Autodidact: self-taught


Plants That Want to Kill You Dead

by V. L. Craven

Poisonous Plants

When someone says, ‘ [Currently popular ‘natural’ substance] is better than [rigorously tested medical treatment] because it’s from nature!’ I think, ‘Yeah, well, so’s anthrax. Nature wants to kill your arse.’

Now I’m going to let Hank Green teach you a little something. Take it, Hank.


If you’re interested in plants that hate you, you may want to visit Alnwick Garden  in Northumberland, which houses nearly 100 poisonous plants . It’s home to the first image of this post. I want to go there.

Alnwick Garden

And one of my favourite quotes from The Secret History by Donna Tartt:

‘And even herbs that aren’t common here—good God, the Borgias would have wept to see the health-food store I found in Brattleboro last week. Hellebore, mandrake, pure oil of wormwood… I suppose people will buy anything if they think it’s natural. The wormwood they were selling as organic insect repellent, as if that made it safer than the stuff at the supermarket. One bottle could have killed an army.’


Corvids: Unkindnesses & Murders

by V. L. Craven

Corvidae  (crows, ravens, jackdaws, rooks, among others) are some of the most intelligent animals–they use tools, can solve problems with minimal trial-and-error and share information amongst their flock.

And, apparently, they enjoy playing in the snow:

One of my favourite facts is that a flock of crows is called a murder and a flock of ravens are an unkindness. And this is why grackles should be included in the family, because a flock of those are called a plague.

And they look like this:

photograph by Bill Hubick

More incredible photography of grackles by Bill Hubick.

But back to the official corvids…

Information & Trivia on Ravens & Crows

First, if you’re confused about the different types of corvids, here is a graphic to help distinguish between them:

Differences Between Types of Corvids

Here is a huge version, which you need to see to appreciate the detail and effort put into this work of art.

This page has loads of quotes from the engaging and informative  In the Company of Crows and Ravens  by John M. Marzluff, Mr. Tony Angell and Professor Paul R. Ehrlich.

24Books has excellent information about the mythology around ravens.

But, if you would like more, Wikipedia to the rescue!

When the Scandinavians were invading the Anglo-Saxons, they’d fly something similar to this:

Which the Christian Anglo-Saxons thought must be imbued with the evil power of pagan idols. That’s right. Booga booga.

Here’s a little info on Charles Dickens’ pet raven, Grip , which inspired Poe’s famous poem. While on this page , you’ll find even more information (start halfway down the page, two paragraphs above this photo of the taxidermied Grip):

Speaking of Poe’s poem, the Baltimore Ravens are the only sports team to be named after a literary creation. They won some sort of sporting competition recently, I think. They have a pretty fantastic logo.

Baltimore Ravens Logo Wallpaper

And, of course, there are the famous ravens at the Tower of London .

Welcome to our crib.

Whilst doing research for this post, I learned that April 27th is International Crow and Raven Appreciation Day (ICRAD, which sounds like something a corvid would say). Here is a photo set from Facebook celebrating the day (they have a set of  videos , as well.)

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has an entire page of audio and video of  ravens and crows . The reason the ‘crow’ link includes jays and magpies is because the entire corvidae family are called crows. Ravens are a type of crow, as are jays and magpies, etc.

And if you’ve ever wondered what crows get up to during the day, you can follow streetcrow on Twitter and find out.

Gifts for Fans of Crows & Ravens

Upon a Midnight Dreary has a list of great Raven and Crow gifts and decorations .

It was also from Dahlia Jane that I learned about this amazing mask :

I’d wear it everywhere, all the time.

It’s leather and the bottom of the beak snaps off, making it two masks, really. It sold last month, but perhaps if you ask nicely he’ll make another.

And something I would love (and would actually wear all the time) is this t-shirt of Huginn and Muninn (Odin’s ravens) from November Fire :

More gift ideas here .

Images of Crows & Ravens

Raven wing in flight

Common Raven and Griffin Vulture by Adam Manka

This common raven looks like it’s about to refuel the griffin vulture (photo by Adam Manka)


Raven by Bulliver on flickr

Raven by Bulliver on flickr


Corvids be struttin

If I was a badass corvid, I’d be struttin’, too

Serinadruid has quite a few raven-themed photos

Amusing images of crows and ravens are here .

And some Raven/Crow themed wallpapers:

Black Raven wallpaper

Raven with exposed ribs Wallpaper

Ravens and Typewriter Life Magazine Wallpaper

Finally, no post about corvids would be complete without a picture of my tattoo, which is a tribute to both Tim Burton (not his illustration, but could be) and Edgar Allan Poe:

I could have taken a healed photo, but I think the blood works with this one.

A friend of mine described it as: ‘If Severus Snape were an animagus that’s what he’d look like.’ So… it was even more perfect than I’d originally intended.

[If an image in this post is uncredited and you know the author’s name, please leave a comment.]


Sunday Science and Technology

by V. L. Craven

The Science Part of the Post

There was a bit of a kerfuffle in Russia this week. It seems a meteor exploded several miles above the earth and …things happened.

The sort of things that leave giant holes in ice lakes in Siberia.

So… we didn’t see it… I know we were all paying attention to the incredibly unimaginatively named 2012 DA14*, but a bit more attention to the things that could seriously bollocks up a well-populated area would be appreciated. After all, if outer space sends us an event that’s going to mess up Earth’s shit, there’s not a lot we’ll be able to do about it so let’s focus on things we can affect.

Visit for breaking news , world news , and news about the economy

This is a very interesting page about the last time a (really big) meteor hit Russia . Basically, it must have been scary as hell before the time of massive media telling you the rest of the world wasn’t under attack by blue light fire throwers capable of breaking things forty miles away. So, though your day is a thousand times more bizarre than you’d expected, it wasn’t the beginning of an alien invasion or the end of the world.

Weather Underground has a great article with more information and photos and video, as well.

*I know that there are quadrillions of bodies in space and astronomers are very busy and don’t have time to name all of them, but if something is going to have any real impact (sorry) on Earth, give it a name a person can shout at the sky whilst clinching their fists in frustration. They should name them based on size, speed, and weight, as well as possible consequences; if it could do an enormous amount of damage it’d be a Class A Fuckton meteor with an appropriate name like Ragehorn or Titanium Handgrenade.

The Technology Part of the Post

You know how, sometimes you want information on a medical problem and you go to Wikipedia and MYGODMYEYESWHYYYYY!

YAY! I’mma learn something! NOOOOO!

There, in front of you are the most horrific, psychically scarring images outside of a Saw film. At least with gore-porn films, you expect it & you know it’s not real. But no one needs to know what an excised verruca looks like. After my husband and I finished gagging and cringing and lamenting our lack of eye-bleach over the aforementioned photos, we found Hide Images . It’s an extension available for Firefox, Chrome and Safari and will hide images, logos, backgrounds, videos, iframes (Facebook boxes, YouTube, etc.), and multimedia/flash objects.  Click on the button whilst the page is loading and it removes all images before they’ve had a chance to make you regret every life decision that’s led you to the moment of seeing those images. Click the button again and the images return. It’d be nicer if you could tell the extension to load all pages from a site without images initially, but I’m happy to no longer fear vomiting on my laptop because I wanted to learn something new.

With our tax refund I’m getting a subscription to Poe Forevermore , the complete works of Edgar Allan Poe from Library of America, and a Kindle Fire.

Ugly Hill by Paul Southworth

Its primary use will be reading comics, but I’d like to check out free apps. So please share your recommendations.

Yay! Kindle Fire!

Yay! Edgar Allan Poe!

Yay! Not being killed by a meteor!


Up-Goer Five and Hypothetical Questions

by V. L. Craven

Up Goer Five very very top

XKCD is one of my favourite webcomics. I’m always particularly pleased when I understand the jokes. Luckily, there’s a site that explains the ones I don’t understand (80-90% of them).

Not long ago, there was a comic about the Up-Goer Five, the space car. It was a graphic that explained/described the shuttle using the thousand most common words in the English language and it was brilliant. Then, someone made a text editor that would only allow you to compose text using those thousand (whoops, ten hundred) words. FUN.

The Chronicle of Higher Education has a nice article about the Up-Goer Five text editor . It also mentions the Up-Goer Six text editor , which I find to be even more fun, as it colour-codes your words by how common they are.

There’s also a hilarious Tumblr of film descriptions using Up-Goer Five.

This came up when I searched for ‘Up-Goer Five’. I don’t know why, as it doesn’t apply.

Every Tuesday, the author of XKCD, Randall Munroe uses physics to answer hypothetical questions . Questions like: “If you carry a penny in your coin tray, how long would it take for that penny to cost you more than a cent in extra gas?” and “If every person on Earth aimed a laser pointer at the Moon at the same time, would it change color?”

Somewhat related to this is Slate’s Explainer , where they give actual answers to questions inspired by current events. Warning, that page is addictive to trivia-buffs. It’s like freakin’ TV Tropes in that you go in for a second and find yourself there right hours later, being interested in everything. Sometimes it’s a topic you’ve wondered about, while, other times, the topic makes you say, ‘You know… that’s an excellent question… How do courts handle the innocent half of a Siamese twin, if the other half has committed a crime?’


The Internet Wants to Make You Smarter

by V. L. Craven

You know you can fill your brain with interesting information you’ll never need by following one Wikipedia link to the next (there’s even a game based around that very thing ), but the Internet can make you smarter in other, more permanent ways. Using the magic of video.

[Warning: you can lose hours of your life on the following pages because there’s always ‘one…more…video…’]

YouTube has the educational and entertaining SciShow , which is done by Hank Green (one of the vlog brothers ).

They do regular shows on experiments, science news, pioneers in scientific fields and loads of other geeky things. One of their newest features is the SciShow Talk Show. The initial episode:

Which leads directly to The Brain Scoop , a channel by Emily Graslie that focuses on the ‘interesting’ things behind the scenes at a Zoological museum. They have a shirt that says ‘ Everything is Dead ‘. That should tell you a lot.

Here’s a video for you to watch. Then watch more of hers.

I mentioned the vlogbrothers above, and they have a channel, Crash Course , which is what it sounds like. Quick courses on History (US & World) & English Literature, as well as Ecology, Chemistry and Biology.

This is the intro to English Literature.

Then there’s Vsauce , which has science, as well, but is also heavy on general trivia. Vsauce like to explain/answer interesting questions. Like the science of the friend-zone:

If you like your trivia heavier on the funny and delivered with an English accent, head over to the Quite Interesting channel , with all of the QI episodes. You’ll laugh your arse off and learn a few things, as well.

Back in the States, Ze Frank is always funny, but his True Facts about animals are hilarious.

If you’re more into techy-geeky than science-geeky, there’s Code Academy , a free, online coding tutor that allows you to go at your own pace. My husband is using it to learn Python, but they have tracks to learn HTML, Javascript, CSS, Ruby, APIs, and jQuery.

Speaking of learning to code, K has also done a Coursera course on Python; one of the assignments of which was making a rock, paper, scissors, lizard, Spock game and the final was to build your own asteroid-shooter game so he enjoyed himself immensely. He’s also taken a course through Udacity and recommends that, as well. There are loads of free courses online, but I’m only including those I’ve personally heard good things about. If you’ve tried a site you liked, hit up the comments and let me know.

There’s a Coursera course coming up in March on Self Knowledge I’m considering doing, though my life is going to be in some turmoil due to employment fun, so we’ll see how that goes. If you’re taking it, please let me know. Perhaps we can be study-buddies.

If you need an information-fix and don’t have time to watch videos for some reason, there’s the Twitter.

I’ve recently got onto the Twitter and one of my favourite accounts is Curiosity , the most recent inhabitant of Mars. It posts in the first person, which is bloody fantastic.

Lookie what I did! It’s a hole in 1 rock on Mars. This “mini drill” was a test, more to come!

How do I take selfies on Mars? By taking multiple pics w/ a camera at the end of my arm. Here’s how it’s done:


Another interesting feed is Tyler Simko ( @thequantumaniac ), which is the Twitter feed of Quantumaniac , a blog full of physics and science goodness.

The fabulous Professor Brian Cox ( @ProfBrianCox ) has a twitter feed that’s just as enjoyable as you’d think.

For the funny trivia-lovers, there’s @mental_floss  and @qikipedia , which is run by The QI Elves and makes me snort with laughter at least once a day.

There are a bajillionty [totally scientific number] of other educational twitter feeds, please let me know which ones you like. Before I end this post, I have to mention @BBCNews , because just today it brought this to my iPod:

Thanks to their feed, I got to watch that before I was even out of bed this morning. Learning things rocks


Out-of-Body Experiences are Neuro-Chemical Events

by V. L. Craven

According to this BBC news article.

In Mary Roach’s book Spook she talks about a scientist who can recreate hauntings by stimulating a certain part of the brain. This is similar, except it’s out-of-body, walk-towards-the-light sorts of things rather than dead-Aunt-Marge-is-haunting-me-because-I- broke-that-goblet.

And not that Believers will care (I use the capital B because the people who believe believe with a B) but I died once. No light, no nothing. Just conscious, drowning, then being conscious again.

The thing that surprises me about the article–or any scientific discovery of this sort–is the note of shock. It seems to me that everything will eventually be explained by science and the sensible response to the type of discovery in the article would me, ‘Seat of Out-of-Body Experiences Discovered’.

It also seems a given that once hauntings could be explained scientifically every rational human would stop believing in ghosts.

Or perhaps we did.


Saving People’s Lives is Heresy

by V. L. Craven

I’m completely in favour of allowing people to drink sewage water if it’s their wish to do so. If you believe sewage has the magical ability to fix your problems… well, you’re not  wrong , per se. Roll on, active Darwinism, I say.


Addiction and Pets

by V. L. Craven

This week’s links is a short one (two entire entries), as I’m being lazy. I believe in honesty, so there it is.

First up, a fantastic video on the evolutionary explanation of addiction (drugs, alcohol, nicotine, video games, sex, gambling, everything-you-enjoy-doing). It’s also an excellent intro to neurochemicals in the brain. ‘Mo’ synapses, mo’ problems, yo.’

The Scishow has lots and lots of other entertaining and informative videos.

And secondly, for the animal lovers, put together a Pet First Aid Kit in case of an emergency. Animals are people, too.


I Knew It!

by V. L. Craven

Early risers are freaks!

Paddy K writes a spot on essay about a new study that shows that people who naturally get up early are the odd ones. I knew it… I so knew it.

Buncha nutters.

[This post is from a now-defunct blog. Original post date: 21 August, 2007]


Where’s My Torch?

by V. L. Craven


Finding Darwin’s God by Kenneth Miller

by V. L. Craven

Finding Darwin’s God by Kenneth R. Miller does an excellent job of showing the people with a fish on their cars that they can have their god and science, too. That’s the first half of the book–-pointing out the flaws in the various Creationist arguments. The second half is supposed to be aimed at nonbelievers, I think, but his arguments then fall apart. He does make some excellent points about the main problems in the arguments from atheists, though, which made me examine the reasons for my own beliefs more closely.

One of his points that I found most interesting was that science and religion answer different questions–science offers explanations of how we’re here and religion handles the why. I hadn’t thought about it in that way, but it’s a fair point. (Unfortunately, some religious people would say they were put here to make nonreligious people crazy–as well as the people who don’t follow their own religion.) And I still think any person with half a brain should be able to figure out that life is less stressful if you’re not an asshole. Miller argues that if it were possible to argue the majority of people out of their religion then pandemonium would reign. Now, I want to give people credit for not being stupid but… yeah, he’s probably right. Some people will always need a supernatural boogieman to keep them in line.

My big problem with Creationists was that I couldn’t figure out why they didn’t just say, ‘God created evolution. Isn’t he clever?’ Which is Miller’s premise. He then goes to explain how that could be possible and how the god that did that would be much more interesting than a god who did everything in one day (or seven). One of my favourite bits was when he said that once a woman told him she didn’t believe in evolution because it would have taken too long and Miller thought, “Because god, with all of eternity, was in a rush.”

My other favourite part was when he referenced St Augustine (a 4th theologian) who begged Christians not to stand up in public and make fools of themselves about science because that only made all Christians look stupid. I’m thinking of quoting that bit to the next Bible-thumper who says the Earth is flat or what-have-you.

I was lucky enough to have lunch with Mr Miller after reading his book and I thanked him for at least giving us a way to get along. As much as I admire Richard Dawkins, I don’t think that doing away with religion would do away with all the horrible things on the planet–even without a god on their side jackholes would still be jackholes. There would still be wars over land and money and all those fun things, the only difference would be that the war-makers would have one less thing to use against their enemies. But you can turn a group of strangers into arch-nemeses without invoking their mythologies by simply pointing out all the other ways they’re different from you and yours. Yes, it’d be nice for everyone to be completely rational–I’d like to be more rational about some things–but I’d settle for people just not being jerks. Miller makes a step toward that on at least this one issue.

[This post is from a previous blog. Orig. date: March 13, 2008]


Fire and Axes and Tanks, Oh My!

by V. L. Craven

This is an incredible ‘kinetic sculpture’ created to teach children about the transfer of energy.

There’s nothing I dislike about it. There’s lots of fire, an axe, a few arrows, a tank, a wrecking ball… I also enjoy the entire industrial feel of components–all rusted bits and iron bobs.

It was created by some very smart people–The Launchpad team–at London’s Science Museum and Engineered Arts Ltd.


Moses Was a Dirty Hippie

by V. L. Craven

An Israeli researcher says that Moses could have been on hallucinogenic drugs when he had that little convo on Mount Sinai with god, as certain drugs were often used in religious ceremonies back in the day.

That makes more sense than supernatural explanations. It would be like basing your life philosophy on something someone stoned out of their mind said whilst staring at their hands in the corner of a room at a party. ‘Duuuude, if people, could…like…just… be , you know? Like…everything would be cool if dude’s didn’t, like, want other dudes’ stuff…and, like, didn’t bang other dudes’ girls, and shit.’

That’s fitting, really, because in Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast Lewis Wolpert talks about how LSD and similar drugs makes people have religious experiences.

And it’s great that today’s biggest militaristic proponents of rigid order and no fun are worshipping the revelations of a dirty hippie who sat on a mountain and took some peyote.

I suppose we’re lucky that he didn’t come down the mountain and say: I’ve seen God and he’s a big pink elephant!

[This is a post from a previous blog. Original post date: 19.03.08]


Life, the Universe and Everything (Now with Graphics!)

by V. L. Craven

This link is useful because it’ll put things right into perspective.

From the article:

This visualisation from the Chronozoom project takes the biggest of big data – the universe itself – and makes it manageable, bringing videos, graphics and words together to picture the globe. If you roll over the scale at the top of the chart, click on origins of the modern world, jump to threshold and see just how we fit in

Feeling insignificant yet?


Gliese 581c (a.k.a. the Goth Homeworld)

by V. L. Craven

Thanks to Cracked, I’ve recently learned about Gliese 581c .

From this article.

Of the limited number of planets where humanity might actually be able to live, Gliese 581 c is the closest. But don’t think that means it looks like Earth. Assuming it could sustain life, here’s exactly what you could expect:

The planet orbits a red dwarf, so the sky would always be a bloody crimson. The red light wouldn’t just make you feel strange; it would affect all vegetation, forcing every plant to attain photosynthetic energy from the infrared spectrum. The tangible consequence of that is that every plant would look pitch black.

You would also wake up each day to a perpetual state of twilight. That’s because Gliese 581 c is so close to its star that it doesn’t revolve anymore; one side of the planet always faces the star, and one side stays in darkness forever. The only place where you or anything else could survive is on the narrow strip between the two where the temperature is just right.

And with one side of the planet always hot and one always cold, you can expect some strange weather patterns, with gale winds perpetually surging from the hot to the cold side every day, along with permanent torrential rain, because there are no seasons.

So to summarize: red skies, black plants, gale winds, never-ending twilight and a step too far in one direction could lead to either freezing to death or incineration.

And yet, rather than tiptoeing around that planet and looking for life somewhere a little less terrifying, we’re doing our best to wake up whatever nightmare might be living there already. In October 2008, we sent a message from Earth directly at Gliese 581 c, and it should reach the devil planet around 2029. Then, presumably, misfortune will infest our souls for eternity, but think of how much it will teach us about space!

I had to look up information about the message that was sent: (Bolded bit mine.)

More than half a million Bebo users had got involved in the competition for selecting the messages, and had uploaded their messages onto the social networking site. Several celebrities were also involved in the project, including Sir Patrick Moore, Deborah Meaden, Gillian Anderson and pop band McFly.
…The message also included images of notable landmarks, such as the London Eye and Edinburgh Castle, and of famous people, such as Hillary Clinton, Cheryl Cole and Richard and Judy.
… A senior astronomer from the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence Institute in California, Seth Shostak, had observed that it is unimportant whether the aliens who might receive the messages would understand them.

If anybody’s out there and they find that signal, they at least know that… there must be a planet with some pretty clever things on it.
—Seth Shostak

If I were an intelligent lifeform twenty light years away and I received a message including Richard and Judy, the chief thing I would learn from it was that I needed to head twenty light years in the opposite  direction.

[While I was caught in the gravitational pull of Wikipedia I also learned about the types of planets:

  • “rock giants” mostly of silicate.
  • “cannonball” planets of solid iron.
  • “gas dwarfs” mostly of helium and hydrogen.
  • carbon-rich “diamond worlds”
  • purely hot “ice VII worlds”.
  • purely “carbon monoxide worlds”.]



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