Sunday, 20 August 2017

If I had a hammer

I was getting all hot about the mighty thighs of prehistoric Venus figurines the other day and thought it would be good to even things out by writing about Mighty Thor.  He's the chap from Asgard with the big hammer.  There is a film . . .

Saturday, 19 August 2017


That would be Rhinecanthus rectangulus the reef trigger fish [R pretty], the state fish of Hawaii. I say she be right pretty, tho she but little she is fierce and has been known to bite snorklers who get up its gills too much. I've had a poke at the idea of a state designating official whatevers: state beverage? [that would be kool-aid for Nebraska]. Call me exclusive but surely the state whatever should be characteristic and distinctive; whatever I may think, 7/50 states have chose the Cardinal Cardinalis cardinalis as their official bird which shows a want of enterprise. Hawaii's choice of a state fish has been not without controversy notably because R. rectangulus is found all over the Pacific rather than being endemic to the 50th state. Being so widely distributed and living on coral, the species has accumulated quite a lot of genetic diversity but molecular taxonomists are happy that it is one species unlike giraffes and African elephants. They have designated a bar-code
of DNA sequence taken from the COX1 gene which is present in all things that look like Rhinecanthus rectangulus and different in all other animals. Different from Rhinecanthus aculeatus the lagoon trigger fish, for example.The bar-codes are being collected by BOLD the Barcode of Life Data Systems project which so far comprehends more that 5.5 million species.

Not all US states have scooped an official fish from the bottom of the barrel of state identity: so well done Ohio and Arkansas for wasting no legislative time on the matter. Many other states have compensated by designating both a freshwater and marine fish for most of its citizens to forget.

humuhumunukunukuapua'a features in the nostalgic / romantic ballad My Little Grass Shack sung here by Leon Redbone and Ringo Starr. I misheard the lyrics as I want to be with the commies and wahines that I knew long ago which seemed a bit unamerican: it's actually kanes and wahines which is Hawaiian slang for boys and girls: like Feen and Beoir in Cork. You'll see these designations on 'bathrooms' in Hawaii.

Friday, 18 August 2017

Fat lady sings

I've written before about the hardship of getting enough to eat when we came down from the trees and how this anxiety was represented in contemporary art. Numerous examples of these Venus figurines have been dug up across the world. The most famous of which is perhaps the Willendorf Venus which was discovered in Austria in 1908. The salient feature of these representations of the female form is steatopygia to indicate the fat laid down under the skin of the buttocks and the mighty thighs. In a time and place where calories were hard to come by, the ability to store fat was recognised as an indicator orf biological fitness. Fitness as in the ability to survive [adverse circumstances] and produce offspring for the next generation.  Our swallows Hirundo rustica, for example, arrived this year on 17 May 2017 which is well late according to our records. Nevertheless, they are going for a second brood even at this moment: I can hear the nestlings chirrupping for more grub as I write. I'm guessing this is because a drizzly wet August has bought out a glut of insects to feed on. To my mind, the Venus of Willendorf is peculiar, not because of her capacious bosom and love-handles but because she appears to be wearing a tea-cosy over her face (it goes all the way round).

Archaeologists have also deduced that the limestone from which she was carved came from 130+km NE in Moravia near Brno [near where Gregor Mendel worked]. And the workmen had to travel a further 150 km N to pick up the flints hard enough to carve the block.  This speaks to me more of trade rather than itinerant stone carvers. 280km transport of materials is by no means the longest. Ancient objects recovered in England and stored in the British Museum have been proved by Pierre and Anne-Marie Pétrequin to have started their journey from Northern Italy - more than 2000 km!

But enough of Central Europe! Today we're off island hopping to Greece where there is, between Paros Πάρος and Antiparos Αντίπαρος, a tiny islet called Saliagos Σάλιαγκος which until Byzantine times was the head of an Antiparonian peninsula. Indeed, this was one of the earliest sites in the Cyclades to have been farmed. The current islet is less than 1 size and was 'dug' by archaeologists Renfrew and Davies in 1965. Because they were going over the ground with tooth-brushes they recognised a marble pebble as being [part of] another mighty-thighed lady, who in contrast the the Willendorf Venus has decided to take the weight off her feet and is shown sitting down. Less respectful than an earlier generation of archaeologists, the figurine was dubbed the Fat Lady of Saliagos. I've chosen to show the explanatory drawing [R] that appears behind the actual sculpture in the museum on Paros: it's hard to make out what you're looking at in the real thing, especially as the head is missing and the right shoulder too. She is displayed facing front but someone had the bright idea to position a hand-mirror so that we may marvel at her behind - kallipygia indeed.  These islands ar not to be confused with Paxos and Antipaxos on the other side of the Greek mainland.

Thursday, 17 August 2017

Erdös Aaron Numbers

A while back I was on about Erdös-Etc-Etc numbers which establish your status in mathematics depending on whether you danced with the Prince of Maths or danced with a man who danced with a girl who danced with the Prince of Maths [sing it]. Here's a nice Numberphile story by Carl Pomerance about Erdös numbers and the triggers of creativity. It starts in 1974 when baseball star Hank Aaron equalled [N=714] and then beat [N=715] the home-run record held by Babe Ruth since 1935. Like 1729 the Taxi-cab Number, certain numbers sing to mathematicians. Pomerance, a baseball fan, pondered on the numbers 714 and 715 which were being headlined all that Spring and noted that the prime factors of these two consecutive integers included all the primes up to 17 without dupes:
714 = 2 x 3 x 7 x 17
715 = 5 x 11 x 13
the sum of the prime factors is also [marginally] interesting:
2 + 3 + 7 + 17 = 29
 5 + 11 + 13 = 29
Pomerance wrote a jokey-serious paper about these inter-weavings; which attracted the attention of Paul Erdös; who came down and started a fruitful collaboration with the young Pomerance; which kick-started the latter's career. Years later, Erdös and Aaron are being given honorary degrees at the same place and Pomerance is able to introduce them . . . and get them to sign the same baseball [preserved R]: giving Aaron an enviable Erdös Number of 1.  Sweet.

I must have an  Erdös Number. And in the nature of things it is going to be much less than Heinz 57. There are 500+ people with Erdös = 1, and very few mathematicians with E# higher than 8. Indeed it is almost a distinction to have a really high E# because that means you've been fossicking about on the most distant frontiers of maths. In this deeply databased age, it is, of course, the kind of thing that can be computerised and a number of large-hearted, time-rich people offer help in finding your E#.  You can also game the system if you're well positioned when the Apocalypse starts.

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

I am become dumb

I've done I am become Mark where I cited J Robert Oppenheimer's "I am become death".  I have toothsome tales today about two generations of my family. At The Institute I have a useful classroom exercise to reflect upon the [wonderful] diversity that is part of the  human condition. It provides an opportunity to critically evaluate a 'fact' that everyone knows to be true, but isn't. The fact being that adult humans have 32 teeth. Counting actual teeth is real human heads reveals that N=32 is not even the majority condition: most of us have at least one 3rd molar which fails to erupt.
Me, I have only 3 visible 3rd molars; or wisdom teeth as they are commonly called. The upper left M3, although apparent on X-ray, never showed its head above the gum-line. That's okay, my two lower M3s, however, didn't have enough room in my lower jaw and so came out crooked with the occlusal face pointing forward at the adjacent M2. This condition is common enough to feature in Wikipedia  as impacted wisdom tooth [whence x-ray R]. My offspring Dau.I and Dau.II have half their genes in common (with each other and their father) and manifest a similar dental problem. As they crossed into adulthood and their wisdom teeth started to erupt wonk, they went to a dental surgeon and had some of them removed. Part of the argument was that by decluttering the jaw, the remaining teeth would shuffle about in the remaining space and straighten out.

That option was never suggested to me at the appropriate time, so I've had to soldier on with an awkward diastema on both sides at the back of my lower jaw. My dentist [prev], let's call him Bill, is mildly eccentric as dentists go: prone to homeopathy, over-enthusiastic about dental floss, sporting a peach-coloured dentist's chair, and convinced that amalgam fillings are the cause of most of the evils in the world. I like him because he's quite non-interventionist and over the years we've talked about my wisdom teeth and then done nothing about them. One persistent argument which muddied the waters was that he'd rather remove the adjacent M2s which both have [amalgam!] fillings in the belief that the wisdom teeth would then turn face up and shunt forward and serve their turn at the chomp. All Spring this year I had a succession of transitory toothaches and infections which resolved themselves with a few days of vigorous brushing - or just resolved themselves in time.  I figured that, getting older, my immune system wasn't dealing with crud build-up in the subtle, nuanced way of a younger chap and that I was looking at similar problems more often and more serious as senility progressed. Bill and I had a forthright discussion and he agreed to refer me to his current favorite among dental surgeons in Dublin with the imprimatur "maybe it is time".

Anyway, I went at the end of last week. You've got admire the efficiency of healthcare professionals; they don't piffle about when they are working at the rate of  €900/hour. The sports car needs to be paid for. The X-ray of my dentition was produced with a chef's "this one was done earlier" flourish and we discussed whether the top right Mshould come out too because it would have nothing to bite on after its lower partner was gone. I said "Take it"; she sent me out to pay anther €100 and when I returned she gave me two paracetamols, 1 aspirin and an IV shot of midazolam "it's like valium only 20x stronger". The next 30 minutes was a most peculiar out-of-mind experience. A distant aethereal part of my mind registered a lot of crunching and drilling but I couldn't feel a thing because, while I was in a dream-state, the d-surgeon had localled up my gums with lidocaine. Less than an hour later (so the d-surgeon and her assistant had time for a cuppa tea before the next patient?) I was being escorted across the road to my waiting car lighter by 3 surplus teeth and the bones of €1,000.

If the quality of The Blob seems to shift down market over the next few weeks, it's because I've lost my wisdom teeth. "I am become dumb" [that's what passes for a joke here]. Actually I was literally dumb for the first 40 minutes after the midazolam wore off: my tongue and lips felt so thick that I could only mumble. I'll add that, the night after the operation, I woke up at 0230hrs [two-thirty = tooth hurtee, geddit? It's the Chinese dentist joke, to which I so rarely get a chance to give an airing in these right on times].

But there is a serious sensory investigative outcome from this because midazolam is the first player in the current US lethal injection protocol which I've covered before and indeed before. From my experience last week, you could have hacked off my leg with a rusty saw and I would have been frankly, midazolam, I don't give a damn. In that sense alone, the death penalty is not a cruel or unusual punishment as forbidden by the US Constitution.

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Cant possibly be wrong

It was delightful to have Dau.II and then Dau.I come home for visits recently. Not least because they did some serious decluttering at the family home. Last November, Dau.I came home from a four year sojourn with the Hebrew slaves in Egypt in England. In exile she had started to learn the Irish language and has been continuing her studies, helped by duolingo and the fact that some of her pals are fluent. She is also down with popular culture in a way that I, in my mountain fastness [well stocked with baked beans, guns and ammo], am not. She asked if I'd heard about the Rubber Bandits and their opinion on the Irish origin for much of the slang used in America. I had not. I asked for examples. She offered
US Dig it? IR Duigeann tu? UK Do you understand?
The next day, I followed up because even I have heard of The Rubber Bandits. They were a viral [16m views] internet sensation arond Christmas 2010 with their analysis of Irish yob culture in [all kinds of NSFW warnings] Horse Outside.

Funnily enough the RBs linguistic twitter-storm started on 11th August; two days after I - it's all about me - made my revelatory insight into the unwitting use of Traveller cant in Waterford. Twitter is maybe not the best medium to have a deep or extensive discussion on matters that require research, or closely reasoned arguments of issues that are not necessarily black and white. But the RBs start off well by citing Francis Grose's Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1811) [Full text]. It's a super useful resource and contains entries such as "GAFF. A fair. The drop coves maced the joskins at the gaff; the ring-droppers cheated the countryman at the fair." Gaff as a slang word has shifted its meaning to "home" over the intervening 206 years. Anyway, the Rubber Bandits assert "So many English slang in this is either from Gaelic or Roma Cant." and in response to a comment from across The Pond say "Yank, words that have their etymologies in the first wave of dirt poor Irish speaking immigrants." followed by the (unattributed) list of US slang terms from Ireland which perked up Dau.I's curiosity.

Meanwhile, in another part of the internet, this casual investigation of etymology by two lads from Limerick has been fueling a shit-storm of indignation. That is because the list of supposed Hiberno-Yankee slang seems to be from How The Irish Invented Slang published in 2007 by Daniel Cassidy. There seems to be no sense of de mortuis nil nisi bonum (Cassidy died of pancreatic cancer in 2008) among certain linguists and etymologists. In 2013, an anonymous gaelgeoir started a blog to debunk, eviscerate and pour scorn [an ignorant, narcissistic fraud with no qualifications] on Mr "Deceased" Cassidy and his one book. This chap has been posting several articles a month ever since on this one topic.  That shows commendable stamina in setting things right: "Etymologies from Cassidy's How the Irish Invented Slang are widely duplicated across the internet. However, many of Cassidy's definitions have been shown to be wishful thinking or completely made up". As the blog was started a full five years after Cassidy died, this may seem like bolting the stable door after the horse is gone. But one of his (I presume cassidylangscam is a He, because none of the women I know get so cross about such a small annoyance) points is well taken. If nobody complains when things are wrong, the error will fester away and other people, less careful about evidence, will believe them to be true. By far the highest number of pageviews I've achieved on The Blob was Stilt-Walking Nonsense which debunked a persistent but erroneous meme. I guess I'd rather folk read my skeptical assessments than the original silliness; but nobody seemed [from pageview stats] to hang around to read other examples of my masterly analysis. It must be added that, like Daniel Cassidy misconstruing the etymology of a phrase, nobody died because they got the scale of sub-cellular organelles all wrong. Nevertheless it's better to be nearer truth and further from error.

Coda: The Internet is vast and wonderful but we shouldn't switch off our crap-detector when we access it. Before you accept or propagate something from the internet, ask yourself whether it is a) more or less correct and b) offensive to the recipient c) cruel and oppressive to the dispossessed  . . . including those no longer possessing life?

PS Today via neatorama came across this crap-detector for viral videos at The Verge: “I see these detailed explanations where someone very authoritatively writes step-by-step how some video was faked,” he says. “But what they’re claiming is not correct, and they’re so sure about it.

Monday, 14 August 2017

Language borders

Language allows you to communicate with others and conversely hinder your communications with The Other.  Most of us could get a fried egg sandwich at a diner anywhere in the world without having a word of common language. There may however be limits to the dialogue you have with the waitron about the fact that her apron is dirty or that it is raining stair-rods outside and sorry for the puddle.  There are still about 20,000 French citizens whose first language is Flemish. They live up against the Belgian border from Dunkirk south and east including Kassel and Hazebroek. These are all quintessentially Germanic names. These sort of place names spread west as far as Etaples and including the channel ports of Calais = Kales and Boulogne = Bonen. I think that sort of peculiar diversity should be cherished, not least because Fremish is quite different from the standard Nederlands of Den Haag and Amsterdam. You can see a similar retreat in the genetic, linguistic and toponymic hegemony in the shrinking Basque lands in the very opposite corner of France. A few years ago in a Lingo Quiz I invited readers "Draw a tree of relationships among the languages spoken in Metropolitan France: Alsatian Basque Breton Catalan French Occitan (we'll spare you having to slot in Tuareg, Vietnamese, Arabic)."  At least vlaams / vlaemsch are both Indo-European languages descended from PIE, so if we furrow our brows and are familiar with some antique forms of our own language and it matters we can have a conversation with another IE speaker. I remember carrying on a long discussion in a Navarrese church-yard about the process of pilgrimage in my français affreux with a German who was similarly prepared to mangle the language of Baudelaire and Zola. You probably know more Klingon than Basque, though - that's on a totally different tree.

Although it is spoken by people with a better tan, Punjabi is more similar to English than either is to Basque. The first two named are both branches on the great Indo-European tree. Someone, possibly not GB. Shaw said "England and America are two countries separated by the same language!". Punjabi, by contrast, is one language separated by two scripts. I'm primed about this because The Boy's Beloved TBB grew up having to rollick along in Punjabi because that was the best way to converse with her beloved maternal grandmother; who had been born in British India, spend a working lifetime in Kenya and washed up in London as the tides of empire receded in the 1960s. But I was more immediately jangled by a nostalgic report in the Guardian about exiled Punjabis who have been living in Dehli for 70 years since the partition of India. Warning: the report switches into harrowing eye-witness accounts of the process of partition and reciprocal atrocity. That would be today 14th/15th August 1947.  I've written about the maths of partition in the wake of the Radcliffe Report and his bloody, bold and resolute line across the map of the Raj.  As a wonk, of course I want to know about the maths of similarity between Hindi, Urdu and Punjabi. They say that Hindi and Urdu are effectively the same language but that Punjabi is different.

It's not easy to abstract those data from the interweb, although here is a rather pretty 19thC-looking tree of IE languages on their separate branches with the leaves approximately equivalent to the number of speakers. That should remind you of the zoomable map of species relationships on the Tree of Life [bloboprev]. The GoTo source for quantified inter-language similarity is a 2003 Nature paper by Gray and Atkinson from which I have editted the two branches shown [R]. From this, I am 'confident' that Punjabi and Hindi are about as different as German and English. Which in my experience is not too difficult to penetrate, especially if you are reading rather than trying to follow dialogue in real time. French and Portuguese are of a similar level of difference. You can check out the whole Gray and Atkinson tree [not too badly reduced and pixellated] here.  Of course, if you were reading, you'd think that Hindi and Urdu are totally different lingos, because they are written in different scripts; but parking jingo, it is sensible to treat them as dialects of a single language called Hindustani.

Punjabi is likewise a single language spoken by 75 million people living in Pakistan, 30 million in India and maybe 2 million in the diaspora [mostly UK and Canada] It is unhelpfully written is two different scripts Shahmukhi [from the king's mouth] and Gurmukhi [from the mouth the (Sikh) Guru Angad].  Shahmukti is clearly derived from Perso-Arabic, written right-to-left and used in Pakistan; while Gurmukhi is written left-to-right in India mainly by Sikhs.

Shahmukhi: لہور پاکستانی پنجاب دا دارالحکومت ا
Gurmukhi: ਲਹੌਰ ਪਾਕਿਸਤਾਨੀ ਪੰਜਾਬ ਦੀ ਰਾਜਧਾਨੀ ਹੈ 
Translit: lahaur pākistānī panjāb dī rājdā̀ni hài
English: Lahore is the capital city of the Pakistani Punjab