Ultima Thule

In ancient times the northernmost region of the habitable world - hence, any distant, unknown or mysterious land.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

"Sweet compulsion doth in music lie"

Today had almost slipped by me when my daily email from Composers Datebook arrived, and I read the following note:

"[Today we celebrate the birthday] of the great 19th century Italian opera composer, Giuseppe Verdi, whose mother had told him he was born on October 9th. Like a good son, Verdi always celebrated that day -- even when he later learned that a church registry proved the date was actually October 10th.

"Verdi was born in Parma in 1813 at a time when that part of Italy was under French rule. And so, Giuseppe Fortunino Francesco Verdi was registered at birth as Joseph Fortunin François Verdi. His parent were dirt poor, but when Verdi died at the age of 87 in 1901, he was the most famous Italian of his time and his funeral was a state event involving thousands."

Today would therefore be a good time to send Verdi lovers to two long and passionate essays that Helen posted last year about her beloved Verdi, and that I reposted earlier this year: the first one, Musings on Verdi's Requiem, on February 8th; and the second one, Further thoughts on Verdi's Requiem, on February 18th.


Sunday, October 07, 2007

"How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank."

“How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank.
Here will we sit, and let the sounds of music
Creep in our ears; soft stillness, and the night
Become the touches of sweet harmony.” -- The Merchant of Venice

I doubt that even Shakespeare could have imagined a more magically beautiful scene than this! It accompanied Aussiegirl's September 29, 2006 post, which I have pasted in below. Rarely have I seen a more evocative photograph -- so I decided it deserved one more showing,


Feeling blue? Maybe it's the moonlight!

By Aussiegirl

Moonlight becomes you -- or does it? Maybe the lyricist enjoyed seeing his beloved bathed in a blue haze? Her lipstick probably looked blue too. Read on about the mysterious properties of moonlight.

NASA - Strange Moonlight

Sept. 28, 2006: Not so long ago, before electric lights, farmers relied on moonlight to harvest autumn crops. With everything ripening at once, there was too much work to to do to stop at sundown. A bright full moon—a "Harvest Moon"—allowed work to continue into the night.

The moonlight was welcome, but as any farmer could tell you, it was strange stuff. How so? See for yourself. The Harvest Moon of 2006 rises on October 6th, and if you pay attention, you may notice a few puzzling things:

1. Moonlight steals color from whatever it touches. Regard a rose. In full moonlight, the flower is brightly lit and even casts a shadow, but the red is gone, replaced by shades of gray. In fact, the whole landscape is that way. It's a bit like seeing the world through an old black and white TV set.

"Moon gardens" turn this 1950s-quality of moonlight to advantage. White or silver flowers that bloom at night are both fragrant and vivid beneath a full moon. Favorites include Four-O'clocks, Moonflower Vines, Angel's Trumpets—but seldom red roses.

2. If you stare at the gray landscape long enough, it turns blue. The best place to see this effect, called the "blueshift" or "Purkinje shift" after the 19th century scientist Johannes Purkinje who first described it, is in the countryside far from artificial lights. As your eyes become maximally dark adapted, the blue appears. Film producers often put a blue filter over the lens when filming night scenes to create a more natural feel, and artists add blue to paintings of nightscapes for the same reason. Yet if you look up at the full moon, it is certainly not blue. (Note: Fine ash from volcanoes or forest fires can turn moons blue, but that's another story.)

3. Moonlight won't let you read. Open a book beneath the full moon. At first glance, the page seems bright enough. Yet when you try to make out the words, you can't. Moreover, if you stare too long at a word it might fade away. Moonlight not only blurs your vision but also makes a little blind spot. (Another note: As with all things human, there are exceptions. Some people have extra-sensitive cones or an extra helping of rods that do allow them to read in the brightest moonlight.)

This is all very strange. Moonlight, remember, is no more exotic than sunlight reflected from the dusty surface of the moon. The only difference is intensity: Moonlight is about 400,000 times fainter than direct sunlight.

So what do we make of it all? The answer lies in the eye of the beholder. The human retina is responsible.

The retina is like an organic digital camera with two kinds of pixels: rods and cones. Cones allow us to see colors (red roses) and fine details (words in a book), but they only work in bright light. After sunset, the rods take over.

Rods are marvelously sensitive (1000 times more so than cones) and are responsible for our night vision. According to some reports, rods can detect as little as a single photon of light! There's only one drawback: rods are colorblind. Roses at night thus appear gray.

If rods are so sensitive, why can't we use them to read by moonlight? The problem is, rods are almost completely absent from a central patch of retina called the fovea, which the brain uses for reading. The fovea is densely packed with cones, so we can read during the day. At night, however, the fovea becomes a blind spot. The remaining peripheral vision isn't sharp enough to make out individual letters and words.

Finally, we come to the blueshift. Consider this passage from a 2004 issue of the Journal of Vision:

"It should be noted that the perception of blue color or any color for that matter in a purely moonlit environment is surprising, considering that the light intensity is below the detection threshold for cone cells. Therefore if the cones are not being stimulated how do we perceive the blueness?" --"Modeling Blueshift in Moonlit Scenes using Rod-Cone Interaction" by Saad M. Khan and Sumanta N. Pattanaik, University of Central Florida.

The authors of the study went on to propose a bio-electrical explanation--that signals from rods can spill into adjacent blue-sensitive cones under conditions of full-moon illumination (see the diagram, right). This would create an illusion of blue. "Unfortunately," they point out, "direct physiological evidence to support or negate the hypothesis is not yet available."

So there are still some mysteries in the moonlight. Look for them on Oct. 6th under the Harvest Moon.

Caveat Lunar: This story makes some generalizations about what people can see at night but, as with all things human, there are exceptions: Some people can read by moonlight; others have no trouble seeing the red petals of a moonlit rose. These people have "moonvision," boosted by an extra-helping of rods or unusually sensitive cones. Are you one of them?

Saturday, October 06, 2007

"The Book of Life begins with a man and a woman in a garden. It ends with Revelations."

Oscar Wilde seems to have been one of history's great conversationalists. In The Epigrams of Oscar Wilde, an anthology by Alvin Redman, we find a fascinating example of the rarefied heights that his conversation could reach. The following quotation is from page 22 of this book. (The title of this post is of course another fine example of Wilde's wit.)


"Few remain of those who heard his talk, but his many biographers are unanimous in acclaiming Wilde as the supreme conversationalist. The descriptions are many and varied, and Wilde himself, in the character of Lord Henry Wotton in The Picture of Dorian Gray, has left a most apt description, by example, of his conversation. He describes Lord Wotton's talk in the following short extract:

'He played with the idea, grew wilful; tossed it into the air and tranformed it; let it escape and recaptured it; made it iridescent with fancy, and winged it with paradox. The praise of folly, as he went on, soared into a philosophy, and Philosophy herself became young, and catching the mad music of Pleasure wearing, one might fancy, her wine-stained robe and wreath of ivy, danced like a Bacchante over the hills of Life, and mocked the slow Silenus for being sober. Facts spread before her like frightened forest things. Her white feet trod the huge press at which the wise Omar sits, till the seething grape-juice rose round her bare limbs in waves of purple bubbles, or crawled in red foam over the vat's black, dripping, sloping sides. It was an extraordinary improvisation.'
"This was Wilde himself, buoyantly guiding the narrative through many bright bejewelled caverns until he reached the daylight of his story, and then smilingly turning back to find new adventures for his words."

Friday, October 05, 2007

"I am as vigilant as a cat to steal cream"

Looking through a collection of clippings I had saved, I came across this article from 1994; it may have been from the New York Times. At any rate, the author, whose name is not given, is obviously a very keen observer of cats, and writes wittily as well as lovingly of these wonderful creatures. (My quote is from Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part 1, and belongs to that irrepressibly charming rogue, Falstaff.)


Strategy on four paws

The first thing you should know about strategic thinking in cats is this: Sometimes cats don't think strategically.

Sometimes cats just fall deeply asleep and have no idea of what is going on around them. Mongol cat-eating hordes could be laying waste the countryside; a cat would not be aware.

I have one cat who sleeps on her back with her paws up in the air. All she needs are little X's on her eyes and a lily between her paws, and she could become a cartoon dead cat. She is not, at these moments, thinking strategically.

But many times she is.

One concept familiar to strategically oriented cats is the lap as redoubt or watchtower. The cat will leap into the lap of the homeowner, apparently to have a nice snuggle and general all-around stroke event. That is her "cover story", as we say in cat-strategy circles.

Actually, she is waiting for her enemies. She is uniquely sensitive to all the entrances to the room. She has selected one particular doorway as the most likely direction from which her enemies might emerge. She stares fixedly at that doorway, ears alert, eyes wide.

Suppose the homeowner were to stroke the cat at that moment. Foolish, foolish homeowner. The homeowner, in this instance, is merely high ground--his job is to remain motionless and carry on with whatever sedentary activity he was pursuing before the cat arrived.

In this scenario, the homeowner is the peaceful villager going about his agrarian lifestyle. The cat is the samurai, protecting the village from marauders. And you don't pet a samurai. Get a clue!

Like all warriors, cats get restless in the absence of real enemies. A cat patrols its territory for weeks on end, ceaselessly on guard against all predators, also ceaselessly searching for living sources of food--your very dumb birds, your very slow mice--and yet finding nothing of interest.

A cat will hide in the shrubbery or position itself behind potted plants. A cat will select the top of a fence or a crockery cabinet and stare through slitted eyes at the landscape below. Ever alert to the slightest sound, the slightest change in air pressure, the slightest flicker of shadow, it will remain true to its sacred duty unless there's new food in the bowl or something.

And yet, nothing comes. A cat gets a little paranoid at times like that. All that watchfulness and no enemies--perhaps there is a larger plot to confound it. That's it, a conspiracy to devalue its function and make its mission in life meaningless. And the conspiracy is obviously being masterminded by--that thin strip of plastic!

Pounce! Slash! Disembowel! Dash about meaningfully! Hurl yourself on your back as though in the final stages of a death struggle! Leap up! Attack! Stand still! Wash!

It's a display designed to strike fear into the hearts of all who see it. It's the slaughter demo, a key ingredient in the strategic thinking of cats.

Sometimes a cat will be taking just a little nap and suddenly a suspicious sound will arouse it. It will gaze frantically about like a police constable arriving too late at an accident. "Now then, what's all this?" it will seem to say, in the bogus British accent it employs on these sad occasions.

Then it will assume control. It will patrol the perimeters of its territory. Sometimes it will get down on its belly and inch slowly through a particularly dicey bit of landscape. Once again, the craven enemy has fled; once again, peace has returned to the valley.

Ostentatiously, the cat goes to a prominent place, lies down gracefully, and arranges itself in a perfect circle.

The unwary might think that it was resting and unvigilant. But its eyes move and its tail lashes; it is setting a trap.

But soon it is time for a nap again.

Hamsters on Viagra take center stage at Ig Nobel awards

In addition to overcoming jet lag, it looks like Viagra can also help a hamster with its golf swing.

Hamsters on Viagra take center stage at Ig Nobel awards

Scientists who discovered that Viagra helps hamsters overcome jet lag and a Japanese researcher who extracted vanilla favoring from cow dung won top honors Thursday at the 17th annual Ig Nobel Awards.

The Igs, as they are known, are chosen by the Annals of Improbable Research magazine to highlight scientific achievements that, in the words of editor Marc Abrahams, "first make people laugh and then make them think."

Among the winners were a British-US duo for a penetrating report on the effects of sword swallowing and a Spain-based team who answered the question of whether rats can discriminate between Japanese and Dutch spoken backwards.

"It was a surprise, it was the last thing we expected," said Nuria Sebastian-Galles, one of the Barcelona team of scientists, of the findings. The awards, she said, "bring out the freak inside most scientists."

Seven of the 10 winners this year paid their own way to accept the awards, which were handed out by six real Nobel Prize laureates.

Although pelted by paper airplanes, as per tradition, each winner expressed delight at receiving the small trophies affixed with a chicken and an egg.

Asked why chickens were chosen as this year's theme, master of ceremonies Abrahams looked astonished and said only: "How could you not?"

Some scientists have complained that the satirical awards unfairly tarnish legitimate research. Others say a sense of fun humanizes scientists.

"I don't take it as an insult at all," said Brian Witcome, a British radiologist who won the medicine prize for his sword-swallowing research.

"Humor adds to research," he said. His co-author, US scientist Dan Meyer even gulped down a short sword before thanking the whooping crowd with the hilt between his teeth.

Past winners who showed up included the creator of the pink plastic flamingo, the inventor of a hiding alarm clock and a researcher who reported the first known case of homosexual necrophilia in the mallard duck.

"To the best of my knowledge, this behavior has not been observed in chickens," Dutchman Kees Moeliker deadpanned.

Research highlighted by this year's awards ranged from a study of how sheets wrinkle and how the word "the" causes headaches for indexes, to why humans can't stop eating when presented with an apparently endless bowl of soup.

Some winners tried to explain their research but if they talked for more than 60 seconds they were interrupted by an eight-year-old girl who repeatedly intoned, "Please stop, I'm bored."

Nonetheless, Dutch scientist Johanna van Bronswijk managed to describe why she is doing a census of the mites, insects, spiders and other creatures with which humans share their bed. "I found that you never sleep alone," she said.

Diego Golombek, the Argentine who found the cure for hamster jet lag, thanked his assistants "for going to the store to get the Viagra for us."

Also honored was a Taiwanese man who patented a device to net bank robbers, but who could not attend the ceremony because he has apparently vanished.

"Someone in Taiwan suggested the man is trapped inside his machine and is there to this day," Abrahams said.

The highly-coveted peace prize was given to a US Air Force laboratory for researching what the committee dubbed the "gay bomb" -- a chemical weapon that would make enemy soldiers become sexually irresistible to each other.

No one showed up to collect the award but a disco ball dropped over the stage and Abrahams said the bomb would be demonstrated before an official censor of the evening's activities intervened.

Japanese researcher Mayu Yamamoto, who received the chemistry Ig for her work extracting vanilla flavor from cow dung, got an additional honor: a local ice cream shop created a new flavor, the "Yum-a-Moto Vanilla Twist," in her honor.

Yamamoto said she first learned of her award by email and thought it was a joke but decided to go to the ceremony because "I want everyone to know about my research."

As if further levity were needed, the ceremony was punctuated with goofy "Moments of Science" and a contest to win a date with a Nobel laureate billed with the slogan: "He's shapely, he's sassy and he's smarter than you."

© 2007 AFP

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Scientist invents computer pillow to stop snoring

Our life is twofold; Sleep hath its own world,
A boundary between the things misnamed
Death and existence: Sleep hath its own world,
And a wide realm of wild reality,
And dreams in their development have breath,
And tears, and tortures, and the touch of joy;
They leave a weight upon our waking thoughts,
They take a weight from off waking toils,
They do divide our being; they become
A portion of ourselves as of our time,
And look like heralds of eternity;
They pass like spirits of the past—they speak
Like sibyls of the future; they have power—
The tyranny of pleasure and of pain;
They make us what we were not—what they will,
And shake us with the vision that’s gone by,
The dread of vanished shadows—Are they so?
Is not the past all shadow?—What are they?
Creations of the mind?—The mind can make
Substances, and people planets of its own
With beings brighter than have been, and give
A breath to forms which can outlive all flesh.

This beautiful passage is from the beginning of Byron's long poem, The Dream. It's not clear just how we might find out what this peaceful cat is dreaming about, but I think it is clear that cats, able to sleep just about anywhere, will never have need of such a pillow.


October 03, 2007

BERLIN (Reuters) - A German scientist has come up with a solution for snoring -- a computerized pillow that shifts the head's sleeping position until the noise stops.

Daryoush Bazargani, professor of computer science at the University of Rostock and the pillow's inventor, was displaying a prototype of his pillow at a health conference in Germany on Wednesday.

"The pillow is attached to a computer, which is the size of a book, rests on a bedside table, and analyses snoring noises," Bazargani told Reuters.

"The computer then reduces or enlarges air compartments within the pillow to facilitate nasal airflow to minimize snoring as the user shifts during sleep," he said.

The ergonomic pillow can also be used for neck massages.

Bazargani said several U.S. firms were interested in manufacturing the pillow.

"I invented it because I snore," he said. "I tried all sorts of products, but nothing worked. I hope people who use it will sleep more peacefully."

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

"A cat may looke on a King"

I first found this striking photograph of what appears to be a staring contest between a cat and a goldfish -- then I decided to post Gray's fine poem to accompany it.


Thomas Gray (1716-1771)

Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat Drowned in a Tub of Goldfishes

'Twas on a lofty vase's side,
Where China's gayest art had dy'd
The azure flow'rs that blow;
Demurest of the tabby kind,
The pensive Selima, reclin'd,
Gazed on the lake below.

Her conscious tail her joy declar'd;
The fair round face, the snowy beard,
The velvet of her paws,
Her coat, that with the tortoise vies,
Her ears of jet, and emerald eyes,
She saw: and purr'd applause.

Still had she gaz'd; but 'midst the tide
Two angel forms were seen to glide,
The Genii of the stream;
Their scaly armour's Tyrian hue
Thro' richest purple to the view
Betray'd a golden gleam.

The hapless Nymph with wonder saw:
A whisker first and then a claw,
With many an ardent wish,
She stretch'd in vain to reach the prize.
What female heart can gold despise?
What cat's averse to fish?

Presumptuous Maid! with looks intent
Again she stretch'd, again she bent,
Nor knew the gulf between.
(Malignant Fate sat by, and smil'd)
The slipp'ry verge her feet beguil'd,
She tumbled headlong in.

Eight times emerging from the flood
She mew'd to ev'ry wat'ry god,
Some speedy aid to send.
No Dolphin came, no Nereid stirr'd;
Nor cruel Tom, nor Susan heard.
A Fav'rite has no friend!

From hence, ye Beauties, undeceiv'd,
Know, one false step is ne'er retriev'd,
And be with caution bold.
Not all that tempts your wand'ring eyes
And heedless hearts is lawful prize,
Nor all, that glisters, gold.

The Triune God of Christianity

This is a long essay that Helen wrote last November as an email to an internet friend.


[By Aussiegirl]

There is an aspect of Buddhism and Hinduism that speaks to
the mystical truths and certainly their techniques of meditation are
quite sophisticated. But I think that true universal Christianity comes
closest to expressing the ideal relationship of man to God. However,
there are charlatans in Christianity, and the various sects get
overinvolved in their dogmatic arguments with one another. If you get
back to the very basic message that Christ brought -- that the kingdom
of God is within you -- and that you are one with the Father -- in other
words -- you and God are made of the same stuff -- if you recognize that
indwelling God spirit and commune with it -- if you come to an awareness of
love for your fellow man as a reflection of God's love for his creation,
you understand that it is only through the love of one person to another
that the glory of the Creator and his love can be expressed. Then the
cycle is complete. In addition, I've learned a great deal from the true
Jewish Kaballah -- this is my distillation of what I've read. In the
beginning there was a Prime Creative Force in the universe -- we cannot
imagine what it was because we are too limited in our minds -- this
great creative energy -- a great Wisdom -- a great Thought -- for some
reason decided to make itself manifest in a physical universe -- hence
the Big Bang. In doing so he made Himself manifest in the world through
his creation -- he does not stand outside it -- he is immanent
throughout what we see (which is in reality an illusion -- there the
Hindus and Buddhists have it right -- quantum physics points to that
very idea when we realize that there is a curious necessity for an
observer to collapse the wave function into the quantum function that we
can then measure). As such, you and I, and everyone in the world -- and
everything in the world are not just made of stardust, but we are like
shards of the shattered glass of God's creation. And in this creation
is life -- and man -- who is possessed of the same God spirit as the
creator -- and who has the power to rise above his physical being and to
recognize his spiritual origins, recognize that he was once part of a
great whole -- a great unity. That is why we feel an existential
loneliness, I believe, even in the midst of happy company. We know deep
down that we have been cleaved off some great Unity -- and when we have
those transcendant moments when our soul and our spirit merges with all
creation and we feel "at one" -- then that is one of the greatest
religious experiences we can have. We recognize our unity with all
creation, and that is why we cannot kill, nor hate nor destroy --
because it would be like destroying your own house, or your own family.
Of course on a day to day level we cannot live this way, but we have
this realization always at the core of our being. For years I thought
little of the "Father, Son and Holy Ghost" aspect of Christianity -- I
said the words and crossed myself in church and said my prayers.
Many people seek Islam because they find the idea of a unitary God who
is like a stern master to be more understandable than a Triune God.
Now, if the Church fathers were interested in making a religion that
would appeal to all Gentiles (Christ came to bring the true spirit of the teaching of the Jewish God to all mankind), they would not have invented such a difficult concept as the Triune God.

Well, this is my conception -- purely my own but based on much reading
of Orthodox theology and quantum physics (it's amazing to me how
congruent science and religion truly are). God the Father -- is the
Great Wisdom that existed prior to the Big Bang -- and expressed himself
in the great explosion of creation -- but that is not enough -- a God
that creates a plaything and then sits outside his creation is nothing
more than a little despot who builds an ant farm and watches the little
ants scurrying about. No -- this God IS his creation. And for some
reason God saw fit to create life -- and man -- perhaps because in our
primitive understanding -- how else could he appreciate his creation
without also taking part in it in a physical way. And in order to fully
comprehend that difficult lot of man and his suffering here on earth,
God became a man -- Jesus Christ -- and suffered all the humiliation,
injustice, pain and death that men suffer -- and taking it upon himself
he assured man that this life was not the end -- that this was but one
manifestation of his spirit, but that the eternal dance of the spirit
has gone on from before time -- and will continue until the end of time
- through eternity. We are like bubbles on a sea that bubble up, and
disappear -- but the essential element returns to the water it came
from. And so we have God as The Son -- God has experienced physical
life through his son and understood the grief and loneliness and pain of
existence. Who could have been more abandoned than Christ in Gethsemane
and on the Cross? Even his disciples abandoned him. Yet something
happened to convince these cowardly men to suddenly be filled with
spirit and to preach the gospel even upon pain of torturous death. This
must give us pause. And then we have "The Holy Ghost" -- or the Holy
Spirit -- and this is the spirit of God that is always present in the
universe, that we can tap into at any time, that is working in us even
when we are not aware of it. Well, these are my current beliefs. I
cringe at the Christians who blithely quote scripture without a true
understanding of what the scripture says. I don't like any sects that
narrow the view of God that is so all-encompassing and possesses such
surpassing beauty and harmony. But we are on Earth, where nothing is
perfect, certainly not people and certainly not institutions. So I am
left with my own deep beliefs that encompass many ideas.