Laputan Logic
Friday, November 22, 2002
  Memento Mori
A memento mori is a form of image that urged a European person of the late Middle Ages to "remember thy death." To do this, a memento mori might represent death as a human skeleton--perhaps as the Grim Reaper gathering his harvest--or it might depict human bodies in an advanced state of decay. Its purpose is to remind the viewer that death is an unavoidable part of life, something to be prepared for at all times. Memento mori images are graphic demonstrations of the fact that death was not only a more frequent, but a far more familiar occurrence in medieval Europe than it is today. They express a concept of death that is characteristic of a specific time and place. The subject of this essay is an imagery of death characteristic of another time and place: nineteenth century America. Although the nineteenth century is much closer to our own era, these photographs and other images represent a concept of death that is in many ways as different from ours as that of the Europe of the Middle Ages. The British sociologist Geoffrey Gorer makes some interesting observations on the difference between cultural attitudes toward death in the Victorian era and our own. In his 1955 article, "The Pornography of Death," Gorer points out that death is treated in twentieth century society much like sex was treated in the nineteenth century. The subject is avoided, especially with children, or spoken of in euphemisms if it cannot be avoided. Death now, like sex then, is hidden, an event which takes place behind closed doors. The opposite is also true: in the nineteenth century, death was discussed as freely and openly as sex is today. If, as Freud has postulated, society is founded upon--and defined by--its repressions, our society has undergone a psychological about-face since the nineteenth century.
Memento Mori: Death and Photography in Nineteenth Century America 
  Scientists Planning to Make New Form of Life

Their intent is to create a single-celled, partially man-made organism with the minimum number of genes necessary to sustain life. If the experiment works, the microscopic man-made cell will begin feeding and dividing to create a population of cells unlike any previously known to exist. The more immediate plan is to try to puzzle out, and eventually model in a computer, every conceivable aspect of the biology of one organism, a feat science has never come close to accomplishing. Because all living cells are based on the same chemistry and bear striking resemblances to one another, that could shed light on all of biology. "We are wondering if we can come up with a molecular definition of life," Venter said. "The goal is to fundamentally understand the components of the most basic living cell." The project will begin with M. genitalium, a minuscule organism that lives in the genital tracts of people and may cause or contribute to some cases of urethritis, an inflammation of the urethra. The scientists will remove all genetic material from the organism, then synthesize an artificial string of genetic material, resembling a naturally occurring chromosome, that they hope will contain the minimum number of M. genitalium genes needed to sustain life. The artificial chromosome will be inserted into the hollowed-out cell, which will then be tested for its ability to survive and reproduce. Ari Patrinos, a senior Energy Department administrator who will help oversee the project, said the organism was an attractive starting point to create a "minimal genome" because it is so minimal already. "We know even the simplest of cells is incredibly complicated," Patrinos said -- too complicated, at least so far, to understand completely. "This is a case where we're trying to cheat a little bit, to take the smallest and simplest and make it smaller and simpler."
thanks, Peter 
  Sharpest ever view of the Sun
The first images from the Swedish 1-m Solar Telescope on the Canary Island of La Palma are presented in Nature on November 14. The images are the most detailed ever obtained of the Sun - among the new solar features uncovered are hitherto unknown phenomenae in sunspots. The telescope was opened in March this year and is operated by the Institute for Solar Physics of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. Its objective lens has a diameter of one meter and the telescope is designed to minimize problems from turbulent air that blur the images. The telescope tube is evacuated and a mirror in the beam adjusts its shape a thousand times a second to counteract the atmospheric blurring. This makes the images the sharpest ever of the Sun. The resolution achieved is 1,200 times better than normal eyesight (20/20 vision). The new images show thin dark cores in the thread-like structures that surround the darkest part of a sunspot. The nature of these cores is unknown. Sunspots are regions with strong magnetic fields. Solar magnetic fields can disturb telecommunications and satellite operations.
Sunspot umbrae—the dark central regions of the spots—are surrounded by brighter filamentary penumbrae, the existence of which remains largely inexplicable1. The penumbral filaments contain magnetic fields with varying inclinations2 and are associated with flowing gas3–5, but discriminating between theoretical models6–8 has been difficult because the structure of the filaments has not hitherto been resolved. Here we report observations of penumbral filaments that reveal dark cores inside them. We cannot determine the nature of these dark cores, but their very existence provides a crucial test for any model of penumbrae. Our images also reveal other very small structures, in line with the view that many of the fundamental physical processes in the solar photosphere occur on scales smaller than 100 km. The best spatial resolution attained in solar observations has typically been about 0.2 arcsec (150 km). The Swedish 1-m Solar Telescope9 at the Roque de los Muchachos on the Canary island of La Palma is a newly installed (spring 2002), evacuated refractor designed to significantly improve this. The main obstacle to diffraction-limited imaging is rapidly varying aberrations from temperature inhomogeneities in the Earth’s atmosphere. These effects, referred to as ‘seeing’, are corrected for by low-order adaptive optics (15 corrected modes), real-time frame selection (picking the best images from a continuous stream of exposures), and subsequent image restoration using a variant10 of the phase-diversity technique11,12. The resolution achieved is better than 0.12 arcsec. Nature, November 2002
What is a sun spot? According to George Fischer, a solar astronomer at the University of California, "A sunspot is a dark part of the sun's surface that is cooler than the surrounding area. It turns out it is cooler because of a strong magnetic field there that inhibits the transport of heat via convective motion in the sun. The magnetic field is formed below the sun's surface, and extends out into the sun's corona." While it's easy to understand gas pressure (as gas is heated it expands, increasing pressure, and as it cools, it contracts, decreasing pressure), magnetic pressure may be a tougher concept to grasp. David Dearborn explains, "If you take those places where there are concentrations of magnetic field and put them together, they have pressure of their own. You can feel magnetic pressure when you take two magnets and take the ends of the same polarity and try to put them together. The just don't quite want to go together. That's magnetic pressure." Think of a sunspot as a bubble of magnetic pressure, surrounded, by the gas pressure of the photosphere. For the sunspot to exist, the total pressure must be in balance between the region inside and the region outside of the sunspot. David Dearborn elaborates on how magnetic fields keep sunspots cooler: " Outside a sunspot, you have only gas pressure, which depends on the temperature. In the sunspot you have both gas pressure and magnetic field pressure combined." Since the pressure must be in balance, magnetic pressure inside the sunspot allows the gas pressure (and thus the temperature) to remain lower than the areas outside of the sunspot.
Thursday, November 21, 2002
  The Flash In between my Donald Duck comic phase and my Mad Magazine phase, I was a huge reader of super-hero comics. The plots were thin, often to breaking point, but the artwork was always great. Big favorites included the new Flash and Green Lantern as well as the Justice League of America. Actually, pretty much anything DC Comics, I never had much time for Marvel.
The Flash: A 1960 comic book cover. Artist: Carmine Infantino. By 1956, superheroes had been out of vogue in comics for the better part of a decade. It had been five years since the last, faltering appearance of The Flash, even as a lingering remnant, part of The Justice Society of America. But the Powers That Be at DC Comics thought the character might go over with a new generation of readers. Julius Schwartz accepted the job of editing it, but only on condition that he be allowed to change it from the ground up. At that time, DC was publishing a comic called Showcase, which had highlighted different adventure characters in each issue — Firefighters in one, Frogmen in another. The idea was to test new concepts, and see if the public liked them before committing the publisher to an ongoing series. The new Flash, who debuted in the fourth issue (Sept-Oct 1956), was Showcase's first success. In the opening story, police scientist Barry Allen suffered a freak accident — a lightning bolt struck a shelf of lab chemicals, bathing him in an unduplicatable mixture. Afterward, he found himself able to perceive things as if they were occurring in slow motion, and to move incredibly fast. Remembering an old comic book series he'd enjoyed, he fashioned himself a skin-tight suit and launched a crime-fighting career as The Flash. Over the next couple of years, the character appeared three more times in Showcase. After that, he was moved out into a comic of his own, the first issue of which (#105 — it continued the numbering from the old Flash Comics) was dated March, 1959. Sleek, beautiful art by Carmine Infantino, illustrating stories by John Broome and occasionally Gardner Fox (who had created the original Flash) ensured the comic's success. Later that year, a new version of Green Lantern appeared in Showcase, and the superhero revival was on. In 1960, a new version of the Justice Society, dubbed Justice League of America, debuted, and The Flash joined Superman, Aquaman, Wonder Woman and several others as a charter member. In '61, the way was paved for a full-scale revival of DC's 1940s characters in their original forms, when the story "Flash of Two Worlds" (now considered a classic by comics aficionados) established that they were alive and well in a parallel world. The 1940s Flash, Jay Garrick, became a frequent guest star in his younger counterpart's comic. And the new Flash picked up a couple of other superhero supporting characters — The Elongated Man, who could stretch like the old Plastic Man; and Kid Flash, a teenage super-speedster. As the 1960s wore on, and Marvel Comics began to out-sell DC, the latter tended to adopt Marvel-like characteristics — sometimes to their detriment. The Flash, in particular, came to be treated like a soap opera, and the trend accelerated after Broome and Infantino left the series, in 1967. First, he married his long-time sweetheart, Iris West. Then, it was revealed that everything he knew about Iris was wrong — she was really a time traveller from the future. Then she was killed off. Then he began courting another woman, and she was killed off too. By the early 1980s, he was on trial for the second girlfriend's murder, in one of the most tediously drawn-out storylines in comics history. By then, even the return of Infantino couldn't save the series. When, in 1985, The Flash himself died, it was widely regarded as a mercy killing. Death did not, however, stand in the way of his becoming a TV star. In 1990, the Barry Allen version of The Flash became a broadcast network series, with John Wesley Shipp in the title role. It ran two seasons, and never even mentioned that in comic books, the character had been dead half a decade. Today, there is a third Flash running around in DC comics — Kid Flash grew up; and when his mentor died, took the "Flash" name for himself. And so it goes.
from Don Markstein's Toonopedia by way of Wacky Neighbor.  
Wednesday, November 20, 2002
  Too busy to blog Things have been pretty damned busy with work lately so blogging will have to take a bit of a back seat for a little while. Posting will continue but at the present snail-like pace. 
Tuesday, November 19, 2002
  Ancient proteins A lot of recent progress in paleontology has been based on analysis of DNA taken from ancient bones. As an example, sequencing of mitochondrial DNA taken from Neanderthal bones has been helpful in confirming the dominant theory that the Neanderthals were a completely different branch of homo sapiens from modern humans. But DNA has one problem, it is an extremely complex and fragile molecule and it deteriorates rapidly over time. Estimates of the maximum useful for age for DNA range from 50,000 to 100,000 years. However, a new approach which focuses on sequencing proteins instead of DNA promises to open a window in to species development over millions of years. Proteins are considerably more robust than DNA and can last in bone for up to 10 million years. While a protein does not contain any where near as much information as DNA, a protein is the expression of a sequence of genes transcribed as a sequence of amino acids. By comparing the sequences of proteins from different animals it is possible to infer important features about their DNA and how closely they are related.
Fossil protein breakthrough will probe evolution For many years, biologists have deduced evolutionary relationships from the visible features of living animals and fossils. Molecular biology has given them a new tool for living animals - comparing DNA sequences. However, DNA survives for only a short time after death, so paleontologists have been limited to comparing the shapes and sizes of the bones of extinct species. But analyzing ancient proteins now gives them a new option, says Christina Nielsen-Marsh of the University of Newcastle, because their amino acid sequences reflect genetic codes. The big advantage of proteins is their stability in suitable environments. Pieces of DNA large enough to sequence using sensitive amplification techniques can survive for 100,000 years in permafrost. But osteocalcin, a structural protein that bonds directly to the minerals of bone, lasts much longer. Matthew Collins, also at Newcastle University, estimates that osteocalcin can survive for more than 100 million years at 0 °C, and for some 10 million years at 10 °C. That would be long enough to look back some six or seven million years to the last common ancestor of humans and chimpanzees.
See also Scientists Discover Ancient Protein and DNA Sequences in the Same Fossil Bison bones open ancient window 
  More terra-cotta warriors unearthed
Chinese archaeologists have unearthed 196 terra-cotta warriors dating back to the Han Dynasty 206 BC-AD220) in Xuzhou City of east China's Jiangsu Province. "This is the largest discovery since 1984," said an archaeologist who took part in the excavation. More than 2,000 terra-cotta warriors were unearthed from four pits at Shizi Mountain in Xuzhou in 1984. A museum was then built on the site. Thirty-odd terra-cotta warriors were found last July, which led to further excavation, said Qiu Yongsheng, in charge of the administration of ancient tombs at Shizi Mountain. He said most of the 196 warriors are well-preserved and feature similar dress, with a long skirt and protective padding on the legs. The head, neckline, shoulders and the lower hem of the skirt of some of the warriors are rough and vermilion in color, a typical artistic style of the Han Dynasty. Some warriors had their hair up in a knot, a hairstyle rarely seen on previously-discovered terra-cotta warriors. The warriors measure 43 cm in height and feature three gestures, as if holding three different kinds of weaponry. The newly-unearthed terra-cotta warriors are facing in a different direction from those discovered previously, leading scientists to believe that they were observing a special funeral ritual, Qiu said.
Monday, November 18, 2002

(kooh-RAH-chah) A dance originating from Bohol, Visayas, it is popular at Ilokano and Visayan festivals. This dance commands a sense of improvisation which mimics a young playful couple's attempt to get each other's attention. It is performed in a moderate waltz style.
Remember to turn the volume up to max for this one. from Noel's Pilipino Folkdance Glossary 
Fanciful. Preposterous. Absurd.

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