Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Genghis etc
Just finished reading a bio of Genghis Khan- interesting- especially the recipe for Marmot (ground squirrel) cooked in a bag of it's own skin. (see also: In Our Time podcast on Genghis)
An illiterate orphan on the Mongolian Steppe becomes a genocidal megalomaniac and takes over the world- from the Pacific Ocean to Hungary. He fights hard, he plays hard, and he f%cks hard- thus explaining the 16 million descendants he has now (based on Y chromosome analysis).
The big question (unanswered in the book) is why? There is always a feeling of teleogism when thinking about these things: if it isn't a Genghis it'd probably have been some other Tom, Dick or Napoleon.
True- he was a 'master' tactician in battle- although he seems to have used the same tactic again and again - of feigning retreat before the surprise denouement.
Fast battle-front communications using a 'pony-express' helped. As did the extreme loyalty of his men - rewarded with fair distribution of the spoils of war. A little bit of brutality and butchery never went astray.

Once Genghis let the whole 'conquer-the-world' thing get out of the bag- it seemed to require ongoing expansion to pay off his ever-expanding army (reminiscent of a giant military Ponzi scheme.). Perhaps the lack of a monetised economy was the real problem. Parasitic nomadic Mongol raiders looked at heir city-dwelling prey with contempt. They looted their wealth and divided their lands yet never contributed to economic activity themselves.

There were, however, lighthearted moments- The Christian kingdoms of Europe heard rumors of an empire in the east battling the Muslims and assumed it was a mythical Christian savior from India. Unfortunately for them, it was Genghis and his henchmen! Eastern Europe didn't know what hit it- and didn't stand a chance- but the invasion was called off just as abruptly when Genghis became ill and the armies recalled to Mongolia (after a quick whip around the Caspian Sea).

In the end, Genghis' grandson Kublai inherited the kingdom (at least the eastern part of it)- eventually inviting Marco Polo to come for a play-date. Whilst rotting in a Genoan prison, Marco dictated his book that eventually inspired Columbus to find a sea route to China, and later inspired Samuel Taylor Coleridge to write a mysterious poem after an opium binge. The poem then became the basis for an ELO/ Olivia Newton John hit single "Xanadu" in the 80's which brings us up to the present day. Click play on both videos at the same time for surreal effect.

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea...

A place where nobody dared to go
The love that we came to know
They call it Xanadu

And now
Open your eyes and see
What we have made is real
We are in Xanadu

A million lights are dancing
And there you are
A shooting star
An everlasting world
And you're here with me

Xanadu, Xanadu,
(now we are here)
In Xanadu
Xanadu, Xanadu,
(now we are here)
In Xanadu

The love
The echoes of long ago
You needed the world to know
They are in Xanadu

The dream
That came through a million years
That lived on through all the tears
It came to Xanadu

Now that I'm here
Now that you're near in Xanadu
Now that I'm here
Now that you're near in Xanadu

etc etc

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Font Rage

There are a few things that really piss me off. One is companies that chose their name in the 90's, thinking that the year 2000 would sound futuristic: "M2000 Car Rentals" comes to mind. How dumb that sounds now- particularly when combined with fucking POOR FONT CHOICE! Would you trust a neurosurgeon with a Comic Sans* door-plate? Sure, he'd probably be a friendly fat sweaty guy- but that sweat could drip into your brain intra-operatively. The other thing i hate is companies that call themselves "Just Jeans" or "Just Vacuums" or "Just for Cats". After a while they realize that well- maybe they do actually sell stuff for dogs- then they have to add in a little sub-plot: "we're not just for cats!"- usually there's an exclamation point (don't ask me why but it adds a little saccharine cheeriness).

no comic sans sticker

* There is now an "I Hate Comic Sans" web group of cranks that i've now joined. See how the internet can bring crazy people together? it's great.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Obituary: "One Third of People Said They Couldn't Stand Him".

Recently in the news, a tragic mountain-climbing death*1. TV reporters interview the deceased's boss who states something to the effect that "well, you either loved him or you hated him".
Now, in my mind, that's not a very sporting thing to say- even when the guy was alive. What that's really saying is "everyone i know hated him, but i can't absolutely exclude the possibility of some person not disliking him- possibly in China given they have 1/5 of the world's population. ".
When i die, i'd like to think that 95% of people would be within 2 standard deviations *2 of the mean in terms of their regard for me.

*1) Of people who are killed doing something crazy it is always said:"He died doing what he loved doing.". But did he love dying???? I detest people who kill themselves trying to achieve pointless goals- like being the 3rd shortest man to circumnavigate the world in a manila envelope. They had it coming. We should not rescue them.
*2) I suspect the whole equation for the 'standard deviation' is there to get rid of the 'negative' distance to the left of the mean by taking a square root of a square. Why can't you just average the distance from the mean is what i'm saying?

Eat Shit for Money: Idea for Reality-TV Game Show.

I spend very little time watching the "idiot-box" , and too too much time in front of the "clever-box" (i.e. the interweb) that i got a shock the other night when i switched on the TV and saw how bad it had become.

Reality show after reality show- but what do they have in common? Self-degradation for cash prizes. In a few years it'll hit "rock-bottom"- but why wait?

So here's my pitch- lets SIMPLIFY. The presmise of ESFM- a panel of contestants are encouraged (goaded) by a doubling jackpot (and a handsome host with a 12 Da-Vinci Porcelain Veneer Smile) to eat a piece of shit. Additionally, to sweeten the deal, the size of the piece of shit is progressively halved.

This is what i think - everyone has their price. Would you eat a 75g turd for $1.60? Probably not. But what about 0.0001 g for 15 million dollars?

X minus One: Radio SF from 1955

Even the Jetsons thought this was a bit OTT.

"X Minus One" is a great old science fiction radio series from the 50's- now available for you ipod. What's always fascinating to me is the past's view of the future. (Here's a great website i've spent hours looking through: "Tales of Future Past")

Listening with a 2008 sensibility must be completely unlike listening back in 1955. In 2008, you notice that certain things 'jar'- like moon-base ashtrays, blatant office sexism, or using morse code to send signals to mars. The things you were presumably 'supposed' to notice as being futuristic- like instantaneous 2-way audio/video communication - you have difficulty in even noticing at all!

It's hard not to be smug with 20/20 hindsight... i'm sure all our current 'futures' will seem as ludicrous to the Martian trans-humanists in 50 years.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Shave and A Haircut?
You probably think you don't know this 'tune' but you probably do. Years ago i was amazed when my girlfriend-at-the-time used the same knock (as in knock on the front door knock) as i did. Wow! How did you know the family knock? I just assumed it was a local phenomenon. I went around asking people at work- "If you went to a friend's house and knocked on the door- what knock would you use?". Most people's knock was the same. "How did you know that knock?" i demanded- but nobody knew.- and everybody thought i was strange. It'd been passed down from generation to generation- it's origin lost in the mist of time. Even the interweb didn't help- i tried googling:

"knock rhythms"
"knock rhythm meme"
"dum-dum-de-dum-dum... dum dum"

Until, one day, Bo Diddley died. I read his obit- and then downloaded some of the dead man's music: "I know a cat named way out Willie- who had a cool little chick named rockin' Millie" etc. There's a link on his wikipedia entry: "Bo Diddley Beat" which then links to a page entitled "Shave and a Haircut". Finally!

Apparently the 1st known occurrence of the tune is from 1899 : "At a Darktown Cakewalk" by Charles Hay. Much later, Milton Berle added the lyrics "Shave and a haircut- shampoo!"- hence the current name of the tune!

Apparently in Mexico, the tune is associated with a profane insult. Whistling the tune is deemed highly offensive and means "Chinga tu madre, cabrón" where cabrón represents the final two notes, and can be used as a response. It can be translated as "Go fuck your mother, you bastard."

I guess there's nothing new about a sticky, memish 'earworm' tune- but why has this one's rhythm become divorced from it's melody and migrated from orchestra to 'front door' (if you consider this an instrument). I wonder if there are any recorded similar migrations?

Who knows if Charles Hay invented the rhythm or adapted it from a preceding door-knock? Or a Charleston rhythm, or Latin American clave rhythm? If he did, he must be an even better song-writer that the sisters who wrote the tune to te ever-popular 'happy birthday to you' in 1893. In 1990 that song was valued at $5 million. (Copyright won't expire until 2030 so remember kids- you can't sing 'happy birthday' or download music- it's illegal.)

What would have happened in , say, 1850 - if you went to your Mexican friend's house for his birthday?: "knock knock knock - let's eat cake". It's hard to conceive of a world without these things.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Theresa Andersson

Swedish spunk Theresa Andersson is amazing .. heard this song on npr's "song of the day" and loved it- but had no idea that she was a one woman show! Is that an Ikea shoe rack she's using to hold her guitar pedals? Oh well- i guess she is Swedish! And i think that stool is also from Ikea. Two other things- one is (although i have a 'foot aversion') i think she also has very sexy dextrous feet- like a MONKEY. The second is - you never see guys doing this shtick - always girls (KT Tunstall , Laura veirs etc) .. because we can't multitask. Many of us can barely unitask. I cannot talk and write at the same time. My brother-in-law apparently cannot drive and talk at the same time. I cannot drive and change the track on my ipod at the same time- yet i do try. I'd like to see a fMRI of Theresa's brain when she's singing and got all 4 limbs playing different instruments. If only she had a tail!

npr version here (better audio quality)

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Financial Crisis Explained: Don't Lend Money to Men in String Vests!

Blinktwice4y is cool and needs a record deal ASAP.

Just some generic Chinese guy? Yep but - he's cool. Who is he? No idea- his "youtube" ID is "Blinktwice4y".. the 1st song is about a Mario Videogame- yet it sounds like a Sufjan Steven's ode to a girlfriend dying of metastatic cancer.

"The Dinner Party" from The New Yorker

Great short story : "The Dinner Party" from Joshua Ferris from the August 08 New Yorker... that poor sap- he had no idea what was coming!

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Friday, December 05, 2008

The Poetry Of Science

This is the official explanation of the September malfunction of the "Large Hadron Collider" at CERN in Geneva. It is obviously a phenomenally complicated bit of equipment- but this 'explanation' reminds me of the typical Star-Trek babble used to explain away flimsy plot resolutions: "Captain i managed to reprogram the fusion generators by re-routing the di-lithium crystal manifold .. blah blah". If you read it as poetry i think you'll agree there is some elegance to it:

Within the first second,
an electrical arc developed

and punctured the helium enclosure,
leading to release of helium into the insulation vacuum of the cryostat.
The spring-loaded relief discs on the vacuum enclosure opened
when the pressure exceeded atmospheric,
thus relieving the helium to the tunnel.
They were however unable to contain the pressure rise
below the nominal 0.15 MPa absolute
in the vacuum enclosures of subsector 23-25,
thus resulting in large pressure forces acting on the vacuum barriers
separating neighboring subsectors,
which most probably damaged them.
These forces displaced dipoles
in the subsectors affected from their cold internal supports,
and knocked the Short Straight Section cryostats
housing the quadrupoles and vacuum barriers
from their external support jacks
at positions Q23, Q27 and Q31,
in some locations breaking their anchors
in the concrete floor of the tunnel.
The displacement of the Short Straight Section cryostats
also damaged the “jumper” connections
to the cryogenic distribution line,
but without rupture of the transverse vacuum barriers
equipping these jumper connections,
so that the insulation vacuum
in the cryogenic line
not degrade.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Professor Wikipedia

Did you know that Ryan Seacrest contains many of the elements necessary to facilitate a chemical reaction!?

Stevie Wonder Was Twins!

Listening to his music, it's almost as if- could it really be true- there were TWO Stevie Wonders? Has anyone seen the movie "The Prestige"? It's like that.

Don't let all the BAD BAD Stevie Wonder songs like these:

1. Jungle Fever: "I've got jungle fever. She's got jungle fever. We've got jungle fever" Ebola Epidemic?
2. Knocks Me Off My Feet: "I see us in the park, strolling...." for goodness sake.
3. Castle of Love: "..I've been building my castle for two.." Is that birds' chirping i can hear or some mp3 artifact?
4. Part Time Lover: "Knowing it's so wrong, but feeling it's so right!"
5. I'll be Loving You Always: something or other about "rosebuds blooming in early may"
6. My Cherie Amour: "lovely as a summer day, distant as the milky way".
7. These 3 Words: "When was the last time that i heard you say: mother or father i love you?"
8. Every other Stevie Wonder song not listed here

..turn you off all the GOOD GOOD GOOD Stevie Wonder songs like these. Crank up the button that says "vol" and you won't be able to stop smiling and wiggling your head. Try! Impossible!

1. Master Blaster (Jammin'): Peace has come to Zimbabwe- well... not quite but Cholera (yes), HIV (yes)...
2. Higher Ground: Bloggers KEEP ON BLOGGING!
3. Living for the City: Living just enough for the CI-TAYYY!!!
4. Sir Duke: I can feel it all over Stevie!!!
5. Superstitious: Even the 1st 2 bars are worth the price of admission!
6. Signed Sealed Delivered: Here i am Baby!

Borderline Stevie Wonder... but if you've been dumped/just fallen in love/celebrating Martin Luther King Jr Day then these soppy numbers might seem OK.

1. Isn't She Lovely: Yes she is - borderline soppy but still funky
2. Happy Birthday- now that you know its about the fight to get a national holiday to commemorate MLK's assassination it's hard to dance around in your pyjamas on your own birthday without thinking about social justice issues.
3. You Are the Sunshine of my Life: sing it at your wedding.

Is Zero Apples the same as Zero Oranges?

My 3 year old can count backwards from 10 - although he thinks that the correct mathematical term for -1 is "blast-off". I'm sure high-level math would benefit from renaming -1 in this fashion. What is the square root of "blast off"? That's irrational!

I have been trying to teach my 5 year old daughter basic addition and subtraction- best done using food. I gave her 6 chocolates, and she 'subtracted' (i.e. ate) each one in turn...

"6 chocolates minus 1 chocolate is?"
"5 ..4 ..3..2..1."

After eating the last one, i thought she'd immediately say "zero" but she said "No chocolates left". Maybe she's right... after all, 1 apple is clearly different to 1 orange but is/are zero apples really the same as zero oranges?* This seems incorrect to me- clearly there is an assumption with a mathematical sequence of apples that you're not 'allowed' to suddenly stick in a watermelon or an elephant. All those places seem to be reserved for apples.

In other words, are there many different 'zeros'?

Maybe we should we be calling the empty space left on the table after the last chocolate has been eaten as "The Empty (Chocolate) Set"... i.e. a virtual space reserved for a number of chocolates- but nothing else. Apparently, however , there is only one "empty set"... so that scotches that idea. This is the problem with D.I.Y mathematics- particularly when you're not that mathematical.

I got to thinking about all the stuff i learned in primary school about numbers.. how we learned how to do (short) division... but in fact only really learned how somebody ELSE did division. It's not as if any of us had any idea why we were "carrying the one" anywhere.

According to wikipedia- here is the REAL explanation: The procedure relies on the division algorithm, which states that given any two integers a and d, with d ≠ 0, there exist unique integers q and r such that a = qd + r and 0 ≤ r < |d |, where |d | denotes the absolute value of d.

You manipulate the symbols in a particular way- hey presto. Ditto for calculus - getting good marks in no way required you to understand what you were doing. In fact, it probably would have been distracting. Leibniz and Newton would roll in their graves.

5th grade geometry: "Parallel Lines Never Intersect"... except in the real world!- and that is why if you walk 400km north, then 400km east, 400km south and 400km west you will very likely end up far far away from where you started. I've always been interested in the idea that, when placed on a map "North & South" seem analogous to "East and West" as if they were equivalent to Cartesian y and x. Walking "South" is not like simply walking East in a different direction.

Luckily, when you get off the surface of the earth and into deep space, the universe really does seem to be "flat" -according to data from the WMAP satellite. There was some suspicion that it was actually a 4-dimensional doughnut shape (no joke) but this apparently has been discredited now much to my disappointment.

* also, why is it correct to use a plural when talking about "zero" somethings???

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Tom Waits, Ron Perlman, Nick Cave

Is it just me or has anyone else noticed a weird convergence between Nick Cave and Tom Waits (all Nick cave songs would sound better if sung by Tom Waits) , and between Ron-Hellboy-Perlman and Tom Waits (Ron Perlman looks more like Tom Waits than Tom Waits does).

please compare:

That's One Big Amoeba

The New York Times has an interesting article about a giant 1.5 inch diameter amoeba (Gromia sphaerica) that can roll itself along the ocean floor. That's pretty big for a single celled organism! I wonder what the biggest 'single cell' is? I guess for length you'd have to go for a blue whale neuron ... For size? An Ostrich egg perhaps (if you can include gametes). Interesting that whale ova are smaller than ostrich ova- this is probably the whole point of a placenta.
Why are we happy to eat the ova of chickens but not rooster semen? I wonder what Gromia tastes like?

Other Food Things I Wish I Could Forget:

1. eggs are chicken ova

2. gelatine is made from boiled animal bones and skin.

3. musk comes from a gland near the anus of deer.

4. the bacteria responsible for stinky cheese is also found between the toes.