds that most of us eat today are chickens — lots of them — and turkeys, with the occasional duck, quail, or pheasant thrown in. So it is something of a shock to remember that, not so long ago, Americans were happy to eat just about anything with wings. An 1867 inventory of fowl available in the game markets of New York City and Boston featured not only wild turkeys, partridges, and grouse but also robins, great blue herons, sandpipers, meadowlarks, blue jays, and snow buntings.
In season, passenger pigeons were especially plentiful. Alexander Wilson reported they were sometimes eaten for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The pigeon potpie — sometimes garnished with pigeon feet stuck in the middle — was common fare in colonial America. Passenger pigeons were preserved for out-of-season consumption by being salted, pickled in apple cider, smoked to make jerky, or sealed in casks with molten fat.

According to Schorger, the birds were “a boon to the poor”: in 1754, a half dozen sold in New York for a penny, a sum equivalent to thirty cents today. In times of surplus, they were fed to hogs.
By the middle of the nineteenth century, railroads had connected the cities of the eastern seaboard to the great nesting colonies of the Midwest. Word of the flocks’ locations spread rapidly thanks to another new technology, the telegraph, which allowed professional market hunters, as well as local amateurs, to converge on a site.

The most common way to kill passenger pigeons was to shoot them. Because the birds clustered so densely, no great skill was required to blast them from trees or out of the sky with a shotgun. Nets were widely used as well. Trappers broadcast grain and deployed captive “stool pigeons” to attract the birds, enabling them to snare hundreds at once. Captured pigeons could be killed by crushing their skulls between the thumb and forefinger, though, as Schorger notes, “It was difficult to continue this method without fatigue when many birds were handled.” Some hunters used specially designed pliers to break the birds’ necks. Others used their teeth...
Continued at the link.

Psychopathic children

Excerpts from an interesting read in The Atlantic:
Starting at age 6, Samantha began drawing pictures of murder weapons: a knife, a bow and arrow, chemicals for poisoning, a plastic bag for suffocating. She tells me that she pretended to kill her stuffed animals.
“You were practicing on your stuffed animals?,” I ask her.
She nods.
“How did you feel when you were doing that to your stuffed animals?”
“Happy.”
“Why did it make you feel happy?”
“Because I thought that someday I was going to end up doing it on somebody.”
“Did you ever try?”
Silence.
“I choked my little brother.”..

When Samantha got a little older, she would pinch, trip, or push her siblings and smile if
they cried. She would break into her sister’s piggy bank and rip up all the bills. Once, when Samantha was 5, Jen scolded her for being mean to one of her siblings. Samantha walked upstairs to her parents’ bathroom and washed her mother’s contact lenses down the drain. “Her behavior wasn’t impulsive,” Jen says. “It was very thoughtful, premeditated.”...

One bitter December day in 2011, Jen was driving the children along a winding road near their home. Samantha had just turned 6. Suddenly Jen heard screaming from the back seat, and when she looked in the mirror, she saw Samantha with her hands around the throat of her 2-year-old sister, who was trapped in her car seat. Jen separated them, and once they were home, she pulled Samantha aside.
“What were you doing?,” Jen asked.
“I was trying to choke her,” Samantha said.
“You realize that would have killed her? She would not have been able to breathe. She would have died.”
“I know.”
“What about the rest of us?”
“I want to kill all of you.”
The article continues with extended discussion of the role of the amygdala and the possible biology of the disorder.  I thought this was interesting:
The best physiological indicator of which young people will become violent criminals as adults is a low resting heart rate, says Adrian Raine of the University of Pennsylvania. Longitudinal studies that followed thousands of men in Sweden, the U.K., and Brazil all point to this biological anomaly. “We think that low heart rate reflects a lack of fear, and a lack of fear could predispose someone to committing fearless criminal-violence acts,” Raine says. Or perhaps there is an “optimal level of physiological arousal,” and psychopathic people seek out stimulation to increase their heart rate to normal. “For some kids, one way of getting this arousal jag in life is by shoplifting, or joining a gang, or robbing a store, or getting into a fight.” Indeed, when Daniel Waschbusch, a clinical psychologist at Penn State Hershey Medical Center, gave the most severely callous and unemotional children he worked with a stimulative medication, their behavior improved.
Continue reading at The Atlantic.

"Good wine needs no bush."


That aphorism was cited in the movie "Iris" (excellent, btw...) and was unfamiliar to me.  It was not unfamiliar to Edward deVere:
“If it be true that good wine needs no bush,
'tis true that a good play needs no epilogue;
yet to good wine they do use good bushes,
and good plays prove the better by the help of good epilogues.”
                                 ― William Shakespeare, As You Like It
The Oxford University Press Blog expands upon the subject:
As early as 1873, Walter W. Skeat wrote authoritatively (as was his wont) that bush in the saying good wine needs no bush “is well known to be that which was tied to the end of an ale-stake.” Perhaps so (though we will see that what is well-known may not be indubitable), but there was a Latin proverb sounding suspiciously like its English analog: “Vino vendibilis suspensa hedera [“ivy”] non (or nihil) opus est.” As Shakespeare’s Taverner explains at the close of As You Like It: “Wine that is saleable and good needeth no bushe or garland of yvie to be hanged before.” This aphorism, in the Latin form cited above, has been attributed to Erasmus. In any case, it is “modern” and apparently had no currency in England before Shakespeare’s or at least Camden’s time...

I would like to refer to a note by R. R. Sharpe in Athenæum/2 for 1888, p. 260. In a document going back to 1350, he found evidence that it had been customary to place a bunch or bush of rosemary or other herb in a drinking vessel, either to give a particular flavor to the beverage or, as he remarked, to disguise the inferior quality of the wine. “Of bush in this sense it is clear that good wine stands in no need.” Sharpe’s conjecture sounds convincing (and, if so, the traditional reference to the pole is the product of folk etymology).
I favor the sense that "bush" refers to "enhancement" rather than "advertisement," but it's a matter of little import.  More at the link.

Pic: rosemary in white sangria with blackberries.  See also in champagne.

All the horizontal lines are identical


They just look different from one another.  Some look to be continuous sine-wave curves, while others resemble staggered split-rail fences.  But they all have the same shape.  The optical illusion arises from the way they are colored.

The illusion was developed by psychology professor Kohske Takahashi of Chukyo University.  Via Neatorama.

Pleaching, plashing, and pruning

Pleaching or plashing is a technique of interweaving living and dead branches through a hedge for stock control. Trees are planted in lines, the branches are woven together to strengthen and fill any weak spots until the hedge thickens. Branches in close contact may grow together, due to a natural phenomenon called inosculation, a natural graft. Pleach also means weaving of thin, whippy stems of trees to form a basketry effect.
The photo, via the WoahDude subreddit, was taken at the Schönbrunn Palace gardens.

For me the image immediately conjured up memories of the scene in The Third Man where Anna walks out of Holly's life, but that one was taken at a Viennese cemetery.

This photo, and the watermarked one here, show the equipment used at the palace to accomplish the effect:


Although the top photo was described in the discussion thread as an example of pleaching, a review of Google Images retrieved by keyword pleaching suggests that the process at the palace is just elaborate pruning, without the interweaving indicated by the term "pleaching."

Still an interesting effect, though.

Haircuts as political statements


Haircuts/hairdos, along with clothing and makeup, have always served as tools by which anyone can declare (or disguise) their social status and worldview.  In an article at Buzzfeed, a hair stylist explains how she helps men look less fascist.
We love our race, the alt-right began to loudly proclaim. They also love their undercuts — the “fashy” look, as fascists like to call it. But many others have loved the undercut before them.

When the undercut grew popular in the German empire ruled by Prussian kings in the late 1800s, it was known as der Inselhaarschnitt — the island cut, in reference to the patch of hair sitting atop a shaved head. English street gangs, like the Peaky Blinders in Birmingham, were soon wearing the same style, and it made it to the United States on the heads of working-class European immigrants.

As Hitler’s Third Reich rose to power, its members embraced the undercut as a way to connect with the military success of the Prussian armies that came before them. Later, it became popular in the US Armed Forces, but in the wake of World War II it became associated with wartime violence, and European men chose looser, short hairstyles to counter the military connection.

It resurfaced in black barbershops, where fades and military cuts transformed into edgy sharp styles. The hi-top fade emerged in part out of the undercut in those barbershops during the 1980s and early '90s, wrote Quincy Mills in Cutting along the Color Line: Black Barbers and Barber Shops in America, and was most popularized by the coolest of the cool, Grace Jones.

What’s fascinating is how one haircut has signified so many different things, across different historical moments and different constituencies. As a queer stylist, it’s a cut I saw in militaristic homoerotic photography in the 1990s and fashion magazines in the 2000s.
More at the link.  Comments closed here; if you wish, you can contribute to the snarky miscommunications at the Buzzfeed thread.

"...we have created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric..."


"I think we have created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works. The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops we’ve created are destroying how society works. No civil discourse, no cooperation; misinformation, mistruth. You are being programmed"
I pretty much agree with this guy (he was one of the original Facebook executives).  Worth listening from the 21:20 mark to about the 25:30 mark or so.

Ummm... no.



Bath and Body Works markets their "Fresh Balsam" scented candles with a birchbark-patterned jar.

Photo via the Minnesota subreddit.

"Implacable. Inexorable. It WILL win."


"Iris" was released in 2001, but I saw it for the first time last evening.  It's really not so much a biography of Iris Murdoch as it is a lamentation on the ravages of Alzheimer's.  Anyone who has a family member with this affliction will appreciate the forthright but sensitive treatment of the subject in this film.

10 December 2017

Marcescence is the secret to squirrels' nests


I've blogged on several occasions about squirrels' nests ("dreys").  At our latitude they are a prominent feature of the suburban landscape, especially when one lives next to a woods.

I've always been intrigued at how squirrels are able to tolerate arctic cold in such a porous structure, but I've been even more fascinated by the apparent sturdiness of what would appear to be a fragile construction (dead leaves and twigs).

I wrote about marcescence about seven years ago.
"Retention of dead plant organs that normally are shed."  Etymology from Latin "marcere" = "to wither." ( I can't think of any related words).
"This phenomenon, when leaves fail to fall, is called marcescence. Most evident on all the oaks around the metro, it's an explainable but puzzling occurrence. At the petioles, the point of attachment to the tree, hormones flow back and forth. As the days shorten and temps fall, the amount of one in particular, auxin, is reduced. The area becomes sealed and a digestive enzyme helps to release the leaf. In fancy science talk, this all happens in the abscission zone."
This year I had the opportunity to test and illustrate the process.  In late summer I needed to prune some branches of a large oak tree that were shading our vegetable garden.  After I clipped off a small branch, instead of tossing it on the brush pile I brought it indoors.  In time the leaves duly shriveled, turning a dark green rather than brown.  But they didn't fall off.  Today I took it out in the back yard and held it up in front of its parent tree (photo), which dropped its leaves after a couple freezes and windy days.

After I took the photo I shook that branch vigorously.  The leaves stayed attached.  When I grabbed the leaves with my hand and squeezed, they were friable and crumbled to fragments.  So I suppose the squirrels must use fur or other padding not only for warmth but also to prevent traumatizing the leafy branches that make up the next (as suggested by the illustration here).

Related: Word for the day: dreyAnd again here.

Tropical butterfly


Gotta go get ready for football games, but I wanted to end the blogging day with a colorful image - in this case a tropical butterfly from Ecuador related to the clearwings, photo via Treehugger.

Library sign


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

A man "comes out" regarding his cleft hand



Google Images offers a quick overview of the amazing diversity of the anomaly.

'Stache


Neatorama has a small gallery of horse mustaches.

One has to assume that at one time there was an evolutionary advantage to having a mustache*.  Question for those of you who have horses - do you clip/shave these? or are they best left alone?

* I was trying to work out an etymology from "mus" = mouse + "tache" = pocket.  Didn't work.
1580s, from French moustache (15c.), from Italian mostaccio, from Medieval Greek moustakion, diminutive of Doric mystax (genitive mystakos) "upper lip, mustache," related to mastax "jaws, mouth," literally "that with which one chews," from PIE root *mendh- "to chew" (see mandible).  Borrowed earlier (1550s) as mostacchi, from the Italian word or its Spanish derivative mostacho. The plural form of this, mustachios, lingers in English. Slang shortening stache attested from 1985.
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