Friday, September 27, 2002

Friday Afternoon Diversion

Orisinal makes some of the prettiest games anywhere. Their gameplay is simple and they're sometimes addictive (though occasionally a bit boring), but the real attraction is the bizarre little worlds they create. Snowrider and Windy Days are typical; my favorite is Bubblebees. I like the fact that the 12-year olds I work with can't stand these games.

"It's different, but it's very pretty out here."

One night when I was six years old I was standing on the front porch with my father, we were both looking up at the moon. I should mention that this wasn't that boring sterile rock of a moon that these days rarely gets a moment of my attention. No, this was a brilliantly luminescent sphere that I remember as a kid spending countless evenings staring at with a toy telescope. It was the same moon that one day I knew I would visit.

The moon at the time was only about a quarter full but the night was a crystal clear winter's night in July so the crescent was brightly contrasted with the black sky behind it. Dad said: "Right now there are men walking around up there". I knew it too but just the thought of it was simply thrilling. Even at that age I knew that the moon landing was unprecedented, something totally new.

I guess that Apollo program in the end made the moon boring. What looked like the dawn of an exciting new era in space exploration ended up being just a high water mark before the malaise kicked in. No life was found there, just some rocks and then some more rocks. I remember watching the last of the Apollo 17 moon walks in 1972 on a TV set in the local shopping centre. Nobody was standing next to me watching it with me, no one could care less, they just got on with their Christmas shopping. As someone put it recently:

"We went to the moon. We drove a car around on the moon. We played golf on the moon. I think we've done everything practical we can with that useless rock."

Of course in reality they had a whole lot more fun than that! The transcripts of Apollo 11 landing and the moon walks make riveting reading. I mean it, go and immerse yourself, they're are really fascinating and the commentaries fill in the context as well as provide links to images and film clips. Transcripts of the other Apollo moon journals can be found here.

To be honest, I never could get very excited about the Space Shuttle. A space vehicle that could never leave the earth's orbit and was only meant for delivering new satellites or picking up old ones just wasn't space travel in my book. Its aims seemed so mercantile and mundane. It's one key feature, reusability, was something that only an accountant could really love. Instead my interest moved to the unmanned space probe flights which over the past 30 years have radioed back countless amazing pictures of the distant planets and their moons. But a Voyager or a Viking is just a camera tied on to a rocket, it's just not quite the same thing as having real people going out and doing real exploration.

In the three decades since the last person left it never to return, the moon has become remote once more. In a way, it seems more remote now than it ever was even before people started planning to go there.

Has the moon finally lost its power to inspire or is it just momentarily eclipsed? I'm not sure, the latter I hope but don't ask me. My three year old daughter has become a far better authority on the moon that me. She notices it even while it's become largely invisible to me. She knows when it's full and when it's a crescent. She points it out when it rises during the day. To her it's wonderful and interesting beyond measure and she reminds me how jaded I've really become. It is truly wonderful after all and this is definitely a good time for me to start looking up at the night sky once again.

Sometime around April this year, the Earth aquired a new moon. Initially it was thought to be a stray asteroid that had been captured by the Earth's gravity. Now it appears to be the booster stage of a Saturn V rocket, Apollo 12 to be precise, which had been orbiting the sun since 1971. This year it crossed back over the L1 Lagrange point and started orbiting the earth once again. Apollo 12 was launched only four months after Apollo 11 and its return as a piece of space junk is kind of a fitting reminder of those moon flights thirty years ago. It makes me think that it's about time that we went back.

"Right now there are no people walking around up there"

Thursday, September 26, 2002


Jachimov is a small Bohemian town in Joachimsthal, some 80km north of Plzen (Pilsen). In 1518 Count von Schlick was granted an imperial patent to mine silver there and to establish a mint. His silver coins were produced by Walzenwerke or 'rolling machines' and were formally classed as 'large groats'. Their popular name was the Joachimsthaler, soon shortened to thaler.

By the seventeenth century the thaler had become a unit of currency all over central Europe. It had been copied in Habsburg Spain, whose taleros or 'pieces of eight' circulated throughout the Americas. They were known in English as 'dollars'. The 30 shilling silver piece of James VI of Scotland was dubbed the 'Sword Dollar'. In the eighteenth century silver thalers were widely replaced by copper 'plate money' imported from Sweden, which acquired the Swedish name of daler. A copper daler of 1720 was equivalent in value to the silver thaler, even though its weight was 250 times greater; and it could only be transported by horse and cart.

The acknowledged masterpiece of the series, however, was the Maria Theresa dollar of 1751. This superb coin bore the bust of the Empress, with the two-headed eagle on the reverse, and the inscription: R[omae] IMP[eratrix] * HU[ngariae et] BO[hemiae] REG[ina] * M[aria] THERESIA * D[ei] G[ratia] ARCHID[ux] AUST[riae] DUX BURG[undiae] * COM[es] TUR[olis] * It continued to be minted in millions throughout the nineteenth century, all posthumous issues bearing the date of the Empress's death in 1780. It was minted by Mussolini in 1936 to finance the invasion of Abyssinia, and by the British in Bombay. Two hundred years later, it still circulates in parts of Asia as an international trade currency.

The dollar was adopted as the currency of the USA in 1787, and of Canada in 1871. But it figures no longer among the currency units of Europe.

from "Europe: A History" by Norman Davis
Note: german speakers pronounce "th" as "t"

Wednesday, September 25, 2002

Collapse: Why do civilizations fail?

What do you think, in response to this site or your own reflections?

A couple of pages in, toward the bottom, we find:

Every society must provide meaning and motivation to its members.

What society do you consider yourself to live in? How does that society provide meaning and motivation?
"I want to believe -- and I do believe -- that eventually people will see... that underneath this hair there is a brain, and underneath these big ol' boobs there's an even bigger heart."

So says Dolly Parton in a two-part interview she did on NPR's Morning Edition. I've always found Parton to be one of the more interesting figures in country music, a genre toward which I do not typically gravitate. She really is a fairly thoughtful individual, and quite talented. Links to the interview and some other Parton-related items (including a Real Audio version of her new cover of "Stairway to Heaven") can be found here.
According to AICN, Mel Gibson wants to make a film called The Passion, which would be a telling of Christ's last twelve hours. What makes this particular project intriguing is that Gibson apparently wants the film's dialogue to be spoken in Latin and Aramaic, and he doesn't want to subtitle it. That's one of the most audacious ideas for a film I've ever heard.

(EDIT: I suppose it would help if I actually link the AICN article, wouldn't it?)

Tuesday, September 24, 2002

A sharp distinction between ideas and thoughts is that thoughts are independent of persons: they can be apprehended by others as they are by me. Many people may apprehend the same thought, e.g. "This paper is white". However, thoughts are not wholly unlike ideas....

So wrote the great philosopher....Sean Meade!!!

(It's from a paper he wrote for the Existentialism class he and I took in college. It's amazing what you find when you move and finally open that dusty box in the cellar, the contents of which have not seen daylights since....1993? Wow!!)
Every archaeo-phile here should look at this primer on Mayan hieroglyphic writing. Amazing. I can't imagine trying to decipher this stuff. (the link came from Steven, who has lots of interesting Maya information, then turns on the short screed on Arab culture.)

Monday, September 23, 2002

Another beautiful Morrissey link from Chris. I saw it first on 13labs (via RandomWalks), which he notes, but I didn't link it for some reason. Since at least three of us here love the Smiths (including Jason), I decided I should post this here.

I took pop music very seriously. I thought it was the heart of everything, I thought it affected everybody and moved everybody. It started me as a person. As a child I would sing every single night - and the neighbours would complain - because I had this insane desire to sing. I was obsessed with vocal melody - and remain so. So it's been a lifetime's preoccupation really. And at the expense of everything else you could possibly name.

This is one of the reasons I love his music. The vocal melody is really very often beautiful. He says he introduced 'a harsh romanticism' to pop, and that's right, too. I've often said I like the Smiths because the music is happy and pretty but the sentiment of the lyrics is harsh and cynical and I love the way they crash together. And I guess I'm not alone.

Bonus: reviews of his performance at Royal Albert's this month.

Why do you love Morrissey?

The clockwork computer

In 1900 a sponge diver called Elias Stadiatos discovered the wreck of an ancient merchant ship off the tiny island of Antikythera near Crete. The corbita, dating from the first century B.C., was heavily laden with treasure of all kinds, original bronze life-size statues, marble reproductions of older works, jewelry, wine, fine furniture and one immensely complicated scientific instrument.

The Antikythera mechanism was originally housed in a wooden box about the size of a shoebox with dials on the outside and a complex clockwork assembly of gears inscribed and configured to produce solar and lunar positions in synchronization with the calendar year. By rotating a handle on its side, its owner could read on its front and back dials the progressions of the lunar and synodic months over four-year cycles. The device has been estimated to be accurate to 1 part in 40,000.

The bronze gearing, remarkable enough on its own right, also contains a further innovation that would not be reinvented until the 19th century, the differential gear. The differential was used to calculate the phases of the moon by subtracting the moon's motion from that of the sun's. This level of sophistication allows us to say without fear of exaggeration that the Antikythera mechanism was an early kind of analog computer.

The device is also thought by some to have been able to model the motion of the five planets using the epicyclical model of planetary movement around a fixed earth devised by Apollonius of Perga and Hipparchus of Rhodes (later superceded by the heliocentric model of Copernicus).

It's been said that the Antikythera mechanism actually dropped and sank twice. The second submersion came after a comprehensive analysis of Antikythera mechanism was done by Derek de Solla Price (see Scientific American June 1959 and Gears from the Greeks: the Antikythera Mechanism: a Calendar Computer from ca. 80 B.C. 1975). Since then surprisingly little scholarly attention has been paid to what is surely the most exciting relic of advanced ancient technology that we have in our possession. After one hundred years, our estimation of the scientific and technology of the ancient Greeks needs to be be seriously revised.

"Suppose a traveller carried into Scythia or Britain the orrery recently constructed by our friend Poseidonius, which at each revolution reproduces the same motions of the sun, the moon, and the five planets that take place in the heavens every day and night, would any single native doubt that this orrery was the work of a rational being?"

-- Cicero