Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Curioser and curioser...

Now here's a colorful character: evolutionary/genetic biologist and general purpose radical JBS Haldane.

While trying to attribute a different quote that turned out to be his, I ran across the following, which I thought was quite in line with my previous posting:

I have no doubt that in reality the future will be vastly more surprising than anything I can imagine. Now my own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.

Turns out he's got quite a few other zingers. The one I was looking for was the one quoted often by Sapolsky (who, though not quite so zinger-prone, himself, nevertheless provides some incredibly entertaining science writing): I'd lay down my life to save two brothers or eight cousins.

I'll have to pick up a real biography.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Wonder what they're cooking up nowadays

Lauren Weinstein has apparently been converting his old videotapes to digital, and is posting some curiosities. Here's one about the 1970's predictions for the waves of the future. It's funny to hear the oooh-aaah tone in which they discuss the distant possibility of things we take for granted today, but it's also surprising how much of the impact of our technology they were able to anticipate.

Kind of makes me wonder what wild and impossible thing someone's working on today that we'll be absolutely dependent on in 30 years. My prediction track record is not good. I remember the first time I heard someone talking about protein secondary structure prediction from amino-acid sequence. My reaction was, "Nah...it's much more complicated than that. They'll never get it to work." And when Ellen bought her first PC, she whined "I know it will be obsolete as soon as I get it out of the store." I was just starting grad school at the time, and thought I knew plenty about computers. Chortled I: "Obsolete??? With 20 meg of hard drive??? You couldn't fill that much memory if you sat down to write from now through the rest of your life."

Friday, October 15, 2010

Where do rhyming poems come from?

From French, it seems.

I have been listening to a series of lectures on poetry (I am horribly ignorant about it). At any rate, one of the things the instructor mentioned struck me as very interesting.

I'm sure I'm oversimplifying here, but...

Apparently Anglo Saxon poetry (i.e. pre-William the Conqueror British poetry) favored alliteration and rhythm and did not use rhyme extensively. One of the innovations brought to England by the Norman conquest was a French predilection for rhyming poetry. According to Prof. Drout, French and Latin are more amenable to or better facilitate the use of rhyme (i.e. same sound at the end of a word, after a stressed syllable) than English, because they tend to have a lot of common word suffixes that all sound the same. (I am reminded of my high school French class exercise of enumerating all the ways you can make the "A" sound: e, ee, ees, ai, ais, ait, aient, aie, er, est, es, et,...am I forgetting some?)

Again, according to Drout, cosmopolitan, continentally traveled Chaucer was instrumental in adopting rhyme into English and treating alliteration as a cheesy device.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Macy's "Magic Mirror"

Wow...I just had to ask myself if this wasn't April Fool's Day. I've just seen about the worst idea I've come across in a long time.

"Macy's shoppers can now check their look in a "magic mirror" in a fitting room, thanks to touchscreen computing. A large mirror, linked up to a touchscreen tablet computer, lets visitors to the iconic department store chain's flagship New York location scroll through their options, then digitally "try on" clothes in the mirror. Then they can get quick feedback from friends by posting their image to Facebook or sending it in an e-mail or text.
How long until
  1. Someone figures out how to hack the system and turn on the magic mirror remotely, capturing unwitting customers in the fitting room in various stages of undress?
  2. (Variant of 1) Someone in the Macy's IT Department figures out a way to run the system in "test mode" to turn on the camera on unwitting customers in the fitting room in various stages of undress...and starts collecting the images?
  3. Macy's starts capturing that Facebook or email address you enter, and starts sending you messages like "If you liked that DKNY dress, you'll just love this Ann Taylor"?
Thank goodness it's only scheduled to be available until November.

Edited to add: It all makes sense to me now. It seems that the company that's making this capability available to Macy's is UK-based RetailCam...that would be UK as in the country that brought you Big Brother and 21st century quality surveillance.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Interview with John Le Carre

I accidentally tuned in to Democracy Now yesterday and was surprised to hear someone talking about Bukavu, which I was reading about last week in The Mission Song. Surprise, surprise...who should be speaking but John le Carre, himself?

It turned out to be a very nice hour-long interview by Amy Goodman. It covered all sorts of stuff, from his experiences visiting Africa (he says he is a follower of "Graham Greene's dictum" that "if you're reporting on human misery, you do well to share it") to politics to his writing process. Having read a number of his books with interest (I really enjoyed "A Most Wanted Man" last year), I found this interview put the books into a nice context.

I will add that le Carre has a lovely voice. He sounds like a man half his age.

I'm adding him to the list of people I'd like to make friends with.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Another one: "bites the dust"

Yes, I am a fan of Queen.

However, what this is really about is the origin of the phrase "bite the dust". I ran into what may have been one of the fairly early uses of this phrase, reading Samuel Butler's comparatively painless prose translation of The Odyssey.

According to The Phrase Finder, the phrase "bite the dust" was used in 1750 by Tobias Smollet. However, they also note that Butler uses it in his 1898 translation of the Iliad, and I myself found it in his 1900 translation of the Odyssey (book XXII). Lang, et. al. translate the same phrase as "bite the earth" in the Iliad.

So as I figure it, the image of "bite the dust" to refer to a violent death goes back as far as Homer.

Who knew?

Sunday, October 3, 2010

John LeCarre says...

"A good writer is an expert on nothing except himself. And on that subject, if he is wise, he holds his tongue."

His bio on his own website is crafted to this ideal.

I'm currently listening to "The Mission Song". Enjoying it, though it's a bit pedantic, and hard to follow some of the logic, given that I'm not as well acquainted with the politics of the Congo and Rwanda as I might be. Some of my difficulty might also have to do with the abridgment for audio -- I suspect they may have cut some critical details in the interest of recording time. However, the audio rendering is quite good...I really like the narrator.