Monday: Hili dialogue

Okay, it’s Monday again—December 17, 2018, and we’re only 8 days from the beginning of Coynezaa. It’s National Maple Syrup Day, and be sure you get the darkest (and cheapest) grade, which used to be grade C until grade inflation took over and Big Maple eliminated grade C, raising it to grade B.  It’s confusing, so just get the darkest and cheapest one. It’s also Wright Brothers Day, honoring the first successful flights (3) of a heavier than air craft, made by the eponymous brothers on December 17, 1903, at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

On this day in 497 BC, the first Saturnalia festival was celebrated in Rome, with everything going topsy-turvy. It was in honor of a god, but there was lots of debauching. On this day in 1538, Pope Paul III excommunicated Henry VIII of England. And on December 17, 1790, the famous Aztec calendar stone was discovered, buried in the center of Mexico City’s Plaza Mayor. I’ve seen it at the National Museum of Anthropology there; it’s often regarded as the finest piece of Aztec art.  Below I’ve put a photo of it and a video that explains it (do watch the video; it’s fascinating):

On this day of 1865, Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony premiered in Vienna. Schubert didn’t die before it was completed: he just didn’t finish it.

And it’s AIRPLANE DAY, for, as noted above, it was on December 17, 1903 that the Wright brothers made the first controlled flight in a heavier-than-air craft—the Wright Flyer—at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Within less than a century we went from the Wright’s rickety aircraft to stealth fighter planes.  On this day in 1938, Otto Hahn discovered the nuclear fission of uranium, and the rest is history. For that discovery Hahn won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1944.

On December 17, 1989, the first episode of The Simpsons, “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire” was aired on the Fox network. Here’s part 1; you can find the rest on YouTube:

Finally, on this day four years ago, the U.S. and Cuba reestablished diplomatic relations 54 years after having severed them.

Notables born on this day include Humphry Davy (1778), Pierre Paul Émile Roux (1853), Willard Libby (1908, Nobel Laureate), John Kennedy Toole (1937, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for his book A Confederacy of Dunces, but won it after he had committed suicide), and Paul Butterfield (1942).

Those who died on December 17 include Simón Bolîvar (1830), Kaspar Hauser the feral child (1833), Sammy Baugh (2008), Jennifer Jones (2009), Kim Jong-il (2011), and my colleague Janet Rowley (2013).

Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, Hili is worn out from editing. (Look at that cute picture!)

A photo from reader Stephen, showing that sometimes cats’ hunger can override their reason:

Reader Bob Felton says, “Find the living ornament.” It’s his tree and his moggie:

Reader Gayle Ferguson found this review of an automatic cat feeder on Facebook; I’m not sure if it’s a real review but that’s a real cat-feeding device:

Reader Diana MacPherson contributes this, which is pretty much true:

really sneaky d*g sent by reader Gethyn:

Tweets from Matthew, this one from the Great Bustard Group! That inglorious Bustard has some hitchhikers:

I find this hard to believe, but the pictures support it. I know we have a least one goat farmer out there who can weigh in!

Now this is a mystery: 11 heads on poles, both male and female. All had been whacked on the skull, but not seriously enough to kill them:

You can tell that this tweet was emitted by an artist:

Murmurations are one of the most glorious displays of animals in nature. Matthew and I love them, and this is a good one:

Tweets from Grania, with the first from an Irish wag:

Look at this cat’s expression when someone tries to touch his teddy!

Look at these goofy barn owls! Why are they bobbing their heads?

The Skeptic Review tweeted this to tide people over during Titania McGrath’s temporary banishment from Twitter. One of Titania’s Social Justice Poems:

Finally, from the reliable Dodo site, an adorable video of Hammy the Rescue Squirrel:



  1. Posted December 17, 2018 at 6:34 am | Permalink

    Do oels bob their heads to judge distance? Mantids do a similar thing (as do human boxers)

    • Posted December 17, 2018 at 6:35 am | Permalink


    • Serendipitydawg
      Posted December 17, 2018 at 8:28 am | Permalink

      The Barn Owl that we used to babysit when its staff were on holiday used to bob when watching TV while sitting on the back of the sofa, I always assumed it was something to do with seeing things moving.

      When they are hovering to hunt their heads don’t move around, but there they are generally using sound (the dished, heart shaped face is their sound mirror).

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted December 17, 2018 at 11:24 am | Permalink

      I think calling it head bobbing is inaccurate.

      Owl’s eyes are fixed in their sockets. If an owl couldn’t fly & hunted within a 2D plane only [like a wolf say] it could get all its prey distance information using binocular vision alone, but operating in three dimensions makes a big difference because binocular vision is only maximally useful in the plane that passes through both eyes.

      Owls get around this shortfall by rotating their heads around the owl-to-prey axis & choosing a plane to scan in, THEN the slide their heads from side to side within the chosen plane. Rinse & repeat for various planes until Mrs Owl has built a full 3D representation.

      That’s my theory whereas the Audobon site says this:

      This head-bobbing helps make up for an anatomical limitation: An owl’s eyes are fixed in position, so they simply can’t move the way our eyes do.

      To look up, down, or to the side, an owl has to move its head. They have very flexible necks and can do 270 degrees of a full head turn, looking over one shoulder, around the back, and almost over the opposite shoulder. And after a few of these head-bobs to triangulate on their prey, they rarely miss.

      It’s not only owls that measure the world this way. Most other birds of prey, like falcons and hawks, have the same intent, fixed, predator’s eyes, and so they, too, perform their share of head bobs, figuring out what’s what and what’s where.

      The Audobon explanation doesn’t pick up on the fact that… once a prey has been selected the AXIS of owl head rotation is along the line owl-to-prey.

      Or am I making a big error somewhere?

      • Serendipitydawg
        Posted December 17, 2018 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

        Or am I making a big error somewhere?

        Sounds plausible to me. As I said, Sunshine the owl (don’t ask!) only did this in response to interesting visual stimuli (I always told her that if she pounced on an actual lion that she would never subdue it… she was a fan of David Attenborough’s wildlife programmes).

        All the wild Barn Owls that I have seen hunting do not move their heads and AFAIK the facial disc gathers sounds and directs it to their ears, I don’t know if it preserves spatial information but they are deadly accurate once they lock on and pounce.

      • rickflick
        Posted December 17, 2018 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

        Sound right to me. I think Audubon hasn’t thought it through as thoroughly as you have.
        BTW, Audubon, not Audobon. (Look at me. The worlds wort giving advice on spelling. 😎

        • rickflick
          Posted December 17, 2018 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

          “worst”. see wudd eye tell ye.

        • Michael Fisher
          Posted December 17, 2018 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

          Thnak you! 🙂

      • Nicolaas Stempels
        Posted December 18, 2018 at 11:37 pm | Permalink

        Apart from getting a better three-dimensional ‘acuity’ by tilting their heads (the binocular vision plane can be tilted over 90°), there is also motion parallax. A small displacement of the head gives a greater movement of the image on your retina for close objects than for far away objects.
        Double strike!
        You can simply test this yourself by closing one eye and moving your head.

        • Michael Fisher
          Posted December 19, 2018 at 12:04 am | Permalink

          that is what I meant by scanning within the planes Mrs. Owl chose

          • rickflick
            Posted December 19, 2018 at 6:44 am | Permalink

            Yes, I thought I heard an echo.

  2. Linda Calhoun
    Posted December 17, 2018 at 6:50 am | Permalink

    I never noticed the rotation of the pupils in my goats.

    I’ll check it out and get back to you.


    • MR
      Posted December 17, 2018 at 7:59 am | Permalink

      If you look at your own eyes in a mirror and roll your head from side to side, you can see your eyeball rotating (watch the position of the blood vessels in relation to your eyelids).

      Eyeball torsion is called cyclorotation, and simultaneous rotation of both eyes is cycloconvergence:

      which refers to this study:

      • MR
        Posted December 17, 2018 at 8:01 am | Permalink

        They don’t rotate a lot, but it is noticeable if you look closely.

      • MR
        Posted December 17, 2018 at 8:04 am | Permalink

        Cyclovergence, not cycloconvergence.

    • Posted December 17, 2018 at 9:25 am | Permalink

      Yes, I was hoping you would. If it’s wrong it needs correction!

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted December 17, 2018 at 10:54 am | Permalink

      Regarding the paper Why do animal eyes have pupils of different shapes? PDF LINK by Martin S. Banks, William W. Sprague, Jürgen Schmoll, Jared A. Q. Parnell & Gordon D. Love linked to by “MR” in this comment…

      The bit about eye rotation is at the very end of page 6 & the beginning of page 7. In the UC BERKELEY NEWS I found this:

      But what happens to this orientation when the animal lowers its head to graze? If the pupil follows the pitch of the head, they would become more vertical and the theory falters.

      “To check this out, I spent hours at the Oakland Zoo, often surrounded by school kids on field trips, to observe the different animals,” said Banks. “Sure enough, when goats, antelope and other grazing prey animals put their head down to eat, their eyes rotated to maintain the pupils’ horizontal alignment with the ground.”

      On the other side of the Atlantic, study co-author Gordon Love, a professor of physics at Durham University, found this same pattern when observing sheep and horses at nearby farms. Grazing animals’ eyes can rotate by 50 degrees or more in each eye, a range 10 times greater than human eyes, the researchers said.

      Gordon Love made a short video on this ‘cyclorotation’ & here it is:

      • rickflick
        Posted December 17, 2018 at 6:31 pm | Permalink

        Quite a surprise. But it makes sense. This must be why predators like cats have vertical pupils. So they gather more light in a narrow zone in front of it’s head. It’s focused it’s attention on the prey animal and doesn’t need to see to the sides.

        • Michael Fisher
          Posted December 17, 2018 at 7:14 pm | Permalink

          Kittens are different from their mums – they have round pupils. The paper theorises this is because the kittens are so close to the ground.

          • rickflick
            Posted December 17, 2018 at 10:28 pm | Permalink

            Or they’re just trying to be extra cute. 😎

      • Nicolaas Stempels
        Posted December 18, 2018 at 11:53 pm | Permalink

        Excellent educational video! Thanks.

        The reasons for vertical pupils, often found in ambush predators and arboreal species, are less clear. It is thought is has to do with a combination of focal blur and stereopsis (both used for gauging distance).
        Others contend it is an adaptation for hunting during day as well as night, since a slit pupil can give greater size variation. However, that would not explain why they are vertical slits.
        In snakes vertical pupils are also hypothesised to help camouflage by breaking the spherical outline of the eye.

        • rickflick
          Posted December 19, 2018 at 6:42 am | Permalink

          So, we’ll check the ‘undecided’ box. Some grad student somewhere is reading this…

    • stuartcoyle
      Posted December 17, 2018 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

      I never noticed this on my goats either, not that I was ever looking for it.

  3. Michael Waterhouse
    Posted December 17, 2018 at 7:34 am | Permalink

    The Owls maybe locating the direction of a sound more precisely.

  4. Ken Kukec
    Posted December 17, 2018 at 7:36 am | Permalink

    John Kennedy Toole was dead well before A Confederacy of Dunes ever even got published. But his character Ignatius J. Reilly will live on for as long as people still read books.

    • Mark R.
      Posted December 17, 2018 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

      Wasn’t it Frank Herbert who wrote A Confederacy of Dunes?

      Sorry, couldn’t help myself 🙂

      And Reilly is one of the most hilarious characters in fiction.

  5. Ken Kukec
    Posted December 17, 2018 at 7:46 am | Permalink

    That inglorious Bustard has some hitchhikers …

    Assuming that’s a sly allusion to Tarantino’s film, the first word of its title also has a non-standard spelling (“Inglourious”).

  6. Posted December 17, 2018 at 8:01 am | Permalink

    “A photo from reader Stephen, showing that sometimes cats’ hunger can override their reason:”

    I would title that photo: Kitty Twister

  7. Tom Esslinger
    Posted December 17, 2018 at 8:13 am | Permalink

    I disagree with your comments about maple syrup. Light amber is much better. It has a delicate maple flavor rather than the overly strong maple flavor of the darkest grades.
    While preferred by some,dark amber is about as appealing to me as dark molasses.

    • Posted December 17, 2018 at 9:28 am | Permalink

      De gustibus non est disputandum.

      You can disagree, but of course it’s all subjective. My view is that if you like the maple flavor, you’ll like an intense maple flavor.

      • rickflick
        Posted December 17, 2018 at 10:55 am | Permalink

        The more intense, the less you have to use and the less lipid your body stores. Allegedly.

  8. David Coxill
    Posted December 17, 2018 at 8:32 am | Permalink

    ! Why are they bobbing their heads?

    Because they can ,haha .

  9. Merilee
    Posted December 17, 2018 at 8:33 am | Permalink

    The darker the better for maple syrup, molasses, and brown sugar😋

    • stuartcoyle
      Posted December 17, 2018 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

      and honey…

      • Merilee
        Posted December 17, 2018 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

        …and chocolate😋

        • Michael Fisher
          Posted December 17, 2018 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

          And marmalade

          • Merilee
            Posted December 17, 2018 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

            I only like ginger marmalade.

            • Michael Fisher
              Posted December 17, 2018 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

              Do you mean marmalade made only with the one plant, ginger or with say three plants oranges, lemons & ginger? I like ginger so I should try the marmalade. Wot brand you like?

              • Merilee
                Posted December 17, 2018 at 5:07 pm | Permalink

                Just ginger. Got Robertson’s in the fridge. Orange marmalade too bitter. Love lemon or lime curd.

              • rickflick
                Posted December 17, 2018 at 9:30 pm | Permalink

                We like to get Robertson’s Ma Made Seville Oranges in a 6 lb can. You just add water and sugar to taste. That way you can roll your own. I enjoy less sweetness in particular. I have never used lemons or ginger so that’s something I’d like to try.

              • Michael Fisher
                Posted December 18, 2018 at 4:12 am | Permalink

                Robertson’s MaMade Seville Oranges: Didn’t know of this, but it’s available over here in all the major stores. One reviewer uses grape juice in place of water. I will give it a go! Thanks

  10. John Dentinger
    Posted December 17, 2018 at 8:58 am | Permalink

    While syrup is important–and distant relatives of mine do have a sugar grove in NY’s Southern Tier–I think more should be done to recognize the amazing achievements of the Wright brothers. For instance, the design, testing & creation of the propeller alone is beyond remarkable.

    • rickflick
      Posted December 17, 2018 at 11:05 am | Permalink

      The Wright’s big innovation in propeller design was to shape it like a wing, which creates horizontal lift known as thrust.

  11. rickflick
    Posted December 17, 2018 at 10:32 am | Permalink

    AIRPLANE DAY: Fun fact, while the Wright brothers first planes were built in a bicycle shop, the latest military jet, the F35, costs around $100,000,000 each. The plane will be in service for 55 years and the total program will cost around $1.5 trillion.

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted December 17, 2018 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

      “The [F35 Lightning II] will be in service for 55 years…”

      I doubt that projected operational life especially for the F35B VSTOL variant.

      Nothing can fix the design concept flaws which mean it’s too heavy to fly the way it needs to, poor weapons capacity, poor fuel capacity/range means it’s tied to airborne refuelling platforms for almost every mission. In a long war this is unsustainable & reduces mission flexibility [having to plan a good deal of time ahead where your ultra-vulnerable airborne tankers need to be & then at the 11th hour target priorities change & your tanker fleet is in the wrong place at the wrong time].

      Worst than the above is routine maintenance/servicing problems caused solely by the absurd hardware & software complexity of this fraudulent* boondoggle – that’s putting to one side entirely the stupidity of trialling so many new ideas on one platform – many of them simultaneously. I believe not enough attention has been paid to ‘maintenance friendliness’ – many apparently faulty parts are found to be perfectly fine when shipped back to the manufacturer & it’s easy to see why: “…is it that valve or something buggy in the 8,000,000 lines of code that control it”. Retaining & constantly retraining maintenance crews on board a carrier will be hard when after five years they can ship out to a civilian contractor for five times the money. This machine is not fit for purpose & never will be.

      * Lies let right & centre about capabilities & costs. The program is so dependent now on foreign sales that foreign buyers [governments] are being suckered into contracts using used car salesman techniques. Buyers are not allowed to see performance reports on the F35 – blanket secrecy imposed to protect state secrets is the partially valid excuse.

      • rickflick
        Posted December 17, 2018 at 6:24 pm | Permalink

        Sounds like a sad situation. But, hasn’t it almost always been the case whenever a new weapon is developed? Eventually, won’t they salvage it by downgrading promised capabilities until technology becomes mature? If not, then its hard to see what our fighters will be in 20 years.

        • Michael Fisher
          Posted December 17, 2018 at 7:06 pm | Permalink

          This is true.

          And in the past when a weapon disappoints because of over-promising or the potential enemy has developed countermeasures or the warfare landscape has moved on [cavalry against tanks] one can scrap or upgrade.

          However we are committed to one egg in one basket at a time when development cycles on one weapon are numbered in decades rather than mere months. The weapon that a significant number of Western armies has bought into can’t now be scrapped, because it’s part of international integrated weapons systems – this damn thing isn’t just a fighter/strike/ground support weapon, it’s also a networked device that forms part of system to have a god-like view of the battlespace that’s disseminated to all units in all services in all friendly nations. Disentangling the F35 hardware from the promise of warfare without ‘fog’ can’t be done easily.

          It’s a feckin disaster that we’ve gone away from a flexible model of a few distributed eggs so that we can save enough money to place it all on one bet on one big egg that may be rotten. So we can’t scrap it.

          How about an upgrade then? We can’t improve the weapons load without new, much more powerful engines, but they will guzzle fuel even faster than the current turkey. We can’t fit any more fuel tanks without destroying stealth. We can’t fit external weapons without destroying stealth. In other words there are no upgrade options.

          It is also sadly true that stealth is overrated – we & other nations have developed anti-stealth measures – the latest beast Russian networked system SAMs can find & lock onto our stealth aircraft. From two years ago:

          The Russians are expected to network the S-500s with their S-400, S-300VM4 and S-350 and other weapons as part of an overall integrated air-defense network. As one U.S. industry official noted, while the Russian military industrial sector suffered greatly in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, somehow Moscow managed to continue developing advanced air defense system without much degradation in capability. Indeed, some of these new weapons—like the S-500 — are so capable that many U.S. defense official worry that even stealth warplanes like the F-22, F-35 and the B-2 might have problems overcoming them.

          SOURCE With a big enough aerial you can detect stealth overflights with no difficulty – around 10 years ago it was found entirely by accident that the web of cellphone towers in the UK were picking up strange microwave [& other wavelength] signals bounced back to them from above. Some genius used radio telescope software programs to ‘visualise’ the cause. Yep – it was stealthy planes, ordinary planes & all sorts of other objects in the sky.

          • rickflick
            Posted December 17, 2018 at 10:25 pm | Permalink

            Seems rather distressing. Perhaps, then, just think of these enormously expensive projects as research efforts. The new stuff that is developed may be useful to whatever we end up with. I’m thinking, too, that fighters with a pilot may become obsolete in a decade or two. Why not have the pilot sit in the base control room in Kansas or Arizona and fly remote vehicles? Small, adaptable drone would probably be the right answer except in special cases.

          • infiniteimprobabilit
            Posted December 18, 2018 at 2:41 am | Permalink

            I seem to recall a previous attempt to build an aircraft that was all things to all men – the F111. Bit of an expensive turkey, from all accounts.

            It seems to be the case that if you build an aircraft to fulfil one defined role really well, then over time it gets successfully adapted to other roles as well. But trying to develop a plane that does all roles just results in too much complication, too much weight, too much delay and too much compromise – and so much expense that it *has* to be used for ‘everything’ to justify its cost, at the expense of other simpler more economical designs.


          • Nicolaas Stempels
            Posted December 19, 2018 at 12:00 am | Permalink

            The “National Interest” also published a 15 page article why the F-35 is a f****g disaster, financially and particularly militarily. It will leave the countries relying on them defenseless.
            Wasn’t it Mr Eisenhower who warned us about the military-industrial complex? Warning not heeded.

  12. DrBrydon
    Posted December 17, 2018 at 10:43 am | Permalink

    That cat with the teddy looks like Jabba the Hutt.

    Say, what happened to Paul Bronks’ twitter?

  13. Posted December 17, 2018 at 11:32 am | Permalink

    *29 years* of The Simpsons.

    Man, I feel old – like when I realized almost almost all the main characters on the show of my adolescence (ST:TNG) were supposed to be younger than I am now. 😉

  14. Posted December 17, 2018 at 11:49 am | Permalink

    I bet the owls are bobbing to improve their 3-D vision. One is going horizontal whereas the other is going vertical. Together they have it covered! Of course people do something similar on occasion but it is a conscious thing with us. I wonder if the owls’ brains are able to integrate the two viewpoints (four if you count each eye) into a single visual experience?

  15. Curt Cameron
    Posted December 17, 2018 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

    I thought the Simpsons clip was going to be about Schubert, because there is one of the family watching a school performance of Schubert’s Unfinished, and Homer is impatiently waiting to go, when he says “How much longer was Schubert planning to make this thing?”

  16. Steve Pollard
    Posted December 17, 2018 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

    The Great Bustard was one of the many former species resident in the UK that were driven extinct by dickheads with shotguns. Now there is a programme to reintroduce this beautiful bird to Salisbury Plain.

    I just wish we could attract a few Bee-eaters as well!

  17. gravelinspector-Aidan
    Posted December 17, 2018 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

    A photo from reader Stephen, showing that sometimes cats’ hunger can override their reason:

    Resulting in a cat-plait?

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