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17 April 2014
Evening Sedition

Another Reason to Hate the French

Ettiene Leopold Trouvelot

Ettiene Leopold Trouvelot

There is a crater on the moon named for Ettiene Leopold Trouvelot. Were he alive today, many people would like to send him there.

"Gypsy Moths & Bt: A Double Scourge" by Arthur Pearson, Chicago Wilderness Magazine, Summer 2002 (NB: The crater is actually on Mars, not the Moon. — CitizenArcane)

Ettiene Leopold Trouvelot is a man most Americans should hate with a passion, and for reasons beyond his simply being French.

Trouvelot made a living as an artist, painting mostly portraits, but he had an amateur interest in entomology. His main interest was in identifying native silkworms that might be used for silk production. (L. Trouvelot(1867) The American Silk Worm. American Naturalist, Vol. 1, No. 1., pp.30-38) The exact reasons or circumstances are unknown, but in the late 1860's he returned from a trip to France with some gypsy moth egg masses. He was apparently culturing them on trees in back of his house when some of the larvae escaped. Trouvelot understood the potential magnitude of this accident and notified local entomologists but no action was taken.

After this accident, Trouvelot apparently lost interest in entomology and became interested in Astronomy. He became famous for his illustrations of astronomical details of the sun and of Venus and was eventually given a faculty position at Harvard University in Astronomy. A crater on the moon was named in honor of Trouvelot and he won the French Academy's Valz prize for his astronomical research.

In 1882 Trouvelot returned to live in France; the timing of this move coincided with the appearance of the first gypsy moth outbreak on his street. Trouvelot Died in 1895.

As the outbreak on Trouvelot's street continued to grow in size, residents of the Boston area became increasingly alarmed about the gypsy moth problem. In 1889 the Massachusetts State Board of Agriculture began a campaign to eradicate the gypsy moth. The methods used during the program ranged from manual removal of egg masses, burning infested forests and application of primitive insecticides. Despite the expenditure of considerable money and effort, the gypsy moth infestation continued to expand in size and by 1900 the effort to eradicate this insect was abandoned.

Trouvelot and Gypsy Moths

"The Planet Mars. Observed September 3, 1877" by E. L. Trouvelot

"The Planet Mars. Observed September 3, 1877, at 11h. 55m. P.M." by E. L. Trouvelot, Chromolithograph

"The planet Jupiter. Observed November 1, 1880" by E. L. Trouvelot

"The Planet Jupiter. Observed November 1, 1880, at 9h. 30m. P.M." by E. L. Trouvelot, Chromolithograph

"Mare Humorum. From a study made in 1875." by E. L. Trouvelot

"Mare Humorum. From a study made in 1875." by E. L. Trouvelot, Chromolithograph

His paper on gypsy moths fails to anticipate the magnitude of the evil he was about to perpetrate. What's ironic is how his second career also had a component of deforestation, albeit in a much more noble arena:

When astronomers at Harvard saw the quality and detail in these drawings, they invited him to join the staff and use their telescopes for observation and making drawings of celestial objects. In 1875 the U. S. Naval Observatory invited him to Washington to use the 26 inch refractor, at that time the world's largest refractor. Through the years he made more than 7,000 drawings which were highly regarded by astronomers who saw them, especially for the fine detail of the drawings. Trouvelet wanted to publish a portfolio of some of the best drawings and approached Charles Scribner's Sons, publishers in New York. The 15 drawings he chose were produced as chromolithographs, and the set was published in 1881 selling at $125. Very few complete sets remain in institutions today, and one set sold at auction within the last few years for many times the original price.

"Etienne Leopold Trouvelot, 19th Century Artist and Astronomer," HAD III: Biography of 19th and 20th Century Astronomers, AAS 201st Meeting, January 2003

"Group of sun spots and veiled spots. Observed on June 17th 1875" by E. L. Trouvelot

"Group of Sun Spots and Veiled Spots. Observed on June 17th 1875 at 7 h. 30 m. A.M." by E. L. Trouvelot, Chromolithograph

The New York Public Library has an exhibit contrasting the Trouvelot drawings with 19th century photographs and then 20th century satellite images.

" Aurora Borealis. As observed March 1, 1872" by E. L. Trouvelot

"Aurora Borealis. As Observed March 1, 1872, at 9h. 25m. P.M." by E. L. Trouvelot, Chromolithograph

And the gypsy moths? Well, now that's a really serious problem:

Now established throughout the Northeast &38212; from Ontario, Canada, to North Carolina, and well into several midwestern states &38212; gypsy moths defoliate upwards of two million acres of hardwood forests every year. Gypsy moth larvae (caterpillars) cause the damage, not the adult moths. The caterpillars are polyphagous, which means they eat almost anything. They feast on three hundred different species of trees and shrubs, although their hardwood of choice is any kind of oak tree.

During the 1980s, severe outbreaks in the Northeast resulted in vast tracts of defoliation, particularly in oak-dominated forests. Chris Bactel, Director of Collections and Grounds at the Morton Arboretum, recalls driving for fifty miles through a forested area near Johnstown, Pennsylvania, in 1986 and seeing not a single leaf except those on black walnut and tulip trees, two of the few species distasteful to gypsy moth caterpillars.

"Gypsy Moths & Bt: A Double Scourge" by Arthur Pearson, Chicago Wilderness Magazine, Summer 2002

"Great Comet of 1881. Observed on the Night of June 25-26" by E. L. Trouvelot

"The Great Comet of 1881. Observed on the Night of June 25-26 at 1h. 30m. A.M." by E. L. Trouvelot, Chromolithograph

I'm the Gypsy - the acid Queen.
Pay before we start.
I'm the Gypsy - The acid queen.
I'll tear your soul apart.

— "Acid Queen" by Pete Townsend, The Who


Fran Drescher: The Only Sound Worse than Fingernails on a Chalkboard

Fran Drescher: The Only Sound More Irritating than Fingernails on a Chalkboard

And I am glad of it with all my heart:
I had rather be a kitten and cry mew
Than one of these same metre ballad-mongers;
I had rather hear a brazen canstick turn'd,
Or a dry wheel grate on the axle-tree;
And that would set my teeth nothing on edge,
Nothing so much as mincing poetry:
'Tis like the forced gait of a shuffling nag.

— Hotspur, Henry IV, Part I, Act III, William Shakespeare

Bad poetry is up there, but it can't compare with fingernails on a chalkboard for sheer obnoxiousness. I've seen various explanations — such as how the sound is similar to that of a child in distress or the cry of a macacque monkey which preyed on our primate ancestors — but none of them were particularly convincing. Then I came across this one.

In "Psychoacoustics of a Chilling Sound," the authors describe their study using two dozen adults served as guinea pigs for rating sounds on a pleasantness scale. My personal favorite has to be how they created a standard — much like how there are standards for the meter, liter, second, etc. against which unknown quantities are compared — for the sound of fingernails on a chalkboard. (Just thinking about it makes me cringe.) They constructed a "True Value Pacemaker" using a three-pronged garden tool dragged over a slate surface. (Aieeeeee!)


Macaque (Not a member of the Bush Administration)

Now that's what they should have used to get Noriega out of that church he was holed up in, instead of Barry Manilow. (Then again, I think I'd much rather listen to nails on a chalkboard, or even Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music than Barry Manilow. Hell, I'd even rather listen to Fran Drescher's donkey-bray laugh than to Barry Manilow.) It's really amazing what researchers can get funding for, isn't it? Anyway, here's a summary of the whole issue from the Straight Dope.

In the aforementioned scientific paper (which appeared in a publication sternly entitled Perception & Psychophysics, and is not to be confused with a vulgar and sensationalized, if entertaining, article that appeared subsequently in Psychology Today), the authors note the antiquity of human curiosity on this subject. No less an authority than Aristotle acknowledged the "aversive quality" of scraping sounds. Our heroes even dug up the archaic English verb gride, which means to make godawful noises by means of scraping or cutting.

Getting down to business, Halpern and friends subjected 24 adult volunteers to various noises with a view to determining whether blackboard scraping was really as excruciating as it was made out to be. Generally speaking, they found, it was. (For purposes of reproducibility, the scraping was conducted not with fingernails but with a three-pronged garden tool, solemnly described as a "True Value Pacemaker model.") Interestingly, "rubbing two pieces of styrofoam together," the sound that results when you pry two styrofoam cups apart, came in second.

Next, by means of the magic of high tech, the researchers filtered out the most high-pitched portion of the scraping sound. To their great surprise, what remained was as unpleasant as ever. However, when they filtered out just the lower frequencies (particularly 3.0 to 6.0 kilohertz, for you weens), they found that what was left was relatively bearable--"quaint" or "tinkly," in Blake's description. In other words, it was the low-to-middle frequencies, not the high ones, that really set people's nerves on edge.

"Why is the sound of fingernails scraping a blackboard so annoying?," The Straight Dope

I tried to track down the original Halpern paper online, but didn't have any luck. It was, after all, published in 1986 when dinosaurs walked the earth. (Perception & Psychophysics doesn't have issues this old online yet.) I did, however, find a nice summary, even if it is one giant paragraph (I guess whitespace costs more in the Netherlands. Must be some Euro or VAT thing.):

Halpern et al. (1986) examined the unpleasantness of a chilling sound. Although this study investigated the unpleasantness of a sound instead of the human ability to perceive properties of the sound source, it is included because of the very similarmethod and unexpected results. In a first experiment, subjects had to judge the unpleasantness for a number of different sounds, such as jingling keys, a blender motor, and scraping metal. The sounds were matched in duration (3 s) and amplitude (equal maximum value). The results showed agreement between subjects regarding the unpleasantness of the sounds. The sound judged to be most unpleasant was that produced by slowly scraping a three-pronged garden tool over a slate surface, a sound very similar to the sound of fingernails scratching across a blackboard. The spectrogram of this chilling sound revealed several prominent harmonics, the lowest at 2.8 kHz. The amplitude waveform showed an aperiodic temporal structure with a rapidly fluctuating amplitude envelope. To investigate the contribution of spectral content to the sound’s unpleasant character, the authors removed energy from different frequency regions by either highpass or lowpass filtering. The sounds were matched in amplitude by equalizing their RMS value. Subjects had to rate the unpleasantness of the filtered sounds and were told how the stimuli were created before listening. Results showed that decreasing the lowpass filter cutoff frequency from 8 to 3 kHz had no effect on the unpleasantness ratings. Increasing the highpass filter cutoff frequency from 2 to 6 kHz, the sound lost some of its unpleasantness, with a large drop in unpleasantness between 3 and 4 kHz. Apparently, removal of lower frequencies, not of the highest ones, lessened the sound’s unpleasantness. In this experiment the sounds were matched by their level, but still may be perceived as not equally loud. A third experiment tested the possibility that unpleasantness had been confounded with loudness. Subjects listened to a selection of stimuli from the previous experiment, presented at two sound pressure levels 10 dB apart, and had to judge the loudness. An intensity decrease of 10 dB resulted in an estimated loudness drop between 41% and 50%, confirming that subjects were estimating the loudness. Sounds presented at the same sound pressure level showed no difference in the estimated loudness, indicating that loudness differences could not have influenced the unpleasantness ratings. In a final experiment, the contribution of temporal fine structure was evaluated by presenting subjects with four different stimuli: the original sound, a demodulated version of the original (the original sound divided by its temporal envelope contour), an unmodulated synthesized sound (sum of three sinusoids corresponding to the first three prominent harmonics of the original sound), and a modulated synthesized sound (the sum of three sinusoids multiplied by the temporal envelope contour of the original sound). The subjects’ unpleasantness ratings of the original sounds were much higher than those of the synthesized sounds, indicating that the latter did not mimic the original chilling sound very well. No differences were found between the original and demodulated original sounds and between the unmodulated synthesized and modulated synthesized sounds, indicating that temporal envelope structure did not contribute to the unpleasantness of the sounds. It is still unclear why this sound is so unpleasant for human listeners. The authors wonder “whether it mimics some naturally occurring, innately aversive event” (p. 80), and think of warning cries or vocalizations of some predator. But, “regardless of this auditory event’s original functional significance, the human brain obviously still registers a strong vestigial response to this chilling sound” (p. 80).

"The sound of rolling objects: Perception of size and speed" by Mark Mathieu and Jeanny Houben

The ranking for sounds from most pleasant to least pleasant is rather intriguing:

  • Chimes
  • Spinning Bicycle Tire
  • Running Water
  • Jingling Keys
  • Pure Tone
  • Pencil Sharpener
  • Shaking Metal Parts
  • White Noise
  • Compressed Air
  • Blender Motor
  • Dragged Stool
  • Metal Drawer Opening
  • Scraping Wood
  • Scraping Metal
  • Rubbing Styrofoam Pieces Together
  • Scraping Slate with Garden Tool (fingernail/chalkboard)

I never found styrofoam rubbing together to be particularly grating, no pun intended, though. Conspicuously omitted from the list, however, is the sound of MTA subway screeching. Now that's a sound that just about rips out one's spinal column and skull ala Predator.

Anyway, the interesting observation is that application of a low-frequency filter drops the annoyance factor measurably, demonstrating that lower frequencies are more annoying than higher ones. (I always found the higher tones in Fran Drescher's voice to be the most annoying, but I don't get paid to do psychoacoustic research, so what do I know?) I guess someone should ask William Tager about annoying frequencies. (Hint: he's the one who attacked Dan Rather for beaming thought waves at him, and this inspired "What's the Frequency Kenneth" from REM.)

But why should lower frequences be more annoying than higher ones? The answer seems to lie in the physiology of the human ear:

Having recently done some work on the pleasantness/unpleasantness of sounds (JASA 110(1), 380-390, 2001) I was somewhat curious to read that it was the low frequencies that produced the effect, since most of the literature I am aware of (e.g. see review in Vitz (1973) P&P, 11, 84-88) suggests the opposite. However, having got hold of a copy of the Halpern et al. paper I note that sound in question has a fairly strong harmonic structure with a fundamental at about 1.4 kHz. The fundamental is very weak and most of the energy is in harmonics 2,3,4 and 5, starting at 2.8 kHz. By most standards this sound would be considered to be quite high. So the term "low" should be considered in relative terms. Nevertheless, application of a high-pass filter to this sound suggested that it was frequencies less than 2-3 kHz which were predominant in the effect, and by implication the fundamental and possibly the 2nd harmonic, i.e. sounds between about 1 - 2 kHz. In the previous literature and my own work, sounds less than 1 kHz were considered to be least annoying or most pleasant. So why do sounds with frequencies between 1-2 kHz cause the effect? My guess is that the effect is produced by activation of various myogenic reflex responses including the stapedius response, the post-auricular response and responses of other muscles innervated by the facial nerve (and possibly the trigeminal nerve). It so happens that the tuning curves of stapedius motorneurons have their best frequencies between 1-2 kHz with a threshold of about 75 dB in the cat (see Kobler et al. (1992), J. Neurophysiol. 68, 807-817). (These should be distinguished from myogenic vestibular responses mediated by the accessory nerve, which responds to frequencies less than 1 kHz.) In order for this to work then the scraping sound would have to be above about 75 dB, but it's not clear from Halpern et al. what intensity they presented the sounds to the subjects. However, the proposed mechanism would account for why the effect appears to be reflexive. It can't be very pleasant having all those muscles twitching away!

"Re: finger nails on blackboard" by Neil Todd, todd(at)FS4 dot PSY dot MAN dot AC dot UK

Ok, let's put that into English. The stapedius is a muscle in the inner ear that acts to protect the ear from loud noise, including the sound of our own voice (Fox newscasters must have an overactive one to stave off deafness) and mastication (eating). Certain sounds in the 1-2KHz range have the effect of causing spasms in the stapedius. The exact mechanism is unknown, but may have to do with higher frequency harmonics arising out of the lower tones, perhaps because of the resonant frequency of the ear bones. The effect of certain frequencies is to cause pain in the stapedius which makes us cringe.

So how plausible is this? Well, consider that the distaste for screeching does not seem to be be universal among primates, which it really should be if the mechanism for distaste is one of avoidance of a predator. Tamarin monkeys, for example, don't seem to mind it much:

As a second test of whether tamarins might have acoustic preferences based on something other than amplitude or behavioral relevance, we attempted to generate two nonmusical stimuli with similar amplitudes that were expected to produce a large preference in humans. We began by generating a stimulus that is highly aversive to most humans—the sound of fingernails on a blackboard (Halpern, Blake, & Hillenbrand, 1986). The relationship between the responses that humans have to this stimulus and to musical stimuli is unclear, but it seemed conceivable that nonhuman animals might respond aversively to such a stimulus despite the lack of preference for consonance over dissonance.


When tested on the screech and control stimuli, however, the tamarins showed no evidence of a preference. We ran the tamarins for several consecutive sessions (NZ37 sessions) to see if a preference would emerge over time. As shown in Fig. 5b, there was no preference (t[36]Z0.89; pZ0.15). In contrast with humans, who show a pronounced preference for white noise over the screeching sound, tamarins do not exhibit a preference.

"Are consonant intervals music to their ears? Spontaneous acoustic preferences in a nonhuman primate" by Josh McDermotta and Marc Hauserb, Cognition, 94 (2004)

Now, just when you start to believe that it's all in the ear, I'll throw this into the mix:

Seth Horowitz is a neuroscientist who uses Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scans of the brain to find how different sounds can trigger activity in the brain. Now he is working with a musician to create music incorporating sounds, in the hopes of triggering specific emotional responses.


Horowitz began to study whether sounds could trigger emotional states. For example, the sound of fingernails on a blackboard is an effective way to cause many people to feel uneasy. So Horowitz broke down the sound of fingernails on a blackboard to isolate exactly the sounds responsible for triggering uneasy feelings. He calls those sounds neuro-sensory algorithms, or NSAs. Then he analyzed sounds that trigger activity in the same region of the brain. He did the same for sounds that make people feel calm or happy or stimulated. By combing through the data, Horowitz was able to come up with dozens of different sounds that triggered emotional responses in the correct regions of the brain. NSAs all sound different. Some can be a very brief sound that immediately triggers activity in a certain part of the brain. Others can be complicated mixes of sound that last up to 30 seconds and trigger activity in different parts of the brain simultaneously.

"Mood Music" The Osgood File (CBS Radio Network), 26 January 2005

Anyway, the next time some brain-dead creationist tells you that the human body is an example of intelligent design, I suggest you scrape your fingernails across a chalkboard. (Or a piece of slate with a gardening tool.) Get them to explain the "intelligent design" behind that for you.

Sources and Further Reading

  1. "Psychoacoustics of a chilling sound." by D. Lynn Halpern, Randy Blake, Jim Hillenbrand, Perception and Psychophysics, Vol. 39 No. 2, February 1986, Pages 77-80
  2. "Why is the sound of fingernails scraping a blackboard so annoying?," The Straight Dope
  3. "The sound of rolling objects: Perception of size and speed" by Mark Mathieu and Jeanny Houben
  4. "Re: finger nails on blackboard" by Neil Todd
  5. "M109: Reflexes and/or associations" (more discussion on Neil Todd's comments)
  6. "Are consonant intervals music to their ears? Spontaneous acoustic preferences in a nonhuman primate" by Josh McDermotta and Marc Hauserb, Cognition, 94 (2004)
  7. "Mood Music" The Osgood File (CBS Radio Network), 26 January 2005

Cartoon About Fingernails on Blackboard versus Celene Dion

"Take this tape back to those
Scotch bosses of yours…"

Scotch Tape ad from 1945 created by Ruskin "Russ" Williams

Scotch Tape ad from 1945 created by Ruskin "Russ" Williams

Scotch Tape is an amazing invention. While one can't make a wallet from it like one can with duct tape, it does not yellow like other tapes and sticks reasonably well. Created by Richard Drew — the man who spent two years inventing the first masking tape in 1925 — it started life in a most unusual way.

Richard Drew

Richard Drew

Drew was a banjo player hired by 3M to be a lab technician because they were impressed with his drive and ambition. Pretty soon they were trusting him to take new products to client sites for testing. And that's where the serendipity comes in:

Back then, 3M was a struggling sandpaper manufacturer. Drew spent his first two years checking raw materials and running tests. In 1923, 3M developed the first sandpaper that was waterproof. Drew was asked to take trial batches of the new stuff to a local auto body shop for testing. Thus, he happened to witness the auto painter's fateful show of temper.

Two-tone paint finishes on cars had just been introduced and become all the rage. Too late, however, auto manufacturers discovered that they had created a monstrous hassle for themselves.

During the spray painting of the cars, there was no effective way to keep one color masked from the other. Painters would improvise with newspapers, butcher paper, various glues, surgical adhesive tape and other unsuitable products. That day in the auto body shop, Drew watched as the painter removed gummed Kraft paper from a shining new Packard, stripping the paint away with it.

Inspired, evidently, by sympathy — for he knew little about adhesives — Drew vowed to the furious painter right then and there that he would develop a tape to make two-tone paint application easy.

By happy coincidence, 3M management was searching for a way to diversify the company.

They gave Drew the time and financial backing to conduct some experiments.

"Scotch Brand Tape Sticking Strong at 70 — From banjo player to kitchen cook"

After some experiments — can you imagine any company today allowing a lab technician/sales representative to engage in product research and development, no matter how smart? — Drew had a version he was ready to try out with a customer. He took his roll of masking tape — a two-inch wide paper strip backed with adhesive — out for a field test:

He brought a prototype roll to a St. Paul auto painter. The painter carefully applied the masking tape along the edge of the color already painted and was just about to spray on the second color when the tape fell off. The annoyed painter examined the 2-inch wide tape and saw that it had adhesive only along its outer edges, but not in the middle.

Annoyed, the painter said to Drew, "Take this tape back to those Scotch bosses of yours and tell them to put more adhesive on it!"

The name — like the improved tape it inspired — stuck.

"Who Put The "Scotch" Into Scotch Brand Tape? How A Brand Name Was Born" by 3M

And that's where the Scotch brand came from. (I doubt anyone today would get away with suggesting a brand be named after the "frugal" nature of a people. It would be like, oh, naming a heart defibrillator "The Welsher" because it refuses to pay death its due.) Anyway, while Drew was working on masking tape he had a serendipitious enounter that changed the world:

While Drew was pursuing his research, he spoke with a fellow 3M researcher who was considering packaging 3M masking tape rolls in cellophane, a new moisture-proof wrap created by DuPont. Why, Drew wondered, couldn't cellophane be coated with adhesive and used as a sealing tape for the insulation batts?

In June 1929, Drew ordered 100 yards of cellophane with which to conduct experiments. He soon devised a tape product sample that he showed to the St. Paul insulation firm. Unfortunately, the sample didn't adequately solve that particular customer's problem. But the sample definitely showed promise as an aid to packaging other types of products.

Drew kept working. It took over a year for him to solve the many problems posed by his materials. Cellophane could indeed work as a backing for pressure-sensitive tape. But it was difficult to apply adhesive evenly upon it. Also, cellophane split easily in the process of machine coating. But for each such challenge, Drew found an answer. He discovered that if a primer coat was applied to cellophane, the adhesive would coat evenly. As for splitting, special machinery solved that problem. Finally, Drew developed virtually colorless adhesives to improve the aesthetics of the tape.

On Sept. 8, 1930, the first roll of Scotch™ Cellophane Tape was sent to a prospective customer. That customer wrote back with the following sound advice for 3M: "You should have no hesitancy in equipping yourself to put this product on the market economically. There will be a sufficient volume of sales to justify the expenditure."

"Fascinating facts about the invention of Scotch Cellophane Tape by Dick Drew in 1930."

Five years later, in 1930, Drew conceived the product that would bring 3M worldwide fame.

Like masking tape, this innovation was inspired by customer need.

A St. Paul firm had an order to insulate hundreds of refrigerated railroad cars. There was a problem: The insulation would have to be protected from the moisture of the refrigeration. It could be wrapped in waterproof material, but the wrap would need a waterproof seal.

The insulation firm consulted 3M, and Drew, now resident pressure-adhesives expert, began mulling over the challenge of inventing a waterproof tape.

In the meantime, while Drew was experimenting with new tape "recipes," DuPont came out with a revolutionary packaging material called cellophane. It was an immediate hit with food distributors, especially when it was made moisture proof.

When another 3M researcher showed Drew the new, filmy, transparent material, Drew had a flash of inspiration: Why not coat the stuff with adhesive? It already was waterproof.

By the time Drew came up with a prototype product, the insulation firm no longer was interested in waterproof tape. But many other companies were. The bakers, meat packers, confectioners, grocers and chewing gum manufacturers that had adopted cellophane food wrap all were clamoring for a moisture-proof, attractive way to seal their new packaging. But if the market was ready, the product was not. Moving the cellophane tape from the prototype stage to salability took Drew and his colleagues a year. It was a grueling period. Cellophane, it turned out, as a backing for adhesive, posed hideous difficulties. It curled near heat, split when machine-coated and wouldn't take the adhesive evenly. At the end of each day, a truck was needed to cart away the stacks of spoiled cellophane.

One by one, however, the 3M researchers solved the production problems. They discovered that if a primer coat was applied to the cellophane, the adhesive would hold evenly. They designed new coating machinery that protected the cellophane from splitting. And they stopped using the standard masking tape adhesive. Instead, they developed a new, almost colorless adhesive to preserve the transparency of the cellophane.

"Scotch Brand Tape Sticking Strong at 70 — Wanted: waterproof tape"

Scotch Cellulose Tape Tin circa 1930s

Scotch Cellulose Tape Tin circa 1930s

This, the world's first transparent tape, added a nearly invisible adhesive, made from rubber, oils and resins, to a coated cellophane backing. The adhesive was waterproof and withstood a wide range of temperature and humidity, because it was designed to seal cellophane food-wrap. But the public, forced by the Great Depression to be thrifty, found hundreds of uses for it at work and at home, from sealing packages to mending clothes to preserving cracked eggs.

Drew's creativity not only brought great financial success, it helped transform 3M into an R&D-driven company. His tape was helped along by the first tape dispenser (1935), and was perfected in Scotch (TM) Brand Magic (TM) Transparent Tape (1961), which never discolors or leaks, and can be written on while remaining invisible itself.

"Richard Drew (1899-1980) Transparent adhesive tape"

Novelty Scotch Tape Dispenser

Novelty Scotch Tape Dispenser

Although the tape itself was invented in 1930 (patent 1,760,820), it took two years for the tape dispenser to be invented by John Borden, a 3M sales manager. (Shades of the chicken-and-egg problem posed by tinned foods and the can opener.) The invisible matte finish tape that we know and love was not invented until 1961. 3M's history talks about shortages of the tape during World War II:

By World War II, the product had become such a ubiquitous part of American life. 3M felt compelled to run advertisements apologizing to homemakers for the scarcity of the tape in stores across the country; available supplies of the product had been diverted to the front for the war effort. 3M promised "when victory comes 'Scotch' cellulose tape will be back again in your home and office."

"Scotch Brand Tape Sticking Strong at 70 — Wanted: waterproof tape"

World War II Ad Showing Anti-Chemical Warfare Body Bag

World War II Ad Showing Anti-Chemical Warfare Body Bag

But what the company doesn't mention in its wartime history is a use that the Department of Homeland Insecurity would find all too apppropriate: preventing injuries from poison gas. Yes, that's right boys and girls, sixty years ago, during World War II, soldiers — or at least those back home — were being sold on the proposition that Scotch tape and cellophane — the day's equivalents to duct tape and polyethylene sheeting — would save the day against the evil hun:

If War Gas falls from the sky...


Months ago, foresighted Chemical Warfare Service and Quartermaster Corps engineers designed a protective covering to guard our soldiers against blister gas. It’s a tent-like cloak big enough to completely cover its wearer, pack, rifle and all. Made of special gas-proof cellophane, it stops the searing splash of deadly vapors which burn through ordinary clothing, shoes, and skin. Even its seams are gas-proof — they’re sealed with your old friend "Scotch" Tape.

Stopping penetration of destructive chemicals, man-made or natural, is one of "Scotch" Tape’s commonest war jobs. It is used as a gas-proof, water-proof seal on scores of vital supply cartons used by our armed forces.

Naturally war needs have first call on "Scotch" Tape for the duration. We hope that if you miss its convenient help around the house, you’ll remember it’s still working for you wherever it is. When these war jobs are done, "Scotch" Tape will be available again for home use…better and handier than ever before.

I think the advantage of this outfit is that it doubles as a body bag after the soldier dies from exposure to toxic agents. I bought a copy of this ad from a dealer in vintage ads and have it in my marketing and advertising collection. (Day job. Don't ask.) I always keep a few rolls of Scotch tape at home, just in case I need to construct an emergency shelter against terrorist gas attacks. (The story that I'm using it for mundane tasks — like wrapping gifts, repairing torn paper, and building weapons of mass destruction — is just a canard.)

Sources and Further Reading

  1. History of Scotch Tape
  2. "Scotch Brand Tape Sticking Strong at 70 — From banjo player to kitchen cook"
  3. "Who Put The "Scotch" Into Scotch Brand Tape? How A Brand Name Was Born" by 3M
  4. Scotch brand
  5. "Fascinating facts about the invention of Scotch Cellophane Tape by Dick Drew in 1930."
  6. "Scotch Brand Tape Sticking Strong at 70 — Wanted: waterproof tape"
  7. "Richard Drew (1899-1980) Transparent adhesive tape"

"Number Nine, Number Nine, Number Nine"

Record Albums

When I were a lad, and humans hadn't yet evolved opposable thumbs, we listened to music on eight-tracks and vinyl. Sad, but true. Now, one of the interesting things you can do with vinyl that you can't do with a CD is play it backwards, ruining both vinyl and needle in the process. (Ok, ok. One can now buy scratch CD players which allow you to do this, but Joe Sixpack doesn't have this specialized gear.) There was what amounted to a cult following for which albums contained secret messages only audible to the faithful. Mostly idiotic mumblage about how Paul McCartney was dead and had been replaced by a robot, or how various songs really were tributes to Satan. As anyone who doesn't live in red-state America knows, these alleged "messages" are really nothing more than artifacts created by our brains:

The human brain with all of its capabilites and control has difficulty with one thing: time. It can only understand it when it goes in one single direction. To us it's forward; to other particles in the universe it's sideways, or tangential, or even crooked. When we are presented with something where time has been changed more than just slightly - reversed, for example - it seems nothing but completely foreign and incomprehensible. Only in the past 50 years has man even been able to hear sounds in reverse. These new sounds are not based in our reality, and to the uninitiated, quite scary. It's no wonder reversing of sound in popular culture has been linked with Satan or other devilish conduct - that's how most cultures deal with things they can't comprehend.

Sofanic Messages in Frank Zappa's Music revealed

The technique of laying down reversed audio on top of a normal piece of music is called "backward masking". This is a different technique than choosing words that will sound out the proper message when played in reverse. The latter is much more interesting — and harder — than the former. The key to a message audible only in reverse is picking the proper forward phonemes — phonemes are the discrete sounds making up each spoken word — so that the reverse phonemes yield the desired message:

The combination of reversed phonemes in English results in yet more complication. In most cases the end result cannot be estimated from the initial sounds, because of many factors.

1. Slang - in most English phrases, words are strung together for ease of speaking. Certain consonants are lost, vowels shortened, etc. Phonetic analysis of the word as it is properly spoken usually has very little in comparison to how it is spoken in real life, and can even depend upon how the word is used in the phrase itself.

2. Pitch - The English language uses pitch to designate ends of phrases, emphasized words, etc. When these are reversed, the whole sense of the phrase is misdirected - the emphasis goes to a certain syllable (or combination of phonemes) which when reversed adds to its unusual rhythm.

3. Human experience - the most undefinable of the result of combined reversed phonemes is how they are combined in the human mind to form something discernable. Correlations with known slang words, changing vowels, and numerous other things are added or removed in order to interpret the vocal sound to something understandable. As we will see, this factor plays almost the biggest role in 'secret message' finding...

Ev: Audio Reversal In Popular Culture

Ok, so what does this mean in practice? Let's consider a famous example:

The simplest of examples (and one of the most popular) comes from The Beatles' "Revolution 9". Throughout the piece is a spoken phrase repeating "number nine" in a slight British accent:


Note the removal of the 'r' in number , the deep swell in vowels in 'nine', from 'au' to 'i' sounding more like 'nauighn', and the addition of the vowel sound at the end. The pitch of the voice is very important as well - the note stays nearly the same throughout 'number', but rises quickly in 'nine', and ends on a high pitch for the final vowel sound.

When reversed at the phonetic level, the result is:


The heavy pitch drop at the beginning stretches out the first vowels, which come across as two words because of the different vowel sounds from the British accent, and the reversed consonants in 'number' separate the words as well:


...which has been loosely translated in the English language to "Turn me on dead man".

By loosely I mean that many of the consonants are dropped (which is usual for this phrase in slang): the starting "t" is dropped, the "r" is dropped (normal for British accents), the "m" is dropped, the first "d" in "dead" is dropped (usually combined with the preceding consonant anyway), the "b" changes to "d" (a very close relation as well), and the vowel sound for "man" changes from "AE" to the lazy-sounding "UX".

Ev: Audio Reversal In Popular Culture

Turntable With Hand

So who's used this technique? Just about everyone.

Led Zeppelin's epic "Stairway To Heaven" creates possibly the most amazing phoenetic accidents known in popular music. To further the mystery around the song, a little background is necessary.

Led Zeppelin had it's popularity in the 1970s mostly in the grass-roots rock and roll community. Influences for the band included J.R.R. Tolkien books, mystical folks stories, and the like - most of which had paganistic overtones, easily interpreted by the public as closely satanic. The growth of Led Zeppelin seemed mystical in itself - though minimal promotion was done by the group's record company Atlantic Records, the group's popularity spread by word of mouth, something not usually expected or calculated.

The song "Stairway To Heaven" became a legendary song in rock and roll music culture. Stranger than the fact that it was the most-played track in radio history, stranger than the fact that the song's length was nearly 8:00 (most radio stations played nothing over 4:00), stranger than the fact that it is a staple of rock and roll guitar players everywhere, was the way the lyrics were written. Robert Plant, the lead singer and lyric writer described it: "I just sat down next to Pagey (Jimmy Page, guitarist) while he was playing it through. It was done very quickly. It took a little working out, but it was a very fluid, unnaturally easy track. It was almost as if - uh-oh - it just had to be gotten out at that time. There was something pushing it, saying 'you guys are okay, but if you want to do something timeless, here's a wedding song for you."

What makes this song truly amazing on another level is that in a stretch of nearly one minute, you could find 7 different consecutive phonetically reversed "phrases" seeming to refer to the same subject: Satan. Never in the history of popular music has this happened before or since.

Ev: Audio Reversal In Popular Culture

There are many examples in Frank Zappa's musical output that were recorded at higher or lower speeds or backwards. In addition, there are many examples of conceptual continuity where musical themes in one piece can be found in another context somewhere else. The purpose of this Web page is to decode some of some of these puzzle pieces using some of the frightening little techniques science has made available. What was sped up is slowed down. What was recorded backwards is reversed. Themes that are found in entirely different musical contexts are recorded side by side -- version one on the left channel and version two on the right.

Sofanic Messages in Frank Zappa's Music revealed

Another One Bites the Dust
Queen, The Game

Rumor: When played backward, the lyrics say, "It's fun to smoke marijuana."

Findings: There is something that sounds like "It's fun to smoke marijuana" in the reversed music. It is repeated over and over. It might be rendered no less faithfully, however, as "sfun to scout mare wanna." This "message" is the reversal of the song title, which is repeated a a line in the song.

Big Secrets by William Poundstone, 1983

But that's just a few of the many examples. Other bands claimed to use backwards masking include Jefferson Starship. Electric Light Orchestra, The Cars, Pink Floyd, etc.

Digital Voiceprint

Religious fundamendalists then mounted a campaign to label every album with backward masking to protect children:

Phonograph Record Backward Masking Labeling Act of 1982 - Makes it unlawful for any packager, labeler, or distributor to distribute in commerce phonograph records containing "backward masking" without a label bearing a specified warning.

Defines "backward masking" to mean an impression upon a phonograph record which makes an audible verbal statement when the record is played backward.

Makes any violation an unfair or deceptive act or practice under the Federal Trade Commission Act.

H.R.6363, "A bill to require that jackets in which phonograph records containing backward masking are packaged bear a label warning consumers of such backward masking.", Sponsored by Representative Robert K. Dornan (CA), 12 May 1982

Which the Congress wisely referred to the "Subcommittee on Commerce, Transportation and Tourism" where it was allowed to die a peaceful, and unreported, death. But groups other than fundamentalists were fascinated, as well. The lunatic fringe weighed in, saying the wonders of the universe are contained in backwards music and speech:

The pioneer and 20 year veteran of this field, Australian David John Oates, describes Reverse Speech as another form of human communication. He states that language is bi-level, forward and reverse. As the human brain constructs the sounds of speech, it forms those sounds in such a way that two messages are delivered simultaneously. One forwards, which is the conscious mind speaking, and the other in reverse, which is the unconscious mind speaking.

The applications of this discovery are exciting. On the surface level, it can act as a sort of Truth Detector as Reverse Speech will usually correct the inconsistencies of forward speech. If a lie is spoken forwards, the truth may be communicated in reverse. If pertinent facts are left out of forward speech these may also be spoken in reverse. It can reveal hidden motive and agenda and other conscious thought processes. At deeper levels, Reverse Speech can reveal thought patterns that are unconscious, including reasons behind behaviour and disease. This information can be used to greatly enhance the therapeutic and healing processes. - Backmasking & Reverse Speech

Yeah, I know. They are at least forty cards shy of a full deck. Who could make this nonsense up? Anyway, if Geraldo or Jerry Springer aren't satisfying your need for satanic messages, you can make your own. That's right, boys and girls, the lunatics over at have a page where you can upload a .wav file and have it reversed:

Upload an audio file to our server, wait a few seconds for it to be reversed, and then you will hear it played backwards. No download or special software required.

Talk Backwards

And if you claim to hear secret Satanic messages in speeches from Bush, Cheney, or Rumsfeld, well, all I can say is, I hear those same evil messages when their words aren't reversed.

Sources and Further Reading

  1. Ev: Audio Reversal In Popular Culture (includes audible example)
  2. Sofanic Messages in Frank Zappa's Music revealed (includes audible examples)
  3. Talk Backwards
  4. Excerpts from Big Secrets by William Poundstone, 1983

A Pre-Prandial Stroll Whets the Appetite

Vampire Bat Locomotion

Montage of Vampire Bat Locomotion

It turns out that Republicans aren't the only bloodsucking species capable of two-legged locomotion:

Vampire bats' thirst for blood has driven them to evolve an unexpected sprinting ability. Most bats are awkward on the ground, but the common vampire bat can bound along at more than 1 metre per second."

"Vampire Bats Have a Clear Run" by Narelle Towie, Nature, 16 March 2005

The video (QuickTime) — also available from the author's Website at Cornell — illustrates their remarkable gait:

Not only are vampire bats unusual because they run, but also in the way that they power their gait. "Unlike most animals which use their hind legs as a source of power, these exceptional creatures power their run with their forelimbs," Hermanson explains. Getting most of the push from their long forelimbs -- actually their wings and therefore very strong -- the bats run more like a small gorilla than a comparable four-legged creature like a mouse. They run up to about 2.5 miles per hour. Although many of the 1,100 species of bats are known to walk, the common vampire is the only one so far to pass Riskin and Hermanson's treadmill test and break into a running gait.

With the introduction of large herds of livestock into their native environments of Central and South America, these bats don't need to hurry to catch the cattle from which they extract perhaps a tablespoon of blood at a time for sustenance. They feed while their prey are sleeping, spending perhaps 10 minutes drinking from the small cuts they make. However, running may help them avoid being stepped on, Riskin suggests. More likely, the researchers say, the ability to run evolved long ago, when vampire bats had to prey on faster South American athletes such as the agouti, a rodent about the size of a hare, which might wake up and take a swipe at the nocturnal visitor. It remains unclear exactly what the native prey were before the introduction of cattle, he adds.

"Unlike other bats, vampire bats keep out of trouble by running, Cornell researchers find" Cornell University News Service, 17 March 2005

How did this behavior evolve? Well, it reduces the energy needed to feed:

In the wild, vampire bats feed on the blood of large animals such as cattle, horses and pigs. They sneak up over the ground and make small incisions in the skin (usually the heel) of sleeping prey.

"Bats take a long time to feed," explains Colin Catto of the London-based Bat Conservation Trust. "If they were trying to hover for all that time they would expend an awful lot of energy."

The bats are most likely to run when moving between animals, and may have acquired the skill before the arrival of domestic livestock, at which point dinner became an easier meal.

Riskin believes that the top speed of these nimble creatures could be even more impressive than demonstrated. "If they weren't in the tight confines of a cage, the bats would run faster as they would be able to jump higher," he says.

Coupled with being agile and deft, Riskin's bats were also quick learners. After one short walk on the treadmill the bats mastered both the dynamics of the machine and recognized the purr of the motor. "Vampire bats are ridiculously smart," Riskin says. "As smart as a dog."

"Vampire Bats Have a Clear Run" by Narelle Towie, Nature, 16 March 2005

Now, what's also interesting is that while vampire bats are a plague if you ranch cattle, they may be a lifesaver to ordinary people. Like the anticoagulants secreted by leeches, medicine is starting to harness the clot busters produced by the vampire bat to keep the host's blood from clotting at the wound site:

A potent clot-busting substance originally extracted from the saliva of vampire bats may be used up to three times longer than the current stroke treatment window – without increasing the risk for additional brain damage, according to research reported in today’s rapid access issue of Stroke: Journal of the American Heart Association.

The vampire bat saliva-derived clot buster is called Desmodus rotundus salivary plasminogen activator (DSPA) or desmoteplase. DSPA targets and destroys fibrin, the structural scaffold of blood clots, says senior author Robert Medcalf, Ph.D. NH & MRC senior research fellow at Monash University Department of Medicine at Box Hill Hospital in Victoria, Australia.

“When the vampire bat bites its victim, it secretes this powerful clot-dissolving (fibrinolytic) substance so that the victim’s blood will keep flowing, allowing the bat to feed,” Medcalf explains.

In the mid-1980s, Wolf-Dieter Schleuning, M.D., Ph.D., now chief scientific officer of the German biotechnological company PAION GmbH, found that the vampire bat enzyme was genetically related to the clot buster tissue plasminogen activator (t-PA) but was more potent. Medcalf and Schleuning were pioneers in the cloning and the study of gene expression of t-PA and were among the first scientists to spot its potential use for heart attack."

"Vampire bat bite packs potent clot-busting potential for strokes", American Heart Association, 10 January 2005

I'm particularly impressed by their intelligence: "Vampire bats are ridiculously smart, as smart as a dog." That's a whole lot smarter than your average red-state American, and they suck a whole lot less blood out of us blue-staters.

Sources and Further Reading

  1. "Vampire Bats Have a Clear Run" by Narelle Towie, Nature, 16 March 2005
  2. "Unlike other bats, vampire bats keep out of trouble by running, Cornell researchers find" Cornell University News Service, 17 March 2005
  3. "Biomechanics: Independent Evolution of Running in Vampire Bats", by Daniel K. Riskin and John W. Hermanson, Nature, 434, 292, 17 March 2005
  4. "Vampire bat bite packs potent clot-busting potential for strokes", American Heart Association, 10 January 2005
  5. "Vampire Bat Salivary Plasminogen Activator (Desmoteplase) Inhibits Tissue-Type Plasminogen Activator-Induced Potentiation of Excitotoxic Injury", Reddrop et al., Stroke, 2005;36:1241

"A gang of villains profoundly skilled
in Pneumatic Chemistry."

Sign for "Air Loom Tomato"

I shot this last summer at the Union Square Greenmarket. (You Say Tomato, I say Tomahto... but Dan Quayle Says "Air Loom Tomato." Or, more accurately, "Air Loom Tomatoe.")

Bedlam means "mad confusion." Dating to 1667, the word is eponymous, being the vernacular's corruption of "Hospital of Saint Mary of Bethlehem", a lunatic asylum in London. (St. Mary's is one of the oldest, having been founded in 1247 as a priory, used to a hospital circa 1330, and then converted into a lunatic asylum — the original British term — in 1402. The state assumed control over it in 1547. The original, and archaic, bastardization was "Bedlem", which later morphed into "Bedlam".) This wasn't a nice place to be sent to, especially if you were being victimized by the Air Loom Gang:

His patient's name was James Tilly Matthews, and his view of the world had by this point become one of the strangest ever recorded in the annals of psychiatry. Haslam's account is still acknowledged as the first example in history of the now-familiar notion of mind control by an 'influencing machine'. For everyone who has since had messages beamed at them through fillings, mysterious implants or TV sets, or via hi-tech surveillance, MI5, Masonic lodges or UFOs, James Tilly Matthews is Patient Zero.

Matthews was convinced that outside the grounds of Bedlam, in a basement cellar by London Wall, a gang of villains were controlling and tormenting his mind with diabolical rays. They were using a machine called an 'Air Loom', of which Matthews was able to draw immaculate technical diagrams, and which combined recent developments in gas chemistry with the strange force of animal magnetism, or mesmerism. It incorporated keys, levers, barrels, batteries, sails, brass retorts and magnetic fluid, and worked by directing and modulating magnetically charged air currents, rather as the stops of an organ modulate its tones. It ran on a mixture of foul substances, including 'spermatic-animal-seminal rays', 'effluvia of dogs' and 'putrid human breath', and its discharges of magnetic fluid were focused to deliver thoughts, feelings and sensations directly into Matthews' brain. There were many of these mind-control settings, all classified by vivid names: 'fluid locking', 'stone making', 'thigh talking', 'lobster-cracking', 'bomb-bursting', and the dreaded 'brain-saying', whereby thoughts were forced into his brain against his will. To facilitate this process, the gang had implanted a magnet into his head. As a result of the Air Loom, Matthews was tormented constantly by delusions, physical agonies, fits of laughter and being forced to parrot whatever nonsense they chose to feed into his head. No wonder some people thought he was mad.

"The Air Loom Gang: James Tilly Matthews and his Visionary Madness" by Mike Jay, Strangeness, 3 July 2003

And in the plus ca change category:

On the basis of this testimony [that he was not mad, that his symptoms were those of a man wrongfully confined, and that he posed no threat to others], Matthews' family brought a writ of Habeas Corpus against Bedlam, forcing the governors to state their precise legal reasons for holding him. They produced a stack of affidavits from other doctors contradicting Clutterbuck and Birkbeck's testimony, but the case eventually turned on a letter from Lord Liverpool, who insisted that Matthews was a dangerous lunatic who should be confined in perpetuity. So the writ failed, but on grounds which suggested that Matthews' alleged lunacy was irrelevant: he was effectively, though apparently unconstitutionally, being confined as a state prisoner.

"The Air Loom Gang: James Tilly Matthews and his Visionary Madness" by Mike Jay, Strangeness, 3 July 2003
TitleThe Air Loom Gang: The Strange and True Story of James Tilly Matthews and His Visionary Madness
AuthorMike Jay
PublisherFour Walls Eight Windows

Cover for "Air Loom Gang"

In some apartment near London Wall, there is a gang of villains profoundly skilled in Pneumatic Chemistry.

— John Haslam, Illustrations of Madness, 1810, Page 1

Sources and Further Reading

  1. "The Air Loom Gang" talk by Mike Jay, Isle of Wight Fortean Society, 29 July 2004
  2. "The Air Loom Gang" Mike Jay, Four Walls Eight Windows (publisher)
  3. "Genius Of Bedlam" by Paul Collins, review in Village Voice, 5 April 2004

"Moping Melancholy, and Moon-Struck Madness."

"Melencholia I" by Albrecht Dürer

"Melencholia I", Albrecht Dürer, 1514, 9 1/2 x 7 3/8 inches (24 x 18.5 cm) (various museums)

I hold that the perfection of form and beauty is contained in the sum of all men.

— Albrecht Dürer, Four Books on Human Proportions, 1528

I first encountered Albrecht Dürer's "Melencolia I" twenty-five years ago, when I was in high school. (I remember seeing it in Science, not the JAAS journal, which I also leafed through, but in their magazine designed to compete with Scientific American.) Since then, I've thought about it from time to time, but never dug into exactly what all the symbolism meant.

A few weeks ago I was thinking about Dürer again — he was a very smart and accomplished fellow, and his accomplishments include inventing etching (hey, baby, want to come up and see my etchings?), making numerous advances in art, and creating a mechanical device for accurately drawing perspective — and was inspired to again dig out Melencolia I for a look. That led me to some searches for the symbolism — an option that was not easy twenty-five years ago — and after doing so I was inspired to write it up.

I spent a bit of time digging out Webpages and papers on Melencolia I, and have only included the ones with detailed analysis, and those not in the realm of the delusional, spiritual, or occult. The "The Melencolia Code" by David Finkelstein, a physics professor at Georgia Institute of Technology, has the best writeup of the lot, so I'll be quoting extensively from him. This isn't to say he's correct, just that he summed up the arguments cogently and succinctly. I won't write up all of the symbolism, just enough to give you a flavor for the piece.

The Melencolia I (1514) of Albrecht Durer (1471-1528) might be the most studied engraving ever made, and it influenced European art for centuries. It represents science well before Newton. Many riddlers have tried to decode it. The art historian Erwin Panofsky saw in it Durer’s own melancholy frustration at the gap between artistic and divine creation. Frances Yates, historian of the Hermetic tradition, took its melancholia to be an inspired creative fever, not sadness at all, and read the engraving as a declaration of the harmony between microcosm and macrocosm. The art historian Patrick Doorly sees it as an illustration for Plato’s Greater Hippias, a dialogue on beauty; the angelic melancholy represents the inability to define absolute beauty. Long before I heard of their studies, I saw in it a feeling about science that I could not quite read. Was the angel truly melancholy? If so, was it for knowing too little? Or too much? Is the angel dreaming of a Final Theory? Isn’t she actually smiling slightly? What is the joke?

"The Melencolia Code" by David R. Finkelstein, School of Physics, Georgia Institute of Technology, Page 3

The Name and the Bat

"Melancholia I" by Albrecht Dürer

To unscramble it [the name Melencolia I] I proceeded as follows. Since so many Durers, father, mother, and repeated son, already hide in the engraving, I guessed that the motto might hide another. This amounts to a prediction. To test it I went to Durer’s coat of arms to see how he might depict himself. There I found if I did not invent the caelo rebus by which Durer represents his art. CAELO indeed fits into MELENCOLIA. The leftover letters quickly arrange themmselves into the common noun LIMEN, commonly meaning gateway, doorway, threshold, lintel, walls, house, home, boundary path, and limit, according to context. MELENCOLIA then decodes to LIMEN CAELO, gateway in heaven. This describes the Durer coat of arms itself quite accurately, fulfilling the prediction that the anagram hid a name for Durer. It indirectly supports the rebus theory of the coat of arms. It also applies well to the dim archway in the heavens that frames it, and will acquire further meaning as we go.

The speed with which this prediction checked out suggested that I read Durer correctly. The proposition before us is that Durer constructed the motto MELENCOLIA I from the covert one LIMEN CAELO I, put melancholic elements and the mooonbow to fit them, and added the hell-bat to signal that the cover message was ironic.

"The Melencolia Code" by David R. Finkelstein, School of Physics, Georgia Institute of Technology, Page 11

The Solid

"Melancholia I" by Albrecht Dürer

There are observations about the geometrical figure to the right of Melencolia. Geometrically, the polyhedron is simply a cube or rhombohedron which has been truncated at the upper vertex. Somebody has proposed that the shape is a very elaborate optical illusion. It is made to appear as though it is a truncated cube, with 90 degree angles, but in reality, it has no 90 degree angles at all. Panofsky describes it simply as a "truncated rhomboid." It is possible to proportion it so that the vertices project onto a 4-by-4 square grid like that of the magic square (T. Lynch, "The geometric body in Durer's engraving Melancholia I," Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Inst., pp. 226-232, 1982.). Schreiber (P. Schreiber, "A New Hypothesis on Durer's Enigmatic Polyhedron in His Copper Engraving 'Melencholia I'," Historia Mathematica, 26, pp. 369-377, 1999. ) proposes that it comes from a rhombohedron with 72-degree face angles, which has been truncated so it can be inscribed in a sphere....and on and on.

"Dürer's Polyhedra" by George Hart

Dürer's solid is the 8-faced solid depicted in an engraving entitled Melancholia I by Albrecht Dürer (The British Museum, Burton 1989, Gellert et al. 1989), the same engraving in which Dürer's magic square appears, which depicts a disorganized jumble of scientific equipment lying unused while an intellectual sits absorbed in thought. Although Dürer does not specify how his solid is constructed, Schreiber (1999) has noted that it appears to consist of a distorted cube which is first stretched to give rhombic faces with angles of 72°, and then truncated on top and bottom to yield bounding triangular faces whose vertices lie on the circumsphere of the azimuthal cube vertices.

"Dürer's Solid" Mathworld

What triggered my own new interest in Melencolia I and Durer were two faces that I found hiding in the polyhedron in April 2004. Anyone who steps back several paces from a good print and focuses on the shading of the front face of the polyhedron patiently for a minute or so, will soon find or construct a face, either a man with his head cocked to the right or a woman with her head erect. Both are there, at di erent angles and scales, apparently waiting to be seen for centuries. Some viewers see the man first and some the woman; one cannot see both at once. Both disappear if we come too close. Digitizing and reducing the engraving for the internet sometimes outlines one of the faces crisply, bringing it completely out of hiding. That is how I found the woman by chance and was drawn into this study. Absent such electronic aids, the faces emerge from the polyhedron slowly the first time but are inescapable thereafter. They are subtle and draw much on our own perceptive process, so that as we see them taking shape, we are not entirely clear whether they are really there or are our own projections. One can resolve these doubts to some extent. We may note that we cannot find such faces in all of Durer’s shadings. We can verify the faces we see with other viewers. We may assume that Durer’s vision was more sensitive to variations of shade than most, and infer that if we see these faces then so did Durer, and therefore they are part of his intention.

In 1604, long after popular demand had worn out Durer’s original copper plate, the Dutch engraver Jan Wierix (ca. 1553-1619) produced a new engraving of Melencolia I from scratch, so to speak. In order to distinguish his copy from the original he left out a flourish between “Melencolia” and “I” in the motto. Less publicly, he also systematically changed both hidden faces to hidden devil’s masks. By this change he left a secret sign that he saw the hidden faces and rejected what they stood for. This convinces me that they are not of my creation. And later they will lead us to the function of the polyhedron.


One can read the surface of the polyhedron in three ways: as blank, as a woman’s face, or as a man’s face. This is the only such triple image I find in Durer’s work. The two hidden faces resemble somewhat Durer’s last portraits of his mother and father, and have the same poses. Durer’s father died in 1507 at the age of 75 and a Durer portrait shows him beardless at 70, but five years is enough for the small beard on the hidden face of the man. Durer did his last portrait of his mother two months before her death and Melencolia I soon after. There is not enough detail in the hidden faces for positive recognition but since the ages, poses, and general features match, and the picture has already been recognized as autobiographical, perhaps they represent his mother and father. They have another function that I will point out later. They are part of a joke that Durer is playing on us.

I am less certain of a third hidden face. The black axle-hole in its center of the millstone might pass for a silhouette profile of a lean young man, presumably Albrecht again. Unlike the two parental ghosts, this hidden face reverses figure and ground, a common way to hide faces at the time.

"The Melencolia Code" by David R. Finkelstein, School of Physics, Georgia Institute of Technology, Pages 5-6

The Magic Square

"Melancholia I" by Albrecht Dürer

We need not look far [to find the meaning of the magic square]. The sum of the whole table is 136. Pursuing the autobiographical hypothesis, I computed the Latin gematria for “Albrecht Durer,” ignoring the non-Latin umlaut. The sum is 135. Since there is no “u” in the Latin alphabet, the name should really be “Albrecht Dvrer, ” but this would not change the sum, since “v” would then replace “u” as letter 21 of the alphabet. There is a significant discrepancy of 1 between 135 and 136. One must separate the 1 from the rest of the table to make the sum “Albrecht Durer.” This amounts to a prediction: that Durer did so. Returning to the engraving to check this prediction, we see that he made the 1 unmistakably taller than all the other numerals, as I did in transcribing the Durer Table above. This again di erentiates the Durer Table from the Jupiter Table. In addition, one wing of the angel brushes the 1 in the table, and only that numeral, verifying it divinity.

By splitting the sum into 136= 1 +135 Durer again puts himself into his own Table, next to God. The magic square provides two more Durer signatures within a symbol of the divinity of mathematics.

"The Melencolia Code" by David R. Finkelstein, School of Physics, Georgia Institute of Technology, Page 9

The Comet

"Melancholia I" by Albrecht Dürer

The great comet 1471Y1 was first seen on Christmas Day in Durer’s birth year, and Durer wrote of seeing a comet in 1503. The physical natures of meteors and comets were not yet known in 1514. Even Galileo would still believe that comets were formed from atmospheric vapors leaving the Earth. But da Vinci already mocked the idea that events in the sky foretold events on Earth, and so did Durer.

"The Melencolia Code" by David R. Finkelstein, School of Physics, Georgia Institute of Technology, Page 21

The Balance (Scales)

"Melancholia I" by Albrecht Dürer

The balance is one of the few scientific instruments in the picture. They all hang on the wall and the artisan tools litter the yard, as the experimental philosopher is sanctified above the craftsman. The scales hang on the side wall between the angel and the putto, level and balanced. One dish touches the putto, the other the angel. There is a balance between putto and angel, first literally, there it hangs between them, and then metaphorically, they have equal weight in some sense; perhaps equal divinity. The putto-angel equation seems to be a literally central message of the engraving. This fully supports Yate’s interpretation of the triumphant artist and of a balance between the Intellectual and Terrestrial spheres represented by the angel and the putto.

"The Melencolia Code" by David R. Finkelstein, School of Physics, Georgia Institute of Technology, Pages 14-15

The Angel

"Melancholia I" by Albrecht Dürer

If she had melancholia, it would have to be the creative form of the humor, not the depressive. In fact she is visibly not creating. Her compasses are held in a way that puts them out of service. Her book is sealed. The unresolved tension between her positive expression and attitude and the apparently negative legend is part of the hold that the engraving has on us.

She looks at nothing in the scene. The polyhedron, the putto, and the dog are directly to her right, and the globe is beneath her line of sight. She looks up out of the frame, right past what is going on in the sky behind her, meteor, hell-bat, moonbow and all. This is consistent with her representing the faculty of Contemplation that connects its user to the Intellectual Sphere of Forms and angels. What the angel is doing is remarkable. She is doing nothing.

I propose that her main function in this engraving is that of the knight between Death and the Devil: to ignore evil. She sees nothing and does nothing. She is unlike the putto, who studies the dog intentlly and draws it. But neither see the bizarre night sky.

"The Melencolia Code" by David R. Finkelstein, School of Physics, Georgia Institute of Technology, Page 14

Sources and Further Reading

  1. "Dürer's Solid" Mathworld
  2. "The Melencolia Code" by David R. Finkelstein, School of Physics, Georgia Institute of Technology
  3. "The Melencolia Code" by David R. Finkelstein, School of Physics, Georgia Institute of Technology (CitizenArcane copy)
  4. "Dürer's Polyhedra" by George Hart
  5. Melencholia I, Albrecht Dürer, 1514, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Oh, and since I know you were wondering, the title line is from Paradise Lost, by John Milton, (book XI, l, 485). I'll leave you with one more thought:

Gone is the mystical mathetic vision of absolute truth, the perspective of infinity, but also the self-deification and the gloom. Both halves of the picture live on Earth. Knowledge, with all its limits, is no longer a light in the night sky but a record of actual experience.

"The Melencolia Code" by David R. Finkelstein, School of Physics, Georgia Institute of Technology, Page 22

Vitruvian’s the Name. Vitruvian Man.

Vitruvian Man

Vitruvian Man, Leonardo da Vinci, circa 1492

The "Vitruvian Man" is an image that everbody — at least anyone with even the most rudimentary knowledge of history and art — knows, and yet whose name seems to be unknown by everybody. Circa 1492, while the Spanish were funding what would become the systematic rape, pillage, and looting of the New World — and the return of virulent syphilis; I think the native peoples didn't give as good as they got, but it was a nice thank-you present to the Europeans — Leonardo da Vinci was exploring the relationship between architecture and the human body's proportions.

The outgrowth of that exploration was "Vitruvian Man"; the name originates with the Roman architect Vitruvius, who was one of the first to argue in De Architectura (original latin and English translation), written between 27 and 23 BC, that human proportions should be the basis for architecture. (Vitruvius also argued that the job of the architect was to design useful and aesthetically pleasing buildings, a lesson that Frank Gehry would do well to learn.) But, back to Vitruvian Man.

Da Vinci was certain to have read Vitruvius' treatise on role of the human body's proportions in temple architecture:

1. The design of Temples depends on symmetry, the rules of which Architects should be most careful to observe. Symmetry arises from proportion, which the Greeks call a)nalogi/a. Proportion is a due adjustment of the size of the different parts to each other and to the whole; on this proper adjustment symmetry depends. Hence no building can be said to be well designed which wants symmetry and proportion. In truth they are as necessary to the beauty of a building as to that of a well formed human figure,

2. which nature has so fashioned, that in the face, from the chin to the top of the forehead, or to the roots of the hair, is a tenth part of the height of the whole body. From the chin to the crown of the head is an eighth part of the whole height, and from the nape of the neck to the crown of the head the same. From the upper part of the breast to the roots of the hair a sixth; to the crown of the head a fourth. A third part of the height of the face is equal to that from the chin to under side of the nostrils, and thence to the middle of the eyebrows the same; from the last to the roots of the hair, where the forehead ends, the remaining third part. The length of the foot is a sixth part of the height of the body. The fore-arm a fourth part. The width of the breast a fourth part. Similarly have other members their due proportions, by attention to which the ancient Painters and Sculptors obtained so much reputation.

3. Just so the parts of Temples should correspond with each other, and with the whole. The navel is naturally placed in the centre of the human body, and, if in a man lying with his face upward, and his hands and feet extended, from his navel as the centre, a circle be described, it will touch his fingers and toes. It is not alone by a circle, that the human body is thus circumscribed, as may be seen by placing it within a square. For measuring from the feet to the crown of the head, and then across the arms fully extended, we find the latter measure equal to the former; so that lines at right angles to each other, enclosing the figure, will form a square.Link to the editor's note at the bottom of this page

4. If Nature, therefore, has made the human body so that the different members of it are measures of the whole, so the ancients have, with great propriety, determined that in all perfect works, each part should be some aliquot part of the whole; and since they direct, that this be observed in all works, it must be most strictly attended to in temples of the gods, wherein the faults as well as the beauties remain to the end of time."

De Architectura by Vitruvius, Book III, Chapter 1 (original latin and English translation)

Notice the key portion:

It is not alone by a circle, that the human body is thus circumscribed, as may be seen by placing it within a square. For measuring from the feet to the crown of the head, and then across the arms fully extended, we find the latter measure equal to the former; so that lines at right angles to each other, enclosing the figure, will form a square.

De Architectura by Vitruvius, Book III, Chapter 1 (original latin and English translation)

Now, this starts to possibly explain why da Vinci drew the figure the way he did. While it might be that he was simply following Vitruvius' instructions, there may be another explanation rooted in mathematics. Da Vinci may actually have been attempting to solve the famous mathematical problem of "squaring the circle".

The secret concerns a geometric algorithm in human form. In this unity, Leonardo saw the solution to the problem known as squaring the circle.Leonardo‘s man is an algorithm! Squaring the circle is an ancient geometrical problem whereby of a pair of compasses and a ruler are used in an attempt to construct a circle and square of equal area.

In the 19th century it was proven beyond doubt that this is not possible in a finite number of constructional steps. Solutions do exist in infinite numbers of steps, however. The algorithm in the Vitruvian Man is based on an approach in-volving a continuation into infinity.

For the first time, the reconstruction of the algorithm provides an insight into the unique and bold image of man which Leonardo da Vinci has bequeathed to us in the form of this mystery. The Vitruvian Man may not be the sole mystery of this type. You can now witness the unfolding of the mystery with the aid of computer animations.

"The Secret of the Vitruvian Man" by Klaus Schroeer

This seems cumbersome and forced, however. It may simply be that da Vincia was following Vitruvius' lead in delighting in the joy of the human body's proportions. Vitruvian Man might, therefore, be just an exploration of human geometry. There are, of course, other explanations, involving everything from sacred mathematics to alchemical imagery. Consider this one — the massive geometry lesson not being quoted — blending geometry with alchemy:

The most fundamental composition consists of a circle, a square, and a triangle, a sigillum known to magicians and alchemist, sometimes called the Universal Seal of Light or the Seal of Hermes. The compositional triangle on this drawing is concealed, even though that it outlines important segments. It is drawn in the circle within the square and it coincides with the progression of squares as depicted on the illustration.

The main proportional lines come from the progression of squares, every second square is half the size of the original, and the measures thus obtained are the same as described by Vitruvius.

Distinguished is also the triangle with the size of a square and apex in the navel.

It seems that the drawing, or better the original design as explained by Vitruvius, contains many layers of geometry and symbolism that concord in one single image delineating the proportions of the human body. This idea of 'reason' governing 'form' was the fundamental theme of the Renaissance and is traceable in best architecture and art in general. It would not be odd if Leonardo had a close contact with scholars that spread the source of the Renaissance thought which didn't distinguish between art, science, and magick in terms of conflicting or opposing discourses as is the case today.

"Vitruvian Man: On Planning of Temples" by Morphvs

Regardless of its purpose, we can always appreciate the drawing as pure art. You can see the original at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Venice, Italy, in the unlikely event you ever end up there.

And, lest I forget to mention it, yesterday (15 April) was da Vinci's birthday. (Tax day, too.) Google, of course, observed it with a special logo (replicated here for after it vanishes):

Google Logo for Da Vinci's Birthday

Sources and Further Reading

  1. De Architectura by Vitruvius (original latin)
  2. De Architectura by Vitruvius (English translation)
  3. "Vitruvian Man: On Planning of Temples" by Morphvs
  4. "The Secret of the Vitruvian Man" by Klaus Schroeer

Aryan Glue
(Elsie the Cow Meets Elmer the Bull)

Elmer's Glue Bottles

When I were a lad, and dinosaurs roamed the earth, I used to hear all manner of nonsense in grade school. Not just from the teachers, either. My fellow students used to confabulate the worst sort of nonsense out of the proverbial wholecloth. Like how the building on the way to school that was being erected by the "Mack Construction Company" was going to be used to hold a museum for Mack Trucks and we'd be able to go on field trips. (Really. I am so not making this up. It ultimately turned out to be for Chubb Insurance, which is pretty much what I expected. I got a beating from my fellow students for saying, during construction, that the office building was waaaaaay too small for a museum and why would the Mack company want such a small building in New Jersey when they were in someplace like Ohio. Then I got beat up again after Chubb moved in for saying I was right. Ok, I should have kept my mouth shut.) Or that Bubble Yum had spider eggs that would hatch in your heart and kill you. (I got a beating for pointing out that this made no sense, saying that the stomach broke down food and that included spider eggs. And I got puched again after Bubble Yum took out full-page ads saying something like, "People are saying bad things about your gum." Hey, it was the mid-seventies; I don't know if people were stupider and less informed, especially after the last election I think not, but they probably were.) Or that Elmer's white glue was white because it was made from milk. (I asked my chemist father and he said it wasn't. So I said it wasn't milk and got... Ok, enough already.) Anyway, I heard that canard again the other day and thought it was time for an entry.

Elmer's white glue is made by Borden, a company that started out as a dairy but branched out from inedible cow-secretion products like cheese into chemical products. (The founder of Borden invented a vacuum process for making condensed milk, instead of the common heat-based deyhdration method which altered the color and taste in undesirable ways, which is why Borden became such a powerhouse in the food industry.) There's a good reason for a food company to be involved in things like paints, glues, and even plastics; for a long time these were dervived from casein, a milk-cheese phosphoprotein. In 1970, after protest from vegans and other radical vegetarians, the glue was reformulated to be made from polyvinyl acetate (PVA), a polymer, emulsified in water. (Ok, so I totally made up the part about the vegans and vegetarians. The polymer part is true, though.)

Chemical Structure of Polyvinyl Acetate

Structure of Polyvinyl Acetate (PVA)

When the water evaporates, the glue repolymerizes into long chains and hardens. The tricky part is getting the emulsion right so that one has a smooth glue instead of gelled lumps in water. PVA is bioligically inert; you can — or so says the Materials Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) — eat as much as you want and not get sick. (This is not from personal experience; there are limits to CitizenArcane's committment to accurate blogging. Sorry. If you ever try consuming it for a bar bet, or similar idiocy, be sure to write and let us know how it turned out for you.)

One of the likely reasons for reformulation is that PVA is soluble after it's cured, but casein glue is most definitely not. Casein glues, in fact, turn out to be virtually impossible to remove after use, which makes furniture assembled with them basically unfixable. (Hide glue, another early glue, is easily removable.) Casein paint, relying on the same adhesive principle, is nearly impossible to remove, as most modern strippers simply won't touch it. Reformulating of the glue from casein to PVA was likely done for cleanup purposes:

How can I remove glue?

Elmer's makes a variety of products and clean-up can vary depending upon the formula. School Glue or Glue-All products - soap and water are usually all you need to clean up these products. If it's on clothing, just launder as recommended by the manufacturer. FAQ

Elsie the Cow

So, the logo is just the dairy company's cow, right? Well, not exactly. In 1939, Borden, a dairy-products company, acquired the Casein Company of America, a manufacturer of milk-based chemicals. (Moving up the foodchain and going vertical locks in profits, then and now. Plus ca change...) The new company was called Borden Chemical and needed a logo. The smart people on the dairy side decided it would devalue their brand to have ther food products — which are borderline chemical waste, anyway, being fat, salt, and artificial color — associated with chemical products, even if they did come from milk. The chemical people, however, were way craftier than the dairy-products people:

Where Did Elmer's Name Come From?

Elsie the Cow became Borden's very popular "Spokescow" in the late 1930's. She was a big hit at the 1939 New York World's Fair, and soon afterwards the character of Elmer the Bull was created as Elsie's husband. In the late 1940's, Borden's new Chemical Division asked to use Elsie for its new white glue product. The thought of Elsie representing a non-food product didn't seem appropriate, so as a compromise, Elmer was loaned to Chemical as their very own "spokesbull". To this day, Elmer the Bull still represents the most recognized adhesive company. Fun Facts

So there you have it. Elmer is Elsie's, uh, consort. One more factoid: Elmer's white glue is the official glue of the Aryan Nation. (Ok, so I made that up, too. You want everything here to be purely factual?)

Your Petrodollars at Work

Burj Dubai

Burj Dubai, United Arab Emirates

Petrodollars from the West have to go somewhere. Some countries, like, oh, say, Saudi Arabia, use them to fund vicious terrorist attacks upon the hand that feeds them — 9-11 was a Saudi operation, and they pay for most of the attacks by Muslims upon the West — and to indoctrinate vulnerable population segments worldwide in the hopes of inciting a civil war between those who favor the rule of law and those blinded to all but the cruel, death- and suffering-oriented laws of Allah. (Just working hard for a better, more peaceful world.) Others, like Dubai (part of the United Arab Emirates), erect the most amazing buildings as a testament to their financial success. (After Saudi Arabia, Dubai is the Persian Gulf's largest oil and gas producer.)

Most of the money the UAE gets from the West goes into building buildings instead of killing people, blowing things up, and promoting strife worldwide. Well, much of the money, at any rate. Remember, this a country so hardcore Muslim it has Islamic law and keeps its chattel women in potato sacks; they aren't the good guys by any stretch of the imagination. And they buy — yes, slavery is alive and well in the UAE — four year olds to be jockeys for their camel races. But, damn, if this isn't a beautiful building, even if it was paid for by those who would destroy every freedom we in the West hold dear. Skidmore, Owings and Merrill clearly did a fine job of design. But the real credit goes to Samsung the (Western) firm that will erect the building.

Anyway, a few days ago I saw another drawing of their latest effort and decided to write it up. When completed, Burj Dubai will be the world's tallest building; estimates range from 2,275 feet or 700 meters to 2,925 feet or 900 meters. The cost? Well, that ranges anywhere from one to two billion dollars. Yup. That's with a B, folks.

Whatever the final height, it will be roughtly half a mile of building. Think about this: half a mile of building. That's big. Really big. Enough to easily dominate the Petronas Towers in Malaysia (1483 feet, 452 meters) the miniscule 442 meter-tall Chicago's Sears Tower, or the current king of the hill, Taipei 101 (1667 feet, 508 meters). It will also outrank the unbuilt, and hideously ugly, Freedom Tower (1776 feet, 541 meters).

Burj Dubai

Burj Dubai, United Arab Emirates

Building something that tall isn't easy. Far from it:

Early designs placed the massive residential and hotel tower well above 2,000 feet. At that height, "vortex shedding" — eddies of wind, like the wake behind a boat — develops at a building’s top stories. As air whips around the tower at speeds reaching 120 mph, low- pressure zones occur on one side, then the other, setting up vibrations, known as resonant frequencies, that can literally shake the structure to death—which is what happened to Washington State’s infamous Tacoma Narrows bridge in 1940, when high winds snapped a cable and sent the third longest suspension bridge in the world crashing into Puget Sound. Older skyscrapers like the Empire State Building are immune because they are built out of heavy steel. But to erect a tower more than twice as high requires a construction with even greater damping qualities. The Burj will be made of poured concrete that contains blast furnace slag and microsilicates—a material that’s almost as strong as cast iron, yet more resistant to damage due to vibrations because the natural cracking in concrete dissipates the energy.

The taller a building is, though, the more it flexes, increasing its likelihood of flexing to its breaking point. Abetted by extensive computer and wind-tunnel testing, SOM designed a building with numerous setbacks and wings to scatter the wind. "The wind sees 18 different sections," says Baker, "each with a different vortex-shedding frequency. If we didn’t do that, the building would just fall down sideways.”

Keeping the building standing is only the first of a complex series of problems in a tower so high. The Burj’s relatively small footprint requires a single 11,000-voltage power line routed through a series of transformers throughout the building; Dubai’s burning sunlight necessitates coating the windows with special glazing; water pressure must be enhanced with a series of zoned pumping stations; and, to minimize commuting time, the elevators will zoom at 3,600 feet per minute. Going up, that is. "Coming down has to be a lot slower," says Raymond J. Clark, SOM’s partner in charge of mechanical and electrical engineering, "or else you’d blow out people’s ears."

"Burj Dubai: The world's tallest building", by Carl Hoffman, Popular Science, April 2004

Sources and Further Reading

  1. Burj Dubai's Official Website
  2. Archnet Images of Burj Dubai
  3. "Burj Dubai: The world's tallest building", by Carl Hoffman, Popular Science, April 2004
  4. Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (Flash site, so direct linking to the project is impossible)
  5. "Child camel jockeys in the UAE", Anti-Slavery International
  6. "The trafficking of child camel jockeys to the United Arab Emirates (UAE)", Anti-Slavery International

Better to Burn Out Than it is to Rust

It's better to burn out, than it is to rust...

— Neil Young, "My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)", Rust Never Sleeps

Corroding Aluminum I-Beam

"The Amazing Rusting Aluminum", by Theodore Gray, Popular Science

Aluminum is rusty; that's what makes it useful. Really. There is a fine surface coat of aluminum oxide — rust — that protects the rest of the metal from oxidation. Without that layer, aluminum would be useless, because it would corrode (oxidize) while we watched. Copper is similar, which is why it was used for roofing. (That very same green coating on copper roofs is identical to the oxide coating the Statue of Liberty.)

Iron is quite different, because its oxide coating flakes off instead of tightly adhering to the surface. This means that new, unreacted iron is constantly being made available to oxygen's deadly embrace. Aluminum, to contrast, always has a hard layer of aluminum oxide (Al2O3) on the surface. To give you an idea how hard it is, this same molecule is the building block for abrasives and gemstones like corundum, alumina, sapphire, and ruby.

I found it interesting that the delicate oxide coat can be disrupted by mercury. Once this happens, the protective oxide layer fails to form and the aluminum literally crumbles before our eyes. This photograph shows what happens when an I-beam comes in contact with mercury; it corrodes as the seconds tick by. The photo above was taken after only an hour after mercury was applied. The problem is not just in the lab; it exists for any critical structure that might come into contact with mercury. Like, oh, say, airplanes. Yup, airplanes. Boeing's maintenance manual for the 747 specifically sets forth the risks:

The spillage of mercury or a mercury compound, within an airplane, requires immediate action for its isolationg and recovery to prevent possible corrosion damage to and possible embrittlement of aluminum alloy structural components. C. All metallic aircraft structure which is wetted by elemental mercury suffers severe degradation in strength. The rate of diffusion of mercury into a metal is dependent on the specific metal contacted and the protective finish applied; however, once diffusion has started it cannot be stopped.

Boeing 747 Maintenance Manual Guidelines for Mercury Spills

The problem was recently written up by Popular Science, with some hype about terrorists. I've come across stories from the 1970s, during the peak of the terrorist-hijacking epidemic, about professors who were more worried about mercury being applied to aircraft than they were about bombs.

Unless you are a representative of a national meteorological bureau licensed to carry a barometer (and odds are you’re not), bringing mercury onboard an airplane is strictly forbidden. Why? If it got loose, it could rust the plane to pieces before it had a chance to land. You see, airplanes are made of aluminum, and aluminum is highly unstable.


Applied to aluminum’s surface, mercury will infiltrate the metal and disrupt its protective coating, allowing it to “rust” (in the more destructive sense) continuously by preventing a new layer of oxide from forming. The aluminum I-beam below rusted half away in a few hours, something that would have taken an iron beam years.

I’ve heard that during World War II, commandos were sent deep into German territory to smear mercury paste on aircraft to make them inexplicably fall apart. Whether the story is true or not, the sabotage would have worked. The few-micron-thick layer of aluminum oxide is the only thing holding an airplane together. Think about that the next time you’re flying. Or maybe it’s better if you don’t.

"The Amazing Rusting Aluminum", by Theodore Gray, Popular Science

This is not news; there's an old magic trick called "hypno heat" which involves taking a piece of aluminum foil, typically from a stick of gum a cigarette pack, and reacting it with HgCl2 (mercury bichloride) which used to be widely available as an antiseptic. (Before people realized that getting mercury into the body was very, very bad.) The aluminum oxidizes, giving off heat, which is attributed to the abilities of the magician. Viking Magic, to my amazement, still sells it by special request:

Question: I have a document created by you in 1989, and revised in 1995 titled: "Hypno heat/hot & cold-The tin foil trick". I was given hypno heat by an old friend in both solid pellet, and liquid form, but cannot find any suppliers in the UK. Could you tell me if you, or anyone you know supplies it please. Thank you in advance.

Answer: Hypno-Heat is a mercury by-product as as such can be dangerous if mishandled. I have been using HH for my own use for over 40 years with no adverse affects but then I am cautious and I know how to handle it. This item is not available to the general public any more but if you write me directly, I can put you in touch with it: Do NOT use the liquid form. This is very dangerous as it is absorbed into the skin on contact. As with all chemmicals, keep this out of the hands of children or anyone not professional enough to handle it.

Viking Magic FAQ

One has to be really, really, really stupid to handle any mercury compound, even if you aren't on an aircraft.

It's better to burn out, 'cause rust never sleeps...

— Neil Young, "Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)", Rust Never Sleeps

Sometimes Opium is the Opiate of the Masses

The Velvet Underground, 1966

The thing is, heroin gets you addicted to heroin. But opium is 40 to 50 different alkaloids, meaning 40 to 50 different drugs I was becoming addicted to.

"Confessions of an EBay opium addict" by Peter Thompson, News Review, 31 March 2005

You might be able to find anything you want at Alice's Restaurant, but if there isn't one local, or it isn't open a 4 am, try eBay instead:

Like anyone trolling the Internet at 4 a.m., I had been looking for some kind of temporary drug fix. I found it on eBay under Crafts>Floral Supplies>Flowers, Foliage>Dried.

Crafting. Sure. I liked art.

A query turned up all sizes and quantities of poppies. Some, called gigantheums, were as big as tennis balls. A special of “600 XXL-sized gigantheums” was selling for $399. Fortunately, for crafting projects requiring so many poppy plants, financing was available for $17 per month. For all of us hard-core flower arrangers, of course.

The recipe was simple enough. Hot water and crushed poppies. A blender and a strainer or an old T-shirt to squeeze out the pulp. I ordered a few dozen dried flowers from a seller with more than 3,000 positive-feedback points and a clever handle that was a clear double-entendre on horticulture and getting high.

At first, the plants came double-boxed, rubber-banded by the dozen with the stems intact. But after a few more orders, the seller seemed to cut out the pretense that I might actually be using the poppies for floral arrangements and just sent the pods themselves.

The first taste gave off a steamy insult. Even after being filtered twice, the manna was as putrid as a bowl of warm pus. It seemed completely undrinkable. Its fermented, earthy taste--a little like a liquid squeezed from gym socks--had to be chased with something sweet. The dark grinds of crushed seed and sediment formed a repulsive grit in a half-ring around the bottom of the bowl.

As I poured the slosh into what would become my ceremonial chalice--a plastic child’s cereal bowl with a built-in silly straw on the side--I learned how to drink it. Rather, it seemed to teach me how. Its nauseating properties demanded that it be downed fast at first, and then titrated for the rest of the session.

"Confessions of an EBay opium addict" by Peter Thompson, News Review, 31 March 2005

He just makes it sound so, well, attractive, doesn' t he? (And I wonder what fungicides those dried flowers may have been treated with, too. Some of them will give you liver cancer for sure, and maybe even Parkinson's as a bonus.) Television may be the opiate of the masses, but sometimes, it seems, opiates are the opiate of the masses.

Another thing opium tea slows down is the bowels. As an experienced pod-head, I learned to carry a Fleet two-pack before any major binge. (Those are the enemas in the green box.) Opium bunged things up the way eating a beach towel might. When things did finally make their exit, they felt like pine cones being forced through a tiny hole in a dry brick.

"Confessions of an EBay opium addict" by Peter Thompson, News Review, 31 March 2005

"ET Phone Home"

William Edward Ayrton

Professor William Edward Ayrton (1847-1908)

I was thinking about the ubiquity of cell phones and the price of being reachable anytime, anywhere, for any reason, no matter how trivial. And then I remembered the words of William Ayrton — a professor, scientist, engineer, and Fellow of the Royal Society — about the future of telecommuniations. (Keep in mind he said this in 1897.)

There is no doubt that the day will come, maybe when you and I are forgotten, when copper wires, gutta-percha coverings, and iron sheathings will be relegated to the Museum of Antiquities. Then, when a person wants to telegraph to a friend, he knows not where, he will call an electromagnetic voice, which will be heard loud by him who has the electromagnetic ear, but will be silent to everyone else. He will call "Where are you?" and the reply will come, "I am at the bottom of the coal-mine" or "Crossing the Andes" or "In the middle of the Pacific"; or perhaps no reply will come at all, and he may then conclude that his friend is dead.

— Professor W. E. Ayrton, lecture at the Imperial Institute, 1897

I, fortunately, haven't had anyone conclude that I'm dead when I don't answer my cell. There are, of course, times when I won't answer it; I'm not, after all, Paris Hilton.

"Why a Duck?"

Rubber Canard

I was talking with someone and when I described something as being a "canard" I received a puzzled look. The word, as those of us subjected to years of French lessons know, is French for "duck". (The edible, quacking variety not the imperative.) Canard has two common meanings. The first is a knowingly misleading fabrication or confabulation. The second is from aeronautics, where it refers to placing a horizontal control or trim surfaces in front of the main lifting surface, like a wing. In airplanes, a canard is commonly used to stabilize a small craft because it prevents stalls -- disrupted airflow over the wings -- by providing lift. So we're all clear on why it means a deliberate fabrication? No? I didn't think it would be.

Aircraft Canard

The origins of the polite alternative to the vernacular "lie" are interesting. (At least they are to an etymological freak like me.)


A hoax. Cornelissen, to try the gullibility of the public, reported in the papers that he had twenty ducks, one of which he cut up and threw to the nineteen, who devoured it greedily. He then cut up another, then a third, and so on till nineteen were cut up; and as the nineteenth was gobbled up by the surviving duck, it followed that this one duck actually ate nineteen ducks — a wonderful proof of duck voracity. This tale had the run of all the papers, and gave a new word to the language. (French, cane, a duck.) (Quetelet.)

Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, E. Cobham Brewer, 1898.

While this sounds like a good way to spread prions, it isn't telling the whole story. Cornelissen supposedly raised ducks in Provence, France around 1850. (Although he had a name that could pass for French, he was actually a Swede. This doesn't figure in the story, though.) He sold his ducks as the most delicious and tender to be found in all of Europe. (And you thought advertising puffery was a recent problem?) Cornelissen priced his ducks accordingly, at about five times that for the "ordinary" variety. In order to justify his huge premium, he was claiming that because each duck had eaten twenty other ducks his price was a bargain.

But, again, this may not be the whole story, since there is, to borrow a phrase from patents, prior art. There is an old Middle French phrase dating to 1584, "bailler un canard à moitié" (also as "vendre des canards a moitie") which means to half-sell a duck. It is also seen as "bailler le lièvre à l'oreille", or to give a hare (wild rabbit) by the ear. These expressions, in the vernacular of the time, meant to deceive someone since half-selling something is to not sell it at all. (Don't blame me if it sounds stupid; I don't make up these phrases.) But, this is still a peculiar expression. So where did it come from?

Cover of "Make Way For Ducklings" by Robert McCloskey

There is an old German word "ente", or "duck", which was used to mean "lie". It dates back to the time of Luther, far older than Cornelissen. The speculation among etymologists about the linkage between ducks and falsehoods is that ducks have erratic and unreliable reproduction, and thus "lie" about whether or not there will be ducklings.

I think that's the most sensible explanation I've heard. And that's no canard, either.

(Oh, and the title line? It's from a very unfunny sketch by the Marx Brothers — I never found them at all amusing — in "A Night At The Opera". But I thought it fit the subject rather well.)

A Plank, A Rope, And Thou?

Fractal Circles Crop Circle

On a moonless night in July 1990 I found myself in the middle of a Wiltshire field with a plank, a rope, and... well, you can guess the rest.

— Mike J. quoted in "I Was A Teenage Plasma Vortex"

In yesterday's entry about sand circles, I said that the Circlemakers had, as far as I knew, used the technique first. This induced me to write up their more famous work: crop circles. No matter what the UFOlogists say, crop circles are the work of humans. And most of them were the work of the bad boys of circle making over at (Sorry to suck all the mystery out of the world. Well, not really. I mean the being sorry part, not about the removing the mystery part.) A few years ago I saw a documentary on the Discovery Channel about how they wield their talents and it is both amazing and beautiful. All that sacred geometry comes from using lengths of rope to do the measuring. Who knew?

In their own words:

Doug Bower, assisted by his pal Dave, made his first circle in a Hampshire wheat field sometime during the summer of 1978. They made it on their hands and knees with a four-foot metal bar normally used to secure the back-door of Doug's Southampton studio.

"I'd always been interested in UFOs and flying saucers", he remembers, " I thought I'd make it look like one had landed." Whatever initially inspired him - divine guidance, the 1966 circle in a Queensland reed-bed, close to where Doug lived at the time, or simple ale-induced prankishness - the leap from provincial trampler to extraterrestrial super-force was swift.

Doug's daytime work-bench doodles transmogrified by night into gleaming sun-blessed articles of faith. This genius - fast-possessing others - couldn't be re-bottled.

Thousands of circles have since appeared world-wide in wheat, barley, oil-seed rape... grass, oats, linseed, peas, maize, mustard and rye... Gradually, inevitably, the circles grew appendages; curled scrolls unravelled into straw-perfect aisles; simple circles' sets became cathedral-like floor-plans - vast temporary sacred sites morphogenised the Gaiaic cry of nautili, whales, serpents, snails, scorpions, and spider's webs.

Equally spectral were the people who studied them; a veritable zoo of new-scientists, cerealogists, ufologists, vicar's-voiced dowsers, orgone revivalists, channellers, and myriad mystics, all seeking phenomenal genuineness in one form or another.

That genuineness proved elusive. Once wrapped in darkness with the warblers and the rabbits, cold air hitting the throat like mint as they raced around and around and around in decreasing spirals; dew-soaked wheat whooshing and splaying under skidding rollers, crunching under planks; ever-widening swaths laid flat as a mat in their path; Doug, and his many imitators, have since retired unseen.

The Circlemakers by Rob Irving

Wavy Line and Concentric Circles Crop Circle

Want to make your own? It isn't hard.

Although the circles have appeared worldwide in wheat, oats, spinach, grass, peas, rice, linseed, maize, oil-seed rape, sunflowers, mustard, barley, sugar-beet, rye, and a multitude of other crops, most cereal artists prefer to concentrate upon just three. These are grown and harvested in a smooth, overlapping progression; oil-seed rape in April through May, barley throughout May and June, and wheat from June until early September. In this guide we will give you all the information you will need to work with these plants, and eventually, with a little practice, produce genuine, dowsable, scientifically proven un-hoaxable circles patterns.


The tools you will need are relatively unsophisticated; a 30 metre surveyors tape - this is preferable to string which tends to tangle easily... a 1-2 metre board or plank with a rope attached to each end to form a loop - this is known as a stalk-stomper... dowsing rods - these should be made of copper, and purchased from an expensive new age shop, or, in an emergency, a couple of bent coat-hangers will do... and a plastic garden roller (available from reputable garden centres, or, if only for occasional use, these may be rented from tool-hire shops for about £2 a night). A luminous watch is also useful as a summer night can be surprisingly brief.

Circlemakers guide to making crop circles

Windmill Crop Circle

The Windmill Hill formation is often cited as being too complicated to have been made by humans. Well, they've got a nice rebuttal to that argument:

According to Silva these formations were tiny - a sixth and tenth of the size respectively compared to the Windmill Hill formation, which he states "dwarfs man made attempts".

The Windmill Hill formation was 375ft across, (It was measured by researcher Paul Vigay, amongst others who created a very accurate scale diagram from his measurements) though it is often inaccuarately cited as being nearly 1000ft across.

Our formation was 200ft across (made by three of us in 2.5 hrs). Matthew Williams' formation was a respectable 218ft across, made in only 2hrs by two people. Not the minute size that Silva alleges.

Myth Men By Rod Dickinson

Sparsholt Crop Circle

The Sparsholt formation is often cited as "proof" that aliens were making crop circles. Who else, after all, would combine a portrait of an "alien" with "DNA" evidence. (Nobody ever asks why the aliens don't just land on the Whitehouse lawn. Didn't anyone ever see "The Day The Earth Stood Still"?)

It's a massive ring which houses what looks like a 360 degree three-dimensional representation of a twisting DNA strand! According to reports there are 1296 squares that make up the grid that the DNA is laid out on and the formations stretched for over 200ft. Interestingly, the formations center is located between tram lines in standing crop, as you can see from the aerial photos there is no trace in the crop, now how did THEY do that?

Circlemakers: Top of the Crops 2002

Star Pattern Crop Circle

High Fidelity. Errr… "High-Tide Phidelity"

Double-Weave Design

Kris Northern a "designer, musician, and information architect (amongst other things)" has been creating sand circles. These are like crop circles, but are made using beach sand. It's an interesting, and attractive, medium for art, but the Circlemakers did it first.

How do you get it so perfect?

It is through a combination of being meticulous, sacred geometry and working with the cycles of nature in mind (ie the ebb and flow of the tides). We use a simple tool-kit of string, a couple hand rakes and a smoothing trowel.

What does it mean?

Each piece might have its own personal meaning to the creator but the common thread between all the designs is self similarity, harmony, balance and pleasing design. Each piece should have its own unique meaning to each person viewing it.

Where do you get your designs from?

We design them all from scratch... this isn't to say that we are the first to create them. Sometimes we stumble upon a design that many others before us have discovered. Generally we use Adobe Illustrator to create a prototype of the design so that we dont get lost in the maze of lines when we are inside of it.

Why do you do it?

Primarily because it is fun for us; we love geometry and design so to see these designs on a staggering scale is a real thrill. We use the work as a chance to practice mindfulness and really relax and put our full attention into it. Also if given the choice between sitting in front of a computer and learning this or a fully interactive experience with our friends on the beautiful tidal flats of ocean beach I dont think there's much of weighing of options.

Isn't hard to leave the designs behind?

While I can't speak for everyone else involved I have no attachments to the pieces. Their impermance is probably one of my favorite aspects of them, it's not something that can be taken for granted, it's not something a person can come back later and check it out when they have more time, they either enjoy it in the moment or they dont, and that is one of the most valuable lessons Ive learned in life.

How long does it take?

We spend anywhere from 1 hour to 2 1/2 hours on a piece on the beach, though creating the initial design on our computers might be the better part of a night trying different combinations and techniques.

What do you guys do when you arent making crop circles?

We are all free-lance artists.


Raking Sand

Cleopatra Versus The Masons

Cleopatra's Needle in Central Park in 1881

Cleopatra's Needle in Central Park in 1881

Cleopatra's Needle in Central Park with The Gates

Cleopatra's Needle in Central Park with The Gates, 2005

"A great way to open the harbor and the hearts of New York would be for Your Highness to present America with an Egyptian obelisk. After all, both London and Paris have been so honored."

"There is no insurmountable obstacle to preclude such a gift. Have you a particular obelisk in mind?"

"Forgive the pun, Your Highness — but any old obelisk will do. There's one hanging over the seawall in Alexandria for instance. It could readily be moved."

"Ah yes. The so-called Cleopatra's Needle. Yes — I think it might be arranged."

"An Obelisk for Central Park" by Edmund S. Whitman, Saudi Aramco World, July/August 1975, Volume 26, Number 4

Removal of Cleopatra's Needle in Egypt

Removal of Cleopatra's Needle in Egypt

I was explaining the photos I took of The Gates set against Cleopatra's Needle and was asked, "where is that?". Seems that not every New Yorker knows there is an ancient Egyptial obelisk from the 15th century BC smack dab in the middle of Manhattan. (I know, it's hard to believe but, hey, there are people who don't know the names for the lions outside the New York Public Library. Some of them don't know that the lions have names. Really!) Anyway, I put together a little writeup on it.

The oldest manmade object in Central Park, by a long shot, is the Obelisk, located directly behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Nicknamed "Cleopatra's Needle," the dedication of the obelisk in fact has nothing to do with Cleopatra, but was a self-commissioned tribute to Egypt's Thutmosis III (an accurate attribution, but clearly without the popular appeal of the Queen of the Nile). The obelisk was erected in Heliopolis around 1500 BC, moved to Alexandria, and from there to the United States in 1879. The Khedive of Egypt (who governed as a viceroy of the Sultan of Turkey between 1879 and 1914) offered it to the United States in the hope of stimulating economic development in his country.

Moving the obelisk from Alexandria, Egypt, to Central Park was a feat second only to its original construction. Imagine moving a 71 foot, 244 ton granite needle, first from vertical to horizontal, then into the hold of a ship, across the Mediterranean Sea, and over the storm-tossed Atlantic Ocean without breakage. It took four months just to bring it from the banks of the Hudson River to the Park! The final leg of the journey was made across a specially built trestle bridge from Fifth Avenue to its new home on Greywacke Knoll. The site, just across the drive from the then newly-built Metropolitan Museum of Art, was quietly chosen over such other worthy competitors as Columbus Circle and Union Square.

You only realize the massive scale of the obelisk when you stand right at its base, supported at each corner by bronze replicas of sea crabs crafted by the Romans (and on display in the Sackler Wing of the Metropolitan Museum); one crab alone weighs approximately 900 pounds. A recently-restored plaza around the obelisk has benches for admiring the obelisk's design, manufacture, and inscription. Surrounding the plaza are Japanese yews, magnolias, and crab apples. Visitors can sit on the surrounding benches and ponder the passing of history or simply enjoying the passing of the seasons.

Central Park Conservancy

This may not tell the entire history. The Masons have always loved all things Egyptian. If there is any doubt, just look at the Washington Monument; that great phallus is so Masonic there should be no doubt in anyone's mind that Cleopatra's Needle being in Central Park is not by accident or coincidence.

This history of Cleopatra's Needle goes back to the fifteenth century BC:

The "needle" — a modern term for obelisks apparently deriving from the shape — had its genesis in the 15th century B.C. when Thothmes III dispatched a 120,000-man contingent 600 miles up the Nile to the Aswan quarry with instructions to provide him with a pair of red granite obelisks for the great Temple of Tum. As was customary, all the quarrying, carving and polishing was done right on location and the finished product — 69 feet 6 inches high and weighing 224 tons — was barged down the Nile to Heliopolis and erected. But first the obelisk was sheathed in electrum — one part silver to four parts gold — so that its facets would catch the sun's rays and reflect them like a heliograph. It is said that the Pharaoh had his only son lashed to the point, there to remain until the needle was safely in place. His workers knew full well what would befall them should the monument — and the son — fall.

"An Obelisk for Central Park" by Edmund S. Whitman, Saudi Aramco World, July/August 1975, Volume 26, Number 4

Lt. Commander Henry Honychurch Gorringe, United States Navy

Lt. Commander Henry Honychurch Gorringe, USN (ret.)

The obelisk was moved from Egypt to Central Park by Lt. Commander Henry Honychurch Gorringe who, while he accomplished the task spectacularly well, did not have an easy time of it.

In New York there were further troubles. Gorringe got the 50-ton pedestal ashore where, slung on chains and hauled by 32 horses, it was moved to Central Park. But before he could offload the obelisk, functionaries in Manhattan imposed so many restrictions that Gorringe had to move the Dessoug to Staten Island for unloading. There, the ship's bow was lifted, the hole in the bow was reopened and the obelisk was raised, turned and eased onto a wooden landing stage built on piles. Afterwards it was rolled ashore, first, and ingeniously, on steel cannon balls and then, when the pressure became too great, on rollers mounted on top of flat steel bars.

On wooden pontoons the monument was then floated across the river from Staten Island to a slip at West 96th Street, hoisted to the dock and moved two miles by block and tackle to Central Park. In the park the obelisk and the pedestal were mounted on a bed with rollers and moved across a huge wooden trestle to a knoll chosen by city authorities as the site. To budge the massive weight of stone, Gorringe mounted a donkey engine behind the bed, anchored a rope some distance ahead on the trestle and then reeled in the rope on a drum attached to the donkey engine. As the load inched forward, the rollers over which it had passed were moved to the front and used over and over again. Altogether it took 112 days to move the obelisk from the river to the site.

While all this was going on, the Brooklyn Navy Yard was casting replicas of the original four bronze crabs and foundation stones aggregating 87 ½ tons were being laid in Central Park—in the exact arrangement and position and with the same orientation to the sun, as in Alexandria. Gorringe also arranged to leave a space between the foundation stones to serve as a time capsule into which he placed lead boxes containing documents, records, obelisk data, coins and medals, the Bible, the works of Shakespeare, a dictionary and samples of various tools in common use.

All was in readiness then for the erection and on Jan. 22, 1881 it was swung into place.

"An Obelisk for Central Park" by Edmund S. Whitman, Saudi Aramco World, July/August 1975, Volume 26, Number 4

Cleopatra's Needle Moved on Pier

Cleopatra's Needle Moved on Pier

Cleopatra's Needle Moved to Central Park

Cleopatra's Needle Moved to Central Park

Some obligatory triva. The word "obelisk" comes to us from the Greek for "meat skewer". While this obelisk is called Cleopatra's Needle, she had nothing whatsoever to do with it's creation or journey to Central Park. Inside the pedestal are a variety of items, including documents and records for the obelisk itself, 1880 proof coins, the Bible, the works of Shakespeare, a dictionary, samples of various tools in common use, and — this is what you've been waiting for — a metal box filled with sacred Masonic items placed there by Mr. William Henry Hubert, the Grand Master of the Masons. Some say that Jesse B. Anthony, Grand Master of Masons in the State of New York, presided. To this day nobody knows what those items are. No matter who laid the cornerstone, over nine thousand Masons were reported to have paraded up Fifth Avenue from 14th Street to 82nd Street to see the event.

Sources and Further Reading

  1. "An Obelisk for Central Park" by Edmund S. Whitman, Saudi Aramco World, July/August 1975, Volume 26, Number 4
  2. Central Park Conservancy on Cleopatra's Needle
  3. Overview of accomplishments of Lt. Commander Henry Honychurch Gorringe

As for the obelisk it soon faded into obscurity and its lovely hieroglyphics, ravaged by New York's corrosive fumes, eventually vanished almost as completely as the civilization they represented for nearly 35 centuries.

"An Obelisk for Central Park" by Edmund S. Whitman, Saudi Aramco World, July/August 1975, Volume 26, Number 4

Like Ants Under A Magnifying Glass

We feel like ants under a magnifying glass.
—Sheila Nixon

"Disney Concert Hall to Lose Some Luster" by Jack Leonard and Natasha Lee, Los Angeles Times, 1 March 2005,

Walt Disney Concert Hall

Walt Disney Concert Hall

Here's another example of Frank Gehry's non-functional buildings are a hazard to the public:

Officials decided today to make the Walt Disney Concert Hall a little duller.

Construction crews are set to take a hand sander to some of the shimmering stainless steel panels that have wowed tourists and architecture lovers but have baked neighbors living in condominiums across the street.

Beams of sunlight reflected from the hall have roasted the sidewalk to 140 degrees Fahrenheit, enough to melt plastic and cause serious sunburn to people standing on the street, according to a report from a consultant hired by the county.

"Disney Concert Hall to Lose Some Luster" by Jack Leonard and Natasha Lee, Los Angeles Times, 1 March 2005,

Solar Furnace at Odeillo, France

Solar Furnace at Odeillo, France

Compare Gehry's design with the one megawatt solar furnace at Odeillo, France that delivers up to 3800°C per cm^2. This isn't the first time that Gehry has screwed up; his building at Case Western Reserve has a similar problem, though nowhere near as intense because Cleveland sunlight doesn't match's LA's intensity.

You Catch More Flies With Kerosene…

Yesterday's mechanical fly catcher inspired me to see what other devices inventors had created to rid ourselves of the pesky scourge. The idea, it turns out, is an old one.

Electro-Mechanical Fly Catcher

Electro-mechanical fly catcher, by Everett Huckel Bickley, 1943

Everett Huckel Bickley (1888-1972), a Philadelphia-area inventor and entrepreneur, was responsible for dozens of inventions, some more marketable than others. His financial success came with the development of a bean-sorting machine that could, by use of photoelectric cell, sort good beans from bad. The sorter was the only invention from which Bickley ever made any considerable money, but it never dulled his enthusiasm for developing new ideas. At times he had up to nine active patent applications in the works, for such items as a nutcracker, a snow shovel, a slide mount, a faucet, and a photographic exposure meter.

Doodles, Drafts & Designs: Industrial Drawings from the Smithsonian

The diagram explains the workings:

1. Flies attracted by the bait light on cylinder.
2. Cylinder rotates carrying fly inside screen.
3. Fly eventually falls into kerosene and dies.

Doodles, Drafts & Designs: Industrial Drawings from the Smithsonian

Flycatcher, Flycatcher, Catch Me A Fly

Mechanical Fly Catcher

This mechanical fly catcher is an interesting device based on the venus flytrap:

The fly catcher is an electronic fly-swatting device based on the idea of the Venus fly trap. The Fly Catcher is not just a talking point, it actually does the job.

A non-toxic bait based at the bottom of the jaws lures the insect inside. As the insect crawls into the mouth of the trap, two sensors detect the insect causing the mouth to shut, swatting the insect dead.

As the jaws open for the next victim Fly Catcher emits a loud burp, indicating satisfaction from catching a juicy bug. Nice one!!

Mechanical Fly Catcher

The Face of Erectile Dysfunction?

Lance Armstrong

Lance Armstrong

I was watching some male bicyclists rubbing their nether regions after a ride and thought two things: (1) cycling is turning into baseball, and (2) someday a lot of lawyers are going to make a pile of money off this problem. No, not the public self-fondling issue, silly. The perineal numbness and erectile dysfunction issue inherent in the defective design of bicycle seats. (I can also see the Viagara/Cialis ads featuring Lance Armstrong: this is the face of erectile dysfunction.) Anyway, here's a concise statement of the problem:

Bicycling and the Male Anatomy

Before we discuss the findings of the MMAS, a brief anatomy review should help explain how bicycling can contribute to or cause sexual dysfunction. When humans sit, they bear their weight on the ischial tuberosities, or what we have come to refer to as the "sit bones." The ischial tuberosities have no organs attached to them and no nerves or arteries; they are surrounded by the fat and muscle of the buttocks. This area is very well vascularized and allows humans to sit comfortably and safely for hours.

Unfortunately, most bicyclists bear their body weight on a bicycle seat that is not wide enough to support the ischial tuberosities. As a result, they wind up straddling the bike and, in effect, sitting on the internal part of their genitals.

"Erectile Dysfunction and Bicycling" by Irwin Goldstein, MD, Boston University Medical Campus

Cast of Pelvis on Bicycle Seat

This makes sense when you consider how the pelvis fit with a bicycle seat. But not to worry — engineering comes to the rescue!

BACKGROUND: Perineal numbness and erectile dysfunction are emerging as health concerns among bicyclists. Three studies indicate that between 7% and 21% of male cyclists experience genital area numbness after prolonged riding.

OBJECTIVE: To evaluate the effect of an experimental seat design on perineal numbness.

DESIGN: Fifteen experienced male cyclists exercised for 1 hour on a stationary spin cycle using either an experimental or standard bicycle seat. Several days later they repeated the trial using the other seat type. Before and after each 1-hour exercise session, perineal sensation was tested using the Weinstein Enhanced Sensory Testing (WEST)-hand esthesiometer. Cyclists were also asked to report their perception of numbness after each exercise bout.

RESULTS: Cyclists reported more numbness with the standard seat than with the experimental seat (79% vs 14%; P=0.009). Similarly, sensory testing at all perineal sites yielded greater hypoesthesia with the standard seat than with the experimental seat (P=0.05). This difference was most marked at the dorsal penis (P=0.04).

CONCLUSION: The experimental bicycle seat produced significantly less subjective and objective numbness than the standard cycle seat in 1 hour of stationary cycling. Bicycle seat design and innovation may decrease or eliminate perineal numbness.

"Using an Experimental Bicycle Seat to Reduce Perineal Numbness" by Kenneth S. Taylor, MD; Allen Richburg, MD; David Wallis, MD; Mark Bracker, MD, The Physician and Sportsmedicine, V30, No. 5, May 2002

Not surprisingly, it turns out that the effects of putting pressure on the region is a long-standing, no pun intended, problem:

As for the Scythians, however, who identified horseback riding as a possible cause of male impotence in the ninth century BCE, the relationship between bicycle riding and ED has become a matter of concern.

"Erectile Dysfunction and Bicycling" by Irwin Goldstein, MD, Boston University Medical Campus

So, for all the male cyclists who read this, get yourself a sensible seat before you're hanging out with the Bob Dole crowd.

Sources and Further Reading

  1. "Using an Experimental Bicycle Seat to Reduce Perineal Numbness" by Kenneth S. Taylor, MD; Allen Richburg, MD; David Wallis, MD; Mark Bracker, MD, The Physician and Sportsmedicine, V30, No. 5, May 2002
  2. "Erectile Dysfunction and Bicycling" by Irwin Goldstein, MD, Boston University Medical Campus
  3. Spongy Wonder (anti-compression seat)
  4. Hobson Seats (anti-compression seat)
  5. Specialized Saddles (anti-compression seat)
  6. Aero Saddle (anti-compression seat)
  7. Cheeko90 (anti-compression seat)

Nice Rack, I Mean, Uh, Nice Pigeons

Pigeon Vest

Template for Maidenform Pigeon Vest, Maidenform Co., 1944

The Maidenform brassiere is so familiar it needs no explanation. During World War II, however, the company manufactured a very different type of support garment: the "US Army Pigeon Vest" (PG-106/CB) . The name is a slight misnomer; it wasn't worn by the pigeon, but by a soldier who would release it to carry a message from the field back to headquarters. Hard to believe, but reliable, and portable, communications are a relatively recent invention. It really wasn't until the Korean war that portable radios became lightweight and trustworthy enough to become commonplace. Long before electronics, or reliable telegraph, carrier pigeons were used to carry messages during wartime.

Pigeon Vest

"US Army Pigeon Vest" (PG-106/CB)

Pigeon Vest

Pigeon in Harness

I wonder who thought that the company's traditional product line lent itself to paratrooper vests.

Pigeon Vest

Patent drawing of Maidenform brassiere, by William Rosenthal and Charles M. Sachs, Maidenform Co., 1938

During World War II, Maidenform embraced a less buxom market: carrier pigeons. These pattern pieces were used to cut cloth for a pigeon vest, which, when complete, was wrapped and laced around a bird’s body and feet, leaving its head and tail feathers exposed. Attached by a strap to paratroopers parachuting behind enemy lines, the vests protected the birds during their descent from plane to earth. After landing, the birds flew back to home base to deliver word of the paratroopers’ safe arrival.

Maidenform also made a more conventional contribution to the war effort by manufacturing silk parachutes.

The United States Army Signal Center has a list of standard-issue pigeon equipment during World War II:

Lofts: transportable, for housing large number of birds
PG-46: prefabricated sectional housing for fixed use.
PG-68/TB: a combat loft, collapsible and easily transported by a truck or trailer.
Pigeon equipment: including containers for carrying a few birds
PG-60, 10w/CB, 103/CB and 105/CB: portable, carrying two to four birds, for combat troops.
PG-100/CB and 101/CB: four-and eight-bird containers respectively, with parachutes for dropping to paratroops or isolated ground forces.
Message holders: to fasten to the legs of the birds
PG-14: aluminum holders.
PG-52, 53, 54 and 67: plastic substitutes for the PG-14.
Pigeon vest, PG-106/CB: retaining a single bird, to be worn by paratrooper.

Pigeon Communication, United States Army Signal Center, Fort Gordon, GA

The "interBUG Homing Pigeon Information" Website has plenty of photographs of pigeon equipment from World War II.

"Bro's no good. Too ethnic."
"You got something better?"
"How about the Mansiere?"
"That's right. A brassiere for a man."

— Frank Costanza and Cosmo Kramer, "The Doorman", Seinfeld

"Pink is my favorite crayon"

Crayola Raw Materials Tests, Orange Test Sheet

Crayola Raw Materials Tests
Binney & Smith Inc., circa 1970s

Engineering documents can be amazing pieces of art. Just consider these test sheets for the lowly crayon. They may be made by a machine, but there are a lot of contemporary artists who could learn a lot about technique from them.

In 1885, Edwin Binney (1866-1934) and C. Harold Smith (1860-1931) formed Binney & Smith Inc. The duo began producing Crayola Crayons in 1903.

This data sheet was used in developing a new formula for the orange crayon. The objectives of the test were to improve the crayon quality - better color and marking properties - while reducing the cost of production. The list of criteria on the left side of the color sample shows the range of tests for each crayon formula.

Crayola Raw Materials Tests

Crayola Raw Materials Tests, Orange Test Sheet

Crayola "Crayon Testing Machine " test,
Binney & Smith Inc., circa 1970s

After World War II, Binney & Smith established a Research and Development Department to test and improve their crayons and other products. The Crayon Testing Machine (CTM) test measured a crayon’s ability to lay down color smoothly and evenly. Crayons were subjected to a number of different surfaces and coloring styles to assure their versatility and durability.

Crayola Raw Materials Tests

The Gates From Spaaaaaaace

The Gates seen from satellite

Portion of The Gates as seen from the Ikonos Satellite
(On the full-sized image, scroll the browser over about two-thirds and down about one-third to find central park.)

Space Imaging, a commercial venture selling satellite photographs of the earth, has a photograph of The Gates as seen from space. (The Ikonos goes down to 1 meter — which scares the shit out of DOD to the point that there are restrictions on what Ikonos can photograph — but this looks like it was shot at something higher, maybe two.)

You can also access the image from their main page through a Flash interface, with pan and zoom, but this is very cumbersome and it doesn't give any more detail than the direct link with a decent photo viewer. The photo above is excerpted from the huge image of the entire park. This is the aerial companion shot to the one I took across the lawn.

Movies So Bad You Need Cheap Sunglasses

When you get up in the morning
and the light is hurt your head
The first thing you do when you get up out of bed
Is hit that streets a-runnin’ and try to beat the masses
And go get yourself some cheap sunglasses
Oh yeah, oh yeah, oh yeah

Cheap Sunglasses by ZZ Top

Fancier 3D red/blue glasses

Fancier 3D Red/Blue Glasses

A few days ago I blogged about man-eating lions of Tsavo, and the film Bwana Devil based on their exploits. The interesting thing about Bwana Devil is that it was a 3D film shot using anaglyphic technology. That's a fancy way of saying if you wore special glasses with red/blue filter you could see a three-dimensional movie. Anyway, I thought the technology needed an explanation since it is so widespread yet nobody every thinks about how it works.

Audience watching Bwana Devil

Audience Watching Bwana Devil

3D glasses used for Bwana Devil

3D Glasses Used for Bwana Devil

The word "sterographic" has its root in the Greek "stereo" or "solid". There are two techniques for making stereoscopic images: stereograms, which have two separate images, one for each eye, and anaglyphs, which combine the two separate images into one image using different colors for the left and right images and with special glasses to ensure that each eye only sees the appropriate image (left or right).

But why does all this work? Simple. Because our eyes are about 2.5 inches apart they receive separate, but similar, scenes. In normal viewing, our brain to construct a 3D image by using the eyes as two separate cameras. The slight difference in viewing angle allows the hardware in the brain to extrapolate where the edges are in three-space. Wow — that was a really lousy explanation. Let's try it again.

The red lens over the left eye masks out the right channel in red (colored filters remove all light of that color), so the left eye only sees the background image and the blue image superimposed on it. Similarly, the blue lens over the right eye masks out the right channel in blue (just as with red, blue removes all light of that color), so the right eye only sees the background image and the red image superimposed on top of it. The background image is the same; the only difference are slightly shifted left and right highlights. Here's a more technical discussion.

What is an anaglyph?

Anaglyphic stereograms (anaglyphs) are stereo pairs of images in which each image is shown using a different color. The two images are overlapped and then viewed using red/green or red/blue glasses (depending on the colors used). This means that the color channel is used for the stereo separation and therefore the perception of anaglyphs is monochrome (black and white), although color anaglyphs can be made.

The word anaglyph comes from the Greek anagluphos, meaning "wrought in low relief"; this comes from the word anagluphein, which means "to carve in relief" (ana = up + gluphein = to carve).

Who invented the anaglyph?

The discovery of anaglyphic 3D came in the 1850s as the result of experiments by the Frenchmen Joseph D’Almeida and Louis Du Hauron. In 1858 D’Almeida projected 3D magic lantern slide shows in which color separation took place using red and blue filters, and the audience wore red and blue goggles. Louis Du Hauron created the first printed anaglyphs using early color printing and photography techniques.

Anaglyphs FAQ

Viewing anaglyphs requires special glasses. Printed images, as opposed to those on computer monitors, can be viewed through colored lenses. These are the cardboard glasses familiar to anyone who's been to a 3D movie or seen 3D comics. The largest supplier of glasses seems to be American Paper Optics in Bartlett, TN; it claims to have shipped over 500,000,000 — that's five hundred million folks — 3D glasses. That's enough for just about everyone in America and Europe to have a pair. Hang on just a minute. ... Yup. I have one of them in my collection of detritus. How about that. Anyway, American Paper Optics will send you a free pair of 3D anaglyphic (red/cyan) glasses if you ask. (Details at the end of this entry.)

Tightrope Walkers from 1915

Tight Rope Walkers in the Air
Free Entertainment on the "Zone", 1915

This is far from being a new technique:

In 1915 the city of San Francisco invited the world to celebrate the opening of the Panama Canal with a world's fair, known as the Panama Pacific International Exposition. The occasion was also a celebration of the city's recovery from the 1906 earthquake and fire. The Exploratorium is housed in the last remnant of the Exposition, the Palace of Fine Arts. Without the media of today, its promoters had to find other ways to publicize the event. Thanks to the Keystone Company, people all over the world were able to experience a day at the fair by looking at the stereograph pictures through special viewers that created the 3-D effect.

Panama Pacific International Exposition in 3D

Anaglyph of Mars Orbiter

Anaglyph of Mars Odyssey Orbiter

Ok, so much for how it works and the history of it. In the days of videogames and DVDs does anyone care about cheezy 3D effects using colored glasses? Surprisingly, the answer is a resounding yes. There are a number of anaglphys on the JPL Mars and the European Space Agency Websites. Many microscopists use anaglyphs to give depth to otherwise flat scenes, enhancing the ability to spot interesting features. You can even get a version of the first-person shooter game Quake with anaglyphic functionality.

Anaglyph of sand dune from mars lander

Sand Dunes of Nili Patera Taken By Mars Lander

Oh, and bet you thought I forgot about the free 3D glasses offer. Well, I didn't. For your totally free 3D glasses follow these instructions:

Order one free sample of anaglyphic (red/cyan) glasses by sending an unsealed SASE (Self Addressed Stamped Envelope) with $0.37 postage to address at the bottom of this page

American Paper Optics, Inc.
3080 Bartlett Corporate Drive
Bartlett, TN 38133

American Paper Optics

Sources and Further Reading

  1. 3D Photograph (photos and tutorials)
  2. Yahoo Groups: Anaglyph
  3. Anaglyph Stereo Quake (first-person shooter game)
  4. Panama Pacific International Exposition in 3D
  5. Sand Dunes of Nili Patera Taken By Mars Lander
  6. Anaglyphs from JPL Mars Mission
  7. Anaglyph of Mars Odyssey Orbiter
  8. Anaglyphs from European Space Agency

Baozhang (Exploding Sticks)

The guns of the big events rumble through our pages, but the tiny firecrackers are constantly hissing and popping there as well; it appears that much of my life as a journalist has been devoted to sedulously setting off firecrackers.

— Brendan Gill (American critic, author, and journalist, 1914-1997)

Firecracker label with shotgun

Firecracker label with alligator

Given that the Chinese New Year is upon us, I was thinking about firecrackers, and the creativity that goes into the packaging. Some collect the labels from the packages:

Thanks for checking out my site. I have over 400 labels available for you to enjoy. Most are from my personal collection, although some have been loaned to me so that I could share them.

Cracker Packs

Firecracker label with anchor

Firecracker label with atomic blast

Firecracker label with camel

Collectors have a fairly large set to choose from:

Did you know that there are nearly 1000 Known Brands of Firecrackers! They come in thousands of sizes and variations. Chinese firecrackers first began to appear near the end of the 19th century and they are still being produced today. Although you can still buy a pack of firecrackers for fifty cents today, there are some rare, older Packs and Labels that have Auctioned off for Hundreds of Dollars!

Originally the designs on the packaging were very plain and written in Chinese. As factories in China and Macau began to produce more and more firecrackers for the U.S. Market, new designs were created with varying themes and brand names. The art work became very colorful and highly detailed. Animals of all types used to be favorite subjects and as time went on the brands sometimes reflected events occurring in our society. Currently these designs have become quite plain again with little detail or color. The value has also declined with the quality.

Cracker Packs

Firecracker label with mobster

Firecracker label with rocket

King Philip Came Over For Good Sex

The other day a question about species taxonomy came up. (I wasn't hanging out with evolutionary biologists this time; it was related to a crossword puzzle entry.) The question had to do with subdivisions, and I trotted out the handy mnemonics to remember them:

King Philip Came Over For Good Sex
King Philip Came Over For Good Soup
King Philip, Come Out For Goodness Sake
Kindly Pay Cash Or Furnish Good Security

The letters specify: Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, and Species.

Another variant is:

Kindly Place Cover On Fresh, Green, Spicy Vegetables

Since the "Vegetables" adds "V" for variety, a subdivision of species. Except I don't think kings, like children, eat their vegetables, spicy or otherwise.

Of course, now that the biologists went and added "domain" it doesn't work anymore. We now have: domain archea for peculiar — and evolutionarily ancient — bacteria, like thermophiles; domain eukarya for cells with a nucleus (Protista, Fungi, Plantae, Animalia); and domain eubacteria for true bacteria. Damn biologists! Well, it's easily fixed:

Demented King Philip Came Over For Good Sex

Works for me. Except who has sex with demented kings? Oh, right. Everyone. It's good to be the king.

Try To Remember, The Days of, uh, Kankin?

Mayan Calendar Stone

Mayan Calendar Stone (Sunstone) depicting the four cycles of creation and destruction. The skull is the god Tonatiuh, the fifth sun.

I was looking at my dead Seiko Kinetic — the storage cells in these electrically-powered self-winding watches are known to have serious manufacturing defects causing them to die after a few years but Seiko refuses to repair them — and was thinking about timekeeping. (I was also thinking I'm going to take Seiko to small claims court over this piece of junk, but that's another issue for another entry.) Anyway, it got me thinking about calendars.

Calendars are a useful thing beyond remembering your special someone's birthday. Without them governments can't collect taxes, farmers can't plant crops, and landlords can't collect the rent. (The last one has some special significance which will become clear later.) Which is why just about every culture has created a calendar of one sort or another. While most are based on the dating of some religious event, or a revolution, all tend to have, in rough terms, the traditional number of months and days, with some rejiggering as needed to account for minor errors.

Compare the oldest, and most complex, calendars with one of the newest yields an interesting juxtaposition. We'll start with the Mayan calendar.

The Maya calendar uses three different dating systems in parallel, the Long Count, the Tzolkin (divine calendar), and the Haab (civil calendar). Of these, only the Haab has a direct relationship to the length of the year. A typical Mayan date looks like this:, 3 Cimi 4 Zotz. is the Long Count date.
3 Cimi is the Tzolkin date.
4 Zotz is the Haab date.


As the named week is 20 days and the smallest Long Count digit is 20 days, there is synchrony between the two; if, for example, the last digit of today's Long Count is 0, today must be Ahau; if it is 6, it must be Cimi. Since the numbered and the named week were both "weeks," each of their name/number change daily; therefore, the day after 3 Cimi is not 4 Cimi, but 4 Manik, and the day after that, 5 Lamat. The next time Cimi rolls around, 20 days later, it will be 10 Cimi instead of 3 Cimi. The next 3 Cimi will not occur until 260 (or 13 x 20) days have passed. This 260-day cycle also had good-luck or bad-luck associations connected with each day, and for this reason, it became known as the "divinatory year."

Calendars Through the Ages

This is so complicated it makes my brain hurt. (Sensible people use a program or library routines to do these conversions.) So let's go from the frightfully complex to the dirt simple. At last year's American Astronomical Society (AAS) meeting, Richard Henry, a professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at The Johns Hopkins University, resurrected an old proposal to create a new, and simpler, calendar:

The world's presently-used Gregorian calendar is extremely clumsy, because the Gregorian calendar repeats only after 400 years (Seidelman 1961), and therefore organizations, including the AAS, have to re-work their calendar each and every year. This work is totally unnecessary. I propose that the American Astronomical Society advocate the world-wide adoption of the CCC&T calendar, which is an adaptation of Bob McClenon's Calendar, a brilliant fix which results in the calendar being identical every year. This calendar is far superior to previously suggested reformed calendars, in that it does not break the cycle of the days of the week, ever! Pragmatic (and more than adequate) synchronization with the seasons is achieved by the introduction of an extra week-long "month" every four or five years at the end of June; I propose that this seven-day month be called Newton. The target for adoption is 2006 Jan 1, and at the same time, universal use of universal time should be adopted, making the date and time identical everywhere on Earth. Time zones remain as "hours of work" zones, EST for example becoming "14 o'clock to 22 o'clock" for a "nine-to-five" job. The economic benefit that astronomers could provide the world through shepherding this simple reform would easily and indeed more than repay all that the world has kindly spent on astronomical research.

AAS Meeting January 2004

Professor Richard Henry

Professor Richard Henry

Henry's proposal is based on Bob McClenon's "Reformed Weekly Calendar". (The original proposal and revised proposal have details.) McClenon's issues with the current calendar are shared by most of us:

The Gregorian calendar has two obvious disadvantages. First, the weekday of a date in a month varies from year to year and is difficult to predict. One cannot quickly determine whether a future day will be a day of work or a day of rest without consulting a perpetual calendar. Second, the months are of variable length with no particular pattern.

Bob McClenon's Proposal

The whole business is so complicated we need mnemonics to keep it all straight:

Thirti Dayes hath Nouembir
Thirti dayes hath Nouembir,
April, June, and Septembir;
Of xxviijti is but oon,
And all the remenaunt xxxti and j.
Author unknown, circa 1300 — 1450

Thirty days hath September,
April, June, and November;
All the rest have thirty-one,
Excepting February alone,
And that has twenty-eight days clear
And twenty-nine in each leap year.
M.S. Stevins, circa 1555
Also attributed to Richard Grafton, "Chronicles of England", 1568

Thirty dayes hath Nouember,
Aprill, Iune and September;
Twentie and eyght hath February alone,
And all the rest thirty and one,
But in the leape you must adde one.
William Harrison, Description of Britain, prefixed to Holinshed's "Chronicle", 1577

Thirty days hath September,
April, June, and November,
February has twenty-eight alone,
All the rest have thirty-one;
Excepting leap year, — that's the time
When February’s days are twenty-nine.
John Day, "The Return from Parnassus" 1601

Thirty days hath September,
April, June, and November;
All the rest have thirty-one,
Excepting February alone,
Which hath but twenty-eight, in fine,
Till leap year gives it twenty-nine.
New England Saying

Fourth, eleventh, ninth, and sixth,
Thirty days to each affix;
Every other thirty-one
Except the second month alone.
The Friends, Chester County, Pennsylvania

Various Sources

So how did we get into this mess? Consider some calendar history:

The Julian Calendar

In ancient Rome the lunar calendar was constantly being adjusted, adding days here and there to bring the seasons back into sync. Some corrupt politicians and officials even added days to the calendar to lengthen their stay in office, or for financial gain. Then in 45 B.C. Roman Emperor Julius Caesar decreed that a new calendar, called the Julian calendar, would be adopted. The astronomer Sosigenes designed the calendar to strictly follow the seasons, not the moon. Each year had 365 days, with an extra "leap" day added every 4 years. This made the length of a Julian year 365.25 days, not far from the actual value of 365.2422 days.

The Gregorian Calendar

But the average length of the Julian year was a bit too long, by some 11 minutes. Slowly the first day of spring shifted to earlier and earlier dates, at the rate of about eight days every thousand years. In 1582 Pope Gregory XIII, advised by the astronomer Christopher Clavius, decreed that the date of the vernal equinox, which had crept forward to March 11, should revert to March 21, its date at the time of the Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325. It was at the Council of Nicaea that the church decided Easter would be celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox. By bringing the calendar back into sync, Easter would be celebrated closer to its original date.

The only way to make such a change was to skip ten days; and so in Catholic countries the day after October 4, 1582, was October 15, 1582. Many non-Catholic nations, however, did not go along with this jump. England and the British colonies held out until 1752 when September 2nd was followed by September 14th. Many citizens thought they were being cheated out of 11 days of life and in the resultant riots a number of people were killed!

The change brought the first day of spring back to March 21st, but it was necessary to prevent future date-jumping. So the new Gregorian calendar was shortened a tiny amount. A leap day was still added every four years, but with a special rule about century-end years: only century-end years divisible by 400 would be leap years. Therefore, the years 1800, 1900, and 2100 have no February 29th, but 2000 and 2400 do. This makes the average length of the Gregorian year 365.2524 days, less than half a minute off each year. This will produce an error of only one day every 3000 years.

NASA History of Calendars

NASA, however, has one item dead wrong. (That's why I picked their explanation.) People were not rioting because "they were being cheated out of 11 days of life" but because at the time of calendar transition the landlords were charging tenants for a full month's rent, instead of pro-rating for a month eleven days shorter than the full month. (Remember when I said in the introduction that calendars were important to landlords?)

But back to Henry's proposal. It has an interesting characteristic: days of the week in his calendar always stay the same, year after year. July 4, for example, will always be a Wednesday; Christmas, a Sunday. (Thus clearly gaining the support of both Christians and patriots. Ok, just kidding about the patriots. True patriots know that July 4 should always be a Friday so we get a long weekend. Some things should only be tinkered with for the better.)

Henry assures us that there are impressive benefits to switching calendars, beyond dumping a fortune into retooling so much software it would make the Y2K upgrades look simple:

1.) Why fool with the calendar?
There are enormous economic advantages to the proposed calendar. These benefits come because the new calendar is identical every year... except that, every five or six years, there is a one-week long "Mini-Month," called "Newton," between June and July. "Newton Week" brings the calendar into sync with the seasonal change as the Earth circles the Sun. How much needless work do institutions, such as companies and colleges, put into arranging their calendars for every coming year? From 2006 on, they do it once ... and it is done forevermore.

Henry's Calendar Reform Proposal

Yeah, right. I don't think anyone needs Jimmy the Greek to give odds on this happening.

Oh, and that title line? It's an allusion to a song. The "Kankin" is the Mayan month approximately where September would be. (See where this is going? No? Oh, well. I am not Citizen Arcane for nothing.) I couldn't find the lyrics online. Best I could turn up was: "Try to remember, the days of September, when life was sweet and oh so mellow...". As far as I can determine, the song is from the musical The Fantasticks. But I'm certain Harry Belafonte sang the version I recall.

Sources and Further Reading

  1. Calendars Through the Ages
  2. Mayan Calendar
  3. Henry's Calendar Reform Proposal
  4. Henry's Calendar Reform Presentation at AAS Meeting January 2004
  5. Bob McClenon's "Reformed Weekly Calendar" proposal (original)
  6. Bob McClenon's "Reformed Weekly Calendar" proposal (revised)

Whatever Turns Your Crank

Schwinn Paramount Chainwheel

Schwinn Paramount Chainwheel

Virtually all bicycles use a chain and wheel combination to transfer power from the pedal crank to the wheel. There are alternative mechanisms to transfer power, of course, but these are not widely used. The chainwheel, also called a chainring, is a type of sprocket, or toothed wheel. (Remember Spacely Sprockets from the Jetsons?) I see all sorts of bicycles as I go walkabout in the city and many are highly customized. (Few, however, approach what the Black Label Bike Club and the other NYC bicycle clubs do. If you've seen the tall bikes around, you know what I mean.)

Colnago Chainwheel

Colnago Chainwheel

What I find so interesting is the artistic creativity shown in the numerous chainwheel and chainring variations. There is, of course, a whole continuum of design tradeoffs, including weight, strength, cost, and safety. My interest, however, is simply in the elegance of design and mechanical items as art. Having seen these collections I find myself sated. For some, however, interest changes into, well, a borderline obsession.

Joel Metz's chainwheel tattoos

Joel Metz just can't get enough of chainwheels, whether they are the silhouettes he collects on paper or on his very skin:

i havent yet decided what the plan is once my arm is entirely filled with as many black chainwheel silhouettes as it can hold without overlap. granted, this is a good ways off, but... i have considered a background of some kind - perhaps a second layer of silhouettes, in deep red, "underneath" the black ones... or i may come up with something else, or even just leave it as is. a lot will depend on how the sleeve looks once its all filled, and theres no more room for further chainwheels in black - i doubt ill be able to decide what to do next until that point.

Joel Metz's Chainwheel Tattoo Project

Lots of Green, Leafy… Sea Dragons


Leafy Sea Dragon (Phycodurus equus)

The Leafy Sea Dragon (Phycodurus equus) is a relative of sea horse and pipe fish. It is found only in the southern waters of South Australia, where it lives in sea grass. These are fairly small, as ocean creatures go, typically growing to between 9 and 23 inches (20cm to 50cm) in about two to four years.

Evolution has equipped them with a body resembling seaweed, rendering them virtually invisible as they move among the sea grass on the ocean's floor. Notice the tiny fins on the back and head; these provide the propulsion, while the tail acts as a rudder, steering it. Their movement is normally dainty, but when threatened their fins are flapped as the body undulates like a dolphin. You can see their normal movement in a video (12 MB) at Dive Gallery, which has wonderful pictures and videos. (Far better than the Australian aquariums.)

Although they lack teeth or a stomach, the leafy sea dragon is a voracious predator. If you're a tiny food source, that is. Their main food source are the tiny mysid shrimps, colloquially called so-called "sea lice" or "brine shrimp". When born, they subsist upon the yolk in their egg sack until large enough to hunt rotifers and copepods, eventually graduating to the small shrimp. Their voracious appetite makes them an expensive species for an aquarium.

Sea Dragons are arguably the most spectacular and mysterious of all ocean fish. Though close relatives of sea horses, sea dragons have larger bodies and leaf-like appendages which enable them to hide among floating seaweed or kelp beds. Sea dragons feed on larval fishes and amphipods, such as and small shrimp-like crustaceans called mysids ("sea lice"), sucking up their prey in their small mouths. Many of these amphipods feed on the red algae that thrives in the shade of the kelp forests where the sea dragons live.

Dive Gallery

The leafy sea dragon's reproductive life is quite interesting. Like seahorses, the female lays eggs under the male's tail; from this point forward the male cares for the egs, for about two months, until they hatch. But that's the short version, and the full version conveys this creature's peculiar evolution:

Unlike seahorses, sea dragons do not have a pouch for rearing the young. Instead, the male carries the eggs fixed to the underside of his tail from where they eventually hatch. When male sea dragons are ready to receive eggs from the female, the lower half of the tail on the male appears wrinkled.

During mating, the female lays 100-250 eggs onto a special 'brood patch' on the underside of the male's tail, where they are attached and fertilized. This brood patch, consisting of cups of blood-rich tissue each holding one egg, and is specifically developed by the male for use during the breeding season of August-March. The bright pink eggs become embedded in the cups of the brood patch, receiving oxygen via the cups' blood vessels.

During each breeding season, male Leafy sea dragons will hatch two batches of eggs. After a period of about 4-6 weeks from conception, the male 'gives birth' to miniature juvenile versions of sea dragons. As soon as a baby sea dragon leaves the safety of its father's tail, it is independent and receives no further help from its parents. For 2-3 days after birth, the baby sea dragons are sustained by their yolk sac. After this, they hunt small zooplankton, such as copepods and rotifers, until large enough to hunt juvenile mysids.

Sea dragons grow to a length of 20 cm after one year, reaching their mature length at two years. In the wild, young sea dragons are preyed upon by other fish, crustaceans and evn sea anemones. Young sea dragons look more delicate, and are often differently colored than adults, and may hide in different types of seaweeds.

The species, however, has been threated with extinction through a combination of factors: The biggest are pollution (fertilizer runoff), collecting for home aquariums or idiotic "alternative medicine" and storms that move them between water pressures, rupturing their swim bladders.

Unique to the southern waters of WA and South Australia, the leafy sea-dragon's home is inshore areas of seagrass. Unfortunately these are under increasing threat from pollution and excessive fertiliser run-off.

This is not the only danger faced by the sea-dragon. Although having no known predators amongst the marine world, it has become the target of unscrupulous 'collectors' who have denuded the more accessible seagrass areas of this amazing creature.

In 1991, the Department of Fisheries, concerned by the rapidly decreasing numbers of the leafy sea-dragon, declared it a totally protected species.

Aquarium of Western Australia

Sources and Further Reading

  1. Dive Gallery's Pictures and Video (gorgeous!)
  2. Melbourne Aquarium
  3. Aquarium of Western Australia

A Suitcase Full of Dead Presidents

Hundred-thousand dollar bill with Woodrow Wilson

"A single Federal Reserve note–of any denomination–weighs one gram. Ten thousand $100 bills weighs 10 kilograms: roughly 22 pounds. It’s bulky but manageable."

William Bryk

The briefcase full of money is a movie cliche familiar to all. But exactly how much money fits into a briefcase? Would a million dollars really fit? Consider this famous story told about Frank Sinatra:

Another story that made the rounds, then and now, and later portrayed in the film, The Godfather, was that Rocco Fischetti had several travel bags stuffed with two million dollars, the proceeds from dope sales that was owed to Lucky Luciano. Fearing that he was being tailed by narcotics agents, which he was, and terrified that he would be stopped and searched as he left the United States, Fischetti had brought Sinatra along to carry the bags into Cuba because Fischetti knew that, traditionally, starstruck customs agents didn't check celebrities' baggage.

None of it was true. The money in the suitcase story was spread by a writer named Lee Mortimer who disliked Sinatra intensely and at one time the dispute brought the two men to blows. Years later the FBI expanded on Mortimore's story who said that Sinatra carried the money to Lansky in one briefcase.

For decades Sinatra denied the story saying, "If you can show me how to get two million dollars into a briefcase, I'll give you the two million dollars."

The Short Return of Charlie Lucifer

Hundred dollar bill with Ben Franklin

Ok, so the game is on. Can a million bucks fit into a suitcase? Packing a suitcase full of enough bucks to buy an election used to be a lot easier. Until 14 July 1969, specifically, when the Federal Reserve announced that the "$500, $1,000, $5,000, and $10,000 would be discontinued immediately due to lack of use." Mmmm-hmmm. I think we all know the real reason: density. It's a lot harder to lug around multiple suitcases of $500 bills without being noticed. (I doubt criminals would want to use larger bills; how would you change them or use them to pay a bar tab?) But back to our question: what about the suitcase full of retirement money?

Actually, a million dollars’ worth of $100 bills weighs a lot less. A single Federal Reserve note–of any denomination–weighs one gram. Ten thousand $100 bills weighs 10 kilograms: roughly 22 pounds. It’s bulky but manageable.

Still, it would have been easier half a century ago, when the United States still looked beyond the Benjamin. Imagine peeling off a $500, $1000 or $5000 bill. Today we might refer colloquially to $500 bills as "Williams" (for William McKinley), to $1000 bills as "Grovers" (Grover Cleveland) and to $5000 bills as "Jameses" (James Madison). There was also a $10,000 bill we would have had to call "a Salmon" (after Salmon P. Chase, secretary of the Treasury under President Lincoln). The last of these was printed in 1945, according to the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, the Treasury Dept. agency charged with engraving Federal Reserve notes (and White House invitations, incidentally). They were withdrawn from circulation in 1969, supposedly due to declining demand.

At one time, the United States issued a note in an even higher denomination: a Series 1934 gold certificate, bearing a portrait of Woodrow Wilson, for $100,000.

Bills: Big Money by William Bryk

Stack of Bills

Rather than just do gedanken experiments this fellow did the math:

The largest U.S. bill in circulation is the hundred dollar bill, and it takes 10,000 of those to make one million dollars. Ten thousand bills. That is the smallest size you can get a million dollars in cash.


Next I visited Kinko's copies, where they have an industrial paper-cutting machine. I asked them to cut the 8?x11 sheets of paper into bill-sized mini-sheets. They asked about my intentions, and when they found out about my counterfeiting plans, they reminded me that I would not be able to pay for the cutting service with fake bills.


After separating the paper, I designed and printed some paper bands for my counterfeit cash. The bank teller had told me that hundreds are wrapped with purple bands. She asked me about my intentions, and when she found out about my counterfeiting plans, she reminded me that I would not be able to deposit fake bills.

How Much is Inside a Million Dollars

So, to answer the question: "can you cram a million bucks into a briefcase?" Yup, you can if you use a reasonably-sized briefcase. If this turns out to be of practical use to you, pop a few dead presidents over to me.

Uhh, uh-huh, yeah
Uhh, uh-huh, yeah
It’s all about the benjamins baby
Uhh, uh-huh, yeah
It’s all about the benjamins baby
Goodfellas, uhh

— Puff Daddy, "It's All About the Benjamins"

Keeping an Eye on Creationism

Prosthetic Eyes for Taxidermy

As Eric Cartman so eloquently stated, "Creationists piss me off." (Ok, ok, so he didn't say it; I did.) Creationists always trot out ridiculous arguments for their faith-based delusions, such as how the human eye is somehow "proof" of "intelligent design". To which I always say, if humans are the work of an intelligent being, that being must be an engineer, for only an engineer would run sewer lines through a recreational area.

Before I get to today's story, some background. About twenty years ago I read Richard Dawkin's book The Selfish Gene. In it he set forth the proposition with how humans are nothing more than meat machines created to reproduce the information viruses we call "genes". Over millions of years genes have tinkered with us to create ever more impressive structures to react to the environment and reproduce them, since they cannot act in real-time. The Selfish Gene remains one of the most amazing books I have ever read, and it truly altered the way I think about people and the world.

Like successful Chicago gangsters, our genes have survived, in some cases for millions of years, in a highly competitive world. This entitles us to expect certain qualities in our genes. I shall argue that a predominant quality to be expected in a successful gene is ruthless selfishness. This gene selfishness will usually give rise to selfishness in individual behavior. However, as we shall see, there are special circumstances in which a gene can achieve its own selfish goals best by fostering a limited form of altruism at the level of individual animals. 'Special' and 'limited' are important words in the last sentence. Much as we might wish to believe otherwise, universal love and the welfare of the species as a whole are concepts that simply do not make evolutionary sense.

The Selfish Gene

Diagram of Human Eye

About a decade ago Richard Dawkin's wrote a cogent, sensible, systematic, and somewhat definitive deconstruction of the creationists' arguments about how the the eye proves intelligent design. When I again stumbled across it today I thought it worthy of sharing.

Thus the creationist's favourite question "What is the use of half an eye?" Actually, this is a lightweight question, a doddle to answer. Half an eye is just 1 per cent better than 49 per cent of an eye, which is already better than 48 per cent, and the difference is significant.

When one says "the" eye, by the way, one implicitly means the vertebrate eye, but serviceable image-forming eyes have evolved between 40 and 60 times, independently from scratch, in many different invertebrate groups. Among these 40-plus independent evolutions, at least nine distinct design principles have been discovered, including pinhole eyes, two kinds of camera-lens eyes, curved-reflector ("satellite dish") eyes, and several kinds of compound eyes. Nilsson and Pelger have concentrated on camera eyes with lenses, such as are well developed in vertebrates and octopuses.

Where d'you get those peepers

These writeups on the eye from Paul Patton at the University of Illinois and Kenneth Miller at Brown may help explain things more. In addition, there is an interesting exploration of the aesthetic arguments raised by Dawkins with respect to the retina's design.

Read The Story

Help! I’ve Glued My Fingers Together! Intentionally!

Packages of Commercial Cyanacrylate Glue

Common Cyanoacrylate Glues

I've been using cyanoacrylate glue (superglue) — commonly referred to as Krazy Glue, even though this is a trademark of Borden — for years to glue small cuts together, particularly paper cuts and the, fortunately rare, minor kitchen accidents. (I've read that mountain climbers use superglue to repair the rips and tears in their hands, and that windsurfers and sailors use it to repair ripped-off callouses and blisters; didn't they ever hear of gloves?)

Using it for unintended purposes like injury repair is easy: just hold the edges of the wound together, apply a dab with a toothpick and forget about it. (Disclaimer: do this at your own risk. If you manage to glue your hand to your genitalia, that's you with the problem, not me. If you slather it all over your fingers and stuff it in your nose, well, all I can say is: that'll teach you. So if you ruin your life, that's too bad. I ain't payin' you, or your lawyer, for it. As with anything in life, don't be stupid and talk to a doctor or someone with a brain before doing anything risky. Back to our story.) The result heals faster than doing nothing, and with fewer complications. Anyway, I was having a discussion about this with a friend who said that Krazy Glue wasn't the same as surgical glues like Dermabond. And so I set out to see if it was the same, as I steadfastly maintain.

The history of cyanoacrylate glues is interesting, even if you aren't a chemist or a jilted lover. (Gluing together body parts of the unfaithful is an urban legend.) During World War II, Harry Coover was trying to make a clear plastic for gunsights, since it had cost and weight advantages over glass. (Coover is an interesting fellow; he ended up with 460 patents.) His experiments turned up less than ideal results: "I was working with some acrylate monomers that showed promise. But everything they touched stuck to everything else. It was a severe pain."

Coover, Discoverer of Cyanacrylate Glue

Harry Coover
Discoverer of Cyanacrylate Glue

Coover didn't return to cyanoacrylates until nine years later, while attempting to create a heat-resistant polymer for the canopies on high-speed jets. One of the students working on the project accidentally glued together some very expensive — at the time $700, which was probably a month's pay for an Ph.D. engineer — optical prisms. Waving off the student's apologies, Coover excitedly started gluing together everything in sight, because he realized that, unlike other adhesives, this one rapidly bonded without pressure, heat, curing activators, or special preparation. Both properties turned out to be particularly useful in medicine, especially on the battlefield. (Ever watch a surgeon try to sew a piece of liver or lung tissue back together?).

Coover was also the first to recognize and patent cyanoacrylates as human tissue adhesives. These cyanolate adhesives are used in many sutureless surgeries such as the rejoining of veins, arteries, and intestines, ophthalmic surgeries, dental surgeries, uncontrollable bleeding and the repair of soft organs such as the liver and spleen. Coover's adhesive was first used in the Vietnam War to temporarily patch the internal organs of badly injured soldiers until conventional surgery could be performed. Since the 1970's, tissue adhesives have been used for a variety of surgical applications including middle ear surgery, bone and cartilage grafts, repair of cerebrospinal fluid leaks, and skin closure.

Hobard and William Smith colleges

Cyanoacrylate adhesives are formed from monomers (short building blocks) which are kept in a slightly acidic solution which prevents them from polymerizing, or linking together, into long, linear chains. All they need to cure is a weak base, like the microscopic amounts of moisture present on virtually every surface. Some items to be bonded, like wood, are naturally acidic which slows down curing, so special activators are used to start the process.

The cyanide (CN) groups on the molecule are highly polar, which means they enthusiastically grab onto things like skin. Polyethylene, which is what they make the bottles from, doesn't have any polar groups, for obvious reasons. (If you have a glue that sticks to everything, what do you keep it in?) Interestingly enough, the cyanoacrylate adhesives are made by making the cured (polymer) version and then cracking into pieces (monomer), while keeping it in an acidic solution so it can't recure (repolymerize). This is why acetone removes the cured adhesive — it breaks the bonds in the polymer. But, enough chemistry. (You still with us?) Back to the question: can cyanoacrylate glues be used instead of surgical glue? Ok, ok, we'll get to that right now!

The big difference between glue for objects (Krazy Glue) and glue for people (Dermabond) are:

  • Dermabond is monomeric 2-octyl cyanoacrylate, a weaker bonding agent than superglue which is typically ethyl 2-cyanoacrylate.
  • Dermabond comes in a sterile, single-use container.
  • Dermabond is colored with D&C Violet No. 2 to make it easier to see after it has been applied. (Normal superglue is clear.).
  • Superglue costs about $2 per tube; Dermabond is over $20. (Plus the hospital markup which can push it close to $70 per tube.)

Aside from the color, price, and single-use issues — bacteria don't live in cyanoacrylate — what does the formulation difference really mean? For starters, superglue is stiffer and liberates more heat when applied. This isn't an issue for "paper cuts", of course; I've never felt any heat at all. The formulation is basically safe but the surgical variant does have slightly different properties. So, the answer? Well, let's look at the history and the FDA's perspective. (I said I'd answer the question, ok?)

Although cyanoacrylate glues were useful on the battlefield, the FDA was reluctant to approve them for civilian use. In part, this was due to a tendency of the early compounds (made from "methyl-2-cyanoacrylate") to irritate the skin as the glue reacted with water and cured in the skin, releasing cyanoacetate and formaldehyde. A compound called "butyl-2-cyanoacrylate" was developed to reduce toxicity, but suffered from brittleness and cracking a few days after application. Finally an improved cyanoacrylate glue was developed for medical applications called "2-octyl-cyanoacrylate." This compound causes less skin irritation and has improved flexibility and strength — at least three times the strength of the butyl-based compound.

The Straight Dope

So, there you have it. The compounds are different, yet similar. The word on the street is that for small cuts the two are equivalent, but if you are repairing a lacerated liver or closing a large incision, the medical version is likely superior. (That's the one-line conclusion that you cared about, right?) The Straight Dope has a nice writeup of cyanoacrylates as surgical glues.

Mega Tsunami: Coming Soon to a City Near You!

Speaking of tsunamis, the really worrisome issue is these things happen with alarming regularity, and that the one hitting Asia may be more of a runt of the litter than the supersized version. Back in September of 2001 — it was a busy month for everyone involved in apocalyptic events — warnings were issued about the Cumbre Vieja volcano on the Canary Island of La Palma.

When it lets loose it will cause a mega tsunami so huge it almost defies description — a wall of water hundreds of feet high, reducing to waves a mere sixty to a hundred-fifty feet high after crossing the Altantic; more than sufficient to obliterate North and South America's entire eastern seaboard up to ten miles inland, potentially killing hundreds of millions of people. Yikes! Run for the hills!

Photograph of volanic island La Palma in the Canary Islands

La Palma in the Canary Islands

Experts describe the resulting tsunami as being impressively large:

The tsunami have been modelled by Steve Ward of the University of California, Santa Cruz and Simon Day of the Benfield Hazard Research Centre (currently at Santa Cruz). In the worst case scenario (for a 500 cubic km collapse), this envisages an initial bulge of water 900 m high. This subsides to form waves in excess of 100 m in height that strike neighbouring islands. After an hour waves 50 - 100 m high hit the NW African coast, while Spain and the UK experience waves 7 - 10 m high two to five hours after collapse. After nine hours, the Florida coastline can expect to face around a dozen waves between 20 and 25 m high.

Cumbre Vieja Q&A (PDF)

Three hundred feet is about twenty stories, give or take. But it takes a little creative writing to put that into perspective:

Fortunately the nearest coast to the Canary Islands, where the waves will be around 300 feet (100 metres) high when they hit, is lightly populated Western Sahara. Few people living in the coastal plains of Morocco, south-western Spain and Portugal will survive either, but the waves will drop in height as they travel. The coasts of southern Ireland and south-western England will also take a beating, but by then the wave height will be down to about 30 feet (10 metres).

The real carnage will be on the western side of the Atlantic, from Newfoundland all the way down the east coast of Canada and the United States to Cuba, Hispaniola, the Lesser Antilles and north-eastern Brazil. With a clear run across the Atlantic, the wall of water will still be between 60 and 150 feet (20 and 50 metres) high when it hits the eastern seaboard of North America, and it will keep coming for ten to fifteen minutes.

Worst hit will be harbours and estuaries that funnel the waves inland: goodbye Halifax, Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, DC. Miami and Havana go under almost entirely, as do low-lying islands like the Bahamas and Barbados. Likely death toll, if there is no mass evacuation beforehand? A hundred million people, give or take fifty million.

Gwenne Dyer

Path of Tsunami After Six Hours

Tsunami Hits North/South America After Six Hours

The US government's advice on How to Survive a Tsunami doesn't seem particularly useful in such circumstances. This dire event is, fortunately, not likely to happen next week. (Guess I'll have to put a check in the mail for the car insurance and the phone bill, after all.)

It is unlikely, however, that the collapse is imminent. ... Furthermore, although we cannot say whether the volcano will fail in its next near-summit eruption (like that in 1949; a small eruption in 1971 at the very southern end of the island seems to have had relatively little effect, probably because the magma did not rise so high in the volcano) or only after several more eruptions have progressively weakened it, since eruptions of the Cumbre Vieja occur at intervals of a few decades to as much as a few centuries the year-to-year probability of failure is relatively low. The "half-life-to-failure" of the volcano, if things continue as they are, might be as much as 5000 years - but could be much less.

Benfield Hazard Research Centre Report

In the meantime, buying tsunami insurance might not be the best way to spend your money. Neither is waiting for the tsunami to make Manhattan rents — or Brooklyn for that matter — affordable again.

Building Buildings Like Blowing Bubbles

Outside View of Watercube

Outside View of Watercube

I was talking with a friend about how most modern architecture is basically self-indulgent crap designed to win awards but not be attractive or functional. (Bold statement, but never lead with a dead-fish punch.) You don't, after all, need to read a book by Tom Wolfe to know this is true, either. (Sturgeon's Law says that 90% of everything is crap, but Gehry, Johnson and the other frauds run at the 100% level. Unworkable, unliveable, unbuildable, and unattractive. Who needs that in a building?)

Anyway, I was asked to come up with some examples that weren't awful. One that came to mind was PTW's design for the 2008 Olympic swimming pool, called the "Watercube". True, this is only an artist's conception so it might be hopelessly flawed in practice, but it looks really interesting at the design stage.

Theoretical physicists know they are being taken seriously when someone builds an experiment to check their predictions. These experiments can be small, so-called table-top affairs, or they can be enormous enterprises involving miles of underground tunnels. However, construction engineers in Beijing are currently building a very different monument to theoretical physics - the National Swimming Centre for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. The architects who designed the futuristic aquatic venue drew their inspiration from theoretical research into the structure of foams carried out by two physicists at Trinity College in Dublin.

Guardian Unlimited, UK

Outside View of Watercube

Inside View of Watercube

PTW's inspiration came from a refinement of Lord Kelvin's analysis of the best way to partition a space using equal-sized subdivisions. His solution was basically soap-bubbles since they have minimal surface area, and remained the optimal solution one until two mathematicans recently found a slightly better one.

This article provides a decent backgrounder for the layman on foams and honeycombs, for those of you who wonder about the peculiar lattice structures formed in your lattes or when you make salad dressing from oil and vinegar. (I can picture a movie where an older man calls a recent graduate aside and says, "Foams. That's the future: foams.")

So what attracted a group of architects hoping to design an Olympic sports venue to something that people might think is arcane physics research? "It is an ever-increasing issue for all architects to find inspiration and the basis for design solutions," says Kurt Wagner of PTW, "and often our imagination is just not enough."

Guardian Unlimited, UK

Catching A Great Wave… off Kanagawa

Hokusai's Great Wave off Kanagawa

The Great Wave Off Kanagawa
by Katsushika Hokusai

The Great Wave Off Kanagawa has always been among my favorite works by Hokusai. I first encountered it decades ago in a hybrid of analog and digital, moving from the original to a wireframe, which led me to the original piece. When I first learned of the recent Asian tsunami I was again reminded how earthquake-induced waves of water have been a problem throughout recorded history.

Many people don't realize that Hokusai was inspired by a huge tsunami — about fifteen feet (five meters) high — that ocurred on 26 January 1700 after a magnitude-nine earthquake in the Pacific Northwest (cascadia subduction zone). Hokusai wouldn't be born for another sixty years, but the event made quite an impression, no pun intended, on Japan.

The painter and woodcut maker Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) was born in Edo (Tokyo), Japan. He is famed for the literally tens of thousands, possibly as many as thirty thousand, wood-block prints, silkscreens, and paintings he made. His inspiration was typically drawn from the lives of ordinary people, from traditional mythology, and from the world he saw around him.

Hokusai is most famous for his series of prints, Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji (circa 1826-33) created when he was between sixty-six and seventy-seven years old.

From the age of six I had a penchant for copying the form of things, and from about fifty, my pictures were frequently published; but until the age of seventy, nothing that I drew was worth of notice. At seventy-three years, I was somewhat able to fathom the growth of plants and trees, and the structure of birds, animals, insects and fish. Thus when I reach eighty years, I hope to have made increasing progress, and at ninety to see further into the underlying principles of things, so that at one hundred years I will have achieved a divine state in my art, and at one hundred and ten, every dot and every line will be as though alive. Those of you who live long enough, bear witness that these words of mine prove not false.

Hokusai (as told by Gakyo Rojin Manji)


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