December 2009


But inside this Geppetto was not only the dream of a new language, but also of something far stranger and unimagined: a new people altogether, and neither the Jews nor the Esperantists were the people he envisioned. Project by project, credo by credo, member by member, he tried to build a new people, a Geppetto with the audacity of Frankenstein.

via L.L. Zamenhof And The Shadow People | The New Republic.

In the 4th month of the wintering, in April, 29th, 1961, Leonid showed disturbing symptoms: weakness, nausea, fever and pain in a right iliac region. The following day his temperature got even higher. Being the only doctor in the expedition consisting of 13 people, Leonid diagnosed himself: acute appendicitis. There were no planes at any of the nearest stations, besides, adverse weather conditions would not allow to fly to Novolazarevskaya anyway. In order to save the sick member of a polar expedition there was needed an urgent operation on site. And the only way out was to operate on himself.

via English Russia » Leonid Rogozov – a hero-surgeon.

And herein lies a parallel with another mathematical story. In his remarkable and underappreciated book A History of p , Petr Beckmann argues that the ratio of circumference to diameter is “a quaint little mirror of the history of man.” In the rare societies where science and reason found refuge—the early Athens of Anaxagoras and Hippias, the Alexandria of Eratosthenes and Euclid, the seventeenth-century England of Newton and Wallis—mathematicians made tremendous strides in calculating p. In Rome and medieval Europe, by contrast, knowledge of p stagnated. Crude approximations such as the Babylonians’ 25/8 and the Bible’s 3 held sway.

This same pattern holds, I think, for big numbers. Curiosity and openness lead to fascination with big numbers, and to the buoyant view that no quantity, whether of the number of stars in the galaxy or the number of possible bridge hands, is too immense for the mind to enumerate. Conversely, ignorance and irrationality lead to fatalism concerning big numbers. The Bible, for example, refers twenty-one times to the supposed uncountability of sand. Take Genesis 32:12: “And thou saidst, I will surely do thee good, and make thy seed as the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted for multitude.” Or Hebrews 11:12: “So many as the stars of the sky in multitude, and as the sand which is by the seashore innumerable.” This notion that the multitude of sand grains might as well be infinite, that it’s fit for dumbfounded stupefaction but not for quantification, is an ancient one. Historian Ilan Vardi cites the ancient Greek word ‘yammkosioi,’ or sand-hundred, colloquially meaning zillion; as well as a passage from Pindar’s Olympic Ode II asserting that “sand escapes counting.”

via Who Can Name the Bigger Number?.

Because I always get asked this question and then argued with…

Consonants are more complex. Some (p, t, k, m and n are common) appear in most languages, but consonants can come in a blizzard of varieties known as egressive (air coming from the nose or mouth), ingressive (air coming back in the nose and mouth), ejective (air expelled from the mouth while the breath is blocked by the glottis), pharyngealised (the pharynx constricted), palatised (the tongue raised toward the palate) and more. And languages with hard-to-pronounce consonants cluster in families. Languages in East Asia tend to have tonal vowels, those of the north-eastern Caucasus are known for consonantal complexity: Ubykh has 78 consonant sounds. Austronesian languages, by contrast, may have the simplest sounds of any language family.

Perhaps the most exotic sounds are clicks—technically “non-pulmonic” consonants that do not use the airstream from the lungs for their articulation. The best-known click languages are in southern Africa. Xhosa, widely spoken in South Africa, is known for its clicks. The first sound of the language’s name is similar to the click that English-speakers use to urge on a horse.

For sound complexity, one language stands out. !Xóõ, spoken by just a few thousand, mostly in Botswana, has a blistering array of unusual sounds. Its vowels include plain, pharyngealised, strident and breathy, and they carry four tones. It has five basic clicks and 17 accompanying ones. The leading expert on the !Xóõ, Tony Traill, developed a lump on his larynx from learning to make their sounds. Further research showed that adult !Xóõ-speakers had the same lump (children had not developed it yet).

via Difficult languages: Tongue twisters | The Economist.

Eventually, Inhofe aides were able to corral some journalists into attending a hastily-arranged media availability, where the strange senator proceeded to share his belief that the United Nations came up with global warming as an elaborate hoax, and only the “Hollywood elite” believe the scientific evidence.

A reporter from Der Spiegel told the senator, “You’re ridiculous.”

Soon after, Inhofe dashed back to the airport for the nine-hour flight back to D.C., having accomplished nothing.

via The Washington Monthly.

Eventually, Inhofe aides were able to corral some journalists into attending a hastily-arranged media availability, where the strange senator proceeded to share his belief that the United Nations came up with global warming as an elaborate hoax, and only the “Hollywood elite” believe the scientific evidence.

A reporter from Der Spiegel told the senator, “You’re ridiculous.”

Soon after, Inhofe dashed back to the airport for the nine-hour flight back to D.C., having accomplished nothing.

via The Washington Monthly.

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