30 October 2014

Probably the oldest mask in the world

From the collections of the Musée "Bible et Terre Sainte" -
This stone mask from the pre-ceramic neolithic period dates to 7000 BCE and is probably the oldest mask in the world.
Happy Halloween to all.

Via Unexplained Spoopies.

Minnesota considering ban on neonicotinoids

This summer the StarTribune carried a long feature article on the possible role of neonicotinoids in the delcine of bees.
A new class of insecticides first introduced in 1994 that is relatively harmless to people and animals — neonicotinoids. Now added routinely as a coating on seeds, neonicotinoids provide additional insurance against soil pests. And, like the genetic traits, they become an intrinsic part of the plant as it grows.

“It started in 2002,” said Chuck Benbrook, a professor who studies sustainable agricultural systems at Washington University. “By 2006 neonicotinoids had cornered the market.”..

When it comes time to buy seed, farmers have a dwindling number of alternatives. Three corporations control more than half of the world’s commercial seed market, and the top 10 control three-fourths...

But the amount of land devoted to those seeds has exploded. Today in Minnesota, about 24,000 square miles — a third of the state — are devoted to growing either corn or soybeans...

Dozens of studies have now found that low doses of neonicotinoids may not kill bees outright, but can cripple their highly sophisticated navigational and communication skills, and hamper a queen’s reproduction. Scientists have also warned that crops take up only a small portion of the insecticide, leaving the rest behind in the soil. If the toxins spread from fields into streams and wetlands, they may ripple through the food system...

But from where Ehrhardt sits, between the big seed companies and the end of their pipeline at the farm, it appears that the fate of pollinators in rural Minnesota will come down to demand, markets and economics. He sells all kinds of seeds to all kinds of farmers. He’s keenly aware of the market for organics and the rising demand among farmers for non-GMO seeds — the fastest growing segment of his seed business. Both of those types of crops command a considerably higher price at the local elevator than the genetically engineered crops.

Farmers, he said, would be happy to grow bee-friendly corn. “But there have to be consumers willing to pay for that.” 
This week they report that the state is considering a ban on neonicotinoids:
Minnesota regulators, for the first time, are considering banning or restricting a controversial class of insecticides that has been linked to honeybee deaths.

The possibility, disclosed this week by the state Department of Agriculture in a revised outline for a study of the chemicals, followed an outpouring of public concern over the dramatic decline in honeybee populations in recent years...

A revised outline published this week states that the range of state action could include “restrictions on or cancellation of products.”..

Horan said the backlash against neonicotinoids was heightened by a recent EPA finding that neonicotinoid seed treatments in soybeans provide little or no overall benefits to soybean production for most farmers.

Solar eclipse as seen from space

From NASA's series of APOD photos, this one taken from the Mir space station.
The shadow of the moon can be seen darkening part of Earth. This shadow moved across the Earth at nearly 2000 kilometers per hour...

The Yazidis

The plight of the Yazidis achieved international attention several months ago:
Fears are growing for the 300 Yazidi women reportedly kidnapped by Islamic State fighters last week amid claims they would be used to bear children to break up the ancient sect's bloodline. The minority group is originally Aryan and has retained a fairer complexion, blonde hair and blue eyes by only marrying within the community. But in a furious bid to convert all non-Muslims, ISIS jihadists have vowed to impregnate the hostages
This week The Dish notes that "the plight of the Yazidis still isn't over."
On Mount Sinjar there are two Yazidi militias resisting the IS push. They told Rudaw that they had not received supplies for weeks. There are also YPG, PKK, and peshmerga fighters in the area as well. IS has cut off the supply routes to the mountain and the Yazidi forces are desperate for weapons and ammunition.
I found out more about the Yazidis from Wikipedia:
The Yazidis are a Kurdish ethno-religious community whose syncretic but ancient religion Yazidism (a kind of Yazdânism) is linked to Zoroastrianism and ancient Mesopotamian religions...

The Yazidis are monotheists, believing in God as creator of the world, which he has placed under the care of seven "holy beings" or angels, the "chief" (archangel) of whom is Melek Taus, the "Peacock Angel."...some followers of other monotheistic religions of the region equate the Peacock Angel with their own unredeemed evil spirit Satan, which has
incited centuries of persecution of the Yazidis as "devil worshippers." Persecution of Yazidis has continued in their home communities within the borders of modern Iraq, under both Saddam Hussein and fundamentalist Sunni Muslim revolutionaries. In August 2014 the Yazidis were targeted by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria in its campaign to "purify" Iraq and neighboring countries of non-Islamic influences...

Yazidism is not an offshoot of another religion, but shows influence from the many religions of the Middle East. Core Yazidi cosmology has a pre-Zoroastrian Iranian origin, but Yazidism also includes elements of ancient nature-worship, as well as influences from Christianity, Gnosticism, Zoroastrianism, Islam and Judaism....

Both images cropped to fit without removing watermarks.  Top image (a refugee, not a hostage) from The Daily Mail.  Thumbnail image credit Feriq Ferec/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images via The Dish.

The epitome of "cheerful"

I created a "cheerful" category for blog posts (now with 200+ entries) because some days after surfing the internet for news and stories, one needs some lighter fare.

Bryan College (a Tennessee Christian liberal arts college) apparently has a feature at its home basketball games where one student is given an opportunity to make four consecutive shots (a layup, a free throw, a 3-point shot, and a half-court shot).  

Making all four within a 30-second time period results in a $10,000 reduction in tuition.  Gustavo Angel Tamayo, a 23-year-old student, had never played basketball.

This fits nicely in the cheerful category.  I've watched it three times.

29 October 2014

The "Pillar portrait" of the Bronte sisters

"Anne is on the left with Emily in the centre and Charlotte on the right. Originally, their brother, Branwell, had begun painting himself in the picture but ultimately decided to paint himself out by replacing his image with a 'pillar'. This must have been done before the painting was completed as recent x-rays, which clearly show his image, indicate that it is incomplete. Badly mixed oil paints can have a tendency to become translucent with age, and as a result of Branwell's inexperience in this area, his own ghostly image can now be seen 'in the pillar'. 
The original is on display in the National Portrait Gallery, London

Dunes on a comet

Not something I would have expected to see.

Embedded image cropped from the original for emphasis of the dunes feature. These were photographed on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko by the Rosetta spacecraft.

More photos here.

Eagle-eye view

"A white-tailed eagle, extinct in France for over 50 years, soared from the top of the Eiffel Tower in Paris and flew over the Seine with a Sony camera mounted on its back."
From a gallery at The Guardian.  Credit Sony/SWNS.com

King Tut's poor health

Dozens of websites have posted the results of Tutankhamun's virtual (CT-scan) autopsy.  The best (most concise, least sensational) I've found has been the report at National Geographic's Education Blog:
What have these CT scans revealed about King Tut’s life and death? Not much that wasn’t already known, actually...

King Tut was probably ill for most of his life. The autopsy reveals he probably had a clubfoot or Kohler disease, which prevented him from participating in vigorous activity (such as chariot-riding). He also suffered from genetic illnesses and malaria...

...they studied the 130 walking canes buried with the Boy King. Many archaeologists thought these canes were symbols of the pharaoh’s power, but the new “virtual autopsy” research indicates he actually needed them for walking.

Sunlight reflected onto a brick wall

Looks like chromosomes in metaphase. 

Found at Reddit.

The world asks the U.S. to end its embargo of Cuba

(Reuters) - The U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday voted overwhelmingly for the 23rd time to condemn the decades-long U.S. economic embargo against Cuba, with many nations praising the island state for its response in fighting the deadly Ebola virus that is ravaging West Africa. 
In the 193-nation assembly, 188 countries voted for the nonbinding resolution, titled "Necessity of Ending the Economic, Commercial and Financial Embargo imposed by the United States of America against Cuba."

As in previous years, the only countries that voted against the declaration were the United States and an ally, Israel...

While the General Assembly's vote is nonbinding and symbolic, it serves to highlight U.S. isolation regarding Havana. It is one of very few issues where all of Washington's Western allies part ways with the United States...

Washington broke diplomatic ties and imposed a comprehensive trade embargo on the Communist-run Caribbean island more than half a century ago during the Cold War. Its policy today appears to be influenced by domestic politics in Florida, where Cuban exiles have opposed any conciliation with former President Fidel Castro or current President Raul Castro, who took over for his brother in 2008. 

This ludicrous policy has been maintained now for about 50 years.  Presumably by now the Kennedy family has smoked all of the 1,200 Cuban cigars JFK imported right before he imposed the ban on commerce.

"Catcalling." What it's like being a girl in New York City

This young woman volunteered to walk around the streets of New York for ten hours, walking behind a companion who had a GoPro camera mounted on his backpack.  She is holding a microphone in both hands to record the comments directed at her during her walk, which have been clarified with captions in the 2-minute video.  The video is edited; she received about ten unsolicited comments per hour of walking.

Via Reddit, where the discussion thread focuses on the creepy guy who walks beside her for five minutes silently.

27 October 2014

Firefighters' rescue masks

From France "between the mid-1800s and World War I."

I see adapters designed to fit onto some type of tubing, presumably leading either to fresh (?compressed) air since an oxygen source would have been exponentially risker to a firefighter.  

Via Not In The History Books.

A closer look at the "Disabled Veterans National Foundation" - Updated x2

This elaborate "desk set" (calculator, pen, note pad) arrived unsolicited in the mail this week, from the Disabled Veterans National Foundation.  Because our family does donate money to charities, and because I know they exchange (or sell) names of donors to one another, I'm never surprised when new appeals arrive in the mail.

But this one was fancier by a couple log powers than anything I had ever seen before.   Even more elaborate than the made-in-China pseudo-Native-American-craft dreamcatcher I blogged two years ago.  Most charities simply send return-address labels.

So I decided to investigate.  My first stop was Charity Navigator, an unbiased resource for those who wish to give to charities.  Unfortunately, this was their response: "We don't evaluate Disabled Veterans National Foundation. Why not? We require 4 years of Forms 990 to complete an evaluation."

So I looked at the evaluation at Charity Watch:
Claims made about the percentage of donations going to charity are not the only contradictions AIP found when investigating DVNF. "For 35 years we have been putting service to others before ourselves," says one DVNF solicitation. This is an interesting statement considering the charity was not incorporated until November 2007, according to its 2008 tax form...

According to that AIP member, DVNF first sent a large plastic envelope containing a calculator and planner which she had not requested, along with a contribution form. They later sent her a follow-up solicitation asking "Did you receive the Patriotic Calculator and Planner Set I sent you?" This statement was printed in red letters above her name and address on the envelope next to a photo of an injured soldier being carried into a helicopter on a stretcher. Charities that mail unrequested gifts while at the same time requesting contributions are trying to guilt you into giving, in AIP's opinion. Donors should be aware that they are under no legal or, for that matter, moral obligation to send contributions in response to gifts they have not requested...

The language in this solicitation could lead potential donors to believe that the charity seeks funds primarily for direct assistance to veterans, which is not the case. According to DVNF's 2008 audit, only $127,421 or less than 1% of DVNF's $16.3 million budget could have been spent on grants or aid to individuals. Except for this amount and a $40,000 unrestricted grant to a related party, all the rest of DVNF's reported program expenses of $4.5 million were direct mail related.
In fairness, I'll note this evaluation was posted in August of 2010, so there may be newer data.  But I'll give this one a pass.

Update:  I wrote the above on April 30.  Yesterday, as predicted, the followup request arrives, not as an "invoice," but as a "receipt verification form." The reply form reads "YES! I received the calculator and 14 month planner.  I want to honor the disabled American heroies whokeep our nation safe!  To help these courageous men and women get the respect & benefits their military service earned, here's my gift of..."

Also, a tip of the hat to reader Corey, who notes that on May 8 CNN addressed this issue:
A national charity that vows to help disabled veterans and their families has spent tens of millions on marketing services, all the while doling out massive amounts of candy, hand sanitizer bottles and many other unnecessary items to veteran aid groups, according to a CNN investigation.

The Disabled Veterans National Foundation, based in Washington, D.C., and founded in 2007, received about $55.9 million in donations since it began operations in 2007, according to publicly available IRS 990 forms.

Yet according to the DVNF's tax filings with the IRS, almost none of that money has wound up in the hands of American veterans.

Instead, the charity made significant payments to Quadriga Art LLC, which owns two direct-mail fundraising companies hired by the DVNF to help garner donations, according to publicly available IRS 990 forms...

DVNF specifically cited a small veterans charity called St. Benedict's. But the charity's executive director said most of the donations from DVNF could hardly be classified as "badly needed."

"They sent us 2,600 bags of cough drops and 2,200 little bottles of sanitizer," J.D. Simpson told CNN. "And the great thing was, they sent us 11,520 bags of coconut M&M's. And we didn't have a lot of use for 11,520 bags of coconut M&M's... "

In one instance, the DVNF claimed more than $838,000 in fair market value donations to a small charity called US Vets in Prescott, Arizona. CNN obtained the bill of lading for that shipment, which showed that, among other things, hundreds of chefs coats and aprons were included in the delivery, along with a needlepoint design pillowcase and cans of acrylic paint. The goods listed in the two-page shipping document were things "we don't need," a US Vets spokesman said. 
More at the link. Many "charities" that ask for your money use a similar ploy.  They request free items from corporations - "gifts in kind" - then declare an inflated "market value" of those gifts when they give them away, which they use to offset the cash contributions they get from you.  The corporations in turn, of course, declare some value for these "gifts in kind" to deduct on their state and federal tax statements as charitable contributions to lower their taxes.

In May, Anderson Cooper posted this video report: [has undergone linkrot since 2012]

I spent the better part of 20 years of my working life serving U.S. veterans, so I have a personal interest in seeing that this particular story gets the attention it needs.

Addendum:  As Dan F. notes, the group is now going to be the subject of a Senate investigation.

Addendum #2:  Reposted from 2012 because the most recent comment from a reader indicates that this group is still in business.  The Senate inquiry apparently resulted in a monetary fine (and a promise to reform). 

This is an average American man

"Todd is the most typical of American men. His proportions are based on averages from CDC anthropometric data. As a U.S. male age 30 to 39, his body mass index (BMI) is 29; just one shy of the medical definition of obese. At five-feet-nine-inches tall, his waist is 39 inches."
From The Atlantic, where this body habitus is compared to those derived from databases in three other countries (Japan, France, and The Netherlands).   Here the average American is compared to the average man in the Netherlands:

"Americans are also losing ground in height. For most of two centuries, until 60 years ago, the U.S. population was the tallest in the world. Now the average American man is three inches shorter than the Dutch man, who averages six feet. Japanese averages are also gaining on Americans'. 
More information and images at The Atlantic.
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