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113 posts from June 2007

June 27, 2007

Archeology Influences Plant Community Ecology

Abandoned fourth century AD settlement. Photo by L. Laut. (larger version)

To help fill in around here, this post not only has a cool photograph and we'll need to keep those coming during Lindsay's absence, but in light of the Cheney administration's global warming denialist offensive, I think it makes a very important point about long-term human effects on the environment--Mike the Mad Biologist

In the June 2007 issue of Ecology, Dambrine et al. have a fascinating article demonstrating that abandoned Roman settlements still affect the local abundance of plant communities. From the abstract (italics mine):

Combined archaeological and ecological investigations in a large ancient oak forest in Central France have revealed a dense network of ancient human settlements dating from the Roman period. We demonstrate a strong correlation between present-day forest plant diversity patterns and the location of Roman farm buildings. Plant species richness strongly increases toward the center of the settlements, and the frequency of neutrophilous and nitrogen-demanding species is higher. This pattern is paralleled by an increase in soil pH, available P, and 15N, indicating the long-term impact of former agricultural practices on forest biogeochemical cycles. These extensive observations in a forested region on acid soils complement and confirm previous results from a single Roman settlement on limestone. Ancient Roman agricultural systems are increasingly being identified in contemporary French forests; the broad extent and long-lasting effects of previous cultivation shown in this study require that land-use history be considered as a primary control over biodiversity variations in many forest landscapes, even after millennia of abandonment.

One interesting thing is that calcium carbonate leaching from the building's mortar alters the soil pH, and consequently affects nutrient availability. This increases the number of species found close to these settlements.

That's right: mortar that is at least 1700 years old is still determining plant community composition.

Pretty cool.

Crossposted at Mike the Mad Biologist

Duck and cover

The J Train here.  Lindsay asked me to stop by and do some guest posting while she's away, and while I hate to have to do it under these circumstances, it's always an honor.

I should use the occasion to post on an appropriately weighty topic, but instead I bring you Retro Crush's list of the 100 Worst Cover Songs of All Time.  They've dug up some real gems of crap here, some that I just had to hear and others that made me thank the gods I hadn't heard them.  ("Under the Bridge" by All Saints?  Kill me now.  Why would anybody even try that?)

There are problems with the list, though.  First of all, Celine Dion's "You Shook Me All Night Long" is #15.  Friends, if I truly thought there were fourteen musical performances worse than this one in the universe, I'd jab a kebab skewer into each ear.  There are plenty of deserving stinkers in the top 15 (Faith Hill's "Piece of My Heart", Madonna's "American Pie", Counting Crows' "Big Yellow Taxi"), but none that come close to Celine's crime against humanity.

Also, I'd argue that the #1 worst cover--Eric Clapton's unplugged "Layla"--is not a cover at all, because by definition you can't cover yourself.  (I also have a soft spot for Unplugged, since it came out while I was in a huge high school Clapton phase, and I doubt there's an album I've spent more time listening to in my lifetime except maybe TMBG's Flood.)  Same goes for Elton John's unfortunate "Candle in the Wind" rewrite.

#2, Puff Daddy's "Every Breath You Take" (sic), is also not a cover, because it isn't an attempt to do the same song; it's a distinct song called "I'll Be Missing You" based on the Police track.  It's a crime against decency for its own reasons--it's the laziest example of sampling ever, and yet it's the one song that always comes up when you're trying to defend sampling as a legitimate artistic practice against people who have never heard of DJ Shadow or Paul's Boutique.  But I wouldn't call it a cover.

Those criticisms aside, it's a fun piece of musical recreational outrage.  Are there any deserving covers they've missed?

Barry L. Beyerstein (1947-2007)

Dad with Book, originally uploaded by Lindsay Beyerstein.

This is the last picture I took of my father, who died on June 25th. The picture shows him unwrapping a 60th birthday present. It was taken less than a month before.

Quite simply, I adored my father. He was among the most ethical people I have ever known. I don't think it's an accident that he was also one of the most fulfilled people I've had occasion to meet.

Dad was a scholar, an activist, and a devoted family man.

Dad loved all knowledge, no matter how arcane or obscure. He believed in the power of reason, compassion, and humility. He lived a life of service. 

I loved and respected him so much. It's a rare person who could leave so little unsaid or unfinished, despite having his life cut short so suddenly.

June 26, 2007

Beast of Barclay's Bank

Many years ago a strange organism appeared outside a branch of Barclays Bank north of London. The first member of the public to encounter it in the wild was an actor from a TV series. We know how old it is from documentary evidence, but if we didn't we could still carbon date it. Carbon dating uses a weakly radioactive isotope of carbon, carbon-14. If we know the proportion of C-14 in the organism when it was born, we could use the known rate of decay of C-14 to determine the organism's age.

The organism in question apparently had a strong survival advantage and has since proliferated to an unimagined degree. It has now colonized every continent and in some areas can be found almost everywhere, especially densely populated urban areas. It is usually known by an acronym, ATM, but its full name (non-Linneaen) is Automated Teller Machine. It has evolved considerably since its first appearance on earth and now carbon dating is no longer possible. Since ATM's are made out of inanimate materials, you may wonder how it was ever possible. To explain that we have to go back to its birth, 40 years ago. The ATM's father was inventor John Shepherd-Barron, now 82 years old. Like Archimedes, his eureka moment occurred in the bath:

"It struck me there must be a way I could get my own money, anywhere in the world or the UK. I hit upon the idea of a chocolate bar dispenser, but replacing chocolate with cash."

Barclays was convinced immediately. Over a pink gin, the then chief executive signed a hurried contract with Mr Shepherd-Barron, who at the time worked for the printing firm De La Rue.

Plastic cards had not been invented, so Mr Shepherd-Barron's machine used cheques that were impregnated with carbon 14, a mildly radioactive substance.

The machine detected it, then matched the cheque against a PIN number. (BBC)

C-14 emits very weak beta particles, so Shepherd-Barron wasn't concerned about the radiation exposure. It wasn't the only thing that wasn't very powerful. The machine only dispensed £10 at a time. Of course £10 went a bit further then. One consequence of the ATM that went beyond the cash availability is very much with us today: the PIN number.

Mr Shepherd-Barron came up with the idea when he realised that he could remember his six-figure army number. But he decided to check that with his wife, Caroline.

"Over the kitchen table, she said she could only remember four figures, so because of her, four figures became the world standard," he laughs.

Of course now we have much longer PINs and my security codes are so complex -- ten digits, upper case and lower case and at least one number and one special character -- the only way I can remember them is to write them on the blackboard in my office.

That's the price of good security, I guess.

Cross-posted at Effect Measure

CIA spied on Brit Hume

Just killing time at the airport.

According to the "Family Jewels" documents released today, the CIA spied on Britt Hume. This was back in the seventies when Hume was a reporter working as a "leg man" for columnist Jack Anderson. The operation was code named CELOTEX II.

Click to view the full-sized image of page 27:


Sad news

Mourning Dove, originally uploaded by .: sandman.

I lost someone very close to me yesterday. I can't talk about it yet because not everyone has been notified.

If any of you former Majikthise guest bloggers feel like contributing some posts over the next couple days, I'd really appreciate it. Your logins should still work.

June 25, 2007

Supreme Court: "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" not protected

Well, Morse v. Frederick is officially cached....

The War on (some people's) Drugs trumps the First Amendment.

I like Chris Weigant's suggested alternative phrasing: "Legalize bong hits 4 Jesus."

Number of Americans who believe Saddam-9/11 tie rises to 41 percent

Make of this what you will:

A new Newsweek poll out this weekend exposed "gaps" in America's knowledge of history and current events.

Perhaps most alarmingly, 41% of Americans answered 'Yes' to the question "Do you think Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq was directly involved in planning, financing, or carrying out the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001?"

That total is actually up 5 points since September 2004.

Further, a majority of people couldn't identify Saudia Arabia as the country of origin of most of the 9/11 hijackers, even given the question in multiple choice format. 20% answered Iraq, while 14% believed the hijackers came from Iran.

A majority (52%) believe the US is losing the war against al Qaeda, however Newsweek disagrees. In the magazine's reporting of the poll, they made judgment that the US is in fact not "losing the fight against al-Qaeda or radical Islamic terrorism." [Raw Story]

Part of me takes comfort in the fact that the percentage of Americans who believe in the Saddam-9/11 conspiracy theory dwarfs the percentage who approve of George W. Bush. Yet, part of me recoils at the irrationality this discrepancy implies.

I'll just hope that most of the S-9/11 believers are also mortally outraged about the response to Katrina.

Another blow for day laborers in Houston

Houston City Council voted to cut the funding for the only city-run facility for day laborers.

June 24, 2007

Daddy and Daughter

Daddy and Daughter, originally uploaded by Lindsay Beyerstein.

Watching the Mermaid Parade on Surf Avenue.