June 09, 2004

» Heads I win, tails you lose

Diaconis next coaxed Ali Ercan, an electrical engineering doctoral student in El Gamal's lab, into helping collect the data. For each coin flip, they wanted at least 10 consecutive frames -- good, crisp images of the coin's position in the air. From these sequences they would derive the angular momentum vectors they needed to describe, in quantitative terms, the coin's complicated motion.


Preliminary analysis of the video-taped tosses suggests that a coin will land the same way it started about 51 percent of the time. "It's a gem-like example of what we know that isn't so," Diaconis says. Though a skeptic since childhood, he believed that "if you flipped a coin vigorously, it was going to be fair.

"But it's not so bad," he says. "One in a hundred is pretty close, actually. It gives me faith that probability assumptions can be validated and useful, but you have to look at them case by case."

» Can't sleep, clown will eat me

Kangas believes it's the clown's face that bedevils. A grinning, mocking skull is how one clown hater on the Internet describes classic whiteface. Some people fear anything with a covered face. The Easter Bunny. Santa Claus. Bozo.

"I think part of the fear is because people in masks make us uncomfortable, and clowns have masks that are painted on their faces," Kangas says. "It may even be creepier because the masks can move, since it's only paint. Another thing is the smile that's painted on is artificial, and I think kids pick up on that deceit when they see a clown for the first time.

"They can't see the clown's real face. A lot of those kids will react to the deception with distrust, maybe even fear. ... Those kids take their fear into adulthood."

» Today's word: dietrologia, of which this is a fine example

Dietrologia: One such element involves the Italian concept of dietrologia, which translated literally into English means "behindology." Dietrologia is a belief that for every public action, some sort of conspiracy exists behind it. The Italian public believes it never knows the whole story, but is nevertheless obsessed with speculating about what the whole story could be.

The Monster of Florence: A satanic sect, the hypothesis runs, commissioned the murders in order to obtain intimate parts of female flesh for use in depraved rituals in the Tuscan countryside; esoteric stone circles (and a curious granite pyramid) found at some of the murder sites hint at black magic.

Giuttari's theory tallies with the thesis developed in a report prepared for the Italian secret services in 1985. Written by Francesco Bruno, the most famous criminologist in Italy, the report was, inexplicably, never passed to the police; Giuttari came upon it only two years ago.

Both men now believe the report may have been buried to protect a Monster who had powerful allies.

» The truth about the Golden Ratio

First of all, whether or not the ancient Greeks felt that the Golden Ratio was the most perfect proportion for a rectangle, many modern humans do not. Numerous tests have failed to show up any one rectangle that most observers prefer, and preferences are easily influenced by other factors. As to the Parthenon, all it takes is more than a cursory glance at all the photos on the Web that purport to show the Golden Ratio in the structure, to see that they do nothing of the kind. (Look carefully at where and how the superimposed rectangle - usually red or yellow - is drawn and ask yourself: why put it exactly there and why make the lines so thick?)

Another claim is that if you measure the distance from the tip of your head to the floor and divide that by the distance from your belly button to the floor, you get GR. But this nonsense. First of all, you won't get exactly the number GR. You never can; GR is irrational, remember. But in the case of measuring the human body, there is a lot of variation. True, the answers will always be fairly close to 1.6. But there's nothing special about 1.6. Why not say the answer is 1.603? Besides, there's no reason to divide the human body by the navel. If you spend a half an hour or so taking measurements of various parts of the body and tabulating the results, you will find any number of pairs of figures whose ratio is close to 1.6, or 1.5, or whatever you want.

Then there is the claim that Leonardo Da Vinci believed the Golden Ratio is the ratio of the height to the width of a "perfect" human face and that he used GR in his Vitruvian Man painting. While there is no concrete evidence against this belief, there is no evidence for it either, so once again the only reason to believe it is that you want to. The same is also true for the common claims that Boticelli used GR to proportion Venus in his famous painting The Birth of Venus and that Georges Seurat based his painting The Parade of a Circus on GR.

» Another attempt on the Oak Island Money Pit

Mr. Wonnacott said a pipe header system would be installed in the holes and chilled brine would be pumped in, creating a ring of frozen soil down about 60 metres to bedrock.

"We want to be sure that whatever is in the money pit is inside that frozen ring, and we think we've got the correct location for the shaft to do it."

June 07, 2004

» Ronald Reagan, RIP

The fox, as has been pointed out by more than one philosopher, knows many small things, whereas the hedgehog knows one big thing. Ronald Reagan was neither a fox nor a hedgehog. He was as dumb as a stump. He could have had anyone in the world to dinner, any night of the week, but took most of his meals on a White House TV tray. He had no friends, only cronies. His children didn't like him all that much. He met his second wife?the one that you remember?because she needed to get off a Hollywood blacklist and he was the man to see. Year in and year out in Washington, I could not believe that such a man had even been a poor governor of California in a bad year, let alone that such a smart country would put up with such an obvious phony and loon.

» The day the sky fell on Everest

The eight climbers killed on the single deadliest day on Everest may have been victims of the "sky falling in", according to a study.

An analysis of weather patterns in May 1996 suggests the mountaineers died when the stratosphere sank to the level of the summit, 29,000ft above sea level.

The freak weather caused pressure and oxygen levels to plunge within the "death zone" - the area above 26,000ft where the oxygen is extremely thin.

Normally Everest's summit lies just below the atmospheric layer. But on May 10, the day of the disaster, there were two fast-flowing air streams, called jet streaks, moving over the mountain.

» Nigeria's first astronaut is lost in space. Can't you spare a few million dollars to get him home? Or maybe he could hook up with these guys for a ride
» Cold-water coral in peril

The world's oceans contain far more cold-water coral reefs than experts had realised, the United Nations says.

The reefs are usually found in deeper, cooler water than tropical corals, and many are up to eight millennia in age.

A report issued by the UN Environment Programme to mark World Environment Day on 5 June says the reefs are widespread from Greenland to sub-Antarctic waters.

» Pain ray is like something off Star Trek (yawn)

Test subjects can't see the invisible beam from the Pentagon's new, Star Trek-like weapon, but no one has withstood the pain it produces for more than three seconds.

People who volunteered to stand in front of the directed energy beam say they felt as if they were on fire. When they stepped aside, the pain disappeared instantly.

» Get your tits out: wardrobe malfunctions, Tudor-style

During many of these bust-baring periods, it would have been shocking for a woman to show her shoulders or legs, which were more associated with male sexuality.

» A blue plaque for Turing

Turing may not be a household name, but his achievements have been recognised.

A road has been named after him in Manchester, where he lived for the latter years of his life when he joined Manchester University.

There is also a bronze statue of him in Sackville Park in the city's gay village, where he sits on a bench, apple in hand.

He has even featured in a Doctor Who book.

And the home of his birth in London also has a blue plaque outside, which will now be joined by a plaque outside the place of his death on Adlington Road, in Wilmslow.

» Were the Atlanteans Spaniards? And were they Sea People?

Dr Kuehne noticed that the war between Atlantis and the eastern Mediterranean described in Plato's writings closely resembled attacks on Egypt, Cyprus and the Levant during the 12th Century BC by mysterious raiders known as the Sea People. As a result, he proposes that the Atlanteans and the Sea People were in fact one and the same.

» The Lost Dauphin is laid to rest at last — or at least, a bit of him is. Reminds me of this this lot

Louis XVII's short life was the stuff of nightmares. He lost his parents to the guillotine.

He was locked in Paris' Temple prison for three years -- for part of that time, in solitary confinement in a darkened cell, without anyone to wash him or clean up after him, said historian Philippe Delorme.

The boy finally died of tuberculosis in 1795, his body reportedly ravaged by tumors and scabies.

The child's corpse was dumped in a common grave -- but first, a doctor secretly carved out his heart in keeping with a tradition of preserving royal hearts separate from their bodies.

June 02, 2004

» A map of Springfield. That is, a map of everything in the Simpsons' home town — not, of course, where Springfield itself is (via)

The mapping of Springfield began in the Spring of 2001 when it became evident that no adequate map of Springfield existed either online or in print. Initially the content was derived from the City Profile and Springfield Vacation pages at The Simpsons Archive, but it has since been augmented by numerous viewings of most episodes of The Simpsons by the authors.

While the placement of most locations is arbitrary, many are placed according to where they appear in relationship to each other in specific episodes of The Simpsons. In some cases 'one-time references' to specific locations have been disregarded in favor of others more often repeated. Due to the many inconsistencies among episodes, the map will never be completely accurate.