Electric Ptolemy

This is a marvelous thing. Paradigms collide when a Dutch astronomer builds a web page that uses Javascript to calculate the positions of the sun, moon, and planets based on Ptolemaic methods dating back to the second century AD: Almagest Ephemeris Calculator. That is to say, you will get answers as accurate as possible given the knowledge of the universe 1800 years ago. That’s way before Copernicus, way back when epicycles were the order of the day and the Earth was safely fixed at the center of the universe. Ptolemy could have worked out those epicycles much faster with Pentium-based hardware (although the IEEE sexagesimal floating fraction standard is pretty dodgy). Here’s a quote from the site.

When the web page is loaded the ephemeris calculator automatically selects the epoch date for the tables in Ptolemy’s Almagest as the default date. This corresponds with mean noon at the meridian of Alexandria on 1 Thoth 1 Nabonassar (or 26 February 747 BC in the proleptic Julian calendar, around 10h UT).

You will certainly remember that 747 BC is at or about the time that Sargon II conquered the Hittites. Remember? And then they came out with that lame sitcom about it, Sargon’s Heroes? I’m sure you remember.

The twilight of the hydrocarbons

Remember the great whale-oil age? Of course not. It started in the eighteenth century and was over by the end of the nineteenth century. But for a time, whale oil was among the world’s primary lubricants and illuminants. Society’s need for light and lubrication has grown exponentially, but thankfully for the whales a new source of oil appeared just as whale stocks were crashing toward extinction: petroleum. A few hundred years from now, our age will seem just as primitive and remote, because in less time than it took our ancestors to boil down almost all the whales, we will have sucked all the oil out of this planet. Whether you’re an optimist or a pessimist with respect to existing petroleum reserves makes only the difference of 40 years or so between now and a serious supply crash. Exponential growth in demand and finite supply will ultimately bring this terrific free lunch we’re enjoying to a close before this century is out. As Kenneth Deffeyes says (see below) “Fossil fuels are a one-time gift that lifted us up from subsistence agriculture and eventually should lead us to a future based on renewable resources.”

Here is a good National Geographic article on the topic with some fun facts and pretty pictures: The End of Cheap Oil.

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Here’s a book (Hubbert’s Peak) written by oilman and geologist Kenneth Deffeyes that does a good job explaining why even at this very moment we are at the peak of the peak of worldwide oil production. Demand will rise, but supply must inexorably fall. Take-home lesson: if you REALLY want that Hummer, buy it now.

An intemperate man

James Joyce (Oxford Lives)

How could James Joyce have such penetrating insight into the nature of mankind and still be such an insufferable bore? Did his muse require him to throw away money as fast as he got it, keeping his family impoverished, or was that merely an unfortunate coincidence? We always forgive our geniuses, and he was the great genius of the age. But it must have worn thin at times to those around him. A friend in Paris said of him “He had not taste, only genius.” Ellmann tells the often bleak story of Joyce’s Ulysses-like wanderings around Europe, picking fights and drinking away his funds. I was constantly veering between feeling bad for Joyce and wanting to throttle him. Also, I hadn’t realized how important Ezra Pound was in taking him from anonymity to great fame.

Artificial arm wrestling

You have no idea how efficient your muscles are at turning Cheerios into chin-ups. Muscles are silent, smooth, and powerful. All useful machinery humans have built to date are clacking whirring rotating things. IEEE Spectrum has a good article this month (not available for public reading, unfortunately) about artificial muscles. This same topic was recently a cover story in Scientific American (PDF version here). I’m very happy to see interest in this topic taking off, because I’m convinced it’s one of the great enabling technologies of our age if we can make it practical. The author of the Spectrum article, Yoseph Bar-Cohen, has an Artificial Muscle web hub that details a grand challenge for the young field: an armwrestling match between a robotic arm and a human. It looks like this is actually going to happen in March of next year. Let’s hear it for Team Cyborg!

Fear and loathing in suburbia

I gave a talk this morning about the MATLAB Profiler at the Applied Behavioral Analysis Convention (see the listing here). In order to explain how profiling code works, I wanted one of those Family Circus cartoons where little Jeffy goes wandering all over the neighborhood. I thought I’d find them all over the net, but I only found one. I guess the Family Circus lawyers have been doing their work. For the purposes of my talk, though, this was just fine.

The Family Circus is as lame a comic as you are likely to ever run across. Even so, I was surprised by the depth of the hatred that exists for it out there. In my search for the “real” images of cute li’l Jeffy and Billy, I came across dozens and dozens of anti-Family Circus sites. After a while, I started to have more respect for FC creator Bil Keane. He clearly knows exactly how to poke a sharp stainless steel dental tool into the receding gumlines of Goth punks all across the country. To inspire that kind of loathing is no small achievement. Go Bil!

Anyway, my favorite anti-FC site was over at the Progressive Boink. This is the kind of critique I enjoy. Instead of saying Family Circus = LAME, he really deconstructs it. For instance:

In the comic presented here, Billy explains that he is “mousebreaking” Jeffy. Perhaps Billy meant to say “housebreaking,” because “mousebreaking” is not a word. But even if he did spell “housebreaking” right, it doesn’t make any sense, because Billy is teaching Jeffy to use a mouse, not a toilet.

The great thing about pop culture is that if you love it, then you love it, and if you hate it, then you can sit around and talk about why the hell so many people love it. Either way is a win.