Ye olde blogge post: þornography and orthography

I have a question for ye: why are olde shoppes so often prefaced with the word ye? Be they belonging to ye?

It doesn’t have anything to do with the word ye. Instead, it has to do with the mystery of the missing thorn. Thorn is actually the name of an old (sorry, olde) letter that signified the “th” sound. Thorn was a common letter in old English. Beowulf is lousy with thorns. You can’t understand a word of it, but every now and then a sentence jumps out at you.

þæt wæs god cyning! (That was a good king!)

Just as unicorns went extinct because they didn’t get on the ark in time, so too the thorns (sorry, þorns) went extinct because they didn’t get on the printing press. “It’s a fad!” they said “You’ll see. Kids today and their crazy movable type…” Now with Unicode, the thorn’s time has come round again. Watch this: þþþþþþ. Sadly, though, Unicode can do nothing for the unicorn.

At any rate, when trying to typeset English with only 26 thornless letters, some clever soul thought to replace þ with y. So “ye” is nothing more than the definite article “the.” So þere.

I came across this dandy little video on the topic while perusing a YouTube channel called MinutePhysics. I’m not sure why English spelling ended up on a physics channel, but I enjoyed it all the same.

If you’d like to watch something more in line with the physics-oriented nature of the channel, here’s a good one. Learn, in less than one minute, how Einstein went about proving that E = mc2 (note: it does not involve a ka-boom). Very cool!

Cinematography conquers the frequency domain

We have a natural grasp of the fact that we can’t see small things. Likewise things that are very large escape our notice because they exceed our field of view. We might call these aspects of the spatial domain. When I began studying engineering, I learned about this marvelous concept of a frequency domain. It’s an acknowledgment of the fact that some things happen very slowly and some happen very quickly. And just as things can hide from us because they are too small or too big, they can also hide because they are too fast or too slow.

Technology helps us on all these frontiers. High speed cameras slow down the invisible wings of a hummingbird, and time-lapse photography shows a sapling reaching sunward like a hand. And recently I’ve noticed that, as these camera technologies get better, they bring with them the cinematographic techniques of conventional cinema: zooming, tracking, and pulling focus. For time-lapse, this is a fairly straightforward process of carefully mapping out your camera’s motion across the hours. If you’re really good, you can end up with something like this.

At the other end of the frequency domain is the fast stuff. Tracking and changing focus at these speeds is more problematic. For this, you need fast, stable robotics. Here’s a wonderful “how we do it” video from a German special effects company that specializes in high-speed cinematography. They do things that you’ve never seen before. Things that simply haven’t been possible until now. Watch.

[Spotted on the IEEE Spectrum Automaton blog]

How far to that star?

In this modern age, we’re subjected to all kinds of outrageous and essentially unchallenged assertions: the earth is four and a half billion years old, the gross domestic product of Montenegro is $4.1 billion, it takes 364 licks to get to the Tootsie Roll center of a Tootsie Pop, and so on. Most of these just wash over us. You’d go crazy trying to challenge them all. But every now and then you see some number blithely mooted and say to yourself, how could we possibly know that?

For example.

It is approximately, we are told, 2.5 million light years, give or take, from the end of your nose to the Andromeda galaxy. So: if your bathroom mirror was hanging in Andromeda, you’d have to stare at it for 5 million years before you realized you had a little hair hanging out of your nose.

Think of all the ways we measure how far away things are. Now think how none of these things could work for something so very far away. It would take way too much measuring tape. You can’t drive there and back with an odometer. You can’t bounce radar off it and wait for the reflection. You can’t use trigonometry, because you don’t know how big it is.

Measuring such remote extragalactic distances makes use of something called the cosmic distance ladder. It’s a remarkable and complex set of measurements and algorithms, but this little video from the Greenwich Royal Observatory describes it beautifully. Watch it and you’ll feel a tiny bit more in control of this otherwise bewildering world.

(thanks to the cyclist for forwarding this)

Official Speak and conversational dumplings

At my college reunion this weekend, the topic of Official Speak came up. Jay gave us a sonorous version of the air gate cattle call: “For those of you with small children or special needs we do ask that you come forward at this time.” The phrases we do ask and at this time are unnatural. Why do we persist in using them? What is the hidden message they convey?

There’s something soothing about codified language. It may be stilted, but it’s familiar, and it tells you where you are. Churches know this.

Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.

The repetition is calming, mantra-like. The point is not so much to send an explicit message as to put your mind in the right state.

Please ensure your seatbelt is securely fastened and your seatback and tray table are in their full upright and locked position.

Just hearing those words calms me down. Everything is fine. The plane is landing and everything is fine.

This kind of thing reminds me of a related but more annoying phenomenon. What is the name for phrases like this?

  • Don’t go there!
  • It’s all good.
  • How great is that?
  • You had me at ____.
  • It is what it is.

Are they clichés? I don’t think so, but they’re close cousins of some kind. They must have a name, but I’m too lazy to read through the whole Language Log to discover it. Sometimes the phrases come from a popular TV show. Other times it’s hard to say, but suddenly we’re all saying “You go girl!”

I hear them all the time. Some people delight in them and make a point of pushing them together like greasy dumplings on a fork. They are the comfort food of conversation: high calorie and essentially empty. Altogether they form a kind of extended vocabulary to the language, a skin that billows and blisters and eventually boils away.

Can you think of some others? And help me give them a name.