Wednesday, January 31, 2007

happy birthday Daniel Tammet

in junior high they would call assemblies over all kinds of stuff. if a PG cover band was in town and friendly with the school board, they could find a captive audience of those students with good attendance or citizenship indices. student elections, drill team, talent shows and Jostens also got stage time.

once Kim Peek came to our school with his dad, and did some amazing parlor tricks for us all. after an introduction of his accomplishments, qualities, parts and passions, he told some of us what day of the week we were born on. then he performed some other pretty tangled calculus which was lost on most of us. that was a good assembly. since then I’ve run into him several times around town, mostly downtown at the main library.

then I hear about this guy, Daniel Tammet. he was in junior high about the same time I was, but was getting bullied slightly more. when this would happen he would sit down, put his fingers in his ears, and count in powers of 2. 2 4 8 16 32 64 128 256 512 1024 2048 4096 8192 16384 32768 65538 131072 262144 524288 … retreating back into his mind for miles.

numbers have become his personal friends. friends with textures, colors, sounds and movement. 11 is especially friendly. 11 and 1 are both brilliant white, like light pouring in, he says. 4 is shy and 5 is a loud thunderclap. 37 is lumpy like oatmeal and 89 is falling snow. Dave Letterman is 117.

9’s are especially exciting; they are immense like skyscrapers, elastic bands stretched way out. the 9’s are also blue and, when multiplied with other nines, grow more deeply blue. for Daniel, prime numbers are the lonely ones. they are smooth pebbles that stand out from the others like signposts. also, somewhere here I aught to mention that Daniel is an autistic savant. he’s drawn some pictures of how he sees numbers. as you can see, he doesn’t carry any ones.
I can sort of imagine this method. at St. Timothy’s elementary I would count in terms of dots in simple formation, like dominoes, and then fit them together like legos. but nothing like this.

about 3 years ago Daniel spent 5 hours reciting pie at Oxford. he made it down to the 22,514th decimal place and had the public onlookers in tears. he speaks English, Spanish, Icelandic, Welsh, Esperanto and a bunch of other Indo-European languages. these days he’s working on his own language called Mänti.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

call for entries

alright guys, just what is going on here?
any interpretation will be considered.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

3 winter haiku

I mistook a cold
fanbelt, chirping down main street
for a canyon wren

hoarfrost, each morning
twenty-four below zero
encrusts my doorknob

this is when they crack
last year's water balloon lips
and fall off the tap

Tuesday, January 16, 2007


last year they found Tiktaalik up in Nunavut, Canada and since then it’s made its way into museums, Nature, PBS and the Colbert Report. so I’ve really been scooped here. but as the bones have been sleeping in late Devonian sandstone for about 375 million years, 10 months hardly seems an issue anymore. the name was suggested by the locals (Inuit elders) and it means “large shallow-water fish.”

Ted Daeschler, Neil Shubin and Farish Jenkins were the guys who found it there. here's what Ted looks like in his natural habitat as simulated by PBS in the backdrop.

some people have trouble with the name Tiktaalik so there are other catchy things they’ve been calling it. so far, fishapod seems to be catching on the best but I guess we’ll see. there’s a spirited debate on taxonomy, semantics, etymology and the naming of things as applied to ichthyopods on crooked timber. they get into legfish, lungfish, tetrapods and the possibility of organisms with actual fish for feet or even the number 4 attached to the ends of each of thier legs; and how, cladistically speaking, we’re all a bunch of fish.

“Literary comedy and biological evolution share in common the view that all change is conservative. Organisms and comic heroes change their structure or behavior only in order to preserve an accustomed way of life which has been threatened by changes in the environment. The ancient fish that developed lungs when its home in the sea became untenable was not a radical revolutionary, but a public-spirited preserver of his genetic heritage… To evolution and to comedy, nothing is sacred but life itself.”
-Joseph W. Meeker
The Comic Mode

for some great photos and a little text, the University of Chicago has set up a virtual home for Tiktaalik. all of this has catapulted the creature up into the pantheon with archaeopteryx and hobo hamilis.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

army ants

The whirligig beetles are wary and fast with an organ to detect the ripples.

The arachnid moths lay their eggs inside other insects along the borders of fields or rows in clusters of white cocoons.

The red pine borer is a longhorn beetle. Their antennas are half the length of their body and they feed on dead red pine.

Robber flies with their immobile heads inject a paralyzing fluid into their prey that they snatch from life in midair.

The snow flea’s mode of locomotion is strange and odd with a spiny tail mechanism with hooks and a protracted tube from the abdomen to enable moisture absorption.

The female praying mantis devours the male while they are mating. The male sometimes continues copulating even after the female has bitten off his head and part of his upper torso.

Every night wasps bite into the stem of a plant, lock their mandibles into position, stretch out at right angles to the stem and, with legs dangling, they fall asleep.

If one places a minute amount of liquor on a scorpion it will instantly go mad and sting itself to death.

The bombardier beetle, when disturbed, defends itself by emitting a series of explosions, sometimes setting off 4 or 5 reports in succession. The noises sound like miniature popgun blasts and are accompanied by a cloud of reddish-colored vile smelling fluid.

It is commonly known that ants keep slaves. Certain species, the so called sanguinary ants in particular, will raid the ants of other ant tribes and kill the queen, then kidnap many of the workers. The workers are brought back to the captors’ hive where they are coerced into performing menial tasks.

And as we discussed last semester the army ants will leave nothing but your bones.

Perhaps you’ve encountered some of these insects in your communities displaying both their predatory and defense characteristics while imbedded within the walls of flesh and passing for what is most commonly recognized as human.

-Tom Waits
Army Ants
from Orphans, 2006

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

sea slugs, bombardier beetles and megapods

Lanny Johnson at the Alpha Omega Institute has prepared some information on sea slugs, bombardier beetles, and megapod thermometer birds on the kids page.

Here are some highlights
“Girls, would this sea slug look good in your hair to wear as a barrette on Sunday morning?”
“Consider, how many times did the sea slug have to die from the poison darts before he got it right?... Not only is our God a designer, He is Awesome!”
there are also coloring book pages.

Monday, January 08, 2007

back to schools

A fish, like the tuna or the sardine, which live in a school, would be less likely to vary than this lonely horned shark, for the school would impose a discipline of speed and uniformity, and those which would not or could not meet the school’s requirements would be killed or lost or left behind. The overfast would be eliminated by the school as readily as the overslow, until a standard somewhere between the fast and slow had been attained. Not intending a pun, we might note that our schools have to some extent the same tendency. A Harvard man, a Yale man, a Stanford man—that is, the idea—is as easily recognized as a tuna, and he has, by a process of elimination, survived the tests against idiocy and brilliance. Even in physical matters the standard is maintained until it is impossible, from speech, clothing, haircuts, posture, or state of mind, to tell one of these units of his school from another. In this connection it would be interesting to know whether the general collectivization of human society might not have the same effect. Factory mass production, for example, requires that every man conform to the tempo of the whole. The slow must be speeded up or eliminated, the fast slowed down. In a thoroughly collectivized state, mediocre efficiency might be very great, but only through the complete elimination of the swift, the clever, and the intelligent, as well as the incompetent. Truly collective man might in fact abandon his versatility…

The light, piercing the surface, showed the water almost solid with fish—swarming, hungry, frantic fish, incredible in their voraciousness. The schools swam, marshaled and patrolled. They turned as a unit and dived as a unit. In their millions they followed a pattern minute as to direction depth and speed. There must be some fallacy in our thinking of these fish as individuals. Their functions in the school are in some as yet unknown way as controlled as though the school were one unit. We cannot conceive of this intricacy until we are able to think of the school as an animal itself, reacting with all its cells to stimuli which perhaps might not influence one fish at all. And this larger animal, the school, seems to have a nature and drive and ends of its own. It is more than and different from the sum of its units. If we can think in this way, it will not seem so unbelievable that every fish heads in the same direction, that the water interval between fish and fish is identical with all the units, and that it seems to be directed by a school intelligence. If it is a unit animal itself, why should it not so react? Perhaps this is the wildest of speculations, but we suspect that when the school is studied as an animal rather than as a sum of unit fish, it will be found that certain units are assigned special functions to perform; that weaker or slower units may even take their places as placating food for the predators for the sake of the security of the school as an animal.

-John Steinbeck

The Log from the Sea of Cortez

Monday, January 01, 2007

new year parable

I nodded myself awake and saw
that the powerpoint presentation was still going.
independent of this fact I also realized
that I was a species of superhero.
but that I was still to spend the next two days in meetings.

as Klem drove home from the training
he dreamed about his new food handlers permit
and the countless windows and dog doors
which were now open to him.

And arriving home, you find your kitchen
furnished with 16 hotplates, 17 if you count the iron
and at this point, why wouldn’t you count the iron?