Cluster Map

Friday, July 19, 2013


Pollyanna is with you. again. She apologizes for scatterbrain Titan who remembered Ramadan, but forgot to congratulate our French readers for Bastille Day. Joyeux jour de la Bastille albeit belated.

 Pollyanna herself was a bit late for Canada Day and the Fourth of July as well. We hope you all had fun.
Pollyanna also wishes Nelson Mandela a recovery from his illness and marks the 95th birthday of this great man and leader. There should be more like him scattered around the world.

Nelson Mandela's Birthday
Messages left by supporters are seen on a poster of former South African President Nelson Mandela outside his Soweto home. (Jerome Delay / Associated Press / July 18, 2013)

For starters, let us refer you to the Miriam Shlesinger Human Rights action blog. As the weeks and months go by without Miriam, we continue to realize what we have lost. She got us into the human rights struggle. Please act on behalf of people who are so much in need of support in their trials and tribulations at the hands of oppressive regimes and corporations.

This week it is Pollyanna's turn to promote a charity. She chose two active organizations that help battered women in Israel. There are 142,000 abused women in Israel, spanning the entire spectrum of society. Woman to Woman, is a nonprofit that runs a shelter for battered women. Donations can be made both in Israel and from abroad at their Web site. Meir Panim helps the women regain critically needed independence by offering a post-shelter rehabilitation program that launches them on a path towards emotional and financial self-sufficiency. Please pitch in. Pollyanna and Titan want to do something besides ranting and we hope this has some impact.
This Friday night between 2127 and 2142 UT (Greenwich)we will all be on camera from Saturn. The Cassini spacecraft is to be positioned to take a scan of Saturn and its entire ring system during a total eclipse of the Sun. Earth will show up in the background. Carolyn Porco, the head of imaging on Cassini, is calling for everyone to take 15 minutes to step outside, gaze up into the blackness of space, be grateful for our existence, and maybe even wave. “Take a moment to reflect on our cosmic whereabouts and the significance of the accomplishments that allow this interplanetary photo session to happen,” she urges. “Think about how precious life is, about our place in the cosmos. Look up and smile.” Pollyanna recommends these links about the event.

Yes Virginia, there is a place in America where cars were banned in 1898 and the ban has never been repealed. It is the town of Mackinac Island, in Lake Huron, offshore of Michigan. The city council decided as follows in 1898:
“Resolved: That the running of horseless carriages be prohibited within the limits of the village of Mackinac.” — Mackinac Island Village Council, July 6, 1898”
Mackinac Island has a permanent population of 500, but there are 15,000 or so tourists there at any time during the summer. The town must be a really nice place.  
Photo credit: Cletch on Flickr
 A propos horseless carriages and the operation thereof, Michael Quinion (World Wide Words), in a discussion of people who struggle to find nouns, tells us of a driving lesson in the 1930's:
When it starts you push down on the doo-funny with your left foot, and yank the uptididdy back, then let up the foot dingus and put your other foot on the hickey-ma-doodle, don’t forget to push down on the hootananny every time you move the whatyoumaycallit and you’ll behunkydory. Gosh, dear, what’s the matter, haven’t you been listening to me? Centralia Daily Chronicle, 10 Jul. 1937.

A few weeks ago we discussed going to gym and we showed you some of the motivations for overcoming our natural sloth (a deadly sin, FYI). We find the noisy music often played in the gym to be a royal pain in the butt, but it seems that to many people it is essential. In fact, in competition, a portable music player can be considered an illicit performance-enhancing device, Lord help us. We share with you an article from SciAm about the role of music in working out effectively. We once went to a gym that gave us classical music and it was great. Our present gym owner is a philistine and loudly declares her hatred for the classical genre. We have  resisted the awful boom-boom more or less successfully but it is an ongoing struggle. Perhaps if music were allowed on the track, we would not get scandals such as Tyson Gay testing positive. Yuck!

More bans are falling on the tobacco industry in Europe and Pollyanna is very glad about it. Now menthol cigarettes are to be outlawed, because they are considered more attractive to younger people. Indoor bans and higher taxes are also making themselves felt although the black market is rising because of the higher taxes. The Wall Street Journal provides an interesting analysis of the tobacco market in Europe and its problems. We think the companies that purvey the junk are the problem.
One of the questions of evolution that is asked by biologists and also by soccer goalies or rugby/football players is why, of all the organs of the body, our testicles are denied the protection of the bony skeleton that is given to kidneys, heart, pancreas and the rest. It was always thought that sperm production requires a temperature lower than 36.9C, but that is not obvious. In fact, the sperm making facility may well have adjusted to the out-of-body temperature after the expulsion.  Elephants reproduce quite well without an external scrotum. There is an interesting discussion of the topic in a recent online Slate and there seems to be no definite answer. Pollyanna would agree, if she dared to say it, that this is still an inscrotable question.

Showing off to the ladies is adaptive for some species
A Velvet monkey's neon scrotum.
A vervet monkey's neon scrotum Courtesy of Gijs Joost Brouwer
and the ability to gallop(external testes are protected from abdominal stresses) helped us catch prey in the old days, but our reproductive plumbing is archaic, going back to the fish from which we evolved. To quote the writer, Liam Drew, who is a soccer goalie, "soccer goalkeepers should probably look to our baseball-playing friends who use evolution's gift of a large brain and opposable thumbs to don a protective cup." We note that players of US or Aussie rules football or Rugby abjure the cup because it impedes motion and is really only useful for the baseball catcher. It is amusing that a few years ago, a girl catcher on a Little League team in Florida was ordered to wear the cup to protect her putative scrotum. There was nationwide laughter and Nike and others sent along their protective padded panties for girl athletes.

A propos evolution, here are some goodies from a recent conference on evolutionary biology, including cheerful news

The first study of vision in diamondback terrapins finds the animals see a wider range of wavelengths than people do.
Jay Ondreicka/Shutterstock
about terrapin color vision,  island giantism and eye color distribution. We also note an interesting SciAm article about the evolution of complexity. Not all is simple and straightforward, which is good for science.

The long predicted tail of the heliosphere, the bubble of space around our Sun, has been observed in data gathered by the Interstellar Boundary Explorer, or IBEX, a satellite launched in 2008. The shape and size remain to be determined. On the other side of the scale, we are told of the detection of extragalactic radio waves, from 5 to 11 billion light years away. These are really ancient photons and can serve as probes of the plasma in intergalactic space. Pollyanna thinks that all this is really exciting.

 This week Pollyanna wants to present  a novelist who for too long was denied the recognition that her work deserved. In a profile of Lionel Shriver in the New Yorker, Christine Smallwood gives us interesting insights into a philosophy of the people who do not quite make it, the near-successes that Shriver herself almost became. Pollyanna also would like to call your attention to a biography of Jane Franklin, the younger sister of Benjamin Franklin, written by the Harvard professor Jill Lepore. The book will be published by Knopf in October of this year. There is an autobiographical article about Lepore and her work in a recent New Yorker, but it is available only to subscribers to the print edition.

What IF follows up the saga described on Titan's blog last week. XKCD drained all of Earth's oceans and sent them to Mars. He follows up with what happens on Mars. Poor Curiosity, just went to look for water! In the meantime, we can see how XKCD can get serious in his comments on social media, for example.

This one reminds us of questions on climate change, i.e. what warming? today is cold etc. from people who do not know the difference between weather and climate and, alas, are in decision-making positions.

First he approached Ms Foxx with that idiotic smirk:
and then the inevitable happened:

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Pollyanna is glad to be back with you

Pollyanna wants to wish all her US friends and readers a happy Fourth of July and a happy Canada Day to those north of the border. Enjoy your holiday weekends. Drive carefully and avoid firecrackers.

For starters, let us refer you to the Miriam Shlesinger Human Rights action blog. As the weeks and months go by without Miriam, we continue to realize what we have lost. She got us into the human rights struggle. Please act on behalf of people who are so much in need of support in their trials and tribulations at the hands of oppressive regimes and corporations.

Pollyanna grieves for the 19 firefighters who lost their lives fighting the forest fire in Arizona.It is very sad that such people who devote their lives to serving the community and protecting people fall victim to the forces against which they are struggling. These "Hot Shots" are the bravest of the brave.
arizona memorial
Nineteen crosses and American flags adorn the fence outside of Station in Prescott, Arizona. Photograph: Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Pollyanna also notes with sadness the death of Sarah Guyard-Guillot, who fell 15 meters to her death during a performance of Ka by the Cirque de Soleil in Las Vegas.

Sarah Guyard-Guillot, left, in a previous performance of Ka. Photograph: Leila Navidi/AP

 The circumstances are now under investigation, but it would appear that she accidentally slipped her safety wire while being lifted. She was a mother of two children. Guyard-Guillot had been with the original cast of Ka since 2006, and had been an acrobatic performer for more than 20 years. It is a most tragic event.

Pollyanna wishes His Holiness the Dalai Lama all the best on the occasion of his 78th birthday. He is one of the true holy people in this world. We had the privilege of meeting him and speaking to him on one of his visits to Israel. Truly he is a great man. May he be blessed with long life and success in helping his oppressed people in Tibet.

You will recall the story of the Christian girl in Pakistan who was falsely accused of desecrating a Koran and held in prison.
Pakistani security personnel move Rimsha Masih (2L), a Christian girl accused of blasphemy, to a helicopter after her release from jail in Rawalpindi on September 8, 2012.
Rimsha and her family received death threats and were forced into hiding
Pollyanna is pleased to learn that after living in hiding for several months, the family is now safe, somewhere in Canada. Rimsha is learning English and adjusting to her new environment. We wish her well and wish even more that countries like Pakistan would repeal their harsh blasphemy laws that are totally inconsistent with the democratic values that we believe should dominate the modern world. Alas, the chance for that are vanishingly small.

This incident in which a lioness rescued her cub from a life-threatening situation was sent to us by several sources and is booming around the Web. It is heartwarming and nice to see.

Stephen Fry gives us his take on snobbishness in language. We are not sure that we agree with him totally. Modern Hebrew as spoken on the street is sloppy and a pain to our pedantic ears. The English we see written and hear over the media is not much better if at all. As Pooh-Ba says "pardon us if we decline.." Maybe we are snobs or just old whatevers.


Recently we celebrated the centennial of Pollyanna's arrival on Earth. This year also marks a century since Niels Bohr, the great Danish physicist, published his first papers on quantum theory. In the years that have passed since then quantum mechanics has made great strides and certainly the initial work of Bohr cannot be called the cutting edge. Even though the technical details of Bohr’s model turned out to be wrong, he had grasped the essential idea for understanding atoms: abandoning common sense in favor of the crazy rules of quantum theory. Bohr saw more deeply than others of his time that embracing quantum physics was the key to unlocking nature’s hidden truths. While quantum confusions drove other physicists to despair, Bohr pursued the path into the quantum world. He foresaw the role of entanglement and his famous debates with Einstein moved physics along towards the promised land. One of the most best-known exchanges of this discussion was Einstein's famous quote that "God does not play dice with the universe," to which Bohr is said to have replied, "Einstein, stop telling God what to do!" (The debate was cordial, if spirited. In a 1920 letter, Einstein said to Bohr, "Not often in life has a human being caused me such joy by his mere presence as you did.")

Pollyanna is happy to learn that a technique known as 'reverse vaccination' has passed some tests with humans and appears to be a means of curing type I diabetes. It suppresses the immune reaction that kills insulin producing cells. The researchers designed a molecule that contained the gene for making proinsulin, the precursor to insulin. The molecule also included instructions for triggering the killer cells' response and then shutting it down. It worked in mice and now has worked in humans. It looks promising indeed.

The Opportunity rover on Mars has set a new record for travel off world. This is not in itself of major importance, but it is in general exciting that the robot vehicles on the surface of Mars, Opportunity and Curiosity,  are providing precious scientific information.

Opportunity pops a ‘wheelie’ on May 15, 2013 (Sol 3308) and then made history by driving further to the mountain ahead on the next day, May 16 (Sol 3309), to establish a new American driving record for a vehicle on another world.  This navcam mosaic shows the view forward to Opportunity’s future destinations of Solander Point and Cape Tribulation along the lengthy rim of huge Endeavour crater spanning 14 miles (22 km) in diameter.  Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Kenneth Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo.
 The Holy Grail of course is to find evidence of past life on Mars. The vehicles also show, in our opinion, the great advantage of robots over human flight and activity in space. We refer you to the Curiosity page for fascinating images and results.

Elsewhere in the Solar System our old Voyager friends (with whom we worked during the planetary phase of the mission) are moving onwards.. Both of the spacecraft are forging ahead to leave the Solar System as defined by the extent of the heliosphere and are moving on to be first man-made objects in interstellar space. All of us are thrilled by this prospect and the new scientific knowledge that will come our way. You might  wish to track them with this real time odometer provided by NASA.

We have not had a book review for a while. One of our favorite authors, Ian McEwan
Ian McEwan
Ian McEwan: 'tricksy'. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod
 has come out with a Cold War retrospective spy novel, Sweet Tooth, reviewed in the Guardian by Justin Cartwright. It is not the usual cloak and dagger thriller and is said to contain surprises and twists. May well be worth your time. The title should not put off those who are waiting for the diabetes cure mentioned above.


What If? is as usual a good introduction to silly time. It asks what would happen if you dropped 3,000 bouncy balls from a seventh floor window onto a passerby. This reminds us of Avenue Q, a musical that we saw last year in New York. In the story, a penny is dropped from the top of the Empire State Building and causes grievous harm to a character in the play. Of course, because of the viscosity of air, a penny that has little mass and a relatively large surface area would not be going very fast at the surface, but for art we suspend our critical faculties.

We were never offered the option of 3D television and frankly we never cared for movies that required special glasses. We note that it is now phasing out and the only fan left is our dear little Cynthia.

Barney & Clyde Cartoon for Jun/30/2013

There is a long-running Web comic called Ph.D for Piled Higher and Deeper that chronicles the trials and tribulations of graduate students. We enjoy it and indeed are nostalgic only for the youth of graduate school years and not for the stress and uncertainty in which we lived. Here is an example:

The site itself is worth a visit for anyone who has ever been a graduate student or who has ever supervised one. It is written and drawn by Jorge Cham.

For many years we were one of the faculty members charged with teaching graduate students at Tel Aviv University to write scientific papers in English. Since only people competent in English were accepted to our course (required of all whose dissertations were to be evaluated abroad), the problem was just inability to write in any language. We attribute that to the failure of the education system to impart such basic skills. The following saga tells the tale: