August 30th, 2010

you must believe in spring

“You must believe in Spring” by Bill Evans and Tony Bennett.

Esther Satterfield does a nice version of this song too.

August 29th, 2010

John P. Brady, give me a black walnut box of quite a small size!

The above is an example of an “alphabetical whim”, a sort of word game. This particular sentence succeeds in using every letter of the alphabet, using only 48 letters in total. There are other kinds of alphabetical whim, like a lipogram, in which the goal is to omit a certain letter throughout the entire text.

“Alphabetical whims” is one of the first sections in “Gleanings from the harvest-fields of literature, science and art — A Melange of Excerpta, curious, humorous and instructive”, collated by C. C. Bombaugh, A.M, M.D. (1860). What a mouthful!

From the same chapter of the book:

The stanza subjoined is a specimen of both lipogrammatic and pangrammatic ingenuity, containing every letter of the alphabet except e. Those who remember that e is the most indispensable letter, being much more frequently used than any other,* will perceive the difficulty of such composition.

A jovial swain may rack his brain,
And tax his fancy’s might,
To quiz in rain, for ’tis most plain,
That what I say is right .

A generous preview of the book is on google books. Thanks very much to Alice for the heads up — great find!

August 25th, 2010

popping e’s

One BBC reporter spent the day eating as many e-number filled (e-numerous?) foods as possible in order to make a point about the widespread fears attached to their consumption.

By the end of the day I felt like a balloon of slurry on the verge of bursting. I’d eaten 50 different E numbers, but have I eaten enough to poison myself?

No, said my GP, Dr Jonty Heaversedge, who explained that the basic toxicology principle for safe consumption was a 100-fold safety margin.

Scientists work out how much of any E number an animal can eat on a daily basis before having any ill effects, divide that by 10 (in case humans are more sensitive than animals) and then divide by 10 again, just to be safe.

He concluded that one shouldn’t discriminate against food that contains E-numbers:

Are these actually bad for you? Words like “preservative”, “emulsifier” and “stabiliser” sound bizarre and scary for something you put in your mouth. But lemon juice is an antioxidant preservative, also known as E330 (citric acid), egg yolk is emulsifier E322 (lecithin) when added to oil to make mayonnaise, and stabilisers include E460, or cellulose, which comes straight from plants.

One commenter on the BBC website notes:

And E300 is vitamin C! Most people think Es is a classification system for chemicals instead of a multi-language labelling scheme.

All the same, I understand why people are hesitant to eat food whose ingredients are obfuscated with code.

The Day I Ate As Many E-Numbers As Possible @ BBC News. (Photo by Flickr user RuneT)

August 23rd, 2010

blake keeps it jazzy

Blake by Blake.

Quentin Blake on illustrating Roald Dahl’s The BFG:

Sometimes the writer even makes changes to the story if the pictures seem to need it. For example, in the original version of The BFG, the giant was wearing a big leather apron and knee-length boots. They were only mentioned once, but of course they had to appear in every drawing. However when I did the first drawings, Roald felt that the apron got in the way when the giant moved and ran and jumped, and that the boots were just dull. So we sat down round the dining table to rethink the costume. But we couldn’t agree what the BFG should wear on his feet. Several days later I received through the post a rather oddly-shaped and oddly wrapped brown paper parcel. Unwrapping it revealed a large sandal – one of Roald’s own, which is what the BFG now wears.

Blake’s website is full of interesting information like that about his work and his process, all in interview format.

I like his approach to the process of illustration:

I do a free-wheeling sort of drawing that looks as if it has been done on the spur of the moment, although in reality it’s not quite like that. I start with lots of roughs – some of which turn out to be quite close to the finished drawing, and some of which are discarded. For a book there’s lots of planning. What goes on which page? Do the actions carry on from one picture to another? Do the characters still look the same on each page?

For about twenty years I’ve used a lightbox, which I find really useful. On the light box I put the rough drawing I’m going to work from, and on top of that, a sheet of watercolour paper. Ready to hand is a bottle of waterproof black ink and a lot of scruffy looking dip pens. What happens next is not tracing; in fact it’s important that I can’t see the rough drawing underneath too clearly, because when I draw I try to draw as if for the first time; but I can do it with increased concentration, because the drawing underneath lets me know all the elements that have to appear and exactly where they have to be placed.’

From Quentin

August 21st, 2010

the earth is round but everything on it is flat

This video — a clip from the musical Gigi— is part of Slate magazine’s fun little round-up of the ways Hollywood represents foreign characters/locations on screen.

We tend to take language for granted; how foreign speech is handled in film shapes our experience as viewers, usually without our knowing it. The accompanying slide show explores the various ways that filmmakers negotiate foreign speech, highlighting those films that approach the problem as an opportunity to deepen the story.

See more examples at Slate.

August 16th, 2010

oat harvest

An arresting scene photographed in the late nineteenth century by Norwegian photographer Axel Theodor Lindahl (wiki).

Unlike many of his contemporary photographers who emphasized the dramatic nature of Norwegian landscapes, Lindahl sought in his composition the harmonious aesthetic of his subject matter.

I found the photo at wikipedia. It’s in the public domain.

August 14th, 2010

life in a box

People can’t anticipate how much they’ll miss the natural world until they are deprived of it. I have read about submarine crewmen who haunt the sonar room, listening to whale songs and colonies of snapping shrimp. Submarine captains dispense “periscope liberty”—a chance for crewmembers to gaze at clouds and birds and coastlines and remind themselves that the natural world still exists. I once met a man who told me that after landing in Christchurch after a winter at the South Pole research station, he and his companions spent a couple days just wandering around staring in awe at flowers and trees. At one point, one of them spotted a woman pushing a stroller. “A baby!” he shouted, and they all rushed across the street to see. The woman turned the stroller and ran.

I enjoyed this article (an excerpt from a book) at Seed Magazine, about the psychological challenges of life in space. It covers several of my pet subjects: space, the mind, nature…

Read more: Life in a Box @ Seed.

August 13th, 2010

a model of the universe in a pot of boiling water

Image courtesy of Flickr user VeloSteve.

Does adding salt to water really make it boil quicker? Not by any significant degree, according to the article Everything you ever wanted to know (plus more!) about boiling water.

Adding a handful of salt to simmering or boiling water certainly appears to make it rapidly boil. This is because of little things called nucleation sites, which are, essentially, the birthplace of bubbles. In order for bubbles of steam to form, there needs to be some sort of irregularity within the volume of water—microscopic scratches on the inside surface of the pot will do, as will tiny bits of dust or the pores of a wooden spoon. A handful of salt rapidly introduces thousands of nucleation sites, making it very easy for bubbles to form and escape.

Ever notice how in a glass of champagne the bubbles rise in distinct streams from single points? It’s a good bet that there’s a microscopic scratch or dust particle right at that point.

On a much grander scale, entire galaxies were formed when matter started to collect in gravity wells formed initially by tiny nucleation sites in the early universe. This baffles scientists (if there was nothing before the big bang, what then were these primordial nucleation sites?). But that’s neither here nor there (or perhaps it’s everywhere?)

The full article is boiling over with further factoids. Read more at Serious Eats.

August 13th, 2010

‘Flavours of Cyprus’ Soup

A flavoursome and satisfying soup of brown rice, lentils and vegetables with the traditional Cypriot flavourings of lemon and mint.

Very nutritious, providing plenty of fibre and a full protein compliment through the combination of whole rice and lentils.

I coined a recipe for a soup that reminds me of the flavours of Cypriot cooking. See the recipe at We Gotta Eat.

August 13th, 2010

the complimentary protein song

From the University of Cincinnati Professor Stein Carter:

Amino acids are just great
When sitting on your plate.
Your body needs all twenty kinds
To build your bones and minds.
But there are eight that we can’t make:
Essential ones to take
Within your food so you’ll be set,
But some are hard to get.
Three limit others’ usefulness
If you consume much less.
Combine these foods to get them all
So you’ll grow big and tall:
Whole grain with milk or grain with bean
Or peas with seeds between
Or maybe try all three or four
If you want something more.

You must of course hear the accompanying music to appreciate this musical mystery. Don’t quit your day job, Professor Carter!

Here’s the science bit: an explanation of dietary protein requirements at the same website..

Our bodies use amino acids in a specific ratio to each other, so if a person doesn’t get enough of one of them to match with the rest, the rest can only be used at a level to balance with that low one. Most of these amino acids are fairly easy to get in a reasonably well-balanced diet. However, there are three that are a little harder to get than the rest, thus it is important to make sure you’re getting enough of these three. These three are called limiting amino acids, because if a person’s diet is deficient in one of them, this will limit the usefulness of the others, even if those others are present in otherwise large enough quantities. The three limiting amino acids include the sulfur-containing ones (methionine and cysteine), tryptophan, and lysine.

Because of publicity from certain agricultural industries, many people in our culture have been taught to think that it is necessary to eat meat to get protein, but this is not true! People in many other cultures do not eat meat yet do get enough protein in their diets. It is true that there are areas of the world where people need to raise cattle and eat meat to survive. For example, in certain arid areas of Africa where almost nothing grows, cattle can graze on the meager grass that’s there that people can’t eat, and the people can eat the milk and meat from those cattle. In our country, the climate is much better, and we can raise many varieties of edible plants, thus we have available alternate (and often better) sources of protein. Some plant protein sources, like soybeans, have a better amino acid balance for humans than meat.

Well, I never.

August 11th, 2010

Daytona Beach 1904

A Floridian beach view from 1904, thanks to Shorpy. Click the image to enlarge for glorious details.

August 10th, 2010


A poster by the city of Muenster in Germany presenting a visual argument for more efficient transport solutions (i.e. bus or bike vs. car). Click image to enlarge.

Via John Lunney‘s blog.

August 9th, 2010

writing comedic characters

Screenwriter Alan Zweibel developed an exercise when he was 21 designed to nurture different character voices/sensibilities in his writing. YouTube.

August 7th, 2010

the abyss

Hal Holbrook and Charlie Sheen in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street.

“Man looks in the abyss, there’s nothing staring back at him. At that moment, man finds his character. And that is what keeps him out of the abyss.” — Hal Holbrook as Lou Mannheim in Wall Street

August 7th, 2010

challenge the dogma

Maverick scientist James Lovelock on his approach to science.

His wikipedia page has a summary of his rather compelling argument for pro-nuclear environmentalism. He is probably most famous for his Gaia hypothesis.

August 5th, 2010

plants are the strangest people

Image: Leaf of Stromanthe sanguinea, ‘Triostar.’

Mr. Subjunctive, of Plants Are The Strangest People blog, is amassing a nice collection of photos of illuminated leaves. His description of the above example:

This reminds me of something non-plant-related, but I can’t think of what. I want to say either fabric or ice cream, but I’m not a big noticer of fabric, and I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen ice cream that looked like this, so I have not idea where that feeling is coming from.

See the archive to date here.

August 3rd, 2010

singing in the rain

King Lear. Act 3, SCENE IV (excerpt).

The heath. Before a hovel.

Enter KING LEAR, KENT, and Fool.

Here is the place, my lord; good my lord, enter:
The tyranny of the open night’s too rough
For nature to endure.

(Storm still)

Let me alone.

Good my lord, enter here.

Wilt break my heart?

I had rather break mine own. Good my lord, enter.

Thou think’st ’tis much that this contentious storm
Invades us to the skin: so ’tis to thee;
But where the greater malady is fix’d,
The lesser is scarce felt. Thou’ldst shun a bear;
But if thy flight lay toward the raging sea,
Thou’ldst meet the bear i’ the mouth. When the
mind’s free,
The body’s delicate: the tempest in my mind
Doth from my senses take all feeling else
Save what beats there. Filial ingratitude!
Is it not as this mouth should tear this hand
For lifting food to’t? But I will punish home:
No, I will weep no more. In such a night
To shut me out! Pour on; I will endure.
In such a night as this! O Regan, Goneril!
Your old kind father, whose frank heart gave all,–
O, that way madness lies; let me shun that;
No more of that.

August 1st, 2010

Pangur Bán

Another anonymous Irish poem from The School Bag, this time even earlier, from the 8th century.

Written by a student of the monastery of Carinthia on a copy of St Paul’s Epistles.

I and Pangur Bán, my cat,
‘Tis a like task we are at;
Hunting mice is his delight,
Hunting words I sit all night.

Better far than praise of men,
‘Tis to sit with book and pen;
Pangur bears me no ill-will,
He too plies his simple skill.

‘Tis a merry thing to see
At our tasks how glad are we.
When at home we sit and find
Entertainment to our mind.

Oftentimes a mouse will stray
In the hero Pangur’s way.
Oftentimes my keen thought set
Takes a meaning in its net.

‘Gainst the wall he sets his eye
Full and fierce and sharp and sly;
‘Gainst the wall of knowledge I
All my little wisdom try.

When a mouse darts from its den,
O how glad is Pangur then!
O what gladness do I prove
When I solve the doubts I love!

So in peace our tasks we ply,
Pangur Bán, my cat, and I;
In our arts we find our bliss,
I have mine and he has his.

Practice every day has made
Pangur perfect in his trade;
I get wisdom day and night
Turning darkness into light.

Translated by Robin Flower.

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