Wednesday 22 February 2017

trans-neptunian object

Grievous as the news to many, the General Assembly of the International Astronomical Union adopted Resolution 5a back in 2006 that demoted Pluto’s status as a proper planet to dwarf one, but it did settle a mounting problem when it came to the designation of newly discovered objects beyond the orbit of Neptune—some of which would inevitable prove to be larger than Pluto.
A decade later, an alternate geophysical definition under consideration would lurch towards the opposite extreme, upgrading some one hundred objects—including the Moon and several more satellites. Deliberations would continue through March but many members (invested with such power—imagine, naming the stars) are reserved about changing matters, because it’s easier for people to be captivated by an idea that they can get their heads around—nine planets are far more memorable and assayable as opposed to a hundred and ten.

Saturday 24 September 2016

coop and coup

Amazingly, pigeons can be taught to read or at least spell-check, an extensive study conducted in Ruhr-University Bochum has concluded.
Building off of the autoshaping, conditioned behaviour developed by psychologist BF Skinner (which incidentally was used to pilot the first smart-bombs), researchers found the best and brightest and had them begin learning to differentiate words and pick out phoney words inserted into otherwise orthographically correct blocks of text. While they may not understand written language, they seem just as adapt as other animals whose ability and intellect is held in higher esteem and seem to pick up new vocabulary (and even conjugation and plural forms) with ease. Maybe we’d ought to look out for eavesdropping pigeons reading over our shoulders as well. They’d probably be just as quick and accurate at texting too.

Tuesday 13 September 2016

overt and covert

Beginning with some lines of haiku lifted from the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, Hyperallergic explores how the battery of diagnostic tests that psychologists use or purport to use (recalling that for the Rorschach ink blots and the like, there are no wrong answers—just crazy ones) taken out of the clinical-setting and context become accidental-art. I especially enjoyed the primer on the now discredited narrative-type or storytelling exams, like the Thematic Apperception Test or Make a Picture Story that operated on the principle that the subject’s motives and character would be revealed by his or her projections, since our veiled self-indictments must mean that we are repressed or vicarious ourselves.

Saturday 10 September 2016


We had heard beforehand of the unique Russian republic between the Black and Caspian seas called Kalmykia—the only place in Europe where a plurality of the population is practising Buddhists, which is pretty remarkable to learn in itself, but we had never known about the first and still (nominally so, at least) Jewish state (autonomous oblast) called Birobidzhan until listening a really engrossing discussion about it on NPR’s Fresh Air.
Established in 1931 in the Soviet far east, on the border with China, almost two decades before the founding of Israel, the territory partially planned and to a large part championed by Swiss-German Bauhaus architect Hannes Meyer. After the Bolshevik Revolution which suppressed religious practises and outlawed private property and put enterprise under the mantle of the USSR, Jewish people, who already faced discrimination and were excluded from many public pursuits and now lost their livelihoods as owners of small businesses. Birobidzhan was advertised as a homeland where they could express their Yiddish heritage (and speak the language, whereas Hebrew predominated in Israel) without fear of reprisal—but as the discussion reveals, it was far from ideal—with cultural labels imposed and thrust upon individuals rather than allowing people to self-identify (which is usually the case in such situations) and the migration seemed more of an expulsion to a harsh and remote land, hardly arable and with no infrastructure. After initially being encouraged to build a community, those members of the “elite” who promoted it and tried to make a success out of the experiment were themselves victims of subsequent Stalinist purges. Be sure to check out the whole fascinating and tragic interview in the link up top.

Thursday 8 September 2016


The gang at Hyperallergic take another field trip to a museum exhibition—this time to see the ink and watercolour abstract paintings of Georgiana Houghton in London. These swirling scrolls strike me as very modern and surreal—almost like the visions of electric sheep in Deep Dreaming but less nightmarish—but were produced in Victorian times, with Houghton’s brush acting as a medium for the missives of angles and saints or sometimes channeling old masters.
Far ahead of her time, the reception of the public was confused at best as the works went against all the accepted artistic conventions of the time—despite the strong interest in spiritualism and sรฉances in England at the time. Although largely forgotten and overshadowed, awareness of Houghton’s contributions and insight is again gathering notice. Clairvoyance in the context of the paranormal or extra-sensory perception simply means “clarity of vision” but there are terms for all the senses plus intuition (claircognisance): clairsentience—psychic through feel and touch to include knowing an object’s provenance and future just by holding it, clairofactus—psychic through smell, clairaudience—psychic through hearing noises or voices, and clairgustance—psychic through taste. I wonder if there were psychic chefs back in Victorian times, as well.


etaoin shrdlu: a documentary of the final edition of the New York Times printed with hot metal typesetting

miner ‘49er: Street View of Old San Francisco recreated with thousands of archival photographs

quick response: generate animated QR codes that are fully machine readable

parts of speech: we unconsciously follow a certain order of precedence when using adjectives

true colours: friends describe colours to a girl who was temporarily blind and really touch all the senses, from Nag on the Lake

dynamation: the evolution of stop-motion special effects, via the Everlasting Blรถrt

shotgun wedding: the story of the tiny Scottish border village that was the destination for eloping couples of the nineteenth century

Wednesday 24 August 2016

for the nonce

Thanks to our friends the OED, we learn that today, the Saint Day of Bartholomew the Apostle, patron of bookbinders, butchers and cheese-mongers, was traditional feted with a charter fair in London (chartered in the sense the market days were established to help raise fund for religious and municipal buildings, namely the priory of Saint Bartholomew) and marked the end of Summer. The evening’s repast for members of the printing guild (this day also marking the anniversary of the first printing of the Gutenberg Bible in 1456 in Mainz) was concluded with a special banquet given by a publishing house proprietor for the benefit of his apprentices.
After this break, called a wayzgoose, with the days waning shorter, scribes and later typesetters would now by working by candle-light. Although I much prefer the folk-etymology of “wase-goose”—that is a sheaf or wayward goose, for the way it sort of links the traditional dinner to customs attached to Saint Martin’s day in November, the goose being a creature that meanders aimless and betrayed the reluctant saint’s hiding spot, and in the sense of a sheaf of paper, the practise of paper-makers to use the last of the season’s pulp for making windows to be hung by Saint Martin’s Day (in commemoration to his selfless act of giving his cloak to a beggar to protect him from the element—however, it probably is a corruption of the Danish word for Weghuis—that is, an inn or guesthouse where these banquets were held. In modern parlance, the term occasionally appears when speaking of an annual outing or Organisational Day for a Fourth Estate institution. In any case, we all ought to celebrate with a little wayzgoose this evening.

Tuesday 23 August 2016

popular imagination

A small specialist publishing house in Burgos with a penchant for the palindrome, the Local’s Spanish edition reports, has been granted permission to recreate exact replicas of the enigmatic and mysterious Voynich manuscript, named after the Polish antiquarian who acquired the fifteenth century document from Italian Jesuits just before the start of WWI. Scholars, collectors and cryptographers have been bewitched by this inscrutable tome ever since it came to light—having baffled all and successfully thwarted every attempt to decipher it or deduce it’s authorship—or even its purpose.
The text consists of a score of unique glyphs that has all the hallmarks of an alphabet and natural language but cannot be decoded, adorned by bizarre and beautiful illustrations that provide little in the way of context clues—naked women and plants that don’t exist, leading some to suggest it is a book of magic spells or a treatise on alchemy, rendered so, covertly by one of the respected and orthodox luminaries of the age—or even the artefact of a visiting extra-terrestrial or temporal tourist. What is your theory? Images of the entire book has been available online for some time (the original is kept safe in a vault at Yale University), but the publishers home that exact copies that capture the weight of the parchment, every tear and stain might just embolden the wit of academics in the near future to take that leap and be able to intuit its meaning.

Thursday 18 August 2016


post-mortem estate planning: last wills, Old Testament and ghosts make for an intriguing unexplained mystery

same as it ever was: Kermit the Frog, with accompaniment from Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem, perform Talking Heads

mothra: a profile of the incredible Humming Bird Hawk Moth—I’ve spied these things in the garden and no one believed me

gesticulate: a glossary of essential hand gestures—especially useful for debates, via the brilliant Blรถrt Everlasting 

expletive attributive: “Swear Trek” provides the profanity that ought to accompany interstellar exploration

Tuesday 16 August 2016

jellystone or where the buffalos roam

Via the always engrossing Everlasting Blรถrt, we discover that not only is the generic human symbol resigned to his tortured fate of slips, trips and falls and now hapless goring by bison whilst visiting national parks, he also has a nickname, Helvetica Man. The origins of this luckless pictogram pre-date the typeface’s foundry and was called so to invoke the font’s neutrality—ever stoic, even in the face of the gauntlet of Olympian contests and undaunted by any and all hazards, and suggests the Vitruvian Man or one of those prehistoric victims of an avalanche or tumbling into a tar pit, unfrozen or extracted ages later.

Wednesday 10 August 2016

overseas lipogram or parts of speech

After reading about the novel efforts of two writers to produce coherent stories without the letter e—such constraining composition is described as lipogrammatical but the results usually are not so epic in scope (usually just avoiding the rarer letters), I was reminded how, by this illustration, the biggest compliment that two interlocutors can pay one another is being mutually intelligible in their message. Literacy is not in the parsing or omission but in being comprehensible, even when handicapped and leaning too heavily on other conceits. One’s audience is moreover not averse to being challenged and it’s not always necessary to be clear and concise with convenience-words, and some effort at unpacking meaning is a welcome thing—especially if those gentle readers don’t realise what level of exertion is being asked of them.
It is difficult to say what muse possessed these authors to eschew this one letter (as is the case with most every undertaking), but perhaps e was not the most penitent of choices. Though the alphabet that we have inherited from the ages is bereft of original meanings and there is no memory left in the symbols—what we pronounce as vowels unrepresented in the written word and all signifying much different sounds according to local language and extent of contact with outsiders, the story and pedigree that we are able to reconstruct for e seems a particularly cheerful one that encapsulates why writing and communication in general is something to be cherished and cultivated. Before passing almost unchanged from Greek to Latin, the letter developed from a Semitic one that linguists believe represented an out-stretched hand and ultimately from an ancient Egyptian hieroglyph (sacred writing) that expressed jubilation upon meeting a kindred spirit. 

Sunday 7 August 2016

cardinal, ordinal

Atlas Obscura has an interesting article on the rather surprising difficulty the world has faced in adopting a universal “phonetic” code for communicating numbers.
Unlike the NATO alphabet employed for spelling out words and instructions in a way that minimises confusion across the distant crackle of radio communications or across different languages, there’s never been an internationally-recognised way for ensuring clarity in numbers. The entire essay is well worth reading, and among the more clever proposed but failed ideas was from the ITU in Geneva at a 1967 congress: using a redoubling of English numerals and their Italian equivalents—nadazero, unaone, bissotwo, terrathree, kartefour, pantafice, soxisix, setteseven, oktoeight, and novenine. I rather liked that, reminding me of the yan-tan-tethera of sheep-counting.

Saturday 6 August 2016


Via the ever brilliant Everlasting Blรถrt, we find discover, delighted, that the Cantor Galleries of Fine Art in Los Angeles have proposed a range of ornamental (non-functional, at least for now) emojis as short-hand, storyboarding for art history students and all aficionados to speak of their favourite iconic artists and their signature style.
I recall having a tee-shirt a long time ago that I absolutely wore the tail off of that featured yellow smiley-faces as interpreted through the lens of various artists—including Pablo Picasso, Jackson Pollock and Piet Mondriaan that conveyed the same idea, in tee-shirt form.

Wednesday 3 August 2016

couplet and quatrain

Appreciating, like the troubadours of yore, that news and current events are especially good subjects for verse and there a quite a few social mediators out there doing just that. These are not ballads, quite (I tried that once during a long car trip in Ireland, “Heiko in his Aygo, he was a sheep-dodger!” and was asked to please stop) but rather poems adapted for genre and format of immediacy of meaning that can be teased out in a few choice words.
There is one superb individual, writing under the pseudonym Brian Bilston, whose been accorded the title of poet laureate for his moving and pithy works. I only found out about Mr. Bilston having heard tell that he’s been recruited by the traveling circus of the rich and powerful that will be descending on der Zauberberg later this year for the World Economic Forum as sort of a court-minstrel, but unbound by any patronage. His most famous poem that earned him the laurels, entitled “Refugees,” tweeted in March of this year, appears below. Please do heed the author’s request (and I promise, the effect is arresting) after reading it from top to bottom, re-read it from bottom to top:


They have no need of our help
So do not tell me
These haggard faces could belong to you or I
Should life have dealt a different hand
We need to see them for who they really are
Chancers and scroungers
Layabouts and loungers
With bombs up their sleeves
Cut-throats and thieves
They are not
Welcome here
We should make them
Go back to where they came from
They cannot
Share our food
Share our homes
Share our countries
Instead let us
Build a wall to keep them out
It is not okay to say
These are people just like us
A place should only belong to those who are born there
Do not be so stupid to think that
The world can be looked at another way

(Now please re-read from bottom to top)

Sunday 31 July 2016

winzer oder vitis vinifera

Over the weekend, H and I were treated to a tour of an award-winning vineyard and wine-tasting on the escarpment over the River Main outside of Volkach. This chalky cliff-face (Volkacher Mainschleife) winds around the river and produces an ideal micro-climate for the cultivation of grapes. The guide was quite funny and informative, teaching us about how the colour of a grape is not an indicator of the character of the end product and cultivars are only identifiable before they ripen by the shape of their leaves.
At another juncture before climbing further into the vineyards, the guide explained the origin and advantages of the distinctive canteen-shaped bottle of that region, called the Bocksbeutel—which folk-etymology suggests was named for its resemblance in shape to a ram’s (Bock) scrotum (Beutel, sack)—but was probably derived from the term for a book satchel that one could swing over his shoulder for easy transport, such containers also being the approximate size of a book in the hands and amenable to being carried in such a way.
Moreover, the design was easy to balance and would not roll away out of doors. Higher up and among the vines, we learnt about the vagaries of the weather and what impact that had on harvests and found out that the hedgerows used for wind-breaks were always rose-bushes, sometimes centuries old like the grapevines, because like the proverbial canary in a coal-mine, they were the first to show signs of disease and might also be a stop gap for the spread of pests. The local wines we sampled while on our hike were exquisite and a very pleasant reminder that there is a lot to explore close to home as well.

Tuesday 26 July 2016


Primarily referring to weasel or stoat society (from the Greek word for ferrets and minks), galeanthropy can also be used to define the mental delusion that one is becoming a cat, replete with feline mannerisms. Well, what do you know about that? I wonder if there’s a special term specifically for the way cats and kittens are anthropomorphised on the internet.

Thursday 14 July 2016

revenons ร  nos moutons

With it being Bastille Day, one could be forgiven for taking the title to be one of the rousing but lesser known verses from La Marseille, but it is actually a French idiom to the effect “but we digress,” which sometimes makes an appearance in English too as a turn of phrase.
From an anonymous medieval play called La Farce de Maรฎtre Pathelin, an anti-hero and petty thief tries to confuse a county magistrate trying him for sheep-wrangling but introducing details from a second crime—to which the judge cries “but let us return to our sheep at hand.”

Friday 8 July 2016

at arm’s length or (personal) space invaders

Via the always brilliant Nag on the Lake, comes an excellent primer on the fascinating topic of proxemics, the study of the non-verbal narrative that is dictated by proximity and confines and is as culture specific and as richly limned as language.
First introduced as a branch of sociology by American anthropological researcher Edward T Hall in the mid-1960s, the research and received terminology not only was the compass for describing the circles that define an individual’s spheres of comfort for various interactions—territories from intimate to public and how that physical space is reflected in the virtual too—but also informs the surrounding (or underlying) architecture, hygiene and group norms. Just think how cubicles might effect on the job etiquette or the boundaries that are thrown up once we feel violated. These sorts of different nudges and cues, which beforehand went unarticulated, are pretty engrossing to think about. Find out more and see a video demonstration at the links above.

Thursday 30 June 2016

lingua franca or brexit, stage left

To the disdain of the Maltese and Irish—whose concerns are being downplayed as they elected to make their first official languages Maltese and Gaelic, respectively, some in Brussels want to see the use of the English language in official parlance scaled back. Although there’s no legal status accorded to the “working languages” of the European Union and French and German are only spoken by tradition, some feel that the UK should take its linguistic and cultural dominance with it. What do you think of this proposal? I am already a little fearful that a large percentage of the world might forget about Europe as some byzantine amalgam that’s just alien and just the end of some long, strange continuum of foreignness without the Anglo-Saxon element.

Wednesday 29 June 2016

the price of eggs in china

Via the ever brilliant Kottke we are treated to an excellent primer on the origins of data-visualizations: infographics ISOTYPEs as persuasive tools and encapsulating representations, the mapping of information beyond geography, began to come into their own in the early nineteenth century. Of course, in line with our inherent distrust of Big Data and opinion polls that can be leverage for any message whatsoever, statistics can be biased and incomplete and return a not-so-flattering composite, but being able to present analysis in a way that’s not just publicly-digestible and nearly intuitive but also can disabuse certain assumptions and specious causalities.
Since compendious research was first presented in this format by a gentleman economist and apprentice of steam-engine inventor James Watt, called William Playfair, champion of the infographic and in turn inventor of the pie-chart was able to illustrate the relation between wages and taxes or the true cost of importing commodities or these elegant so called “rose charts” drafted by pioneering nurse Florence Nightingale that conveyed the causes of death for soldiers in the Crimean War was far surpassed by poor sanitary conditions rather than combat—previsioning the germ theory of disease and infection, among many others, helped to dispel native prejudices and create a more informed public. Let’s hope that there’s still honesty in demographics and polarity, but such compiling of numbers outside of individual human experience does beg the question whether we developed this way to limn huge volumes of data—which is rather taken for granted, out of a need to communicate what does not fit to lay wisdom and perhaps common-sense or that we compile facts and figures to rarified levels in order to showcase our drawing talents.