Vice Versa

I took a subway a few days that I thought was sending an interesting message. On one side of the car was nothing but advertisements for an anti-smoking campaign. On the other was nothing but advertisements for (somewhat less public-service oriented) pro-beer-drinking campaign.

“Thou Art of a Truth a Treacherous and Unsavoury River”

One of my favorite moments in history comes from the story of Xerxes trying to cross the Hellespont. Here’s the relevant passages from The History of Herodotus in the translation by George Rawlinson:

Towards this tongue of land then, the men to whom the business was assigned carried out a double bridge from Abydos; and while the Phoenicians constructed one line with cables of white flax, the Egyptians in the other used ropes made of papyrus. Now it is seven furlongs across from Abydos to the opposite coast. When, therefore, the channel had been bridged successfully, it happened that a great storm arising broke the whole work to pieces, and destroyed all that had been done.

So when Xerxes heard of it he was full of wrath, and straightway gave orders that the Hellespont should receive three hundred lashes, and that a pair of fetters should be cast into it. Nay, I have even heard it said, that he bade the branders take their irons and therewith brand the Hellespont. It is certain that he commanded those who scourged the waters to utter, as they lashed them, these barbarian and wicked words: "Thou bitter water, thy lord lays on thee this punishment because thou hast wronged him without a cause, having suffered no evil at his hands. Verily King Xerxes will cross thee, whether thou wilt or no. Well dost thou deserve that no man should honour thee with sacrifice; for thou art of a truth a treacherous and unsavoury river." While the sea was thus punished by his orders, he likewise commanded that the overseers of the work should lose their heads.

Bad weather can get us all down but I feel like whipping, branding, and insulting bits of geography is quite over the top — which was the point of course. When I first read this passage, I thought of this as the archetypical example of frustration taken to an illogical and implausible extreme.

Over time though, I’ve found that there are certain moments of intense frustration where branding the ground and insulting the ocean might actually make me feel better in a way that other sort of release might not.

“Laughing Malady Puzzle in Africa”

I’m finishing up a great book called Laughter: A Scientific Investigation that I’ll review more fully in the near future. Before I get there though, there was one nugget in there that I think deserves the spotlight to itself.

We all have experienced the way that laughing in contagious. We all remember laughing in a group for no good reason until the whole situation just got out of control. Well evidently, in 1962, this happened on an epidemic level in what is now Tanzania and it was so bad that it kept some schools closed for over 6 months.

I went back and dug up the original New York Times article and transcribed it here. It’s an interesting read but there are a few things that have become clear with time that weren’t clear at the time that the article was written:

  • The epidemic was not because of environmental causes, food poisoning, or a virus or bacteria as researchers at the time suspected. It was a simple, but extreme, example of contagious laughter and was purely a social (or neurological) phenomenon. It started with girls giggling in primary schools and moved through connected communities — primarily affecting women. The chance of someone "catching" the laughter from someone else correlated heavily with the closeness of the relationship between the two. It basically swept through sisters, to mothers, to good friends and on. It was a multi-year, debilitating, regional giggle fest!
  • Kuru, the diseases described in the end is not at all related. It’s also not, as the article suggests, hereditary. It turns out to be a product of cannibalism and is a prion-based variant of a spongiform encephalopathy much like Creutzfeldt-Jacob Disease and or BSE (more commonly known "mad cows disease"). I read on book this one too once.

If a similar giggle fest broke out today, I would be strongly tempted to just drop everything and go see it for myself — and maybe add a few good guffaws of my own into the mix.

Pol Pot’s Birthday

I tend not to watch films very often but since short film seems better suited to my attention span, I’ve made an effort to go to Seattle’s One Reel Short Film Festival each year. The best film I saw there this year was Pol Pot’s Birthday made by Talmage Cooley.

The film was exactly what it title implies.

Birthday parties are supposed to be fun, right? Pol Pot is about the least fun person you can imagine (to say the least) and his party was not fun. It began with his lieutenants attempting to "surprise" him without giving him reason for alarm and continued through a very tense cake cutting and tasting scene and a brilliant gift giving moment (what do you get Pol Pot for his birthday?) — someone gave him a "Don’t Ask Me, I Just Work Here" desk icon.

Short films like this tend to be hard to get a hold of but you should keep an eye out for it. It’s well done and very funny. There is a writeup at the Brooklyn Film Festival website and an interview with the director elsewhere.

If I might squeeze an rant in here… I really can’t understand why filmmakers don’t distribute these sorts of short films online. There aren’t even the normal Hollywood-esque dubious reasons to not do it. If bandwidth is the concern, there’s always And yes, I just emailed to the filmmaker.

Desserts I Can’t Resist

Ben and Jerry’s serves a flavor of ice cream called "Giant Chocolate Chip" in their ice cream shops. When I go there, I can’t resist ordering a "small giant chocolate chip" cone or cup. The problem with this is that I don’t particularly like Giant Chocolate Chip.

I’ve found it’s easiest just to not go to Ben and Jerry’s.

Oh Say, Can You See This Rorschach Test?

I think it would be nice to do a psychoanalysis of different nations based on the musical nature of their national anthem.

I don’t have a fixed set of results in mind but I’m pretty sure sure that Canada would come off pretty well. The US national anthem seems like a sure sign of a dysfunction.

“Are you on crack?”

I’ve heard people in close relationships fight. Sadly, I’ve even participated in a few of them. Sometimes, these fights can spill into public. I’ve overheard young couples suggest that their partner might be "on crack" before.

Such suggestions were hardly necessary in the little domestic squabble I (and the entire rest of the subway car) overheard Saturday night: the young couple was loudly fighting over who had smoked a disproportionate amount of their shared stash of crack cocaine.

Thunder and Lightning

I moved to New York last week and the process has been less than perfectly smooth. On Saturday morning, I lay in bed listening to a spectacular lightning storm echoing off the tall buildings on all sides of me. A few hours later, I got up. My computer, did not.

My workstations’ motherboard has been replaced and the computer has been reawoken with a minimal amount of time and dollars spent. The Internet connection in my apartment, another victim of lightning induced slumber, is proving less resilient.

Conference Backgrounds

In lectures and conferences, I tend to find that I concentrate better if I’m sitting in the front row. I also tend to take notes on my laptop.

Because I usually type in transparent or translucent terminals, I tend to look at my desktop backgrounds a lot. In the front row of conferences at lectures, so does the rest of the room.

I realized this when someone came up to me at DebConf2 to ask for one the background images I was using.

Since DebConf2, I make a point of using backgrounds hand-picked for their effectiveness as conference backgrounds: this usually means images which manage to combine extreme distractability and inoffensiveness. The following is one from my standard arsenal (click the image for the full size copy):


Time To Kill

Since I’ve heard of it’s existence, I’ve always wanted to take the trans-Siberian railroad from Vladivostok to St. Petersburg. I think spending a week or more on a train would be interesting. You can fly the same distance in a fraction of the time: What kind of person has a week or more to spend an the train? I’m pretty confident that the answer is: interesting people.

Even with all those interesting speople, I’m sure I’d have some spare time. In preparation for my as-yet-unplanned journey, I’ve started making a list of things I’d like to be able to learn that would be within my grasp if I just had a whole bunch of spare time with nothing better to do:

So far, the list is short but it includes:

Learning to walk while flipping a coin

I think it looks very cool when someone, preferably in a zoot suit and a big hat but still good without either, walks down the street flipping a coin while they go. Big valuable coins look the best.

When I try this now, I just drop the coin after a few steps and look like a fool chasing it down. I’m confident that a dedicated week of practice on a train would fix this.

Counting cards

Evidently, my grandfather spent some time as a card counter and pro-gambler. I’ve looked at some blackjack card-counting training software and the principles are pretty simple. It’s a routine that requires nothing more than practice and dedication.

If could go through a routine a few dozen times a day, I’m s sure I could count card decently in the St. Petersburg casinos upon arrival.

Whistling two notes at once

In a two-week break in eighth grade, I taught myself how to whistle. On my Siberian journey, I’d like to take this to the next level. I can already making a humming noise while I whistle. What I cannot do is vary the notes independently from each other to make two part harmony with myself. I think knowing how to do this would be extremely entertaining.

I suspect that this one, at least in the initial learning phases, would be the least popular with my trans-Siberian companions.

Fear Me!

I ended up at "Ground Zero" at this year’s anniversary of September 11th. There was a big anti-terrorism protest of sorts. I certainly consider myself anti-terrorism (as most people do) but this group were handing a flyer that gave me pause. One thing that caught my eye was the boldface text in the center of the page:

We should not be afraid of the terrorists! The terrorists should be afraid of us!

We can reword that replacing the word "afraid" with it’s synonym "terrified" and it starts getting strange:

We should not be terrified of the terrorists! the terrorists should be terrified of us!

Think about that one for a second.

It seems obvious to me that terrifying people, whether they’re al-Qa’ida or not, is not a good strategy for peace. These people, calling for revenge, are in the same breath trying to spread the message to "the terrorists" that fear only makes them more fearsome — and they’re probably right! But they should see that this is a two-way street.

This attitude of, "you can’t scare us and the more reasons you give us to fear, the more reasons we’ll give you to fear," one held by al-Qa’ida, George W. Bush, and these anti-terrorism protesters alike, blows my mind.

Introducing “Hill Units”

A couple days ago, I was in the grocery store shopping for orange juice. There are a lot more types of orange juice than I can even remember: "light" orange juice, calcium enriched, and a range of orange juices with differing amounts of pulp.

It was the pulp that threw me. They describe the amount of pulp in orange juice in purely qualitative terms: PULP, SOME PULP, and NO PULP.

This is totally inadequate.

I propose a quantitative measurement for the pulpiness of orange juice (or any other juices with pulp). I think an appropriate unit is the number of milliliters of pulp within a 1 liter of juice. To simplify things, we can call them "Hill Units."


For all I know, this is old news to Londoners but it struck me as noteworthy.

Olive Oil Party Spokesman

When in London a couple weeks ago, Dafydd Harries, and Dave Miller and I decided to make a trip to the (in)famous speakers’ corner on Sunday morning. We listened to an eloquent socialist, an orderly debate between a Christian and Muslim, some racist "Britain for (my definition of) Britains" loon and a few choice others.

As we were about to head out, I couldn’t help but notice a guy walking around a sign that reading "Olive Oil Party" who was calmly drinking a bottle of olive oil. Every once in a while he would pause to rub some oil onto his body, scalp and face but mostly, he was just chugging it (click to see the full size image).

He stood on the top of the step ladder and delivered what must be the party platform:

Down with Coca Cola!
Down with McDonald’s!
Down with junk food!
Down with Bush!
More trees less Bush!
Long Live Michael Moore!

The went into more detail and I lost a lot of it. I vividly remember his discussion of how foolish it was that the US had gone to war in Iraq; after all the US was going after the wrong oil.

Totally brilliant.

In any case, it wasn’t the most unbelievable thing I saw that day.