random thoughts to oil the mind

Month: March 2009 Page 1 of 2


LongitudeLongitude is a short tale of an individual from an indistinct background and minimal education, striving to solve one of the most difficult conundrums of his day, through patience, diligence and a monumental attention to detail, combined with the exertions of half a century of labour. The story has plot twists and setbacks, rivals and allies, and if one wishes to stretch the imagination a little, even a villain. And of course, it’s all true.

In many ways, this book is little out of the ordinary, or at least its subject matter isn’t. Over the past few centuries this world has produced many remarkable personages: daring adventurers, shocking geniuses, revolutionary thinkers, and in this instance, plain hard-working pioneers. The age of discovery was perhaps particularly fertile in producing such remarkable characters, and a complete survey of the eighteenth century could easily fill a small library.

Which is precisely why Sobel’s book is so charming. In a period so active, a society so effervescent with ideas, Sobel has picked one lonely character, and one particular problem, and distilled a story that any layman can pick up and read. Despite the prominent cast of characters, the Isaac Newtons and Edmund Halleys, James Cooks and astronomers royal, the book in its entirety stretches to just 175 pages, and that in a fair spaced typeset. This brevity is precisely the book’s strength. The story needs no embellishment, it virtually tells itself, each iteration of John Harrison’s timepiece carried its own chapter heading in his life, each page a new development in the search for accurately keeping longitude at sea. Where many other books of this sort ramble on for a few hundred more pages about things entirely unpertinent to the theme, Sobel’s Longitude is concise and self-explanatory. What longitude is, how it proved such a problem to calculate, what rival solutions to the problem were being developed, and how John Harrison managed to essentially solve the riddle in one swoop, in a manner completely against the contemporary views of the time, all are clearly outlined and explained in this wonderfully distilled book.

Playing with the WordPress Database

After initially solving my database character encoding problems by ignoring the specific strings in the wp-config.php file, I was finally forced to alter the characters in the database during a recent reshuffle. Whilst there are two automated solutions available via plugin, namely g30rg3x‘s UTF-8 Database Converter and the Modified UTF8 Sanitize Plugin, sadly neither worked in my particular instance, and indeed the former is no longer supported for current versions of WordPress, though reports on the WordPress support forum suggest there should be no issues.

Fortunately, an excellent guide was available on Alex King’s blog. For more information and follow-up comments, you should definitely read the full post, but here’s a summary of the method that worked for me.

The Infected German Language

This post is nothing more than the idle musings of a person entirely unqualified to judge upon the vagaries of the German language. Certainly being no linguist, nor even having control over anything stronger than a tiny smattering of Denglish, I can only claim to comment as an outsider looking in, and any resemblance to reality is purely coincidental. ((And yes, the title is a play on that rather more succinct and eloquent survey, The Awful German Language by Mark Twain.)) Regardless, here a couple of thoughts that my contact with German has provoked.

Phantoms in the Brain

Phantoms in the Brain

In Phantoms in the Brain, V. S. Ramachandran has attempted to emulate the forebears he cites in the Preface, who inspired him to write science that is both informative and interesting to the general reading public. In this he has certainly succeeded, his style is highly approachable, and the content not only comprises interesting titbits, but wholly thought-provoking suggestions and analyses. I picked up Phantoms in the Brain on the basis of a recommendation from a friend more involved in the scientific fold than I am, yet found the book to be readily accessible to these with even only a meagre understanding of the way our brains function.

The book is for the most part concerned with the fundamental inner workings of the brain revealed to us through curiously specific medical conditions, often brought about by severe physical traumas such as strokes. Some of the findings are, perhaps, fairly well known by now, yet I’ve no doubt that many will still be quite shocking to most readers. However, Ramachandran keeps the presentation of both old and new findings fresh, in his natural inquisitive approach to each individual problem. His curiosity and novel attitude in dealing with many of these strange rarities of medical science at times remind one of the naïve questioning of a young child, who by approaching problems from altogether unexpected angles can come up with profound thoughts and solutions that would not normally strike an adult.

To tat, or not tattoo

Tattoos are a fashion. Whilst I’m sure many may feel personally insulted by that statement, it would take a blind man not to see that it is true. But allow me to qualify that statement. The act of tattooing itself is nothing new, and as Ötzi recently proved, is probably an older custom than we once assumed. People have been doing it for millennia, and will continue to do so into the future, but there will always be a significant social layer to its existence. The social dimension of tattoos is an important factor in their prevalence and popularity, as a result they become a part of what we can call ‘fashion’. Which is no bad thing—social customs, styles, modes of intercourse, even our language evolves—and the rise of tattoos to their level of prominence today is merely a reflection of a society in natural motion. There may be clashes between old and young generations, between those who dominate society and those who will inherit it, over the acceptability of tattoos, but every generation must go through that process, and in turn the wheel may eventually turn full circle. Tattoos today can make employment in certain instances more difficult, for example, and can bring condescension from that generation which associates inking with particular classes or groups (e.g. the stereotypical trio of bikers, convicts and sailors). But in time those particular stereotypes will fade, those social values will die out, and today’s crop of fashionable, tattoo-sporting youngsters will inherit their place and complain about the next generation’s taste in bad music and disgraceful fashions.

So what exactly do I dislike in this state of affairs?

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