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.