Category Archives: Knowledge

Posts with informational content (history, science, culture etc.).

On Niche Annoyances and Traffic Circle Fountains

Fountain Circle by Seth Lemmons. CC 2.0 License.

What’s the Big Deal? (Fountain Circle by Seth Lemmons. CC 2.0 License)

My favourite crossword blogger, Rex Parker, recently went on a rant about how crossword puzzles depicted in film and television are often completely spurious. Fictitious grids are written into scripts and rarely respect the rules of crossword or clue construction. As result, something that escapes the notice of the vast majority of observers incites disdain and outrage from the devoted few who care about such things.

I find these sort of niche annoyances fascinating because they are a window onto foreign worlds of passion and knowledge. This is why I was so tickled when my friend, the water artist Pierre Luu, went on a tirade against the placement of fountains in traffic circles. Personally, I’d liked to see water spouting about as I drove past. What could be the problem? Continue reading

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Two Scintillae (regarding three Italian girls, a Japanese monk, and the nature of enlightenment)

Hello world!

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In ancient Roman households Continue reading

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My clocks is wrong

dali_thepersistenceofmemory_325PH was staying with his daughter when he remarked she should, ‘Get a decent telly — one where the sound and programme are synchronised.’ He wandered through into the kitchen to make a cup of tea, and looking up at the tv on the wall there, noticed that that one was out of sync too. ‘Hey you’ve got two tvs that need sorting!’ he called to her. She came through.

‘There’s nothing wrong with the tv, Dad,’ she said.

Watching her speak, PH realised her lips were out of sync with her voice. He started to answer, but he was out of sync too. He could hear his words coming out before he’d started to move his mouth … Continue reading

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Contemplations of the Rat

Lab rats contemplating alternately Fermi’s Paradox and the Pauli Exclusion Principle (click images to enlarge)

Fermi’s Paradox: Given the vast size and age of the universe (the sheer number of stars, amount of matter, and how long it’s all been swooshing around), probabilistically you’d expect life to be cropping up all over the place. You’d also expect, unless the earth is very atypical, that some life would be much less advanced than us, and some much more. It follows that the more advanced life forms should really be out there, travelling around and colonising the galaxy. But — we haven’t seen anyone much. Hence the paradox.

The Pauli Exclusion Principle: This states that no two electrons can share the same space (or more precisely, the same quantum numbers). As a result of the exclusion principle, electrons are prevented from all bunching up in the lowest energy tier next to the nucleus, and as a result — the need for different energy tiers, the structure of the atom, the shape of the periodic table, all of chemistry, and the reasons for how almost everything in the universe looks, sounds, feels and behaves.

Rats drawings by Hannah Marcus
Concepts for the possible volume The Secret Life of the Lab Rat: C is for Cheese

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Did I Say The Wrong Thing?

It’s hard not to admire a good simile. They make literature more evocative: ‘Elderly American ladies leaning on their canes listed toward me like towers of Pisa.’ (Nabakov from Lolita.) They add venom to political bite: ‘He looks like a female llama surprised in the bath.’ (Churchill on De Gaulle.) And they help etch the cry for social justice into a nation’s memory: ‘We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.’ (Martin Luther King, Jr., I Have a Dream.)

Inspired wordcraft such as this is enough to leave you dizzy. But, alas, this is not the time to praise good similes but to bemoan the bad ones.

Anybody who’s spent time in front of a gaping white page knows that expressing oneself in a clear, original, and incisive manner is Herculean chore requiring both persistence and wit. Similes are a particular gamble because a good one can invigorate your work, while a bad one can leave readers unmoved, or worse, wincing. (Would students across America be memorizing King’s speech if he spoke of justice rolling down like a stray tennis ball on a uneven court?) Continue reading

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“I like the way you move,” whispered London to Tokyo
. “Yeah right,” Tokyo shot back.

Speech delivered at the House of Lords, London, 16 October 2012, for Vision

The trouble is, cities don’t whisper to each other about liking each other’s moves. Quite the opposite — they complain incessantly about congestion. They complain about how blocked up they are, how they need to cut traffic, how difficult transport is to manage, how expensive transport infrastructure is to build, how expensive it is to maintain, how it’s crumbling everywhere …. Once on a roll, they berate themselves further for being massively expensive on all fronts really, as well as being shot through with poverty, riddled with crime, racked by sickness, socially isolating and alienating, and often dirty to boot. The apparently endemic nature of all of these problems inevitably drags on the question, ‘Why build cities at all?’ Certainly governments for the most part have neither liked nor wanted them, and historically have tended to push for the development of towns and smaller cities over larger urban agglomerations. Yet in spite this, and all the costs and problems, big cities continue to mushroom. Why? Continue reading

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How Cognitive Illusions Can Make You A Better Dancer

The beautiful thing about Daniel Margulies & Chris Sharp’s “Untitled”, which shows a brain listening to the Rite of Spring (see recent post), is the way the movements of Stravinsky’s music, and the floods of purling colours, seem to harmonise in time. It is almost as though they are dancing with each other. A lull in the music comes, and a cool blue suffuses the brain. A strident chord hits — and red chrysanthemums burst open across the cortical surface. And yet the opposite can happen too. Busy red activity can accompany a slower passage — as though the brain is jiggling from foot to foot in anticipation of the next fortissimo. And equally, a furious musical release can provoke a neural stillness, as though the sheer intensity of it flattens the brain out, and compresses it into a single state of pure blue.

The truth is, much of this is likely to be a cognitive illusion — Continue reading

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Khamsin Coming: Arab Spring to London Bloom

The seriousness of the recent riots across England has inspired a period of serious reflection. The search for the reasons why has looked instinctively to deep-level problems, with heavy-faced politicians and commentators alike theorising over social deprivation, financial exclusion, latent criminality, pervasive greed, moral atrophy, heinous influences, bad grammar, poor parenting, the enervation of authority, the erosion of community, unemployment, recession, and the all-encompassing concept of a broken society. While these represent various political and ideological positions, what is striking is that almost all the explanations on offer are characterised by a brooding introspection (that the problem must be within us), and a focus on long-term issues. The sense is that, be it through poverty or the corrupting touch of welfare, Britain has been grinding darkly year after year toward this dire and profoundly inevitable conclusion. Fittingly this is to be met, as we are beginning to see in the court results coming through, with the handing out of equally grinding and long-term custodial sentences.

The most natural response to something extremely surprising, as the rioting indeed was, is to declare immediately that it was always going to happen and a long time coming. It’s an emotional, if rather irrational way to recapture our balance after taking a destabilising hit. We feel we need to reinstate big causal links, and so start drawing them out from the richness of history. Continue reading

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On Miró, or, On Us On Miró

Miró's The Escape Ladder

There’s a big Miró retrospective on at the Tate at the moment. It’s a fun exhibition, and clearly popular with kids. The paintings are arranged chronologically. The first room and a half works through the typical progression of a young artist trying on a series of different painting hats (“should I be a cubist, or what about a post-impressionist landscape, or if I …”), before he figures out the essentials of what a “Miró” is somewhere in his thirties. Miró then gets going painting Mirós, which he does very effectively for the rest of his life. Passing through the show you find the same core vocabulary of shapes — thorn-like triangles, slits with tendrils, a particular kind of squiggle, blobs and ladders running upwards — being continuously moved around on shifting backgrounds of colour. Sometimes they’re used in a doodley figurative way (the shapes have figurative roots in teeth, penises, vaginas, eyes etc.), and sometimes Miró just cuts them loose to float around by themselves. Generally he’s enjoying himself, which is nice to see.

Alongside this, the curator as you go from room to room is working like a demented ant to explain how, decade by decade, the paintings are a profound expression of each of the major events of the twentieth century. And so Miró’s shape-configurations variously speak movingly of Continue reading

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