14 February 2010


Moved to a real site: sacredheartofodin.org.

13 February 2010


Moth trails.


Bats can fly drunk! Now we only have to incorporate Bat and Torn DNA.

O, India!

An Indian version of Europe's "The Final Countdown".

I Doubt The Authenticity of This (But What is "Authenticity" Anyway?)

Werner Herzog Reads Mike Mulligan And His Steam Shovel, and Curious George...a brilliant and not genuine deconstruction of childrens' books subtexts.

A Bad (?) Man...

Consider the lobbyist, the bail bondsman, the compromised scientist. I would like to be the devil's avocado here and put myself in the shoes of these people (who I may otherwise be more than ready to pounce upon).

Surely these types of people don't think of themselves as "bad people," but it's hard to say what else they might be. Openly advocating for the interests of an entire--and pretty much reprehensible--industry (e.g. strip mining) in exchange for money must sound like a filthy proposition to nearly all ethical human beings, yet people do it. Working in a CIA black prison sounds like an improper thing to do to most of us, but others feel completely justified in doing so.

It seems that there is either some sort of radical division in morality between certain sub-populations of the American populous or that, through some sort of mental/logical/ethical gymnastics, some people are able to justify and come to terms with what they do (when what they do is, by many commonly accepted standards, wrong).

Traditionally, we talk about ethics and people in two ways, each quite unlike the other. When we know someone, when we like him or her, we say, "Billy did a bad thing." When that other person is a stranger, we usually say, "He/she is a bad person." These are two completely different things.

Yet what/who is a person other than the sum of their actions?

What do we say of the head of a bail bondsmen group who, on the one hand, (legally) bribes elected representatives to legislate against the interests of the vast majority of American citizens but, on the other hand, (hypothetically) may donate to charity or volunteer for local organizations? Is this person good or bad?

Neither way of talking about the ethical quality of a person is entirely accurate or useful. I have no answers.

10 February 2010

A Lesson in Local Absurdist History


Back in the late 70's, some local absurdists ran for student government at UW-Madison and won.
They made outrageous campaign promises. For instance, they promised to convert the entire student government budget, all $70,000 of it, into pennies and allow the students to dig into it with pails and shovels. (Thus, the name of their party.) They promised to order all campus clocks to run backwards so classes would be over before they could begin. They said they would put dormitories on wheels and roll them to different parts of the campus each morning to provide students with a new perspective. They pledged to flood Camp Randall Stadium and wage mock naval battles. And finally, they said they would buy the Statue of Liberty and move it to Lake Mendota.


As soon as Mallon and Varjian were in power, they began implementing their plan of absurdity. They threw campus-wide toga parties, and bought toys to occupy students during the boredom of registration. But their masterpiece was their fulfillment of their campaign promise to move the Statue of Liberty to Lake Mendota.

The statue appeared on Lake Mendota in February of 1979. Varjian claimed the statue had been flown in by helicopter, but that the cable holding it had snapped causing Lady Liberty to crash through the ice until only the top of her head and her arm remained above water. In actuality, the statue had been constructed in a woodworking shop out of chicken wire, papier-mâché, and plywood and then moved out onto the ice.

But then, of course, people had to be real downers:
...its presence infuriated the critics of the Pail and Shovel Party (of which there were many). It was not the statue itself that people objected to, but rather the cost of it — $4500 that had come out of student funds. The student newspaper, the Daily Cardinal, became the outlet for Pail and Shovel’s critics. They accused Mallon and Varjian of being nothing more than “professional clowns” who had hijacked the student government and were proceeding to make a mockery of it, and, more seriously, they accused the two of illegal use of student funds.

In response to this criticism, Varjian noted that the total cost of the statue had only been ten cents per student, and he offered to refund this amount to any student who so desired. Sixty students staged a rally to demand their dimes. Varjian obligingly wrote each of them a check for ten cents.

The Daily Cardinal was not satisfied. It continued to denounce the statue for three weeks until March 2, when unknown arsonists torched Lady Liberty in the middle of the night, burning her to the ground. Mysteriously, the Daily Cardinal had a photographer on hand to record the burning, though it denied any involvement in the deed.
What the fuck?!

02 February 2010

Tooth Hearing Aid

New hearing aid sends sound waves through teeth, bone.

Virgin Birth

Probably the only case where a blow job got somebody pregnant.

Only the Megalomaniacal Get an Ear Anymore

An irony of trying to accurately express a statement of fact or a strong thesis: inserting caveats or qualifiers viz one's bona fides or degree of certitude, in theory, improves overall quality of communication yet, in practice, only serves to make one's auditor wary and skeptical.

(Almost ) the Deadliest Game

This cartoon (src) reminds me of something Dakota once said. She basically said that human beings have no natural predator but nevertheless desire to be hunted--that is, to be needed, wanted; hence the Zombie and the Vampire and the Devil and so on. I thought this made a good deal of sense. David Foster Wallace once wrote about Dostoevsky:
FMD seems like the first fiction writer to understand how deeply some people love their own suffering, how they use it and depend on it.

The lion yawns unhunted on the wide-open savanna.

01 February 2010

"Which First Baptist Was That Again"

From a random blog:

I am asking for your prayers for a precious friend that has just been diagnosed with breast cancer. Her name is Krista and she is the wife of our Youth Pastor at First Baptist.

Q: If God is omniscient, why do we need to need to use names?
Q: Would it really clear things up that much for a non-omniscient God to add her church and marital status?

Prayer is confusing to me. More on that after some research.

Take Your Law Off My Feet

Shoes suck.

Barefooters unite!

30 January 2010

The Noble Ant: Temnothrax unifasciatus

...workers of the ant species Temnothorax unifasciatus will also walk off to die in solitude, if they're carrying a fungal infection. In fact, Jurgen Heinze and Bartosz Walter found that workers, regardless of the reason for their demise, take their last breaths in a self-imposed quarantine. A Temnothorax worker may spend its life in the company of millions, but it dies alone.

In nature, old age is a luxury that few individuals can afford. Most often, death comes at the hands of predators or parasites. In the latter case, dying individuals pose a massive threat to their peers. In the closely-packed, humid environment of a nest, infections can spread like wildfire. Metarhizium only becomes infectious a few days after its host succumbs - it takes that long to produce new spores. And by that point, the ants are long gone.

Heinze and Walter treated 70 workers with spores of the parasitic fungus Metarhizium anisopliae. Three-quarters of them were dead within ten days. Of these, at least 70% voluntarily left the colony either hours or even days before that point and died well away from their nestmates. Another 21% were found dead outside the nests. It wasn't clear if they had left themselves or been evicted but certainly, the other ants don't treat infected workers any differently.

The tiny hermits never try to return home. They don't forage for food or water. They never try to get in touch with nestmates. If they're returned home, they'll actively try to flee again. As Heinze and Walter say, this appears to be "an active and, in most cases, adaptive response of the dying ant to its own condition."

It's not just fungus that prompts these quarantines. Heinze and Walter found that they could trigger the same behaviour by exposing young and apparently healthy workers to extremely high levels of carbon dioxide, a treatment that causes ants to age prematurely.

Even ants that are dying of old age will leave the nest. The duo kept an eye on over 1,600 workers from 28 different colonies and found that 92% of those that died spontaneously left the nest beforehand. The only one that died back in the nest was mistakenly carried there by another worker! Unlike the infected workers, they started their reclusive spell around 1-15 days before they actually died, probably because their health wasn't failing as quickly.

The fact that workers showed the same behaviour, regardless of the cause of death, suggests that the self-imposed exiles aren't just part of the parasite's manipulations. Parasites can famously twist the wills of their hosts to increase their chances of finding another. For example, some fungi and liver flukes can make ants climb to the tips of grass stems before dying, so that the spores can be dispersed on the wind or the flukes could be eaten by another host - a bird. Either way, it looks very much like the ant has willingly marched off to die alone but its strings have actually been pulled by the parasite.

That's clearly not the case for the Temnothorax workers. Although the colony doesn't really benefit if a poisoned or old ant dies elsewhere, Heinze and Walter think that these are just side-effects of a general rule that says, "If you're dying, leave, in case it's something serious that could kill the others."

More totally fascinating stuff in the article itself.

Even more eyebrow-raising goodness, here is E.O. Wilson writing ant fiction in the New Yorker!

Gay Marriage & Visualizing Whale Song

Are gay spouses on to something?

New research at San Francisco State University reveals just how common open relationships are among gay men and lesbians in the Bay Area. The Gay Couples Study has followed 556 male couples for three years — about 50 percent of those surveyed have sex outside their relationships, with the knowledge and approval of their partners.

That consent is key. “With straight people, it’s called affairs or cheating,” said Colleen Hoff, the study’s principal investigator, “but with gay people it does not have such negative connotations.”

The study also found open gay couples just as happy in their relationships as pairs in sexually exclusive unions, Dr. Hoff said. A different study, published in 1985, concluded that open gay relationships actually lasted longer.

None of this is news in the gay community, but few will speak publicly about it. Of the dozen people in open relationships contacted for this column, no one would agree to use his or her full name, citing privacy concerns. They also worried that discussing the subject could undermine the legal fight for same-sex marriage.

And now for something completely different.

Mark Fischer visualizes whale song in a new way.

26 January 2010

Slime Mold Accurately Simulates Optimal Subway Network

Slime mold is being used to optimize public transportation networks in Japan...and it's really good at it.

...Atsushi Tero from Hokkaido University worked with the slime mould Physarum polycephalum. This amoeba-like creature forages for food by sending out branches (plasmodia) from a central location. Even though it forms vast, sprawling networks, it still remains as a single cell. It's incredibly dynamic. Its various veins change thickness and shape, new ones form while old ones vanish, and the entire network can crawl a few centimetres every hour.

For a mindless organism, the slime mould's skill at creating efficient networks is extraordinary. It can find the most effective way of linking together scattered sources of food, and it can even find the shortest path through a maze. But can it do the same for Tokyo's sprawling cityscape?

Tero grew Physarum in a wet dish at a place corresponding to Tokyo, with oat flakes marking the locations of other major cities in the Greater Tokyo Area. Physarum avoids bright light, so Tero used light to simulate mountains, lakes and other prohibitive terrain on his miniature map. The mould soon filled the space with a densely packed web of plasmodia. Eventually, it thinned out its networks to focus on branches that connected the food sources. Even by eye, these final networks bore a striking similarity to the real Tokyo rail system.

More on Physarum polycephalum.

Whales and Bats Share Echolocation-Related Gene

Toothed whales and bats share the same gene:

The echolocation abilities of bats and whales, though different in their details, rely on the same changes to the same gene - Prestin. These changes have produced such similar proteins that if you drew a family tree based on their amino acid sequences, bats and toothed whales would end up in the same tight-knit group, to the exclusion of other bats and whales that don't use sonar.

This is one of the most dramatic examples yet of 'convergent evolution', where different groups of living things have independently evolved similar behaviours or body parts in response to similar evolutionary pressures.


At first, it might seem strange to see such strong convergence at the genetic level. After all, bats and toothed whales echolocate very differently. Bats create their sonar pulses using their voicebox while whales pass air through their nasal bones. Bats send their calls through air and whales send their through water. A single gene can't have accounted for these differences in production.

Instead, Prestin's role is in detecting the rebounding echoes. It is activated in the "outer hair cells" of the ear, which allow mammals to hear high frequencies. In echolocating species, these cells are shorter and stiffer than normal, making them exquisitely sensitive to the ultrasonic frequencies used in echolocation. Li thinks that the Prestin changes might have helped to tune the outer hair cells of echolocators to high-pitched noises.

Deer Mice Sperm Cooperation

Heidi Fisher has discovered that Deer Mice sperm clump together in order to travel faster. What's more:
Fisher wondered whether sperm from two different male mice would cooperate indiscriminately or tend to clump with sperm from the same mouse.

So she took sperm from one male deer mouse, and dyed it red, and sperm from another male and dyed it green.

Then she mixed the two sperm samples together, put them in a petri dish ... and watched what happened.

"What we found more often than not is that red sperm tend to clump more so together, and green sperm tend to clump more so together," says Fisher.

Humpback Whale Feeding Technique

The Humpback can feed in a very similar way to the Japanese Sizzler patron:

25 January 2010

David Attenborough Shows Us Some Smart Dolphins

Coincidentally, this is the proper way to eat at Sizzler in Japan.