Links: Early July 2014


  • Tibetans get their altitude tolerance from Denisovans.
  • Take an hour to watch Paul Willis talk about Antarctica.



  • Dad was on TV for 45 seconds in June with dinosaurs! Starts at 3:35.

Links: Late June 2014

Here are three links that I found particularly interesting recently:

Many links that I share on this blog come from Ed Yong’s “I’ve Got Your Missing Links Right Here” and Jennifer Ouellette’s “Physics Week in Review“. But since it was my birthday on June 12, I decided to take the week off and not read last week’s installments.  Instead, I’ll let you peruse them directly if you wish to. (Also, you’re welcome to link to your favourite items in the comments.)

Links: Early June 2014


  • A very nice article about Go and the software that plays it. (I’ve never played Go, but the fact the board must tend toward a fractal distribution of pieces is the one thing that’s obvious from a crude description of the rules.)
  • A panel discussion about quantum mechanics in which three guests articulate their ideas very clearly and the fourth spouts complete gibberish.
  • H.G. Wells also wrote non-fiction about Martians.
  • Article on how the moon and its distinctive hemispheres came to be. [Update: here’s another idea.]
  • Catfish detects breath of prey via acidity of water.


  • Dust on Mars rovers.
  • Proof that Ancient Greeks had computers.
  • Distribution of letters in different parts of words. What ways can you come up with to play with the data? For example, pairing letters with similar profiles, I get a=o, b=w, c=p, d=y, e=l, f=k, g=s, h=i, j=q, m=t, n=r, u=v, x=z. (Some pairs — especially x=z — are only similar in the sense that they are both miscellaneous.)
  • Delightful puppet video. Don’t over-analyse the plot; it’s all about the aesthetic experience.


  • The Atlantic published an list of 100+ “fantastic pieces of journalism” from 2013. If you don’t have time to read a hundred articles, here are five of the best that I haven’t linked to from this blog before: [*****].

Links: Late May 2014


  • Simple home-made projectile weapon powered by magnets.
  • A star that could have formed in the same gas cloud as the sun.
  • Link between collectivism and rice. (Had this been written 25 years ago I could have referenced it in history class.)
  • I highly recommend exploring the Romantics and Victorians section of the British Library website. There are more articles than you can read in a day; here are some examples to get you started: [*****].


Here are some photos from a trip to the museum with my niece Elke:


A status report on my ongoing archives clean-up: I’ve reached the end of 2010, and have added posts from that year to my official archives page. I’m now taking a break before starting on 2011, during which I intend to catch up on some housework and do research for my upcoming August holiday.

Miscellaneity from my desk drawer

Over the years I’ve been blogging, I’ve found that leafing through the contents of my desk can be a rich source of inspiration. My desk drawers contain records of my own creativity from the past, as well as other sorts of memories, and I’ve written many blog posts based on that material.

But there is a tendency for miscellaneity to fall through the cracks. If something is particularly significant there’s a good chance I’ve already blogged about it, whereas other items have always seemed too trivial to share even though they’ve been in storage for years.

Today I’m going to share three of them. They may be trivial, but there’s no telling what will resonate with the interests of readers and inspire an interesting conversation in the comments. That would make them well worth including on the blog.

1. A querying language invented while at university.

At university I majored in computing, which naturally included a subject or two about databases — SQL, relational algebra, and all that stuff. Elsewhere in the course I learned to read and write in EBNF notation.

For my own amusement I sometimes toyed with inventing my own programming languages — not implementing them (inventing and implementing are two very different things), but figuring out how the syntax would work and writing documentation for them as though they actually existed. In a sense it was my way of consolidating what I was learning, especially about trade-offs between different programming languages and things like that.

One of my inventions was a querying language with the same functionality as SQL, but a syntax based more consistently on relational algebra. I’ve uploaded a copy of my documentation. It may be complete rubbish, but over a decade later it hardly matters.

2. An email exchange about sensory integration.

This is another item from my university days, but not connected to my studies.

At an autism conference many years ago, I bought a textbook on sensory integration, which interested me enough to write an email to one of the authors. I described some of the games I played as a child, and speculated that (to paraphrase for the blog) there may be a correlation between people who are prone to motion sickness and people who find it hard to keep a tidy room.

My hypothesis was that since picking items off the floor involves continual head altitude changes, people who struggle with it might often be those who find it hard to modulate vestibular sensations while simultaneously concentrating on a goal-directed task.

The textbook author replied, saying: “I was also interested in your comments about tidying up and vestibular/modulation difficulties. I have certainly noticed that tendency in children but none has ever explained it quite so graphically. I certainly will think about that.

Or, as I once paraphrased it in a comment thread, she said that the idea was plausible and consistent with anecdotal observations.

3. A shortlist of aesthetically selected Arabic male names.

I’ve browsed the baby names website on numerous occasions. One time, on a whim, I decided to browse the section on male Arabic names, just to see what I liked the sound of. I was particularly looking for pairs of names that sound good together, consciously ignoring the fact that Western naming practices (first name plus middle name) are not usual in Arabic culture.

The three double names I liked best were:

I suppose these could be of use if you ever need an Arabic character for a work of fiction.

Manual variation on the snowflake curve

Ever since I created the following image more than a year ago, it has inhabited that uncomfortable limbo of being too good to delete and too trivial to share. But then, a blog needs the occasional triviality, so here it is.

It’s a version of the famous Koch snowflake curve, but with a different-from-usual presentation. I can’t remember the precise method I used to draw it, but it was done manually in a version of Windows Paintbrush, and not with the help of any more specialist tools.


Links: Early May 2014

A few links to inform and entertain you:



Religious reminiscence: Crucifixion

Filed away in my desk drawer and certain locations on my computer, I still have various items from the days when Christian faith was a part of my identity. These include:

  • Some evangelistic web pages I wrote;
  • Religious discussions from online forums;
  • A notebook for jotting down theological speculations;
  • Various other items.

It’s been a few years since I’ve mentioned my religious past on this blog, but see my 2009 post about the afterlife and my 2011 post about prayer. As I aim to blog on a variety of subjects, now seems a good time to dig into those archives in search of an idea for a new post.

Since Easter wasn’t long ago, why not look at what my thoughts were, when I was a Christian, on the death and resurrection of Christ?

There is more diversity than often admitted, within thoughtful Christian communities, about what the crucifixion of Christ has to do with the reconciliation of sinners and God. Christians agree that the crucifixion was necessary, but there are different explanations for why (the New Testament’s account is largely metaphorical). Unfortunately, certain interpretations are more culturally dominant than others and the fact the discussion exists tends to be obscured. And of course, many people are content to accept the necessity on faith and leave the theologising to others.

The most familiar explanation is that it is an aspect of God’s nature that he literally cannot allow sin to go without its punishment, and that in the death of Christ he reconciles that necessity with the demands of his love by taking the punishment upon himself. We have all been exposed to that idea — not least from the allegories of C. S. Lewis — and there are many who insist on it as a defining article of Christian faith. But in all my years as a Christian, that viewpoint never made any sense to me, and it was never a part of my theology.

A less widespread explanation — but one with its share of advocates — is that the crucifixion was at heart the ultimate demonstration of God’s love. According to this idea, the normal expectation of humanity is to see God as judging and demanding, to be preoccupied with earning God’s acceptance and fearful of his rejection. And so Jesus comes to offer humanity a different view of God: a God who will forgive us even if we crucify him, a God whose love is (quoting Geoff Bullock) “beyond humankind’s capacity to earn it”.

That explanation also never felt like it could be the whole answer — largely because that view of God is clearly not as universal as it makes out — although I could envisage it as part of the answer. Anyway, those were the two competing explanations I found in books,* and, finding them inadequate, I speculated.

One line of thought I followed was that before a person can be healed of their sinful condition and fitted for Heaven, it is necessary to first develop a visceral appreciation of how serious sin is. That is to say, God can no more operate on the soul of someone who is insufficiently horrified by immorality, than a dentist can fix the tooth of someone who won’t open their mouth wide enough. And by bearing in mind the image of Jesus on the cross — the most perfect life ever lived tortured to death for the approval of the crowd — and learning to associate that image with all sin including one’s own seemingly trivial transgressions, it’s possible to put sin into its proper perspective and prepare the human heart to be transformed by God.

The main problem I acknowledged was that this doesn’t explain why some other illustration of the enormity of sin shouldn’t do just as well: why should the crucifixion and only the crucifixion be adequate to elicit the proper level of repulsion? I had no answer to that, but it seemed plausibly on the right track.

A further speculation which unites some of the above ideas is best presented as a metaphor, like the Scylla and Charybdis of Greek mythology. In this account there are two opposing obstacles on the spiritual journey, both of which must be negotiated if one is to make it to Heaven. The first is the danger of thinking our moral imperfections are no big deal — that we are good enough without God’s intervention — which in Christian thought is often looked upon as the ultimate folly. The second is the danger of being so overcome by a sense of our own inadequacy that we imagine God would never accept us, and are afraid to make the approach. Above this landscape — a narrow passage between two opposing and terminal errors — the Cross shines like a lighthouse, warning us at one and the same time not to underestimate sin, but also not to underestimate forgiveness.

That is as good an answer as I ever had. It works pretty well as a metaphor, but (just like every other explanation) not so well under clinical observation. In typical mythological style, the obvious questions — like why one universal lighthouse is better than several smaller ones — can be answered only by appealing to the seductive simplicity of the story. I realised that my answers were inadequate, even in conjunction, but they reinforced the impression that there was an answer to be found. At the end of the day, though, I accepted the idea that the crucifixion was somehow necessary for humans to be fitted for Heaven, even if I didn’t see why.

No religious belief can be understood in isolation, and everything I’ve said relates to topics that are outside the scope of this post (for example, this is not the time to discuss how I understood the identity between Jesus and God). But I think it’s worth saying that I always believed God shares all human suffering — like a divine mirror-touch synaesthete — and that I was absolutely sure no-one’s destiny hinges on ideas they may or may not encounter in this lifetime (as stated in my 2009 post).

We are all shaped by beliefs we no longer hold, and no doubt I wouldn’t be the same person today if I hadn’t in the past been a devoted believer. I am convinced of the value of occasionally discussing our former convictions not to defend nor refute them, but in the same spirit that one might share an old photograph. I hope this reminiscence has contained some thought for everyone to take away, Christians and atheists and all others as well.

* For further reading, see The Plain Man Looks at the Apostle’s Creed by William Barclay. (Also, Power of Your Love — Jesus: The Unexpected God by Geoff Bullock, although that book is irritatingly prone to speculation masquerading as fact.)

Page and sidebar renovation

Just a quick announcement here: I’ve written four new pages for this blog and made some adjustments to the sidebars.

The new pages are linked to from the left sidebar and also below. They replace the old pages, which were several years out of date.

If you’re reading this from a subscription feed of some kind, please visit the blog directly to see the updated sidebars.

If you’d like to offer feedback on the changes, please leave a comment below.

A cruel-coloured scathed crow

Audio pareidolia applied to song lyrics is a potent source of comedy. A single misheard line is often amusing enough, but the illusion is taken to another level when the imposed and original lyrics are in different languages. You may remember the Four Tuna video that went viral several years ago, in which a very well-known Latin song is given English captions that somewhat resemble the Latin phonetics. The result is simultaneously hilarious and fascinating.

I have listened countless times to the Youtube video of Karan Casey singing A Chomaraigh Aoibhinn O — an extraordinarily beautiful Irish song. I first linked to it in 2008, and it’s still a favourite. The lyrics, alongside an accurate English translation, are available here.

Recently I decided to give it the Four Tuna treatment, and my fake English lyrics are given below, underneath the original video. You can follow along and see how well my false lyrics fool your brain.


Moving hard down creek,
Nor the kid is still related;
I come back heaving gold.
Store the vine, though a cool work,
And your do will clearly fail all;
I come back heaving gold.
Laugh, ha-ha, yellow well,
Spoke a kind-hearted greybuck;
The gloam does swallow
The font of the layerer.
Oh, Grandma Creek,
It’s suet lower K, lol,
I come back heaving gold.

If stone grew barren
At a cruel-coloured scathed crow,
I come back heaving gold.
Through the last seven sewers,
Little heart’ll want a grainer;
I come back heaving gold.
Our fastest larrikin,
Here gone the pathed fields;
My wrath I show,
Let it show o’er the glazed fair.
Wrote a scar, penned and drew it,
And a new sort of spare art;
I come back heaving gold.

Nor veer sour or solar,
Shadowly we came, which
I come back heaving gold.
He knew we’d get fond
And yearn, let it stay here;
I come back heaving gold.
Our barber carried on,
Got a new sort of cradle;
If a heart got barred,
Fish can like a late shift.
It’s cost me a legion,
I flew a lot of leisure;
I come back heaving gold.

I vaguely entertain the notion that a skilled satirist could weave some story around these words — as another layer of pareidolia, that would be somewhat fitting. They’re utterly meaningless, of course, but it does no harm to caution readers in Ireland to watch out for the cruel-coloured scathed crow, just in case.

Does it work for you?

[I originally shared this on Google Plus — which is sometimes useful for sharing things that are still taking shape in my mind, with minimal attention to presentation or how they might seem in retrospect — but I’ve decided it merits a place on the blog.]