Thursday, December 25, 2008

Joyeux Noël

Some people think a savior's birth
Will somehow bring us peace on earth.
Some twinkling lights, a holly wreath,
A tree with presents underneath —
These demonstrations are in vain
If we continue to complain.
The peace that touches humankind
Originates as peace of mind.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008



Some sixty thousand years ago
In a cave beneath the sun,
A Neanderthal lived whom we now know
By the label Shanidar I.

It seems that when poor “Nandy” died
At the ripe old age of forty,
The victim of a huge rock slide,
He’d never quite been sporty.

His right leg had been pretty lame,
And adding to his charm,
His left leg was about the same,
And he’d lost his right arm.

An injury to his skull left
His left eye nearly blind.
This ancient man was as bereft
Of hope as you could find.

And yet, the members of his tribe
With him their food had shared.
To charity we now ascribe
The way these people cared.

Was Neanderthal charity,
That kept this man alive,
A weakness that, in history,
Meant they would not survive?

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

New links at top of page

I've added two links at the top of this blog:

Table of Contents

The table of contents will point to the rhymes in this collection. It will not include other commentary or announcement posts, like this one. Also, I'm attempting to keep it in roughly chronological order by idea, not by date of posting. Some of these ideas, of course, have no specific dates, or evolved over a long period of time. In those cases, I just wing it.

The references page is a list of books I've found helpful or at least entertaining while trying to come up with ideas for this.


Thursday, December 11, 2008


We come in different colors, shapes and sizes,
With different skills and assets and desires.
And though the world may throw us some surprises
Each strives to get what he or she requires.

Yet whether we are struggling to survive,
Or living in a comfortable style,
We tend to question why we are alive,
Or how to make our lives be more worthwhile.
Though different, we have certain basic needs,
Beyond which, we would leave something behind
Which may be the remembrance of our deeds
Or friends' or family's keeping us in mind.

We are all different, we can truly claim.
It’s also true that we are all the same.

Sunday, December 7, 2008


(Insert clever rhyme about putting things off.)

Thursday, November 27, 2008



It seems at first a little odd
That whether you believe in god
Or not, the fact that you are living
Is cause to celebrate Thanksgiving.
Whether you’re poor, or own the bank,
There’s something for which you can thank.
It’s not so much sheer gratitude.
Thanksgiving’s more an attitude.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Coffee (work in progress)

(May be sung to the tune of When You're Lying Awake..., from the Gilbert & Sullivan operetta Iolanthe.)

When you’re lying asleep,
Having counted your sheep,
And your clock is alarming insistently,
And you’ve got to wake up
Try a hot, steaming cup
Of the brew that will rouse you consistently.
It’s a magic elixir
That’s easy to fix, or
Go buy a cup already brewed.
Drink it hot or ice cold,
Regular, mild or bold,
It will certainly brighten your mood.
For it’s made from the very
Same bean in the berry
Of plants grown in tropical climes,
And whose beans, when pulled off, we
will use to make coffee
(Though that’s not the greatest of rhymes.)
Then these beans are all roasted
And carefully toasted
And ground into coarse or fine powder,
Then mixed with hot water
As thin as a broth or
As thick as New England clam chowder.
Then you really can’t wait
To let it percolate
So you savor it dripped or French pressed.
Your heart skips a bit
As you jump to your feet
And remember it’s time to get dressed.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Getting Some Perspective

As James Burke describes in The Day the Universe Changed, perspective wasn't just some new, cool way of drawing. It represented a shift in the way Europeans thought, not only about art, but about the universe. Instead of a kind of diagrammatic painting, in which figures were placed and sized to represent the hierarchy of creation, paintings using perspective depicted how things look to humans. The human viewpoint became important, in art, architecture, and other endeavors.

And though the basics of perspective were derived mathematically, its use in art was intended to create the illusion of human vision. The Brunelleschi experiment, from about 1415, was a mirror image painting of the Baptistery in Florence. This painting, with an eye hole in the middle, was set up facing the Baptistery. Viewers could look through the eye hole into a mirror to see the painting, or, with the mirror removed, look directly at the Baptistery. So effective was Brunelleschi's rendering that viewers claimed not to be able to tell the difference. (Of course, I would think the fact that one of the views had the viewer's eyeball in the middle might be a giveaway, but I wasn't there.)

Friday, November 14, 2008

Artistic Perspective


Felippo Brunelleschi and Paolo Toscanelli
Must have met somewhere in Florence, maybe lunching at the deli,
When Paolo pointed out Italian paintings were defective.
“Let me show you some neat math that lets you paint things in perspective
Cause perspective paintings show that things look larger when they’re nearer,”
Which Felippo demonstrated when you looked into a mirror
At the painting he had made of buildings just across the street.
And the art world was enthralled by Brunelleschi’s painting feat.
To shorten a long story and just give you the synoptical
This math was based on al-Hazen’s book of his theories optical.
Now al-Hazen had figured out that light travels in rays
Which bounce off objects and enter the eye in different ways.
And from this theory, captured in his seven-volume book,
Al-Hazen had given us a clue to how these objects look.
In old art, an object’s size denotes its place within creation
But perspective makes that size more the result of observation.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Electoral Dysfunction

Elections appear to be the best mechanism yet devised for giving "the people" a voice in government. There are, of course, problems, many of which involve corruption and criminal behavior.

But more generally, some of the widely accepted but nonetheless disturbing features about elections, at least in the U.S., include:

  1. It costs a huge amount of money to compete effectively, at least at the state and national level. While donations ultimately account for a lot of this, there are certain hurdles that prevent impoverished candidates and organizations from even getting into the race. Elections are won by people with money.
  2. Elections are pretty good at deciding between two alternatives, but when it comes to three or more, the system doesn't work as well. Multiple choice election systems could work by letter voters rank the various alternatives, and then tallying the scores, but this has not really moved beyond the theory/research stage.
  3. Elections tend to pick candidates who are good at winning elections. This does not necessarily translate to actually governing. Certainly there are some overlapping skills, but there's also a large non-intersection.
Despite these issues, elections sometimes have great outcomes!

Wednesday, November 5, 2008



When the populace makes a selection
It is frequently done by election.
This is not without flaws.
Some electoral laws
Are sorely in need of correction.

In the early democracies Greek,
Every citizen could choose to speak.
But the term citizen
Just referred to free men,
So they really formed kind of a clique.

The first question is: Who gets to vote?
That itself has raised issues of note.
The U.S. Constitution
Had botched the solution
(Later fixed in amendments we wrote.)

Politicians are frequently pandering,
Or insulting their rivals by slandering,
Or election promoters
Redistrict the voters,
A practice known as gerrymandering.

Desperate moves include assassination,
Or distributing disinformation.
Yet despite these defects,
A system which elects
Is better than one by dictation.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Hyp(otenuse) to be a Square

Pythagoras was one of the earliest of the Greek philosopher/scientist/mathematicians. In fact, he's said to have coined the term philosopher, from the Greek terms meaning "love of knowledge." Partly due to the natural effects of historical perspective, and partly due to the secrecy maintained by the cult of Pythagoreans, not much is known with certainty about him or his works.

He's best known for the theorem about right triangles that bears his name, though he probably didn't originate it. Also up there is his work on producing tones with strings of various lengths and tensions.

So next time you're playing Guitar Hero, think of Pythagoras.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008


Play Audio

You might not think there would be any use
Knowing the square of the hypotenuse
(Which is the sum, Pythagoras confides,
Of the squares of the opposite two sides.)

This theorem which comes from geometry,
Combined with bits of trigonometry,
Is useful when we calculate how far
It is to something distant, like a star.

He traveled much, and probably had learned
This theorem, which he proved when he returned.
He did invent mathematical abstraction,
And useful concepts, like that of the fraction.

But numbers, even fractions, wouldn’t do
For representing the square root of two.
He formed a cult of number-based fanatics
That practically invented mathematics.

Another of Pythagoras’s strengths
Was working out how strings of different lengths
When plucked made different pitches to the ear. He
Could have called this notion his string theory.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Spinning my wheels

I'm sitting in my office. The fan is blowing on me. I'm rolling my mouse around. I'm tilting and swiveling and rolling around in my desk chair. In a few minutes, I'll take the elevator, then go get on a train to take me to where my bike is parked, so I can ride home past all the cars.

And I can't think of anything to say about the wheel.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Wheel


When people first moved things around
Across the dirt and rocks and ledges,
They tired of dragging on the ground
And started piling stuff on sledges.

This worked out for quite a while
But they eventually learned
The sledges could be moved with style
By rolling them on logs that turned.

Meanwhile, in making pots and bowls
And other stuff formed out of clay,
A round shape was one of the goals
Met by use of a spinning tray.

So putting these ideas together
Folks could make some simple parts:
Axles held by straps of leather,
holding wheels to move their carts.

Even now, the gear and pulley,
Bike and train, automobile,
Don't mean that people have fully
Made use of this thing, the wheel.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Still Here

I know we've fallen way behind lately. Blame it on the Red Sox. There are still thousands of great ideas to cover, and if those run thin, I certainly have plenty of dumb ones to add to the mix.

So stay tuned. We'll be back.

(There's a homophonic clue about the topic of our next post in here, but don't waste too much time on it.)

Friday, October 10, 2008

Separation of Powers

The phrase "checks and balances" appears nowhere in the U.S. Constitution. Rather, it's a concept that describes the distribution of various powers and responsibilities among the various branches of government. The concept of separation of powers goes back to ancient times. It's interesting, though, that this is still hotly debated. The current U.S. administration has been accused of ignoring the system of checks and balances, and of grabbing power to institute an imperial presidency.

Of course, if one political party controls all the branches of government, that tends to defeat the system of checks and balances anyway. Perhaps some stronger measures are needed to ensure that diverse viewpoints are represented.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Checks and Balances

Play Audio

The famous Lord Acton remarked, quite astutely,
Absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Government structures that follow this principle
Make sure that no single branch is invincible.
No one branch gets to have all of its druthers;
Each one must answer to one or more others.
The whole legislature can pass lots of laws
But courts overturn them if they find some flaws.
Some chief executives make their own moves,
But some acts require that the Congress approves.
The most independent branch, the Supreme Court,
Is made up of those whom the others support.
So, by this system, all branches are checked,
And should treat each other branch with some respect.

Friday, October 3, 2008

With Liberty and Justice For All

From the sound of that phrase, "with liberty and justice for all," one might almost think the two go hand in hand. But nothing could be farther from the truth. Liberty, or more simply freedom, appears to be about not being a slave, not being subject to a tyrannical government, or not being constrained by a rigid, conformist society. In conservative parlance, though, liberty is also a code word for freedom from taxes and government involvement.

Likewise, justice is not just about being counted innocent until proven guilty, or not having to face cruel and unusual punishments. Justice is also about having an opportunity to strive for the rewards society has to offer. It's about succeeding based on accomplishments, rather than on family background, hereditary wealth or social connections.

Unfortunately, nature is inherently unjust. People, through no fault or virtue of their own, may be born with incredible advantages or horrible disadvantages. We can't correct this. But we can make life a little more equitable but creating a society in which those who are disadvantaged get a little help at the expense of those who have more than their share. It's only fair.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Liberty Vs. Justice

Play Audio

The idea known as liberty
(Or sometimes simply “being free”)
Is often in a rivalry
With what we call equality.
Now liberty means I can do
Most anything I might want to.
But if I’m better off than you,
You may not have that freedom too.
Justice is, you may observe,
The goal folks get what they deserve.
But life can throw us all a curve,
Those who command and those who serve.
For nature isn’t always fair,
And folks don’t get an equal share.
One kid’s born broke, and one’s an heir,
So how could there be justice there?
So though we must indeed be free
To function in society
It’s not enough. There needs to be
Some measure of equality.

Friday, September 26, 2008

No Comment

Normally, I like to post some comments on Friday regarding the previous Monday's rhyme.

In this case, I don't think that's necessary.

Monday, September 22, 2008

The Bush Doctrine

Play Audio

I said we must conquer Iraq
Before they could launch an attack.
It wasn’t an error
To link them to terror,
It justified hitting them back.
In a war you can’t stop and think twice,
Or your countrymen will pay the price.
To avoid any gaffe
I consulted my staff:
Cheney, Wolfowitz, Rummy and Rice.
Of course, Colin’s also my man,
Which is why we sent him to Iran.
But I haven’t the patience
For negotiations
With all of these wars we must plan.
We know the American dream
That this country’s the number one team.
We’ll smash any bully
Before they can fully
Come up with some gross evil scheme.
Our military is first class,
With intelligence none can surpass.
If there’s any upheaval
The axis of evil
Should know that we’ll come kick their … uh, backsides.

Friday, September 19, 2008

The Harvest Thing

The advent of agriculture was arguably the most significant development in the history of humankind. Isaac Asimov's Chronology of the World and Felipe Fernandez-Armesto's Ideas That Changed the World both outline the impact, and many other things.

A few of the ramifications include:

  1. The change from nomadic to settled lifestyles -- If you build it, you will stay.
  2. The beginning of private property -- A rolling stone gathers no moss, but a stationary one?
  3. The beginning of war -- Settled people had to defend their property, and not simply retreat.
  4. The establishment of cities -- People lived together for common defense and support.
  5. The dominance of work -- No more wandering around, eating whatever comes your way. Work was an every day thing, at least until the weekend was invented.
  6. The beginning of career diversity -- A few farmers could raise enough to feed a city.
  7. The switch to a more fiber and carbohydrate based diet -- Eat the cereal on hand, or go catch a burger?
  8. Acceleration of population growth -- With a steady diet and no need to carry the kids around, why not?
  9. The invention of calendars -- Harvest time again already?

As Asimov points out, civilis, Latin for "city dweller," is really the basis for civilization. So that's when it started ... about 8,000 BC.

Monday, September 15, 2008



There was a time when no one knew
How trees and plants and bushes grew.
About ten thousand years ago
Folks figured out that they could sow
These inedible things called seeds
And grow the food to meet their needs.
And for some reason, they chose rather
Break their backs than hunt and gather.
Now they had to work much harder
To fill up the empty larder.
Wanting food as the result,
They formed a sort of agri-cult,
Bowing, scraping, cultivating,
Watching weather, always waiting.
This was quite a drastic change
For folks who used to hunt the range
And eat whatever they could find.
But now they left that life behind
To start up farms and settle down
In what was to become a town.
These farms could help avert starvation
For a growing population.
(For with a stable food supply
Folks could fruitfully multiply.)
But settled life had its rewards,
And looked so good to passing hordes
That all the folks who lived on farms
Were sometimes forced to take up arms
And had to fight to keep their lands
From falling to invaders’ hands.

The hunting life had been quite nice,
But now, expelled from paradise
When ice age glaciers all withdrew
Taking with them the prey we knew,
We had a choice: we could migrate,
Or else just learn to cultivate.
We learned to use the sun and rain
And soil to grow a stock of grain.
Thus started, with this realization
What we call civilization.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Where Have We Been?

I suppose I owe my readers (both of you) an apology. The world is still full of ideas, great and dumb, but no new posts have been forthcoming. I guess I put things off, thinking that if the LHC (Large Hadron Collider) at CERN was going to destroy the earth anyway, there wasn't much point in writing more silly rhymes about ideas.

Well, the LHC went online this week, and the earth appears not to have been sucked into a black hole, so I'll get back to work. Starting Monday, we'll return to our regular schedule, whatever that is.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Once Upon a Time ...

Stories are certainly one of humankind's earliest inventions. It's likely that stories were told in sound and pantomime even before a rich verbal language was developed. The cave paintings at Lascaux and Altamira may be a form of storytelling, depicting events around hunting. Storytelling is mixed up with ritual and mythology at the formation of the very first religions. Certainly storytelling is fundamental to religions even today.

Less obvious is that storytelling also underlies science and discovery. Realistically, everything we know is reconstructed from the scant evidence our senses perceive. We look for causes and relationships, and reject or accept possibilities based on how they fit our understanding of how the world works.

Cognitive therapy, pioneered by Aaron Beck, is based on the view that our feelings and motivations are derived from what we perceive and believe about the world. In a sense, what we tell ourselves is real determines how we feel. So, again, our internal stories about the world shape how we experience it.

During the late 20th century, stories in the form of TV, radio and movies, from the U.S. and other Western European nations gained worldwide distribution. Also during this time, the Cold War ended, and some historians speculated that the "end of history" was at hand. Since then, technology has allowed media to again become fragmented into narrow-casts aimed at small demographic groups. Not surprisingly, the sense of globalization of ideas that seemed imminent in the late 20th century is now challenged by extremism from various non-Western European groups.

We are who we tell ourselves we are.

Monday, August 25, 2008



The practice must indeed be very old
Of recounting some sequence of events
And adding structure as the tale is told
To try to captivate an audience.
Some storytellers introduced a formal
Religious rite for how their tales unfurled,
But storytelling’s actually the normal
Way we have to comprehend the world.
Our lives are really torrents of sensation
That we can partly grasp in retrospect
By limiting what stays in our narration
To those things with a cause or an effect.
No more real than the books that line our shelves,
Reality’s a tale we tell ourselves.

Friday, August 22, 2008


Hard work has one limitation:
There's a need for some vacation.
So I vacated (so to speak.)
I'll be back with more next week.

Friday, August 15, 2008


Fire remains one of the most powerful and compelling phenomena in our experience. We continue to be fascinated by it, and go to considerable lengths to have fireplaces, campfires, candles, and other forms of combustion available. We also think of fire as a metaphor for passion ("burning desire"), anger ("burning with rage"), ailment ("inflammation"), hell ("inferno"), destruction ("incineration") and, on the flip side, life itself ("the spark of life").

Fire is incredibly useful, not only for cooking and heating, but for cleaning, manufacturing, propulsion, and pretty much anything else associated with energy technology. Fire is also, obviously, capable of great destruction.

Fire was one of the classical elements, along with earth, water and air.

Obviously, fire has had tremendous impact on our daily lives and on our imaginations. I could write volumes more about it. However, if I don't get back to work, I'll get fired!

Monday, August 11, 2008



The heat and light that did inspire
Those early folks to capture fire
Could serve a wide range of intents,
Like light and warmth and self-defense.

And by the way, we found that heat
Is great for cooking stuff to eat.
But then we learned some other tricks
Like hardening sharpened points of sticks,

Or making things to use each day
By baking stuff made out of clay.
Some rocks that we could melt and cool
Became the world’s first metal tool.

Combustion engines, even glass
Were things that fire helped bring to pass.
All of these uses fire can boast,
But give me marshmallows to toast.

Friday, August 8, 2008


It's difficult to think of the word "genius" without thinking of Einstein. His name and face have become practically the archetype of genius ... wild in appearance, eccentric, and too brilliant to be understood by most people. The real Einstein was quite different from the cartoon version that we think of today, but why spoil a good myth?

Like Isaac Newton, Einstein had an annus mirabilis, a "miracle year." In 1905, Einstein published five papers that changed pretty much our entire conception of reality. If he had done nothing else in his lifetime (though he certainly did), those five papers alone would have established him as one of the greatest and most important thinkers in history. These are described in detail in Einstein 1905: The Standard of Greatness, by John S. Rigden, but briefly, they are:

  1. a paper demonstrating that light acts both as waves of pure energy, and as particles. The photo-electric effect, the basis of solar cells, relies on this particle aspect of light.
  2. an explanation of how to determine the size of molecules.
  3. a demonstration that Brownian motion, the motion of, for example, yeast floating in water, is caused by collisions with molecules.
  4. the theory of special relativity, showing that time and space are not fixed absolutes.
  5. the theory that matter can be converted to energy via the formula E=mc2.
These are described in more detail in Einstein's Miraculous Year: Five Papers That Changed the Face of Physics, by Roger Penrose and John Stachel.

Einstein spent much of his later life trying to find a theory that would unite all the forces in the universe, the so called unified field theory. He was not ultimately successful in this, though many think the current string theory holds the promise of fulfilling Einstein's expectations.

Monday, August 4, 2008


(Sung to the tune of When I Was a Lad from Gilbert's and Sullivan's H.M.S. Pinafore.)
When I was a lad I needed work
And took a position as a patent clerk.
I took great pleasure in this position,
And I carefully reviewed each promising submission.
He carefully reviewed each promising submission.
I read each submission so carefully
And later I discovered relativity.
He read each submission so carefully
And later he discovered relativity.

Of patent work I soon grew tired
Though at least I had read enough to be inspired.
This inspiration lead me to teach
To see if there were others my ideas could reach.
To see if there were others his ideas could reach.
I tried to find a university
Where I could keep up work on relativity.
He tried to find a university
Where he could keep up work on relativity.
My first nineteen-five article
Showed light acts both as wave and particle.
Next month I finally finished school
By showing how to measure any molecule.
He showed us how to measure any molecule.
These papers got me notoriety
But nothing to my work on relativity.
These papers got him notoriety
But nothing to his work on relativity.
Now time and space won’t be the same
If we don’t move in one inertial frame.
But this ignores the speed of light
I redefined both time and space to make it right.
He redefined both time and space to make it right.
This was a big event for me.
This theory would be known as relativity.
“This was a big event,” said he,
This theory that is known as relativity.
In May I proved a widespread notion
That atoms are the cause of Brownian motion.
By late that year I was prepared
To prove that energy’s equal to mc squared.
He showed that energy’s equal to mc squared.
Since then my life has been so dreary
As I have failed to find a unified field theory.
Since then his life has been so dreary
As he has failed to find a unified field theory
So physicists, wherever you may be
If you want a thesis for your Ph. D.
If fame and fortune you prefer
And not just for your style and wild coiffeur
You won’t be known just for your style and wild coiffeur.
Just break new ground, like relativity
And you can be a physicist celebrity.
Just break new ground, like relativity
And you can be a physicist celebrity

Friday, August 1, 2008

Rhythmic Variation

In Poetic Closure: A Study of How Poems End, Barbara Herrnstein Smith describes how poems establish a pattern so the reader or listener can anticipate how the structure will continue. Imagine driving past a picket fence, and seeing the recurring pattern of one picket after another, evenly spaced. When the poem does something unexpected, like a break in that picket fence, it creates a sense of tension that gets relieved when the pattern is restored.

Music does this with tone as well as with rhythm, but it's a similar idea. A key or pattern is established, then set aside, and later restored. The relief of returning to the original structure helps create a sense of finality or ending.

At a finer level, this is done many times throughout some poems and musical works. The pattern itself may contain some variations in rhythm. Just think of that Bacardi Mojito ad that's all over TV these days. A simple, steady metronome beat would not be as effective in promoting alcohol consumption. (Well, maybe those models dancing have something to do with it, but if you close your eyes, it's still pretty catchy.)

Monday, July 28, 2008


The syncopated beat of the blues
Will make you move those feet in your shoes.
It’s got a rhythm everyone feels
Somewhere between the toes and the heels.
And faster than you can say “Let’s dance!”
You’re jumping up and taking the chance.
Well, syncopation’s centuries old.
It started in the classical mold.
And though it had been known all along,
It really shone in popular song.
When Mr. Joplin wrote ragged time,
The syncopation made it sublime.
And still today we’re hearing the beat
Of syncopated tunes on the street.
It figures into rap and hip-hop,
That little hesitation or stop
That comes from variations in stress
That syncopation is, more or less.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Newton, Apples, etc.

Ideas Great and Dumb is more about the ideas than the people who advanced them, but once in a while, it's fun to look at the individuals who contributed so much to our intellectual history.

Newton was certainly one of the most interesting characters in the history of science. There's a story that he once boiled his watch while staring at the egg. That would make him one of the first world famous total geeks.

It is true that Newton spent a year and a half at his family's estate in Lincolnshire when Cambridge University was closed due to plague in 1665. During that time, he discovered that white light can be decomposed into a spectrum by use of a prism, invented the reflector telescope, generalized the binomial theorem to work with any exponent, invented calculus, and demonstrated that the orbit of the moon around the earth is governed by an inverse square law of gravitation. Not bad for a school vacation. Upon Newton's return to Cambridge, his professor, Isaac Barrow, resigned his post and recommended Newton for the job.

Meanwhile, Newton's calculations for the moon's orbit were slightly off, due to his using an inaccurate number for the radius of the earth. Newton tossed the work in a drawer, and it remained there for 20 years. One day, Edmond Halley (namesake of the famous comet) approached Newton about the lunar orbit problem. Newton began rifling through his papers looking for the old work. This led to the observation that while all of Europe was looking for the law of gravity, Newton had lost it.

With Halley's prompting and support, Newton published his body of findings in a tome called Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, or simply Principia, in 1687. That pretty much secured his reputation as one of the greatest scientific minds in history.

And the apple? As far as we can determine, that story is true. Newton's thinking about gravity was at least partly inspired by seeing an apple fall from a tree.

By the way, my particular inspiration for this rhyme, and to some extent the entire IGAD project, was a set of tapes from The Teaching Company called The Birth of the Modern Mind:The Intellectual History of the 17th and 18th Centuries, by Alan Charles Kors.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Isaac Newton

(To the tune of The Major General's Song, from Gilbert's and Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance.)
Play Audio
I am the very model of an “Age of Reason” know-it-all.
I’ve lots of arcane knowledge though I’m hesitant to show it all.
My academic record’s unimpressive and a trifle vague,
I left school when the university was closed because of plague
But lest you think I spent my days indulging in depravity,
At first I thought of calculus, and something I call gravity.
I demonstrated light’s a rainbow when it shines into a prism,
Formulated all the laws of physics known as classicism.
Formulated all the laws of physics known as classicism.
Formulated all the laws of physics known as classicism.
Formulated all the laws of physics known as classi-sassi-cism.
I showed that force is equal to the mass times the acceleration,
And concluded energy obeys the laws of conservation.
Thus, with all my knowledge, though I hesitate to show it all,
I am the very model of an “Age of Reason” know-it-all.
In short, with all his knowledge, though he hesitates to show it all,
He is the very model of an “Age of Reason” know-it-all.

I showed the orbit of the moon obeys the law of inverse squares.
(Ok, the radius was slightly off, but that’s just splitting hairs.)
Gravity’s a force that operates between a pair of masses.
Spectra are what happen when you shine white light through certain glasses.
Due to this, most lenses will diffract like bubbles made of soap,
So I invented a device called the reflector telescope.
About binomial theorem I am teeming with a lot o’ news.
In fact, I’ve got a formula for any exponent you choose.
In fact, he’s got a formula for any exponent you choose.
In fact, he’s got a formula for any exponent you choose.
In fact, he’s got a formula for any exponent you choo-choo-choose.
I have invented integral and differential calculus.
I’ve proven the hypotheses of Kepler and Copernicus.
So now I’m back at school in Cambridge to resume my education.
This concludes my brief report on how I spent my school vacation.
So now he’s back at school in Cambridge to resume his education.
This concludes his brief report on how he spent his school vacation.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Podcast now available

You can now listen to the rhymes in Ideas Great and Dumb by subscribing to the RSS feed ( via iTunes, Google Reader, Bloglines or other RSS Podcast compatible readers.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Theories About Theories

It’s very tempting to think that science is the best means for understanding physical reality … what’s really going on in the universe. After all, science has given us so many useful by-products. Who can argue with the light bulb, the car, or the computer? But is it really reality we’re observing?

Think of the fable of the blind men and the elephant. Each touched a different part of the elephant, and came away with a completely different idea of what an elephant was. The man who touched the trunk thought the elephant was like a snake, but the man who touched the legs thought it was like a tree, and the tail man thought the elephant was like a rope. Each of them drew conclusions based on observations of a very limited part of the whole elephant. Moreover, their ideas of an elephant are shaped by where they came from, as well as by what parts of the elephant they touched. The man from the swamp thought the elephant very dry and rough. The man from the tundra thought the elephant very bald and unprotected. Our perception of reality is shaped as much by past experiences as by the current observations.

The other point usually overlooked with the blind men and the elephant parable is that each man understood the elephant by likening it to something already familiar … snakes, trees, rope, etc. We learn about the universe by fitting new knowledge into an established, intuitive framework. For centuries, physics could be understood by thinking of forces acting on particles.

Theories are cognitive inventions which seem to explain the world. But explanations are simply that which leads to understanding, and understanding is a very subjective, human phenomenon. To understand something means to have a model of how it behaves that enables us both to explain past observations and to predict future behavior. So explanation is the process of creating a metaphor … a mental model which corresponds to the observed world in important ways.

Moreover, we only perceive a tiny fraction of all the information available about anything in the universe. Our whole ideas of objects, planets, stars, etc. is just a mental model we’ve constructed from the scant bits of evidence we’ve been able to observe. So any conjectures about what these things are like or how they behave is really a stretch.

Viewed in this way, the heliocentric model of the solar system bears the same relationship to the actual solar system as the abstract idea triangle does to any roughly 3-sided object in reality. It is an abstraction and simplification, to allow us to grasp cognitively what is, in fact, a complex phenomenon.

There is little doubt the earth moves around the sun, but what this actually means is that the mathematics of describing the motion of the planets relative to each other and the sun is simplest when we think of the sun as being at one focus of the elliptical orbits. Both simplicity and mathematics are themselves products of how our brains work. So all we really know is that our brains find it easier to understand and predict the motion of the planets if we think of it as a heliocentric system. This is a far cry from saying “This is real.”

Imagine a universe in which the sun and planets all revolve around the earth, just as the pre-Copernicans believed. Imagine these orbits are composed of cycles and epicycles, just as the pre-Copernicans supposed. Suppose the effect of this combination of cycles and epicycles is that the planets and sun are always in the same positions, relative to each other, as they are in our universe. What, then, is the difference between that universe and ours? None! They are identical in every respect. Planets and stars do not obey laws. The laws are our attempts to understand and describe their behavior. But understanding and description are cognitive tools, not characteristics of nature.

You can never find a line in real life, because a line is an idea … an abstraction from actual edges and boundaries we find in reality. In the same way, a scientific explanation is an abstraction that fits the observed facts. The planets don’t revolve around the sun in elliptical orbits. They are all just moving bodies in space, whose distances and orientations change in relation to one another. The ellipse is an idea we invented to make things predictable. If another theory fit all the observations just as well, it would be just as true. Two theories which explain the same phenomena with the same verifiability are equally valid.

When you try out a new piece of computer software, you can find out all about it by watching how it behaves, experimenting with different actions to see what reaction the software has, etc. By doing this, you can come up with a very detailed and complete description of every aspect of the software’s behavior. Yet this says nothing about what the software is actually doing internally, or what its developers intended.

NOTE: This does not imply there’s any validity to the so-called intelligent design! Currently, it’s very difficult to make any critical assessment of science without being regarded as a defender of creationism or the so-called intelligent design theory. Nothing could be further from the truth. But science itself has become an authority, and we should always question authority. (Says who?)

One of the cornerstones of science is the experiment. The scientific method, including the experiment, is often thought of as a foolproof means for ascertaining truth. But there are flaws in this. For one, the experiment proves that a given result is possible … that it might happen. It doesn’t prove that the result will always happen. No matter how many times we demonstrate that oil and water don’t mix, we can’t prove that they never mix.

Moreover, in the scientific method, the experiment is a hypothesis test. We make a conjecture about some phenomenon, and then experiment to see if the conjecture holds up. But we only do experiments on ideas that we already consider to be plausible. In a sense, we’re filtering out things that don’t seem scientific, and only experimenting with those things that fit the belief framework. In particular, we assume causality to apply in all situations, since causality is the basis of experimentation. So if there could possibly be phenomena which don’t behave causally, they will simply be dismissed as observational errors.

Within a belief framework, the theory seems plausible and valid, and consistent with the rest of the framework. Outside the framework, however, the theory may seem irrational. This is not unlike fantasy fiction. We accept that Frodo may have a ring that makes him invisible because it’s within the natural order of the universe Tolkien created for his stories. So saying the ring works by powerful magic is a perfectly sound explanation in that universe. Our own universe is, of course, not completely knowable, so we create stories of how things behave to satisfy our own curiosity. In one set of stories, everything may be purely mechanical. The universe is a giant machine that runs according to definite, if unknown, principles. Another set of stories may have the universe a place of mystery and unpredictability, subject to the whims or moods of some controlling being or beings.

If you happen to believe a supreme being created the earth, than the earth becomes evidence of that being’s existence. We can see the circularity of the logic when it’s stated this way, but in general, belief systems form a context in which we interpret all experiences, and the experiences themselves then reinforce the context. That’s why something that violates our expectations of how the world behaves is so surprising.

But that’s pretty much the history of science, isn’t it? Violated expectations? We’re constantly revising theories and replacing them with new ones. That fact alone should convince us that, as convincing and practical as our scientific knowledge is, we don’t have a lock on reality yet.


Monday, July 14, 2008



We started with a universe that came with no instructions,
And had to figure things out by assumptions and deductions.

The first snag we ran into was the drastic limitation
Of using just our senses as the means of observation.
For though our instruments can magnify both far and small,
The fraction that we glimpse is scarcely anything at all.

Some think the cosmos is like a machine that has no flaws,
And keeps on working perfectly by dint of natural laws.
But laws are just what we invent in order to explain
Our observations in a way that makes sense to the brain.

We understood that gravity’s a force of great attraction
That worked, as Newton told us, by an inverse square abstraction.
For centuries, that theory fit the purposes it served,
But now that model’s obsolete, and space itself is curved.

And though we learned the earth goes round the sun, not otherwise,
That viewpoint mainly differs in the math it simplifies.
For certainly it’s simpler just to plot the planets’ motion,
But simple‘s in the human mind, a quite subjective notion.

We keep inventing models that exhibit this causality
And if they work, we dignify them with the name reality.
A straight line’s one example. We all know a line, of course, is
The path a moving object takes when free of outside forces.

But objects do not obey laws as if they were just slaves.
We made up lines and laws to fathom how a thing behaves.
And likewise, the ellipse is just a shape that we invented.
There are no orbits out there on which planets ride, contented.

Our theories all are just like engineering in reverse,
To figure out how we might make a working universe.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Out of Time

We measure things by comparing them to other, more familiar things. We measure distance by seeing how many short things (e.g., inches, centimeters, etc.) can fit into a longer thing, and liquids by seeing how many ounces or cups the larger volume can fill.

Measuring time was a major challenge, both because of the usefulness of it, and because of the complex relationships of the available measurement units. The most obvious repeating events were days and lunar cycles. Unfortunately, neither of these fit nicely into a year. Trying to force them by defining a year as 12 lunar cycles, for example, just meant that the year had no relation to the actual position of the earth or, more importantly, to the seasons. Some pretty whacked out schemes were devised, like the Babylonian calendar of 19 year cycles with years of different lengths. Try keeping that in your DayTimer or Filofax!

In The Discoverers: A History of Man's Search to Know His World and Himself, Daniel Boorstin credits the ancient Egyptians with finally breaking the mind set of using lunar cycles, and noticing that the time between Nile floods could be divided up into 12 months of 30 days, plus 5 extra intercalary days. That was successful enough that the ancient Romans adopted it, with some modifications by Caesar, resulting in the Julian calendar. Further refinements were made under Pope Gregory XIII. This, the most widely used calendar today, at least for day-to-day purposes, is known as the Gregorian calendar. Other calendars are still used for things like finding the dates of Easter, Passover, Ramadan, etc., which is why these holidays occur on different dates every year.

In some ways, the field of astronomy owes its existence to the need for time measurement. And because astronomy depended on accurate measurements and records, it was one of the first sciences.

Monday, July 7, 2008

The Calendar


The ancient Egyptians
Were having conniptions
Because of the floods of the Nile.
They had no way to know
When it might overflow
(Which it does every once in a while.)
When the flooding did stop
They would plant every crop
In the hopes there would be time to reap.
For they harvested manually,
Knowing that annually
Crops could get lost in the deep.
They found it mysterious
The star we call Sirius
Signaled the start of the flood,
For it rose every year
At a time pretty near
To when they all got covered with mud.

Then they studied the moon
And observed pretty soon
It had cycles of waxing and waning.
These took near thirty days
Which a year, cut twelve ways,
Roughly equaled, with five days remaining.
And that was the reason
Predicting each season.
Was one of the calendar’s strengths,
Though it since has been changed
And the days re-arranged
Into twelve months of unequal lengths.
For a while it was Julian.
Gregorian’s truly an
Asset for scheduled living.
In four thousand B.C.
Nobody could foresee
What a valuable gift they were giving.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Horse Trading

Historian Barbara Tuchman, in The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam, describes an act of folly as a self-destructive act made by a group of people, even when a clear alternative is available, and at least some people at the time are aware of the self-destructiveness of the act. She uses Troy's acceptance of the legendary Greek gift horse as the prototypical example of folly.

Of course, in real life, things are rarely so clear-cut, and it's easy for historians to say "Well, obviously these people were right and these people were wrong." Still, it would have been pretty easy at least to examine the horse for signs of occupants. Given that there were a number of warnings about it, what would have been the harm?

The harm, apparently, was the risk of offending Athena, to whom the horse was dedicated. That brings a whole different dimension to the question of whether or not accepting the horse was folly. When you think you're at the mercy of powerful, inconsistent and self-serving gods, trying to make a rational decision is pretty tough.

Anyway, depending on whose perspective you have, the Trojan horse could be considered either a great idea or a dumb one.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Trojan Horse


If someone leaves a horse upon your door-
Especially a wooden one that could
A bunch of fighting Greeks with fine physiques,
ing it inside of Troy could prove annoy-

Friday, June 27, 2008

Civilization Turns a Corner

Somewhere around 9000 BC (or BCE if you prefer), the people of Mureybet, in what's now Syria, began making rectangular buildings. That's according to archaeologist Jacques Cauvin, as cited by Peter Watson in Ideas: A History of Thought and Invention, From Fire to Freud. Mureybet is also one of the oldest villages to be based around agriculture, and they may have been among the first to use tokens as symbols for communicating, but we'll get to all that later.

I don't know if the Mureybetians were the very first to make rectangular buildings, but they're on the list. I guess what seems like a breakthrough here is that they didn't simply build shelters and storage sheds in the easiest way they could think of ... they had a vision of what a building could be, and they followed it. It was designed!

There's a lot of speculation about the reason for making square or rectangular buildings. Once you have farms, you have food storage, and that's something of interest to invaders. Rectangular buildings could be built closer together, and would thus be easier to defend. It's also possible that moving goods around suggested streets, and that suggested rectangular blocks, etc. Who knows?

Monday, June 23, 2008



Most things in nature that we've found
Have shapes that basically are round.
Some crystals' sides are square and flat,
But most things just don't look like that.

We don't know when it came about
But somebody had figured out
That storing baubles, beads and bangles
Benefitted from right angles,

And so, instead of slap-dash domes,
We started building box-like homes.
The box was quite a snazzy place
With lots of extra storage space.

So whether it's just to adorn, or
For more space, just add a corner.
When the house gets full of stuff,
Stick it in corners. They hold enough.

There's lots of buzz about the wheel,
But really, that is no big deal.
Though history books will scarcely mention
Corners ... what a great invention!

Friday, June 20, 2008

Cycles and Patterns

We have no way of knowing, of course, what were the very first human ideas. We don't even have a clear definition of idea that distinguishes it from reflex, recognition, and other mental activities. But it seems reasonable to consider that the first idea was consciousness itself ... the idea that there's a me that is somehow separate from everything that is not me. If I get hit with a rock, it hurts. If you get hit with a rock, it's funny.

Another candidate for really early ideas is change ... the observation that things don't stay the same. And close on the heels of change is the observation that very many things change in cycles. They repeat over hours, days, months, years, etc.

It's not surprising that human-like traits were associated with these changing things ... spirits, anima, gods ... all were credited with responsibility for the behavior of things in the natural world. What is ironic, though, is that some of the most regular cyclic events were ascribed to some of the most powerful gods. The cyclic nature of things would seem to suggest a lack of free will, a kind of submission to inevitability. Yet many of the most rigidly repeating phenomena (the sun's daily traversal of the sky, the moon's phases, the rise and fall of tides, etc.) were seen as gestures of the most powerful gods, who could have exercised free will even beyond that of humans. Maybe repetition and ritual were themselves seen as godlike qualities, to which humans could only aspire, in the same way we might admire some machinery or architecture as being too perfect and inorganic to be the product of human endeavor.

In any case, there must have been something reassuring about these cyclic events ... the knowledge that things would return to their previous conditions again. As Scarlett O'Hara puts it in Gone With the Wind, "tomorrow is another day."

Monday, June 16, 2008



One thing people must have noticed
Back when glaciers were retreating:
Both the nearest and remotest
Things in nature keep repeating.

Every day they'd see the sun set,
And it came as no surprise
(Unless they were prone to forget)
Come next morning, it would rise.

Likewise, the moon shrank and re-grew
And the tides would fall and rise.
All these natural cycles they knew
Could be seen with naked eyes.

Appetites and prey migration,
And the changing of the seasons,
Even women's menstruation
All recurred for unknown reasons.

All this endless repetition,
Though it seems to us quite boring
May have graced their crude condition
With a sense that's reassuring.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Top to Bottom

It's hard to know if hierarchy is an idea or just a side effect of the way our brains organize information. It may have started as a side effect ... we tend to work from the particular to the general, which is how we recognize cartoon versions of everyday objects, etc. Children learn this very early.

But at some point, we clearly recognized that hierarchies are a useful way of organizing information, people, object-oriented software, etc. We create hierarchical organizations. Even primitive societies had leaders, priests, etc., and a chain of command.

So we use hierarchies to arrange our observations, such as the taxonomies used by Carl Linnaeus to classify plant and animal species. This is descriptive.

But we also explicitly create hierarchies. Businesses and the military both use hierarchical organizations to establish rank, precedence, etc. These structures are well defined and rigidly adhered to. So this would be considered a prescriptive hierarchy.

In object-oriented programming, you can have multiple hierarchies in place at once. There's an inheritance hierarchy that determines which classes are subtypes of which other classes, and what properties they inherit. There are also containment hierarchies ... which object is contained by which other object, etc. In XML terms, this is what determines an xpath.

Don't worry if that last paragraph didn't make any sense. It's all geek speak. The point is that hierarchies come into play in a very large portion of human thought. In fact, they could be considered what Charles Murray calls a meta-invention (Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950), a cognitive innovation that enables other innovations or inventions to happen. Murry doesn't list hierarchies in his roster of meta-inventions, but it seems to fit his criteria.

Of course, if you ever had to do outlines in school, you know about hierarchies.

Monday, June 9, 2008


From the top, take a problem and subdivide it.
Narrow it down to a tractable size.
Or from the bottom, with details provided,
Find similarities, then generalize.

Either way, the structure's inherent.
The up/down relationships are asymmetric.
Each point can be both a child and a parent,
(Or some other terms that sound vaguely obstetric.)

Thursday, June 5, 2008


Depending on your point of view, sexual reproduction was either part of the plan by an all knowing power, or an adaptation that arose in the course of evolution. So it's either an idea or it's not. Clearly, though, sex is an important idea for many people, whether for reproduction or recreation.

Either way, sexual reproduction had a profound impact on biology. Two separate organisms could produce a third, with genetic properties based on those of its forebears. This is what allowed evolution to really take off, since it provided a mechanism for change, mutation and adaptation. Before this, organisms reproduced asexually, basically by splitting in half. Each half had genetic properties identical to the original, so they never had to argue over what to watch.

There's another important consequence of this, however, one that may have had a profound impact on our way of thinking and the things we think about ... mortality. When cells simply split in half, the material lives on in both halves, which eventually split again and again. Effectively, they're immortal. In the case of sexual reproduction, though, entirely new organisms keep being made. Eventually, some have to die, or the population grows forever and consumes all possible space, food and other resources.

But the fact that we die eventually may be the most important influence on our art, literature, philosophy, ethics and society, and even our science. Would you want to start a book or movie, knowing that it was never going to end?

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Multiplying and Dividing

There's some debate on whether sex is an idea or not.
(It certainly is something that gets thought about a lot.)
For reproduction, countless species have sex at their leisure,
Though humans are the only ones who do it just for pleasure.

But earth is just a spherically-shaped piece of real estate
And we should know empirically its resources, though great,
Are finite, and eventually will not support us all.
And yet we keep consensually filling up this ball.

And as the population grows and spreads through different lands,
These locales become homes to many different tribes or bands.
Each member looks on his or her own group with puffed up pride.
Alas, the more we multiply, the more we must divide.

Saturday, May 31, 2008


Trying to define "ideas" is slippery. Do we limit the term strictly to human thought? If so, we'd have to rule out some primitive tool use, since other animals make use of found objects (sticks, etc.) to get food. Clearly, at some point on the path from using found objects to actually making stone tools, something like purposeful thought or ideas must have been involved.

Fortunately, most of the interesting ideas fall well into the area of clear cut human thought. Within these, we can broadly distinguish ideas of cognition (or realization or discovery) from ideas of ignition (or creation or invention). The discovery/invention split is familiar. Electricity was discovered. The light bulb was invented.

But is it that simple? For one thing, the discovery that some things move easily when rolled led to the invention of the wheel. Since the first wheels were probably just rounded objects that rolled, it's difficult to say where discovery left off and invention began.

Beyond this, however, consider the discovery, by Copernicus, that the earth moves around the sun, instead of the other way around. Was this actually a discovery? Or was it the invention of a new mental model to help us understand the solar system? I'll write more about this later.

So here I want to write about ideas great and dumb. I think a lot about the great ideas in human history, so I want to write about those. I'll write about dumb ideas too, mostly my own.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Ideas Great and Dumb

Ideas are rarely
Great or dumb.
They're mostly fairly
But there are some,
Without a doubt,
That, great or dumb,
Have stood way out.

These thoughts provided
By our minds
Can be divided
Into kinds.
New ways of seeing
Call cognition,
Invention being
Dubbed ignition.

Cognition's when
You realize
There's more here than
What meets the eyes.
Ignition's more
Like inspiration,
Making for
Acts of creation.

But there's a link.
These are related,
Though some think
They're separated.
The comprehension
That leads to sciences
Spurs invention
of home appliances.

Is rife with schisms,
A panoply
of something -isms.
All this effectual
Leaves intellectual

From the fossils
Up to missiles,
From apostles
with epistles,
Millions of rows
Of leather-bound tomes
Filled up with prose,
illustrations and poems.

The human mind
Can help us find
Our raison d’être,
Et cetera.