I originally posted the following on Google+ in 2016. Since G+ is due to be retired in the near future I’ve been making case-by-case decisions about what to do with my posts. Some are ephemeral and I’m content to let them go entirely. Others I’ve summarised on social media as I only wish to preserve their core. In this case, I’ve decided to reproduce it here.
This is a warning about mermaids. Stay away from mermaids; those things are dangerous.
OK, for those of you who want to know more, here are the details.
One thing a lot of people get wrong about mermaids is that they tend to think of them as half human and half fish. In fact, no part of a mermaid is human and no part of a mermaid is fish, in the same way that no part of a stick insect is stick. Evolutionarily speaking, mermaids are closer to sea slugs than to any kind of vertebrate. You can think of them as a highly differentiated form of sea slug with a unique camouflage.
Another thing to know about mermaids is that they’re like bees and ants in that they have different body forms for different social roles. The ones you hear about, the ones that look like a woman with a fish’s tail, let’s call them the foragers. They gather food and bring it back to the nest. Now, they have a kind of magic whereby anyone who is touching the mermaid can survive underwater. You don’t need to breathe, you won’t be harmed by the pressure, etc. Which is how they catch their food. First they’ll lure you close, and then as soon as you have a firm grip on the mermaid, the mermaid will plunge. And then you’re trapped. If you let go, you drown. If you don’t let go, you live a little longer, but your fate won’t please you.
What happens next is that the mermaid hands you over to the queen. Now, the queen mermaid does not look like a woman with a fish’s tail. More like a huge squishy slimy blob with tentacles that sits on the ocean floor and does nothing much except lay eggs. And you’re going to be attached to one of those tentacles. It begins with your genitals being physically fused to her body, somewhere not already occupied by the remains of a previous meal. Eventually your whole body will be melted into her as well, but it takes a while so you’ll have time to be aware of the process. And in your final moments, immobile and covered in putrid, sticky slime, you might reflect on the fact that after she’s absorbed all the nutrients your flesh contains, she will turn them into eggs and make more mermaids to lure more unwary victims to the same fate.
As I was saying: stay away from mermaids; those things are dangerous.
For a long time I’ve been fascinated by the Indian playing cards known as Ganjifa, which represent a different branch of the history of playing cards from the more familiar 52-card deck. In 2011 I acquired my own Ganjifa deck and wrote a couple of blog posts on the subject, including my own idea for a game. In 2015 I perfected the rules for this game and rewrote the blog post, giving my creation the title Kendra Kari (केंद्र कड़ी).
In response to that post I was contacted by Sunish Chabba, who was developing a new deck of Ganjifa cards under the brand “Guru Ganjifa”. This began a fruitful correspondence in which I helped Sunish with his project in various ways, and learned a great deal more about Ganjifa along the way. Sunish ran a regrettably unsuccessful kickstarter for the project, but lessons were learned and he plans to relaunch when the time is right.
Ganjifa cards can be looked upon as objects of play, as objects of art, or as objects of history, and there is something to be learnt from each perspective. In their heyday they were popular across most of India and proliferated into various forms, chief of which was the Dashavatara deck, with ten suits each representing an avatar of the god Vishnu. The deck developed by Sunish is of this type, as opposed to the eight-suited Mughal deck featured in my earlier posts.
(For more information I recommend this video if you generally enjoy history/culture documentaries, or if you’d like to explore even deeper you may find something of value in this freely-available research paper. If you’re in a less intellectual mood, perhaps you’d prefer to sit back and watch cards being painted. Other links can be found elsewhere in this post, or by searching. No source can be assumed accurate in all respects, as the sparseness of information makes fact-checking difficult.)
One of the challenges in producing a modern Ganjifa deck is deciding what rules to include for the traditional game. There are three main reasons why one cannot simply reproduce rules from historical sources. (1) As a folk game, Ganjifa spread from player to player over hundreds of years and accumulated innovations in each locality, such that each village evolved its own version of the rules. (2) The few versions that have been preserved in writing — at least in English — are not adequately detailed to serve as a comprehensive guide to play. (3) Any attempt to revive something from the past typically calls not for a faithful facsimile, but for a blend of tradition and innovation that captures the spirit of the original but adapts it to modern needs. Adaptability is, in games as in everything else, the key to survival.
As part of my collaboration with Sunish I drafted a set of rules that will form the basis of those to be published with the Guru Ganjifa deck. The purpose of this blog post is to make these rules available to potential playtesters, to create a forum (in the comments) for discussion of the game, and to provide a platform where I can document rationales for various decisions that I made. Note that my own playtests were limited to simulations in which I acted the part of all 3-4 players; I have not tested these rules under real conditions against live opponents.
Anyone who owns a Ganjifa deck is invited to help, and as there are so few people who do own a deck, my gratitude is all the more sincere. All feedback is welcome, whether positive or critical; whether pertaining to the game itself or to the clarity of the description. Critical comments can be used to improve the game, and positive ones to promote it. The rules herein accommodate groups of three or four players, and if you own a Dashavatara (ten-suited) deck you can play them exactly as intended. If you own a Mughal (eight-suited) deck you can still test the three-player game, but I wouldn’t suggest a four-player one. And if you’ve tried Ganjifa before but been turned off by its dependence on memory or some other quality not to your liking, perhaps you’ll be willing to give it a second chance.
I have been very negligent about updating this blog, for all the usual reasons, mostly to do with time and its habit of insufficiency.
That probably won’t change for a while, but here are a few things that I’ve shared elsewhere on the Internet over the last few months.
My niece’s 3rd birthday was in May, and I bought her a safari-themed magnetic theatre, which appropriately enough I gave to her at the zoo. Before that, however, I had recorded this video of a story I composed for it. Enjoy!
Another video I recorded earlier this year describes a method for remembering how the pips are arranged on standard six-sided dice. I did this for good old whimsical fun, channelling some of the greats of the explainer genre. It’s all about looking closely at everyday objects in search of easily memorised patterns, and I expect people to find it not so much useful as charmingly useless.
On Google Plus, I posted a warning about mermaids (2 June), which summarises my thoughts on the subject as developed over years of idle musing. My take is about as far removed from a Disney movie as you can get (but considerably nearer to folklore I think). It should appeal particularly to both biologists and sex fetishers, and I would be delighted if any authors are inspired by it.
Hopefully something in this eclectic collection appeals to you, and if anything arouses your curiosity, we can discuss it in the comments.
Back then I described how I had attended a four-week adult education class of that description at the WEA Centre, at which I chose to illustrate a poem that I’d previously written for a child of approximately five years.
Here is the poem again, punctuated in the way that seems best when the entire poem is displayed on one page. (I use simpler punctuation for book versions.)
A rabbit who lived up an elephant’s trunk Was feeling extremely displeased With the effort it took just to clean out the gunk Whenever the elephant sneezed. So she looked all around for the optimal place For which she had started to hope, And was offered just one — which was not in good taste, Being deep down a crocodile’s throat. “Well, I couldn’t live there”, thought the rabbit, “because There are too many teeth at the door! I might as well stay in the trunk where I was And put up with cleaning the floor.” But later the elephant stopped by the moat And the crocodile bit off a chunk. So the rabbit is now in the crocodile’s throat As well as the elephant’s trunk.
I never completed my illustrations (check the above link to see how far I got), but my mother has always wanted the book to be finished, and late in 2015 she said she was willing to pay for it to be done through the graphic design studio I work for.
Now, because we’re graphic design, not art, the project was somewhat outside our usual domain — but we do have a couple of employees who can draw. One (Travis) is not long out of school, has started formal art classes at TAFE, and aspires to become a cartoonist. It turned out he was keen to do the drawings for my book, especially as it was to be his first time ever drawing for a client. However, he didn’t feel confident about colouring, so that (and inking) fell to another employee and art hobbyist (Rosie).
Incidentally, I also enquired online as to whether any other artists were interested (through a friend who is involved with the free painting software Krita). But nothing came of that, so Travis and Rosie got the job.
You are now reading the official announcement that the book is finished, and that if you’d like a copy, you can get in touch. Copies are limited, so I can’t give them out to every random person who stumbles upon this page, but I’d be happy to send them to any online friends who are interested.
Meanwhile, here is a web quality PDF for everyone to enjoy, and below is a video of the printed product. The back page shows a selection of my own illustrations, as also seen in my earlier blog post. The pages are 150 gsm white satin, and the cover is 300 gsm.
(I regret that my voice sounds bored in places, but that’s simply because holding a camera and reciting a story at the same time takes concentration, and I don’t have enough brain cells left to be expressive.)
OK, that’s the announcement over. I’d now like to share a few thoughts about lessons learned in the making of this book, especially about working with amateur artists. Then I’ll end with an invitation for any art or other derivative works of your own.
I’m glad I was able to offer experience to a young artist learning his craft, but the road was a bumpy one at times, and made me appreciate what a good professional artist could do. With a bit of luck, you could give a story to an experienced artist and more or less leave them to it, trusting them to make sensible decisions about what to draw and to draw it well. Travis is nowhere near that level, and I had to critique his drafts in a lot more detail than I was comfortable with. To his credit, he was happy to draw as many drafts as it took. If persistence and openness to criticism are among the marks of a successful artist in the making, then those are certainly among his strengths.
The skills that someone needs to be a good storybook artist include not only drawing, but also an ability to read someone else’s story and gauge what would and would not be appropriate for an illustration. This ability might not be evident simply from an artist’s portfolio, and I think it comes in two parts: knowing what to put in, and knowing what to leave out. For example, the book doesn’t mention anything about a castle until page 7, where we learn that the crocodile lives in the moat. Yet Travis drew a castle on page 4, and in early drafts it was a lot more prominent. Was this a good decision? In my comments I ruled that the castle should not feature prominently before the moat was mentioned in the text, but that showing a small part of it on page 4 was OK. In this decision I reasoned that someone reading the book for the first time might suppose that the castle is playing on the theme of places to live, so there is some thematic justification for it.
One very obvious lesson we learned is that we should have finalised the character drawings before starting on the scenes. Any real artist would have done it that way, but it’s one of those things that, as a design studio, we didn’t think about until it was too late. On a related topic, if you look closely you’ll notice several inconsistencies in the character drawings, but one thing worth mentioning is the length of the elephant’s tusks. On page 2 (where the elephant sneezes) they are a modest length, but on page 1 and the cover (which was based on a tracing from page 1) they are nearly as long as the trunk. In fact this isn’t an oversight, but an attempt to make it absolutely clear that it is a trunk and not, shall we say, some other part of the elephant (I felt that was important). An experienced artist would have found a better solution, but knowing our limits, the inconsistent tusk length was a sacrifice we chose to make for the greater good.
The only page for which I rejected Travis’s original concept entirely was the last, for which he drew the rabbit alive inside the crocodile, sitting on the detached elephant’s trunk and holding a fishing line. The poem leaves it up to the child’s imagination whether the rabbit survives or not, so I felt the pictures should do the same.
I could go on discussing Travis’s drawings and the stages they went through, because I know he’s OK with that, but a few examples suffice to make some general points. I am less inclined to publically critique Rosie’s efforts, because she’s a hobbyist rather than an aspiring professional, so I don’t feel it’s appropriate to put her work in the spotlight so much. That said, there is a story to be told about every page, as each picture is a collaboration, containing elements contributed by Travis, Rosie and myself. So please feel free to ask about any details that catch your eye. The illustrations are clearly better than I could have done, as you can see by comparing them to my own pictures on the back cover.
To finish this blog post, here is my invitation for artists. (I’m thinking particularly of those who try to draw something new every day, at all levels of proficiency.) If the muse takes you and you’re inclined to share, I’d love to see how you would have illustrated the poem, either the whole poem at once or a selected page from the book. For example, perhaps you have an idea for getting the rabbit and the elephant into the frame, or perhaps you think you can do a better job on drawing a scene from inside the crocodile’s mouth on page 5. Let me know whether you’d like me to nitpick your efforts.
And if you’re not an artist but would like to join in the fun, other derivative works are equally welcome, from an essay of literary analysis emphasising the political theme of housing shortages, to a recipe for a rabbit sausage roll with gooey green lining inside the pastry.
Then I made a copy of the pattern in step one, and flipped it. (Horizontally or vertically: it makes no difference.)
Finally I merged the two to create the pattern you see above. A pixel is white if the corresponding pixels in (1) and (2) are the same colour (be it white or black) and black if the corresponding pixels in (1) and (2) are opposite colours.
Perhaps this will inspire you to create patterns of your own.
I have, regrettably, been too busy to blog lately. But I’m here now.
There are two personal items I’d like to discuss, so I’ll begin with the first, follow it with selected links from around the Web, and finish with the second item. Both involve some kind of appeal for assistance, although one more so than the other.
The first concerns a card game I invented, and that we playtested at my birthday party last month.
[Update: This first request has been answered. I have shortened the text below to reflect this.]
My birthday was June 12, but for reasons pertaining to Dad’s recent retirement, it was one week later that a small celebratory gathering took place. There were five people present: a friend, an uncle, my parents, and myself (unfortunately, the uncle had to leave early). I left most of the organising and decision-making to my parents, but playtesting a card game was my one explicit request.
The game was one that I invented and blogged about in 2011, but at the time it was a work in progress and the rules yet to be fully refined. But recently I took it off the backburner, made a few small adjustments, and updated my original blog post accordingly.
The twist is that this is not a game you can play with the familiar deck of hearts, diamonds, spades and clubs. Rather it is designed for Ganjifa — traditional playing cards from India that are typically circular rather than rectangular with at least 96 cards per deck. Regrettably they are used for only a handful of games and even those are dying out. I don’t care too much about the traditional games, but it’s a pity that the cards themselves lack a living tradition of new games being invented. The world could do with more Ganjifa games, and the game I’ve invented is my contribution to that end.
Here’s where my appeal to the Internet comes in — because the one thing I have not managed to do is decide on a name for the game. Since it is played with Indian cards, I feel that giving it an Indian name would be an appropriate tribute to the culture that created them, and have been appealing for help from people who know Indian languages and are interested in helping to name a new card game.
If you can help, or know someone who probably can, I would greatly appreciate it. I’ve suggested the name केंद्र कड़ी (crudely: Kendra Kari) for reasons outlined in my Google Plus post, but I really require informed human feedback and not just the results of automated translation tools.
A while ago, just for fun, I decided to see if I could guess an approximate formula for time dilation in general relativity. I didn’t expect to be right, but using a combination of high school physics, Ockham’s Razor, and a few elementary facts, I gave it my best shot.
So I was genuinely delighted to discover later that my result checks out against real-world examples!
This page on Quora has a couple of obvious faults (the biggie is that the altitude of the ISS varies between 330 and 435 kilometres according to Wikipedia, so calculating a result to so many significant figures makes no sense), but the relevant formula corresponds closely to mine. Moreover, plugging their result into my formula puts the ISS in the right range — at about 375 kilometres. Another example I found is that time goes faster by 10 nanoseconds per year for every floor you go up in a building; again, my formula checks out, putting the difference between floors at a very reasonable three metres.
I am no genius (trust me on this), but in all the popular science I’ve read, I have never seen anyone mention that an approximate but workable formula for time dilation in general relativity is astonishingly easy to guess. Feeling that I’d stumbled on an angle that popular writers have missed but would be useful to others, I decided to write up my results as an article of my own. Please remember this is an un-factchecked draft, and I am no more an expert than the target reader, but you learn by doing. It’s written in the style of a popular science article, and is 1000 words long.
If any real popular physics writer reads this — I would love to hear your feedback. Also, you are welcome to take inspiration for your own blog posts, and I hope you will be so kind as to send me a link if you do. A tweet to @GoldHoarder will do nicely.
(Incidentally, I used a free PDF converter, so the links don’t work, but since they’re fully spelt out they won’t slow you down very much. Since it’s a draft, I find this acceptable.)
[Update: I linked to my relativity article in a comment here.]
There are several notable things to report on this month, though unusually, that doesn’t translate to a lot of links to share.
You’ve probably heard the news that Terry Pratchett died recently. I’ve been a fan my whole adult life, and this feels like the end of an era. There’s an official announcement here, plus various news reports, opinion pieces and tributes all over the Internet. Many are well worth your time, but I’m more inclined to encourage readers to look around than link to anything specific. There’s one last book to be published posthumously (confession: I’ve never read any of the Tiffany Aching books).
My sister’s second child, Elliot Roger Smith, was born around 11:15 on Wednesday March 11. I have yet to meet my new nephew, but I hear all is well, even if his big sister has some adjusting to do.
I now have over a thousand WordPress users subscribing to this blog. This means little, because the overwhelming majority are follow spam — people who follow other blogs indiscriminantly either in the hope that it will get them some attention or because they’re the blogging equivalent of hoarders — but there must be some who subscribed because they genuinely looked at my blog and liked what they saw. If that’s you, I encourage you to make yourself known in the comments. Tell me who you are and what you found here that you liked.
The Gede Ruins in Kenya are famous not only as a historical site but also for its wildlife (especially the monkeys), and a community organisation that helps to protect the site is now using a logo that I designed (though someone else drew the animal outlines). For a few months they were rather cheekily using a draft version that I only sent — along with some other designs — to show how things were progressing, but I don’t know the whole story behind that decision, and the completed version is in use now.
Now here are some links. Not many this month (for whatever reason I’ve not seen a lot recently that compels me to archive it) but I hope you enjoy them.
I avoid sexual topics on this blog, for reasons best encapsulated in the phrase “more trouble than it’s worth“. I’d love to live in a world where a conversation about the diversity of human experience need not be approached with trepidation, but sadly, in the real world it does tend to bring out the irrational in people.
Today I’d like to lift the veil ever so slightly and share a short story I wrote in 2009. It includes the only sex scene I’ve ever written, and I’m actually quite proud of it. If you know me at all, you’ll expect a twist.
I published the story on Ficly.com, which I’ve written about before. Ficly was a site where people wrote stories in 1000 characters or less, but it has recently closed its doors — the archive is still there but you can no longer publish anything new. A new site, Ficlatté, has succeeded it, but it’s not much to look at so far.
This post contains what purports to be a fractal poem. It’s not a bad poem in its own right, but the link to fractal geometry was too subjective for my taste. However, it got me thinking about what else a “fractal poem” might mean, and I was up till two that morning bringing my idea into fruition. I shared the poem I came up with in the comments, but a fuller explanation appears below.
I based my poem on a simple L-system. An L-system contains a set of rules, applied iteratively, for replacing one symbol with a sequence of symbols. For example, suppose we agree to replace “A” with “ABBA” and “B”, with “BA”. Then, starting with “A”, the first iteration gives “ABBA”, the second iteration gives “ABBABABAABBA”, the third “ABBABABAABBABAABBABAABBAABBABABAABBA” and so on. The connection to fractal geometry is that if we interpret the symbols graphically (e.g. “A” for “go forward” and “B” for “turn left”), we get a squiggly line whose squiggliness depends upon the number of iterations.
I used an L-system where “A” becomes “ABBA”, “B” becomes “BCCB”, and so on. (Using numbers rather than letters, this is: “n → n, n+1, n+1, n”.) After two iterations, we have “ABBABCCBBCCBABBA”, which is the structure I used for my poem, interpreting each letter as representing a line and requiring all lines assigned the same letter to rhyme. In other words, it had to be a 16-line poem in which lines 1, 4, 13 & 16 rhyme, lines 2, 3, 5, 8, 9, 12, 14 & 15 rhyme, and lines 6, 7, 10 & 11 rhyme.
Here is the result. It has, I think, an interesting aesthetic quality when read aloud.
This doggerel does not intend To satisfy the reader’s would For art that is remotely good; It will not serve to meet that end, So don’t imagine that it could. But in its rhyming structure you Might find, if you are able to, A pattern to be understood That’s relevant to trees of wood And clouds of water vapour, too – The applications are not few – For it possesses fractalhood. Look closely, and you’ll comprehend The secret pattern, bad or good, Which, if this text were longer, could By iterative means extend.
After a third iteration, the structure would be a challenging ABBA BCCB BCCB ABBA BCCB CDDC CDDC BCCB BCCB CDDC CDDC BCCB ABBA BCCB BCCB ABBA. Four iterations would give you an epic poem of 256 lines. You’re welcome to give that a go, or maybe you’d prefer to write your own variation on a shorter poem like mine.
Here are some more links that I found over the Christmas holidays:
All of the best arguments against vaccination together on one page. (No, it’s not blank, but you’ve got the right idea.)
As for the holidays themselves, I don’t feel like writing a report, but rest assured I had an excellent time. Here are two photographs that capture some special moments.
The photo on the left shows my niece and her parents (my sister on the left, pregnant with her second child) at the Christmas table as it is being prepared. Of note are the origami mangers, complete with jelly baby and paper straw, alternating with paper trees. The brown paper bags are what we used instead of crackers.
On the right is a framed photo set showing miscellaneous moments in Elke’s life so far. This was Rebecca’s Christmas present to me, and it is now hanging above the light switch in my bedroom.
This is the story of a competition I recently won.
In an episode of the Skeptic Zone podcast published while I was in Sydney, Richard Saunders announced a competition: to take a photograph on the theme Billions and Billions for a chance of winning a DVD set of the recent Cosmos remake.
Being on holiday I wasn’t planning to enter, but I did spend some time thinking about what sort of photograph one might take (it also made a good conversation topic). I decided that hundreds and thousands should feature somehow, and my best idea — given the time, resources and skills to pull it off — was as follows. (1) Bake a cake in a small, hemisphere-shaped bowl, and ice it to look like (half of) a giant hundred-and-thousand. (2) Choose a background for the photograph that represents the void of space — perhaps a dark cloth laid over some surface — and sprinkle hundreds and thousands all over it. (3) Place the cake amidst the hundreds and thousands; and on top of the cake, place a lego figure with a telescope.
I don’t have the resources to create this, but obviously there are people out there who could pull it off, and probably do something even better that I hadn’t thought of. So I didn’t think I had any hope of winning the competition, and was just hypothetically contemplating what I would do.
Then I went along to the August 7th Skeptics in the Pub (as described in my Sydney report), and chatted to some people from the Skeptic Zone podcast. The photograph competition came up in conversation with Jo Alabaster, who strongly encouraged me to enter, saying that there had been very few entries, and that even a diagram of my idea would be worth sending in.
My original idea might have been at the edge of possibility given enough time and borrowing of resources, but with a deadline just two weeks after the original announcement (more like one week by the time I got home from Sydney), it was completely impossible. Still, by now I knew that a simpler photograph was in with a chance, and the Cosmos DVD set was a pretty alluring prize. Then — as I was contemplating what resources I might find on an upcoming grocery shop — I hit on an idea that was easily within my grasp, and a multi-layered interpretation of the challenge. All I needed to buy was one bag of icing sugar.
At some point I looked up the other entries on the Skeptic Zone facebook page, and indeed there weren’t many. This surprises me: the much-talked-about Cosmos series is surely an attractive prize, and not something many Australians would have seen already (people who subscribe to non-free-to-air TV are a small minority); I saw one episode on Youtube before it was taken down.
And here is the explanation I sent with it. (A note on the calculation: if you google the size of an icing sugar particle, you’ll find figures between 10 and 100 micrometres. I used 100 cubic micrometres for my estimate … wait, that’s wrong, isn’t it? A cube 10 to 100 micrometres across is actually 1,000 to 1,000,000 cubic micrometres … call it 100,000 cubic micrometres … and a billion particles that size would take up a tenth of a litre … whoops, now I’m embarrassed.)
It’s a pair of equations, one horizontal, the other vertical, like a crossword. Physical objects stand in for quantities
The first equation reads: “100s & 1000s cubed is less than icing sugar”.
If hundreds and thousands (the famous confectionary) are called hundreds and thousands, then icing sugar could very reasonably be called billions and billions. In fact, I calculate that just one millilitre of icing sugar contains more than ten billion grains!
The second equation reads: “earth multiplied by icing sugar is less than universe”.
This ties the photograph to a cosmological theme, asserting that the universe contains the equivalent of billions and billions of earths.
By the time the deadline arrived I was expecting to win (although I liked the elegance of Jon Frary’s entry), and throughout the next day, tension was high. I checked the relevant links over and over, and as time passed I thought maybe I hadn’t won after all.
I look forward to the DVDs. I’ve read enough reviews to know that the series is flawed — just like everything else in the real world — so I am not expecting perfection. I do, however, expect it to be very good, and that its strengths will outweigh its flaws by a considerable margin. Perhaps I will tell you what I thought.
Incidentally, long time readers will know this isn’t the first time I’ve won a science-related online competition. Last time I wrote a limerick.