Posted on December 29, 2012 by simonlitton
We spent a couple of hours in the local African Museum this morning, ostensibly to visit the Spider exhibition. This was fun and high on the “Ewww!” factor for our kids, although it was interesting to note that half the fun came in trying to locate the various specimens inside their glass cases. Once spotted, there wasn’t much to see as they were all virtually immobile.
Paradoxically the traditional stuffed and embalmed animals attracted me more, mostly for reasons related to the manner of their preservation. For example, how long does it take to stuff a full-grown hippo?
The baby hippo looks disturbed/ing.
Something about the chimps’ faces was a little off.
I’m no good at reading chimps’ facial expressions, but I’d guess this one’s not too happy.
And then in the next room, a phantasmagorical collection of snakes in jars. Beautiful.
I loved not only the selection of species but the variety of poses.
Probably my favourite.
Almost eating its own tail.
Gasping for air.
Token disgruntled frog.
Yes, yes, feel free to make a froggy Gangnam Style joke.
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tagged: belgium, science | 3 Comments »
Posted on March 20, 2012 by simonlitton
I’m currently reading Ben Bova*’s novel Colony. Written in 1979, it’s set in the far-flung future of 2008, and features such developments as a permanent moon base, city-sized orbiting colony and a World Government. For the first 150 pages I was surprised at how little of the book seemed dated, considering the fact that it’s over 30 years old and set four years in the past.
And then I came across this:
“Home-sized computers and picture-telephones killed New York. With them, you could live wherever you wanted to and still communicate instantly with anyone, anywhere in the nation. Commuting died. Communications killed the big cities.”
Now it’s easy to sit here with the benefit of experience and hindsight and laugh at how inaccurate predictions in old SF novels turn out to be, but this, in an otherwise convincing story, struck me as a particularly poorly thought-out idea, as if the only reason people live in close proximity to one another is to facilitate business dealings. It’s common to over-estimate the societal changes technological progress can bring, and it seems amusingly naive to think that, while the invention of the telephone didn’t stop travelling, the invention of the “picture-telephone” would stop people wanting to live in cities.
*I bet he gives thanks every day that his surname begins with a ‘B’ and not a ‘D’.
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tagged: books, science | 4 Comments »
Posted on January 25, 2012 by simonlitton
“The Matses are a 2,500-strong tribe, and they live in the tropical rainforest along the Javari river, a tributary of the Amazon. Their language, which was recently described by the linguist David Fleck, compels them to make distinctions of mind-blowing subtlety whenever they report events. To start with, there are three degrees of pastness in Matsese: you cannot just say that someone ‘passed by there’; you have to specify with different verbal endings whether this action took place in the recent past (roughly up to a month), distant past (roughly from a month to fifty years), or remote past (more than fifty years ago). In addition the verb has a system of distinctions that linguists call ‘evidentiality’, and as it happens, the Matses system of evidentiality is the most elaborate that has ever been reported for any language. Whenever Matses people use a verb, they are obliged to specify – like the finickiest of lawyers – exactly how they came to know about the facts they are reporting. The Matses, in other words, have to be master epistemologists. There are separate verbal forms depending on whether you are reporting direct experience (you saw someone passing by with your own eyes), something inferred from evidence (you saw footprints on the sand), conjecture (people always pass by at that time of day), or hearsay (your neighbour told you he had seen someone passing by). If a statement is reported with the incorrect evidentiality form, it is considered a lie. So if, for instance, you ask a Matses man how many wives he has, unless he can actually see his wives at that very moment, he would answer in the past tense and would say something like daëd ikoşh: ‘two there-were [directly experienced recently]‘. In effect, what he would be saying is ‘There were two last time I checked’. After all, given that the wives are not present, he cannot be absolutely certain that one of them hasn’t died or run off with another man since he last saw them, even if this was only five minutes ago. So he cannot report it as a certain fact in the present tense.
“But finding the right verbal form for directly experienced events is child’s play compared with the hair-splitting precision required when you report an event that has only been inferred. Here Matses obliges you to specify not just how long ago you assume the event occurred but also how long ago you made the inference.”
And if you think that’s bizarre, wait until you hear about the Guugu Yimithirr people’s use of geographic directions.
Guy Deutscher, Through the Language Glass
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tagged: books, science, time | 1 Comment »
Posted on February 21, 2008 by simonlitton
“a lot of people get AIWS when they’re six or seven and grow out of it“.
A fascinating article, found via Warren Ellis’ blog, which suddenly reminded me when I read it this morning that I used to suffer a very occasional, very mild version of the same syndrome during my childhood and adolescence. All of a sudden, for no discernible reason, my visual perception of the world around me would become subtly skewed. The best way that I can describe it is that it felt like, rather than the objects around me being normal size and at normal distance, everything was a small, toy version of itself, but placed much closer to me. Sometimes it would be the reverse – objects seemed to be enormous, but distant. They occupied no more space in my visual field than before, but my perception of them had changed. It never lasted more than about ten minutes or so, and sometimes I could make it disappear by looking for a while at a large, featureless area like a clear sky. It most often started when I’d been reading for an extended period and the words on the page would start to shift perspective. I can’t remember the last time it happened to me, but it was probably at least ten years ago.
“The knowledge that another has felt as we have felt, and seen things, even if they are little things, not much otherwise than we have seen them, will continue to the end to be one of life’s choicest pleasures.”
Robert Louis Stevenson, “Essays of Travel”, chapter 13 – “Roads”.
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tagged: children, science, senses | 13 Comments »
Posted on September 14, 2007 by simonlitton
“It’s always bothered me that if you’re a geek about certain acceptable things it’s different – if you’re into wine you’re not a geek, you’re a connoisseur. If you’re into food you’re a gourmet, if you’re into cigars you’re an aficionado. When you think about cigars it has to be just as esoteric and unimportant as Star Trek, but the cigar guys get laid more”.
(For the record, I was never that much into Star Trek, but spent a couple of decades being a fairly major Star Wars geek. The prequels cooled my ardour somewhat, although I still cried a single, manly tear at the end of “Revenge of the Sith”.)
Besides, geeks can do stuff like this, so don’t piss them off.
Both found here.
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tagged: film, science | 1 Comment »
Posted on August 20, 2007 by simonlitton
Richard Dawkins continues his assault on all that is illogical (it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine him on the board of the Enterprise, arching one eyebrow…). His latest show can be seen here (thanks to Andrea for the link). It’s good stuff, but I think he’s preaching to the choir. People who believe this stuff aren’t going to be dissuaded by him.
The Guardian’s TV section review of the programme contained this gem: “‘Spirituality’ is what cretins have in place of imagination. If you’ve ever described yourself as “quite spiritual”, do civilisation a favour and punch yourself in the throat until you’re incapable of speaking aloud ever again.”
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tagged: science | Leave a Comment »
Posted on May 11, 2007 by simonlitton
As a child I used to enjoy stargazing (this was back in the days when there was so little pollution that you could actually see stars in the sky at night, kids!), and my father shared and encouraged this interest. He and I would walk out to the end of our garden in the evening with my little book of constellations and see what we could recognise. Being in the northern hemisphere, Orion dominated and was my favourite. To be honest I wasn’t all that interested in being able to identify and name them all, or know of what they were composed, in the same way that I don’t really care about evaporation and air currents when I’m looking at clouds - I just liked “gazing” at them.
Until, happily gazing upwards one warm night when I was probably around the age of six or seven, I saw my first shooting star, and it scared the hell out of me. All I remember afterwards is running the length of the garden path as fast as my little legs would carry me, back to the safety and comfort of the house. I’d never seen bits of the sky zipping around unpredictably before, and it was disconcerting to say the least.
Post title comes from a song by Laurie Anderson.
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tagged: once upon a time, science | 1 Comment »
Posted on October 30, 2006 by simonlitton
Before you ask, no I’m not a Slider, although that would be fun. I’m a SLIder.
SLI stands for Street Light Interference, and is a phenomenon whereby certain people have an unusual effect on streetlights. The most common experience is that street lights turn themselves off when you walk past them. Not all the lights, just the occasional one. Sometimes they stay off, sometimes they come back on after you’ve passed by. It happened to me fairly regularly in my early twenties. On my walk home from a habitual Monday night meeting with a group of friends, it would always happen a couple of times, usually in the same spot. Since then occurences have been few and far between, but it still pops up occasionally.
I can’t say that it makes me feel worried or thrilled or anything in particular other than slightly curious. Explanations vary, none are especially convincing, but it does happen. I just wish that I could do it at will and really freak people out…
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tagged: science | 1 Comment »
Posted on October 25, 2006 by simonlitton
That’s what causes autism, according to new research by…some researchers. One of whom is called “Badcock”, tee hee. They’re apparently basing their work on the theories of someone called “Baron Cohen”. Two possibilities – he really is a baron, in which case surely he should be called “Baron von Cohen” and fly a biplane, or it’s Sacha Baron-Cohen. “Extreme maleness! I like!”.
Ahem – actually, on the page linked to above it says that the Baron-Cohen in question is SIMON Baron-Cohen, and is…wait for it… Sacha’s brother. Whoa.
Aaaaaanyway, the theory in itself is actually rather interesting, as it attempts to account for that fact that men are more likely to be autistic than women. (They also get bonus points for starting their article with a quote from Maurice Sendak). I first came across mention of this research in the parenting magazine Junior, which pulls out interesting details like the fact that parents are more likely to produce autistic children if they work in technical, analytical fields like engineering or software – apparently the proportion of autistic children in Silicon Valley is way above average. If, during conception, you father’s genes “imprint” more strongly than your mothers, you’ll become the kind of person who files his CDs alphabetically and can program the VCR but can’t have an open, honest conversation with a friend. And the extreme version of this is where you turn into Rain Man. Or something.
Now I’ve always been a bit anal about some things, like tidiness and order, but I always thought that it was a very mild Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Turns out it’s genetic, i.e. NOT MY FAULT, so stop complaining when I move your stuff off the floor and put it away, woman – I can’t help it.
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tagged: science | 1 Comment »