Thursday, March 31, 2011

"...Elasticity, Distinctness, Circumcision (see God)..."

Volume I: Angel, Animal, Aristocracy, Art, Astronomy, Beauty, Being, Cause, Chance, Change, Citizen, Constitution, Courage, Custom and Convention, Definition, Democracy, Desire, Dialectic, Duty, Education, Element, Emotion, Eternity, Evolution, Experience, Family, Fate, Form, God, Good and Evil, Government, Habit, Happiness, History, Honor, Hypothesis, Idea, Immortality, Induction, Infinity, Judgment, Justice, Knowledge, Labor, Language, Law, Liberty, Life and Death, Logic, and Love
Volume II: Man, Mathematics, Matter, Mechanics, Medicine, Memory and Imagination, Metaphysics, Mind, Monarchy, Nature, Necessity and Contingency, Oligarchy, One and Many, Opinion, Opposition, Philosophy, Physics, Pleasure and Pain, Poetry, Principle, Progress, Prophecy, Prudence, Punishment, Quality, Quantity, Reasoning, Relation, Religion, Revolution, Rhetoric, Same and Other, Science, Sense, Sign and Symbol, Sin, Slavery, Soul, Space, State, Temperance, Theology, Time, Truth, Tyranny, Universal and Particular, Virtue and Vice, War and Peace, Wealth, Will, Wisdom, and World
The 102 "Great Ideas" of Mortimer Adler's Syntopicon, index to the Great Books of the Western World set. This index, along with the whole Great Books project, received a fierce critique from Dwight MacDonald in The New Yorker:
[Footnote:] Inevitably, the choice was more than a little arbitrary: to the naked eye, such rejected ideas as Fact, Faith, Sex, Thought, Value, and Woman seem as "great" as some of those included. However, the Doctor has appended to his Syntopicon those sixteen hundred small ideas, running from A Priori to Zoology via such way stations as Gluttony (see Sin), Elasticity, Distinctness, Circumcision (see God), and Daydreaming (see Desire). This inventory relates each of these small ideas to the Great Ideas (or Great Idea) under which references pertinent to the small ideas can be found, and all one needs to find one's way around in the Syntopicon is some sort of idea, Great or small (plus, naturally, plenty of time and determination).
...we have a fantastically elaborate index whose fatal defect is just what Dr. Adler thinks is its chief virtue: its systematic all-inclusive- ness.... This approach is wrong theoretically because the only one of the authors who wrote with Dr. Adler's 2,987 topics in mind was Dr. Adler. And it is wrong practically because the reader's mental compartmentation doesn't correspond to Dr. Adler's, either.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Al-Jazari's automata

In the early 13th century, the Muslim engineer Al-Jazari designed complex clockwork devices such as the peacock fountain depicted above, which was both ornamental and functional:
Al-Jazari's peacock fountain was a more sophisticated hand washing device, featuring humanoid automata as servants which offer soap and towels. Pulling a plug on the peacock's tail releases water out of the beak, and as the dirty water from the basin fills the hollow base a float rises and actuates a linkage, which makes a servant figure appear from behind a door under the peacock and offer soap. When more water is used, a second float at a higher level trips and causes the appearance of a second servant figure, this time with a towel!
His other designs include robotic musicians and the elephant clock, of which a modern replica exists in Dubai

Monday, March 28, 2011

Paper crane

I bought this crane from a fundraiser at my college for the Japanese relief effort. The backdrop is my Syntax classwork-- those trees seemed like an appropriate habitat for a geometric paper bird.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Saturnian "speech"

These spooky sounds do vaguely resemble distorted speech, even in their unmodified form. But this reveals nothing about any life-forms on Saturn (an unlikely notion); rather, it reveals a lot about the way humans perceive sounds. Our pattern-seeking instincts cause us to hear "speech"-- even if we can't comprehend its "message"-- in random natural noises such as wind.

Update: Saturn's radio signals are asymmetrical:
Recent data from NASA's Cassini spacecraft show that the variation in radio waves controlled by the planet's rotation is different in the northern and southern hemispheres. Moreover, the northern and southern rotational variations also appear to change with the Saturnian seasons, and the hemispheres have actually swapped rates.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Scrapple = serious business

In 1872, the letters page of the New York Times was the stage for a heated debate which, in form and content, seems eerily familiar to modern netizens. The subject that caused so much controversy? Scrapple:
It all started with one reader’s paean to his favorite breakfast food. Calling himself “EPICURE,” he pronounced the dish—a Spam-like slab of cornmeal and pig parts—both delicious and inexpensive. If anyone was interested, he continued, he’d be delighted to share his good lady’s recipe.
Two days later, at the urging of several readers, the recipe ran.
Over the next two weeks, The Times published more than two dozen letters on the subject of scrapple, which, taken together, form a sort of steampunk prototype for online food discussion. It’s all there: the pseudonymous “usernames,” the off-topic ranting, the preoccupation with pork fat. In short, it’s a modern-day food thread in very slow motion.
[...]As always, the haters far outnumbered the fans: One reader declared that he’d just as soon fry bread in lard and eat it than partake in what others called an “abominable mess,” a “culinary fraud upon the stomach” and a great way to contract trichinosis.
Participants in the discussion didn’t just object to scrapple, of course. They also objected to each other. In what may be the earliest recorded example of a “flame,” H.G. punned on A GOOD LIVER’s pen-name, suggesting that he be “boiled and chopped up” for his ignorance.

Monday, March 21, 2011

The ambiguous Longisquama

Longisquama BW
One reconstruction of the Triassic reptile Longisquama, which is known only from one fossil. The "plumes" on its back may actually be ferns preserved nearby.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Giants and airy spirits in the outer solar system

Excerpts from Wikipedia's article on naming conventions for planetary moons:
In 1847 the seven then known moons of Saturn were named by John Herschel. Herschel named Saturn's two innermost moons (Mimas and Enceladus) after the mythological Greek Giants, and the outer five after the Titans (Titan, Iapetus) and Titanesses (Tethys, Dione, Rhea) of the same mythology.... Since the outer moons fall naturally into three groups, one group is named after Norse giants, one after Gallic giants, and one after Inuit giants....
[Uranus:] Herschel, instead of assigning names from Greek mythology, named the moons after magical spirits in English literature: the fairies Oberon and Titania from William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, and the sylphs Ariel and Umbriel from Alexander Pope's The Rape of the Lock (Ariel is also a sprite in Shakespeare's The Tempest). The reasoning was presumably that Uranus, as god of the sky and air, would be attended by spirits of the air.
Subsequent names, rather than continuing the "airy spirits" theme (only Puck and Mab continuing the trend), have focused on Herschel's source material.... Current IAU practice is to name moons after characters from Shakespeare's plays and The Rape of the Lock.
In addition, individual geological features on moons have their own naming conventions: those of Ariel are named for spirits of light, those of Umbriel bear the names of darker spirits, and those of Miranda continue the Shakespearean theme of Uranian satellites. Features on Titan get their names from such varied concepts as "sacred or enchanted places", "planets from the fictional Dune universe created by Frank Herbert", and "islands on Earth that are not politically independent".

Friday, March 18, 2011

A thousand-year song

Longplayer is a computer-generated musical composition, composed from the sounds of Tibetan singing bowls and designed to play for 1000 years, never repeating itself exactly: 
It works in a way somewhat akin to a system of planets, which are aligned only once every thousand years, and whose orbits meanwhile move in and out of phase with each other in constantly shifting configurations. In a similar way, Longplayer is predetermined from beginning to end – its movements are calculable, but are occurring on a scale so vast as to be all but unknowable.
This astronomical simile is appropriate, since the process behind Longplayer can be represented by a series of concentric circles-- each one containing a musical score that advances at a different rate and plays at a different pitch, but all following the same pattern.

Its ethereal sounds-- which for me evoke a clear starry night sky-- can be heard on a live stream. Part of the score (in sync with the portion of the whole composition playing at that time) has also been performed live with singing bowls arranged in circles; the performance looks like a solemn mystical ritual:

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Borges on illogical theology

Moreover, arguing that an error against God is infinite because He is infinite is like arguing that it is holy because God is, or like thinking that the injuries attributed to a tiger must be striped.
From "The Duration of Hell" by Jorge Luis Borges. 

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Robot penguins of the air

Real penguins fly underwater; these ones swim gracefully through the air:
[Update, April 9: Embedded video no longer works, but can be seen on YouTube.]

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Insulting presuppositions

John called Mary a Republican, and then SHE insulted HIM.
Example sentence from George Lakoff's paper "Presupposition and relative well-formedness". Lakoff says he finds this sentence entirely acceptable, "though those with other beliefs may disagree".

Wednesday, March 9, 2011


Illustrations of spicules, spines found in the skin of sea cucumbers. 
Micro-photos of these pretty objects can be seen here and here; they also appear in the border of this sea-cucumber drawing by Ernst Haeckel.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Colored carnations

Originally pure white, these flowers have been watered with a solution of food coloring:

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Signal and noise

One of the weirder signals that has been picked up on shortwave radio is "The Workshop":
The signal sounds like a transmitter has been powered up with the microphone left open, in a mechanical workshop.
Banging, crashing, footsteps, distant voices and ringing telephones can be heard in the distance.
Here is a recording (it's very loud and discordant, especially at the beginning, so I recommend turning the volume down before listening):
  Tcp d4 30 workshop irdial by The Conet Project
The (synthesized?) voice chanting "Foxtrot. Tango. India" suggests that the Workshop signal was being used to jam a numbers station, but if so the jamming was not successful. Whatever might have been going on, the resulting signal is a fine piece of accidental art. Its combination of ghostly voices with static and mechanical clanging reminds me of early wax cylinder recordings.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Galileo and the collapse of Dante's Inferno

The young Galileo took part in a curious controversy which raged among Italian Renaissance intellectuals, and his participation would lead him to some vital insights about structure:
Ever since its 1314 publication, scholars had toiled to map the physical features of Dante’s Inferno — the blasted valleys and caverns, the roiling rivers of fire. What Galileo said, put simply, is that many commonly accepted dimensions did not stand up to mathematical scrutiny. Using complex geometrical analysis, he attacked a leading scholar’s version of the Inferno’s structure, pointing out that his description of the infernal architecture — such as the massive cylinders descending to the center of the Earth — would, in real life, collapse under their own weight. Later, Galileo realized the leading rival theory was wrong, too, and that even the greatest scholars of the time simply didn’t understand how real-world structures worked.
Debating the mechanics of the Inferno might sound like intellectual horseplay, the 16th-century equivalent of MIT cafeteria debates about the viability of “Star Trek” teleporters. But there was more to the lectures than this. The insights Galileo gleaned from analyzing Dante’s measurements in fact anticipated a vital principle of structural engineering.
Galileo defended the Infernal design of Antonio Manetti against that of Alessandro Vellutello:
The various levels of Manetti’s Inferno are regularly spaced, for the most part, with 1/8 the radius of the earth between each level and the next. In particular the first level, Limbo, is at a depth of 1/8 the radius of the earth below the surface, and the shell of material down to this depth forms a cap of this thickness over the whole of Hell. Vellutello’s Inferno, by contrast, is much smaller, located near the center of the earth, and only about 1/10 the radius of the earth in height, making it, as Galileo is quick to say, ridiculously small, only 1/1000 the volume of Manetti’s.
[Galileo describes] a scale model of the roof of the Inferno, including a certain anteroom hollowed out of it, at a scale of about 1 braccia [about 26 inches] to 100 miles. A normal man is 3 braccias tall, so the model suggests a large domed roof, somewhat smaller than the famous Brunelleschi dome of the Florentine cathedral which, as Galileo says, is less than 4 braccias thick and supports itself beautifully. This is a convincing argument that Manetti’s model can support itself – but only until you realize that the argument assumes scale invariance! Could you really scale it up by a factor of 100,000? Absolutely not! The scaled up version is effectively weaker by that enormous factor and would immediately collapse of its own weight.