What happened to WhiteHouse.gov?

A number of people seem to have become concerned about changes to the WhiteHouse.gov website. In fact, this website belongs to the current US president, and (as far as I can tell) he can fill it up with nothing but cat videos if he so desires. However, it generally hosts a mixture of current administration policy and praise for whoever the current president happens to be.

Back in October 2016, Kori Schulman, Special Assistant and Deputy Chief Digital Officer for Obama, told us exactly what was going to happen: “Similar to the Clinton and Bush White House websites, President Obama’s WhiteHouse.gov will be preserved on the web and frozen after January 20th and made available at ObamaWhiteHouse.gov. The incoming White House will receive the WhiteHouse.gov domain and all content that has been posted to WhiteHouse.gov during the Obama administration will be archived with NARA [here].

I’ve heard particular concerns about the “open data” section of the old WhiteHouse.gov site. This was archived as well. Not that it was all that exciting – there were several spreadsheets, like the salary data I used to produce the histogram below. Most were poorly documented. US government datasets are generally maintained on specific agency websites and at data.gov. In particular, the White House staff salary data is available in a better-organised form at catalog.data.gov/dataset/white-house-staff-salaries-2011-16. It is not clear what is happening with the developer website at github.com/WhiteHouse.

On the whole, it seems to me that there are far more serious issues in US politics at the moment than this one.


Giordano Bruno


Giordano Bruno

The Telegraph tells me that “On this day [the 17th] in 1600, Giordano Bruno is burnt alive for his science, 42 years before Galileo.”

Just one problem – it’s not exactly true.

Giordano Bruno was a Catholic (Dominican) priest with a taste for unorthodox beliefs. He was first accused of heresy in 1576, four years after being ordained. He flirted with Calvinism and spent time in England, France, and Germany, but quarrelled with people wherever he went, and eventually returned to Italy. There the Inquisition condemned him, primarily for stating that “Christ was not God but merely an unusually skillful magician” (he was not condemned for Copernicanism, because that was not declared heretical until 1616).

Bruno was a philosopher and theologian with interests in astronomy and magic, rather than a scientist. He wrote no scientific works, although he did have several interesting ideas on the “art of memory,” and discussed the ideas of Copernicus with approval (though not always with understanding). He also suggested that distant stars had their own planets and life, although he had no evidence for this speculation. Few of Bruno’s works have been translated. Two that have been are Gli Eroici Furori and La Cena de le Ceneri. The latter includes a mix of religious, philosophical, and astronomical ideas.


Bruno before the Roman Inquisition


The Acacia wars, resolved

In an at times acrimonious process (some have even called it a “wattle war”), the former plant genus Acacia has been split into five genera, with further splits likely. The XVIII International Botanical Congress in 2011 confirmed a previous decision to retain the Acacia name for the largest of the resulting genera, found mainly in Australia:

“Under the internationally accepted rules governing the correct naming of plants, the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature, the name would normally have remained with the African-American group, as this includes the species Acacia nilotica, which is the nomenclatural type species… However, a special provision of the Code allows for the name of the type species of a genus to be changed in cases like this, where strict application of the rules would require a large number of species to be renamed… An application under this provision was made in 2003… This was considered by the relevant botanical committees, who decided in its favour. The International Botanical Congress at Vienna in 2005 ratified this decision. The Vienna decision was contested by a group of botanists involved with African and American acacias. The Melbourne Congress, in two important votes on the first day of the Nomenclature Section, supported the procedure used in Vienna by a large majority. Support for this decision was widespread and not confined to Australian delegates. This vote effectively confirmed that the type species of Acacia is now an Australian species.”

The resulting division of the former Acacia is as follows:

The map below shows the distribution of the new genera, divided into the Americas, Africa, Asia, and Australia & the Pacific (background image from NASA Visible Earth). A degree of reorganisation was going to be needed whatever nomenclature proposal was accepted, but it certainly made sense to retain the Acacia name for 71% of the original species (although Wikipedia, which becomes more and more partisan as time passes, ran a campaign against the official decision for several years). The botanical community seems quite happy using the new names, and it does not seem that the issue will resurface at the XIX International Botanical Congress later this year, although there continues to be debate about how to resolve similar issues in the future.

Here are the five new genera, with examples:

Mariosousa

About 13 species, in the Americas. See theplantlist.org.


Mariosousa willardiana (Palo Blanco – photo: Tomas Castelazo)

Acaciella

About 15 species, in the Americas. See theplantlist.org.


Acaciella angustissima (photo: USDA)

Vachellia

About 163 species, throughout the tropics. See theplantlist.org.


Vachellia smallii (photo: Stan Shebs)

Senegalia

About 203 species, throughout the tropics. See theplantlist.org. This genus is likely to be split further.


Senegalia laeta (photo: Marco Schmidt)

Acacia

About 987 species, almost all in Australia and the Pacific.


Acacia pycnantha (Golden Wattle – photo: Melburnian)


Happy Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children Foundation Day!

Tomorrow is February the 14th. On this day in 1859, Oregon became the 33rd US state. Seven years earlier, in 1852, Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children was founded in London (photo below by Nigel Cox). And, of course, there is a certain saint