Ancient Romans depicted Huns as barbarians. Their bones tell a different story

From the Washington Post: Ancient Romans depicted Huns as barbarians. Their bones tell a different story.

What the scientists found surprised them. While the Roman and Hunnic elites were at war, regular people living on the margins of these two empires were able to coexist, even cooperate. Bones buried in the same cemetery carried signatures of dramatically different lifestyles — some bore evidence that their owners were farmers, others had traits of nomads. Some bones suggested that the individual was born into a roaming tribe but later settled down; others indicated the opposite lifestyle change. [continue]

Crusader shipwreck tells a golden knights’ tale

From history.com: Crusader Shipwreck Tells a Golden Knights’ Tale.

In the 13th century A.D., the city of Acre on Israel’s northern coast was a key stronghold for embattled European Crusaders defending Christianity in the Holy Land. But in 1291, a vast Egyptian army of some 100,000 soldiers led by the new Mamluk sultan overran the Crusader garrison there and razed the city. Now, marine archaeologists have discovered a long-lost ship that met its watery end in the crescent-shaped bay off the city’s harbor. Carbon dating of the ship, and the cache of gold coins found inside, suggests the wreck dates to the siege of Acre, as Christians made a desperate attempt to flee the city and their knights made their doomed last stand. [continue]

Radical shakeup of dinosaur family tree points to unexpected Scottish origins

From the Guardian: Radical shakeup of dinosaur family tree points to unexpected Scottish origins.

The most radical shakeup of the dinosaur family tree in a century has led scientists to propose an unlikely origin for the prehistoric beasts: an obscure cat-sized creature found in Scotland.

The analysis, which has already sparked controversy in the academic world, suggests that the two basic groups into which dinosaurs have been classified for more than a century need a fundamental rethink. If proved correct, the revised version of the family tree would overthrow some of the most basic assumptions about this chapter of evolutionary history, including what the common ancestor of all dinosaurs looked like and where it came from. [continue]

Saltopus, kids. saltopus. There was a creature called a saltopus!

Thanks to Khurram Wadee for posting this article on Diaspora, which is where I found it.

The face of a man who die 700 years ago is revealing how the poor lived in medieval England

From good.is: The Face Of A Man Who Died 700 Years Ago Is Revealing How The Poor Lived In Medieval England.

As a collective civilization, we’ve made some strides in how we care for the poor and frail but, even in the 21st century, the indigent are often relegated to both anonymous lives and anonymous deaths. So when scientists were able to re-create the life of a man who lived 700 years ago from his remains, it offered a tremendous insight, not just into his life, but into the lives of the countless impoverished citizens of medieval England.

This face—and the man—are known by the clinical and cold moniker Context 958, one of several hundred buried corpses exhumed from graves behind the Old Divinity School of St. John’s College in Cambridge, England, around 2010. The subject was presumed to have been a ward of the hospital or church, likely poor and/or ill, at the time of his death in the 13th century. [continue, see photos]

Risk insurance in the eighteenth century

From Wonders and Marvels: Risk Insurance in the Eighteenth Century.

Travelers to distant lands have always known that risk is an inevitable part of the adventure. And from ancient times they invented ways to mitigate that risk. Medieval English guilds established funds to provide for their members in the event of accident when they were abroad. Fifteenth-century pilgrims would ensure themselves against captivity. For a certain payment, the insurer would agree to ransom the traveler should he be captured by pirates or Arabs.

As travel expanded, individual traveler’s insurance took on the form of a bet on their own survival – a broker would take a specific amount and agree to pay it back with substantial interest if the traveler returned. The risks of travel were so high that it was usually assumed impossible to purchase insurance that would pay out to someone else if the traveler did not come home. [continue]

Has Mirabilis.ca been blocking your comments?

A reader wrote to me to say that she’s been unable to comment on Mirabilis.ca – apparently the site thinks that she’s a spammer, so her comments have been blocked. Has that been happening to anybody else?

This morning I changed the system Mirabilis.ca uses to deal with spam comments. I got rid of the overly-zealous plugin, and switched to one that I hope will be better. So if you’ve been unable to comment in the past, please give it a try again – you should be able to comment now.

As always, you can send me email via the contact page if you’ve got any problems with the site, or just want to send me a note.

Icelandic drinking horn changes our historic understanding of St. Olav

From Science Daily: Icelandic drinking horn changes our historic understanding of St. Olav.

After the Reformation, Norway’s Olav Haraldsson was no longer supposed to be worshipped as a saint. An Icelandic drinking horn offers some clues on how the saint’s status changed over time.

Drinking horns were considered valuable objects, and were imbued with great symbolic value in the Middle Ages. Among other things, it was said that these kinds of horns came from the foot or claw of the fabled griffin. Drinking horns often had names, and were status symbols and collector’s items. Some were stolen and many ended up in princely cabinets.

“Mediaeval drinking horns are scattered in collections throughout northern Europe. They were coveted collectibles. Mediaeval art often remained in churches until it went out of fashion or was removed due to errors in iconography, whereas drinking horns ended up in princely collections and cabinets and have kept their status to the present day,” says Associate Professor Margrethe Stang, from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology’s (NTNU) Department of Art and Media Studies. [continue]

Deadly spider venom could ward off stroke brain damage

This could be hugely helpful. From the Guardian: Deadly spider venom could ward off stroke brain damage, say doctors.

Doctors have stumbled on an unlikely source for a drug to ward off brain damage caused by strokes: the venom of one of the deadliest spiders in the world.

A bite from an Australian funnel web spider can kill a human in 15 minutes, but a harmless ingredient found in the venom can protect brain cells from being destroyed by a stroke, even when given hours after the event, scientists say.

If the compound fares well in human trials, it could become the first drug that doctors have to protect against the devastating loss of neurons that strokes can cause. [continue]

Thanks to Khurram Wadee for posting a link to this article on Diaspora. That’s how I found it.

She stutters, but hardly anyone knows it

From Science Nordic: She stutters, but hardly anyone knows it.

Berit Løkken belongs to a category of stutterers that many have never heard of, so-called covert stutterers. They are also a rather ignored factor in medical and psycho-social science.

She learned at early age to instantly come up with alternative words as she was formulating her sentences, realising that an intended word would likely be stuttered.

So her stuttering problem is hidden from those who don’t know her well.

This tactic generally works pretty well. But it requires a lot of energy. At times she gets really tired of all the premonitions that come and the constant need to omit a word and substitute it with another. [continue]

I bet she has a fantastic vocabulary.

Have you ever read David Sedaris’ account of his time with a speech therapist when he was a child? It’s wonderful. David had a lisp, and he used the same avoidance technique that Berit came up with.

Here’s an excerpt from chapter one of David’s book, Me Talk Pretty One Day, which appears on the New York Times site:

Miss Samson instructed me, when forming an s, to position the tip of my tongue against the rear of my top teeth, right up against the gum line. The effect produced a sound not unlike that of a tire releasing air. It was awkward and strange-sounding, and elicited much more attention than the original lisp. I failed to see the hissy s as a solution to the problem and continued to talk normally, at least at home, where my lazy tongue fell upon equally lazy ears. At school, where every teacher was a potential spy, I tried to avoid an s sound whenever possible. “Yes,” became “correct,” or a military “affirmative.” “Please,” became “with your kind permission,” and questions were pleaded rather than asked. After a few weeks of what she called “endless pestering” and what I called “repeated badgering,” my mother bought me a pocket thesaurus, which provided me with s-free alternatives to just about everything. I consulted the book both at home in my room and at the daily learning academy other people called our school. Agent Samson was not amused when I began referring to her as an articulation coach, but the majority of my teachers were delighted. “What a nice vocabulary,” they said. “My goodness, such big words!”

Plurals presented a considerable problem, but I worked around them as best I could; “rivers,” for example, became either “a river or two” or “many a river.” Possessives were a similar headache, and it was easier to say nothing than to announce that the left-hand and the right-hand glove of Janet had fallen to the floor. After all the compliments I had received on my improved vocabulary, it seemed prudent to lie low and keep my mouth shut. I didn’t want anyone thinking I was trying to be a pet of the teacher. [continue]

Secrets from smart devices find path to US legal system

From phys.org: Secrets from smart devices find path to US legal system.

An Ohio man claimed he was forced into a hasty window escape when his house caught fire last year. His pacemaker data obtained by police showed otherwise, and he was charged with arson and insurance fraud.

In Pennsylvania, authorities dismissed rape charges after data from a woman’s Fitbit contradicted her version of her whereabouts during the 2015 alleged assault.

Vast amounts of data collected from our connected devices—fitness bands, smart refrigerators, thermostats and automobiles, among others—are increasingly being used in US legal proceedings to prove or disprove claims by people involved.

In a recent case that made headlines, authorities in Arkansas sought, and eventually obtained, data from a murder suspect’s Amazon Echo speaker to obtain evidence.

The US Federal Trade Commission in February fined television maker Vizio for secretly gathering data on viewers collected from its smart TVs and selling the information to marketers.

The maker of the smartphone-connected sex toy We-Vibe meanwhile agreed in March to a court settlement of a class-action suit from buyers who claimed “highly intimate and sensitive data” was uploaded to the cloud without permission—and shown last year to be vulnerable to hackers. [continue]

How does this make you feel about the electronic devices in your life?

Boston public schools map switch aims to amend 500 years of distortion

A Guardian article tells us that Boston public schools are switching maps. Instead of using the Mercator projection maps most of us are used to, Boston will now be using Peters projection maps. The article begins:

When Boston public schools introduced a new standard map of the world this week, some young students felt their jaws drop. In an instant, their view of the world had changed.

The USA was small. Europe too had suddenly shrunk. Africa and South America appeared narrower but also much larger than usual. And what had happened to Alaska? [continue]

Maggie won the Global Teacher Prize!

In the Exaltation of Links post yesterday, I noted the CBC story about Maggie MacDonnell, who was nominated for the Global Teacher Prize. (And that comes with a whack of money.) Maggie teaches in Salluit, in a remote community in northern Quebec.

And now Maggie has won! Here is a blog post about Maggie from GlobalTeacherPrize.org, and here’s a page that includes a touching video about Maggie’s contributions to her community.

They rested their heads on Pulu mattresses in the BC Gold Rush

From the BC Gold Rush Press: They rested their heads on Pulu mattresses in the BC Gold Rush.

How did gold rush miners get a good night’s rest? If they were lucky, a roadhouse or inn had beds with Pulu mattresses.

The early roadhouses had either cots or if they had ‘mattresses’, they were stuffed with straw or dried moss and sometimes feathers or curled hair. These were expensive to import because of the tariffs.

An entrepreneur got the idea that Pulu would make a great substitute because there was no import levy on it and also it was soft and cheap. Pulu was from a tree fern known as the hapu’u pulu in Hawaii. The young fronds (fiddleheads) of these tree ferns are covered with a bronze-coloured silky floss called “pulu”. Ancient Hawaiians had long used pulu.

From the late 1850s to the 1880s over 4 million pounds of pulu were shipped in bales, to be used primarily for stuffing mattresses, pillows, and upholstery. Fortunately, this stopped when people realized that [continue]

I went off to see what pulu fronds look like, and found this image at Wikimedia Commons. (Click on the image if you’d like to see a larger version. Oh, and thanks to photographer Tom Burke for sharing it under a Creative Commons license.)

Instant Hawaii has more photos, and a bit more information about this tree. They note:

As the young shoots uncurl they have a fine golden hair that is very soft, almost like velvet. This hair is called pulu and it was collected in the 1800’s and used commercially as stuffing for pillows and mattresses. The remnants of an old pulu factory can still be seen on the Napau Crater trail in the Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park.

Well, that was fun to learn about. What’s in your mattress? Probably a bunch of synthetic stuff that’s been treated with fire retardants and other chemicals, unless you’ve gone out of your way to find an alternative. If you happen to be looking for an alternative mattress filling now, I think you can strike pulu off your list!

The surprising things algorithms can glean about you from photos

This is an article I’ll be sharing with all my friends, because it’s important for us to understand the consequences one single photo can have.

Even if you do not tag the people in an image, photo recognition systems can do so. Facebook’s DeepFace algorithm can match a face to one that has appeared in previously uploaded images, including photos taken in dramatically different lighting and from dramatically different points of view. Using identified profile photos and tagged photos and social-graph relationships, a very probable name can be attached to the face. (…)

A person pounding the pavement of a city street can be identified and tracked block-to-block by the unique characteristics of her gait. (…)

Taking a photo or video in public isn’t illegal, nor is taking one with a person’s permission. It’s also not illegal to upload the file or store it in the cloud. Applying optical character recognition, facial recognition, or a super-resolution algorithm isn’t illegal, either. There’s simply no place for us to hide anymore. [continue]

That’s from Andreas Weigend’s article, The Surprising Things Algorithms Can Glean About You From Photos, published on Slate. I think you’ll want to read the whole thing.

A note at the bottom of the Slate article says, in part, “Andreas Weigend is the author of Data for the People: How to Make Our Post-Privacy Economy Work for You.” I am grateful for this Slate article – it has super information and will be a handy thing for me to send to friends and post on a certain bulletin board. So I’ve just bought Andreas’ book, as a way to thank him.

Oh, and about laws regarding the taking of photos: we had a house guest from the Netherlands a while ago. He said it’s illegal in the Netherlands to take photos of people without their permission. Really? That’s a great idea. I wish we had a similar law here.

Are any of you saying no when others want to photograph you?

Ornamental hermits

Later, a fad for hermits swept 18th-century England. It was believed that hermits radiated kindness and thoughtfulness, so advertisements were placed in newspapers for “ornamental hermits” who were lax in grooming and willing to sleep in caves on the country estates of the aristocracy. The job paid well and hundreds were hired, typically on seven-year contracts. Some of the hermits would even emerge at dinner parties and greet guests.

Where do I sign up for that? Live in a cave on a good salary, and attend dinner parties? Now that I could do. I’d have to dress down, though.

The quoted text above is from an article about a modern-day hermit: Into the woods: how one man survived alone in the wilderness for 27 years. I enjoyed the article for several of reasons – who can resist the tale of a fellow who escapes modern civilization? – but it’s the comment about ornamental hermits that has my imagination reeling.

And this ornamental hermit thing really did exist! A page at the University of Leicester site, Ornamental hermits: an 18th century ‘must-have’, notes this:

Hermits were often hired for seven years, required to refrain from cutting their hair or washing and had to live austerely. They could receive up to £600 in return, enough to never work again.

Enough to never work again. Enough to never work again. Enough to never work again. Not a bad deal, really, if the dinner parties are good.

Oh and there’s a book on the topic, too: The Hermit in the Garden: From Imperial Rome to Ornamental Gnome. It was written by Gordon Campbell of the University of Leicester, which is why the university has the hermity page I mentioned above.

The future of the open internet

Now this, this is good information in a well-written article that will tell you a bunch of stuff you’ll wish you’d known all along. And see if the historical parallels don’t make you sit up and take notice! Here is Quincy Larson’s article: The future of the open internet — and our way of life — is in your hands.

…corporations want to lock down the internet and give us access to nothing more than a few walled gardens. They want to burn down the Library of Alexandria and replace it with a magazine rack.

Why? Because they’ll make more money that way. (…)

By the end of this article, you’ll understand what’s happening, the market forces that are driving this, and how you can help stop it. We’ll talk about the brazen monopolies who maneuver to lock down the internet, the scrappy idealists who fight to keep it open, and the vast majority of people who are completely oblivious to this battle for the future. [continue]

Thanks to Georgiy Treyvus for posting a link to this article on the Diaspora social network, which is where I spotted it.

Tiny bird’s poo has tremendous impact on Greenland’s nature

Isn’t it amazing the way one animal can modify an entire ecosystem? Here’s another example of that: Tiny bird’s poo has tremendous impact on Greenland’s nature.

The little auk is by any measure a tiny bird. At just 160 grams, which is about one third the weight of a pigeon, yet, it has as a surprisingly big influence on the landscape near Thule in Northwest Greenland.

It turns out that many larger animals like musk ox, geese, reindeer, foxes, hares, and many more have much to thank the little bird for: auk poop provides nutrients for grass and flowers. However, it also makes the nearby lakes and waterways so acidic that almost nothing can survive there besides algae.

“The auk literally transforms the landscape,” says co-author Thomas Alexander Davidson from the Department of Bioscience and The Arctic Research Centre at Aarhus University, Denmark. [continue]

An exaltation of links!

I’ve come across dozens of interesting things to share with you lately, but I’ve also been quite short of time. So here are a whole bunch of things I think you’ll like, all at once, for your weekend reading pleasure.

I’ve thought of doing this for a while now: occasional posts full of linky goodness. But a pleasing name for such postings failed to suggest itself to me, and so I was thwarted. This morning, though, the name arrived in my brain. This is An Exaltation of Links. Because why should the larks have all the fun?

Continue reading

More on the dangers of facial recognition software

This facial recognition stuff gets more chilling at every turn. Did you see this article from the Guardian a few days ago? SXSW panel opens window into dangers of facial recognition software .

He said that his facial recognition system is now so good at recognising races, a challenge in the past, that it can be used as a genealogy tool. “It’s coming back with the percentages of race the person is,” he said, mentioning someone who came up 12% Asian despite looking Caucasian. “Oh, I have a Chinese grandmother,” she said, according to Brackeen.

Brackeen said Kairos has been pushing for regulation, and that although he believes Karios’ conduct is responsible, he could not say the same for some competitors. He mentioned FindFace, for example, the Russian company which made an app that could analyze images of people and match it to their social media accounts.

The app was supposed to be for finding friends, but members of online messaging board Dvach started using it to expose identities, harass porn actors and spam their families with the news of their discovery. [continue]

So here’s how it’s going. You’ll be out having a coffee at the neighbourhood cafe, and anybody with a camera will be able to take your photo, submit it to a facial recognition database, and find out more about who you are. What’s your name? Who’s your mamma? Where did your ancestors come from? And more.

Are you ok with that?

Are maple tree seedlings edible?

Maple tree seedlings appear all at once here, it seems, through vast swaths of the forest. Usually I spot them on February 11th (a friend’s birthday, so easy to remember) but this year they’re over a month late. At any rate, they’re everywhere now. And they look so much like the sprouts I grow in my kitchen that I wonder if I can add baby maple trees to my salads.

Nancy J Turner’s Food Plants of Coastal First Peoples says this about aboriginal use of Broad-leaved Maple:

Broad-leaved Maple was not widely used as food, but the Saanich and Cowichan placed the leaves in steaming pits to flavour meat, and according to Barnett (1955), the Vancouver Island Salish ate the fresh cambium in small quantities, although “it made one thin to eat too much”. The cambium was constipating, so was eaten with oil. It was also occasionally dried in criss-cross stips for winter. The Nlaka’pamux people at Spuzzum, near Yale in the Fraser Canyon, and possibly also the Upper Sto:lo peeled and ate young maple shoots raw, and also boiled and ate the sprouts when they were about 3 cm tall.

So! That sounds promising, yes?

I wonder if Susannah of Wanderin’ Weeta has eaten maple seedlings. She’s not too far from me, and notices lots of details in the forest. The photos she publishes are so often like the ones I have just taken!

Guaranteed basic income on verge of take-off in Canada

From The Tyee: Guaranteed Basic Income on Verge of Take-off in Canada.

Guy Caron is not a household name in Canadian politics. Yet.

Caron kicked off his campaign for the New Democratic Party leadership this week with a policy proposal that’s becoming the subject of a lot of political chatter in Canada and beyond: a guaranteed basic income.

The idea could well become the sleeper issue in Canadian politics in 2017 — not just in the NDP but across the political spectrum, drawing in non-partisan advocates as well. [continue]

Renting a dog?

Bloomberg’s article, I’m Renting a Dog? explains how you can buy a dog at a pet store, and then find out that you’re on the hook for a whole lot more money than you’d dreamed, because you’ve actually agreed to lease a dog. What an insane world! This is why it’s important to read every contract you sign, kids. Sigh.

The fake British radio show that helped defeat the Nazis

You’ll enjoy this Smithsonian Magazine article, I think: The Fake British Radio Show That Helped Defeat the Nazis. Summary:

By spreading fake news and sensational rumors, intelligence officials leveraged “psychological judo” against the Nazis in World War II.

See? It’s just what you want to read while you sip your coffee.

Do we need predators to prevent Lyme disease?

From the New York Times: A Natural Cure for Lyme Disease.

If humans have inadvertently increased the chances of contracting Lyme disease, the good news is that there’s a potential fix: allow large predators, particularly wolves and cougars, to return.

They would help keep down the number of deer, which, although they don’t carry the Lyme-causing bacterium, probably encourage its transmission. [continue]

If you missed it a couple of weeks ago, take a detour over to the how wolves change rivers thing I pointed out. The four-minute video is stunning.

(Link to the NTY article found here at Microfishing.)

Genetic testing, privacy, and the law

If you have your DNA tested for genetic concerns, should the results be private? Or should you be forced to share that information with insurance companies and your employer? That issue is in the news this week. The USA moved in one direction (Guess what they decided – I know you can!) and Canada did the opposite.

Here’s what the US is doing:

And in Canada:

Over the objection of their own government, dozens of Liberal backbenchers voted Wednesday night in favour of a bill banning genetic discrimination.

In voting for what is known as Bill S-201, the backbench Liberals, along with all Conservative, NDP and Green Party MPs made it a crime for, among other things, insurance companies to demand potential customers provide a DNA test in order to get a policy. Additionally, no company will be able to deny someone a job if they fail to have their genes tested.

Protection from discrimination because of an individual’s genetic makeup will now be written into the Canadian Labour Code and the Canadian Human Rights Act. [continue]

That’s from the National Post article, Liberal backbenchers vote against Trudeau, pass law banning genetic discrimination.

Thank you, Canadian MPs.