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What happens if I eat mold?

A common concern people have is the outcome of eating food that is moldy. This happens when you are not paying attention to what you are eating and suddenly realize that you just ate half a sandwich made with bread that has some mold on it. Then you go “Oh, crap, I just ate some mold” and then you google it to find out if you are going to die ….
Continue reading What happens if I eat mold?

The Truth About The Brown Recluse Spider

Everything you thought you knew about Brown Recluse Spiders is wrong. There is now a book,The Brown Recluse Spider, to set you straight. This is my review of that book.

His name was Bob. I was a kid, he was an adult that all the other adults seemed to think was cool. He used to have a job launching nuclear missiles for the Air Force, but then later got a job as a Hippie. He, another person or two, and I were sitting on a rock pile out in the woods, checking out the patch of marijuana planted, mysteriously, on the neighbor’s property. The neighbor was the head of the local John Birch Society. Whoever planted the patch of pot figured it would be better found, if ever found by the cops, on his property than on the property occupied by the hippies.

Somebody moved a rock. Bob said, “Oh, look, a Brown Recluse spider. They are deadly, but they hardly ever bite.”

I watched the Brown Recluse spider very carefully for a while and memorized it. I found many more over that summer, and in subsequent years. I became very good at identifying them.

This is what it looked like: Continue reading The Truth About The Brown Recluse Spider

How long is a human generation?

How long is a generation, you ask?

Short Answer: 25 years, but a generation ago it was 20 years.

Long answer: It depends on what you mean by generation.

In US-biased Western culture there is a Biological Generation, the Dynamic Generation, the somewhat different Familial Generation, what is sometimes called a Cultural Generation but that should really be called a Societal Generation, and then there is the Designated Generation and finally, the Historical-Long Generation. You will find some of these terms identified on genealogical web sites, Teh Wiki and elsewhere, and some of them are introduced here. (References provided below.)

More broadly speaking, humans have identifiable meaningful generation-related terminology and cultural concepts in many but not all societies, and when it does occur, it is more common to find the concept in age-graded societies or societies in which marriage arrangements are fairly strictly enforced (or at least strongly hoped for) by the ascending generation.

A Biological Generation


…is simply the unscaled transition from one parent to one offspring. In humans, the Biological generation does not have a standard length but there are limits. So you are in one generation, your mother the previous, your child the next one after you, etc. regardless of when any of you were born. As long as your Uncle Willard does not marry your Sister Betty Jean, this is not complicated; This is what people often mean when they use the term “generation” but not what they mean when they ask the question “how long is a generation.”

A Dynamic Generation


…is a concept used by anthropologists but not usually with this term. This is similar to the biological generation but applied more broadly across a group of people. You (Ego) relate to everyone else of your age as being in your generation (your siblings, your parents siblings children, etc.). The first ascending generation (your parents and those in their generation), the second ascending generation (grandparents and their generation) etc. go one way in generational time. Going the other way, your children and their generation are the first descending generation. Your grandchildren and their cohort members are the second descending generation. Etc.

Those methods of reckoning generations have to do with the relationship between people. Another reason to reckon generations is either to do demographic (or economic) analysis or to test and analyze genealogies. For this you want to know how long a dynamic generation (or a biological one) usually is. For instance, a genealogist wants to know this: From the point of view of some long-dead relative, is the time span between the birth date of a grandparent and the birth date of a great grand child … thus, the span of time of four complete generations … reasonable? If such a span is 200 years, that means that an average of 50 years time passed from birth of a person to that person giving birth to the person in line. Implausible. If the total span is 40 years, that means ten year olds were having babies (on average). Also implausible. Either way, some part of the hypothetical genealogy is messed up and it’s back to the church records, vital statistics, and Mormon database for you. This is a Familial Generation.

In the “old days” (whenever that was) people often used the value 20 to represent Familial Generations. So, a person born on the first day of a century may well have had a great great great grandparent born around the beginning of the previous century. Today, with lager age at first birth for women being the rule, we tend to see 25 years as the recommended estimate for Familial Generations.

A Cultural or Societal Generation


…is a cohort (a bunch of people born during a specified range of time) with a name that has some sort of meaning to those who use it. The following are widely recognized, given here with the midpoint of the generally accepted range of birth dates:

  • Lost 1914
  • Greatest 1923
  • Silent 1935
  • Baby Boom (Boomers) 1955
  • Generation X 1968
  • Generation Y 1975
  • Generation Z or I 1992

(See comments below for people fighting about these names and dates. I accept Teh Wiki as the final word on this, so I take this list as perfectly accurate and complete.)

Several things are noticed in this list. The first three relate to major historical events (World Wars, the Great Depression) while the later ones are vague, stupid, and obviously little more than lame attempts by people who wish they were part of a generation to name themselves. This leads to the X and Y generations to be floating in broader time ranges (see Teh Wiki) and very arguable. The Z generation is clearly an afterthought. I assume everyone was so focused on the Millennium that they forget to be in a generation for a decade or so, and then had to catch up.

Some of the more primitively sexy and exotic tribal cultures of the world of the world have a strict age grading system. This is where individuals are in a specific age-defined stratum, and there are several strata. Often there are different age-grades for males and females, and often there are more age-grades for males than females. Individuals of a particular age grade always X and never Y (fill in cultural prescriptions for X and cultural proscriptions for Y). The Pokot of East Africa are one example. These age grades can be termed Designated Generations and include not only groups like the Pokot but also Americans who have very strongly age-graded designations.


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Among the Pokot males of a certain age wear a certain hairdo. Males of a certain generation get married. All the important things you can do or not do are defined by one’s age grade. As young men age they want to move to the next age grade, and often take serious risks to do so. In one Pokot group, the boys of one age grade would typically wear the hairdos of the Ascending Generation. Males in the Ascending Generation would then beat the crap out of them. When the beatings became too common and severe (sometimes deadly) the Ascending Generation of the Ascending Generation (the “Elders”) would declare that it is time for everyone to move up one generation, and a ceremony would be held.

In that particular group the ceremony applied to many different villages, and representatives from each village had to bring to the major chief’s village one head of cattle. The cattle were all slaughtered and the fresh meat laid out on racks to be guarded from lions and hyenas overnight by the chief, alone. If any of the meat was taken by predators, the chief was fired and a new chief appointed, everyone was sent home and were required to return with a fresh head of cattle, and the ceremony was re-started with the new chief. But I digress.

The Historical-Long Generation is my own invention. This is the period of time that is just short enough for a person to have a conversation with another person about shared memories where those memories are separated in time by the maximum amount possible for our species. Let me explain further:

Just today, the last surviving US veteran of World War I died. When I was a kid, I went to (or marched in) parades in which there were lots of veterans. Most vets in the parade were of World War II. Korea was not ever represented. The Viet Nam Vets were busy in Viet Nam being Viet Nam soldiers, so they were not in the parades. But World War I was represented by the grandpas and there were a lot of them.

And, leading all of the veterans in the parade was this one guy who looked quite dead, eyes closed, not apparently breathing, wearing a 19th century Slouch Hat and covered with a blanket and slumped in wheel chair pushed by members of the VFW Ladies’ Auxiliary, and he was the only remaining veteran in town of the Spanish-American War. I know he was not in fact dead because he was in the parade several years in a row. That war was in 1898, and the parades I remember must have been from the mid 1960s. I assume he was a drummer boy, perhaps 10 or 11 at the time of the war. The last surviving vets from Civil War were similar: Boys who served in the military as aides or drummers. The point is, one could argue that a historical-long generation is about a century, because that old guy and I share involvement in an event … marching in those parades … that link two memories, the parade and the war, which were about 100 years apart.

I have an even better memory. The Emancipation Proclamation was signed on Januray 1st, 1863. When that happened, a toddler who’s last name was Alexander and who was born as a slave in the Carolina’s became free. Later, his family moved to Albany, New York. In around 1968 or 1969, my father asked me to accompany our congressman, Representative Samuel A. Stratton (famous for introducing the bill to give us Monday Holidays, I am told) to an old tenement building in “Teh Ghetto” and bring him up to the third floor to meet Mr. Alexander, the now old former infant slave. I did so, and we all chatted for a while. I was about ten, and Mr. Alexander was closer to 110. He had memories of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln that were similar to my memories of the assassination of John F. Kennedy: Vague, mostly about the aftermath and not the event so much, but seemingly real. We shared memories that were a century apart in time, and in this case, interestingly parallel.

So, the Historical-Long generation is a century. If you meet me and shake my hand, you are shaking a hand that has shaken the hand of a man who was an American slave. Meaningless, yet profound.

Fox, Robin.Kinship and Marriage: An Anthropological Perspective (Cambridge Studies in Social and Cultural Anthropology)

Lutz, Catherine. Reading National Geographic

Teh Wiki. Generation.

Teh Wiki List of generations.

Correlation and Causation: Single Mothers and Violent Crime

The phrase “Correlation does not imply causation” has developed in to a Falsehood, as I discuss here. This is in part because people often use the phrase to argue that a particular correlation has no meaning, which is a false argument. It is, of course, true that a correlation does not in and of itself prove a causal link between two things. And, as pointed out in a few places, but I’ll refer you to this Mother Jones piece for background, the relationship between single mothers and homicide and other crime is … well … interesting. Continue reading Correlation and Causation: Single Mothers and Violent Crime

The Irony of Henry Adams: The most misunderstood quote evah!

Pertaining to a recent mass mailing from offspring’s high school, in the name of the principal, filled with routine business. At the end of the missive was this quote:

A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.

What does this quote mean to you? If you don’t know its context, you may be in for a surprise.

You see this quote all the time on K-12 educational material as a header, footer, slogan, logo, inspirational message, and so on. It obviously means something good about teachers. Maybe something good about education. The quote is by Henry Adams and comes from his book “The Education of Henry Adams” which sounds an awful lot like a title for a porn movie. Since this is a book, first circulated in 1907, about education it must be the case that this quote refers to the positive power of educators back then, and presumably, now. Right? Certainly that is the meaning that is usually attributed to it.

A Google search of

“A teacher affects eternity”

… yields 56,000 hits, many of which are examples of the term’s use as an inspirational maxim in one or another dialog about education. So clearly people are in tune with the positive message of Henry Adam’s sentence.

A Google search of

“A teacher affects eternity” -adams

… (thus leaving off a direct reference to Henry with the minus sign in front of ‘adams’) yields about 26 thousand hits and I’ll wager almost every one represents the use of the quote as a positive maxim in the dialog about education. One teacher uses the phrase as the title for a web site on teaching.

Via Google I find the phrase tweeted on Twitter, and checking directly with Twitter, we find a gazillion recent instances over the last few weeks. I estimate that approximately four times an hour someone tweets “A teacher affects eternity” and sometimes gives the rest of the quote, sometimes mentions it’s Henry Adams’. But they always seem to mean it to be a nice thing to say about teachers and about how important they are.

You can buy note cards or posters with the phrase, and if you know any teachers, ask them how many pillows embroidered with the phrase or a version of it they have been given. Or shadow boxes or little signs held by teddy bears. Which they give to the teacher as a way of saying that they like teachers.

The book* The Education of Henry Adams is a complex work that I will not try to characterize, but at least in part I take it as a literary act of cynicism. Adams speaks of himself in third person and by the time we get to the quote in question he is discussing Henry’s first nine months as an Assistant Professor in History at Harvard.

For the next nine months the Assistant Professor had no time to waste on comforts or amusements. He exhausted all his strength in trying to keep one day ahead of his duties. Often the stint ran on, till night and sleep ran short. He could not stop to think whether he were doing the work rightly. He could not get it done to please him, rightly or wrongly, for he never could satisfy himself what to do.

Henry thinks of himself as inadequate, not up to the job, apparently.

But part of the problem was with Harvard itself, and its inattention to quality education.

The fault he had found with Harvard College as an undergraduate must have been more or less just, for the college was making a great effort to meet these self-criticisms, and had elected President Eliot in 1869 to carry out its reforms. Professor Gurney was one of the leading reformers, and had tried his hand on his own department of History. The two full Professors of History — Torrey and Gurney, charming men both — could not cover the ground. Between Gurney’s classical courses and Torrey’s modern ones, lay a gap of a thousand years, which Adams was expected to fill. The students had already elected courses numbered 1, 2, and 3, without knowing what was to be taught or who was to teach. If their new professor had asked what idea was in their minds, they must have replied that nothing at all was in their minds, since their professor had nothing in his, and down to the moment he took his chair and looked his scholars in the face, he had given, as far as he could remember, an hour, more or less, to the Middle Ages.

In other words, the History Department at Harvard was a mess, a chain of rusty links of which Henry himself was the weakest. Henry Adams does not think the teachers at Harvard were doing what needed to be done, the system of education was not doing what was required, and the students were probably being damaged more than assisted by participating in this system. And this worried him.

Not that his ignorance troubled him! He knew enough to be ignorant. His course had led him through oceans of ignorance; he had tumbled from one ocean into another till he had learned to swim; but even to him education was a serious thing. A parent gives life, but as parent, gives no more. A murderer takes life, but his deed stops there.

In other words, all those important people in your life: Your mom, a person who kills you, and so on, have only limited effects on you as a person. But, according to Henry Adams,

A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.

OMG. That sounds like bad news. The system of education sucks, the professors suck, the students are getting the shaft, and this will affect the students for their whole lives, and through them society in general, and the course of history itself. Bad teaching, Henry Adams is telling us, ruinz everything for everybody!

But this is not what people think is happening, is it?

A teacher is expected to teach truth, and may perhaps flatter himself that he does so, if he stops with the alphabet or the multiplication table, as a mother teaches truth by making her child eat with a spoon; but morals are quite another truth and philosophy is more complex still. A teacher must either treat history as a catalogue, a record, a romance, or as an evolution; and whether he affirms or denies evolution, he falls into all the burning faggots of the pit. He makes of his scholars either priests or atheists, plutocrats or socialists, judges or anarchists, almost in spite of himself. In essence incoherent and immoral, history had either to be taught as such — or falsified.

From here Adams goes on to an interesting discussion that misunderstands (modern) evolution, and very rightly laments the thorn that the Middle Ages is in the side of western civilization. And in that discussion he reiterates that while all this is interesting stuff, it is not what is taught to the students. Because the teachers, really, don’t have a clue as to how to interpret the material they are responsible to cover or how to convey it to their pupils.

Here is Henry Adam’s famous quote translated into modern parlance:

Be careful. The system of education is inadequate, and a half baked attempt to educate is dangerous. A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell how badly fucked up everything will be when he is done with it.

I had always seen the quote as what most people seem to see to as: The nice phrase you embroider on the pillow and give to your favorite teacher. My friend Josh Borowicz, who happens to be an historian and a Henry Adams scholar, pointed this interesting irony out to me. Knowing this is likely to affect me for an eternity. And a half.

You can read the full text of The Education of Henry Adams here.

Is Blood Ever Blue? Science Teachers Want to Know!

According to one of the leading experts on the human circulatory system, blood flowing through veins is blue.

I’m not going to mention any names. All I’ll say is this: A person I know visited a major research center last year and saw a demonstration of organ removal and some other experimental stuff. A person also visiting asked the famous high-level researcher doing this work if blood was ever blue. What he said was not recorded in detail, but it was very much like this statement I found on the Internet:

… human blood is red as soon as it is oxygenated. Blue blood flows through veins back to the heart and lungs…..
[source: Some Guy on Yahoo Answers]

My friend was disturbed by this, as s/he had been teaching high school students for years that blood is not blue. Her understanding of the situation was that people thought blood was blue because standard anatomical drawings and models depict arteries as red and veins as blue, and because if you look at your veins they are blue. Obviously veins are not clear, but if you don’t think that out you might assume that you were seeing blue blood.

Continue reading Is Blood Ever Blue? Science Teachers Want to Know!

New rodent species discovered

Aprile Pazzo was about to call it a day when she noticed that the penguins she was observing seemed strangely agitated. Pazzo, a wildlife biologist, was in Antarctica studying penguins at a remote, poorly explored area along the coast of the Ross Sea. “I was getting ready to release a penguin I had tagged when I heard a lot of squawking,” says Pazzo. “When I looked up, the whole flock had sort of stampeded. They were waddling away faster than I’d ever seen them move.”

Pazzo waded through the panicked birds to find out what was wrong. She found one penguin that hadn’t fled. “It was sinking into the ice as if into quicksand,” she says. Somehow the ice beneath the bird had melted; the penguin was waist deep in slush. Pazzo tried to help the struggling penguin. She grabbed its wings and pulled. With a heave she freed the bird. But the penguin wasn’t the only thing she hauled from the slush. About a dozen small, hairless pink molelike creatures had clamped their jaws onto the penguin’s lower body. Pazzo managed to capture one of the creatures — the others quickly released their grip and vanished into the slush.

Over the next few months Pazzo caught several of the animals and watched others in the wild. She calls the strange new species hotheaded naked ice borers. “They’re repulsive,” says Pazzo. Adults are about six inches long, weigh a few ounces, have a very high metabolic rate — their body temperature is 110 degrees — and live in labyrinthine tunnels carved in the ice.

Perhaps their most fascinating feature is a bony plate on their forehead. Innumerable blood vessels line the skin covering the plate. The animals radiate tremendous amounts of body heat through their “hot plates,” which they use to melt their tunnels in ice and to hunt their favorite prey: penguins.

A pack of ice borers will cluster under a penguin and melt the ice and snow it’s standing on. When the hapless bird sinks into the slush, the ice borers attack, dispatching it with bites of their sharp incisors. They then carve it up and carry its flesh back to their burrows, leaving behind only webbed feet, a beak, and some feathers. “They travel through the ice at surprisingly high speeds, ” says Pazzo, “much faster than a penguin can waddle.”

Pazzo’s discovery may also help solve a long-standing Antarctic mystery: What happened to the heroic polar explorer Philippe Poisson, who disappeared in Antarctica without a trace in 1837? “I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that a big pack of ice borers got him,” says Pazzo. “I’ve seen what these things do to emperor penguins — it isn’t pretty — and emperors can be as much as four feet tall. Poisson was about 5 foot 6. To the ice borers, he would have looked like a big penguin.”

Continue reading New rodent species discovered

Kids coding and technology advance

Over recent months, there has been an important advance in opportunities for kids to learn to code and mess around with technology.

The Scratch programming language is a project set at MIT. Scratch programming involves moving images, called blocks, from a pallet into a work area, hooking them together and maybe changing some values attached to them, in order to develop programs that mainly, but not exclusively, manipulate sprites. (See example of code blokcks above.) The project is located HERE. This is a full object oriented programming language with quite a few features that make it very powerful, for a kid’s toy. Continue reading Kids coding and technology advance

Better Holiday Fireplace Loops

In the old days (two years ago) there was a channel available on the Roku that would display a burning fire and play appropriate holiday music. So, people without a fireplace but who wanted one could pretend. I think there were channels like this on Cable or Satellite TV as well but I’ve not had those services in decades so I’m not sure.

The channel on the Roku was called Presto. Presto had an ad or two that would run when the program started up, then very rarely, another ad would show up. A small price to pay for all that masonry and firewood. Continue reading Better Holiday Fireplace Loops

Why Neil deGrasse Tyson is Wrong about the Supermoon

I don’t know much about astronomy, but I am a scientist and I know this. One key scientific concept that is rarely grasped by non scientists but at the same time drives much of science itself is variation.

Indeed, the understanding that variation is key is one of the characteristics that separates the ancients, who may have engaged in what looks like science but rarely advanced true understanding, and the moderns (to oversimplify greatly, ironically).

The moon and other celestial bodies always do the same thing, never change in their course or appearance, and once one has finished cataloguing them, there is nothing else to see.

Or is there? Isn’t there in fact change all the time? Isn’t change itself the essence of the universe? Is it not true that a star is a dynamic thing that has a birth, stages of life, a death, and from its remnants come other things? Isn’t this how astronomers like Neil DeGrasse Tyson are able to utter such brilliances as “I am made of star dust”??? Don’t planets form, collide with things or things with them, cool, change dramatically across the surface, even break lose form their orbits now and then? Continue reading Why Neil deGrasse Tyson is Wrong about the Supermoon