Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Learning Today: June 1st 2011. The Times They Were A Changin'

Before the Revolution of 1848 the tiny principality of Monaco had a really good deal going for it. Monaco was allowed to tax all the orange and lemon trees in Provence. The Princes of Monaco didn't need to do much more than sit back, look out at the Mediterranean, and wait for the farmers of Provence to bring them fresh lemon-scented money. But nothing is forever. In 1848 persky Revolutionaries put an end to many aristocratic privileges--including Monaco's right to tax those tasty citrus fruits.

What's a small principality to do? Countless other once-privileged elites across France and the rest of Europe took this opportunity to curl up into a vomit-stained ball of debauchery and decadence. The Princes of Monaco had a better idea. They would give other people a place where they could curl up into vomit-stained balls of debauchery and decadence. They would open a casino.

And it worked. Today, Monaco is still a country. The Princes of Monaco are still rich. And people still come to the minuscule country to waste their money and get drunk.

And every so often, the scent of lemon and orange wafts through the air, suggesting to the Princes the simplicity of a past time.

Found in C.A. Bayley's The Birth Of The Modern World, Chapter 11, The Reconstruction of Social Hierarchies.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Learning Today: May 31st 2011. Fact Smörgåsbord!

Smörgåsbord, the legendary tableful of tasty edibles, comes to us from the Swedish language. It means literally Butter-Goose-Table.

Today, courtesy of the Canadian Science radio show Quirks and Quarks' annual Question Roadshow, I present a veritable Butter-Goose-Tableful of facts for you, my loyal readers. I encourage you to listen to the whole program.

The show answers burning questions, such as:

Why do Canadian Geese honk when they fly? (To let other geese know where they are.)


How do lakes get fish in them? (In the past, lakes were connected to each other by rivers, and the enterprising fish swam up these rivers.)


Are identical twins actually identical? (Yes and no.)

My fact-loving readership will devour this, I'm sure. Save room for the Butter-Goose, though!

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Learning Today: May 30th 2011. Hello Stranger!

In the Congo, "Stranger" is a common male name. Because babies come into their homes as strangers to their families.

From When You're Strange by Paul Theroux in the NYRBlog.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Learning Today: May 26th 2011. Suicide Freud.

Freud was a suicide.

You can't blame him. First, he suffered from twenty years of painful cancer. (Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Other times it kills you.) Then, he had to escape from Nazi-occupied Vienna.

One day in his exile, he sat down, read Balzac's La Peau de chagrin (the Magic Skin) cover to cover, and then was administered an overdose of morphine. And he died.

Via Ivan Szelenyi's Foundations Of Modern Social Theory course, available on iTunes U.

Apologies for the lack of post yesterday, and the small post today. I am a tad busy!

Monday, May 23, 2011

Learning Today: May 24th 2011. The Kiddie-Diddling Tumor.

Everything a person is--every thought, feeling, idea and memory--is little more than an instance of brain activity. This is a radical and unsettling idea. My feeling of love is correlated with a particular set of neurons firing. My appreciation of great works of art is identical with activity in a particular region of my brain. I am a meat computer, weighing about three pounds, engorged with blood.

Though it may be unpalatable, there's a lot of evidence that the mind is nothing more than the brain. For instance, brain damage can often cause profound changes in human behavior. Take the case of the 40 year old schoolteacher who suddenly became an uncontrollable pedophile. His wife discovered him downloading child porn. He visited massage parlors. He even solicited sex from children.

But he also complained of horrible headaches. He urinated on himself and didn't care. He was unable to copy writing and drawings.

A day before he was supposed to go to prison on child molestation charges, he was put into an MRI. Doctors discovered a tumor in the right lobe of the orbifrontal cortex. When the tumor was removed, his sex addiction vanished.

But wait! Later, the man complained of headaches again and started to secretly collect porn. A second trip to the MRI revealed that the tumor had only be incompletely removed. The doctors out the remaining tumor, and the man was better again.

I heard about this story on the Philosophy Bites interview with David Eagleman. Check out the rest of the episode--it's a fascinating look into the intersection of ethics and neuroscience.

Learning Today: May 23rd, 2011. Bill O's Hates.

Turns out Bill O'Reilly likes Glenn Beck and hates Sean Hannity.

Ailes also faced internal resistance to Beck’s rise. Sean Hannity complained to Bill Shine about Beck. And it didn’t help matters that O’Reilly, who had become friends with Beck and can’t stand Hannity, scheduled Beck as a regular guest, a move that only annoyed Hannity further.

From this great piece on Roger Ailes, Fox News, and the Republican 2012 Nominee.

Sorry for the scant post today, I have a case of the Mondays.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Learning Today: May 20th 2011. Celebrating The Proud And Invisible Professional Songwriters

Eg White. Al "Shux" Shuckburgh. You've heard their music in your car, hummed along to their words in the shower. Just who are they again?

These men are professional songwriters. Pop stars--it turns out--don't actually have enough time to write their own material, so they hire other people to do it for them (a lovely example of the increasing division of labor, by the way.)

No doubt it' efficient. Here's the wonderfully named Eg White on his process.
Sometimes I get two hours. Someone comes over at three, we have a cup of tea, chew the cud for a bit, go: 'All right, shall we write a song?' And by six, they've gone home and we've fucking done it. Chasing Pavements, that took two or three hours.
Efficient, sure. But there's something dreadfully unsatisfying to know that many of the songs making up the soundtrack to our lives were made this way--like work. We want our art to be the product of pure feeling, not the product of a guy trying to get a paycheck. When the market gets involved, we feel like our art has been compromised somehow.

Tangent time. This is one of the reasons for the snobbery of modern art. There's plenty of fantastic and appealing commercial art. But since it turns a profit, we're hesitant to call it real art--'high' art. True art is the art that could not survive the market--the art that must be supported by museums and art schools, rather than by people actually buying it and hanging it on their walls.

Well I think that's an awful way of looking at art. The test of art is in our experience of art--how we hear the song, how we see the painting, how we read the novel.

So tonight when you open up iTunes, raise your celebratory beverage of choice to the invisible professional songwriters, those shadowy men who make the music we hum along with.

Source: "Write me a hit by teatime: the world of professional songwriters." The Guardian, May 17th. Via Mefi.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Learning Today: May 19th 2011. Happy Commemoration of Atatürk, Youth and Sports Day!

Well folks, today here in Turkey it's Commemoration of Atatürk, Youth and Sports Day! Hooray! Everyone has the day off! Including me. So I'm going to slide into bed and rest enough to get over the horrible cough that's been plaguing me all week.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Learning Today: May 18th 2011. Bitcoin. The Eminent Future of Currency? Libertarian Pipe Dream? Finally A Way To Buy A Tab Of Acid Online?

In the beginning, if you wanted stuff you had to give someone else stuff that they wanted. I want your goat, I have to give you twenty-five turnips. If you don't like turnips, tough cookies for me. Or tough turnips. I don't get your goat.

Slowly, and perhaps inevitably, people chose a particular good to exchange better than all other goods. It could be cowrie shells. Or barley. Or whiskey (in Revolutionary Era-America.) But the grandpappy of cool stuff to swap was gold.

Gold was nice and shiny. It didn't rust or degrade. And it was relatively light. This made trade a lot easier. If I want your goat, I don't need to bother with whether or not you want turnips. I can sell my turnips for some gold, give you that gold, and you can give someone else gold for that iPod touch you've been eyeing up.

But there was a big problem with gold: there wasn't enough of it. People wanted to trade, but they couldn't because they couldn't get the gold. People did all sorts of crazy things to get over the lack of gold. From the bill of exchange to the Ming banknote, getting over the problem of the scarcity of gold was troubling business. But what could you do?

Then paper currency came along. Paper currency was light, movable, there was (usually) enough of it. Soon people didn't really care about gold. And the world dropped the gold standard sometime during the Second World War.

We may be seeing a revolution in currency every bit as wild as paper currency. Say hello to BitCoin. The world's first electronic currency.

Could it really be one of the most dangerous things the internet has ever created? Even more dangerous than shock sites? Than Jay Beebs? Or is it all a bunch of libertarian hoo-hah?

I have no idea, because I just found out about BitCoin today. Via Waxy.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Learning Today: May 17th 2011. The Octopus Of Love And Death

When you love someone, what's better than giving them a little reminder of yourself? A poem. A picture. Something that reminds your lover of you when you are gone. The male blanket octopus has found the perfect gift. He gives his mate his penis.

Well, it's not really his penis. Male octopuses have a special sperm tentacle which they use to give lady octopuses their sperm sack. Sounds lovely, I know, but it gets the job done. When Mr. Blanket Octopus hands over his bag of squiggly octopod love, Mrs. Blanket Octopus gets a little something extra. He gives her his entire love tentacle. And then he dies.

Isn't nature great?

Source: Sex Drugs and Sea Slime on CBC Radio's Quirks and Quarks, May 14th.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Learning Today: May 16th, 2011. The Eight-legged essay of China.

Welcome to Learning Today. I come across a huge number of facts in my daily procrastinating, and I thought--why not share those facts with the world? Or at least with the tiny number of humans and web-bots that read this blog?

Our inaugural bit of wisdom comes today from China's imperial examination system. Civil servants in Imperial China were chosen on the basis of their performance on a test. Hooray meritocracy, you say! Not so fast. This wasn't a test of actual practical things. This was a test of the Chinese classics. It was horrifically difficult. The leader of the Taiping Rebellion, Hong Xiuquan, failed his examinations over four times--despite scoring in the top one percent of applicants. People would spend their lives taking the exams. Makes GRE test prep look peachy, no?

Why were the exams so hard? For an example, look at the dreaded eight-legged essay. Not only did the eight-legged essay give strict limits on the word count, structure and expression, but it demanded that writers not mention anything that happened after the death of Mencius in 298 B.C. From Wiki:

Words, phraseology, or references to events that occurred after the death of Mencius in 298 BC were not allowed, since the essay was supposed to explain a quote from one of the Confucian classics by "speaking for the sage"; and Confucius or his disciples could not have referred to events that occurred after their deaths.[1]

That's what I call learning.


So I'm going to be trying something new with this blog in the coming days and weeks, let's see if I can keep it up.