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Puppy paws on the walls: ancient house featured unusual decorations

Archaeologists excavating the ancient city of Sardis found a 1,500 year-old-house in fantastic shape. Not only is the house excellently preserved, but its tiles were decorated with puppy prints and chicken decorations.

The archaeologists discovered a dog paw print on one of the house’s terracotta floor tiles. Image credit: Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College.

It’s not as well-known as the likes of Athens or Rome, but in its heyday, the ancient city of Sardis would have rivalled them. During the Iron Age, Sardis was the capital of the ancient Lydian Empire in today’s Turkey. The city flourished for centuries, from the time of Alexander the Great and well into the Roman period, leaving behind numerous structures and artefacts that researchers have been excavating for decades.

Among these treasures, archaeologists also found a house which appeared to belong to military people — or at least, associated somehow with the military. The association is given away by five longswords found in the house — quite a lot, when you consider that only three other swords had ever been discovered at Sardis. The swords are Roman “spathae,” a type of longsword. In addition, the team also uncovered buckles and a lead seal, said Vanessa Rousseau, an adjunct professor of art history at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, during the joint annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America and the Society for Classical Studies.

As remarkable as they may be, something else is the star of the show: a group of floor and wall paintings and designs… of sorts. The tiles preserve paw prints of puppies, and even one hoof print of a goat. It’s not clear if this was an intentional design or not, but probably not: most likely, the animals walked on the tiles as they were drying up before being placed into the oven. The walls also feature paintings on plaster, mimicking curtains or drapes. Perhaps the most unusual find is a set of tiles with bird drawings. The marks are definitely intentional, and would have also been done prior to the tiles being fired.

The bird drawing. Image credit: Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College.

The house was in use for some 200 years, before an earthquake destroyed it sometime in the seventh century.

Like many cities of this region, Sardis fell into decline in the sixth and early seventh centuries AD, and much of the city was abandoned (especially the lower part). However, the acropolis was described by the Greek historian Polybius as the “strongest place in the world”, and it remained an important stronghold throughout the Byzantine period.

A part of Sardis. Image credit: Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College.

The people of Sardis invented the world’s first coins, and throughout much of Antiquity, they were renowned among Greek kings for their wealth. They had thriving treaties with the civilizations of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Greece.

The invisible border that keeps vultures in Spain, not Portugal

If you’re a vulture soaring in the sky, flying 3-400 kilometers a day in search of carrion, the odds are you don’t give much of a damn about human borders. Yet somehow, vultures seem to love western Spain and usually stay well clear of Portugal. The reason for this, researchers found, is owed to a policy on carcasses.

Locations recorded near the Spanish-Portugal border of GPS-tracked a) griffon vultures and b) cinereous vultures. Image credits: Arrondo et al.

A political border becomes an ecological border

Human borders don’t really follow environmental barriers. Sure, some borders follow rivers or mountainous massifs, but socio-economic factors typically define political borders, not geography. Yet, through policy, political national limits can also become environmental limits.

“Wildlife, especially highly mobile organisms, may encounter different degrees of human impact, disparate conservation regulations, and contrasting environmental policies within otherwise homogeneous ecological regions,” note the authors of a study that analyzed vulture mobility in the Iberian peninsula.

The researchers, led by Eneko Arrondo of Doñana Biological Station, equipped 60 griffon vultures (Gyps fulvus) and 11 cinereous vultures (Aegypius monachus) with GPS trackers. They found that while the vultures traveled extensively around Spain, they rarely ventured into Portugal. In fact, you can almost tell where the borders are by GPS tracking alone.

The griffon vulture. Image credits: Stefan Krause, Wikipedia.

The reason for this is a different policy on cattle carcasses. In 2001, the European Union wanted to curb mad cow disease, so they published a directive that mandated the immediate burial or incineration of cattle found dead in the fields. Spain and Portugal (home to 90% of Europe’s carrion population) both implemented it.

But after a few years, Spain abandoned the directive, while Portugal kept it enforced. As a result, Spain now has a lot more cow carcasses than Portugal.

If you’re a vulture, you probably don’t understand much of human politics, but you do understand that more carcasses means more food for you, and that’s where you’d rather spend most of your time.

Locations within a 50 km band on each side of the Spain-Portugal border for c) griffon vultures (red: Guadalquivir valley population; blue: Ebro valley population) and d)
cinereous vultures.

The carcass law is starving the vultures. Conservationists have raised the alarm before. Speaking to El Pais, Arrondo calls the measure “drastic” and “bureaucratic”. It’s a paradox of different policies, and vultures are paying the price.

“Our results should be seen as a warning signal to policymakers and conservation managers, highlighting the need for a stronger integration of sanitary and environmental policies at the European level.”

Unsurprisingly, vulture numbers in Portugal have plummeted. Meanwhile, on the other side of the border, the short-lived ban has also taken its toll. Near-starvation has led vultures to become more aggressive, sometimes even turning to live prey.

Among birds, vultures are one of the most threatened groups, exhibiting sharp population declines, particularly due to human activity. A separate study (also led by Eneko) showed that landscape anthropization can influence vulture populations: the main things that kill Iberian vultures are vehicles, electrocution, poisoning, and wind turbines.

“We always tell the joke that we don’t know any vulture that has died of old age,” says biologist Eneko Arrondo for El Pais.

Another problem vultures have to deal with is drugs — specifically, diclofenac, an anti-inflammatory drug used both in humans and in livestock. The drug causes kidney failure in birds and has already decimated vulture populations in Asian countries.

A portrait of Aegypius monachus, also known as Black Vulture taken at Bikaner, in Rajasthan, India. Image credits: Narasimhan.

A number of different transboundary initiatives have been implemented in Europe, not necessarily for vultures, but for other species. In fact, this is one of the main purposes of the European Union: to drive a high degree of integrated policy across different countries. But for now at least, the EU doesn’t seem to radiate too many directives on international conservation.

“Biodiversity management is usually implemented at the regional and national scale,” the study reads. “Even inside a relatively homogeneous political entity such as the European Union, where all members comply with the same directives, national variations in policy implementation may still jeopardize large scale conservation efforts. Thus, trans-boundary biodiversity conservation in Europe would largely benefit from supervision by the EU Commission of local applications of general regulations.”

Vultures provide important environmental services. They’re nature’s “clean-up crew“, providing nutrient recycling, removal of soil and water contaminants and reducing the spread of disease to other facultative scavengers such as foxes.

The longest known exposure photograph ever was captured using a beer can

It took duct tape, a 500ml cider can, and Ilford Multigrade photographic paper to construct the makeshift camera. The result may look blurry, but to the trained eye, the arced lines are not an accident: they represent trails of the sun as it rose and fell, going higher in the summer and lower in the winter; 2,953 of these trails, to be precise, because that’s the exposure time of the photo: 2,953 days.

Image Credits: University of Hertfordshire.

The image was taken by Regina Valkenborgh, who began capturing it towards the end of her MA Fine Art degree at the University of Hertfordshire in 2012. Valkenborgh was interested in capturing photos without the use of modern technology. She prefers beer or cider cans to soft drinks because they’re taller and create a better image. The can is used as a pinhole camera.

She trialed exposure periods of 6 months and one year, the latter turning much different from the former. But one particular setup, she forgot about. The equipment was laid in place in 2012 at the University of Hertfordshire’s Bayfordbury Observatory. and forgotten about. The makeshift camera apparently remained static until late 2020, when it was discovered by the Observatory’s Principal Technical officer, David Campbell. — a matter of pure luck, and ironically, contradicting what Valkenborgh intended for the image (which was to spin it around and look at different parts of the sky).

“It was a stroke of luck that the picture was left untouched, to be saved by David after all these years. I had tried this technique a couple of times at the Observatory before, but the photographs were often ruined by moisture and the photographic paper curled up. I hadn’t intended to capture an exposure for this length of time and to my surprise, it had survived. It could be one of, if not the, longest exposures in existence.”

Regina Valkenborgh pictured at the University of Hertfordshire’s Bayfordbury Observatory, where she placed the camera – the ‘solar can’ beer can she is holding – in a telescope in 2012. Image credits: University of Hertfordshire.

Long exposure photography is a technique that uses a long-duration shutter speed to sharply capture the stationary elements of images while blurring, smearing, or obscuring the moving elements. Usually though, this longer period means a few seconds or at most, a few hours.

Extreme long exposure photography has been carried out before, notably by German photographer Michael Wesely, whose work includes cameras with exposures of up to 34 months. But as far as we could find, Valkenborgh’s is the longest exposure photography ever taken — and it will be hard to break her record.

The basic idea of using a pinhole is straightforward, but you need to leave the camera undisturbed for the entire duration. A single perturbation could ruin a years-long exposure photography.

Valkenborgh now works as a photography technician at Barnet and Southgate College.

How to think like a genius with Richard Feynman

Richard Feynman in 1984 in Waltham, Massachusetts. Credit: Tamiko Thiel/Wikipedia.

American quantum physicist Richard Feynman was one of the world’s greatest thinkers. He’s famous for his Nobel Prize-winning work in unraveling quantum mechanics and for his work on the Manhattan Project where he helped design the first atomic bomb — but Feynman not only made his mark as a physics genius but also shined as an educator.

Feynman’s legendary Lectures on Physics are available for free on Caltech’s website, still relevant as ever. But rather than formal lectures, I’d rather focus on sharing some of Feynman’s wisdom — particularly his innovative but practical method for solving huge, challenging problems. Essentially, it’s a blueprint for thinking like a genius — from a genius.

Feynman was a rebel who refused conventional education and groupthink. In other words, he strived for originality and creativity, but never at the expense of accuracy. According to Marvin Minsky at MIT, “When Feynman faces a problem, he’s unusually good at going back to being like a child, ignoring what everyone else thinks… He was so unstuck — if something didn’t work, he’d look at it another way.”

It is thanks to such thinking that Feynman arrived at the counterintuitive results of the Columbia Space Shuttle disaster investigation, in which he had a leading role. Feynman quickly realized that NASA had a disconnect among its engineers and its managers, and he concluded that “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.”

But keeping a childlike curiosity is only part of the approach. In order to really think like a genius (the kind that is rewarded with a Nobel Prize for fundamental work in quantum electrodynamics) one needs to always have big problems at the back of their minds.

According to MIT professor Gian-Carlo Rota, who is a famous professor in his own right, Richard Feynman was fond of giving the following advice on ‘how to be a genius:’

“You have to keep a dozen of your favorite problems constantly present in your mind, although by and large they will lay in a dormant state. Every time you hear or read a new trick or a new result, test it against each of your 12 problems to see whether it helps. Every once in a while there will be a hit, and people will say: ‘How did he do it? He must be a genius!’,” Rota says.

This is very straightforward but extremely powerful advice. It shows that rather than needing a super high IQ, it is possible to tackle very difficult problems with some foresight and mental hacking. Spotting patterns on some abstract test might score you bragging rights, but ultimately it is the ability to solve problems and make the world a better place that is the mark of a real-life genius.

This minimalistic chart shows how hot 2020 and the past few years have really been

It’s easy to forget, in the current situation, that the world is still heating up severely. If the COVID-19 pandemic is a wave sweeping through the world, then climate change is a tsunami looming darkly on the horizon and already starting to strike. Yes, climate change is hitting us already, probably in more ways than we imagine.

Weather isn’t climate. You may get a colder month or even a cold year, but overall, the climate is getting hotter and hotter. To get an idea of how much it’s been heating, the 10 hottest years on record have all occurred in the past 15 years. It’s a striking stat, and 2020 was a perfect example.

It’s easy to think, with all the talk about the pandemic decreasing emissions, that 2020 wasn’t that hot of a year. But depending on how you calculate, 2020 was either the hottest or second-hottest year in history. In fact, it perfectly fits the warming trend in the past few decades. Here’s a simple chart that illustrates this.

The chart was developed by Simon Jockers at Datawrapper, one of the visualizing platforms we’ve also used during the pandemic. It’s called a climate stripe chart, or a warming stripe chart, where the color of each stripe denotes the temperature in one year. This type of chart was first popularized by climate scientist Ed Hawkins who wanted a simple way to visualize the complex process of climate change. Nowadays, the scope of this type of chart has also been extended to other types of charts (like sea level rise, or rainfall, explains Jockers).

“I wanted to communicate temperature changes in a way that was simple and intuitive, removing all the distractions of standard climate graphics so that the long-term trends and variations in temperature are crystal clear. Our visual system will do the interpretation of the stripes without us even thinking about it,” said Hawkins in 2018.

It’s more striking than just a simple line or chart because our brains tend to react better to visual colors than something requiring extra thought. Here’s an example:

A composite image of a conventional line graph superimposed on a warming stripe graphic illustrates year-by-year correlation of data points and coloured stripes. Which one works better? Credits: Wikipedia.

Hawkins’ idea proved to be exceptional. Since he first published it, thousands and thousands of such charts have been published, sending a strong message at a single glance.

If you look at localized data, it sends an even stronger message:

If you’d like to make your own charts for your own area, Jockers’ post has everything you need to know, and the Datawrapper blog is full of good DIY chart and map examples.

If you’d like to know more about what you can do to tackle climate change, here are a couple of good places to start with.

This trippy timelapse of mushroom fruiting is the best thing you’ll see today

By some accounts, mushrooms (or rather, fungi) have been around for six hundred million years ago, even before plants emerged. They have their own kingdom, separate from both plants and animals because their biology is so different from both groups.

What we ordinarily call a ‘mushroom’ is just the fruiting body of the mushroom. The rest of the mushrooms’ life cycle is characterized by vegetative mycelial growth and asexual spore production. Believe it or not, mushroom blooming is quite the sight — except we’re not there to see it most of the time.

The timelapse was originally posted by Next Observer, as far as I can find. It became viral on several Facebook pages over the past year, but let’s face it, not everyone hangs on Facebook pages nowadays. So if you want to get your shroomy fix, it’s the best place to start. If you’re looking for more, check out our previous articles on the wonderful mushroom photographs of Steve Axford.

120-year-old condom found in Japan — and the company that made it still makes condoms

Morishita Jintan has been around for a long time. The Osaka-based company was founded 130 years ago, during Japan’s Meiji period, when Japan still had a court of nobles and hereditary governors. Morishita Jintan was probably ahead of its time, since one of the first products it made (and imported) was condoms. Now, one of them, aged at 120 years old, has just been rediscovered.

It was a Yamato Kinu-model condom — one of the first mass-produced condoms in Japan (and the world). Yamato-Kinu literally means “Japanese clothing” or “Japanese silk”, and the model was meant to protect against the massive outbreaks of syphilis that ravaged Japan at the turn of the 20th century. The syphilis outbreak was referred to as “baidoku”, meaning “plum poison”.

Remarkably enough, Japan is currently going through another syphilis outbreak, though not as devastating as the one from over a century ago. Luckily, Morishita Jintan is still in business — and their products have gotten significantly better since then.

The condom was found inside a “kominka”, a traditional Japanese house with a thatched roof, in the town of Shikamachi, in the Ishikawa Prefecture. The house had been turned into an inn for travelers, and the owner recently came across the condom in an adjacent storehouse — which probably means that 120 years ago, someone was preparing for a good time (and good on them for being responsible).

The Yamato Kino condoms became remarkably popular, although at the time, they weren’t actually produced in Japan, they were first imported from France. This may well be the only Yamato Kinu condom still in existence. We’re not exactly sure if it ever fulfilled its purpose.

The inn owner has donated it to the company, where it will probably be displayed at the headquarters.

Condoms have been in use since the 15th century, with their usage being confirmed even prior to the 15th century when they would have been made of oiled silk paper or lamb intestines. In Japan, they were sometimes made from tortoiseshell or animal horn. Luckily, technology has advanced quite a lot since then.

This AI module can create stunning images out of any text input

A few months ago, researchers unveiled GPT-3 — the most advanced text-writing AI ever developed so far. The results were impressive: not only could the AI produce its own texts and mimic a given style, but it could even produce bits of simple code. Now, scientists at OpenAI which developed GPT-3, have added a new module to the mix.

“an armchair in the shape of an avocado”. Credit: OpenAI

Called DALL·E, a portmanteau of the artist Salvador Dalí and Pixar’s WALL·E, the module excerpts text with multiple characteristics, analyzes it, and then creates a picture of what it understands.

Take the example above, for instance. “An armchair in the shape of an avocado” is pretty descriptive, but can also be interpreted in several slightly different ways — the AI does just that. Sometimes it struggles to understand the meaning, but if you clarify it in more than one way it usually gets the job done, the researchers note in a blog post.

“We find that DALL·E can map the textures of various plants, animals, and other objects onto three-dimensional solids. As in the preceding visual, we find that repeating the caption with alternative phrasing improves the consistency of the results.”

Details about the module’s architecture have been scarce, but what we do know is that the operating principle is the same as with the text GPT-3. If the user types in a prompt for the text AI, say “Tell me a story about a white cat who jumps on a house”, it will produce a story of that nature. The same input a second time won’t produce the same thing, but a different version of the story. The same principle is used in the graphics AI. The user can get multiple variations of the same input, not just one. Remarkably, the AI is even capable of transmitting human activities and characteristics to other objects, such as a radish walking a dog or a lovestruck cup of boba.

“an illustration of a baby daikon radish in a tutu walking a dog”. Credit: OpenAi.
“a lovestruck cup of boba”. Image credits: OpenAI.

“We find it interesting how DALL·E adapts human body parts onto animals,” the researchers note. “For example, when asked to draw a daikon radish blowing its nose, sipping a latte, or riding a unicycle, DALL·E often draws the kerchief, hands, and feet in plausible locations.”

Perhaps the most striking thing about these images is how plausible they look. It’s not just dull representations of objects, the adaptations and novelties in the images seem to bear creativity as well. There’s an almost human ambiguity to the way it interprets the input as well. For instance, here are some images it produced when asked for “a collection of glasses sitting on a table”.

Image credits: OpenAI.

The system uses a body of information consisting of internet pages. Each part of the text is taken separately and researched to see what it would look like. For instance, in the image above, it would look at thousands of photos of glasses, then thousands of photos of a table, and then it would combine the two. Sometimes, it would decide on eyeglasses; other times, drinking glasses, or a mixture of both.

DALL·E also appears capable of combining things that don’t exist (or are unlikely to exist) together, transferring traits from one to the other. This is apparent in the avocado-shaped armchair images, but is even more striking in the “snail made of harp” ones.

The algorithm also has the ability to apply some optical distortion to scenes, such as “fisheye lens view” and “a spherical panorama,” its creators note.

DALL·E is also capable of reproducing and adapting real places or objects. When prompted to draw famous landmarks or traditional food, it

At this point, it’s not entirely clear what it could be used for. Fashion and design come to mind as potential applications, though this is likely just scratching the surface of what the module can do. Until further details are released, take a moment to relax with this collage of capybaras looking at the sunset painted in different styles.

Image credits: OpenAI

These adorable tiny pygmy possums are still alive after the Australian bushfires

The devastating Australian bushfires of 2019-2020 harmed up to 3 billion animals, burning almost half the country in the process. Many species, including the pygmy possum, were feared extinct. Now, for the first time since the fires, one possum has been found, raising hopes that the species may yet survive.

A little pygmy possum, found on Kangaroo Island, amid fears they had all perished in a bushfire . Photograph: Kangaroo Island Land for Wildlife.

I’m not crying, you’re crying

It’s hard to overstate just how devastating the Australian bushfires were. We won’t even try to do that. But as the ashes settle on the passed bushfire season, some good news is emerging.

The pygmy possum, one of the smallest possums in the world, was feared extinct, but recently, the conservation group Kangaroo Island Land for Wildlife found the little pygmy during their recent conservation efforts on Kangaroo Island.

Measuring just 10 cm (4 in) and weighing about 7 grams (around 0.01 lbs), this adorable critter is a survivor. It’s “the first documented record of the species surviving post-fire,” fauna ecologist Pat Hodgens told the Guardian. The fire burned down 88% of their predicted habitat range, so they’re extremely vulnerable, but at the very least, there is hope.

When you look like this, you must be protected at all costs.

There have only been 113 formal records of the species on the island, ecologist Pat Hodgens told My Modern Met, and studying these cute munchkins is difficult due to their size. However, Hodgens told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that the ecologists are trying “to do everything we can to protect them to ensure that they hang around during this pretty critical time.”

The pygmy possums are not out of the woods by any chance. They’re still possibly compromised as a species, not just because their habitat was destroyed, but because this also opens the way for invasive predators to enter the scene — something which is not lacking in Australia.

Kangaroo Island Land for Wildlife surveyed 20 different sites on the island, finding a handful of other species, including brush-tailed possums, tammar wallabies, a Bribons toadlet, and southern brown bandicoots.

It’s not clear what state the environment is in, and pygmy possums are just one of the species that have been devastated by the bushfires. Researchers are hard at work assessing the scale of the damage and what conservation measures would be most effective.

Even if the species does recover, it will likely take decades before things return to the way they were. Even then, there’s no guarantee that an upcoming bushfire season won’t undo all the progress, causing even more damage.

Researchers expect the bushfire season to get even worse as a result of climate change. While climate change itself does not cause fires, it creates suitable conditions for them by drying the leaves and the soil.

How one eagle almost bankrupted a Russian scientific study

If you want to study endangered birds, you first need to know when and how they travel. But following eagles around is not exactly doable, so instead, researchers equipped the birds with unobtrusive GPS transmitters.

The Russian Raptor Research and Conservation Network (RRRCN) team had equipped 13 steppe eagles with SMS-based tracking devices. The devices are turned off for most of the day to save battery, but they get turned on four times a day.

The birds spend most time in areas without coverage, but that’s not a big problem: whenever the birds reach phone coverage, all the texts are sent at once. It’s not uncommon for dozens or even a hundred messages to be sent at once.

The system works, but it’s not perfect, as one steppe eagle called Min showcased.

Min was off the grid for a while in 2019 — which again, is unsurprising. But when he came back on the grid, he came with a nasty surprise: a big phone bill with a ton of roaming charges.

Steppe eagles can travel over 100 km a day. When a text is sent from Russia to Russia or from Kazakhstan to Russia (which is where eagles often hang out), the charge isn’t too big. But Min showed up again in Iran — which landed the researchers a much bigger bill than expected.

“These beasts were out of range in Kazakhstan all summer and now once they reached the super expensive Iran and Pakistan, they are spewing out hundreds of text messages with their locations,” wrote Igor Karyakin of the Russian Raptors Research and Conservation Network.

“They really left us penniless, we had to take out a loan to feed the tracker device,” Karyakin added.

The eagles’ flight paths in 2018 and 2019, from the RRRCN. Newer 2020 data has subsequently been published.

Steppe eagles typically breed in Russian and Kazakhstan, spending their winter in India and Africa. Researchers weren’t expecting them to pop up in Pakistan or Iran. It’s good news, in a sense, as they’ve found out more about their behavior, which is one of the main objectives. But it almost bankrupted the study.

Roaming prices in Iran are 25 times more expensive than the price for messages from Russia, which added to over USD 110/day in roaming fees for this single eagle who decided he wanted to stray from the beaten path.

“Min was out of cellular range for the whole summer in Kazakhstan, and his tracker was unable to send any data until he had come back into range in early October,” the researchers explain in a blog post.

The story has a happy ending, though. The researchers made a public appeal and were able to fundraise $5,000 to cover Min’s phone calls and the project is still ongoing in 2020.

It’s not the first time tagged birds caused large phone bills. In 2018, Polish researchers tagged a stork with a GPS tracker that featured a SIM card. Storks migrate from Europe to Africa, and someone in Sudan somehow found the SIM card and used it to make long distance calls, landing a $2,700 phone bill on the Polish team.

If you want to support the steppe eagle conservation program, check out the Altai Project. At the bottom of the page, there’s a link to a donation form where you can select a checkbox “I want to sponsor the Russian Raptor Research and Conservation Network” and make a donation.

Steppe eagles are in need of help. The eagles spend their summers hunting in the open steppes and savannas of central Asia, retreating to Africa or southern Asia for the winter. Both of these large areas are being converted to agricultural areas, which is making it more challenging for the eagles to hunt. Poisoning, wind turbines, and power lines are also risks to the species. Some poachers and hunters also target them. The IUCN estimates that there are 50,000-75,000 left in the wild.

If you’re curious about what the eagles have been up to since Min’s 2019 adventures, you can follow their movements here.

These intimate portraits of birds will make you want to save them

Peruvian Inca tern. Credit: Tim Flach.

Tim Flach, a London-based nature artist, is not your typical photographer. He’s renowned for his meticulous, marvelously-lit photography of various animals, from common creatures like ducks or domestic dogs and horses to the exotic and endangered.

One of Flach’s signature styles is portraying his subjects intimately, emphasizing their expressive, almost human-like qualities. This is perhaps most illustrated in his latest project of birds from across the globe, from the Peruvian Inca tern to the Toco toucan.

“One of the things that I’ve been really interested in is how to connect people with nature. I think it’s important to almost emphasize the character and personality so that we actually start to think about the animal in our terms. This anthropomorphism is something that is perhaps intentional on my part,” Flach told ZME Science.

Andean Cock-of-the-Rock. Credit: Tim Flach.
Cockatoo. Credit: Tim Flach.
Vultrurine guineafowl. Credit: Tim Flach.

It’s more than just an art project: it could have important implications for their conservation.

A study published in the journal Environment and Behavior by researchers at Western Washington University and Michigan State University, with Flach as a co-author, found that attention-grabbing animal photography evoked more empathy in a survey of 1,152 participants than conventional nature photography.

“With growing concern for biodiversity loss, conservationists are faced with increased pressure to depict animals in ways that evoke empathy and lead to conservation,” wrote the authors of the study.

“Those who were exposed to animal portraits reported increased empathy and decreased positive and relaxed emotions. We engage critical anthropomorphism, arguing that it is an essential tool to encourage conservation efforts and that animal portraiture may be an ideal ‘attention grabber,’ after which wildlife images can serve as ‘educators.'”

Bearded Tit. Credit: Tim Flach.
Himalayan Monal. Credit: Tim Flach.

The idea is to foster an emotional connection between people and the animal subjects by emphasizing qualities pertaining to “sameness” rather than “otherness”. Not all scientists condone anthropomorphism in conservation photography, some claiming that this practice is nonscientific and misallocates empathy. You can be the judge of that.

Egyptian vulture. Credit: Tim Flach.
Toco toucan. Credit: Tim Flach.

“When I think of my actual bird project, I wanted it to be very much in the tradition of the 19th-century bird illustrators. The book I’m working on — which I’m still in the process of realizing and still have another five months of shooting to go — in a sense explores that.

There are 10,800 species and you could really argue that picking a hundred of them isn’t highly representative. But I’ve tried to arrange them phylogenetically, in the sense of their evolution — ratites first, then galliformes, and then going through the more developed birds, like the hummingbirds. And then finally going from that into domesticated breeds. “

The Gouldian finch. Credit: Tim Flach.

“This is the fifth or sixth book — depending on how you define my main projects. Books are like a journey, you start and then you come at the other end slightly different. My previous project was called Endangered, and I spent two years tracking down animals at the edge of extinction and photographing them. It’s never been more important to connect people with nature. Although Birds is a sort of visual moment of pause for me from my more critical work, it’s still something that I want to take pride in, and come out the other end, bringing a contribution to photography illustrating birds with the kind of care and attention that I think they deserve,” Flach said.

Long-tailed broadbill. Credit: Tim Flach.
Jacobin Pigeon. Credit: Tim Flach.

“When I set out to do this project to get intimate portraits, for example of blue tits, which are very small, this required me to build a specialized aviary. And it so that I could be blind to the bird, but be very close in a very controlled environment. This was one approach and suited those very tight portraits of small birds that had been caught on very fast flashes — that’s about 10 thousandths of a second — that could freeze the movement and give this sense of intimacy. But of course, there were many other things I remember being surprised about,” Flach told ZME Science.

Northern red cardinals. Credit: Tim Flach.
The Victoria Crowned Pigeon. Credit: Tim Flach.

“I do hope that I’ve had a good go at doing something and that people will enjoy the beauty of the birds and be surprised by that kind of morphology, and I hope that this will reach out beyond just the birders, but also to those who are interested in design in many different aspects. I just hope that they get excited and that I have a chance to share this work around the world. But, for this moment, I’m just trying to realize the project and do my best,” Flach said.

Shoebill. Credit: Tim Flach.
Crested Miniature Duck. Credit: Tim Flach.

“I was doing a project for Scientific American, and we were looking at some research on ravens, magpies. We had a magpie, and apparently, this sense of self-consciousness or self-awareness can be proven by putting a little tag underneath the chin and seeing if they can recognize it in the mirror. So we actually had to recreate this in high quality. And it was really interesting that the magpie who’s supposed to have the intelligence of a three-year-old child, when we had this turntable that was remotely controlled in our aviary, I was really surprised how actually, once the turntable was moving around, it was like an enrichment for the magpie. And it kept running. But the one thing I think, also surprised me from the project was not only how challenging was to find the right timing on certain animals, that might only come down to weeks to look the right way or whatever the right feather condition, but also how In fact, the natural light turned out sometimes to be the most interesting light, and that my highly controlled studio lighting which I’m known for was actually not necessarily as interesting.”

Flach says he’s excited about the response he’s received for this project so far, although it’s still very early. In fact, the project isn’t even finished yet and as I’m typing this article, Flach is en route to photograph Birds of Paradise. While there are challenges to photographing his subjects during a pandemic, the British artist hopes to wrap up shooting in the next five months and release the book by October 2021.

“The quarantines it’s making it quite challenging to realize some of the content of the book. What I’d like to do is share the wonderment of the bird world, the beauty, the structure. I try to keep the pagination flow of the book, from abstraction, to flights, to portraits, to things that kind of surprised me and I hope in turn surprises other people. They do say with a project: you never finish a book, you get separated. I suspect that will be the case whatever happens with the project in five months’ time. “

“I hope that my next project will be more critically-based rather than the sense of wonderment this project is exploring.”

You can order Flach’s previous books on his website. For more amazing photos and news from him, follow Flach on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter.

So, boiling chicken in Yellowstone’s hot springs is illegal

You’d think some things go without saying but, well, it happened. A group of tourists in Yellowstone tried ‘cooking’ some chicken in a Yellowstone hot spring. It didn’t go too well.

Good for sightseeing, bad for cooking. Image credit: CC-BY-SA-3.0

Winner, winner

To their merit, they came prepared. Two cousins, one neighbor, and their families spent a day canoeing and hiking in one of the more remote areas of Yellowstone Park (the Shoshone Geyser Basin). But reports started coming to the ranger’s office of people hiking with “cooking pots”, says Linda Veress, a park spokeswoman.

The three men had indeed brought big pots to a remote part of the park. They were planning to ‘cook’ a meal for themselves and their friends and family in the geothermal hot springs of the Shoshone Geyser Basin. To their merit, they did take some measures to limit contamination: they wrapped the two chicken in burlap sacks and roasting bags before dropping them into the hot spring.

They got caught before they could try out their concoction (though let’s face it, how good can boiled chicken really be?). The rangers found them and after assessing the situation, they came back with citations, fining the would-be chefs, banning them from the park, and placing them under probation after a night in jail.

Unsurprisingly, it’s illegal in several ways. For starters, it’s illegal to go off trails in Yellowstone (and many other national parks). You shouldn’t venture into remote areas. Throwing stuff into hydrothermal springs is even worse. For starters, you’re putting yourself at risk as any splashing can cause serious, maybe even life-threatening burns. You’re also polluting one of the most pristine and unique environments on Earth, so it’s a big no.

The hot springs are also acidic and are likely not good to cook in. They typically contain things like sulfur and chloride which smell bad, taste bad, and really shouldn’t be consumed.

There is a local legend though, of an angler catching a fish in Yellowstone and then cooking it in a nearby hot spring without even taking it off the hook. Henry J. Winser described performing this in his 1883 guide for tourists. He caught a fish, and then in front of spectators, dipped it in and out of a hot spring for a few minutes. Yes, the man boiled a fish alive, which today should also be a pretty big no.

To sum it up, if you’re somehow transported into the past or faced with a post-apocalyptic situation and fighting for your life, cooking in hot springs can work — but then and only then. Otherwise, just don’t do it.

If you’re looking for quirky ways to cook chicken, here are two ancient recipes taken straight from the history books:

This simple image shows just how important cloth masks are in the pandemic

Image credits: Cork Institute of Technology.

We’ve heard it since the start of the pandemic: face masks (and cloth ones especially) are imperfect. Their filtration is imperfect, the protection they offer is imperfect. But sometimes, imperfect is the best we’ve got, and it’s very necessary.

Study after study has shown that face masks are one of our best tools to limit the spread of disease, and even DIY or cloth masks are important. But sometimes, an image is better at conveying the message. With this in mind, a team spearheaded by Dr. Niall Smith, Head of Research at Cork Institute of Technology used imaging techniques developed for astrophysics to see how effective various textiles are at stopping the flow of droplets.

The project is useful for assessing the efficiency of different types of textiles and informing policymaking, but it can also serve a different purpose: snapping images such as the one above that convey a powerful message. The image was awarded the Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) Image of the Year award.

It’s simple and direct: a strong way to underscore why mask-wearing is such a key strategy for suppressing the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2.

“It is critically important that we wear masks wherever social distancing is challenging, but not all masks perform equally well at suppressing droplets. Our research will enable us to directly measure the number of droplets of different sizes that are exhaled through masks composed of different materials, measurements which have not been made in this way before. “

Niall and colleagues will continue their research to see what types of textiles work best. Wearing masks is the main point, but seeing which work best (and what ‘best’ means in the context) is also important.

Cloth masks are also important as they can be reused, are more sustainable, and don’t put additional pressure on medical system medical supplies.

Meanwhile, as the number of coronavirus cases is rising in much of the world, it’s as important as ever to wear a face mask. If you’re still not convinced, just look at the image above.

Satire from South Park creators shows how eerily real deepfakes already are

The year is 2020 and Fred Sassy is a reporter for the Cheyenne News at 9, a local TV station in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Fred is looking out for the consumer, and this week, he’s uncovering the truth about deepfake videos. Except Fred is Donald Trump in a cheap costume and a wig.

Fred is himself a deepfake, produced by Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of “South Park”. Welcome to 2020, where everything can be faked.

Deepwhat?

Deepfakes are sophisticated forms of image or video forgery in which the actor’s appearance is changed to resemble someone else. It’s a form of synthetic media with serious implications for the future. Just think how much we’re dealing with fake news — and that’s in written form; what if the next generation comes in audio or video format? The scariest part is that this technology is already here.

To see just how real deepfakes can be, you need look no further than the viral video “Sassy Justice”. Fred Sassy, the spitting image of President Trump, is here to tell you all about it. See, I could ramble on for a thousand words about the dangers of deepfakes and how experts have been sounding the alarm for years, but in true South Park fashion, this video does a way better job at it by just showing the dangers.

Sassy interviews the likes of Al Gore, Julie Andrews, and Michael Cain, there an unscrupulous Mark Zuckerberg running a shady dialysis center, there’s a puppet Tom Cruise, an eerie child-version of Jared Kushne — all deepfakes, of course.

It’s all so confusing it actually does a perfect job at conveying the desired message.

The child-like version of jared Kushner is played by Betty, the 7-year-old daughter of Peter Serafinowicz, a voice actor who worked with Stone and Parker on the project.

See, this is the thing about deep fakes: they don’t necessarily need to convince people that someone said something, all you need to do is sow confusion about it. It’s South Park energy applied to a very scary technology.

“Before the big scary thing of coronavirus showed up, everyone was so afraid of deepfakes,” Stone said in an interview for the New York Times. “We just wanted to make fun of it because it makes it less scary.”

“It really is this new form of animation for people like us, who like to construct things on a shot-by-shot level and have control over every single actor and voice. It’s a perfect medium for us,” Parker added for NYT.

Deepfake Zuckerberg, making an honest(?) living.

For the artists, it was a way to immerse themselves in the technology and maybe even start a new venture (they even started a new studio and spent “millions” of dollars to make the video).

At the same time, it’s a reminder that deepfakes are here, and they’re probably here to stay. The next ones might not be as lighthearted as this one.

A medieval scribe curses a cat for peeing on his manuscript

In 1420, a scribe in Deventer (the Netherlands) had a rather unpleasant day. He left the manuscript which he was working on open on the desk. It proved to be quite a mistake as when he returned, he found that a cat had urinated on his pages

This prompted a hilarious writing now preserved for posterity.

The Latin version reads thusly (don’t worry if your Latin is a little rusty, there’s an English translation below:

Hic non defectus est, sed cattus minxit desuper nocte quadam. Confundatur pessimus cattus qui minxit super librum istum in nocte Daventrie, et consimiliter omnes alii propter illum. Et cavendum valde ne permittantur libri aperti per noctem ubi cattie venire possunt.

English:

Here is nothing missing, but a cat urinated on this during a certain night. Cursed be the pesty cat that urinated over this book during the night in Deventer and because of it many others [other cats] too. And beware well not to leave open books at night where cats can come.

The scribe continued to write on the urinated pages, but one can only imagine the stench that impregnated the pages. He probably had more curses for the cat than the one he wrote down. The way the writing is arranged is also very telling: on the left, everything is ordered and neat, whereas on the right it looks more like a scribble than a proper text.

So given their inclination to ruin all things, why were cats allowed in medieval libraries in the first place? Especially since paper to write on was expensive and difficult to produce, this seems like an unwise idea. However, cats played a very important role: they defended the manuscripts from pesky rodents. This is brilliantly illustrated by a ninth-century poem, written by an Irish monk about his cat “Pangur Bán”:

I and Pangur Bán my cat,
‘Tis a like task we are at:
Hunting mice is his delight,
Hunting words I sit all night.

You can read the entire poem here.

If there’s any lesson to be learned here — don’t heave your manuscript open at night when there’s a cat around. As a matter of fact, don’t leave anything out. Looking directly at my cat-chewed headphone cable, I can only empathize with the scribe in Deventer.

Dum dum badum dum: Google now lets you hum-search for songs — and it actually works

It must have happened to all of us: that darn song stuck in your head that keeps coming back, but you forgot what the song is and it’s just the humming stuck in your head.

Well, there’s an app for that now: it’s called Google.

I’m a bit proud of this match percentage, not gonna lie. Screenshot from Google App.

A cure for your earworm

Google recently announced the hum-to-search feature for its mobile app, and it works pretty much as advertised: you hum, whistle, or (if you’re brave) sing a melody in the app for about 10 seconds and it tells you what the song is, along with a couple of other candidates. If you’re using Google Assistant, you can just say “Hey Google, what’s this song” and then hum the tune.

Google says the feature is available only in English on iPhone and 20 languages on Android, for now. But that seems to be the case just for the app itself — I used it to detect non-English songs successfully, despite my subpar humming skills.

The key element behind the app is a familiar one: machine learning. When you hum a melody, the machine learning model behind Google’s app transforms it into a number sequence, a digital version of your hum. It then looks through its catalog of millions of songs looking for something that fits. You can hum any part of the song, it doesn’t need to be the beginning or the chorus, everything works. You can even hum a part of the instrumental.

You also don’t need to have a good singing voice, the algorithm seems to do a good job anyway, although humming closer to the actual song definitely helps with ID-ing the song.

So does it actually work?

I tried it. To be honest, I played with the app a bit more than I’d care to admit. You know, for testing purposes, for science. Here’s how it worked for me.

First, I tried playing it a Youtube song and use it like Shazam. It worked, no hassle. I then tried humming songs that had “nanana” parts, like The Boxer, or Scooter’s Maria, and that also worked. I moved on to a bunch of popular songs, and without fail, it identified them — even when I purposely hummed a bit out of tune. I then tried to move to niche and non-English songs and here too, it performed admirably, although it wasn’t able to identify all songs. As far as I can tell, rap seems to be its weak point, perhaps because there are fewer distinguishable musical elements.

To sum it up, it seems to work well. It’s not a big deal in any real way, but it’s a feature that we all wanted at some moment and, well, here it is. It’s pretty fun when technology actually delivers, isn’t it?

One-eyed, baby albino shark might be the product of climate change

Credit: Australscope.

Fishermen sailing along the Maluku province in Indonesia were stunned after they found an extremely rare baby albino shark. The bizarre discovery was made on October 10 after they cut the baby shark’s mother’s belly to remove its intestines.

“We found three babies inside its stomach, but one of them looked strange with only one eye. Its color was strange too, like milk,” said Andy, one of the fishermen, who added that the adult shark must have been pregnant when it was accidentally caught in the net.

The incident was reported to the local marine office in Indonesia, where they also handed over the strange-looking baby shark who suffers from two rare conditions.

Credit: Australscope.

One is cyclopia, a birth defect in which the forebrain of the embryo doesn’t form two equal hemispheres. Its defining sign is a single eye or a partially divided eye. In humans, babies with cyclopia also typically lack a nose and aren’t expected to survive more than a couple of hours after birth. There’s no way to prevent the condition and there’s currently no cure.

The second genetic condition is albinism, characterized by the lack of melanin pigment in the hair, eyes, and skin.

This isn’t the first recorded shark with cyclopia, but the deformity may have become more common due to rising sea temperatures. The world’s oceans act as huge heat sinks, and have sopped up more than 90% of all the excess heat energy trapped by CO2 since the 1970s.

However, the rate at which ocean warming is occurring is rising fast. It’s already 24% higher than the rate of warming experienced a few decades ago. By the end of the century, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates sea temperatures could rise between 1.4°C and 5.8°C.

Water temperature is an important environmental cue triggering various reproduction processes. This rare baby albino shark may have suffered from imbalances caused by climate change, although there’s no way of telling for sure.

An American politician streamed Among Us on Twitch. She almost broke the viewership record

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tuned in to play the hit game Among Us along with popular streamers and fellow politician Rep. Ilhan Omar. For most of the stream, there were over 300,000 concurrent viewers, peaking at 439,000.

Among Us is a social deduction game, basically the online version of the party game Mafia. The players are split between two games: the crewmates who have to complete tasks and kick the imposters out, and the imposters who have to kill the crewmates and avoid being exposed — excellently suited for a politician, one would argue. This simple game grew into an internet hit in 2020, becoming one of the most popular games on the online streaming site Twitch.

Although virtually unknown to some demographics, Twitch has reached cult status and is a major gathering place for the younger part of the population, who often feel disenfranchised and abandoned by the political class.

Ocasio-Cortez (who often goes by her initials AOC) streamed for over three hours, becoming the third most-watched individual Twitch stream in history.

Outside of repeated appeals to vote, the stream was light on politics. There were a couple of jabs and a discussion on the British health system and how it compares to the American one, but for the most part, the video game stream was, well, a video game stream.

Still, AOC was quick to use her political prowess, ruthlessly ‘killing’ fellow streamer Pokimane, one of the biggest streamers on Twitch. Pokimane’s reaction to being ousted from the game is delicious.

The idea of the stream was to get people out to vote, but it’s the first time a video game platform was leveraged in this way. It also helped that AOC was perceived as genuine by the Twitch community (she has a silver League of Legends account and has dropped in on Twitch chats before), but ultimately, this marks a new way in which the gaming streaming technology is used.

The fact that fellow Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar has already launched her own Twitch channel would seem to suggest that the approach is here to stay. Omar even posted her computer specs, a staple of gaming streaming.

There’s an innocent and wholesome part of this story. AOC and Omar seemed to genuinely enjoy playing the game and they were remarkably proficient at it (despite this being the first time they played). It’s refreshing to see that at least some politicians being in touch with an activity enjoyed by hundreds of millions — gaming. Seriously, they were pretty good at Among Us.

But on the other hand, if politicians are gracing Twitch with their presence, it shows the online gaming platform is starting to mature and is becoming a part of the political game. Gamers are no longer (only) kids. They’re voting now.

Gags and uproar at paleontology conference after profanity filter bans the word “bone” (and many others)

The virtual conference was thrown into confusion after a filter on the platform hosting the event banned words key to the paleontological pursuit.

“Words like ‘bone’, ‘pubic’, and ‘stream’ are frankly ridiculous to ban in a field where we regularly find pubic bones in streams”, said one participant.

As a result of the pandemic, almost all conferences had to move to the online environment — which can be useful in some ways, but is quite challenging in others.

The US-based Society of Vertebrate Paleontology (SVP) held its annual meeting virtually but was met with uproar as participants were not allowed to use particular words in their papers. The first one that came up was ‘bone’.

Sure, ‘bone’ can be used in a naughty way, but you can’t just ask a paleontologist not to talk about bones — that’s the gist of what they do. In no time, complaints started to pile up, with people complaining about not being able to submit papers with words like ‘sexual’, ‘pubis’, or ‘beaver’.

Even the word ‘hell’ was banned.

“Apparently it came with a pre-packaged naughty-word filter. After getting a good belly laugh out of the way on the first day and some creative wording (my personal favorite was Heck Creek for Hell Creek), some of us reached out to the business office, and they’ve been un-banning words as we stumble across them,” an SVP member explained in a Reddit thread where the situation was addressed.

As it turns out, the problem was owed to an overzealos word filter. The platform where the conference was hosted on came with the filter preinstalled, and little did the anti-profanity filter know many of the words it was blocking are key to paleontologists.

Luckily, the bug was identified and fixed quickly. Participants made a Google Doc where the banned words were listed and manually approved.

The mood shifted from amusement to irritation several times. After the initial amusement turned into uproar and then the problem was addressed, some were amused once again. But others were quick to point out a more pervasive side to the filter.

Jack Tseng, a vertebrate paleontologist from the University of Berkley, pointed out that the filter had banned the common surname Wang, but not Johnson, although both are used as slang to describe a man’s genitals.

However, Tseng was also quick to point out that the immediate action taken by SVP organizers was “an example of the best first line of response for others who encounter similar issues.”

Ultimately, filters like this are important to ensure that the discussion remains civil — but this is a reminder that a one-size-fits-all approach just won’t cut it.

The paleontology conference didn’t report any notable incidents after this. It was a lot to swallow and the spirited conversations still continue, but the main focus of the conference (fossilized vertebrates) continued unabated. You can follow the conference on its website or with the hashtag #2020SVP.

Japanese device scans a book a minute

If you’ve ever tried to copy a book, you know just what a drag it can be: it takes a lot of time and it’s so easy to get it wrong and mess up. But a new device developed in Japan solves all that, being able to automatically scan up to 250 pages a minute.

Developed at the University of Tokyo’s Ishikawa Oku Laboratory, the BFS-Auto can whoop through a book in one or two minutes — at that rate, it could go through a smaller library within a week. All the human operator needs to do is load books into the scanner and watch as the robot takes care of everything.

BFS-Auto can achieve high-speed and high-definition book digitization with remarkable ease. The books are digitized as documents, not images, which is also important as they are searchable and parseable.

The device works in three stages: first, it has an automated high-speed page flipping system, which does pretty much what you’d expect from it. Then, it carries out a real-time 3D scan of the flipped pages, and ultimately, it turns the images into scannable and parseable documents.

The system also has a technology to restore blurred or distorted images, which often happens with curled or warped pages. The 400 pixels per inch resolution also ensures great readability.

However, the status of the BFS-Auto is rather unclear. It was supposed to hit the market in 2013, but as far as we can tell, it never did, although it’s an idea well worth pursuing.