A Daily History of Holes, Dots, Lines, Science, History, Math, the Unintentional Absurd & Nothing |1.6 million words, 7500 images, 4 million hits| Press & appearances in The Times, Le Figaro, MENSA, The Economist, The Guardian, Discovery News, Slate, Le Monde, Sci American Blogs, Le Point, and many other places... 4,200+ total posts
John Wilkins' construction of a new, theoretical language, a visual semantics of idea that was to be read and not spoken, a new international language to communicate thought, seems straight from the heart of the great Jorge Luis Borges. And in fact, Wilkins does come from Borges, in a way--as part of a story Borges wrote in 1942, a fantastical semi-non-fictional account of Wilkins' fabulous effort1.
Wilkins was a 17th century figure with a sort-of 20th century idea, but even advanced to this point in time, and with actual mathematical and linguistic tools at his disposal, his work is still better as a sci-fi movie backdrop than anything else--not that there's anything wrong with that. The book of his in question, An Essay towards a Real Character, and a Philosophical Language, was published in London in 1668, and was an very interesting, Aristotelian non-standard approach to construct a universally understood language composed of characters which were in a way axiomatic of a developing system of genera, a taxonomy of ideas, that were somehow, fantastically, capable of expressing the foundations and flights of human thinking.
Borges' presented Wilkins in a very Borgesian way in his "The Analytical Language of John Wilkins", mixing fact with creative fancy, exhibiting Real Character as though it was being re-discovered and studied by living academics.
It reminds me somewhat of other massive buit not-quite-nowhere-near-there efforts by people like Oliver Byrne and his color-coded approach to Euclid (1847), J.H. Woodger with his Axomatic Methods in Biology (1937), and Clark Hull's Principles of Behavior (1944). Fascinating ideas, constructed with big brains, but which ultimately produce a product which more deeply confuses and obscures the subject matter it set out to explain--and which don't really work, anyway. But they are beautiful things int heir own right--Byrne's work in particular also happened to be one of the most beautiful books produced in the 19th century--assemblies of bits and pieces that are occasionally magnificent but whose final destination was of course The Twilight Zone.
They were in some way a Search for a Perfect Language (as in the work by Umberto Eco); they sought to step deeply outside themselves in an effort to grasp a higher knowledge, perhaps not much too unlike Isaac Newton and his deep experimentation in alchemy, looking for the massive truths that were handed down to the few selected ancient ones. They are beautiful things with a lot of very good thinking--they just weren't right.
"He divided the universe into forty categories or genera, these being further subdivided into differences, which were subdivided into species. He assigned to each genus a monosyllable of two letters; to each difference, a consonant; to each species, a vowel. For example: de, which means an element; deb, the first of the elements, fire; deba, a part of the element fire, a flame. In a similar language invented by Letellier (1850) a means animal; ab, mammal; abo, carnivore; aboj, feline; aboje, cat; abi, herbivore; abiv, horse; etc. In the language of Bonifacio Sotos Ochando (1845) imaba means building; imaca, harem; imafe, hospital; imafo, pesthouse; imari, house; imaru, country house; imedo, post; imede, pillar; imego, floor; imela, ceiling; imogo, window; bire, bookbinder; birer, bookbinding. (This last list belongs to a book printed in Buenos Aires in 1886, the Curso de Lengua Universal, by Dr. Pedro Mata.)"--Jorge Luis Borges
Borges described Wilkins' taxonomy as follows, dividing it into 14 categories (compared to the original Wilkins list of 40):
Those that belong to the emperor; Embalmed ones; Those that are trained; Suckling pigs; Mermaids; Fabulous ones; Stray dogs; Those that are included in this classification; Those that tremble as if they were mad; Innumerable ones; Those drawn with a very fine camel hair brush; Et cetera; Those that have just broken the flower vase; Those that, at a distance, resemble flies.
The fossil record is generally one of the richest and most
compelling histories of the development of life on earth, a far-reaching,
cumulative record of extraordinary importance.There are the other, occasional, fossils that stand only by themselves,
and seem to have almost no use in the current time, living almost entirely
within themselves. The following statics seem to fall into that category—they
seem to be only a tombstone for an era, providing nothing except to tell the story
of what happened, existing only for that purpose, with no compelling
utilization for anything outside understand a small piece of life for the year
the stats were gathered.
The cause for this sentiment was found in a government
publication called Expense of Convicts of the United States (Letter from the
Comptroller of the Treasury…), 1 February 1859).The following comes in the first paragraph:
“I….report that 50 cents per months is allowed for rent of
prison for each prisoner in all the States and Territories uniformly.”
What this means is that the U.S. Treasury would pay 50 cents
to the state for keeping a federal prisoner.That is 50 cents per month, or about 1.7 cents per day. And that was
also for rent of the cell, exclusive of all else, each state furnishing the
government with the added cost, separately.
Evidently the only state in the country that prescribed an
exact amount for keeping a federal prisoner in a state institution was
Maryland, “which received 30 cents per day for all expenses, rent, board, medical attendance, clothing, bedding,
fuel, and etc” (italics in the original).The rest of the states and territories had diverging and different
expenses, from the southern district of New York at 25 cents a day for board,
and ranging up to about 50 cents per day in Michigan. Vermont charged an extra 60 dollars a year, in addition to the 6 bucks that they would
get for the rent of a Vermont
cell, to keep a prisoner—all expenses included—for one year, or about 18 cents
per day, total.
Unfortunately I don’t have the stats of how many federal
prisoner there were in 1859, so I don’t know how much of a percentage of the
budget was occupied by prison expenses.But what I do know is that even with tossing around the CPI with
multiplier effects and so on the figures translate in no way to keeping a
person in prison today.The cost of
housing someone in prison per year is around $35,000 a year, or $100 or so a
day.Adjusting the 1860 dollar via CPI
for 2009 makes that dollar worth about 25 dollars today, which would be a
doubling and a doubling again of keeping someone in prison.
I’m not so sure that those figures tell us much about what
we pay, today.
Next, I was having a breeze through The Prison System of the United States by S.J. Barrows
(Commissioner of Prisons for the U.S.) which was published in Washington in 1900.One particularly interesting
section was the publication’s solitary statistical table, “Appendix A”, which
detailed the crimes of the 625 men incarcerated in the state of Michigan in 1900.Well over half of all those in prison were
there for larceny and burglary, while about 12% were in the big house for
violent crimes. (Evidently 95% of this
number were literate and 70% could “cipher” (that is, produce basic arithmetical
skills)).The total crime list (such as
it was) includes the following:
Capital crimes (murder in the first and second degree) and
manslaughter, along with murderous assault comprised about 1% of the total
prison population.Other violent crimes
included assault with intent to do great bodily harm, rape, attempted rape,
rape and assault composed another 3%. Further assaults were classified under
(a) with intent to do great harm;and
then as assault on a female under 14 years; and on a female under 16 yearsThere were also the sexual assaults:taking indecent liberties with female; with
male child;unlawful and carnal
knowledge of a young child; inducing female to enter house of ill fame.These last two categories included about 5%
of the prisoners.Set aside form these
were the crimes of adultery, abduction, incest and sodomy, which included
another 3%.So it seems that the violent
offenders in prison in Michigan
in 1900 totaled out at 12% or so.
Burglary and larceny were thelargest categories, being subdivided into (a)
burglary accompanied by actual assault; (b) larceny; (c) larceny from a
dwelling; (d) larceny from a shop in daytime; (e) attempting larceny from
the person; (f) entering a church in daytime to steal; (g) breaking and
entering a store in daytime; (h) breaking and entering a store in
nighttime;(I) breaking and entering a
dwelling in daytime; (j) breaking and
entering a dwelling;(k) breaking and
entering a railroad car.
Then there were a few largely vacant offenses: Resisting an officer; Uttering and publishing
a forged note, breaking out of prison, perjury, arson, false pretense, and
malicious destruction of personal property, all combing for less than 2% of the
The vast majority of prisoners in Michigan were imprisoned for non-violent
crimes.The federal fathers, in the
meantime, recognized that people in prison shouldn’t be idle while paying their
debts to society, and should fill their time with work that would occupy the
prisoner and bring some income into the prison system:
“The moment we apply to the convict a
different system of economics because he is in prison we go astray. When we
subject to analysis the plans proposed for abolishing the competition of
convict labor we find them based on false principles or expecting results not
to be realized. The wiser way for the peace of society and the interest of the
State is to place prison industries on the same ground as free industries, and
defend that. It is also said in opposition to the contract system that
contractors do not pay as much for the labor of convicts as free laborers
In 2005 the federal offenses for which people are incarcerated include: Drug
Offenses 59.6%; Robbery 9.8%;Property
Offenses 5.5%;Extortion, Fraud, Bribery
6.8% ; Violent Offenses 2.7% ; Firearms, Explosives, Arson 8.6% ; White Collar
1.0%; Immigration 2.8%;Courts or
Corrections 0.8%;National Security
0.1%;Continuing Criminal Enterprise
0.8%;Miscellaneous 1.5% .54% of prisoner in state custody for the same
time were incarcerated for violent crimes, with drug offenses coming in at 20%
and property crimes at 19%.The racial
breakdown of prisoners in the U.S. is another tragedy: of the prison population
in toto of 2.3 million in 2008 there
were 4,777 black male inmates per 100,000 black males held in state and federal
prisons and local jails, compared to 1,760 Hispanic male inmates per 100,000
Hispanic males and 727 white male inmates per 100,000 white males—that means
that the black incarceration rate was double and then double and then
half-doubled again that of whites.What
this also means is that there were more blacks in jail cells than in college
dorm rooms in 2008.
I'm not sure that any amount of creative statistical mathemartistry could bring these figures to life for some sort of practical application in 2009, the present situation in the prisons being so immense and pervasive. Numbers and assorted data from the past usually have the capacity to help us see where we are today; as I said earlier, I think that these fossils are simply that: dead.
The Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (The Strife of Love in a Dream)
by Francesco Colonna was the greatest achievement by the greatest printer of
the Renaissance (Aldus Manutius in Venice), a
spectacular combination of story and type and design and illustration; an
imaginative, secular Humanist self-romance like no other printed to that
time. ) See the entire text HERE.)
Hypnerotomachia means “the strife of love in a
dream”, and the reference to Poliphili refers to the narrator of the
story, Poliphilo, telling of the love affair between Polia and Poliphilo—the
master text of the whole story though is a description of ancient art and
architecture, all told in a wonderful
”macaronic mélange” of Italian and Latin, and which were the “exact accounts” seen
in Poliphilo’s dreams about Polia.. It is amodernist book for being printed in the last year of the 15th
century (1499), and stands for vitality and grace and superb design, and
according to George Painter was the Finnegan’s
Wake of the fifteenth century.Painter
continues, and writing that “Gutenberg’s forty-two line Bible of 1455 and the Hypnerotomachia of 1499 confront one
another from opposite ends of the incunable period with equal and contrasting
pre-eminence.The Gutenberg Bible is somberly and sternly German, Gothic, Christian
and mediaeval; the Hypnerotomachia is
radiantly and graciously Italian, classic, pagan and renascent. These are two
supreme masterpieces of the art of printing, and stand at the two poles of
human endeavor and desire! “(Cited by Alan Thomas, Fine Books, 1967, pp 71-4).
Martin Lowry in his The
World of Aldus Manututus (Ithaca, New York, 1979) makes another
interesting statement on this masterpiece: “(Hypnerotomachia) was a linguistic and literary debauch, choked with
recondite imagery, erudite periphrases, and exotic verbiage: a work so bizarre
that many critics have felt a certain uneasiness at Aldus' agreeing to print
It is truly an astonishing accomplishment, and its significance in the design of type and of the book really cannot be underestimated. As E.P. Goldsmidt stated (in The Printed Book of the Renaissance, 1950, p. 52): "In the North an astonishing proportion of all Renaissance ornament and accessory design can clearly be proved to derive from Colonna..."
This is a detail from an image of great hope lost. Here's the full picture, one of many, one of hundreds similar to it:
is a letter from a woman named Emma Hauck (1878-1920), a "pateint", a committed
person, in an asylum for the "fatally" insane; a schizophrenic, an
incurable who simply wanted to go home. She was not insane enough to not
know where she was, not insane enough to not want to get out, not insane
enough to know that she was in desperate straights, not insane enough
to try to get some help. Emma Hauck wrote letters to her husband,
Michael (father of her two children) after her second and last commitment, beginning in 1909. Mostly the letters were composed of single words (like "kommen,
kommen", "come/come") or simple phrases ("Herzensschatzi komm" or "sweetheart/come")
written concisely and tightly, over and over again, layers of
kommen/kommen, so many that there is a geology of letters, though there
is no geologist.
The images appear in the book and collection of psychiatrist and art historian Hans Prinzhorn (1886-1933), in his Bildnerei der Geisteskranken: ein Beitrag zur Psychologie und Psychopathologie der Gestaltung1,
which was published in Berlin in 1922. Prinzhorn was among the first
in his profession to study the art of the insane, and to use it in
diagnosis. In the meantime, over dozens of years, he accummulated a
collection of thousands of works of art (many coming when he was an
assistant to Karl Wilmanns at the psychiatric hospital of the University of Heidelberg), most of which are housed today in the Sammlung Prnzhorn (UniversitätsKlinikum Heidelberg, here).
Emma Hauck's letters were never sent. I think it is unclear whether they were not sent because the institution in which she was confined did not mail them, or if she simply did not actually try to send them.
A very distrubing short experimental film was made by the Brothers Quay in the U.K. featuring Hauk's letters (complicated and viscerakized by a very grating Stockhausen soundtrack), which is located here.
1. The English translation of this work: Hans Prinzhorn, Artistry of the mentally ill: a contribution to the psychology and psychopathology of configuration,
translated by Eric von Brockdorff from the second German edition, with
an introduction by James L. Foy, (Wien, New York: Springer-Verlag),
"Bartleby the Scrivener, a Tale of Wall Street", is a well-known, much-loved and magical/dark short story written by Herman Melville in 1853 (in two installments in Putnam's Magazine). For a major figure in the history of American literature, Mr. Bartleby has generated a lot of scholarship, in spite of the briefness of the piece, and the very scant information we have from Bartleby himself. He never lets us into his mind, himself, and we have just the barest glimpse into what drives him through his spoken words--we find out what we know of him through his self-appointed-friend and employer, who writes:
“I now recalled all the
quiet mysteries which I had noted in the man. I remembered that he
never spoke but to answer; that though at intervals he had
considerable time to himself, yet I had never seen him reading—no,
not even a newspaper; that for long periods he would stand looking
out, at his pale window behind the screen, upon the dead brick wall;
I was quite sure he never visited any refectory or eating house;
while his pale face clearly indicated that he never drank beer like
Turkey, or tea and coffee even, like other men; that he never went
any where in particular that I could learn; never went out for a
walk, unless indeed that was the case at present; that he had
declined telling who he was, or whence he came, or whether he had any
relatives in the world; that though so thin and pale, he never
complained of ill health. And more than all, I remembered a certain
unconscious air of pallid—how shall I call it?—of pallid
haughtiness, say, or rather an austere reserve about him, which had
positively awed me into my tame compliance with his eccentricities,
when I had feared to ask him to do the slightest incidental thing for
me, even though I might know, from his long-continued motionlessness,
that behind his screen he must be standing in one of those dead-wall
reveries of his.”
For all of his influence, Bartleby spoke only 32 times, and used 246 words, only 55 of them are unique carriers--the the rest are repetitions, especially in the first half of the story, and then particularly with the use of the word 'prefer" in the famous "I would prefer not" and "I prefer not" phrases. (I looked at this earlier in this blog in the post "A Census of "Prefer" in Bartleby.)
IT would be an interesting exercise to write in the spirit of Bartleby and use only those words that he spoke in the story. To paraphrase Mark Twain, "if I had more time I would have written a shorter letter"--it would take a bit of an effort to turn out a good story using just these words; after all, Dr. Seuss used 236 to produce A Cat in the Hat (and brilliantly so).
There is no official "Well, I'll be Damned Department" on this blog but if there was one this small discovery would certainly be an excellent candidate. I don't know enough about the aerodynamics of first-decade powered flight aircraft, but it seems as though this could be an alternative way of landing. It seems not to be the desired way to bring in your plane, though, looking way more problematic than is necessary. That said, I've never seen flight instructions like this before.
[Source: the ever-fascinating Popular Mechanics, February 1912, page 373.]
Full and massive and creative engineering dreams are the stuff of rich possibilities and the created demands of the created future. Sometimes they lead to the wonderful and essential, and sometimes they don't--pieces of these ideas may go places and lead full lives, but the overall big picture may have been just a little (or a lot) too big. The later may be the case for these ideas below--they include outlines for a trans-Atlantic ship tunnel (1927), the Cotherell/Eads 130-mile overland railway transport for transit across the Tehuantepec isthmus in Nicaragua, monumental masonry bridges supporting a car in which a battleship was driven, and others.
[Cross-section of the Atlantic Tunnel, found in Luigi Motta, Il tunnel sottomarino, published in Milan in 1927, and found while reading in the magnificent Dictionary of Imaginary Places by Alberto Mangule and Gianni Gudalupi/]
This is the story of a mostly-submarine adventure, due to the work of a French engineer named Adrien Geant, who constructed a mostly-floating 4,700 km tunnel connecting Europe to America. Problems ensue and the tunnel fails, the resulting adventure of the survivors taking them to Atlanteja, which was a lost city constructed by the survivors of the lost city of Atlantis. Anyway, it is an interesting story of engineering, as the ideas behind the design of the tunnel were pretty good. The book was written by Luigi Motta (1881-1955), a man of active mind who wrote over 100 adventure/sci-fi stories.
There are crowds and then there are crowds, crowds that are big and filled with people, and then crowds that are filled, but somehow strangely not with people even though they are there--large groups of isolated people. These photos show up now and again, as they did today--I gathered four examples, below.
[Student nurses, Roosevelt Hospital, New York City, 1938. Found at the Pinterest collection of Christian-Paul North, here]
This image is of a church or social service at Pentonville Prison in 1855.
Lonely hatted man in a very large crowd on Coney Island, Brooklyn, U.S.A, as captured by Weegee, ca. 1950. (The Hat Man is at the extreme bottom right corner.)
The energy of Dr. Johnson must have been heroic--had to have been. In addition to all of his other work, he sat down and wrote a dictionary--the first of its kind for the English language: A Dictionary of the English Language, which was printed in 1755.
I've collected what he had to say about the letters of the alphabet, which is in itself a small and remarkable thing of sweep and brevity. He sites the "labial" P, the "canine "R", the unhappy hissing of S, the "note of aspiration" in H, and so on, in a forceful march to recording the language. His book is a work of high beauty.
All of the material below comes from the JohnsonDictionaryOnline site, here.
~ A ~
A, The first letter of the European alphabets, has, in the English language, three different sounds, which may be termed the broad, open, and slender.
The broad sound resembling that of the German a is found, in many of our monosyllables, as all, wall, malt, falt; in which a is pronounced as au in cause, or aw in law. Many of these words were anciently written with au, as sault, waulk; which happens to be still retained in fault. This was probably the ancient sound of the Saxons, since it is almost uniformly preserved in the rustic pronunciation, and the Northern dialects, as maun for man, haund for hand.
Here are two useful sets of biblographic references to publication on black holes. Mostly it is cobbled together, except for part two (the chronological part) which is taken from the University of London, Queen Mary College, School of Mathematical Sciences site and streamlined a bit for quick reference.
(1) Spacetime Singularities and Gravitational Collapse
H. Bateman, The transformation of coordinates which can be used to transform one physical problem into another, Proc. London Math. Soc. 8 (1910), 469-488.
E. Cartan, Sur les espaces conformes généralisés et l'Univers optique, C. R. Acad. Sci. Paris 174 (1922), 857-859.
E. Cartan, Sur les variétés à connexion affine et la théorie de la relativité généralisée I; I (suite); II, Ann. Sci. École Norm. Sup. 40 (1923), 325-412; 41 (1924), 1-25; 42 (1925), 17-88. 1983.
I'm more interested in how this hole was dug and how it got filled up again than in what is filling it. I estimate the "filled" aspect of this reverse-and-inside-out-upside-down monastery to be about 25,000,000 cubic feet, or about two-thirds of the volume of the Empire State Building (which was just being constructed when this article was published). The 40-storey building would about 500' low, and the surrounding supporting structures seem to make the whole of it at least 75' in diameter--finished. That makes for a big hole in the digging of the thing, substantially multiples the volume of the Empire State Building removed in order to achieve the construction needs. That is a lot of dirt.
And so how do we remove the dirt/rock from the 450' level of a 75'-wide hole in 1931? I doubt that it is being hauled out by crane systems, and the hole is certainly wider than 75' at the bottom. I guess these questions could only be answered with the information on what the material is that these folks would be working with. But suffice to say--it would be a big project.
Also: I don't know why this structure would be "earthquake proof", though that is the impetus behind the construction of this monster--the Japanese architects who dreamed this building still had the 140,000 deaths of the 1923 Great Kantō earthquake fresh in their minds. The building looks like it has the capacity to sustain major damage in an earthquake, making it perhaps a flaming and inescapable tomb. It would certainly make a neat if not inexpensive cemetery.
These are particularly fine and relatively early printed images depicting a specific kind of line of sight--this one, a positioning, rather than a line of sight in fire control, or radial velocity, EM radiation or acoustics wave propagation, or targeting...this instrument was used to establish an imaginary line in perceived objects.
This is a detail from Andrew Wakley's The mariner's compass rectified : containing tables, shewing the true hour of the day, the sun being upon any point of the compass ; with the true time of the rising and setting of the sun and stars, and the points of the compass upon which they rise and set ... With the description and use of those instruments most in use in the art of navigation. Also a table of the latitudes and longitudes of places, published in 1763 and reprinted many times after that. (Full text is available from Google books and also from the Haithi Trust which offers a text version of the book as well.)
In the history of raffles and lotteries, tontines and lottos, few would rank so high in the Department of Forbidden Weirdness as this 1912 Parisian lottery of babies.
This image is a detail from the following photograph that appeared in Popular Mechanics for January 1912, and in spite of how this reads and in spite of it being a real-and-true story, it is still difficult for readers in the 21st century to appreciate as a news article rather than a piece of dark fiction:
Now the story of the deep history of child abuse and abandonment and infanticide is thousands of years old, and the issue of the rightness of abandoning newborns to the street as a condoned and necessary social activity to ensure the plasticity and survival of a society has been argued by Aristotle and Quintilian and Pliny the Elder. The movements to provide public institutions to help save the exposed and deserted children really didn't begin in earnest until the 17th and 18th centuries--that is with Louis XIII and Louis XIV in France and with the creation of the Foundling Hospital in London in 1741. It is with the creation of these early orphanages that abandoned babies are saved as babies, and although these children would be trained early on to be mechanics'-helpers and domestics at relatively young ages (early 'teens), they were not subjected to being sent to workhouses as very young children as in the older practices--or being left to die lying in the streets by exposure to the cold or hunger or being trampled underfoot.
So. In comparison with some bitter early histories of the want of tenderness int he care of children, and keeping in mind the great leap forward in the creation of the foundling hospitals and what they represented in the face of not having anywhere for unwanted and impossible babies to go, the idea of the lottery for cute babies in 1912 doesn't look so bad when placed in its historical context.
It is still a very uncomfortable idea and idea, this sort of placement of babies--but with the terrible history of infanticide and exposure not too dimly removed from this time, the lottery seems far less horrible than its antiquarian components.
This paper, "The Eugenic and Social Influence of the War" by Prof. J.A. Lindsay, published in The Eugenics Review in October 1918, ends with the words that I will begin this post with:
"There is some soul of goodness in things evil,
Would men observingly distil it out"
It is a paper that seems a logical extension of something from somewhere, and some of the points are common sensical--but the it is published in this eugenics thing, which pretty much dooms it to eugenics and itself. The qualities of some of his opinions are sometimes of lofty incredulity:
"The loss of life in war is a question not only of quantity, but of quality."
"War, for obvious reasons, tends to depress the birth rate."
"A remarkable and unexpected result of the war has been a decided decline in the rate of suicide."
"A very unexpected feature of war-time has been the decline of insanity."
"Perhaps the most fundamental gain from the war will be interest in education, and the larger measure of attention devoted to it."
Somehow here at the end of a war in which since 100 million people were killed or wounded Prof Lindsay seems to have written a piece on that great conflict without being somewhat cognizant of the human value of such loss.
And that, as they say, is that.
Full text is located here, at the U.S. National Library of Medicine.