September 30th, 2010


I’m not sure I’m happy with this postcard sketch. What I am sure about is that I need a lot more practice.

September 30th, 2010

a great day for geeks

Two things to geek out about, today. Firstly, an Earthlike, ‘goldilocks’ planet has been discovered! One not too hot, not too cold — just right for life to have evolved.

Gliese 581g’s atmosphere is hugged snugly in place by the planet’s gravity. The conditions are thought to be suitable for liquid water to exist on the surface of the planet. The climate is stable — with one side always facing the sun, it receives constant daylight on one side and constant darkness on the other. Its sun is ancient, meaning that life should have had plenty of time to gain a foothold on the planet. It’s 20 light years from our planet. That means it would take 20 years to reach the planet from ours if we were travelling at the speed of light (which is currently not possible).

“Personally, given the ubiquity and propensity of life to flourish wherever it can, I would say that the chances for life on this planet are 100 percent. I have almost no doubt about it,” Steven Vogt, professor of astronomy and astrophysics at University of California Santa Cruz, told Discovery News.

More at Discovery news.

Homemade Spacecraft from Luke Geissbuhler on Vimeo.

The other story is smaller in scale but, relatively speaking, perhaps equal in merit and profundity: a father and son send an HD camera into space by balloon, practically discovering planet Earth for themselves. And the footage is glorious, perhaps all the more for the traditional home-movie-like shakiness.

(Both stories via Reddit.)

Posted in Space, Video | No Comments »
September 29th, 2010

hair raising piano

Holy crap.

September 29th, 2010

what’s at the end of the aspectral rainbow?

The above video offers some insight into Arnold Schoenberg’s technique for composing what’s now referred to as “atonal” music.

The term “atonality” itself has been controversial. Arnold Schoenberg, whose music is generally used to define the term, was vehemently opposed to it, arguing that “The word ‘atonal’ could only signify something entirely inconsistent with the nature of tone. . . . [T]o call any relation of tones atonal is just as farfetched as it would be to designate a relation of colors aspectral or acomplementary. There is no such antithesis” (Schoenberg 1978, 432)

Atonality at wikipedia.

September 28th, 2010

time after time

September 28th, 2010

penny university

Image: Discussing the war in a Paris Café, 1870. Frederick Barnard (1846-1896)

Penny University is a term originating from the eighteenth century coffeehouses in London, England. Instead of paying for drinks, people were charged a penny to enter a coffee house. Once inside, the patron had access to coffee, the company of others, various discussions, pamphlets, bulletins, newspapers, and the latest news and gossip. Reporters called “runners” went around to the coffee houses announcing the latest news, perhaps not too unlike what we might hear on the TV or the radio today.

This environment attracted an eclectic group of people that met and mingled with each other at these coffee houses. In a society that placed such a high importance on class and economic status, the coffee houses were unique because the patrons were people from all levels of society. Anyone who had a penny could come inside. Students from the universities also frequented the coffee houses, sometimes even spending more time at the shops than at school.

Since that time, various coffee shops all over the world have used the name “Penny University”.

The original sense, of a coffee house, probably grew out of a common experience: that you came out of a coffeehouse feeling ten times as smart as you were when you went in (as Montesquieu observed in The Persian Letters). As, indeed, wide-ranging conversations ensued therein, from the commercial (leading to the founding of, in London, Lloyd’s of London, and in New York, the New York Stock Exchange) to the political, and the purely intellectual; the idea that one could acquire an education for the price of a cup of coffee, that is, a penny, took hold of the poetic imagination.

Penny University at Wikipedia. Thanks Alice for the link!

September 28th, 2010

a two-headed slow hunch in the liquid network

Slate has a series examining creative collaborations, and looking upon new ideas as the products of collaboration as opposed to solo voyages of discovery. I suppose the message is not simply that “two heads are better than one”, but that one man’s ideas and successes are rarely come upon in pure isolation. From the introduction to the series by Joshua Wolf Shenk:

The triumphant Western position in the Cold War established individual liberty and individual choice as the root unit of society—in opposition to the Marxist emphasis on collective achievement.

The ultimate triumph of the idea of individualism is that it’s not really seen as an idea at all. It has seeped into our mental groundwater. Basic descriptions of inter-relatedness—enabling, co-dependency—are headlines for dysfunction. The Oxford American Dictionary defines individualism as, first, “the habit or principle of being independent and self-reliant” and, second, as “a social theory favoring freedom of action for individuals over collective or state control.” This lopsided contrast of “freedom” vs. “state control” is telling. Even our primary reference on meaning, the dictionary, tilts in favor of the self.

Our ability to collaborate intimately, to almost share the same consciousness, is present in us even as babies, Shenk offers:

It’s common sense that babies and mothers affect each other. But when you stop the tape and look at it frame by frame—as the researcher Beatrice Beebe and her team did in this experiment—you see how remarkably fast the exchange takes place, down to fractions of a second. It’s not that a baby waits for stimulus from her mother and responds in kind. Actually, as the psychologist Susan Vaughan puts it, “both parties are processing an ongoing stream of stimuli and responding while the stimulation is still occurring.” Another study of 2-day-old babies found similar results.

Emotions, Vaughan asserts, are “peopled” from the start. This dynamic turns out to play a critical role in the development of neural circuits that shape not only interaction, but autonomy too. In other words, the way we experience ourselves is inextricably linked to the way we experience others—so much so that, on close view, it’s hard to draw a concrete distinction between the other and the self.

More at Slate: Two is the magic number. Interesting read!

“Chance favours the connected mind”, reckons Steven Johnson, who looks at idea genesis from a slightly different angle.

In this TED presentation (above) Johnson focuses on ideas as not single thoughts but a way to describe whole networks of thoughts.

An idea may be almost completely present in one’s mind for a long time before it eventually combines with other ideas and can be expressed — Johnson calls this the “slow hunch”.

A “liquid network” is how Johnson describes the social network wherein ideas are exchanged and expanded — the prototypical liquid networks being the coffee houses that popped up at the time of the Enlightenment. Liquid networks would mimic, in structure, blown-up versions of how our thoughts are organized in our individual minds.

Stephen Johnson @ TED, “Where good ideas come from”. The talk finishes with a remarkable example of how an idea can snowball within a “liquid network” of impassioned participants, leading to exciting and unknown territory.

September 27th, 2010

intergroup distinctiveness

From the wiki page on Communication Accommodation Theory (CAT):

The process of Intergroup Distinctiveness, as theorized by Tajfel theorizes “that when members of different groups are in contact, they compare themselves on dimensions which are important to them, such as personal attributes, abilities, material possessions and so forth. He suggests that these ‘intergroup social comparisons’ will lead individuals to search for and even create dimensions on which they can make themselves positively distinct from the outgroup”. Because speech style and language is an important factor in defining social groups, divergence in the speech style or language one uses is often employed in order to maintain intergroup distinctiveness and differentiate from the out-group when such issues as identity and group membership is threatened.


In a study by Giles and Bourhis conducted in Wales, Welshmen with strong ties to their nation and their language who were learning Welsh were asked questions about methods of second language acquisition. In this study the questions were asked by an English speaker with an RP-sounding accent “who at one point arrogantly challenged their reasons for what he called ‘a dying language which had a dismal future’”. In response to this question, which greatly threatened their identity and intergroup distinctiveness, the informants diverged considerably by strengthening their Welsh accents and using Welsh words.

That reminds me of this post I read recently on Psyblog, which explains that the mind’s response to contrary thought patterns (“offensive ideas”) is to bolster the existing patterns by calling them to mind (and, I suppose, in doing so strengthening their pathways in the brain?):

When there’s a challenge to our established world-view, whether from the absurd, the unexpected, the unpalatable, the confusing or the unknown, we experience a psychological force pushing back, trying to re-assert the things we feel are safe, comfortable and familiar.

Psyblog explains that further and describes some fascinating experiments. Personally I suspect that the mind is not constantly in this protective state. I think that when we are at ease — or even better, when we are in a free state such as the jazz musician in full flow — we are not so stubborn or intolerant.

Psyblog | Communication Accommodation Theory

September 26th, 2010

royal jelly

Above: Bee larvae suspended in royal jelly, surrounded by queen cells or “cups” (dissected).

Worker bees (epi)genetically engineer their larvae to produce queen bees! Wiki:

Royal jelly is a honey bee secretion that is used in the nutrition of larvae, as well as adult queens. It is secreted from the glands in the hypopharynx of worker bees, and fed to all larvae in the colony.

When worker bees decide to make a new queen, either because the old one is weakening, or was killed, they choose several small larvae and feed them with copious amounts of royal jelly in specially constructed queen cells. This type of feeding triggers the development of queen morphology, including the fully developed ovaries needed to lay eggs.

Wiki: Epigenetics, Royal Jelly | Photo: Waugsberg

September 23rd, 2010

art is love is art is whatever

Milton Glaser speaks about art as a cultural unifier, about teaching art, and about holding on to your “capacity for astonishment”.


September 23rd, 2010

stand back a bit… bit more… bit more… bit more… bit more…

The International Space Station has a LIVE webcam, beaming video of Earth back home. Stream.

(Via reddit.)

Posted in Space, Video | No Comments »
September 22nd, 2010


Cross section of a banana stem. Photo: Przemyslaw Idzkiewicz

I like the word arborescent, aesthetically. Another nice one is dendroform. They both mean, essentially, “like a tree”.

A banana plant, for example, is arborescent. It’s like a tree in form, but if you examine it, you’ll find it’s actually a giant herb:

Bananas, some gingers and heliconias grow to a considerable height without woodiness or even a true stem. What appears to be the trunk is actually the leaf bases, wrapped one around the next.

From this dandy overview of plant diversity.

September 21st, 2010

neato magneto

The European Robin doesn’t need a map. Photo: Ernst Vickne


Magnetoception (or magnetoreception) is the ability to detect a magnetic field to perceive direction, altitude or location.

Wikipedia notes that biological stores of the magnetic mineral Magnetite are present in many animals. This mineral is what enables, through various different mechanisms, an organic ability to use Earth’s magnetic field for the purposes of navigation.

One of several fascinating examples:

In 2008, a research team led by Hynek Burda using Google Earth accidentally discovered that magnetic fields affect the body orientation of cows and deer during grazing or resting. In a followup study in 2009, Burda and Sabine Begall observed that magnetic fields generated by power lines disrupted the orientation of cows from the Earth’s magnetic field.

According to the same article, there are even vestigial amounts of Magnetite in we humans, which might suggest that we once relied on this system. Maybe there came a time when our increased intelligence made the ingenious mechanism of megnetoception obsolete.

Based on my experience negotiating large metropolitan areas, I estimate that my stores of Magnetite are very vestigial indeed.

Magnetoception @ wikipedia

September 21st, 2010

see vitamin c on lemons:

For the most antioxidants, choose fully ripened lemons and limes:

Research conducted at the University of Innsbruck in Austria suggests that as fruits fully ripen, almost to the point of spoilage, their antioxidant levels actually increase.

Key to the process is the change in color that occurs as fruits ripen, a similar process to that seen in the fall when leaves turn from green to red to yellow to brown- a color change caused by the breakdown and disappearance of chlorophyll, which gives leaves and fruits their green color.

Until now, no one really knew what happened to chlorophyll during this process, but lead researcher, Bernard Kräutler, and his team, working together with botanists over the past several years, has identified the first decomposition products in leaves: colorless, polar NCCs (nonfluorescing chlorophyll catabolytes), that contain four pyrrole rings – like chlorophyll and heme.

After examining apples and pears, the scientists discovered that NCCs replace the chlorophyll not only in the leaves of fruit trees, but in their very ripe fruits, especially in the peel and flesh immediately below it.

“When chlorophyll is released from its protein complexes in the decomposition process, it has a phototoxic effect: when irradiated with light, it absorbs energy and can transfer it to other substances. For example, it can transform oxygen into a highly reactive, destructive form,” report the researchers. However, NCCs have just the opposite effect. Extremely powerful antioxidants, they play an important protective role for the plant, and when consumed as part of the human diet, NCCs deliver the same potent antioxidant protection within our bodies. “

Actually that excerpt didn’t have much to do with lemons specifically. But there is some juicy info here.

September 19th, 2010

Johnnie Godbolt

The American Library of Congress has an initiative called the Veterans History Project, which interviews American war veterans (WW1, WW2, Vietnam, Korean War, Gulf War, Iraq & Afghanistan), and archives the videos and transcripts for the public.

Here’s an excerpt from the transcript of WW2 veteran Norman Wesley Achen, who is recalling his experience at boot camp:

There had been a Troop Train come in from Texas with 240 Texans on it and they, one guy got sick and they took it, took him off and put him in the hospital, and they said, ‘You’re lucky, you’re going to be with the 239 Texans.’ Most of the Texans and most of us, this was the end of the Depression and Texans particularly and still are very proud of their State. And very, very vocal about it, and they think the rest of us are inferior. And maybe they’re right. And so they rode me mercilessly for maybe six weeks and I had the first bunk in the up, in the upper floor in one of the barracks and so one night about 20 minutes before lights out I lost control, which I shouldn’t have done, but I did, and I got up and I said, ‘okay, you S.O.B.’s, one at a time.’ Down and about the eighth bunk was a guy by the name of Johnnie Godbolt. And Johnnie was very quiet, didn’t say much, you, he, I’d been told he was an All- Z American end from Texas A and M. Johnnie stood about six-one and probably weighed in close to 210. And he slowly uncorked from his bunk and started up the aisle, and I thought, oh boy, you’ve made a major, major mistake. The War may end for you. He came up and spun around next to me and put his hand out and he said, ‘No, two at a time.’ And nobody moved. And Johnnie said, ‘Good-night,’ and walked back to his bunk and laid down. About two weeks, two weeks that the, that the harassment quit, but they didn’t say anything. And about two weeks later a bunch of them cornered me again, seven or eight, and said, ‘can we talk to you.’ And I said, ‘Certainly,’ and I looked around for Johnnie but he wasn’t there. And they said, we, they had had a vote and the 239 voted that I become a Texan. And they presented me with a Texas citizenship and life changed, totally.

Read more of the transcript. And that was just the first transcript I happened upon; you can search the database here.

Posted in Past | No Comments »
September 18th, 2010


Above is a birch letter from the 13th century found at Novgorod, Russia. Wiki:

Birch-bark letter no. 202 contains spelling lessons and drawings made by a boy named Onfim; based on draftsmanship, experts estimate his age as between 6 and 7 at the time.

Birch Bark Document @ Wikipedia

There are thousands more examples from Novgorod, like letter 292, which contains an epigrammatic invocation against lightning.

September 17th, 2010

look at the size of that sensor…!

The Phantom HD GOLD High Speed Digital Cinema Camera from Tom Guilmette on Vimeo.

Camera porn: Tom Guilmette explores the features of one of the most powerful (and expensive, at $2,500 to rent for a single day) digital movie cameras, the Phantom HD. (via petapixel)

September 12th, 2010

Bearded Queen Hatshepsut & Co.

Specemins at Kew are still pressed between paper for storage. Photo: Martin Godwin.

History’s first enthusiastic botanist […] was the bearded Queen Hatshepsut, an Egyptian pharaoh in the 15th century BC. Reliefs from her prosperous reign show ships loaded with ebony and myrrh trees, as well as apes and panther skins taken from a mysterious land called Punt (its identity is still disputed).

The Observer’s Juliette Jowit has an extended article about Kew Gardens Herbarium and the work that has gone on there for centuries. It also puts botany into historical perspective.

Before he succeeded his father as Kew’s director, the young Joseph Hooker wrote from the Himalayas in November 1849 that he and his companion had been “seized, guarded and interrogated with intimidation”.Less ultimately successful was George Ramage who, after sending back a poor selection of plants from the West Indies in the late 1880s, wrote to justify his expenses to Kew’s then director : he pleaded that he had had “neither alcohol nor tobacco… society or amusement,” and luridly described suffering dysentery, malaria and an outbreak of ground itch which made his left ankle swell “to quite twice its size, and at one time a watery serum poured out of it so fast as to form a pool on the floor”.

One of Kew’s current botanists, Martin Cheek, works in west Africa, often following in the steps of another fabled collector, mid-19th century German botanist Gustav Mann. “Quite often people went out there for six weeks and died,” Cheek says. “If you go to the graveyard in Douala [in Cameroon] you see all the graves.”

Today’s collectors use helicopters to reach remote locations and have the benefit of inoculations, repellents and quick-dry clothing. But they still face dysentery and diseases, mosquitos and tsetse flies – perhaps the most dreaded biting insect – while spending weeks living in tents with few comforts. “You come back and say ‘I don’t want to do that again’, and then a few weeks later you do,” says one of Cheek’s colleagues, Marcella Corcoran.


“When we’re doing an identification,” says [Kew botanist] Martin Cheek, “and using a specimen collected by Gustav Mann, we know they were all by themselves in a forest writing the label, then and there. And 150 years later all their efforts are being preserved and being used now.”

Kew Gardens Herbarium: ‘Plants are not just beautiful. They help us to survive.’

Posted in Nature, Past | No Comments »

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