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Weasels versus Science!


I hope you read that in a 1950’s B-movie narrator voice, kthx. Weasels won, obviously.

A small animal has brought down the Large Hadron Collider; the perp has been positively identified as a weasel. I’m not sure how. Burnt weasel, probably.

CERN shut the big beast down due to “technical issues in the last 24 hours, including a power cut (likely due to the passage of a small wild animal on a 66 kV/18kV electrical transformer.)”

“Passage” I assume in the sense of “passed away.” Pining for the fjords. Joining the choir eternal. An ex-weasel.

Still good going. Particularly when you remember what they call weasels over here are what you call least weasels over there. The itty-bitty dudes. (Link sent to me by multiple people — interestingly, from a different newspaper source each time — and I enjoyed it more each and every time).

Now, my imaginary internet friends, I have given you short shrift this week, on account of I am taking next week off and I brought a metric crap-ton of work home to prepare. The old hands among you will recall that I have a birfday in early May. I shall post sweet nothings for the week, I think.

Have a good Weasel’s birthday week, everyone!

sock it to me

April 29, 2016 — 8:07 pm
Comments: 14



Okay, so scientists took seven people and hooked them up to a brainal probe while they listened to a radio program (The Moth, in case you’re wondering). Then they mapped the “50,000 to 80,000 pea-sized spots all over the cerebral cortex” that lit up for each word the subjects heard.

I had no idea words were processed all over the brain…did you? Surely, speech itself is more localized, or people who’ve suffered a stroke would lose vocabulary words, not speech generally.

Secondly, the words mapped to similar locations for all seven people. On the top right side of the brain live all the words for family members. On the left, just over the ear, are words for crime and justice. Words with multiple meanings light up multiple places.

There’s an interactive map, but I couldn’t get it to work. I’ve got a lot of applications open, the website made my hard disk graunch and chunder to little effect, so I think it’s an intensive app.

Now, it was just seven people, they were all English speakers of a certain level of accomplishment, and this is the first study of its kind, so…all very preliminary. But very interesting, nonetheless.

I’ll tell you this right now: the part of my brain that processes names is as smooth as a baby’s butt.

Thanks to commenter Can’t Hark My Cry for the link.

sock it to me

April 28, 2016 — 9:26 pm
Comments: 12

You’re welcome


Yeah, it’s getting increasingly hard to find things to say that aren’t the election or the EU referendum. I’d’ve given you a cat picture instead, but I was too lazy to camera.

sock it to me

February 24, 2016 — 10:32 pm
Comments: 24

Wherein Weasel channels Mr Wizard


Illustration pinched from this fun introduction to optical microscopy

Refractive index is a measure of how much light is bent — or, to put it another way, slowed down — by a transparent or translucent material. Light moves through water 1.33 times slower than it does through a vacuum, so the refractive index of water is 1.33.

Oh, half y’all are physics geeks. You know this. I only know it because when I was a kid I thought I could invent an iridescent surface by combining painting materials with greatly different refractive indices. A thin layer of something on top of a thick layer of something with a very different RI will make a rainbow. Soap bubbles. Motor oil in a water puddle.

I failed, but let’s not dwell on that.

All this is by way of introduction to this cool video I ran across this evening. Because they have identical refractive indices, this is what happens when you dip a borosilicate rod (i.e. what Pyrex used to be before they changed the formula) into a beaker of cooking oil or glycerin.

I feel terribly, terribly cheated that real scientists don’t sit around doing this kind of shit all day.

sock it to me

February 1, 2016 — 10:12 pm
Comments: 18

Well, there’s always 2025

artist’s reconstruction

A bunch of us, strangers, gathered on a scenic overlook facing East at 9:35 and saw a deep and impenetrable nothingburger. We weren’t even able to figure out exactly where the sun was. After a while, someone muttered, “looks like your typical gray English morning.”

Other parts of the country were luckier.

In addition to the eclipse, y’all know it’s the Equinox, yes? So it was also the day blue hairs descend on Stonehenge for the world’s most elderly cosplay competition.

Good weekend, all!

sock it to me

March 20, 2015 — 10:49 pm
Comments: 18

What weasels is made of

So, my DNA is winging its way to a lab in the Netherlands (I think) even as we speak. It was inevitable, once I got interested in the DNA of the local population, that I would start wondering what was in my own. BTW, dredging up 1cc of spit is surprisingly hard to do. Bubbles don’t count!

I looked around at different services and decided 23andMe suited me best. They report on ancestry (i.e. ethnicity) but also genetic risk factors, inherited conditions, some genetic traits and drug responses. I understand some people really, really don’t want to know those last few things, and for them there’s ancestry (the DNA testing service of ancestry.com) which only does ethnicity.

It’s worth having a poke around and see what they can find in your genes these days. Eye color, birth weight, baldness. Yeah, I know you know all those things about yourself, but knowing we can identify the genes means we can tell so much more about the people whose bones we dig up. Or the people who commit crimes and are careless enough to leave DNA behind.

Even more interesting, in a way, is what they can’t tell: they can’t measure Jewish or Native American ancestry. Well, they can trace Ashkenazi Jews, but not Middle Eastern lines, which are just semitic. And American Indians show up as generic Far Eastern (and ha! ha! to the indigenous campaigners who denied this obvious fact).

My family’s been in the States a long, long time, so I’m not going to be a purebred anything. This post represents my pledge to you: if something distinctly unWASPy shakes out of my family tree — say, a gypsy or hottentot — I will freely confess. And then I’ll start applying for all that sweet, sweet government aid to minorities.

Good weekend!

sock it to me

March 6, 2015 — 9:51 pm
Comments: 22

Free Dippy

This is Dippy the Diplodocus — though whether anyone called him that before he was embroiled in controversy is a matter of, um…controversy. He’s been in London’s Natural History Museum since 1905, a gift from Andrew Carnegie to Edward VII. He was moved into the Wal*Mart greeter spot in 1979, where he has delighted and inspired school children for 35 years.

And he’s coming down.

The Museum is having a bit of clear up and the issue with Dippy is, he ain’t real. He’s a painstaking plaster cast (or as one Independent writer put it its ‘very existence is a malicious lie’) of a diplodocus skeleton that was dug up in Wyoming in 1898. The original is in Pittsburgh.

Haha, just kidding! The real reason is, they’re replacing him with the skeleton of a blue whale because gaia and shit.

The change is part of a ‘decade of transformation’ planned at the museum by its director, Sir Michael Dixon.

Explaining the decision, Sir Michael said: ‘As the largest known animal to have ever lived on Earth, the story of the blue whale reminds us of the scale of our responsibility to the planet.

Blahblahblah…challenge the way people think…never been more urgent…under threat…species and ecosystems are being destroyed…poignant reminder…make a real difference. Boo! Phooey! Bring back the plaster dinosaur!

There’s a hashtag and shit, but it’s hard to turn an ecowarrior. Dippy is doomed.

sock it to me

January 29, 2015 — 10:31 pm
Comments: 15

A title to include the word “baa”

File this under d’oh — why didn’t I think of that? Important documents have been written on parchment for thousands of years, right? Some still are. Parchment is made from the skin of cows, goats and sheep, right? We’ve got millions and millions of ’em. In the case of many documents, with actual dates written on.

In other words, stuff that can be DNA sampled!

Eh? Eh? Millions of precisely dated DNA samples going back millenia. What an awesome reservoir of information! I mean, if you think the evolution of domestic animals is interesting (and who doesn’t?).

If you’re at all interested (and who isn’t?) have a look at the Royal Society’s longer explanation of some of the ongoing studies. Good stuff.

Some samples, for example, show the DNA of several species…meaning that a variety of different animal hides were being batch-processed. Thereby telling us a little bit about industrial production methods.

Selective breeding didn’t start until the 18th C in Britain and, apparently, the shift from somewhat random characteristics to breeding for specifics is showing up the in the record.

Oh, and the Dead Sea scrolls were written on ibex and goat skin.

By the way, if you hit the Society link and are fascinated (as I was) by the thumbnail in the sidebar, the cover of the January 2015 Philosophical Transactions, I am sorry to tell you that is a photo of a pile of bones, not the skull of a single fabulous monster. Boo.

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December 10, 2014 — 7:59 pm
Comments: 6

Real headline from a fake newspaper

I don’t know if Ace or anybody picked up on this reeking gem last week, but I’m still trying to wrap my braincell around it. It’s from the Daily Telegraph — once the best center-right newspaper I know. Brace yourselves. Ready? Here we go:

How the Nobel Prize has favoured white western men for more than 100 years

Complete with helpful maps and graphics.

Let’s leave aside for a moment that Alfred Nobel was a white western man. He might have called this thing “a prize for people who are a whole lot like me.” He could have called it “white western men who do white western man things awesomely well.” His money. He could’ve done.

But I’m sure he’d have been happy if people from other places invented lots of amazing things. Even people from brown places. Gosh, even the ladies.

Who doesn’t look at the actual results and think, “wow — white western men kick all kinds of science ass!”?

How did we get to a place where you have a contest with clear winners and clear losers, first reaction is the winners must have cheated and the losers must be victims?

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October 14, 2014 — 9:21 pm
Comments: 13

Repeat after me, “correlation…”

This goofy looking sod is Tyler Vigan and he’s studying for his doctorate at Harvard. But that doesn’t matter right now. He also runs a site called Spurious Correlations.

He’s written a little algorithm that compares shit tons of data sets and finds correlations. Really stupid pointless ones, for the most part (if his algorithm has found any likely meaningful ones, he doesn’t say). Like, there’s a 0.992558 correlation between the divorce rate in Maine and the US per capita consumption of margarine.

That’s lots of fun, and I invite you to browse his charts. Could come in handy next time you get into an argument with a green. But his bigger point is that computers are terrific at sifting and finding correlations, but they’re absolutely crap at weeding the meaningful ones from the silly ones. “Meaning” isn’t an easily quantifiable characteristic.

If I asked you to tell me the current population of Uruguay, I assume you don’t know. Thing is, if you don’t know, somehow you knew instantly that you don’t know. Many years ago, I read that this is something they haven’t worked out how to do build into computers: how to recognize instantly when they don’t have data, without sifting through all the data they DO have. I’ve been puzzling ever that ever since. Somehow, I think those problems are related.

p.s. Did you have any idea that seven hundred people died in 2009 by becoming entangled in their bedsheets?

sock it to me

May 27, 2014 — 9:39 pm
Comments: 21