Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Learning Today: The Genius Of Black English

If you are not aware of Ebonics, African American English can be easily dismissed as a lazy degeneration of 'proper' English. But Black English is not in any way wrong, indolent, malformed, or uninformed--it's merely different from the English found in newspapers and blogs.

And African American English can in many cases express itself more elegantly than standard English. Toni Morrison described it as having five present tenses:

He writin. He is writing.

He be writin. He is usually writing.

He be steady writin. He is usually writing intensely.

He's bin writin. He wrote at some earlier point, but probably not now.

He's BEEN writin. He has been writing for a long time, and still is.

Anyone complaining that speakers of African American English cannot express themselves obviously cannot appreciate the wealth of expression afforded by these five present tenses. They also have probably never been forced to read literary criticism, and seen what it really means for people to be unable to express themselves.

I learned about these five present tenses from Slate's new language podast, awkwardly named Lexicon Valley. (What is the main agricultural product of Lexicon Valley? Semicolons?)

To return to the point. All spoken dialects--from the jargon of the nuclear engineer to the text messages of a petulant teen--differ to some degree from our more stolid, slow-to-change written dialect.

When we write, we are participating in conversations that began long before we were born. We step to the lectern that Swift and Twain not long ago lefy; we gaze at an audience who has listened to Salinger, Hemingway and Hawthorne. We speak to these dead luminaries, who, if heaven is fair stand backstage, listening patiently to those now speaking. And since we speak to the past in writing, our language is stiller, only sometimes referring to the bubble and bluster of our wild spoken Englishes.

And a bonus fact for you: What cohort of people has the most up-to-date English?

It's low-middle-class teenage girls. Yes. When you pass by a gaggle of texting crimp-haired gossip-flingers what you hear is the English that will be. At least according to the book Not By Genes Alone.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Learning Today: The Leap Day That Never Was

Under the Gregorian Calender, every four years we have a leap day, right? Break out the blue and yellow clothing and watch the Leap Day William movies on TV? Wrong.

It has taken millennia of tinkering to align this spinning rock of a planet to a calender that makes some sense, and the resulting rules have sometimes turned out a little weird. In addition to various leap seconds and minor corrections, the calender skips one leap day every hundred years. The year 1900 didn't have a leap day, and neither did the year 1800, and neither did 1700.

But those readers with memories that have remained undiminished by the modern preponderance of Google and doors will remember that year 2000 was a leap year. What gives?

Okay. Well it is true that every leap year in twenty is skipped. Except those that are divisible by 400. Like good old 2000. YOU ARE NOW BETTER INFORMED.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Learning Today: Cinderella Is Really Really Old

Something must be very human about the story of the overworked girl rescued from poverty by beauty, magic, and the horniness of a prince. Cinderella, the ultimate gold-digger, first appeared in first century B.C. Egypt--if not earlier--and has been a great career model for young women ever since.

In the Ancient Egyptian version, Cinderella was a Greek slave named Rhodopis, whose rose-colored slipper is stolen by a bird and dropped on the Pharaoh's lap. The Pharaoh does what anybody would do in this situation. He understands that the bird is not just a bird but the great god Horus, and he interprets the slipper a sign from Horus that he should marry the woman the slipper belongs to. (Happens all the time.) A search for the matching foot begins. The correct woman is found, married, bedded, and rescued from servitude, and all her enemies suffer for her happiness. Sounds familiar?

What is it about this story which has kept it in the mouths of babysitters and storybooks for well over two thousand years? People in mud huts have loved it and people in condos have loved it. The children of goat herders and stock traders have begged to hear it as they were falling asleep. In two thousand years, the children of holograph repairmen and time lords will ask to hear it--indeed, it seems that however long civilization endures, so will Cinderella. But why? What makes this story above all others last?

Maybe it's the feeling that out of the toil of our daily life, something magic will rescue us--that out of the normal duties of our day, we will be recognized: as individuals, worthy, and true. That one day, the great god Horus will swoop down, steal our slipper, and give notice to the Pharaoh that we are awesome.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Learning Today: What Does It Mean To Be Colorblind?

The identity of the colors was always fertile territory for teenage philosophers. "What if my green is different from your green?" thousands of miniature Platos have mused to each other over the years, gazing at lava lamps, asking for another dose of PHILOSOPHER FUEL.

Until we can stick cameras into our consciousness, we simply don't know whether the qualia of color differs from person to person. What we do know is that about eight percent of the male population is colorblind.

So what is color blindness anyway? Our eyes are made up of rods and cones. Rods give us black and white. Cones give us color. People with 'normal' color vision have three different kinds of cones. The color blind suffer by with only two.

Most mammals have only two kinds of cones. And most birds have an astonishing four kinds of cones--which means that they can see into the ultraviolet range and can write poetry about flowers and sunsets just that smidge more expressively.

It is one of those enduring mysteries--what does it actually mean to see a color that you hadn't before? What does it actually mean that I can see a color that my colorblind colleagues could not even imagine?

I'm reminded of Terry Pratchett's the Colour of Magic, a book I marinated my brain in when I was a little me. In it, the presence of magic can be detected by the presence of color otherwise non-existant. Except, I guess, by birds.

Inspired by the legendary Cecil Adams' Straight Dope.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Learning Today: How Doors Make Us Forget

Whatever the songs about lost love say--forgetting's easy. You can forget things simply by walking through a doorway.

Researchers at the University of Notre Dame did an interesting experiment. They got their subjects to memorize a series of colors and shapes. Then they'd see how many of them they could remember. That's the dependent variable. The independent variable is that before they were asked to recall the colors and shapes, some of subjects walked through a real doorway, some walked through a virtual doorway and others didn't walk through a doorway at all. Those subjects who walked through a doorway--either real or virtual--had much worse memories than those subjects who stayed put.

The moral of this fact? DESTROY ALL DOORS.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Learning Today: The Four Great Inventions And Four Genius Tinkerings. Part 4: Gunpowder

This is the last in our series on the Four Great Inventions of China, and today we'll be looking at gunpowder--an invention that started as a miracle elixir, became a weapon, and ended as an inspiration.

Since the time of the first Qin Emperor, a single public policy goal has captured the imaginations of one Chinese head of state after the other. Take a guess at what it might be. It wasn't irrigation. It wasn't even conquest. Not parking reform. Aim a little higher.

Chinese Emperors wanted to overcome death. And unlike other morality-shy people like you or me, the Chinese Emperors could invest huge masses of manpower in order to attempt immortality. A huge industry of alchemical curiosities resulted, most of which had no effect at all on human health; some of which (like fortifying doses of mercury) actually killed you. Funnily enough, some actually ended up habving useful applications.

The Taoist alchemists' most ironic invention was gunpowder. Ironic in the Alanis Morisette usage. In the 9th Century, they discovered something interesting happened when you mixed saltpeter and charcoal. It was supposed to extend your life.

Instead it went boom.

A Bloody History
Gunpowder is the best examples of an invention that has been endlessly tinkered with. First, it was used as a medicine. Then, for fireworks. Then, as a weapon when the Chinese attatched bamboo tubes to arrows. The Mongol hordes in the 13th Century hauled cannon across the steppes to overcome the walls of Baghdad and Vienna--the first cannons Europe ever saw--cannons which made and operated by Chinese captives. Then, of course, there came the gun. The same gun which unarmored the knights, brought the great walled cities of Europe to heel, and armed the sans-coulottes who stormed the Bastille.

But That's Not What We're Talking About Today
No. It's not. In this history we've lingered far too long on the useful. It's time instead to look at the artistic, the awkward and the symbolic. For that we're going to turn our attention to one of the great books of Cold War literature, Riddley Walker. Warning in advance: minor non-book ruining spoilers follow.

Set after a nuclear holocaust that destroyed civilization, Riddley Walker is written in the dirtied, shattered argot of a bombed-out England. The word situation has become suching waytion. Alone has become loan. Revenue has become revver newit. At first, these strange words are like a screen which seperates you from the world of the book. But as you get more used to the it, the language becomes an extended metaphor for the earthy, broken post-apocalypse of semi-nomads, scroungers and farmers left behind after the bomb.

The book follows the eponymous hero as he goes in search of wisdom and the 1 Big 1--the bomb that destroyed civilization. What he finds in the end is far different. He finds gunpowder--the 1 Littl 1. For Hoban, gunpowder is the first step--but the first step where? Both forwards and back. Gunpowder represents the reclamation of ancient culture lost in the radioactive wastes. But it also portends war, death and extinction.

And it all started with a Chinese alchemist, yearning for impossible immortality, playing with saltpeter and charcoal--until it went boom.

And that's it for this series. I hope you've enjoyed it!

Learning Today: The Los Alamos Cocktail

In the early days of Los Alamos the mesa town was full of science--but not fun. Though there was a twice-weekly movie night (at fifteen cents a head) besides that, the only other form of recreation was the single woman's dormitory--a small number of the residents of which started to charge single men for the privilege of female company. That and horse riding. The many young male scientists at the base had a critical case of boredom.

So those single scientists, blasting their brains on physics and fizzling away their youthful energies--they did what any pre-thirty year old would do. They partied like freshman girls at a state school. And now you can, too--
with this authentic recipe for Los Alamos hooch.

Fill a 32-gallon G.I. can half with grapefruit juice, half with lab alcohol.

Add dry ice.




All the taste of the nuclear arms race, none of the hassle!

This is according to Martin Sherwin's biography of Oppenheimer, American Prometheus.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Learning Today: The Four Great Inventions And Four Genius Tinkerings. Part 3: Printing

This is what I heard.

At one time the Buddha was staying in the Jeta Grove, near the city of Sravasti.

With him there was a community of 1,250 venerable monks and devoted disciples.

One day before dawn, the Buddha clothed himself, and along with his disciples took up his alms bowl and entered the city to beg for food door to door, as was his custom.

After he had returned and eaten, he put away his bowl and cloak, bathed his feet, and then sat with his legs crossed and body upright upon the seat arranged for him.

He began mindfully fixing his attention in front of himself, while many monks approached the Buddha, and showing great reverence, seated themselves around him.

So begins the Diamond Sutra, an ancient buddhist text illuminating the nature of reality.

And so begins the earliest printed text to which we can fix a date--868 A.D. The woodblock-printed scroll is five meters long, and beautifully illustrated. The text's finely wrought letters and detailed drawings is proof that at the time they were made in ancient China, woodblock printing was already a mature art, seven centuries or so before Mr. Gutenberg made his famous bible.

The sutra was discovered in a cave in the Chinese desert, where--along with about a thousand other books--it was sealed up at about the turn of the last millennia.

Why Does Gutenberg Get All The Credit?
It is not mere Western chauvinism--though surely that played a part. There was a deeper, more technical problem that prevented Chinese printing from assuming the world-historical importance of Gutenberg's printing press.

Look at this. It means 'a place for gathering.' It is one of over three thousand chinese characters. To read a text--and, more pointedly, to print it--a person needs to master over three thousand of these intricate characters. And then inscribe them onto blocks of wood.

Despite this setback. the Chinese still developed a sophisticated method of printing called moveable type, in which individual characters can be moved around and reused to print different documents. But printing didn't catch on as explosively in the East as it did in the West.

The West has a huge advantage over China on this point, but it has nothing to do with how we usually imagine what distinguishes societies. It wasn't a difference in racial ability, or moral fortitude. It wasn't that the West was hard-working, and the East was decadent.

It was luck. European languages have a character count languishing in the mid-twenties--so any woodcutter with some degree of technical sophistication could cut his own type and start printing. Thus, the printing press led to a flourishing of printed material in the West, and only slightly cheaper buddhist texts in the East.

The Next Dimension
And now let's fast forward--to now. Printing is undergoing a new revolution, one which (depending on who you talk to) will create a new world of manufacturing, superabundance, and ease; will let us print our own action figures; or both; or--neither.

Welcome to the era of 3D printing.

3D printing is exactly how it sounds. A printer makes something. Like a 3D something. It sounds a bit science-fictiony, and in a world inured to miracles, I find that we really need to be beaten over the head with how amazing it actually is. Take a look at what now, in the first stuttering steps of the medium, 3-D printing is doing.

With woodblock printing, a 3D object--raised letters on a block of wood--was used to impress words on a 2D surface. With 3D printing, a 4D process is used to create a 3D object. Surely, 3D printing is simply the next step in a long process that started thousands of years ago with the Diamond Sutra. History, that capricious arbiter, is the only thing that will tell whether 3D printing will change the world, or remain a mere novelty.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Learning Today: The Four Great Inventions And Four Genius Tinkerings. Part 2: The Compass

This is the second of a four-part look the neat things that happened when people started tinkering with the Chinese Four Great Inventions.

Let's start by thinking about an element of household mystery--the kitchen magnet. Like every inquisitive toddler, your humble writer as a younger human spent hours sticking magnets to the fridge and pulling them off again.


The Chinese were also interested in the magic of magnets--specifically lodestone, one of only two naturally magnetized rocks on earth. While lodestone was described in about the fifth century, it took another five hundred years before we get a description of the first compass. It looked a lot different from what we'd include in our Zombie Apocalypse Preparedness Kits. Step 1: Make a fish out of lodestone. Step 2: Float fish in a bowl of water. The fish's head will point north. Step 3: ???? Step 4: Profit.

The Chinese compass evolved. The fish turned into a ladle, and it was placed in the middle of a square plate representing the cosmos. Very useful if you wanted to practice geomancy. Not terribly useful for taking on a camping trip.

Today, with compasses being so common-place that they're included as consolation prizes at Skee-Ball rinks, we might take pause to see the compass ranked as a great invention. But do not pause! No! Resist the pausing! Be assured the humble compass changed the world by opening up the map to exploration.

The true power of the compass couldn't be realized however until two other inventions came on the scene. The first was the sextant, a tool used to accurately measure the distance between two points in the sky. The second was the marine chronometer, nothing more than a really really solid, accurate clock.

This is what the ancients thought the world looked like. And why they needed better navigation.
Think of how easy it is to get lost, even these days with iPads equipped with Google Maps. Antiquity did not have iPods or Google, and because of this they suffered from an almost chronic case of disorientation. Maps were bad and often centuries out of date. Roads were treacherous when they existed, rife with tolls both official and unofficial and ruffian-enforced. And--unless you risked the moods of the sea or were rich enough to afford a horse--you had to make all your wrong turns on foot. The heroic historian Fernand Braudel estimated that in the 16th Century it took news roughly thirty days at top speed to get from the center of Europe to the edge.

Here's where the compass comes in. With a compass, you can orient yourself north. This is useful enough. But knowing where magnetic north becomes almost magical if you can get an accurate measurement of the sky.
No sextant jokes today.

To do this we have to wait until the sixteenth century for the invention of the sextant. The sextant is a majestic work of technology elegantly combining no less than three genius inventions. It consists of a telescope (necessary inventions: glass grinding; optics), a mirror, and a frame. If you know how to use a sextant, you can use it to find the distance between any two points in the sky.

Big whoop, boy scout, I can hear you snickering. But wait. If you know which way's north, and you can measure the position of the starts accurately, then you can fix you latitude with astonishing accuracy. This is convenient when your caravan gets stuck in the winding streets of Istanbul and you want to know how long it will take to make it to the Black Sea, but it can be downright life-saving if you are a booty-laden ship drifting across the Atlantic Ocean, wondering whether you took a wrong turn at Ireland.

Once people were able to get a handle of how far up or down the earth they were, the distance of the seas essentially shrunk. Ocean travel was less dangerous. The world was a little freer for commerce and freedom.

But not, you know, completely free. Because while seamen could figure how much they'd moved up or down the earth, they were still could only guess how far East or West they were. The problem of longitude was a great concern for sailors.

The problem was that to figure out your longitude by looking at the stars, you needed to know exactly what time it was. Well, the haters are already saying to themselves, why don't they just use a watch?

Didn't you hear me say exactly? I mean exactly. The earth moves about fifteen degrees every hour, so an inaccuracy of a minute or two on the clock can mean a difference of hundreds of miles on land--that's the difference between landing your sloop in Manhattan or landing it in Maine. Added to this was the fact that the high seas were not very kind to clocks. On a long ocean voyage, clocks would heaved up and down by the crashing waves, they would stop, they would run fast or slow, their parts would expanded by the heat, and corroded by the humidity.

The solution was there for everyone to see. You just needed a really awesome clock. But while the solution was obvious, actually building an awesome clock without a pendulum was dreadfully difficult, and the intellectual giants of the 18th Century (I'm looking at you, Newton) didn't even think it was possible.

In the 18th Century, the British Government, knowing both the necessity of discovering longitude and that impossible things could indeed be achieved if you threw money at it, introduced the Longitude Prize to spur those dastardly inventors to invent a clock that could be used on the high seas. John Harrison, a British clockmaker, devoted his life to making this clock of all clocks in a story stuffed with so much event that it merited a book so wonderful to merit a TV series based on the book.

Once Harrison made the awesomest clock ever (officially called a marine chronometer, but whatevs) navigation became less guesswork, and more science. We came a long way from a lodestone fish floating in a pool of water. But remember--that's where it started, with Chinese geomancers playing with rocks.

Thanks for sticking around for this fact! I promise the next one won't be so involved! Please check back tomorrow, when we'll be looking at the third great Chinese invention--the printing press.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Learning Today: The Four Great Inventions And Four Genius Tinkerings. Part 1: Paper

The history of the world can be written in many different ways. We can mark the centuries by the passing of kings, by the empires' ebbs and flows, or by the progress of science and invention. Each focus will make a different kind of history, with its own heroes, tragedies, and triumphs.

If we look at the history of civilization as the history of invention, the West crouches perilously on the fringes of world history, a minor player with only a few moments of greatness. Who dominates the story instead? China.

The most conspicuous evidence of classical Chinese technical superiority are the Four Great Inventions. Paper-making. The compass. Printing. Gunpowder. These, undoubtably, paved the way for the modern world.

We think of invention the same way we think of magic. A single person--lab coatted and wise--huddles in a dark room and creates this new thing. He emerges after months of invention, an iPod or a pulley in his hand, waiting for the thronging crowds of people to use the creation of his inventive genius.

In Malcom Gladwell's recent article on Steve Jobs, Gladwell suggests that real invention doesn't happen like this at all. Instead, it happens by tinkering. One person has a great idea--a washing machine or a printing press--and then other people take that idea and fool around with it until it becomes perfect. The first iteration of a great idea is like first tries everywhere. Kinda incomplete and crap.

These next few days we will be looking at the Four Great Inventions of China--not just the history of their invention, but also the genius that came when they were tinkered with. We will start with paper.

Before paper, if you wanted to write something down, you were in trouble. What could you use? Leather, which was expensive--or papyrus, which was expensive. Writing, literacy, the whole great life of the mind was relegated only to the rich who could afford the luxury of paper. (This also led to people actually having to remember stuff--using their brain!--and a number of mnemonic systems, including the Memory Palace, which perhaps is a topic for another post.)

But the course of the world was changed when Cai Lun appeared in the pages of history, because it's Cai Lun who assured that the pages of history would be paper, and not the skin of a stillborn calf. Cai Lun was a eunuch in China's Han dynasty. In the turn of the first century AD, he created the first modern-looking paper from mulberry bark and trash.

In the centuries to come this paper would be used for everything we use paper for and more. Armor, clothing, toilet paper, tea bags--and yes, good old fashioned writing material.

And so how was paper tinkered with? For that let's jump ahead a couple hundred years to the turn of the millennia. Because paper is not only simple writing material. Paper can become power. Dear reader, it was also in China that paper assumed its most potent transformation, from simple writing material--to money, the store of value, the root of all evil, step one in Tony Montana's simple rules for success.

The Chinese state issued the first paper currency. Again, it was made from mulberry bark. Printed with a picture of the amount in cash that the bank note could be exchanged for, these little scraps of paper greased the wheels trade for hundreds of years before the whole system crashed in an inflationary cataclysm.

Check back next time. Hopefully we'll have time for a double-header--we'll be tackling the invention of the compass and the printing press.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Learning Today: The Most Perverse Animal In All Creation

Every generation knows that it is in decline. The imperial Romans looked over their shoulders at the frugality of their fallen Republic and felt themselves unworthy. Now we all hem and haw about the existence of porn and reality TV. We wonder how it got this bad. How can a species survive when 4chan exists?

Well we have nothing on the animals.

Just take the humble Adactylidium mite, a matryoshka doll of indecency and horror. A little family of about eight or so sisters and one brother scurries around in mamma mite. The brother proceeds to impregnate his sisters while still inside the mother. Once the deed is done, the ungrateful bugs eat their way out of their mother, killing her. The brother mite, like so many males before it, just sits around mom's corpse; the sister mites make their horrible little ways to feed and grow, their awful issue already scurrying in their bellies, having sex, the next generation ready to emerge on an unsuspecting world.

What record of sin and venality these mites commit in their four-day long lives? Let's make an account. Incest--of the fetalphilic variety. Cannibalistic matricide. Polygamy. All this in four days. In four days I can barely commit a sin. It makes the worst of what human beings can come up with seem comparatively tame.

Next time someone tells you of the collapse in morals, just tell remind them to be thankful that we are not mites.