Thursday, 29 May 2014

Loaded language

Supplementary material

Wikipedia has a list of school shootings in the United States. And it's a long one. It's insane that our civilization could have reached such a point without every politician trying to put a stop to this infamy.

After yet another mass murder (not school-related, but once again facilitated by the easy access to firearms), one really has to wonder why elected officials deem it fit and proper to restrict access to movies or video games, to limit the amount of toothpaste a person can bring with them in an airplane, to impose safety vests, a whistle and a certain length of rope to sea kayakists, or to impose the use of bicycle helmets to children. Heck, even a simple Kinder Surprise chocolate egg is deemed too dangerous to be allowed in the US!!! It would seem to me that there is a 300 pound gorilla in the room that nobody is paying attention to. Many gun apologists will even defend the idea of bringing guns to school in which a peanut butter sandwich is forbidden.

Some people will always be a threat to others, and there will always be terrible acts committed because of mental disorders, illness or plain nastiness. But it will always be harder to commit mass murder using a baseball bat than using a handgun.

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Name that bird

Supplementary material

The eastern whippoorwill (Antrostomus vociferus)'s song has always been one of my favorites. Click on the arrow below to hear its call, an evocation of summer evenings when all is still. (Many thanks to the site Xeno-canto for making this possible).

Whipporwills, like many nighjars, are masters of camouflage.

One of H. P. Lovecraft's most famous stories, The Dunwich horror, mentions (and makes use of) a New England legend according to which whippoorwills can catch the departing souls of people who have just died. Considering these birds manage to catch flying insects at night, perhaps that's not such a difficult thing to do! (I wonder if the souls end up in bird droppings, though. What an inglorious end)!

Friday, 16 May 2014

Tourette Twitter

Tourette syndrome is a fairly frequent condition, but in most cases in only manifests itself in the form of physical tics (facial or otherwise) and verbal ones. It can come and go, and may disappear entirely.

Popular culture usually remembers only one of the possible aspects of the syndrome: the admittedly funny (not to the patient, obviously!) and uncontrolled use of profanity. This is actually a rare phenomenon among Tourette sufferers, but it remains no less tragic for the ones afflicted. Having struggled with tics myself as a teen, I can imagine how terrible it must be to live with that condition.

As for internet users who keep using foul language just to sound tough, they don't even have the excuse of a neurological condition. They're just idiots.

Thursday, 8 May 2014

"The pessimist sees difficulty in every opportunity. The optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty." - Winston Churchill

Supplementary material

The impact of an asteroid 10km in diameter, 65 million years ago, marks the transition between the Mesozoic and the Cenozoic (or between the Cretaceous and the Tertiary if we focus on periods rather than eras). The ensuing climate changes seem to have dealt a fatal blow to the great dinosaurs who had dominated the world's fauna for tens of millions of years before the event; the great beasts would soon be exctinct.

Among the vertebrate land-dwelling survivors were several types of non-dinosaurian reptiles (crocodiles, snakes, lizards, chelonians, the lone tuatara); many descendants of dinosaurs, now feathered and warm-blooded, the birds; and especially (in our homocentric view) a clade born of the synapsids, the mammals. As was the case for the birds, the mammals' ability to regulate their temperature may have played a very important role in their surviving the Cretaceous/Tertiary extinction event.

But mammals were not spunky newcomers in the game of life; their earliest fossils go back 220 millions of years, barely a few million years younger than the earliest dinosaurs. It just seems that they could not gain the dominance they were to know later on as long as the formidable great reptiles were around.

Which means that deriding someone or something who has passed their prime by calling them "dinosaur" is a bit silly, really. If dinosaurs were still around, I bet they'd be setting the agenda instead of those annoying (but delicious) mammals.

Tuesday, 6 May 2014


Supplementary material

Hibernia is the name that Romans gave to the island of Ireland. As for stout, it is of course a (divine) dark beer made of roasted malt or barley, the most famous of which came out of the brewery of Arthur Guinness in Dublin. In case you wondered: the Guinness book of world records refers to the same Guinness. On the 10th of November 1951, the story goes, Sir Hugh Beaver (managing director of the Guinness breweries) was on a hunting trip in County Wexford, in Ireland. Having shot at (and missed) a golden plover (Pluvialis apricaria), he engaged in a heated argument with his hunting companions regarding the identity of Europe's fastest game bird: was it the golden plover or the Scottish red grouse (Lagopus lagopus scotica)? (We know now that it is the golden plover, who can reach 100 km/h. Such information on birds and their flight speed might come in handy if you ever have to cross the Bridge of Death).

Finding no reference book containing this crucial information, sir Hugh reflected that there was probably a demand for it, and he resolved to see to it. He was referred to the twin brothers Norris et Ross McWhirter, of London, who ran an agency collecting data and figures; the two were commissioned to collate the information that would be found in the first Guinness book of records in 1954. Admittedly, the book was initially meant as little more than a publicity stunt, not as something meant to generate a profit... but it became a huge best-seller.

Thursday, 1 May 2014

Age of bronze

Supplementary material

Bronze is an alloy of copper and tin, with arsenic sometimes added to the mix. It is stronger than copper alone, and obviously much, much stronger than tin (even if, paradoxically, bronze tends to grow stronger the more tin you put in it). Bronze is not to be confused with brass, an alloy of copper and zinc. The age of bronze (ca 1800-700 BCE) really came about with the invention of metallurgy; up to then, metals like copper and gold were hammered into shape to make jewelry or tools, but the majority of the latter were still made of stone (hence the name "stone age" and bone. The iron age would arrive after the bronze age, once technology (mostly meaning hotter fires, using coal) allowed the smithing of an even harder metal.

As for gold, well... it sure looks pretty and has its uses, but it is pretty soft. That's where the practice of biting a gold coin to ascertain its authenticity comes from: a gold-plated coin made of some baser metal would be much harder than a genuine gold one. (Having never owned nor tried to bite a gold coin, I have no idea how easy it would be to deform one with one's teeth. I probably wouldn't try).