commonplace book

Timelessness, eternity, god

From "Science and Faith", at Ockham’s Razor:

Time, along with matter and space is a constituent part of our universe. Time cannot exist without matter and space. So it makes no sense to talk about a time before our universe came into existence. …

To begin with, what does the fact that there is no absolute time say about God? If one accepts that God has created the universe, through the Big Bang or some other means, then he must have created time in the process.

So God is not constrained by time, and God is not carried along in time as we are. God simply is. …

It follows that God is not waiting to find out what the future holds. For God, it is already present. You might imagine God as seeing the whole of creation, beginning, middle and end, all laid out before him. Rather like the pictures on the wall of an ancient tomb, or perhaps like the frames of a movie film. …

At first glance, God’s knowledge of the future might suggest predestination. But that does not take into account that we ourselves are moving through time. …

But having made that choice, you will not be able to go back and change it. It will have been swept away in time to become an immutable fact. And similarly for all our lives, our free choices are turned into unchangeable facts by the passage of time. … Does that mean that it was predestined? Certainly not. It simply means that our free will, within time, exists alongside God’s foreknowledge, outside of time.

The common understanding of eternity is of time simply going on and on forever. But as science now indicates, time can only exist as long as space and matter, that is our universe, exists. And since science also indicates that the universe is finite (that is, it had a beginning some time ago and will come to an end one way or another sometime in the future), our time, and hence our eternity are finite also. …

We need to think of an afterlife that involves a transfer of consciousness into a timeless state that is linked in some way to God’s being.

The history of =

From "The History of the Equals Sign", at The Science Show:

In 1543, [Robert] Record published The Ground of Arts, the first ever maths book in English, which ran through over fifty editions … Until 1557, mathematicians had finished off a calculation by laboriously writing out the words, is equal to, which was sometimes abbreviated to AE or OE from the Latin word for equal, aequalis. But Record had a better idea, why not use a symbol, he said, to avoid, as he put it, the tedious repetition of these words he proposed the use of a pair of parallel lines. Using this simple device that we now call the equals sign released an enormous logjam in the efficient handling of numbers and the implications extended far beyond pure maths.

What makes a great hacker?

From Paul Graham’s "Great Hackers":

… In programming, as in many fields, the hard part isn’t solving problems, but deciding what problems to solve. …

What do hackers want? Like all craftsmen, hackers like good tools. In fact, that’s an understatement. Good hackers find it unbearable to use bad tools. They’ll simply refuse to work on projects with the wrong infrastructure. …

Great hackers also generally insist on using open source software. Not just because it’s better, but because it gives them more control. Good hackers insist on control. This is part of what makes them good hackers: when something’s broken, they need to fix it. …

After software, the most important tool to a hacker is probably his office. Big companies think the function of office space is to express rank. But hackers use their offices for more than that: they use their office as a place to think in. And if you’re a technology company, their thoughts are your product. So making hackers work in a noisy, distracting environment is like having a paint factory where the air is full of soot. …

Indeed, these statistics about Cobol or Java being the most popular language can be misleading. What we ought to look at, if we want to know what tools are best, is what hackers choose when they can choose freely– that is, in projects of their own. When you ask that question, you find that open source operating systems already have a dominant market share, and the number one language is probably Perl. …

Along with good tools, hackers want interesting projects. …

This is an area where managers can make a difference. Like a parent saying to a child, I bet you can’t clean up your whole room in ten minutes, a good manager can sometimes redefine a problem as a more interesting one. Steve Jobs seems to be particularly good at this, in part simply by having high standards. …

Along with interesting problems, what good hackers like is other good hackers. Great hackers tend to clump together …

When I was in grad school I used to hang around the MIT AI Lab occasionally. It was kind of intimidating at first. Everyone there spoke so fast. But after a while I learned the trick of speaking fast. You don’t have to think any faster; just use twice as many words to say everything. …

I’ve found that people who are great at something are not so much convinced of their own greatness as mystified at why everyone else seems so incompetent. …

The key to being a good hacker may be to work on what you like. When I think about the great hackers I know, one thing they have in common is the extreme difficulty of making them work on anything they don’t want to. I don’t know if this is cause or effect; it may be both. …

The best hackers tend to be smart, of course, but that’s true in a lot of fields. Is there some quality that’s unique to hackers? I asked some friends, and the number one thing they mentioned was curiosity. I’d always supposed that all smart people were curious– that curiosity was simply the first derivative of knowledge. But apparently hackers are particularly curious, especially about how things work. That makes sense, because programs are in effect giant descriptions of how things work.

Several friends mentioned hackers’ ability to concentrate– their ability, as one put it, to ‘tune out everything outside their own heads.’ …


It’s hard to say exactly what constitutes research in the computer world, but as a first approximation, it’s software that doesn’t have users.

Cuchulain fights the ocean waves

From Lady Augusta Gregory’s "XVIII. The Only Son of Aoife", from Cúchullin of Muirthemne (1902).

THE time Cúchulainn came back from Alban, after he had learned the use of arms under Scathach, he left Aoife, the queen he had overcome in battle, with child.

And when he was leaving her, he told her what name to give the child, and he gave her a gold ring, and bade her keep it safe till the child grew to be a lad, and till his thumb would fill it; and he bade her to give it to him then, and to send him to Ireland, and he would know he was his son by that token. She promised to do so, and with that Cúchulainn went back to Ireland.

It was not long after the child was born, word came to Aoife that Cúchulainn had taken Emer to be his wife in Ireland. When she heard that, great jealousy came on her, and great anger, and her love for Cúchulainn was turned to hatred; and she remembered her three champions that he had killed, and how he had overcome herself, and she determined in her mind that when her son would come to have the strength of a man, she would get her revenge through him.

She told Conlaoch her son nothing of this, but brought him up like any king’s son; and when he was come to sensible years, she put him under the teaching of Scathach, to be taught the use of arms and the art of war. He turned out as apt a scholar as his father, and it was not long before he had learnt all Scathach had to teach.

Then Aoife gave him the arms of a champion, and bade him go to Ireland, but first she laid three commands on him: the first never to give way to any living person, but to die sooner than be made turn back; the second, not to refuse a challenge from the greatest champion alive, but to fight him at all risks, even if he was sure to lose his life; the third, not to tell his name on any account, though he might be threatened with death for hiding it. She put him under geasa, that is, under bonds, not to do these things.

Then the young man, Conlaoch, set out, and it was not long before his ship brought him to Ireland, and the place he landed at was Baile’s Strand, near Dundealgan.

It chanced that at that time Conchobar, the High King, was holding court there, for it was a convenient gathering-place for his chief men, and they were settling some business that belonged to the government of that district. …

Cúchulainn rose up then and went to where Conlaoch was, and he still handling his arms. And Cúchulainn asked him his name and said: ‘It would be well for you, young hero of unknown name, to loosen yourself from this knot, and not to bring down my hand upon you, for it will be hard for you to escape death.’ But Conlaoch said: ‘If I put you down in the fight, the way I put down your comrade, there will be a great name on me; but if I draw back now, there will be mockery on me, and it will be said I was afraid of the fight. I will never give in to any man to tell the name, or to give an account of myself. But if I was not held with a command,’ he said, ‘there is no man in the world I would sooner give it to than to yourself, since I saw your face.

But do not think, brave champion of Ireland, that I will let you take away the fame I have won, for nothing.’

With that they fought together, and it is seldom such a battle was seen, and all wondered that the young lad could stand so well against Cúchulainn. …

But Cúchulainn threw his spear, the Gae Bulga, at him with all his might, and it struck the lad in the side and went into his body, so that he fell to the ground.

And Cúchulainn said: ‘Now, boy, tell your name and what you are, for it is short your life will be, for you will not live after that wound.’

And Conlaoch showed the ring that was on his hand, and he said: ‘Come here where I am lying on the field, let my men from the east come round me. I am suffering for revenge. I am Conlaoch, son of the Hound, heir of dear Dundealgan; I was bound to this secret in Dun Scathach, the secret in which I have found my grief.’ …

And then the sorrow of death came upon Conlaoch, and Cúchulainn took his sword and put it through him, sooner than leave him in the pain and the punishment he was in.

And then great trouble and anguish came on Cúchulainn …

‘I am the father that killed his son, the fine green branch; there is no hand or shelter to help me.

‘I am a raven that has no home; I am a boat going from wave to wave; I am a ship that has lost its rudder; I am the apple left on the tree; it is little I thought of falling from it; grief and sorrow will be with me from this time.’

Then Cúchulainn stood up and faced all the men of Ulster.

‘There is trouble on Cúchulainn,’ said Conchobar; ‘he is after killing his own son, and if I and all my men were to go against him, by the end of the day he would destroy every man of us. Go now,’ he said to Cathbad, the Druid, ‘and bind him to go down to Baile’s Strand, and to give three days fighting against the waves of the sea, rather than to kill us all.’

So Cathbad put an enchantment on him, and bound him to go down. And when he came to the strand, there was a great white stone before him, and he took his sword in his right hand, and he said: ‘If I had the head of the woman that sent her son to his death, I would split it as I split this stone.’ And he made four quarters of the stone.

Then he fought with the waves three days and three nights, till he fell from hunger and weakness, so that some men said he got his death there. But it was not there he got his death, but on the plain of Muirthemne.

The printed book results in more handwritten mss

From “William Caxton“, at The Science Show:

More than 500 years later a copy of Caxton’s first edition of Chaucer became the most expensive book ever sold, knocked down at auction in the 1990s for 4.6 million pounds. But in the 15th Century, the obvious appeal of the newly printed books lay in their value for money. Books became so commonplace indeed, that some snobs employed scribes to copy Caxton’s printed editions back into manuscript, while both church and government became alarmed at the access to new ideas that the printing press offered to a widening public. [Emphasis added]

The first printed English books

From “William Caxton“, at The Science Show:

In 1474, his History of Troy, his own book, became the first book to be printed in English and two years later he brought his press to England setting up shop near the Chapter House in the precinct of Westminster Abbey, where parliament met. Caxton had an eye for a good location. Along the route between the palace of Westminster and the Chapter House shuffled lawyers, churchmen, courtiers, MPs – the book buying elite of England. The former cloth trader also had an eye for a best seller. The second book he printed was about chess, the game and play of the chess. Then came in fairly quick succession, a French-English dictionary, a translation of Aesop’s fables, several popular romances, Mallory’s tale of Camelot in Le Mort d’Arthur, some school text books, a history of England, an encyclopaedia entitled The Mirror of the World and Chaucer’s bawdy evergreen collection, The Canterbury Tales.

Haber’s dead wife

From “The Invention of Modern Gas Warfare“, at Ockham’s Razor:

[Dr. Fritz] Haber [inventor of modern gas warfare] was a very patriotic German and so when the war began he looked for ways to assist the military effort. His first major critic was his childhood sweetheart and wife, Clara. She was a talented chemist herself. She was appalled at the use of science to kill people. A few days after the first use of gas, she used his army pistol to commit suicide.

This did not deter Haber. He went off to supervise the use of gas warfare on the Eastern front and he left others to handle her funeral arrangements.

When the war ended in 1918, Haber donned a disguise and fled temporarily into Switzerland. The use of gas warfare had been so controversial that he was afraid that he would be tried by the Allies as a war criminal. About 1.3 million people had been wounded by gas, with 91,000 being killed.

Walking dead man

From “The Invention of Modern Gas Warfare“, at Ockham’s Razor:

One of Haber’s [Dr. Fritz Haber, inventor of gas warfare] victims was a British soldier named Fred Cayley. He was gassed in 1917. He had poor health for the rest of his life and he had to visit a doctor every week until his death in 1981. The coroner recorded that Cayley had been ‘killed by the King’s enemies’. This is the statement that would have appeared on his death certificate if he had been killed outright 64 years earlier. As far as the coroner was concerned, Cayley was as good as dead back in 1917, it was simply that he did not get buried until 1981.

Self-sacrifice in plague time

From The Plague in Britain, on The Science Show:

Outside London, the disease spread wherever the plague flea travelled, and it is thought to have reached the village of Eyam in Derbyshire that September of 1665 in a box of tailor’s samples and old clothing sent to Edward Cooper, a village trader. … by mid-summer 1666 over seventy of the village’s 360 inhabitants had succumbed.

It was [Rev. William] Mompesson, a married man with two children, who took the step that made Eyam famous – he urged his congregation to follow Jesus’s words in the Gospel of St John: ‘Greater love hath no man that this, that a man lay down his life for his friends’. Rather than fleeing the village and spreading the infection around the Peak District, argued the young rector, the community should stick together and help their fellow-men. This, clearly, was to risk their own lives in an act of extraordinary self-sacrifice. The congregation agreed, and for more than a year Eyam became effectively a huge plague house, shut off from the world. Their neighbours, meanwhile, who included the Earl of Devonshire at nearby Chatsworth House, responded to their gesture by leaving food and other provisions at the outskirts of the village. Derbyshire was spared further plague, and Eyam paid the price, losing more than 260 inhabitants, some three-quarters of the population. Among the last to die was Mompesson’s wife Catherine, who had gone from house to house during the outbreak, ministering to the sick.

Absolute integrity

From “John Dalton – The Father of Chemistry“, on The Science Show:

[Dalton] had the usual Quaker concern with integrity. When a good student of his needed a note to say he had attended every lecture, although he had missed one, Dalton is reported as saying, ‘If thou wilt come tomorrow, I will give the lecture thou hast missed’. He was prepared to go to the trouble to repeat the lecture for one student so he could honestly say that the student had attended every lecture.

How to sell your book … 200 yrs ago

From “John Dalton – The Father of Chemistry“, on The Science Show:

In an age when science was often the hobby of the wealthy, Dalton made his living by private tutoring and lecture tours. Two famous French scientists came to visit him and were astonished to find him humbly teaching a small boy to read. It has been suggested he was one of the first professional scientists. To one questioner, after a lecture, he is reported to have answered, “I have written a book on that subject, and if thou wishest to inform thyself about the matter, thou canst buy my book for 3/6”.

Dalton, father of chemistry … & meteorology

From “John Dalton – The Father of Chemistry“, on The Science Show:

In Kendal[, England, around 1781], Dalton started to keep a metrological journal, he made his own thermometers, barometers and other instruments. He kept this journal for the next 57 years and is an acknowledged pioneer of this science. The journal contained 200,000 observations; it was destroyed in an air raid on Manchester in the 2nd World War.

Cringely on patents, trademarks, & copyright

From Robert X. Cringely’s “Patently Absurd: Patent Reform Legislation in Congress Amounts to Little More Than a ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ Card for Microsoft“:

There are several forms of intellectual property protected by U.S. law. Among these are patents, trademarks, and copyrights. The goal of all three forms of protection is to encourage hard work through the granting of some economic exclusivity, and thereby helping the nation by growing the economy and through the good works made possible by new inventions. Trademarks reduce ambiguity in marketing and promotion. Copyrights protect artistic and intellectual expression. And patents protect ideas. Of these three categories of intellectual property, the ones recently subject to reform efforts are copyrights and patents, and each of these seems to be headed in a different direction, though for generally the same reason.

Copyright law is being tightened at the behest of big publishers and especially big record and movie companies. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act, for example, makes it a crime to defeat copy protection of CDs and DVDs, thus helping to preserve the property rights of these companies. At the end of some artistic productivity chain, it is supposed to protect the rest of us, too, most notably by encouraging the record and movie companies to make more records and movies, which we will in turn be discouraged from copying illegally.

Patent reform works the other way. Where we are tightening copyrights to help big companies, we are loosening patents, also to help big companies. Certainly it isn’t to help you or me.

The wise ol’ Texas gambler

From "Bold Bets", in Maxim (June 2005: 104):

Amarillo Slim Preston bet tennis pro Bobby Riggs $10,000 that he could beat him at game of ping-pong, with one condition: Slim got to choose the paddles. Slim showed up with two skillets – he had been practicing on the sly – and promptly waxed Riggs 21-8.

What are portmanteau words?

From Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass:

‘You seem very clever at explaining words, Sir,’ said Alice. ‘Would you kindly tell me the meaning of the poem called “Jabberwocky”?’

‘Let’s hear it,’ said Humpty Dumpty. ‘I can explain all the poems that were ever invented — and a good many that haven’t been invented just yet.’

This sounded very hopeful, so Alice repeated the first verse:

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

‘That’s enough to begin with,’ Humpty Dumpty interrupted: ‘there are plenty of hard words there. “Brillig” means four o’clock in the afternoon — the time when you begin broiling things for dinner.’

‘That’ll do very well,’ said Alice: and “slithy”?’

‘Well, “slithy” means “lithe and slimy.” “Lithe” is the same as “active.” You see it’s like a portmanteau — there are two meanings packed up into one word.’

High camp … or horror?!?

From Dr. Mysterian’s blog:

Joan Collins describes visiting the actress [Mae West] in the Seventies, a tale that surpasses the soiled Hollywood Gothicism of Sunset Boulevard for sheer ghoulishness. In Collins tale, West, then in her eighties, dressed in kabuki-styled makeup, a long blonde wig to cover a developing humpback, and rubber band wrapped around her face to give her a chin line, didn’t deign to speak with the younger actress, instead sitting on a soiled white sofa, staring sideways at her in silence.

Unthinking employees

From Dave Farber’s Interesting People list:

I think there’s a propensity for employees to believe their company’s stuff is secret even when it’s manifestly obviously it isn’t and can’t be. About forty years ago, a friend and I walked into a Western Union office and asked for a copy of the Morse code. (A friend of my friend had sent him a message encoded in Morse code; it was their form of fun.) The clerk in the Western Union office responded it was company proprietary and he wouldn’t share it with us.

The Queen buys an iPod

Gad, but this is so British in elocution that it’s almost satirical. Yahoo reports that “Queen plugging into iPod“:

“The Queen loves music and was impressed by how small and handy the iPod is,” a royal insider told the tabloid on Friday.

“Obviously it is quite complicated to download songs, but I’m sure one of the courtiers will do it for her.

“Prince Andrew will probably also help out because he’s a real dab hand with gadgets.”