Athanasius Kircher’s illustration of the Tower of Babel, as posted on the just-found blog of the Proceedings of the Athanasius Kircher Society. You may wish to follow up with Kircher’s sketch demonstrating exactly why the tower couldn’t have reached the moon (it would have been so large that it would have tipped the Earth out of balance.
The Kircherblog, in the spirit of the man, covers everything from Kircher’s own notorious cat piano to feral children (a topic of interest to Kircher because of the chance they might spontaneously speak the original Adamic language) to buildings made out of trees and shaped as elephants.
Sometimes I still love the internet as a child loves its favourite bear. This is why.
I’m horribly aware that I’m not posting much here again, as the parcels of time I have to hand tend to be small right now. So, the last resort of the harrassed blogger, I resort to lists. Here are five things that have been giving me great joy over the last few weeks:
- The North York Moors
- Life on Mars, starring the equally excellent John Simm and Philip Glenister (who, in a moment of brilliance, seems to have partly based his rough & ready copper on Brian Clough)
- Battrick, the cricket management game
- Kate Bush
- Babies who sleep through the night
Cheers all round as we realise that Strange Attractor, a fortean publication unusually redolant of deep bookshelves and leather-topped reading desks, has a blog.
Further cheers as the first story we find there is a thigh-slapper about déjà vu:
One man had it so badly that he stopped watching TV because everything seemed to be a repeat, even the news, recalls psychologist Chris Moulin of the University of Leeds, U.K.
Yet when Moulin offered to help him, he adds, it was futile at first. The man “said there was no point visiting the clinic because he’d already been there.”
Word reaches us of the most Oulipan project imaginable: a novel consisting entirely of punctuation. Woops are heard from the direction of the last resting places of Calvino and Perec.
On closer examination, the ‘novel’ by Hu Wenliang consists of 14 Chinese punctuation marks. Barely a novella, you would feel, but I suspect that the standards in word-free writing are rather different. There is one stunning advantage to this brevity, of course, news reports can carry the novel in full:
Hm. Really. Hm.
Hu is offering a prize to anyone who can get the novel (which, he says, has character descriptions and a proper plot - a love story) 80% right. So, leaving aside the fact that we’re looking at an English transliteration of punctuation in one or other Chinese script, let’s give it a crack:
Colin says ‘Well?’
Coleen says ‘Well really!”
He talks, she talks, he talks. Once inside, sex, full, stops. Gradually they fall silent.
Her parent(hese)s are com(ma)ing back with a bullet - she(v)runs one way, she(v)runs the other.
See my Colin? He too dashes.
[Translators note: I can’t guarantee that the characters will represent properly on this page. Please refer to the China Daily news article for the definitive English punctuation. By far the most difficult line was the third. I was determined that I could get something like ‘everything points to sex(six)’ from six full stops in a row, but it proved intractable. So I fell back on a cheap pun, sexual frisson and some poetic license. Who would have thought punctuation could get so explicit? For the fourth line, I couldn’t determine the correct name for “、”, so I lazily went for ‘comma back’. I knew you wouldn’t mind. Improvements most welcome. For what it’s worth, this could well be a hoax. The China Daily hack’s name, you will have noted, is Ng Ting Ting. For that on its own, I hope this is real.]
Tabloid headline of the year so far:
Boffins create zombie dogs
The story itself is discovered to be something almost medically useful. That’s why I’m saying forget the story; concentrate on that magical headline.
After all, the boffins talk about repairing damaged tissues, suspended animation, no brain damage, saving lives. All the sort of things that boffins want to intimate make them upstanding members of society. In the meantime, they’re in their gothic revival laboratories* itching to put high voltages through dead canines to create zombie dogs.
* I do despair of university vice-chancellors. In the face of struggling science departments across the UK, the clear answer is architectural. New build science departments usually look more or less like top of the range Portakabins. Try vaulting arches instead. Great cavernous laboratories. Faux-wood panelled corridors. Spires! Crypts! Great bubbling systems of glass pipework trailing across the campus. Van Der Graf generators buzzing in every candlelit lecture hall. That’s what the kids want, particularly as the Rowling-reading generation heads towards university. Capes concealing unheard of metal implements. Professorships in Things That Should Not Be. Blood-curdling screams. Zombie dogs should be just the beginning.
You will recall that academic spam inviting lowly researchers to robot conferences in handily pleasant locations.
Now we see the researchers fighting back, with SCIGen, a tool for creating random research papers. See examples (in PDF form) here and here.
Sadly, in the way of computer science japes, the tool currently only covers papers in the Computer Science field. I would love to see the equivalent tool let loose on critical theory. I recall one conference I attended where a paper allegedly on Pynchon and Baudrillard (yes, you can see this coming, can’t you?) consisted of a half-hour cut-up of Gravity’s Rainbow with some pop lyrics.
Anyway, the delightful thing about SCIgen (found via Kevan is that the builders have managed to get a paper accepted to WMSCI2005. After a quick fund-raising exercise, they to attend in July and deliver a completely randomly generated talk.
It is traditional to end here with a comment like “You couldn’t make it up”, a sentiment clearly inappropriate in this instance. Perhaps, instead, I’ll settle for the rather less folksy “You wouldn’t wish it to have been made up”.
I received a particularly curious spam email:
Dear potential Speaker:
On behalf of the organizing committee, I would like to extend a cordial invitation for you to attend one of the upcoming IPSI BgD multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary, and transdisciplinary conferences.
The first one will take place in Loreto Aprutino, Italy:
All IPSI BgD conferences are non-profit. They bring together the elite of the world science; so far, we have had seven Nobel Laureates speaking at the opening ceremonies. The conferences always take place in some of the most attractive places of the world. All those who come to IPSI conferences once, always love to come back (because of the unique professional quality and the extremely creative atmosphere); lists of past participants are on the web, as well as details of future conferences.
If you would like more information on either conference, please reply to this e-mail message.
If you plan to submit an abstract and paper, please let us know immediately for planning purposes. Note that you can submit your paper also to the IPSI Transactions journal.
Prof. V. Milutinovic, Chairman,
IPSI BgD Conference
My best guess is that this is a particularly sophisticated scam. There is a website , but it looks chaotic and oddly pitched halfway between appeals to vanity and tourism (IPSI-2006 Montreal “With Visits to Jazz and Laughs Festivals”).
Special emphasis is dedicated to hospitality! We like that
attendees and their accompanying persons feel good.
The Advisory Board, with three business advisers sharing a surname and listing only Private Universities in Serbia, also rings false. On the other hand, Prof. Milutinovic does have a (perhaps authentically) rum home page apparently on a university domain.
But what, dear reader, is the story here? Perhaps it is an opportunity for scientists in unfashionable areas to get a foreign jolly. Perhaps it’s an opportunistic Serbian business capitalising as much on some baroque fund allocation as the heaving desire of academics to lecture abroad. And how important in all this is the reader’s expectation that academic life in post-Soviet countries is rather slapdash and very money-grubbing?
As ever, your votes are welcome.
One of the categories on the right of the screen here is forteana.
If you haven’t encountered it elsewhere (indeed, if you have), the adjective ‘fortean’ (from Charles Fort) means, very roughly, relating to evidence that is ‘damned’ - sidelined - by the scientific community. Damned because the data do not fit, either because they do not accord with the prevailing models or because they appear so improbable that no scientist is willing to stake their personal credibility on investigating them. This covers all manner of weirdness from frog falls, ghosts and poltergeists, levitation, UFOs, lost civilisations and displaced animals (like big cats stalking the British countryside).
In the 90s I had a few years of being rather too much exposed to that form of eye-poppingly unhelpful postmodernism that had at that point taken a grip on the lower echelons of academia. At that time I thought it might be amusing to compose a helpful article pointing out that most of the main ideas of postmodernism were reflected in the attitudes of Fort himself (d. 1932). In particular, I was struck by his playfulness, his concern for the dispossessed (the ‘unwritten’, the subjected), and above all, the provisionality of all of his suggestions:
“I can conceive of nothing, in religion, science or philosophy, that is anything more than the proper thing to wear, for a while”
I would have called the article ‘An Introduction to Postmodernist Fort’. It would have been quite fun.
I’ve been a reader of the stalwart Fortean Times for donkey’s, and it got me through those curious years in particular by providing an endless cabinet of curiosities. What is so lovable about the Fortean Times is not what it reports, but its tone. It reaches for - and often achieves - a scholarly apprehension of its various subjects that would put a number of the more excitable academic journals to shame. But this is not because it is in any way authoritative. Rather the opposite: its greatest virtue is the way that it is simultaneously serious, amused and utterly undogmatic in any direction whatever. Fortean topics are resolutely those not accepted by science, but what keeps me interested is that its values, at best, are those shared by science at its best.
That’s why I read with no mean pleasure New Scientist’s lead article this week, titled “13 things that do not make sense“. These things include that hardy perennial of the fortean scence, cold fusion. But most of the scientific anomolies listed (like unexplained radio signals from deep space, cosmic constants that aren’t, and that troublesome missing nine-tenths of the universe) are problems of ‘hard’, high-level science.
The spirit of scepticism runs deep in humans. That’s why the extraordinary technical success story that is modern science leaves so many people cold. Science, they say, can’t explain human nature; it can’t explain the mind; it can’t explain love; it can’t explain why we’re here.
Quite. That is part of its strength. Individual scientists may claim answers to any or all of the above, but they will quickly be knocked down if their evidence and theorising is not up to the mark. Scientific thought, as that New Scientist article reminded me, is constantly surrounded not by certainty, but by the buzz and uproar of the unknown. If we are lucky, it even grazes the outer skin of the unknowable.
The strength of the scientific system is not that it has vastly increased the sphere of human knowledge; it is that has vastly increased around that the sphere of human ignorance.
The graveyard was first uncovered during work on the Jubilee Line extension in the 1990’s, when workmen unexpectedly started digging up human remains.
A little historical digging then revealed that this had been an unconsecrated, and therefore uncelebrated burial place for the prostitutes or “Geese” of Southwark, who had worked the many brothels, stews and bawdy houses of this area in the 14th 15th and 16th Century.
I’d never heard of Robert Elms’ Footnotes and Queries. More fool me.
He covers all kinds of London hidden history and geography, from the sorry story of Borough’s Crossbones graveyard (above) to the supposed system of Masonic temples in Picadilly:
This query came from a listener who had been taken to the top of Lillywhites store on Piccadilly Circus about ten years ago. A friend of his worked at the store and took him to the very top of the building where most staff never went.
Here [on the top floor of Lillywhite’s store] he was amazed to see a large ballroom, and even more intriguingly a Masonic temple decorated in full symbols and signs. This though was not all, he was told that there were a series of Masonic temples around Piccadilly Circus, which together created a Masonic symbol that could be seen from above.
The supposed pattern seems to be a construal added by shop workers familiar with London psychogeographers (the theme appears not only in Alan Moore’s From Hell but earlier in Iain Sinclair’s fiction). I do like the idea of each venerable department store having its own Masonic temple. The idea reeks of old-fashioned capitalist power.
Ah, the lad Derren Brown, the most interesting if daftly named man on the television these days.
Tonight (Friday 7th January) he has another of his controversial one-offs. This one is called ‘Messiah’. It may well be the epitome of everything that Brown has done to date:
It’s a personal journey for me, quite a dark journey. It’s a documentary styled show where I go to America and meet some influential people behind certain belief-systems that people are encouraged to base their lives upon. Two targets are new-age beliefs and mainstream Christianity. Using my techniques and showmanship can I get these people who are responsible for the beliefs of hundreds of thousands of people, to endorse me as being the real thing? I approach these people under different pseudonyms, demonstrating to each of them an ability I have which is somehow proof to them of my abilities in that particular field. I allow them to decide how much they are going to endorse it and embrace it. If at any point they say to me this is some sort of trick I will confess and tell them.
It remains to be seen if the delivery is as carefully nuanced as the set-up, which clearly offers a provocatively Dawkinsian view of religion as an aberrant belief on a level with new-age claptrap. The counterpoint is that neat gamble; that all the victims have to do is ask if it’s a trick.
The cleverness lies, in part, in the fact that while this question will seem hideously obvious to the audience, it’s a formulation that is actually fairly unlikely to be uttered in full.
I just know I’m going to enjoy this programme. For once the assertion that this is television that will ask questions seems very likely to be true.
The winds must be whispering again. A film based on Electronic Voice Phenomena is about to be released, and the excellent Mind Hacks site is talking about the balance between our bottom-up experience of the world and our top-down interpretation of it:
You can see your top-down processes at work best in situations where the bottom-up processes are weak. With vision this might be in the dark, or where you only glimpse something or someone for a fraction of a second. In hearing this might be where background noise is loud. Poor resolution, brief or noisy information tips the balance in favor of top-down information. What we see comes to reflect more of what we already know and what we expect. Hence we see things in the dark: our brains fill in what is most likely there, what might be there, or what we fear could be there, based on small clues from what actually is perceivable there.
In a spirit of festive spookery, I’ve been having a nose around the venerable story of the Campden Wonder. I recall reading an account of this peculiar episode in a book of ghost stories when I was very young. I feel a link to it because, although Campden is far from my neck of the woods, I know the village and the reputed home of one of the protagonists very well indeed.
On August 16th, 1660, one William Harrison, a 70 year-old rent collector, disappeared from the Cotswold village of Chipping Campden. His hat, comb and collar band were found on the main road between Campden and Ebrington, slashed and bloodied.
Before long, Harrison’s servant, John Perry confessed that he, his brother and his mother had conspired to murder Harrison. All three were hanged.
The story would have remained just a gruesome piece of local history had not something extraordinary occurred two years later. William Harrison returned, offering an account of his disappearance straight out of a romance. He had, he said, been attacked and abducted by two armed horsemen, who had eventually put him on board a ship in Deal. The ship was taken by pirates and Harrison was sold into slavery in Smyrna, Turkey. After months enslaved, Harrison was released when his master died, and he slowly made his way back home via Portugal.
Harrison’s account raised as many questions as it answered, not least why Perry had confessed to a fictitious murder. There have been a number of adaptations of the story, and there is a well-maintained website covering the mystery.
Here’s an object lesson in getting your academic work into the papers:
More than 300 years before the Soviet Union launched its Sputnik satellites and American astronaut Neil Armstrong stepped on to the Moon, England had its own ambitious space programme.
That’s the first paragraph from this story in the Independent on Sunday, written by the science editor Steve Connor, about a lecture delivered last night by Professor Allan Chapman at Gresham College.
The ‘ambitious space programme’ turns out to be plans for a spring-powered spacecraft with flapping wings, drawn up by none other than John Wilkins.
Wilkins, who is probably best known these days through the Borges essay, wrote his A Discovery of a World in the Moon in 1638, and added an appendix titled “The possibility of a passage thither” in 1640. I don’t have access to the text to see if it covers all of Professor Chapman’s assertions, but, really, it’s no surprise to anyone that Wilkins was talking spaceships. Two minutes on the web pulls up this Wilkinsism from his moon book:
“I do seriously, and upon good grounds, affirm it possible to make a flying chariot. The perfecting of such an invention would be of such excellent use, that it were enough not only to make a man famous, but the age also wherein he lives. For besides the strange discoveries that it might occasion in this other world, it would be also of inconceivable advantage for travelling, above any other conveyance that is now in use.”
The shame of it is that I wouldn’t have been able to make the lunchtime lecture (’
The Jacobean Space Programme - Wings, springs and gunpowder: flying to the moon from 17th century England’) even if I’d known about it in advance. Pah. Bah. Maybe the newspaper report was a good thing after all.
More on Wilkins:
Aubrey’s Brief Lives (penultimate entry on page)
Wilkins page at the Galileo Project
Wilkins looking inappropriately sceptical
It happens that your attention is grabbed by a misleading combination of signals. What’s interesting is how frequently this results in noticing something that is itself interesting.
A case in point. Spotting ‘Allais’ and ‘Foucault’s Pendulum’ in an article clearly signified, to me, Umberto Eco. There is Eco’s novel, for starters. Then there is my awareness that Eco has written frequently about Alphonse Allais, one of his favourite authors.
Well, as it turned out, the article recounted the curious observations of Maurice Allais in 1954, when he recorded the behaviour of a pendulum over the course of 30 days. This included a solar eclipse when, to his astonishment, the pendulum appeared to speed up slightly.
This, the ‘Allais Effect’, seems to run counter to the general theory of relativity, which has the anomolists hyperventilating with glee, and the scientists running to conduct experiments at every eclipse they can find, like this.
The latest evidence (warning: PDF) seems to be that the eclipse causes an almost instantaneous temperature drop in the air, which causes air mass movement significant enough to affect the pendulum. This isn’t, in and of itself, significant enough to explain the whole of the Allais Effect. On the other hand, the measurement of the Allais Effect is itself controversial, suggesting that, not for the first time, a solution may have been found for a problem that never really existed.
We had been wondering about the next holiday. This year’s excursion had taken us no further than the bottom of the next country down from here, which was pleasant and gastromonique but hardly adventurous. The next destination really ought to be somewhere more … exotic.
How about an expedition to the centre of the Hollow Earth with Steve Currey’s Expedition Company?
Reading the description, it’s hard to know how to refuse:
“This expedition will conduct scientific observations in the Artic that is hoped will resolve once and for all whether the hollow earth theory has any validity.”
Seems reasonable enough.
“Don’t miss this chance to personally visit that paradise within our earth via the North Polar Opening and meet the highly advanced, friendly people who live there. We are of the opinion that they are the legendary Lost Tribes of Israel who migrated into the North Country over 2,500 years ago and literally became lost to the knowledge of mankind.”
Ah. OK. (I do like that oxymoronic last clause, by the way. You always know you’re in the presence of madness when you’re told “literally nobody knows what I’m about to tell you”.)
As if to demonstrate how lost to the knowledge of mankind these tribes are, there is more detail:
“Within Our Hollow Earth at the City of Jehu, expedition members could take an inner earth monorail train to visit the lost Garden of Eden located under America on the highest mountain plateau of the Inner Continent. It is also the capital city of Inner Earth, according to Olaf Jansen. Perhaps in this City of Eden we can visit the palace of the King of the Inner World, as did Olaf Jansen and his father.”
Remember that ‘could’ in the first sentence, because here comes the itenerary:
Day 8 - Spend the day at the North Pole and even call home to talk to family or friends!
Days 9-11 - Start the search for the North Polar Opening to the Inner Continent.
Days 12-14 - Once found, travel up Hiddekel River to City of Jehu.
Days 15-16 - Take a monorail trip to City of Eden to visit Palace of the King of the Inner World.
Days 17-18 - Return trip back to City of Jehu on the monorail. We will then continue our journey through the North Polar Opening, on board the Yamal, for the return trip home.
Which implies, if nothing else, that the Palace of the King of the Inner World in the City of Eden takes group bookings. And, no, I don’t know why it’s a monorail, which does seem rather 70s.
To their credit, the organisers do carry a disclaimer:
GUARANTEES: By joining Our Hollow Earth Expedition, expedition members agree that there are NO GUARANTEES that this expedition will reach Inner earth. The expedition will make a good faith effort to locate the North Polar Opening and enter therein, but worst case scenario is that we visit the geographic North Pole, explore the region, and continue on to the New Siberian Islands. At all times the expedition will also be at the mercy of the weather, ice and sea conditions.
Like that phrasing. “At the mercy of the weather, ice and sea conditions”. Gives me such confidence.
My only surprise is that the expedition wasn’t organised by Voyages Jules Verne.
Two fine articles on fortean subjects:
- A suggestion that the Voynich manuscript is a hoax created using Cardan grilles. The prime suspect is, of course, Edward Kelley. Kelley is a fine example of posthumous inflation; almost anything inexplicable or under the table is obviously, obviously, down to Kelley. The poor man wouldn’t have had time to do half of what he’s been accused of doing. Nonetheless, I do like the fact that the argument comes from the author’s attempt at an analysis of how explanatory theories in general can be improved, rather than a specific attempt to ’solve’ the Voynich manuscript.
- Rorschach ‘wizards’ as cold readers - a (highly subjective) account of the way that experts in the Rorschach test, a device with little or no clinical evidence to back it up, may have consciously or unconsciously employed cold reading techniques to produce superficially impressive results. If nothing else, this article introduced me to the term Barnum statements.
A couple of months ago I had a little bash at a comical experiment that purported to show that the ‘infinite monkeys typing Shakespeare’ thought-experiment was impossible.
Thanks to the ever-reliable things, I’m now aware of a far more useful experiment: the Monkey Shakespeare Simulator. This unleashes virtual simians at the problem; a far more suitable approach to a virtual experiment than wasting a month watching a handful of real monkeys bash a poor typewriter to junk metal.
As I write, the current record is this:
“KING RICHARD. OlazZtssi0cwX?QDjqkP9r]xfaBmlVU]e…”
That’s sixteen whole consecutive letters from King Richard II (from a range of 80 possible letters and other characters). And it only took 24,115 billion billion monkey-years to get past the speaker’s name (that capital O is, significantly, the first letter of “Old John of Gaunt, time-honoured Lancaster,”).
Of course, the Monkey Shakespeare Simulator can’t do infinite monkeys; it just does the very accelerated work of a large number of monkeys (thousands, I think) over a geologically long time.
Remember: infinity is big. Really big. If it were really running a simulation of infinite monkeys the experiment would be successfully completed in precisely the amount of time it takes to type out the entire works of Shakespeare one letter per second (say a few days).
Unfortunately, success is not proof. We wouldn’t know the experiment was successful until we had collated the results of those few days work from our infinite monkeys and compared them with the accurate text. You see, for every monkey that gets it right, there will be 79 who reproduce Shakespeare perfectly except for the very last character, and 79×79 who will get only the last two characters wrong, and so on, back to through the infinite chaos of an almost infinite amount of proofreading. It’s not monkey work, you know.
Sometimes, it seems, knowing you’re right is harder than being right.
Announcing our stunning lipogrammatron.
For too long, any author licking at nib of a quill and poising it on a blank folio to scratch its mark lipogrammatically has fought against an unusual limit. In combination a human brain, its optic organ and linguistic flair usually do. But in tumbling up such a concoction of words as Tryphiodorus hard won, common skills will not always carry all. Our cunning author of such tricksy things must show also constant vigilant rigour. This taboo must not slip.
Now, lipogrammatron allows authors of a formalist colour to banish doubt by making any occult consonant vanish from sight - and from touch. This occurs by disabling that block on your touch-pad as out of bounds.
Lipogrammatron: as writing such a toy is not a work of E’s.
A book without words of action
Thoughts from this in Mr Hamm’s blog]
I would have thought, had I been asked, that you couldn’t go wrong with a news story that starts as follows:
Lecturers and students from the University of Plymouth wanted to test the claim that an infinite number of monkeys given typewriters would create the works of The Bard.
As usual, I would have been wrong.
The story (from last year, but somehow it passed me by) ran with the curious idea that a month-long experiment involving six monkeys being left alone with a computer somehow proves that the famous (and idle) gedankenexperiment is wrong.
Six monkeys. For a month. The news item rather charmingly suggests that in the course of the month, the monkeys moved on from their basic keyboard repertoire (the letter S) to more daring flights of prose (mainly involving A, J, L and M). Nearly there already, I’d say.
I do like the idea that after a month the researchers threw up their hands in the air and exlaimed “Pah! They’ll never do it!”
I suppose that nobody these days has the patience to conduct an infinitely long experiment, although recently I’ve been feeling that projects can go on forever (hence incidentally the quietness in these here parts).
At least one good thing has come out of this; in order to get the right title for this post, I had to track down a good Shakespeare concordance. All’s well that ends well, eh?
The Universal Life Church, Modesto, California (since 1859), isn’t one of those churches that offers quick and cheap ordination. It offers ordination that is quick and free.
Warming to it’s theme (”our common thread is our adherence to the universal doctrine of religious freedom”), it also offers online confession and prayers.
Not so much missing the point, as aiming for an entirely different point.
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