November 7th, 2013

I know I don’t need to believe, I know

August 24th, 2013

Apollo computer

A fascinating insight into how astronauts would have interacted with the Apollo’s computer. (via kottke)

May 12th, 2013

understanding your stocks and shares in the nick of time

This page offers an interesting explanation of the phrase ‘in the nick of time’, but what I found most delightful was — in a side note — the brilliant imagery behind what I had previously thought were two very dull words: ‘stocks’ and ‘shares’. Apparently these words ‘refer to the splitting of such sticks (stocks) along their length and sharing the two matching halves as a record of a deal.’ Wikipedia offers a more detailed explanation:

The split tally was a technique which became common in medieval Europe, which was constantly short of money (coins) and predominantly illiterate, in order to record bilateral exchange and debts. A stick (squared hazelwood sticks were most common) was marked with a system of notches and then split lengthwise. This way the two halves both record the same notches and each party to the transaction received one half of the marked stick as proof.

Later this technique was refined in various ways and became virtually tamper proof. One of the refinements was to make the two halves of the stick of different lengths. The longer part was called stock and was given to the party which had advanced money (or other items) to the receiver. The shorter portion of the stick was called foil and was given to the party which had received the funds or goods. Using this technique each of the parties had an identifiable record of the transaction. The natural irregularities in the surfaces of the tallies where they were split would mean that only the original two halves would fit back together perfectly, and so would verify that they were matching halves of the same transaction. If one party tried to unilaterally change the value of his half of the tally stick by adding more notches, those notches would not be on the other tally stick and would be revealed as an attempted forgery.

The split tally was accepted as legal proof in medieval courts and the Napoleonic Code (1804) still makes reference to the tally stick in Article 1333.[4] Along the Danube and in Switzerland the tally was still used in the 20th century in rural economies.

Better than today’s anti-fraud technology! (Wiki)

April 28th, 2013

there’s too much directing around here

An amusing and insightful recording of an attempt to direct Orson Welles on a voice over for a Findus frozen foods commercial. Welles gets more obnoxious the more frustrated he gets.

April 28th, 2013

war of the radiowaves

From radio fax in 1938 to Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds broadcast, also in 1938. Here’s some excellent footage of Welles responding to the press after the broadcast.

April 27th, 2013

radio facsimile

1938-finch-machine-sm

I’m in love with this invention and the appearance of this prototype… It’s an elegant idea, probably too much before its time to really catch on. And now it’s pretty much obsolete as a concept. A newspaper delivered by radio as you sleep, printed in your home. And in 1938!

This invention of a wireless fax, as it were, was credited to W.G. H. Finch and used radio spectrum that was otherwise unused during the late-night hours when most Americans were sleeping. The FCC granted a special license for these transmissions to occur between midnight and 6am, though it would seem that a noisy printing device in your house cranking away in the middle of the night might have been the fatal flaw in their system. It wasn’t exactly a fast delivery either, as the article notes that it takes “a few hours” for the machine to produce your wireless fax newspaper.

The Smithsonian’s online magazine has a nice write-up on the invention here. And here’s a video of it in action (you need Quicktime to view it).

February 6th, 2013

how fungi saved the world

There was apparently a time in our planet’s history when plants evolved into trees (in order to be able to grow taller while still supporting themselves structurally) but there was no type of fungi yet evolved that could break down the trees when they died. So for a long period trees just piled up. This interesting BBC documentary on decay explains the Carboniferous period. (via reddit)

December 22nd, 2012

choreographie

Via Public Domain Review:

Collection of Dances in Choreography Notation (1700)
Images extracted from the latter half of Choregraphie, a book first published in 1700 which details a dance notation system invented by Raoul-Auger Feuillet which revolutionised the dance world. The system indicates the placement of the feet and six basic leg movements: plié, releveé, sauté, cabriole, tombé, and glissé. Changes of body direction and numerous ornamentations of the legs and arms are also part of the system which is based on tract drawings that trace the pattern of the dance. Additionally, bar lines in the dance score correspond to bar lines in the music score. Signs written on the right or left hand side of the tract indicate the steps. Voltaire ranked the invention as one of the “achievements of his day” and Denis Diderot devoted ten pages to the subject in his Encylopdédie.

The diagrams really get my imagination going.

December 8th, 2012

mechanised birdsong

A mechanical singing bird mechanism. Made around 120 years ago in Paris, probably by Bontems. In the film I hope you can identify all the major parts and see them working together to make the sound. The mechanism was in a rusted and seized state and has been restored. Surpisingly the bellows are in good original condition. See our channel for more, much more.

If this is for real, it’s very impressive! Actually if it were not real it would be impressive too. See more at the house of automata. (via sciencedump)

September 30th, 2012

one step at a time

Thanks Kobe.

July 17th, 2012

Solanaceae, where animal and vegetable histories intertwine

The fascinating history of the Solanaceae family of plants. Rishidev Chaudhuri:

Like some eccentric prominent family, whose genius shades easily into the occult, the evil and the mad, Solanaceae, the family of the nightshade (so often prefixed by “deadly”), both contains several of our most ubiquitous food plants (typically of New World origin) and many of the multifarious toxins and deliriants beloved of witches, shamans and poisoners throughout history. The plants of Solanaceae are a dramatic-looking group, full of trumpet-like flowers that open at dusk and branches and stems that curl together like gnarled witches claws. They are also the source of eerie legends and origin myths, as exemplified by mandrake, said to grow from the ejaculate of a hanged man, and whose scream (when pulled out of the ground) will kill everyone in earshot.

To anyone who has ever shuddered at or been baffled by the thought that for most of history the Italians have had no tomatoes, the South Asians have had no chillies and no one in the Old World (including the Irish, the Germans and the Russians) has had potatoes, the gifts of Solanaceae are apparent. These are the bounty of the New World, plants that were brought over from the Americas by European explorers, introduced into their home countries and then spread to the rest of the world (many of the sins of the Portuguese colonists should be offset by their introduction of the chilli to India). Traces of this recency exist on the linguistic map, and several cultures label tomatoes and potatoes as some sort of eggplant or apple1.

While the major Solanaceae food crops that we eat are from the New World, most of the family members used in the Old World were used as hallucinogens, medicines (in small doses) or as poisons (with the notable exception of eggplant). Both tomatoes and potatoes suffered from these associations, and it took a while before people became convinced that they were safe to eat. One is generally not responsible for one’s relatives (except children), but there is some truth to this fear. The leaves and stems of tomato plants are mildly toxic, and potato sprouts can be quite dangerous (in recent years, much of this has been bred out of the plant varieties that we eat, though the same is probably not true for non-mass-market varieties). Once they broke through to acceptance, though, they spread widely and now both are cultivated widely all over the world. Potatoes in particular were an essential new source of cheap calories for the Industrial Revolution and were declared by Engels to be the equivalent of iron for their historically revolutionary role. They are thought to be responsible for a significant fraction of Old World population growth in the 18th and 19th centuries, with the downside that potato crop failures lead to severe famines.

The classical Old World members of Solanaceae are plants like deadly nightshade (belladonna), datura, mandrake, angel’s trumpet and henbane; these are famously the plants of Hecate and the occult. They are striking examples of the weird intersection of the toxic, the medicinal and the religious that characterize our relationship with a number of plants, and of the thin line between the altered states of revelation and transcendent experience and those of poisoning and death.

More at 3QD.

June 30th, 2012

the ritual of restaurant wine tasting

Having worked as a waiter in a restaurant, I sometimes wondered what was the point of allowing the host to taste the wine before drinking even when the wine came from a bottle with a rubber cork or a screwtop (therefore making it impossible for the wine to be ‘corked’).

Alex at Museum of Hoaxes points out that there is of course more to the tasting than the tasting itself. It is a ritual by which the experience of drinking wine is given more importance and meaning, and the host is honoured by being given the first taste. Alex refers the Encyclopedia of Esoteric Man:

‘Tasting’ used to be the common preliminary rite in ancient times. Generally the first drink was taken by the chief of a tribe because he had to be served first as the representative of the god. It also symbolically lifted the taboo that prohibited drinking on ordinary occasions, and neutralized the mana that inheres in sacramental drinks. It was also an assurance to guests that the drink was not poisoned.

Even today in western society the man ordering a bottle of wine for his companions, or offering wine to guests, often has the first sip from his glass and then has the other glasses filled. This is a survival of the old ‘tasting’ custom, by which the host ‘approved’ the drink, and ensured that it was free from poison. In Moslem countries the ruler had an official taster, and only after he had tried the sultan’s food and drink in his presence without ill effects, did the latter partake of them himself.

Encyclopedia of Esoteric Man

May 15th, 2012

how it’s made, 1945

The making of a bicycle. Via kottke.

May 4th, 2012

coal searcher going home to jarrow

Bill Brandt, Coal Searcher Going Home to Jarrow, 1937.

Photo via the blog hazel & wren.

April 22nd, 2012

dispose the day

April 9th, 2012

the public domain review

I’ve only just acquainted myself with this website and already I am somewhere between impressed and in love… Two titles I’ve discovered via the site so far include Het Eerste Kabinet der Dieren and the Natural History of Shakespeare, and they are available online via archive.org

April 3rd, 2012

beeswax and bronze


Starting at around 6:40, an introduction to ancient tamil bronze casting and following that a demonstration. Part of Michael Wood’s Story of India for the BBC, which I’m enjoying at the moment.

Posted in Past, Video | No Comments »
March 27th, 2012

simple science stories

3qd






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