Wallpaper Thursday

Storvatnet ice

Storvatnet Lake, Lofoten Islands, Norway.

Photographer Stian Klo took some chances getting this photograph:

I was desperately searching a good sunrise spot this particular morning. Normally Storvatnet Lake is completely covered in snow, so you can only imagine my surprise when I saw these crazy ice formations almost being shot out of the frozen lake. I put my crampons on and took a big risk walking out. I could hear the ice cracking underneath my feet, and when you’re all alone in a fjord/canyon like this – the cracks are echoed and sound really frightening. Was it worth it? I sure think so!

(Click the image to embiggen.)

Posted in wallpaper | 2 Comments

Link dump (with pretty pictures)

It’s time to clear out a few saved links, which I haven’t found time to build entire blog posts around. So for your reading and viewing pleasure:

Take an aerial tour of the world on this page featuring 46 aerial photographs of famous (and not so famous) places. Happily, the photos are scrollable, so you won’t spend an hour clicking the “Next” button. I enjoyed all of them, but the one of New York City’s Central Park really knocked me out, because until now I never understood just how vast it was. Holy moly.

Central Park

The BBC featured “a 13-year-old eagle huntress in Mongolia,” a short article with gorgeous photography focusing on a young girl doing what Mongolian girls do not do.

Most children, Asher Svidensky says, are a little intimidated by golden eagles. Kazakh boys in western Mongolia start learning how to use the huge birds to hunt for foxes and hares at the age of 13, when the eagles sit heavily on their undeveloped arms. Svidensky, a photographer and travel writer, shot five boys learning the skill – and he also photographed Ashol-Pan.

“To see her with the eagle was amazing,” he recalls. “She was a lot more comfortable with it, a lot more powerful with it and a lot more at ease with it.”

Golden eagle huntress

Guess what happens when high-resolution, high-definition satellite imagery teams up with OpenStreetMap data? An observational capability so high as to be in the realms of science fiction. Wired has an article on Skybox Imaging, the company which “just started offering customers 90-second video of any point on Earth from its SkySat-1 satellite.” When the video is imposed over mapping data, the combination makes mapping geeks, general nerds, and NSA employees drool. Check out the demo video of Beijing Airport, in which we can watch individual airplanes move down the runway, and individual cars move down the highway. From space.

And finally, a little Portuguese wow power: The waves at Nazaré, a tiny town that is becoming a surfing mecca for the clinically insane, i.e. elite surfers who think it’s fun to chase 30-meter (100-foot) waves.

Nazaré is where Garrett McNamara set a world record for the largest wave ever surfed when he caught a 23.7-meter (78-foot) wave in November 2011. It’s also where he broke his own record with a 30-meter ride in January 2013. The great part of this story is that until 2010, nobody outside Portugal had ever heard of Nazaré. The town hall invited McNamara for a visit, because they thought they had some pretty awesome waves and wanted an expert evaluation of whether they were good enough to hold an event. McNamara was so knocked out by not just the size of these waves, but also their regularity and consistency, that he made Nazaré his home port and calls its waves “the Holy Grail.” Two world records later, this little Portuguese village is famous among surfers.

Posted in travel, video, wildlife | Leave a comment

Mason bee first aid

It’s April, and the air is warm, and that means…mason bee season!

A female red mason bee (Osmia rufa) carrying a mud ball.

I wrote about my mason bee colony last March, when the boys were popping out. We’re well past that time of year now, and it’s the ladies’ time. They’ve done their mating dance and are now focusing on setting up the next generation. Since I have more bees this year than last year, this means a constant stream of female bees in and out of the nesting holes, which just happen to be the pre-drilled shelving holes in our wooden storage unit.

I normally sit next to the unit and use the first shelf as a handy spot for my drink while I work on my laptop. At any given moment there is likely to be a bee zipping past my face, but since mason bees are both gentle and very preoccupied (must pack that nesting hole!), their close flybys are cute rather than worrying.

Yesterday, though, I worried. Because mason bees are also a little klutzy, and they tend to bonk into things and fall. And what they bonked into yesterday was my iced tea. I heard the first bonk, because hitting a glass sounds different than hitting wood, and looked over to see a bee struggling in the cold tea. I fished her out with a finger and put her on the warm bricks of the veranda, but she was no longer moving. I wondered if the tannic acid of the tea could have killed her that quickly — she wasn’t in the drink for more than ten seconds.

Fortunately I had a bit of paper towel nearby, so I gently laid a corner of it on her abdomen. It instantly wicked a surprising amount of water off the little bee, and she weakly tipped over a bit and moved a leg. I shifted to a dry spot on the paper towel and wicked off more water, this time from her whole body. When I pulled the towel away, she buzzed her wings, releasing a fine spray of droplets that scattered on the brick around her. At that point she was on the road to recovery, grooming her antennae and legs, and buzzing her wings a few more times until she’d gotten sufficiently warmed up again. Then, zip! Off she went.

Not ten minutes later I found another bee in my drink. This one was motionless, so I’m not sure how long she’d been in there. I fished her out and applied paper towel/warm brick first aid. The first two passes with the paper towel produced no movement, and I thought she really was dead, but after the third one, she began to move. Within five minutes she was in the air again.

Guess I can’t use the shelf for my drinks anymore; at least, not until the mason bees have completed their task. In the meantime, I’ll just enjoy their company. They really are the sweetest bees, and they’re doing a great job of pollinating all of my veranda flowers.

(Photo from Nature Conservation Imaging, by Jeremy Early.)

Posted in wildlife | 7 Comments

Hollywood’s conventional “wisdom” proven wrong by actual data

Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight news site launch has had a bit of a rough start, but an article published on 1 April showed the team doing what it does best: applying statistical analysis to the real world and coming up with facts rather than opinions.

The opinion in Hollywood that films with female leads or multiple prominent female characters don’t make money is entrenched and accepted as fact, repeated ad nauseam to anyone who asks. Women will go to a guy film, but guys won’t go to a women’s film. Women can’t carry an action movie. US and international audiences prefer male leads. Et cetera. And any film that breaks this expectation (Alien, anyone? Or Aliens? Silence of the Lambs? Gravity, Hunger Games, Frozen?) is quickly dismissed as an exception to the rule, an anomaly that owes its existence to some special factor such as above-average direction, a fantastic script, fortuitous market timing, etc. Conversely, when a female-led movie bombs, it’s never because the script stank or the direction was crap. It can only be because a woman headed the film and audiences don’t want that.

Turns out that when one actually crunches the data, Hollywood’s “wisdom” is a steaming pile of horse manure. FiveThirtyEight “analyzed 1,615 films released from 1990 to 2013 to examine the relationship between the prominence of women in a film and that film’s budget and gross profits.” The analytical basis was the Bechdel test, a tongue-in-cheek criticism of Hollywood by cartoonist Alison Bechdel. To pass the test, a movie must 1) have at least two women in it, who 2) talk to each other, about 3) something besides a man.

It’s a very low bar. Yet Hollywood trips and falls over it more than 50% of the time.

One thing that FiveThirtyEight’s analysis discovered is that Hollywood throws the biggest budgets at films in which none of the female characters ever speak to each other — about men or anything else.

Hickey bechdel 2

Seeing that, it’s not a surprise that films which actually do pass the Bechdel test have the lowest budgets of all. And since budget affects the caliber of writers, directors, and stars which can be hired, as well as all marketing efforts, it’s easy to see a self-fulfilling prophecy here.

And yet somehow, despite the severe handicap of being starved of cash, films with a strong female presence make money. In fact, in the US they make considerably more money than films that fail the test.

Hickey bechdel 3

So much for Hollywood “wisdom.”

In light of this analysis, it’s particularly timely and satisfying that Frozen — a film with not one but two female leads — passed $1 billion in worldwide ticket sales back in the beginning of March. One month later, Frozen has become the most profitable animated film in history, passing up Toy Story and showing no signs of slowing down.

It must be because of the script. Or maybe the songs. Or, wait, it’s the snowman; everyone loves the snowman.

Okay, sarcasm aside, let’s celebrate the success of Frozen with this wonderful video just released by Disney. “Let it Go,” the bring-down-the-house power ballad that anchors the movie, won the Oscar for Best Original Song and is mostly known for Idina Menzel’s glorious vocals. But who sang the song for the non-English versions of the film?

A whole bunch of talented women, that’s who. Here’s the view from “behind the mic,” in 25 different languages.

Posted in culture, video | 4 Comments

Wallpaper Monday


Snowdonia National Park, North Wales, United Kingdom.

There is something about rounded, weathered mountains that gets me in a whole different way than the sharp-edged ridges that spike through so much of the American West. I love them both, but in different ways. Tall, sharp mountains bask in youth and power and massive, intimidating size. But these mountains speak of age, wisdom, and experience with powerful erosion forces that we puny, short-lived humans can barely comprehend.

The water running through the bottom of the frame is, of course, the most powerful thing in the image. The mountains only look like they’re in charge.

(Click the image to massify.)

Posted in wallpaper | Leave a comment

The Internet justifies its existence

This. This is why the Internet exists, to encapsulate everything that makes a geek go “squee!” in a single photo, and then disseminate it across the globe. Because what is more perfect than Gandalf emailing on his MacBook Pro during a break from saving Middle Earth?


And of course Gandalf uses a Mac. He is on the side of Light, after all.

In the real world, Sir Ian McKellan was taking a break during the filming of The Hobbit. Naturally, the memes and jokes are already flying, most centered around “Tech Support Gandalf.” Here’s a collection of the best ones so far.

Posted in humor | 1 Comment

Do it for Denmark

One of my favorite things about Europe is the decidedly non-puritanical view of sex and reproduction. In the US, sex sells everything, yet at the same time you’re not supposed to talk about it. (Unless you’re singing in leering terms, using crude street slang, in which case you can make tons of money talking about it.)

In Europe, sex also sells a lot, but it’s not a topic to be avoided in normal conversation. In fact, it’s a topic of great concern to many European nations with falling birthrates and rising retirement rates. We need to keep pumping babies into the system (if you’ll excuse the imagery) in order to support the social net. An organized society, it turns out, is the ultimate Ponzi scheme.

Denmark is one of those nations currently worried about its birthrate. And so Spies Travel has come up with a way to help: a contest. Best of all, anyone can give it a go, though not everyone may have a need for the prize.

My favorite part is, of course, the Eiffel Tower graphic overlay. So perfect.

Posted in ad worth watching, culture, Europe, video | 4 Comments

Wallpaper Monday


I know it hasn’t been too long since we were last in Canada, but Vancouver has always held a special place in my heart (and Victoria, a ferry ride away, even more so). This is a different sort of view, taken from Lonsdale Quay in North Vancouver. That steely blue-gray sky, full of impending rain, and the matching color of the water are familiar to any resident of the Pacific Northwest.

It’s raining here, too, and we need it. This has been a dry winter, punctuated by all-too-brief spats of rain. The reservoirs are nicely full, but the soil isn’t as consistently wet as it should be, so the wildflower show hasn’t been at its best. But the orchids are in bloom, inviting rambles up into the hills to admire them. They love skies like this one. We haven’t much more time to enjoy them before the relentless blue skies of summer start.

(Click the image to embiggen.)

Posted in wallpaper | 1 Comment

We regret to inform you that there will be no joy today.

Kate bush

Last Friday, one of my favorite musical artists of all time made a shock announcement: she was going to perform live, in a string of concerts at the Apollo Hammersmith in London.


Other than a few rare guest appearances, Kate Bush has not performed live since her six-week tour in 1979. That’s thirty-five years ago, people! This is basically the Second Coming for those of us who memorized all of Kate’s lyrics decades ago. (Well, except for Aerial and 50 Words for Snow. I haven’t memorized those.)

Upon reading this earth-shattering news, I marched into our living room and informed my wife that I wanted Kate Bush tickets for my birthday. Being the perfect wife that she is, she did not hesitate to say okay.

Tickets went on sale at 9:30 this morning. I had put reminders and alarms in my computer days before, established a login name and password for Eventim, the ticket seller, perused the easyJet flights to London, and discussed flight costs and teaching schedules with my wife. Between those two parameters, the only concerts we could attend were on the last Friday and Saturday of September.

I tossed and turned last night, and was up half an hour before my alarm went off this morning. By 9:25 I was in front of my laptop with the Eventim site open in one tab, the easyJet site in another, and my 1Password credit card info ready to go.

Here is what happened.

9:29 — One minute until the tickets go on sale. My blood pressure spikes.

9:30 — The Eventim ticket site goes blank except for an image of a stage curtain and a countdown: “You are in the Eventim waiting room. You will be able to proceed in 30 seconds. 29. 28. 27…”

9:30:30 — The countdown reaches zero and…restarts! Damn, I knew it, the crush of fans has broken the ticket site. Hell, they probably broke the British Internet.

9:31 — The countdown reaches zero and…restarts again. What?!

9:31:01 — I open a new tab, quickly log in to Eventim again and finally see the list of concerts. This time the “On sale soon” lines have been replaced with green squares and the very welcome “Available starting at…” lines. I click on the concert I want, then on the ticket price I’m willing to pay, then on the seating chart. I am met with a whirling circle as the seating chart loads. And loads. And loads.

9:32 — I go back to the first tab, which has finally decided to work properly and is now showing the concert lists. I click on Page 2 to get to the concert I was trying to buy tickets for. The green square is now red, and the dreaded words “Currently not available” appear. In two minutes, that concert has sold out.

9:32:01 — I back out and go for my second choice. This one still has a green square and available tickets. I click on the concert. When the the ticket prices load, all of the cheapest ones are gone, but my price range is still showing as available. Until I click on “number of tickets,” that is, and find that my choice is — one. There is one ticket left in my price range.

9:33 — Even as I stare at this travesty, my price range blinks out and now shows as unavailable. The next cheapest tickets available are £105. That’s €126 (and $174 for US readers). I give it some thought and shake my head. Between the flight costs, the hotel costs, and now the ticket costs, that’s just too much. I love you, Kate, but I can’t be Running Up That Bill.

9:40 — Except for the supremely expensive “Hospitality” packages, the ones where you get champagne, strawberries and naked massages before being floated on a private cloud to the theatre, all 22 concerts are sold out. (The Hospitality package starts at £424.50, in case you’re interested. I really can’t figure out what the fifty pence are for.)

9:41 — The inevitable flood begins on Twitter. My favorite tweet: “Congratulations to all those who successfully got #KateBush tickets. If anyone wants me I’ll be sobbing in the greenhouse.”

Me too.

Posted in event, life | 10 Comments

The cat that scented death

From the July 2007 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine:

Making his way back up the hallway, Oscar [the cat] arrives at Room 313. The door is open, and he proceeds inside. Mrs. K. is resting peacefully in her bed, her breathing steady but shallow. She is surrounded by photographs of her grandchildren and one from her wedding day. Despite these keepsakes, she is alone. Oscar jumps onto her bed and again sniffs the air. He pauses to consider the situation, and then turns around twice before curling up beside Mrs. K.

One hour passes. Oscar waits. A nurse walks into the room to check on her patient. She pauses to note Oscar’s presence. Concerned, she hurriedly leaves the room and returns to her desk. She grabs Mrs. K.’s chart off the medical-records rack and begins to make phone calls.

Within a half hour the family starts to arrive. Chairs are brought into the room, where the relatives begin their vigil. The priest is called to deliver last rites. And still, Oscar has not budged, instead purring and gently nuzzling Mrs. K.

An amazing story, and all the more so because it is a) true, and b) published in a peer-reviewed medical journal. Oscar’s ability to predict the imminent death of nursing home residents is so infallible that “his mere presence at the bedside is viewed by physicians and nursing home staff as an almost absolute indicator of impending death, allowing staff members to adequately notify families.”

Read the one-page article here.

Posted in life | 3 Comments