Archive for the 'Odds and Ends' Category

Two primordial hunters

Nimrod, by Itzhak DanzigerOne of the most famous sculptures made in Israel is “Nimrod”, created in 1939 by Itzhak Danziger.

A powerful figure in red sandstone, it depicts a naked young man with a falcon on his shoulder and a sword held behind his back, looking intensely ahead.

This is Nimrod, the biblical great-grandson of Noah, king of a number of  cities in Mesopotamia, and traditionally considered the leader of those who built the Tower of Babel. He is also cited as a mighty hunter, the original prototypical hunter of animals.

So what?

So, in October 1988 the National Geographic Magazine published on its cover a photo of a small carving, in mammoth ivory, of a male human head. This was found in Dolní Vestonice in Czechoslovakia, a rich archaeological site that had yielded a number of sculptures, including one of those obese “Venus” figurines. The carving is dated to some 26,000 years ago or earlier, and is the earliest representation of a specific person that has come to us from our ancestors.

And it instantly evoked in me the face of Danziger’s Nimrod, as you can see in the photos below:

Danziger's Nimrod and the ivory head from Dolni Vestonice

Both figures represent hunters (well, we can’t know for sure what the caveman on the left did, but I doubt he was into computer programming). Both hunters come from the dawn of human history. And both have the same indescribable expression on their face.

What a cool coincidence!


A new contraceptive?

See this product which I found at a hardware superstore. Looks useful enough for organizing stray cables in the home. But it has another unexpected function.

Prevent Children

As you see in the close up, this device has an added benefit beyond storing extra cord length, and the packaging clearly states it:

Helps prevent children.

You don’t say!  🙂


Elisha Kally’s wondrous calculator

New article on my History of Computing site: Elisha Kally’s water flow calculator, a sophisticated network calculator based on the Hazen-Williams formula.

Elisha Kally's Hazen-Williams calculator

This ingenious slide rule can calculate flows and hydraulic head losses in complicated networks comprising up to six different pipes,  all at once.

Check it out!

A weird sight indeed

I saw the… whatever… below in Hackney, London, and can’t resist sharing it with you.

Is this a weird whatever-it-is or what?  🙂

A funny trailer in Hackney, London

Heterodontus Portusjacksoni

The intense pressure of natural selection has given us many magnificent examples of optimized design in nature. Here is a lovely case: the dentition of Heterodontus Portusjacksoni, the Port Jackson shark. I saw these jaws at a nature museum and just had to snap a photo…

Heterodontus Portusjacksoni shark jaws

This shark has unusual teeth – none of the flesh-ripping daggers that the “Jaws” movie brought to fame (while giving sharks a bad name that may help drive them to extinction). It feeds on mollusks, and uses the tiny spiked teeth in front to grab them and the blunt ones in the back to crush them.

But what I found most appealing is the geometrical structure of the entire set, which has a mathematical elegance and hints at a similarly elegant growth mechanism. One can imagine that the whole complexity of these teeth is generated in one continuous process governed by a very simple equation. Just like a fractal…

Math and nature and beauty, all in one chunk of bone! Heterodontus Portusjacksoni shark jaw close-up

Education and Fun in a boxful of seeds

Children in Oregon can enjoy giant redwood forests… but here in the holy land a semi-arid climate and millennia of human abuse force us to make do with less. Still, the humble grasses, weeds, wildflowers and thorny shrubs that we do have make an exuberant comeback every spring; and they remind me of an unforgettable nature study assignment given us by my elementary school teacher long ago.

The idea was simple: we had to collect as many different fruits of wild plants as we could find. These we had to pack in small cellophane sachets and bring them to class. Sounded trivial… until, a few weeks later, I had close to 100 different specimens, enough to fill a shoebox (the universal storage solution in those pre-Ikea days). That box is long gone, but I stopped at a nearby field and shot two photos of species that must’ve been in it back then.

Plant fruitPlant fruit

In addition to the obvious fun of having to hunt through the fields, we learned two lessons: that there is a huge diversity of plant life (after all, we filled our boxes within walking distance of our homes); and that plants were fascinating! We were afforded a first hand look into nature’s manifold ingenious ways to solve the problem of seed dispersal; you can bet we also took the time to open the fruits and see how they worked…

In case you doubt this is interesting, here is a section through the fruit of the unremarkable-looking plant in the left photo. See the burrs that attach to passing animals (or kids!); the skin that is designed to break open when dry; and the seeds that would spill out at that time. Fascinating – yes, even for an adult!…

Seed pods

Grace Hopper as Susan Calvin

Rear Admiral Grace Hopper (1906-1992) was one of the legendary pioneers of computing in the 20th century; among other achievements she had written the first compiler. Here is a well-known photo of her with some colleagues at the console of a Univac-1 computer back in 1957.

Grace Hopper next to Univac 1 console,1957

And whenever I see this photo, I am reminded vividly of Dr. Susan Calvin, Robopsychologist at U.S. Robots and Mechanical Men Corporation, as featured in Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot. I don’t mean the silly action movie starring Will Smith; that had Dr. Calvin as a sexy young chick. In the book (which is much different and way better) Calvin is a strict, prim, spinsterish lady who clearly feels more at home with robots than among humans, whom she treats with a dispassionate aloofness most of the time. She is also the smartest human in the book, by a large margin; an ultimate Geek, in fact.

There are those who claim that Hopper was Asimov’s model for his heroine; be that as it may, if I had to imagine Susan Calvin (the real one, so to speak), I would go no farther than Grace Hopper in this picture. There she sits, the only woman in a male-dominated environment, professional and intelligent and focused on her technological specialty.

Hats off to both these grand ladies of Geekdom, past and future!

Food labeling we’d like to see…

Most food products have nutrition information labels that tell you in minute detail what they contain, from calorie count to milligrams of Sodium. All very edifying, to be sure, but boooring!

So the other day I saw this box of cookies, and below the logo of the English Cake bakery it says – in Hebrew – “Very tasty“!

English Cake cookies

Isn’t this something they should add to every food label? We could have cookies labeled “Very tasty“, “Tasty“, “So-so“, or “Yecch!“, just like the “Hot”, “Medium” and and “Mild” on Salsa jars. Now, wouldn’t that be useful to us consumers? 🙂

Bike stuntmen, Munich awaits you!

Pedestrian crossing light in MunichI’ve already addressed pedestrian crossing signals in Germany, but here’s a truly surprising one, which I sighted in Munich.

So what does it mean? One can imagine what the intended usage is, but if one were to believe the images literally, this signal tells you when it’s OK to do acrobatic stunts on your bike in the middle of the road, and when it is not…

What a Circus-friendly city Munich must be! 🙂

Nothing new under the sun

Everyone knows that sport fans can get violent in their excitement… there is even a Wikipedia article listing violent spectator incidents in sports. This being an aspect of human nature, it is not surprising that the custom of berating and clobbering the opposite team’s supporters goes back to earlier times. Still, I was quite amused when I saw this fresco in the archeological museum of Naples:

Pompeii amphitheatre violence

This picture, from the wall of a house in Pompeii, depicts a memorable historical event from AD 59, which is described by Tacitus in his Annals (Book XIV, 17):

About the same date, a trivial incident led to a serious affray between the inhabitants of the colonies of Nuceria and Pompeii, at a gladiatorial show presented by Livineius Regulus … During an exchange of raillery, typical of the petulance of country towns, they resorted to abuse, then to stones, and finally to steel; the superiority lying with the populace of Pompeii, where the show was being exhibited.

And indeed, the fresco shows the agitated fans running inside and around the stadium, with some first victims already on the ground. The actual casualty count was higher by far:

As a result, many of the Nucerians were carried maimed and wounded to the capital, while a very large number mourned the deaths of children or of parents.

The outcome, in fact, was dire for the Pompeiians: the emperor (the infamous Nero) delegated to the senate, and the ruling was that

the Pompeians as a community were debarred from holding any similar assembly for ten years, and the associations which they had formed illegally were dissolved. Livineius and the other fomenters of the outbreak were punished with exile.

Nothing new under the sun…

Image: Wikimedia.