Spamusement documents Python Tourettes

Via Lynn‘s twittering last night, I came across Spamusement, a site with cartoons drawn to correspond to actual spam email subject lines. This reminds me of the old Surrealist parlor games like Exquisite Corpse. By God, we should be doing more to amuse ourselves with the discovered poetry of spam. It’s the moral equivalent of cooking with kudzu or rendering roadkill into biodiesel. We’ll never eliminate our dependency on foreign oil unless we tap our vast spam reserves.

I was especially happy to see that one of the cartoons (not appreciated for what you know) addresses the plight of those suffering from Python Tourette syndrome. Here’s another good one. If you had to draw the cartoon for “get rid of premature ejactulation and last longer”, I bet you wouldn’t do better than this. Bad drawing, but darn good writing.

I was talking about Alan’s favorite graphic novels last week, so it only seems fitting this week to point you to a few good web comics while we’re on this topic. has a list of 5 Great WebComics You Should Read. Garfield minus Garfield is right up there with the Nietzsche Family Circus in terms of madcap nihilism.

The History of Fishes

See this fish? He’s bad news.

This is not just any fish. This fish nearly punched the lights out of the Enlightenment.

Oh, he seems likable enough for a red gurnard. But at parties, after he gets into the brandy, he parades around and insists on being called Aspitrigla cuculus of the Scorpaeniformes (I understand they have a lovely place by the sea). And in his day he was capable of some violence: this cuculus nearly killed calculus.

The picture is from Francis Willughby’s De Historia Piscium, also known as the History of Fishes. It is a lovely piece of work filled with detailed illustrations, but it is especially distinguished by a curious footnote. Published at great expense in 1686 by the Royal Society, it was a commercial flop. So much so that they Royal Society lacked the funds to proceed with its next offering: Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica. It is only because Edmund Halley “saw something in this Newton kid” and underwrote the first edition Newton’s magnum opus that any of us exist, since as you know, if the Principia had not been published, none of us would be here today.

There’s a paper on the History of Fishes by Sachiko Kusukawa. It’s behind a registration wall, but the abstract is fun reading. Here’s an excerpt:

The Historia Piscium was a work begun by Francis Willughby (1635-1672, F.R.S. 1663), completed by John Ray (1627-1705, F.R.S. 1667) and brought into print with the financial support of The Royal Society. The text and illustrations of the Historia Piscium reflect the 17th-century origins of the enterprise: Ray’s quest to recover the knowledge and language lost in the Fall, and The Royal Society’s support for establishing a reformed natural history of fish through publication. Ray’s biblical belief in the corruption of human language and knowledge led him to reform natural history through ‘characteristic marks’. He sought to define, classify and depict fishes through their external features, which when matched up, would yield the same nature, and thus allow humans to identify and give a name to a fish.

This leads to a pet topic of mine. Christianity figures prominently in many scientific histories. Often enough, misplaced theology led to good science, and in aggregate this science ultimately led to the modern Western scientific mindset (which in turn put pressure on Christianity, but that’s another story). In the same way that magical alchemical reasoning prepared the way for modern chemistry, was there something special about the Christian mindset in the High Middle Ages that put European science on its spectacular ascent?

Witches and magic in Salem

Salem Witch

Salem, Massachusetts is in love with witches. It took three hundred years or so for them to come around, but they’ve fallen in a big way. I spent some time in Salem this weekend, and I can attest that, in addition to the various museums and tours, the “witch on a broom” motif is everywhere, including the local newspaper.

While it’s no big surprise for a town to embrace whatever helps its tourism receipts, two things do jump out at me. One is that I grew up in the Bible Belt (North Carolina), so the whole idea of a town embracing witchcraft is amusing and encouraging. It’s hard to imagine a witch museum in Branson or Pigeon Forge. The other surprise in Salem is that there seems to be so much in the way of “serious magic”. I apply this term very loosely to a New Age-y collection of people who call themselves witches or wiccans or pagans or simply working-stiff astrologers and chiromancers. The point is that the witch is not the Other to be mocked, even in a light-hearted way, but rather a pillar of civic life. Breadwinner and boon bestower, she is celebrated. Which is all rather odd when you consider that this is so only because a handful of people wrongly labeled as witches were tortured and murdered here three hundred years ago.

This brings me to the magic stores. I’m fascinated by these stores. Some of them are cynical and tacky, but others are quite serious. They are packed not with hocus-pocus tricks, but with books of spells and crystal balls and scrying glasses. The magic spells in these books offer what you might expect: money, power, true love. But do they work? I didn’t try any, but consider this. If they did work, if they were potent, demonstrable, and consistent, then they wouldn’t belong in a spell book. Because they wouldn’t be magic anymore. Lightning, eclipses, magnetism, these things once belonged to the magicians, but scientists took them away.

This is one of the essential characteristics of magic. It is not simply unreliable; it is by definition unreliable. The whole experience of visiting the magic shop thus reduces to a problem in aesthetics. I find this very liberating. If you like it, you like it, full stop. If you think the crystal ball looks cool, you should buy it. It’s not a vacuum cleaner. There’s nothing to test, nothing to verify. Does it work? Of course it doesn’t work. Or rather, its charms work inasmuch as it charms you. De gustibus non est disputandum. That’s the real trick.

Alan’s favorite graphic novels

English teacher (and Star Chamber Correspondent) Alan Kennedy writes to tell us about a new book recommendation site his brother-in-law is building called Flashlight Worthy. With lots of hand-picked book lists and reviews, it’s a sort of annex and way station to Amazon.

For our purposes here, one of the fun things about it is Alan’s list called The Best Graphic Novels. I didn’t know Alan was a fan of graphic novels, but I see he’s picked some of my all-time favorites too. American Born Chinese was a recent lucky find for me, and was part of my omnivorous search for a better understanding of the crashing surf between Chinese and American cultures.

I was thinking of adding a list on books about numbers: pi, e, i, phi, zero, infinity, and one. But I’ve only read two of those so far, and at any rate, Flashlight Worth is still in beta, so it doesn’t support automated book list creation yet. But it looks like a fun place. Check it out.

What not to do on the U-Bahn

Many years ago, while doing the college Europe thing, I found myself on an underground train in Munich. I had just come from London, where they mostly speak English, by way of Amsterdam, where they all do. I speak no German. So Munich was the first place where I was completely unable to communicate with vast swaths of the population. Except for, you know, in that hand-flapping chicken-pantomime kind of way, stabbing the map, sawing the air. “Is it THIS way? Yes? No?! THAT way?”

It was humbling. I felt like my IQ had dropped 100 points on the overnight train.

So there I was, absently leaning against the door of a U-Bahn subway car, rattling through Schwabing when this little boy, no more than seven, pointed to a sign next to me and read it aloud in clear, high voice. Then he stared at me, a little menacingly it seemed to me, and looked proudly at his dad. Smart kid, I thought. He can already read German, and I am a mute imbecile. Rising to the challenge, I decided to try to decipher the sign through sheer force of will. Here is what the boy read: “Bitte nicht an die Türen lehnen.” You can see it coming, but I had to sound out every word.

Bitte, hmm, I’ve heard people say that. It’s like the German version of prego. It must mean please here. Nicht … is that night? No that would be Nacht, like Stille Nacht. This means not, I think. Türen. This could be a cognate, and I remember from Grimm’s Law that T and D are close friends. Hey, this sign is on a door, so this is probably the plural of door. Let’s see: Please not… on the doors… lehnen.”

That’s when I noticed the kid was still staring at me like a bird dog. I straightened up from my door-leaning position, losing some of my pride at decoding the sign.

Shower with your telescope

Fargo North Decoder, of Electric Company fame, once helped a character played by Rita Moreno with her dangerously loose interpretation of a No Fishing sign. Her version went like this: “Private Property? No! Fishing Allowed.” She was wrong; trouble ensued.

In a similar vein, here is a good one from Steve Crandall’s blog. It appears he was actually sent the following email ad.

There really is a meteor shower early this morning, but I’m guessing that by the time you read this it will be long gone. For the record, I should point out that you should not, in fact, shower with your telescope. If the optics are dirty, it’s far better to run it through a car wash on the back of a pickup truck. Just remember to use lots of bungee cords to hold it in place. Although I suppose there do exist people who, upon seeing the Perseid Meteor, are moved to do mysterious things with their equipment. How about this: “Watch the Perseid Meteor. Shower with a Celestron Telescope. Smoke a Marlboro Cigarette.”

It’s just as well there were no pictures with the ad.

In other space news, today was Cassini’s big Enceladus flyby in which the Saturnian probe dipped to within a few hundred miles of frosty Titan’s spicy little sister. No pictures as of this writing, but there should be some good ones before long. In the meantime, you can contemplate NASA’s latest headline.

Researcher Excited As
Moon Probed Open
Season for Satellite Science

Okay, that was my best effort. Let’s hear your “unfortunate break” headlines.

Live! Nudis! (toxic nudibranchs, that is)

Some animals live up to their cool names. Animals like the toothy velociraptor and the mysterious leafy sea dragon. Others, despite their nifty cognomens, fall short. For example, the Northern beardless-tyrannulet (not to be confused with the Ruby-crowned Kinglet) is a comparatively plain little flycatcher.

But I imagine any animal might have a hard time living up to a label as racy as “toxic nudibranch”. Except, of course, for the toxic nudibranchs. Don’t do them the disservice of calling them mere “sea-slugs”. And if you’re talking about them at your next cocktail party, remember to pronounce it NUDIBRANK.

The photographer for these amazing images is David Doubilet, and I recommend the accompanying video.

[Spotted on]

Noodling around with Chinese characters

Here’s a fun image: the most complex Chinese character in common use.

You have to arrange 57 little lines just so to make that character. What it means (besides “Chinese is hard”) is a kind of noodle, the biang biang noodle. Now let’s imagine you work at a noodle shop in China’s Shaanxi province where these noodles are popular. It’s busy and hot, and you’re taking orders on your little pad with a stubby golf pencil.

CUSTOMER ONE: I’ll have the biang biang noodles please.

YOU: [scribbling furiously] One… order… of… biang biang… noodles…

CUSTOMER TWO: And I’ll have a double biang biang please.

YOU: Hold on, I’m still writing…

CUSTOMER TWO: Could you just write biang biang twice? That would signify my double order.

YOU: [mumbling]One order biang biang biang biang… aghh… hand cramping… can’t write.

CUSTOMER ONE: Christ, my lunch break is almost over. Let’s go get a pig.

As is my wont, I am reminded of the Monty Python skit about the great composer Johann Gambolputty de von Ausfernschplendenschlittercrasscrenbonfrieddiggerdangledungleburstein von knackerthrasherapplebangerhorowitzticolensicgranderknottyspelltinklegrandlichgrumblemeyer spelterwasserkürstlichhimbleeisenbahnwagengutenabend-bitteeinenürnburgerbratwustlegerspurtenmitzweimacheluberhundsfutgumberaber-shönendankerkalbsfleischmittlerraucher von Hautkopft of Ulm.

I suspect this biang biang character is more gimmick than anything else, much like the Llanfairpwll railway station in Wales (so many letters! so few vowels!), but it does raise a question that I’ve always pondered. In terms of semantic content per ink-inch, is Chinese more efficient than English? Chinese is more compact, but you have to cram a lot more pen strokes into that space. I recently learned at work that when we localize our software for Japanese, you simply can’t shrink a Japanese font below ten points. It goes all gray and mushy. Here, for example, is the biang biang character writ small:

By my count, 57 strokes of ink gets you almost entirely through the writing of ANTIDISESTABLISHMENTARIANISM. But ultimately, is ink-inch efficiency (IIE) a metric worth optimizing? It’s very tempting to consider which language is “best” in this or that sense. But to young human brains learning languages, none of this seems to matter. Languages all have the same shape. You pick them up here and you do this with them. See what I mean?

[First seen on the Cynical-C Blog]