25 March, 2008

Where have I been?

Not here, that's for sure. But I have been having some interesting interactions around the blogosphere:

A discussion with philosopher Victor Reppert on moral issues involved in teaching the doctrine of hell to children.

A discussion with philosopher/scientist Massimo Pigliucci on the difference between libertarians and those who claim libertarian ideals and yet look for every opportunity to suckle at the government teat.

I would say that this is a great example of the positive ability of the internet (and the blogosphere in particular) to allow interactions between all sorts of individuals in ways that were simply not possible before. Both of these gentleman are distinguished academics with lists of scholarly published works. One certainly might interact with them through the particular universities at which they teach, but absent that it's most unlikely that someone removed from that arena would likely have the opportunity to do so.

It gives me great hope for the future of our collective intellectual life that thinkers like Drs. Reppert and Pigliucci have blogs and are willing to take comments and hold discussions with interested individuals. It sort of puts me in mind of the old "Penny University" coffeehouses in London during the eighteenth century. Except instead of a round table and a penny cup of coffee, we have computer terminals over the internet in every country in the world and a cup of home-brew (or perhaps Starbucks). But the net effect is the same: people from diverse backgrounds and cultures are interacting; meeting one another and exchanging ideas. Even if the conversation isn't always polite, it's often stimulating. And as in London where individuals often left these "Penny Universities" smarter or better informed than when they arrived (or so thought Montesquieu), the same hopefully might be said of our newer, technologically-enhanced version.

19 March, 2008

Sir Arthur C. Clarke, 1917-2008

Famed scientist, science fiction author, and legendary technology prognosticator Sir Arthur C. Clarke has died at his home in Sri Lanka aged 91.

Clarke's status as a science fiction icon was cemented when his 1948 short story "The Sentinel" was adapted for the silver screen as Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey". He went on to write literally hundreds of short stories, novels, and essays, many of which deal with similar "cosmic" themes.

As a scientist, he was involved in early work in radio and radar and a 1945 paper described a space-based communication network very similar to today's geosynchronous satellites. In acknowledgment of his prediction, the orbit of these satellites is now known as the "Clarke Belt". He has also written extensively about space and space travel, anticipating such ideas as alien probes, possibilities for faster-than-light travel, and space elevators. He was made CBE in 1989 and knighted in 2001. He is also well known for formulating what has become known as "Clarke's law": Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Clarke has long been one of my very favorite writers of what's known as "hard" Science Fiction. That is, SF in which there is actual science, no matter how speculative, involved. Novels like "Rendezvous for Rama", "Childhood's End", and "The Songs of Distant Earth" will remain among some of the best SF every produced. He was also a distinguished member of the British Humanist Association and a laureate of the Academy of Humanism. I knew that he was getting on in years, but somehow that doesn't make the loss any easier. Goodbye old friend...

Links: BBC Obituary

17 March, 2008

Giuseppe di Stefano, 1921-2008

Once again, a great singer has died and somehow I don't find out about it until much later...

The Italian tenor Giuseppe di Stefano died on March 03, aged 86. Di Stefano was one of the great tenors of the "pre-Pavarotti" era. In fact, Pavarotti became well known after he stepped in for an ailing di Stefano at Covent Garden in 1963 (in what would become one of his most famous roles: Rodolfo in Puccini's La Boheme). He's not as well known as Pavarotti or Domingo partially due to his relatively early retirement (in the mid 1960's) due to, well, "vocal fatigue" pretty much describes it (due at least in part to his choice of roles that were really too heavy for his lyric tenor voice). He'll be remembered for inspiring Maria Callas' ill-considered decision to come out of retirement for a final concert tour (in the mid 1970s). The tour was ultimately to end early as in reality neither singer was capable of sustaining it. Still, his portrayals of Donizetti and Bellini roles, like Nemorino (in Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore) will remain as some one of the greatest performances in opera history.

BBC Obituary
NPR Obituary (with additional pictures and links to recordings)

13 March, 2008

The Geometry of Music

When I was an undergraduate in college, many of my non-music-major acquaintances and friends used to tease me with jibes about the alleged low academic status of my chosen discipline. "You're getting class credits for singing?? You take classes on how to pronounce words?? Man, I wish I was a music major...that must be easy!"

Of course, I explained that in addition to the music courses, I also had to matriculate and succeed in non-music academic courses, but such protestations fell on deaf ears. Music? Come on, that's just easy!

Oh, yeah?
Exactly how one [musical] style relates to another, however, has remained a mystery--except over one brief stretch of musical history. That, says Princeton University composer Dmitri Tymoczko, "is why, no matter where you go to school, you learn almost exclusively about classical music from about 1700 to 1900. It's kind of ridiculous."

But Tymoczko may have changed all that. Borrowing some of the mathematics that string theorists invented to plumb the secrets of the physical universe, he has found a way to represent the universe of all possible musical chords in graphic form. "He's not the first to try," says Yale music theorist Richard Cohn. "But he's the first to come up with a compelling answer."

Tymoczko's answer, which led last summer to the first paper on music theory ever published in the journal Science, is that the cosmos of chords consists of weird, multidimensional spaces, known as orbifolds, that turn back on themselves with a twist, like the Möbius strips math teachers love to trot out to prove to students that a two-dimensional figure can have only one side. Indeed, the simplest chords, which consist of just two notes, live on an actual Möbius strip. Three-note chords reside in spaces that look like prisms--except that opposing faces connect to each other. And more complex chords inhabit spaces that are as hard to visualize as the multidimensional universes of string theory.

Here's the abstract from the paper itself:
A musical chord can be represented as a point in a geometrical space called an orbifold. Line segments represent mappings from the notes of one chord to those of another. Composers in a wide range of styles have exploited the non-Euclidean geometry of these spaces, typically by using short line segments between structurally similar chords. Such line segments exist only when chords are nearly symmetrical under translation, reflection, or permutation. Paradigmatically consonant and dissonant chords possess different near-symmetries and suggest different musical uses.

The entire paper is extremely interesting (to those with a penchant for music theory). You can read it at the above link. Additional materials can be found at Dmitri Tymoczko's Princeton webpage.

Take that academia!

11 March, 2008

The Forbidden Kingdom

Okay, I have to confess: I enjoy martial arts movies like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Fearless, Hero, House of Flying Daggers,etc. I'll even occasionally watch the ones that come on late at night and feature such awful acting and even worse voice dubbing. I'm not sure why I enjoy them. I am something of an asiatophile, but I suspect it's more to do with the action as I enjoy the Westernized versions of such films as well (Blade, The Matrix, Underworld, etc).

So I'm pleased to see a new movie coming out April 18 that features both Jet Li and Jackie Chan, two of the biggest names in the more common branch of the genre (what we see in the West): The Forbidden Kingdom. The plot involves an American student Jason Tripitakas* (Michael Angarano) looking for bootleg Kung-fu DVDs in Chinatown. Instead he finds an ancient weapon belonging to a great sage and warrior, the "Monkey King" (Jet Li). Through the power of this talisman he is sent back in time to ancient China where he finds that he must free the Monkey King who has been imprisoned by the evil Jade War Lord (Collin Chou). In this quest he is joined by the Kung-fu master Lu Yan (Jackie Chan) and Silent Monk (also played by Jet Li as either a different character of the Monkey King in disguise; not sure which) who will together teach Jason the true secret of Kung-fu so that he can defeat Jade War Lord and find his way home.

Okay, sounds a little hokey...well, maybe more than a little hokey. But still, Jackie Chan AND Jet Li? I mean, c'mon!

Anyway, the trailer looks good. You can watch at the film's website or on YouTube.

*Little bit of interesting trivia: the American student's last name, Tripitakas, is a play on the name of the Buddhist scripture, the Tripitaka (also known as the Pāli canon).

07 March, 2008


A religious war has broken out on YouTube. Proponents of two conflicting ideologies are engaging in video battles of words and images by which they hope to utterly destroy their opponents and secure victory for their own worldview.

Sound familiar? It should. It's an old, old story. A person or group claims knowledge of some Great Truth (tm) that by definition excludes or subsumes all other truths while some other person or group denies said Great Truth in favor of another, Greater Truth (tm) that, again by defintion, excludes or subsumes the Great Truth and all other truths. And the war is on. Judaism, Christiantiy, Islam, Buddhism...the names vary, but the story is all too familiar. In the case of the ongoing YouTube war, the stakes are far higher and the disagreement far older and more contentious. I speak, of course, of the relative superiority of cake or pie...

FrisbeesANDflipflops* fired the opening salvo in this video, wherein she expounded the superior qualities of cake and denigrated pie. Ostensibly her video was a response to a declaration of Pie faith she noticed on eddiegoombah's profile. Of course, Eddie didn't take lying down this attack on his beliefs and responded with an attack of his own. And from there the war has escalated.

Now I personally have no skin in this game. I have perhaps a slight preference for cake, but pie can be equally satisfying. But I would like to point out to both sides that while they each believe themselves to have valid points to make in the Great Debate, both are equally misguided. For you see the valuable qualities that both claim for the respective objects of their worship are but dim reflections of the ultimate confectionery glory that is Chocolate!

As a confectionery syncretist, I hold that all good comestible qualities are subsumed and brought to full perfection in the transcendent reality that is Chocolate. The Cakeist or Crustian may believe he or she have found the Ultimate Truth, but in reality they are peering through a glass darkly.

All glory be unto Thee O great and wondrous Cacao!

* Interested readers should check out her other YouTube videos. She's an intelligent and articulate young woman.

06 March, 2008

Funny O' The Day

Wow, it's been awhile since I've posted...just too busy in Real Life (tm). I'll try to get back to more regular posting, but in the meantime, please enjoy the following YouTube videos.

The first is Eddie Izzard's classic routine on the cafeteria in the Death Star (yes, from Star Wars).

The second is the same routine, only this time animated with Legos! How can you not love Lego animation?