Wednesday, September 22, 2010

An Interesting Equid

This is what an albino zebra looks like (click to embiggen):

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Something Interesting About Earthquakes

Alternative title: Journalism, the Interesting way!

At 4:30 this morning there was an earthquake in Christchurch - a pretty big one (7.1 or 7.0, depending on whether you trust the New Zealand Herald or Wikinews more). While I in no way wish to trivialise something that probably gave a lot of people a really bad day*, I managed to find something interesting in the photos taken by Dr. Mark Quigley, a lecturer in the Department of Geological Sciences at the University of Canterbury, and, in my opinion, a really cool guy if he actually goes by the name "Dr. Quigs". All the photos that follow are of today's quake, and credit for them goes to Dr. Quigs.

When I picture the effects of a large earthquake, two things come to mind:

1) Damage to buildings/structures, or damage caused by pieces of the aforementioned falling off.

2) Great big cracks in the ground.

I imagine I'm like most people in this regard. But one thing that one doesn't necessarily expect from an earthquake is mounds of sand and dirt pushed up by the force of the quake.

"I didn't know earthquakes could do that!"

"Well, there's a lot you don't know about earthquakes."

The Avon river burst its banks in places.

Mud, mud, everywhere, really.

According to the bio on his website, Dr. Quigs enjoys "swims in Arctic lakes, tundra golf, and staring contests with muskox and caribou." The only way he could be more badass is if it turned out that he caused the earthquake with his lecturer powers and was actually a supervillain called something like "Dr. Quake". But only a little bit more badass.

*Okay, maybe I do enjoy trivialising it just a little. But hey, I'm not the only person having a bit of fun.

UPDATE: Also, quicksand!

Monday, July 19, 2010

An Interesting Fact

The sweat glands on the palms of human hands are only triggered by nervousness.

Not by heat, or physical exertion or anything else.

So sweaty palms on someone are a very clear signal that there is something on their mind.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Putting a ridiculous amount of extra blankets on your bed in winter

Pro: It makes your bed really, REALLY warm, thus enveloping you in a cocoon of comfort and serenity.

Con: It makes your bed really, REALLY warm, thus making it REALLY difficult to get out of bed in the morning.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Something Interesting About Fish

Something to remember when fishing - if you land a fish that's undersized, or you're a catch-and-release fisher:

If a hook is deeply embedded, cut the line. Fish have strong digestive acids that will dissolve metal. Studies have shown fish released in this manner have a higher survival than fish which have the hooks torn from their throats or stomach.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Some Interesting Fingers

Hey, there's something wrong with that hand...

It has no thumb!

What's that you say? There's too many fingers? Oh yeah, well that too. That's probably from some form of polydactyly.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Well that's a little strange.

This is what Youtube presented me with when I tried to get a video the other day:

500 Internal Server Error

Sorry, something went wrong.

A team of highly trained monkeys has been dispatched to deal with this situation.

Also, please include the following information in your error report:Dtc7IAKAtp6wFmmIjDs3aZvDB1PozjVVV1C3Nn0ZZVc7F8NCfygAfMAC_Hpi

I appreciate it not for the long string of unintelligible letters and numbers, but for the comment about highly trained monkeys. I wonder how their tech support staff feel about being referred to in this way.

Actually, it was probably their idea.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Trees can be rebels too

Stickin' it to the man, yo. Well, to the humans at least. Steel means nothing to to the inexorable expansion of the lateral meristem! This photo doesn't show the whole tree, so you can't see that it's a cabbage tree. It's one of a few of them growing in these cage things on Wakefield street, but it's the only one making an escape attempt.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

You Don't Mess With The Orca

As a recreational writer with the occasional journalistic tendency (that is, I blog every now and then), I am often bothered by the way news is reported, whether in written form or on the six o'clock bulletin. In my opinion, the two biggest errors in journalism are over-sensationalisation of stories, and misleading headlines. Especially when the two are combined, usually with scientifically inaccurate statements and illogical assumptiosn from misunderstood statistical data. That's what really irks me. But anyway. I found an example of this on Thursday in the following article:

When I saw that headline, I was quite surprised. The accepted models of cetacean behaviour usually dictate that orca (Orcinus orca) prey on whales, not the other way around. The term "killer whale" for orca actually came from the name "whale killer", which arose from the fact that they... kill whales.  Groups of orca can take down blue whales, the world's largest animals, by working as a team and ripping out their tongues. There's not a lot that can stand up to an orca. Seals, sharks and dolphins are all fair game for them.

So I wondered what sort of whale would "make a meal" of an orca. I clicked the link to find out and was dissapointed by the opening sentence/paragraph:

"A boatload of tourists got to witness nature at its most brutal when a killer whale flicked a pseudo orca high into the air, broke its back and ate both it and its calf in the Bay of Islands yesterday."

Now, that headline said that a whale killed an orca.

No it didn't!

An orca killed a whale!

That's an important distinction!

Pseudo orca (Pseudorca crassidens, or false killer whales) are fairly average-looking porpoise-like critters, smaller than orca but bigger than dolphins. Sort of black in colour. Like real orca, they're members of the dolphin family (Delphinidae). No matter what you define a "whale" as, orca and pseudo orca have the same degree of whaleness. You can't refer to pseudo orca as "orca" if there are real orca in the same situation! That's like telling a story about a sea lion being attacked by a real lion, and saying that "a cat attacked a lion. Although lions are cats, sea lions are not lions, and pseudo orca are not orca.

The moral of the story is that I really, really dislike inaccurate, misleading or ambiguous reporting of facts. Not just in journalism. People do it all the time. My request to those of you that do: stop it.

There's one more lesson to be taken away from this though, and that is that orca (Orcinus orca) are quite good at killing stuff. Don't try to pick a fight with one.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010


On Sunday night - the wee hours of Monday morning in fact (12:09:25am, 12/04/2010) -  I received the following text from Vodafone:


After typing that, I just realised the significance - it's the first five keys of the bottom row of a "qwerty" keyboard. But anyway.

I was quite puzzled by that text. I got it immediately after sending a text to a friend who it was costing me money to text, and, with a low prepaid balance and fearing that this was an alternative to Vodafone's traditional "Sorry, you do not have enough credit to send this message" response, I checked my balance. But I still had enough money to send texts. So I showed the text to my friends and we laughed about it, trying to pronounce the word in an urgent manner. Zxcvb! ZXCVB!

But then just after lunchtime on Monday (12:54:36pm, 12/04/2010), I got another text from Vodafone:

Due to a system error you were sent a VF TXT on 12April10 that said 'ZXCVB'. Please ignore this message. Our apologies for any inconvenience caused.

Well Vodafone, I refuse to ignore that message. It amuses me too much to do so. But rest assured that no inconvenience was caused at all - in fact, it was a source of much entertainment.

I found out later that one of my other friends also received this puzzling sequence of messages from Vodafone. What a mystery.

Friday, March 19, 2010

The Hitchhiker's Guide to Critical Thinking

My Philosophy 105 Coursebook has the words DON'T PANIC in large, friendly letters on the cover.

Also, as a bonus for the extra-geeky among you who will pick up on the reference, here's the workbook:

Monday, February 15, 2010

Donut Love

Yesterday (Sunday the 14th of February), Mum was moving frozen donuts from the baking trays on which they had been freezing, into plastic bags to be returned to the freezer and restore the usefulness of the baking trays for their intended purpose - that is, baking.

She asked me if I wanted her to leave out a donut for me, to which I responded enthusiastically and affirmatively. I pointed to one, and she returned to the laundry to put the other donuts back in the freezer, leaving my chosen donut on the baking tray. While she was out of the room, I noticed something about the donut...

"Hey Mum?"


"Did you do this?"

"Do what?"


"No. Did you?"

"No. Didn't you?"


Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Something Interesting About The Kilogram

You may or may not have heard, but there is an object in this world which is "the kilogram".

"Nonsense", you may say. "A kilogram is the weight of a litre of water".

"Nay", I reply, "The kilogram is a cylinder with a height and diameter of 39.17 millimetres, made of a platinum and iridium alloy (90% platinum to 10% iridium), known as the International Prototype Kilogram, which is stored in an environmentally monited safe in the lower vault of the basement of the International Bureau of Weights and Measures's House of Breteuil in Sèvres on the outskirts of Paris, with six sister copies. The vault can only be opened by three independently controlled keys (much like the urban legends concerning the formula for Coca-Cola)."

"Cor blimey!" you might reply, with a stunned expression.

"That's not all!" I respond with a grin. "The modern IPK is not the original kilogram - the original "kilogram", or the Kilogram of the Archives, was a cylinder made of solid platinum - but the IPK's mass has been found to be indestinguishable from that of the Kilogram of the Archives - which was made ninety years earlier."

"Wow. That's impressive."

"That's SCIENCE!"

Something Interesting About Holding Your Breath

Have you ever noticed that when you swim underwater, you can hold your breath for much longer than if you were just sitting above water not breathing?

This is because of a physiological response known as the mammalian diving reflex. When cold water (lower than 21 degrees Celsius) touches your face, changes happen in your body that allow you to hold your breath for longer. Let me just break from my professional tone for a moment:


The human body never ceases to amaze me.

(Warning - jargony biology-talk ahead)

I particularly like this because it supports the idea that humans retain features that are adaptations to an aquatic lifestyle, whether from the primordial soup that all life on earth evolved from, or whether humans as we know them - bipedal apes - once lived in a soggy environment that selected for features such as our down-turned nostrils and the webbed fingers and toes that some people still retain (I have heard of people being born with non-functional gills below the skin of their necks too, but this is probably related to the primordial-soup origins). Some biologists argue this aquatic origin theory passionately, saying that our long, muscular legs first evolved for swimming, and became useful for running later, after our wet habitat dried out, an idea I quite like on the basis of whimsy but one that I have not yet committed to in terms of scientific belief.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Dangerous Animals in Boxes

My friend Andi has, among a varied and interesting list of interests, a penchant for wild food and unusual pets. My other friend Alex - although there are far more interesting things about him than this - makes beehives for a living. So when Andi and Alex met, they got talking about bees. I was sort of half-listening to the talk of bees, until Alex said something along the lines of:

To get yourself some bees, find a swarm in a tree and take a cardboard box. Bang on the tree so that the queen falls into the box, and the other bees will follow her in. Then close the box. And then you've got a swarm in a box.

I was very entertained by the prospect of a SWARM OF BEES in a CARDBOARD BOX - much to the confusion of Andi and Alex I suspect - and what immediately sprang to mind was a trebuchet. Dead cows used to be flung over the walls of castles and cities under siege to spread disease and lower moral - flinging a box of bees would do much the same thing! (why a trebuchet, you ask? It's a cool word, and they're more accurate than catapults. My brother calls them trench buckets). Even if one didn't have a trebuchet, a box of bees would still be a deadly weapon. If it were a particularly flimsy or simply damp cardboard box, one could simply throw it at an opponent and run like mad.

All of which brought me to thinking... what other animals would be equally dangerous when packaged in cardboard? Here's an example of one from xkcd:

Bobcat in a box. Beautiful in its simplicity. Although the cat shown above has a long tail, and not the "bobtail" of a bobcat. Perhaps the buyer mistook a simple housecat, infuriated by containment in a cardboard box, for a bobcat by its wrath? Housecats in boxes can be very dangerous indeed.


Has anyone else read this?
My cat certainly likes to hide in boxes.

So dangerous animals in boxes. We have already established bees, bobcats and housecats. What else?

  • Anything feline at all. We're not limited to bobcats and housecats. Think servals* and caracals, tigers and snow leopards. As long as the box is big enough. There's a pretty big box in my bedroom  (I don't know what it's from, but I use it as a bedside table) that would fit a clouded leopard. I'm not sure what sort of box you could get a Barbary Lion or Siberian Tiger into. Maybe the ones that fridges come in? Remember - the smaller the box, the more pissed-off the cat! (please read disclaimer regarding comments like this one).

  • Moray eels. Moray eels are dangerous anyway, and putting one in a cardboard box would make it angry - not a good combination with the moray eel's teeth, which are long and sharp and angled inwards (thanks for the biology lesson, Thomas Harris!). Once a moray eel bites you, there is no getting it off.

  • Wasps. Even more dangerous than bees, as wasps can sting multiple times, making a swarm of wasps more dangerous than a swarm of bees of an equal size.

  • Wolverines. Well, the name just says it all.

  • Waterfowl. Ducks aren't so bad, but geese and swans? They will bite you. Their beaks are not so sharp as those of the cockatoo, but they are hard and give you bruises and are on the ends of long necks that can seemingly extend to get you just when you think you're out of reach.

  • Box jellyfish. They're called box because they're box-shaped... just the right shape to hide in a box and then leap out and kill you! Seriously, even without boxes they kill people. I always wondered why they didn't have a more deadly name - now I know. Boxes are deadly.

  • Spitting cobras. Duh.

  • Eeeeeeeeeeeeeagles.
I am starting to run out of ideas, however I am sure the list does not end there. Feel free to add to it!

Disclaimer: However much I may be amused by the thought of flinging an animal in a box at someone using a trebuchet (or any other means), it is only the idea I find entertaining and the reality would be sick, twisted and cruel. I do not advocate cruelty of any sort towards any living thing, and do not recommend that anyone attempt to force any animal into a cardboard box against its will. Any outlandish claims in this blog are for the purposes of humour and do not reflect my own beliefs (unless I state otherwise).

*The late Sam, the serval formerly of Franklin Zoo was the only serval I ever met, but he was a grumpy critter. May he rest in peace.

Hey, where did summer come from?

So all of a sudden it's summer now! The sun is shining. The trees are green. The grass is brown. The sheep haven't started dying yet (touch wood). There's a long wooden deck along the front of our house that the living room and all the bedrooms open out onto. We use this deck as a thoroughfare between different parts of the house, as it's more direct than the hallway inside. However, the shady part of the deck is now filled with deck furniture that shouldn't be left in the sun (because the fabric parts will fade and the wood and metal parts will become too hot to sit on). So we have to walk along the sunny part of the deck, which is actually too hot to walk on in bare feet - jandals must be worn. Stepping outside feels like walking through water, the air is so hot and thick.

We've got this temperature doodad - I think Dad bought it on a whim or something - that shows indoor and outdoor temperature. The outdoor temperature is measured by a little plastic doodad that sends it to the bigger plastic doodad inside. Here's the little plastic doodad sitting on the edge of our big wooden table in the sun, where I put it this morning:

Yes, that is a lazy susan in the middle of the table.

So I put it there and left it for a while. And when eventually I looked at the big plastic doodad inside, this is what it said:

That at the top - 13:25 - was the time (1:25 pm). In the middle is the indoor temperature - 23.6 degrees Celsisus. And at the bottom next to my thumb, it says 45.7 degrees Celsius.


That's 114.26 Fahrenheit. I hypothesise that the actual outdoor air temperature in rural southern Auckland is not actually 45.7 degrees, but that the little plastic doodad is measuring the temperature of the hot wooden table, which has been in the sun for a looooong time. Right now, the big plastic doodad says that the time is 2pm, the indoor temperature is 24.1 degrees and the table outside is 45.1. It's gone down, but still! 45.1!

And this is the sort of weather that makes my parents come inside and say "It's a beautiful day! Why aren't you outside?" I love lying in the sun and reading as much as anyone else, but I'd rather not get second-degree burns from the deck furniture. It's a shame. My brother took me to the library and I've got some thrilling books to read - foremost among them The Philosopher at the end of the Universe and The Medici Giraffe.