23 March 2018

I think I'll give the cinnamon honey a pass...

From the Crappy Design subreddit.

How ancient Greeks COULD have sailed to Canada

There's no proof that they did, but there is a way they could have bypassed the problem of the easterly Gulf Stream current.
Now a team of Greek scholars proposes another—and much earlier—wave of European migration: the Hellenistic Greeks, in triremes powered by sail and oar in the first century CE, nearly a millennium before the Vikings. These ancient Greeks regularly visited what is now Newfoundland, the study’s authors say. They set up colonies that lasted centuries, and they mined gold...

The idea is based entirely on a new examination of a dialogue written by the influential Roman author Plutarch, who lived from 46 to 119 CE. “Our intention is to prove, with modern science, that it was possible for this trip to be made,” Ioannis Liritzis, an archaeologist at the University of the Aegean who proposed that the ancient journeys took place...

For instance, Plutarch wrote that the “great continent” lies beyond the isle of Ogygia, which, according to the text, is itself a five-day trip by trireme west from Britain. Plutarch also wrote that the Greek settlers accessed the “great continent” through a bay that lines up with the Volga River delta, the northern entrance to the Caspian Sea. Using Google Earth, Liritzis drew a line from this location across the Atlantic, and found it led to the Gulf of Saint Lawrence...

Other archaeologists say the occurrence of such a voyage is implausible—though not necessarily impossible.
The source article is at Hakai magazine.

20 March 2018

The state of our oceans

Top photo:  location of uninhabited Henderson Island
Bottom photo: a beach on the island

Discussed at The Atlantic:
Henderson Island is about the most remote place you can visit without leaving the planet. It sits squarely in the middle of the South Pacific, 3,500 miles from New Zealand in one direction and another 3,500 miles from South America in the other. To get there, Jennifer Lavers had to fly from Tasmania to Tahiti, catch a small, once-a-week plane to the Gambier Islands, join a freight ship that had already sailed for 10 days from New Zealand, and ask it to change course for Henderson. No ship travels there unless you specifically ask it to...

When Lavers actually arrived on Henderson, she found that the situation was even worse than the images had suggested. At her landing site, her team immediately came across a truck tire—so large and deeply buried that they couldn’t move it. “That was a warning,” she said. “It got worse and worse. There’s an area that we call the garbage patch, where you can’t put your foot down without stepping on a bottle cap. The sheer volume really took my breath away for all the wrong reasons.”

Henderson should be pristine. It is uninhabited. Tourists don’t go there. There’s no one around to drop any litter. The whole place was declared a World Heritage Site by the United Nations in 1988. The nearest settlement is 71 miles away, and has just 40 people on it. And yet, seafaring plastic has turned it into yet another of humanity’s scrapheaps. “It’s truly one of the last paradises left on earth, and one of the least visited but heavily protected bits of land on the planet,” Lavers says. “But I don’t think I’ve stood somewhere and been so utterly and completely surrounded by plastic.”

Of interest to those with AVMs

(like me):
Researchers have found the genetic cause of a blood-vessel disorder that can cause deadly bleeds and stroke. Scientists at University College London Institute of Child Health and Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH) who led the study, called it an "enormous step" towards understanding and treating arteriovenous malformation (AVM). And they now believe targeted cancer drugs may be able to treat it...

Teams in London, Edinburgh and Cambridge, collaborated on the research, published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation. The researchers took biopsies from 160 children with blood vessel disorders including AVMs and sequenced the DNA in the affected tissue. They found four faulty genes that could trigger the condition, all involved in the signalling pathway between cell surface receptors and the nucleus. The same gene mutations are also involved in the growth of many cancers.

There are several licensed cancer drugs that target the faulty RAS-MAPK pathway. The discovery means doctors now have the potential to treat AVMs with cancer drugs.
More information and a brief video at the BBC source.   The JCI is an absolutely top-notch peer-reviewed journal for cutting-edge basic medical science; the referenced article is here.

Here is the link for the Butterfly AVM Charity.

19 March 2018

Bumper snicker

Backstory here

Image cropped and color-adjusted from the original here.

The history of "pouring one out"

The context for the photo is obvious from recent news, but the history of the phrase and the tradition was unknown to me.   I found the following at Vinepair:
One of the oldest instances of pouring one out—technically known as making a libation—comes from Ancient Egypt, where the liquid offering for the dead was typically water (the rhythms of the Nile River being a source of life and death, that seems pretty apt).  There’s even biblical... reference to the practice.  Per Genesis 35:14, “Jacob set up a pillar in the place where he had spoken with him [God], even a pillar of stone. He poured out a drink offering on it and poured oil on it.” Not quite an offering for the dead so much as, well, Yahweh, but still, we have the concept of pouring liquid out as an act of reverence...

The Greeks had two kinds of libation, spondai and choai. Whereas choai were “poured out entirely and were used for libations to the gods of the underworld, the heroes and the dead,” spondai meant a “controlled outpouring of a small amount of liquid for the Olympian gods,” that liquid usually being wine.

Ancient Rome, unabashed copycat of Ancient Greece, also incorporated the practice of libation, both as an offering to the gods and as a means to honor the dead.
 And here's the etymology of the word "libation":
late 14c., "pouring out of wine in honor of a god," from Latin libationem (nominative libatio) "a drink-offering," noun of action from past participle stem of libare "pour out (an offering)," perhaps from PIE *lehi- "to pour out, drip" (source of Greek leibein "to pour, make a libation").
This is from an enlargement of the PIE root *lei- "to flow" (source also of Sanskrit riyati "to let run;" Greek aleison "a cup for wine, goblet;" Lithuanian lieju, lieti "to pour," lytus "rain;" Hittite lilai- "to let go;" Albanian lyse, lise "a stream;" Welsh lliant "a stream, a sea," llifo "to flow;" Old Irish lie "a flood;" Breton livad "inundation;" Gaelic lighe "a flood, overflow;" Gothic leithu "fruit wine;" Old Church Slavonic liti, lêju, Bulgarian leja "I pour;" Czech liti, leji, Old Polish lić "to pour"). Transferred sense of "liquid poured out to be drunk" is from 1751. .

Gary Oldman and his mom

TYWKIWDBI doesn't normally cover celebrities, but I thought this photo of Gary Oldman's mom hugging him the morning after he won his first Oscar is rather touching.

This comment was on the discussion thread:
"She was born just after the end of WWI and would have been 26 when the second world war ended. To live through Churchill's tenure and now her son won an Oscar for portraying him, that's pretty amazing."

16 March 2018

A vampire overslept on this bench this morning

Image cropped for size from the original here.

"Brumation" illustrated

"Brumation is a term used to refer to dormancy of reptiles, which is metabolically somewhat different from mammalian hibernation.

The video above shows alligators lying dormant, not in tunnels in mud, but right in a frozen-over pond, with just their nostrils protruding above the ice.

If anyone has even the faintest doubts about the survival capabilities of this superpredator, this video should change your mind.

Meet the Denisovans - updated

Bence Viola from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig discovered the tooth fragments together with Russian colleagues in the Denisova Cave in the Altai Mountains. Initially, he thought the inconspicuous-looking object was the molar of a cave bear. But when the remaining fragments of the tooth turned up, it became obvious that the researchers had found the tooth of a hominid. It was too large, however, to be from a modern man or Neanderthal. When the researchers finally succeeded in decoding the DNA of the tooth, their suspicion was confirmed: it hailed from a previously unknown early human species living in Asia at least 30,000 years ago.
More on the Denisovans:
Because of the cool climate in the location of the Denisova Cave, the discovery benefited from DNA's ability to survive for longer periods at lower temperatures.  The average annual temperature of the cave remains at 0°C, which has contributed to the preservation of archaic DNA among the remains discovered.  The analysis indicated that modern humans, Neanderthals, and the Denisova hominin last shared a common ancestor around 1 million years ago.  The mtDNA analysis further suggested this new hominin species was the result of an early migration out of Africa, distinct from the later out-of-Africa migrations associated with Neanderthals and modern humans, but also distinct from the earlier African exodus of Homo erectus.  Pääbo noted the existence of this distant branch creates a much more complex picture of humankind during the Late Pleistocene... David Reich of Harvard University, in collaboration with Mark Stoneking of the Planck Institute team, found genetic evidence that Denisovan ancestry is shared by Melanesians, Australian Aborigines, and smaller scattered groups of people in Southeast Asia, such as the Mamanwa, a Negrito people in the Philippines.
And what a superb cave; no wonder it maintained its real estate value for tens of thousands of years.  The narration accompanying the slideshow is concise and superb; this video will be of interest to anyone with even a smidgeon of curiosity about archaeology or human prehistory.

Addendum: To keep relevant material in one place, I'll insert here a post I wrote back in 2011 ("Denisovan genes as markers of migration") -

There's too much to cover here in a short post, but I'll sketch what I understand as the basics.  Denisovans were ?pre-humans/proto-humans of the genus Homo who died out as a species.  They were genetically distinct from us, but some of their genes are present in modern humans.  The distribution of those genes today is not random, as shown by the figure above.
“We haven’t been a very exclusive species, with a very narrow origin,” said Martin Jacobsson. Interbreeding with other members of the human family tree “is not a unique event. It’s a more complex story than we thought before.”

In a study published Oct. 31 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Jacobsson and co-author Pontus Skoglund searched through 1,500 human genome scans from around the world for genes found in Denisovans but not chimpanzees or Neanderthals.

While the previous finding of Denisovan inheritance involved analysis of ultra-high-resolution human genome scans, of which only a few exist, Jacobsson used low-resolution scans. These are more commonly available and allowed the researchers to detect Denisovan signals in genomes from mainland southeast Asia. A signal also appeared in South America, but Jacobsson said that’s probably a false positive.
I'm interested in the South American hits because of my belief in early colonization of the Americas from Oceania.  I believe there's good evidence that the chickens in Chile and Peru came from Polynesia in pre-Columbian times.

Further information at Ars Technica, via Right-reading.

DNA from another human-like primate, the Denisovans, lurks in modern genomes, too. A molar and a chip of pinkie bone found in a Siberian cave provide what little information we have about this species. DNA extracted from the fragments previously revealed cross-species breeding. Yet a new study in the journal Cell shows the ancient hanky-panky did not stop in Siberia: Humans who traveled across South Asia mated with a separate group of Denisovans, as well.

“This is a breakthrough paper,” said David Reich, who studies ancient DNA at Harvard University and was not involved with the study. “It's a definite third interbreeding event,” one that adds to the previously known Denisovan and Neanderthal mixtures.

Humans and Neanderthals divided into separate groups as far back as 765,000 years ago. Denisovans and Neanderthals were closer cousins who split more recently and then vanished — perhaps because we absorbed their lineages...

All groups studied, from British and Bengali people to Peruvians and Puerto Ricans, had a dense cluster that closely matched the Altai Neanderthals. Some populations also had a cluster that matched the Altai Denisovans, which was particularly pronounced in East Asians.
The surprise was a third cluster — not like the Neanderthal DNA and only partially resembling the Altai Denisovans. This, the authors concluded, was a second and separate pulse of Denisovan genes into the DNA blender.
More at the link.

14 March 2018


 Photo taken by Tobias Messerli in the Canton of Bern.  Awesome composition.

The ecology of driftwood

Logs the size of telephone poles drift along the shore of the Salish Sea. Erik Hammond turns the wheel of his aluminum skiff and closes in. He grabs his ax and towlines, then leaps atop the floating wood, much as his father did, and his father did before him. With the butt of his ax he drives anchor pegs into the choicest three and ties them to the stern... Hammond and Moore are beachcombers, or log salvors, based in Gibsons, British Columbia.. They are practitioners of an occupation once common on the Pacific Northwest coast...

Driftwood makes an enormous if underappreciated contribution to the food web connecting the forests and the sea... Driftwood, it turns out, is also rapidly disappearing...

Immense logjams and floating rafts of naturally occurring wood were once common and well-documented features in rivers and estuaries before they were cleared for navigation. The Great Raft on Louisiana’s Red River, perhaps the most famous, existed for an estimated 375 years before its removal in 1830...

Kramer’s research shows that driftwood serves as building blocks for stable sand dunes and spits in estuaries, providing an important buffer from rising tides and waves. But shorelines around the world—especially in developed, temperate zones—are now severely wood impoverished compared to their condition before human settlement. As rivers lose driftwood, water travels through faster and there is less time for nutrient cycling...
Excerpts from an interesting longread at Hakai Magazine.  The magazine has an abundance of articles on coastal science and societies.

The fate of golf balls in the ocean

About 1.2 billion golf balls are manufactured every year, according to a 2017 report in Chemical & Engineering News, and more than half may be lost in the environment. A New York Times story in 2010 reported that an estimated 300 million disappear each year in the United States alone. With many of the planet’s approximately 32,000 golf courses located beside the ocean, countless golf balls find their way into the water, where they sink and accumulate more rapidly than anyone is cleaning them up.

Weber, a grade 12 student, is doing her best, but is barely putting a dent in the collection of drowned balls. Just two weeks earlier, Weber and her father spent several hours snorkeling in the same cove and cleared the seafloor of about 2,000 balls.

Now, the ocean bottom is again awash with golf balls. “Big waves come through and uncover them,” says Weber, who started collecting golf balls here in 2016. “It can sometimes make what we’re doing feel futile.”..

They don’t just sit inertly on the seafloor, either. As Weber has documented, they corrode.

In fact, golf balls have been found in the stomachs of at least two gray whales found dead in Washington State—one in 2010, the other in 2012—though the balls were not identified as the cause of either death. Golf balls also appear in bird stomachs on occasion—something Steiner says he has seen scores of times while inspecting decayed albatross carcasses in the northwestern Hawai‘ian Islands. Golf balls may even find their way into birds’ reproductive tracts—in one documented case, a golf ball encased in shell was laid by a Canada goose.
More at Hakai Magazine.

Coming in November

13 March 2018

Potter wasp

Impressive not just for the "pot" but for the classical "wasp waist."  More info here.

Via the NatureIsFuckingLit subreddit.
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