Month: December 2018

Dr. Michio Kaku: Let’s not advertise our existence to aliens

Our best bet for survival? Lie low.

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’If advanced alien civilizations do exist, theoretical physicist Michio Kaku asks: Why would they want anything to do with us? It would be like an academic talking to a squirrel, he suggests, and he has a great point.

Hollywood and science fiction novels have conditioned us for years to believe that aliens either want to hang out on our intellectual level and learn from us… or destroy us. If alien life really does have the technology and know-how to make it all the way here, perhaps we should just play it cool and not assume that we are the top species in the universe.

Kaku speculates that our hypothetical demise would come at the hands of an intelligence civilization that sees us as no more than deer in the woods and wipes us out by accident — just as we have done to (what we deem) less remarkable species since time immemorial…’

Via Big Think

New Year’s Customs and Rituals

New Year Sunrise

New Year Sunrise

This is the annual update of my New Year post, a longstanding FmH tradition. Please let me know if you find any dead links:

I once ran across a January 1st Boston Globe article compiling folkloric beliefs about what to do, what to eat, etc. on New Year’s Day to bring good fortune for the year to come. I’ve regretted since — I usually think of it around once a year (grin) — not clipping out and saving the article. Especially since we’ve had children, I’m interested in enduring traditions that go beyond getting drunk [although some comment that this is a profound enactment of the interdigitation of chaos and order appropriate to the New Year’s celebration — FmH], watching the bowl games and making resolutions.

Marteniza-ball

A web search brought me this, less elaborate than what I recall from the Globe but to the same point. It is weighted toward eating traditions, which is odd because, unlike most other major holidays, the celebration of New Year’s in 21st century America does not seem to be centered at all around thinking about what we eat (except in the sense of the traditional weight-loss resolutions!) and certainly not around a festive meal. But…

Traditionally, it was thought that one could affect the luck they would have throughout the coming year by what they did or ate on the first day of the year. For that reason, it has become common for folks to celebrate the first few minutes of a brand new year in the company of family and friends. Parties often last into the middle of the night after the ringing in of a new year. It was once believed that the first visitor on New Year’s Day would bring either good luck or bad luck the rest of the year. It was particularly lucky if that visitor happened to be a tall dark-haired man.

“Traditional New Year foods are also thought to bring luck. Many cultures believe that anything in the shape of a ring is good luck, because it symbolizes “coming full circle,” completing a year’s cycle. For that reason, the Dutch believe that eating donuts on New Year’s Day will bring good fortune.

blackeye_peas_bowl_text
Many parts of the U.S. celebrate the new year by consuming black-eyed peas. These legumes are typically accompanied by either hog jowls or ham. Black-eyed peas and other legumes have been considered good luck in many cultures. The hog, and thus its meat, is considered lucky because it symbolizes prosperity. Cabbage is another ‘good luck’ vegetable that is consumed on New Year’s Day by many. Cabbage leaves are also considered a sign of prosperity, being representative of paper currency. In some regions, rice is a lucky food that is eaten on New Year’s Day.”

English: Fireworks over Edinburgh on New Year'...

Fireworks over Edinburgh on New Year’s Eve

The further north one travels in the British Isles, the more the year-end festivities focus on New Year’s. The Scottish observance of Hogmanay has many elements of warming heart and hearth, welcoming strangers and making a good beginning:

“Three cornered biscuits called hogmanays are eaten. Other special foods are: wine, ginger cordial, cheese, bread, shortbread, oatcake, carol or carl cake, currant loaf, and a pastry called scones. After sunset people collect juniper and water to purify the home. Divining rituals are done according to the directions of the winds, which are assigned their own colors. First Footing: The first person who comes to the door on midnight New Year’s Eve should be a dark-haired or dark-complected man with gifts for luck. Seeing a cat, dog, woman, red-head or beggar is unlucky. The person brings a gift (handsel) of coal or whiskey to ensure prosperity in the New Year. Mummer’s Plays are also performed. The actors called the White Boys of Yule are all dressed in white, except for one dressed as the devil in black. It is bad luck to engage in marriage proposals, break glass, spin flax, sweep or carry out rubbish on New Year’s Eve.”

Here’s why we clink our glasses when we drink our New Year’s toasts, no matter where we are. Of course, sometimes the midnight cacophony is louder than just clinking glassware, to create a ‘devil-chasing din’.

In Georgia, eat black eyed peas and turnip greens on New Year’s Day for luck and prosperity in the year to come, supposedly because they symbolize coppers and currency. Hoppin’ John, a concoction of peas, onion, bacon and rice, is also a southern New Year’s tradition, as is wearing yellow to find true love (in Peru and elsewhere in South America, yellow underwear, apparently!) or carrying silver for prosperity. In some instances, a dollar bill is thrown in with the other ingredients of the New Year’s meal to bring prosperity. In Greece, there is a traditional New Year’s Day sweetbread with a silver coin baked into it. All guests get a slice of the bread and whoever receives the slice with the coin is destined for good fortune for the year. At Italian tables, lentils, oranges and olives are served. The lentils, looking like coins, will bring prosperity; the oranges are for love; and the olives, symbolic of the wealth of the land, represent good fortune for the year to come.

A New Year’s meal in Norway also includes dried cod, “lutefisk.” The Pennsylvania Dutch make sure to include sauerkraut in their holiday meal, also for prosperity.

In Spain, you would cram twelve grapes in your mouth at midnight, one each time the clock chimed, for good luck for the twelve months to come. (If any of the grapes happens to be sour, the corresponding month will not be one of your most fortunate in the coming year.) The U. S. version of this custom, for some reason, involves standing on a chair as you pop the grapes. In Denmark, jumping off a chair at the stroke of midnight signifies leaping into the New Year.
In Rio,

The crescent-shaped Copacabana beach… is the scene of an unusual New Year’s Eve ritual: mass public blessings by the mother-saints of the Macumba and Candomble sects. More than 1 million people gather to watch colorful fireworks displays before plunging into the ocean at midnight after receiving the blessing from the mother-saints, who set up mini-temples on the beach.

When taking the plunge, revelers are supposed to jump over seven waves, one for each day of the week.

This is all meant to honor Lamanjá, known as the “Mother of Waters” or “Goddess of the Sea.” Lamanjá protects fishermen and survivors of shipwrecks. Believers also like to throw rice, jewelry and other gifts into the water, or float them out into the sea in intimately crafted miniature boats, to please Lamanjá in the new year.

In many northern hemisphere cities near bodies of water, people also take a New Year’s Day plunge into the water, although of course it is an icy one! The Coney Island Polar Bears Club in New York is the oldest cold-water swimming club in the United States. They have had groups of people enter the chilly surf since 1903.

Ecuadorian families make scarecrows stuffed with newspaper and firecrackers and place them outside their homes. The dummies represent misfortunes of the prior year, which are then burned in effigy at the stroke of midnight to forget the old year. Bolivian families make beautiful little wood or straw dolls to hang outside their homes on New Year’s Eve to bring good luck.

1cdd196c97bc4886c7d0b3a9c1b3dd97In China, homes are cleaned spotless to appease the Kitchen God, and papercuttings of red paper are hung in the windows to scare away evil spirits who might enter the house and bring misfortune. Large papier mache dragon heads with long fabric bodies are maneuvered through the streets during the Dragon Dance festival, and families open their front doors to let the dragon bring good luck into their homes.

The Indian Diwali, or Dipawali, festival, welcoming in the autumnal season, also involves attracting good fortune with lights. Children make small clay lamps, dipas, thousands of which might adorn a given home. In Thailand, one pours fragrant water over the hands of elders on New Year’s Day to show them respect.

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Elsewhere:

  • a stack of pancakes for the New Year’s breakfast in France.
  • banging on friends’ doors in Denmark to “smash in” the New Year, where it is also a good sign to find your doorstep heaped with broken dishes on New Year’s morning. Old dishes are saved all years to throw at your friends’ homes on New Year’s Eve. The more broken pieces you have, the greater the number of new friends you will have in the forthcoming twelve months.
  • going in the front door and out the back door at midnight in Ireland.
  • making sure the First Footer, the first person through your door in the New Year in Scotland, is a tall dark haired visitor.
  • water out the window at midnight in Puerto Rico rids the home of evil spirits.
  • cleanse your soul in Japan at the New Year by listening to a gong tolling 108 times, one for every sin
  • it is Swiss good luck to let a drop of cream fall on the floor on New Year’s Day.
  • Belgian farmers wish their animals a Happy New Year for blessings.
  • In Germany and Austria, lead pouring” (das Bleigießen) is an old divining practice using molten lead like tea leaves. A small amount of lead is melted in a tablespoon (by holding a flame under the spoon) and then poured into a bowl or bucket of water. The resulting pattern is interpreted to predict the coming year. For instance, if the lead forms a ball (der Ball), that means luck will roll your way. The shape of an anchor (der Anker) means help in need. But a cross (das Kreuz) signifies death. This is also a practice in parts of Finland, apparently.
  • El Salvadoreans crack an egg in a glass at midnight and leave it on the windowsill overnight; whatever figure it has made in the morning is indicative of one’s fortune for the year.
  • Some Italians like to take part in throwing pots, pans, and old furniture from their windows when the clock strikes midnight. This is done as a way for residents to rid of the old and welcome in the new. It also allows them to let go of negativity. This custom is also practiced in parts of South Africa, the Houston Press adds.
  • In Colombia, walk around with an empty suitcase on New Year’s Day for a year full of travel.
  • In the Philippines, all the lights in the house are turned on at midnight, and previously opened windows, doors and cabinets throughout the house are suddenly slammed shut, to ward off evil spirits for the new year.
  • In Russia a wish is written down on a piece of paper. It is burned and the ash dissolved in a glass of champagne, which should be downed before 12:01 am if the wish is to come true.
  • aptopix-romania-bear-ritual-89ecd02b044cc9131Romanians celebrate the new year by wearing bear costumes and dancing around to ward off evil
  • In Turkey, pomegranates are thrown down from the balconies at midnight for good luck.

It’s a bit bizarre when you think about it. A short British cabaret sketch from the 1920s has become a German New Year’s tradition. Yet, although The 90th Birthday or Dinner for One is a famous cult classic in Germany and several other European countries, it is virtually unknown in the English-speaking world, including Britain, its birthplace.” (Watch on Youtube, 11 min.)

So if the Germans watch British video, what do you watch in Britain? A number of sources have suggested that it is Jools Holland’s Hootenanny, “even though it’s awful and everyone hates it.

On a related theme, from earlier in the same week, here are some of the more bizarre Christmas rituals from around the world. 

Some history; documentation of observance of the new year dates back at least 4000 years to the Babylonians, who also made the first new year’s resolutions (reportedly voews to return borrowed farm equipment were very popular), although their holiday was observed at the vernal equinox. The Babylonian festivities lasted eleven days, each day with its own particular mode of celebration. The traditional Persian Norouz festival of spring continues to be considered the advent of the new year among Persians, Kurds and other peoples throughout Central Asia, and dates back at least 3000 years, deeply rooted in Zooastrian traditions.Modern Bahá’í’s celebrate Norouz (”Naw Ruz”) as the end of a Nineteen Day Fast. Rosh Hashanah (”head of the year”), the Jewish New Year, the first day of the lunar month of Tishri, falls between September and early October. Muslim New Year is the first day of Muharram, and Chinese New Year falls between Jan. 10th and Feb. 19th of the Gregorian calendar.

The classical Roman New Year’s celebration was also in the spring although the calendar went out of synchrony with the sun. January 1st became the first day of the year by proclamation of the Roman Senate in 153 BC, reinforced even more strongly when Julius Caesar established what came to be known as the Julian calendar in 46 BC. The early Christian Church condemned new year’s festivities as pagan but created parallel festivities concurrently. New Year’s Day is still observed as the Feast of Christ’s Circumcision in some denominations. Church opposition to a new year’s observance reasserted itself during the Middle Ages, and Western nations have only celebrated January 1 as a holidy for about the last 400 years. The custom of New Year’s gift exchange among Druidic pagans in 7th century Flanders was deplored by Saint Eligius, who warned them, “[Do not] make vetulas, [little figures of the Old Woman], little deer or iotticos or set tables [for the house-elf] at night or exchange New Year gifts or supply superfluous drinks [another Yule custom].” (Wikipedia)

The tradition of the New Year’s Baby signifying the new year began with the Greek tradition of parading a baby in a basket during the Dionysian rites celebrating the annual rebirth of that god as a symbol of fertility. The baby was also a symbol of rebirth among early Egyptians. Again, the Church was forced to modify its denunciation of the practice as pagan because of the popularity of the rebirth symbolism, finally allowing its members to cellebrate the new year with a baby although assimilating it to a celebration of the birth of the baby Jesus. The addition of Father Time (the “Old Year”) wearing a sash across his chest with the previous year on it, and the banner carried or worn by the New Year’s Baby, immigrated from Germany. Interestingly, January 1st is not a legal holiday in Israel, officially because of its historic origins as a Christian feast day.


Auld Lang Syne (literally ‘old long ago’ in the Scottish dialect) is sung or played at the stroke of midnight throughout the English-speaking world (and then there is George Harrison’s “Ring Out the Old”). Versions of the song have been part of the New Year’s festivities since the 17th century but Robert Burns was inspired to compose a modern rendition, which was published after his death in 1796. (It took Guy Lombardo, however, to make it popular…)

Should auld acquaintance be forgot
and never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot
and days of auld lang syne?
For auld lang syne, my dear,
for auld lang syne,
we’ll take a cup of kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.

Should auld acquaintance be forgot
and never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot
and days of auld lang syne?
And here’s a hand, my trusty friend
And gie’s a hand o’ thine
We’ll tak’ a cup o’ kindness yet
For auld lang syne

Here’s how to wish someone a Happy New Year around the world:

  • Arabic: Kul ‘aam u antum salimoun
  • Brazilian: Boas Festas e Feliz Ano Novo means “Good Parties and Happy New Year”
  • Chinese: Chu Shen Tan Xin Nian Kuai Le (thanks, Jeff)
  • Czechoslavakia: Scastny Novy Rok
  • Dutch: Gullukkig Niuw Jaar
  • Finnish: Onnellista Uutta Vuotta
  • French: Bonne Annee
  • German: Prosit Neujahr
  • Greek: Eftecheezmaenos o Kaenooryos hronos
  • Hebrew: L’Shannah Tovah Tikatevu
  • Hindi: Niya Saa Moobaarak
  • Irish (Gaelic): Bliain nua fe mhaise dhuit
  • Italian: Buon Capodanno
  • Khmer: Sua Sdei tfnam tmei
  • Laotian: Sabai dee pee mai
  • Polish: Szczesliwego Nowego Roku
  • Portuguese: Feliz Ano Novo
  • Russian: S Novim Godom
  • Serbo-Croatian: Scecna nova godina
  • Spanish: Feliz Ano Nuevo
  • Swedish: Ha ett gott nytt år
  • Turkish: Yeni Yiliniz Kutlu Olsun
  • Vietnamese: Cung-Chuc Tan-Xuan

[If you are a native speaker, please feel free to offer any corrections or additions!]

Which of these customs appeal to you? Are they done in your family, or will you try to adopt any of them? However you’re going to celebrate, my warmest wishes for the year to come… and eat hearty!

[thanks to Bruce Umbaugh (here or here) for research assistance]

Whr Hv All th Vwls Gn?

John Williams writes:

‘Time was that you had to be an experimental weirdo to ditch vowels. In “Finnegans Wake,” James Joyce used the word “disemvowelled” in a section thatincludes this exchange of crystal-clear dialogue:

— Nnn ttt wrd?

— Dmn ttt thg.

Before we are all Joyce — God bless him — I would suggest that we take a deep breath, a mndfl one even, and consider the culling of our five (maybe six) friends. After all, there are words that can hardly do without them: muumuu, audio and oboe, just to queue up a few. One cannot text someone “b” and expect them to know one is referring to an oboe.

And what about that old Scrabble lifesaver “euoi” — “a cry of impassioned rapture in ancient Bacchic revels?” If you know of another way to identify a cry of impassioned rapture in ancient Bacchic revels, I’d like to hear it. Really. I’ll wait.

Panicked that we might be sliding (even more quickly) toward a fully emoticon-based pictographic language, I called the linguist, Columbia professor and prolific author John McWhorter to ease my mind. First, he assured me I wasn’t crazy to suggest an uptick in this trend.

“There is a fashion in American language culture right now to be playful in a way that is often childlike,” Mr. McWhorter said. “This business of leaving out the vowels and leaving you to wonder how to pronounce something, it channels this kid-ness in a way — like saying ‘because science,’ or the way we’re using -y, when we say something like, ‘well, it got a little yell-y.’ ”

Mr. McWhorter acknowledges that the more often vowels are dropped, the more people get used to it and make adjustments to rapidly understand implied meanings. “You can imagine someone naming a band MGMT in 1976, and everyone would just be baffled,” he said. But he doesn’t see disemvowelling creeping into more formal areas, and expects the trend won’t move “beyond the realm of that which is ironic or iconic.” …’

Source: New York Times

Arctic warming is not just a data point

NewImagePaul Nicklen:

’I have either lived or worked in the Arctic for most of my life. There is no place that I love more. The Arctic is also warming twice as fast as anywhere else on Earth. On this day, four years ago, I photographed two young bears who were lying dead next to one another. Top polar bear scientists are saying that we will likely lose 30 percent of the polar bear population by 2050 due to starvation and we could lose polar bears all together within a hundred years. I want the world to realize that these are not just data points falling off a sheet paper. These are individuals that are and will starve to death due to the lack of sea ice. What is it going to take for us to wake up? It was on this day that @sealegacy was born. I am proud of the work that @sealegacy is doing. We have come a long way but we are only just getting started. If we are going to create real and lasting change for our planet, then we need to quickly scale our organization and take on bigger campaigns. Please go to the link in my bio and please consider a donation of any size. Please join us in #turnthetide #becomepartofthesolution #gratitude…’

Via Instagram

Ready for a Super Blood Wolf Moon in January?

Emily Petsko writes:

‘…The new year will get off to a brilliant start when a rare reddish-orange body called a Super Blood Wolf Moon graces the sky in January…

This phenomenon is actually the convergence of a few lunar events. For one, there’s a total lunar eclipse, also known as a Blood Moon… Secondly, the Super Blood Wolf Moon takes place during a supermoon. This occurs when a moon’s full phase coincides with the point in its orbit when it comes closest to Earth. These two factors make it look 14 percent larger and 30 percent brighter than it normally does, according to Space.com. Finally, a full moon in January has been called a Wolf Moon ever since colonial times, so that’s where the “wolf” part of the name comes from.

If you’re in North America, you can expect to see the Super Blood Wolf Moon on January 20. Totality will occur around 9:12 p.m. PST or 12:12 a.m. EST on January 21, but Forbes suggests pulling up a chair an hour beforehand to watch the moon change from partial eclipse to total eclipse….’

Source: Mental Floss

Best Epigraphs of 2018

Ashley Holstrom writes:

‘Epigraphs are a lovely part of books—usually a fancy line from a very old work that the author feels in their soul. This year was (another) hard one, and the epigraphs of 2018 are a comfort.

I once had a teacher who said epigraphs were snooty, and something only authors who think they’re as good as the greats do. But I disagree. They’re a great way to lead you to more books! And this year’s selections made my TBR list even longer.

Last year I collected the best epigraphs of the year, and it’s my new favorite end-of-year tradition. So let’s get to it! …’

Source: Book Riot

Gen. Wesley Clark: Was Trump blackmailed into pulling out of Syria?

220x125’During a CNN appearance on December 24, Clark stressed that “there doesn’t seem to be any strategic rational for the decision. And if there is no strategic rational, then you have to ask, ‘Why was the decision made? I can tell you that people around the world are asking this. And some of our friends and our allies in the Middle East are asking, ‘Well, did Erdogan blackmail the president? Was there a payoff or something? Why would a guy make a decision like this?’”…’

Via Salon.com

Gigantic Poster Features Every Product the Fictional ACME Corporation Ever Produced

567190 fringefocus robloukotka‘If the ACME Corporation were a real company, its R&D department would have been pretty busy. The fake manufacturer, featured in the Looney Tunes’s Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner cartoons, seemingly made every type of product in the Looney Tunes universe, from explosives to refrigerators to trampolines to instructional karate manuals.

Chicago-based artist Rob Loukotka knows them all. His studio, Fringe Focus, has put them all on one 24-inch by 36-inch poster, creating an exhaustive illustrated compendium of all of the ACME-brand products that fueled the endless coyote-on-bird rivalry.

First designed as part of a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign—it vastly overshot its $3000 goal, raising more than $105,000 in less than a month—the poster features all 126 ACME products (the full list is here) that appear in the Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner sketches.

To come up with the design, Loukotka watched 43 Wile E. Coyote/Road Runner cartoons that aired between 1949 and 1994, spending more than 100 hours creating intricate renderings of products like the ACME Bird Seed, ACME Glue, the ACME Instant Icicle Maker, the book Birds and Their Habitat, and more.

Spend enough time with the poster and you’ll no doubt start wishing you could buy some of the whimsical inventions for yourself, forgetting that most of them ended up spectacularly backfiring on the poor coyote.…’

Via Mental Floss

Study: modern masters like Jackson Pollock were “intuitive physicists”

Art2 800x515Collective Suicide (1936), by Mexican muralist David A. Siqueiros, is an example of the “accidental painting” technique developed by the artist.

’In the 1930s, a small group of New York City artists began experimenting with novel painting techniques and materials, including Mexican muralist David A. Siqueiros and Jackson Pollock. For the last few years, a team of Mexican physicists has been studying the physics of fluids at work in those techniques, concluding that the artists were “intuitive physicists,” using science to create timeless art.

“One of the things I have come to realize is that painters have a deep understanding of fluid mechanics as they manipulate their materials,” said Roberto Zenit, a physicist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico who is leading the research. “This is what fluid mechanicians do. The objective is different, but the manipulation of these materials that flow is the same. So it is not a surprise that fluid mechanics has a lot to say about how artists paint.”

Zenit is not the first physicist to be fascinated by Pollock’s work in particular. Back in 2001, for instance, physicist Richard Taylor found evidence of fractal patterns in Pollock’s seemingly random drip patterns. His hypothesis met with considerable controversy, both from art historians and a few fellow physicists. In a 2006 paper published in Nature, for instance, Case University physicists Katherine Jones-Smith and Harsh Mathur claimed Taylor’s work was “seriously flawed” and “lacked the range of scales needed to be considered fractal.” (To prove the point, Jones-Smith created her own version of a fractal painting—using Taylor’s criteria—in about five minutes using Photoshop.)

Then, in 2011, Boston College physicist Andrzej Herczynski^ and Harvard mathematician Lakshminarayanan Mahadevan collaborated with art historian Claude Cernuschi on an article for Physics Today examining Pollock’s use of a coiling instability in his paintings. It’s basically a mathematical description for how a viscous fluid folds onto itself like a coiling rope—just like pouring maple syrup on pancakes. The patterns that form depend on how thick the fluid is (its viscosity) and how fast it’s moving. Thick fluids form straight lines when being spread rapidly across a canvas, but will form loops and squiggles and figure eights if poured slowly.…’

Via Ars Technica

How Opioids Hijack the Brain

’To understand what goes through the minds and bodies of opioid users, The New York Times spent months interviewing users, family members and addiction experts. Using their insights, we created a visual representation of how the strong lure of these powerful drugs can hijack the brain.

Dr. Pedro Mateu-Gelabert, one of the nation’s top opioid researchers, said this work brings “an emotional understanding” to the epidemic but “without glamorizing or oversimplifying.”…’

Via The New York Times

The ‘visual representation’ is hokey and adds nothing but glitz to the narrative. Nevertheless, it is insightful. However, it is hard to understand why it took the Times months of interviewing, when the reporters could have interviewed Dr Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute of Drug Abuse, or read one of her review papers on the neurobiology of addiction, deriving the same sophisticated understanding in thirty minutes or less.

Regardless, it is important to understand that addiction is not just a weakness of will and that recovery is not just a matter of determination. Motivation and commitment are necessary but far from sufficient in the face of the powerful neurobiological changes precipitated by a period of consistent use of an addictive drug. And this is true not only with respect to opioids (so fashionable to think about given the nationwide ‘epidemic’) but but any class of addictive drug. (And, for that matter, we speculate that non-drug-related ‘addictive’ behaviors such as gambling may involve similar mechanisms.). Essentially, the machinery of pleasure, reward and satisfaction have been hijacked by the substance use. With abstinence, such changes do not reverse for months or even years. 

‘The good Earth’

Earthrise

’It’s the 50th anniversary of perhaps the most remarkable photograph ever taken, Earthrise… In what was at that time the biggest television broadcast in terms of audience ever, the crew described the moon as they orbited it, and then ended the broadcast with a reading from Genesis and, finally, with this:

“And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas – and God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth.”

The crew fired their engine to leave lunar orbit and return to Earth on Christmas Day from behind the moon, out of radio contact with the rest of humanity. When they finally saw the Earth again, Jim Lovell broke radio silence to declare, “Please be informed there is a Santa Claus.”…’

Via Six Colors

The history of Jews, Chinese food, and Christmas

GettyImages 514694012 0As explained by a rabbi:

’For over a century, American Jews have eaten American Chinese food on Christmas. This pastime has evolved to a near-holy tradition, parodied on Saturday Night Live, analyzed in academic papers, and reaffirmed by Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan.

Perhaps the foremost expert on the practice is Rabbi Joshua Eli Plaut, PhD, executive director of American Friends of Rabin Medical Center, rabbi of Metropolitan Synagogue in New York, and author of A Kosher Christmas, the premier (and only?) comprehensive study of what Jews do at Christmastime.

I spoke to Plaut about Chinese food on Christmas, and why he used to sit on Santa Claus’s lap.…’

Via Vox

Dear Anonymous Inside the Trump Administration


Merlin 148364211 7fe0fe18 ffcc 46fb 89b8 3624cecf4aa3 superJumbo’Dear Anonymous,

It’s time we revisit that famous op-ed of yours.

In September, you acknowledged that you were a member of the “quiet resistance” within Donald Trump’s administration. You told us that you and others were “working diligently” to “frustrate parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations.” You said that while you agreed with many of the president’s policies, you were appalled by the president’s amorality, his chaotic management, his “repetitive rants,” his fondness for dictators.

You also believed that your efforts to resist Trump were often successful. On foreign policy, you noted, the administration’s policies were far more sober and serious than the president’s reckless rhetoric.

You were wrong. This week proves it. Assuming you haven’t departed the administration already, now would be the time for you to go. Ditto for all of your fellow “resisters.”

This is the central lesson of James Mattis’s stunning resignation on Thursday. Secretaries of defense come and go — we’ve had five in the last eight years — and some of them run afoul of the president they serve.
But Mattis is the highest-ranking cabinet member to resign over differences of policy and principle since Cyrus Vance quit the State Department in 1980 after Jimmy Carter’s Desert One fiasco. He is the only defense secretary to leave this way since the position was created in 1947.

Mattis resigned because he no longer shares your analysis. He no longer believes he can be a steadying or blocking force in the councils of government because it isn’t clear there are “councils of government.” Donald Trump made a snap decision to remove U.S. troops from Syria following a phone call with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He did so over the unanimous objections of his national-security team. He did so after leading members of that team had said publicly and recently that the U.S. would not withdraw.

A president who sticks it to his own team while sticking with a foreign strongman is not worth sticking by.

Mattis also resigned because he has concluded that the problem with Trump isn’t that he’s an empty vessel. It’s that he’s a malignant one.

Here was the fundamental mistake in your view of Trump: You thought he could be handled. You thought of him as a child who simply needed to be kept away from dangerous toys, as former economic adviser Gary Cohn did when he removed a letter from the president’s desk ordering the end of the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement.
But our Commodus-in-Chief isn’t just an irascible buffoon whose worst impulses can be confined to Twitter but whose policy instincts largely align with yours. Trump thinks of himself as a man of ideas. Withdrawal from Syria, along with partial withdrawal from Afghanistan, is consonant with the quasi-isolationism he’s preached for decades. He is sympathetic to Erdogan, as he is to other tyrants, because he is indifferent to considerations of human rights and civil liberties.…’

Via The New York Times Opinion

Teenage Dolphins Get High on Puffer Fish Toxin

Dolphins high’In 2014, BBC aired a two-part documentary that featured intimate and close-up footage of dolphins using remote-controlled cameras disguised as sea creatures like turtles and fish. In one of the scenes, a group of adolescent dolphins captures a puffer fish and passes the ball-shaped little guy around. But as narrator David Tennant explains, what the dolphins really appear to be after is the toxin released by the puffer.

When attacked, puffer fish release a neurotoxin. In high doses, it can kill, but in small doses, it has a narcotic effect. It seems to be affecting the dolphins. They appear totally blissed out by the whole experience. And remarkably, all take turns in passing the puffer around.…’

Via Kottke

Four seasons in the life of a Finnish island

Jani ylinampa kotisaari’Nestled amongst hundreds of stunning shots of the aurora borealis taken by Finnish photographer Jani Ylinampa is a series of four photos of Kotisaari, showing the island from a drone’s point of view for each of the four seasons (clockwise from upper left): spring, summer, autumn, and winter.

But seriously, go check out Ylinampa’s Instagram account…it’s packed with aurora borealis photos. What a magical place to live, where the sky lights up like that all the time.…’

Via Kottke

Trump is a better punchline than president, and he hates it

No sense of humor:

‘While this pales in comparison with his mounting moral, constitutional, and possibly criminal sins, his latest tantrum against “Saturday Night Live” finds him wading deeper into the wannabe dictator muck.…’

Via Boston Globe

What is that they say about political jokes, that the problem with them is that too many of them get elected? Trump would just be funny if he weren’t so pitiful and his impact on human misery so profound.

How the Big Rip could end the world

980x’A cosmological model predicts that the expanding Universe could rip itself apart. Too much dark energy could overwhelm the forces holding matter together. The disaster could happen in about 22 billion years.…’

Via Big Think

Are Big Questions a Good Idea?

Unknown’Philosophers are supposed to ask Big Questions. The Big Questions is the title of a popular introduction to philosophy and of a long-running BBC programme in which people discuss their ethical and religious perspectives. But since we philosophers, following in the footsteps of Socrates, claim to practice critical thinking, it behooves us to ask whether Big Questions are a good idea.

It’s not easy to say precisely what makes a question big; but we can at least give a few examples form the history of philosophy so that we have some idea what we’re talking about:…’

Via 3 Quarks Daily

A Complete Guide to All 17 (Known) Trump and Russia Investigations

TrumpRussia 872734326’After three weeks of back-to-back-to-back-to-back bombshells by federal prosecutors and special counsel Robert Mueller, it’s increasingly clear that, as 2018 winds down, Donald Trump faces a legal assault unlike anything previously seen by any president—at least 17 distinct court cases stemming from at least seven different sets of prosecutors and investigators. (That total does not count any congressional inquiries, nor does it include any other inquiries into other administration officials unrelated to Russia.)…

Here’s a complete rundown of the various known investigations targeting Trump’s world from local, state, and federal prosecutors:..’

Via WIRED

How Zoos Respond When Natural Disasters Strike

Science Zoo Wildfires 1059590024 wDisaster-Prepping for the Animals:

’As climate change escalates the intensity and frequency of natural disasters like wildfires and hurricanes, zoos are having to find new ways to keep their animals safe. This means stocking up on emergency provisions for a hundred or more species, each with their own special medical, dietary, and habitat needs. It also means knowing, at a moment’s notice, which species need to move if keeping them outdoors becomes unsafe. Collecting such information requires years of planning. But zoos only began doing the work fairly recently.…’

Via WIRED

Q: What’s worse than drug addiction?

A: drug addiction treatment.

Images’Many drug treatment centers are run as for-profit institutions. Making a buck off of treating people’s addictions often runs counter to actually helping addicts. Some Chinese drug centers are experimenting with removing an addict’s nucleus accumbens, which saps them of their ability to feel pleasure.…’

Via Big Think

Alzheimer’s Protein Accidentally Transmitted to Patients Via Discontinued Medical Treatments

’Researchers report human growth hormone, prepared from human tissue prior to 1985, may have been contaminated with seeds of the amyloid beta protein. In a new study, researchers injected mice with the original c-hGH batches containing amyloid beta which seeded amyloid pathology, even decades after storage. Findings support the hypothesis that the Alzheimer’s causing proteins can be transmitted to from contaminated materials.…’

Via Neuroscience News

Video shows Trump’s next chief of staff calling him ‘terrible human being’

5674’One of Mick Mulvaney’s first tasks as acting chief of staff to Donald Trump will perhaps be explaining why he previously publicly called his boss “a terrible human being”.

Video has emerged of Mulvaney, previously a Republican congressman, admitting his disdain for Trump shortly before the presidential election in November 2016.

“Yes, I’m supporting Donald Trump; I’m doing so as enthusiastically as I can given the fact I think he’s a terrible human being,” Mulvaney said.…’

Via The Guardian

After suicides in Acton and Boxborough, a communion of sorrow

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This Boston Globe article describes the grief and the search for answers in the aftermath of a suicide cluster (six adolescents and young adults within 20 months) in the communities served by the community hospital where I practice psychiatry. While I thought it was thoughtful and searching, I had several concerns (I wrote essentially a version of this post to the reporter and the editor of The Globe).

The article mentions almost in passing the opinion of one set of parents that antidepressant use may have increased their son’s suicidal thinking and contributed to his death. This comment goes unchallenged and unexplored despite the issue being complex and far from incontrovertible. The question of the possible exacerbation of  suicidal thoughts by antidepressants has largely been put to rest, after the concern emerged about a decade ago, by substantial sophisticated research and analysis by psychiatric experts in psychopharmacology and suicidology. In rare isolated cases with particularly vulnerable patients, the agitating side effects of some antidepressants could conceivably worsen their distress to a tipping point. But, in most of the cases where a patient feels that their suicidal thinking escalated after beginning a medication, it is more simply that the medication has not yet kicked in to be the hoped-for ‘fix’ to halt the ongoing progression of their depression.

Furthermore, antidepressant prescribing has increasingly migrated from the psychiatrist’s consulting room to the primary care practice over the past few decades. PCPs, internists, pediatricians and family practitioners have briefer and less frequent visits with their patients (Big Pharma has by and large succeeded in persuading them that antidepressant prescribing is simple, does not require much attention, and will facilitate getting nuisance patients without ‘real’ medical concerns out of their offices more quickly). I have many gifted and empathic primary care colleagues but, by and large, they have less specific training and experience than mental health professionals in creating an alliance with a closed-off patient who may not be communicating suicidal distress with clarity or candor. Medical practice increasingly subscribes to the mistaken notion that simply prescribing the right medicine, outside the context of a therapeutic healing relationship, is sufficient treatment. Nevertheless, prescribing the proper medication is an efficient, some say even essential, component of treating a suicidal depression. Not proposing an antidepressant medication to such a deeply depressed patient has been seen as medical malpractice. The danger of reductively suggesting an irrefutable harmful link between suicide and the antidepressants is that it will have a chilling effect discouraging some from accepting such treatment and depriving sufferers of potentially lifesaving options. We saw this a decade ago.

Parenthetically, of far more concern than antidepressants is that suicidal patients are quite commonly given anti-anxiety medications. These include benzodiazepines such as lorazepam [Ativan], diazepam [Valium], clonazepam [Klonopin], alprazolam [Xanax] and the like. These medications act, exactly like the more familiar effect of alcohol, to lower inhibitions. Shy people socialize more comfortably, with a looser tongue, under the influence of alcohol, and anxiolytics work by the same mechanism at the same brain loci. Unfortunately, among the inhibitions they loosen are our compunctions against acting on any self-destructive impulses we may harbor. Both alcohol and anxiolytics are implicated in a high proportion of suicide attempts and successful suicides and, in my opinion and that of many responsible mental health practitioners, should be avoided when one is struggling with suicidal thoughts or urges.

Particularly in this portrait of a grieving community searching for explanations, one must recognize the impact of the social forces that impede delivery of adequate outpatient care. When we are discharging patients from our acute-stay inpatient unit at my hospital after a suicide crisis, it is outrageous that it typically takes weeks or at times months until they can get an intake with a community mental health provider, especially a psychiatrist. Staffs of inpatient units that stabilize patients in dangerous and acute crises are universally demoralized that patients no matter how motivated will be frustrated in finding adequate support to maintain their gains and their safety in the ensuing months. There are far too few providers, for one thing because insurance company reimbursement for outpatient mental health services does not make it worth many providers’ while. Furthermore, in all too many states providers are not even required to provide coverage for mental health treatment in parity to that for other kinds of medical treatment. (Massachusetts is a parity state, not that it makes that much difference.) The relationship between suicide and inadequacy of community mental health service provision ought to be clear.

I’m not actually sure  I would call the six suicides in Acton-Boxborough in the past 20 months a ‘cluster’ and I have seen similar incidences in the other nearby communities involving Lincoln-Sudbury and Concord-Carlisle high schools serviced by my hospital. We have seen a wholesale failure to halt the society-wide increase in suicide, particularly among adolescents and young adults. The article considers the possible contribution of local stresses such as academic pressure to suicide. We have grappled with suicide all too often only on the level of individual emotional factors and circumstantial psychosocial stress. However, we ignore at our peril the fact that large-scale cultural stresses and societal breakdown undoubtedly play an important part in encouraging people to take their lives. Particularly since Trump came to power in 2016, Americans have experienced a drastic acceleration in the postmodern erosion of cohesion of the social fabric, the wholesale betrayal of the expectation of the moral integrity of public figures, and relativity in what is even true on all levels. It is essential not to overlook how social breakdown impacts our young adults at times when they have not yet established a sense of the meaning of their lives, what to believe, or whom to trust. In his seminal 1897 treatise Suicide, the luminary French sociologist Emile Durkheim helped us to understand that suicide correlates not just with individual emotional factors or situational stress but with such society-wide strife and anomie. It is now a given in grappling with suicide, and one cannot ignore this level of analysis.

Reminder: The Geminids Are Peaking Tonight

Jsxkndrjjlbgvpvtgpaj’The Geminid meteor shower has been raining down on us the past few days, and if you want to see it, tonight is the best night.

Read more Brave the cold for a glimpse at this expansive star show. The Geminids appear to come more of less from the Gemini constellation, but they travel far across the sky. You don’t need a telescope to see them, just endurance: the shower is at its best around 2am, your local time.…’

Via Lifehacker

You may not even need a telescope to see Comet 46P/Wirtanen in the night sky this month

Unknown’Astronomer Carl Wirtanen discovered his namesake comet in 1948. He was a skilled object hunter and used photos of the night sky to spot the quickly moving object, at least astronomically speaking.

Comet 46P/Wirtanen’s orbit keeps it pretty near to the sun. Its aphelion, or farthest point from the sun, is about 5.1 astronomical units (AU), which is just a tad bigger than Jupiter’s orbit. Its perihelion, or closest approach to the sun, is about 1 AU, just about the Earth’s distance from the sun. This path takes about 5.4 years to complete, meaning it comes back into view quite frequently compared to other famous comets.

Right now, it is approaching its perihelion. Its closest point to the sun will fall on Dec. 16 – which is why it will be brightest on this day.

UnknownComet 46P/Wirtanen is a particularly active comet – called a hyperactive comet – and tends to be brighter than other comets of a similar size. This makes it a good candidate for viewing. Predictions suggest it will be as bright as a magnitude 3, which is a little brighter than the dimmest star in the Big Dipper, Megrez. However, there are some predictions that keep it beyond naked eye visibility at a brightest magnitude of only 7.6. The dimmest object visible with the naked human eye is magnitude 6, under perfect observing conditions.…’

Via The Conversation

A Summary Statement:

Michael A. Cohen writes:

‘There were extensive efforts by Russian officials to assist the Trump campaign and that multiple Trump aides were approached;

• These Trump aides have uniformly lied to the FBI and prosecutors about these contacts;

• Collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian officials, in some form, likely took place;

• Efforts to mislead the public and prosecutors, as well as obstruct justice, have continued into Trump’s presidency and will likely implicate White House officials, including the president, in wrong-doing;

• Donald Trump, his son Donald Trump Jr., his son-in-law Jared Kushner, and perhaps other officials are in serious legal peril.

If this is correct then the felony offenses prosecutors say Trump committed are small potatoes compared to what is looming on the horizon. …’

Source: Boston Globe

R.I.P. Dr. Lisa Schwartz

Critic of Medical Excess Is Dead at 55:

Merlin 147770952 b70924ad f148 4fcf a7e9 8181c78abd73 superJumbo’Dr. Lisa Schwartz, who with her husband devoted her life to warning patients about the dangers of unnecessary medical tests and treatment and excessive diagnoses, died on Nov. 29 in Lebanon, N.H. She was 55.

Her husband, Dr. Steven Woloshin, said the cause was cancer.

Dr. Schwartz and Dr. Woloshin were the directors of the Center for Medicine and Media at the Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice, part of Dartmouth College’s Geisel School of Medicine. There they trained hundreds of journalists to become more skeptical about claimed scientific breakthroughs and miracle cures, and to better communicate the benefits and risks of medical tests and treatments.…’

Via New York Times

Why Does Alex Acosta Still Have a Job?

The cabinet official’s connection to a shady deal for an alleged child molester:

03goldberg superJumboIt is the perverse good fortune of Alexander Acosta, Donald Trump’s secretary of labor, to be part of an administration so spectacularly corrupt that it’s simply impossible to give all its scandals the attention they deserve.

Last Wednesday, The Miami Herald published a blockbuster multipart exposé about how the justice system failed the victims of Jeffrey Epstein, a rich, politically connected financier who appears to have abused underage girls on a near-industrial scale. The investigation, more than a year in the making, described Epstein as running a sort of child molestation pyramid scheme, in which girls — some in middle school — would be recruited to give Epstein “massages” at his Palm Beach mansion, pressured into sex acts, then coerced into bringing him yet more girls. The Herald reported that Epstein was also suspected of trafficking girls from overseas.

What’s shocking is not just the lurid details and human devastation of his alleged crimes, but the way he was able to use his money to escape serious consequences, thanks in part to Acosta, then Miami’s top federal prosecutor. For reasons that are not entirely clear, Acosta took extraordinary measures to let Epstein — and, crucially, other unnamed people — off the hook.

The labor secretary, whose purview includes combating human trafficking, has done nothing so far to rebut The Herald’s reporting. (A spokesman for his department has referred reporters to his previous statements about the case.) It should end his career.…’

Via The New York Times

69-Year-Old Troll Loses Case to Make Himself 20 Years Younger

Waezdtkst8kohnje7h70’Emile Ratelband, a 69-year-old man who has insisted he should be allowed to legally change his age to make himself 20-years younger, finally had his day in court. As of Monday, December 3, 2018, he is still legally 69 years old, and time will continue to have its way with him, just as it does for all of us.

Last month, Ratelband gained international attention when he told a Dutch court that he doesn’t feel 69-years-old and his age hinders his ability to meet women on the Tinder dating app. He called himself a “young god” and complained that when his actual age is listed on Tinder no one wants to talk to him. He fantasized that were he allowed to be 49, “with the face I have, I will be in a luxurious position.” He also believes that he would have more job opportunities if he were younger. Ratelband is a motivational speaker whose website describes him as “a man who lives a dream and who didn’t even know he had one.”…’

Via Gizmodo

You’ve Never Seen Thunderstorms Like These Before

10 Mitch Dobrowner MammatusA Supercell Storm Chaser Photographs Thundering Formations:

’FOR THE PAST decade, photographer Mitch Dobrowner has spent a few weeks every summer pursuing extreme weather across the midwestern United States with veteran storm chaser Roger Hill, who, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, has witnessed more tornadoes (more than 650) than anyone in history. During their first outing, in 2009, Dobrowner and Hill spotted a high-precipitation supercell thunderstorm in the Black Hills of South Dakota at noon and followed it all day in Hill’s eight-seater van until giving up the chase at midnight in Valentine, Nebraska.

“It looked like a spaceship,” recalls Hill, who runs Silver Lining Tours, which offers 11 storm-chasing outings each year. “Hail the size of grapefruits, lightning strikes every three or four seconds.”

Dobrowner’s black and white images of that megastorm are some of the most spectacular in his ever-expanding portfolio of extreme weather photography. Although tornadoes get all the attention on TV, Dobrowner is more interested in supercells, massive storm systems that sometimes spawn tornadoes. “I see them as living things,” he says. “Some are gorgeous and beautiful, some are tornadic and violent. And the longer they last the more form they take. Eventually, they mature and die. So I try to take a portrait, almost like with a person.”…’

Via WIRED

Why the Dalai Lama’s reincarnation is up for debate

34585512d271c0b5e816094f498c42c0e8ca5672’Tibetan monks from all over the world are scheduled to visit India to discuss the issues related to the next reincarnation of the Dalai Lama. Some, including the Dalai Lama himself, have questioned if the institution should be continued. The final decision will have far reaching effects, since China is unlikely to let the monks have the last word on the matter.…’

Via Big Think