Requiem pro ave mortuo

This morning, on my way to work, I cycled past a dead blue tit at the side of the road.

In the grand scheme of things, the death of one small bird is not a great tragedy.  It did, however, lead me to spend the rest of my commute considering the fleeting nature of life and trying to compose a suitable poetic epitaph for the bird.  I decided to go for a haiku, as that’s one of my favourite poetic forms in any case and, being short, is quite amenable to composition in situations (such as riding a bike) where you can’t immediately write it down.

By the time I had reached the office, about 10 minutes later, I had come up with a reasonably satisfactory haiku.  Unfortunately I got sidetracked with other things (such as my actual job) before I got a chance to make a note of it.  Now, on my lunch break, I have managed to more-or-less reconstruct it and I’m still fairly happy with the result (although I don’t think it’s one of my better haiku efforts):

Small, blue and yellow,
flying, always on the move.

Now dead on the road.

It was the middle line that gave me the most trouble.  I had considered various phrases along the lines of “a tiny bundle of life”, aiming to contrast the bird’s previous state with its current one (expressed in the final line) but this seemed a bit too figurative for a haiku. The form, as I understand it,  generally tends to stick with straight-up descriptive language aiming to evoke an impression of a scene and leave the interpretation to the imagination of the reader.

The title of this post (which could also be taken as a title for the haiku, although it’s nearly as long as the thing itself) is, in case you’re wondering, in Latin and means “requiem for a dead bird” (hopefully I’ve got all my cases and stuff right, as my Latin is woefully limited and rusty to boot).   As to why I titled it in Latin, that’s mostly because one of my first thoughts on seeing the bird (and before I started to compose the poem) was “sic transit gloria mundi” (roughly: “thus passes worldly glory”).  I’ve just realised that this is my second post in a row to have a Latin title (the other one was inspired by the name of my new bass ukulele and a parody of the refrain from “Ding dong merrily on high”).  Perhaps my subconscious is trying to encourage me to have another go at learning Latin?!




Gloria in profundis

I have been a ukulele player for several years and a bass player for somewhat longer (at least 20 years by now!).

It was only fairly recently (probably a year or so back) that I discovered the existence of the bass ukulele.  A friend of mine (and fellow bass player) got one and let me have a go on it.  I was immediately impressed by how such a small instrument (it’s the same size as a standard baritone ukulele, which is roughly the size of a viola) could manage to sound so much like an upright bass (it’s even tuned the same – at the same pitch).  Although you lack the facility for bowing it, you can get a very good approximation of a plucked bass sound in a much smaller, more convenient package.

I already wrote a bit about the bass ukulele a few weeks ago when I mentioned that I was due to be playing a gig with a jazz band, the Jazz Knights.  As I said then, I was borrowing a bass ukulele (the same one that I had previously seen, from the same person) for that gig.  The gig itself went really well and everyone seemed to like the bass uke.  We decided to keep going as a band.  At this point, I decided the time had come to get a bass ukulele of my own.

Looking around, I managed to find an attractive looking deal for a fretless bass ukulele at Thomann, a German online music shop.  Although evidently not such a nice instrument as the Kala uBass that I had been borrowing, this was substantially cheaper than the cheapest Kala ukulele I could find for sale (even second hand)  so I decided it would be worth a try.

My new bass uke arrived this afternoon and my first impressions of the instrument are generally positive.  Here’s what it looks like (click on the picture to see it in my Flickr photostream, where you will find other pictures of the instrument, most of them in colour):
Gloria 2b

As I suspected, it isn’t such a finely crafted instrument as the Kala but it seems to be pretty well put together nonetheless.  At first, I wasn’t at all keen on the white polyurethane strings (the Kala has black ones) but I’m getting used to them and beginning to think they actually go quite well with the white trim on the body of the instrument and the “fret” lines on the fingerboard.  It is probably just as well that the fretless fingerboard is lined, since the hand spacing is quite different from most stringed bass instruments due to the considerably shorter scale length.  Even with this visual aid to help, I’ll probably need to do a fair amount of practice to get the hang of it.  To some extent, there’s a similar problem even with a fretted bass uke (such as the Kala I was playing), but the frets are certainly more forgiving of slight inaccuracies in finger placement.

One feature of this instrument that was lacking on the Kala is onboard volume and tone controls, which could be quite useful for adjusting my sound in the middle of a gig (or muting the instrument temporarily, e.g. to put it down) if I’m unable to reach the amplifier.  The flip-side is that, while the Kala had purely passive circuitry, this one is active (powered by a couple of lithium cells) and evidently won’t work if the batteries are removed (or dead).

Having played for a number of years on a borrowed upright bass called Claudia (so named by its owner), I resolved that if ever I got an upright bass of my own I would call it Gloria.  Since it currently seems unlikely that I will be getting an upright bass any time soon (certainly while I live in such a small house) and since the bass uke is such a good substitute for one, I’ve decided to call my new uke Gloria instead (I’ve also got the name Bertha reserved for the – also highly unlikely – eventuality that I should ever get a tuba to call my own).

Smelling of roses

My recently-rescued post about Euclid’s pons asinorum reminded me of a well-known quote from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, in which our eponymous heroine (as part of her famous “Wherefore art thou Romeo?” speech) declares:

What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;

This in turn reminded me of another rose-themed quote, whose provenance I was unsure about, namely:

A rose is a rose is a rose

I’m mostly familiar with this one by virtue of having come across its Latin translation (“rosa rosa rosa est est“) in one of the books from Henry Beard’s Latin for all occasions series (I’m not sure which one).  A swift bit of searching on my favourite free, online encyclopedia revealed that the original quote was from the poet Gertude Stein in her poem Sacred Emily.  In its original form it appears as “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose” (apparently Rose is a character in the poem, which I’ve not yet had a chance to read), although apparently the version I quoted earlier was also used by Gertrude Stein.

According to the Wikipedia article, “In Stein’s view, the sentence expresses the fact that simply using the name of a thing already invokes the imagery and emotions associated with it”.  This is apparently the diametric opposite of Juliet’s view (I was going to say “Shakespeare’s view”, but it’s not necessarily true – or indeed (probably) necessarily not true – that he agreed with everything he made his characters say).  However, I think there is at least a grain of truth in both ideas.

The Wikipedia article also states (and I see no reason to disbelieve it, although it didn’t cite sources for these claims) that Stein’s quote was an inspiration for (the name and possibly the existence of) Umberto Eco’s novel The Name of the Rose and that Ernest Hemmingway once parodied the quote as “a stone is a stein is a rock is a boulder is a pebble.”  The article goes on to list quite a few other variations on the theme.

To finish, here’s another quote that mentions roses (but is otherwise pretty much unrelated to the foregoing discussion).  This one is from J. M. Barrie (the author of Peter Pan) and I can’t remember where I found it but I think it’s lovely:

God gave us our memories so that we might have roses in December.

Pons asinorum

I recently discovered a draft of a blog post I started to write nearly a year ago, shortly after my previous post on the subject of Euclidean geometry.  I’m not sure why I didn’t publish it at the time (possibly because I was planning to extend it in some now-forgotten direction).  Here it is now, with minimal editing:

Undoubtedly the most famous proposition in Euclid’s Elements is I-47 (that is, the 47th proposition in book I), better known as Pythagoras’ Theorem.  This, as you probably know (though you may not have known its number in Euclid), is the statement that the square of the hypotenuse of a right-angled triangle is the sum of the squares on the other two sides.

Perhaps the second most famous one, although certainly having nothing like the same level of recognition among non-mathematicians, is I-5, which states that the two angles at the base of an isosceles triangle (i.e. one having two sides of the same length)  are equal.  Like Pythagoras’ theorem and unlike most of Euclid’s other propositions, this one has a name.  In fact, it has been known by several names, but the most popular is pons asinorum – the bridge of asses (in Latin).

There are at least two competing explanations as to the origin of this name.   One is that this is the first proposition in the Elements that might cause some people difficulty in understanding, as well as being quite necessary for the proof of many of the later propositions, so that it functions as a kind of figurative bridge that ignorant people (considered to be donkeys) are unable to cross to allow them further into the study of geometry.  Another, rather more complimentary to donkeys, is that the diagram of the construction given in Euclid’s proof resembles a steep-sided bridge that horses would have difficulty climbing but sure-footed donkeys would have no trouble with.

Interestingly, while pons asinorum is used in the English-speaking mathematical world to refer to Euclid I-5, it is apparently used in the French-speaking world to refer to I-47, i.e. Pythagoras’ Theorem.

Io, by Jove!

I have been continuing the programming project I started the other week of working through the book Seven Languages in Seven Weeks, although it is already in danger of getting swamped by the many other things vying for my attention (especially, at the moment, my resurgent interest in human languages as fuelled by the Bangor Polyglots group I’ve just joined).

The second programming language in the book, and the one I’ve just finished working on, is Io.  Of all the languages covered, this was the only one I’d never even heard of, putting it at the opposite end of the spectrum from Ruby (the only one I’d used much already). The official Io website, which I’ve just linked to, describes it as “prototype-based programming language inspired by Smalltalk, Self, NewtonScript , Act1, LISP  and Lua” (check the original source to see the nature of the inspiration in each case).  While Self, NewtonScript and Act1 are also languages that I’m entirely unfamiliar with (though I’d heard of NewtonScript), I have played a bit with Smalltalk, LISP and (to a lesser extent) Lua, so I could see some resemblance.

Prototype-based languages, such as Io, Lua and Javascript, are object-oriented languages but, unlike most OO languages (such as Ruby, Java and C++) , they are classless.  Instead, each object inherits (via a process known as cloning) and extends or modifies behaviour from another object, which acts as its prototype.  This approach is supposed to encourage a very flexible style of programming.  I have previously done a fair amount of work with Javascript (though mostly via the excellent jQuery library, which hides most of the gory details out of sight) but have not fully grokked the idea of prototype-based programming.  My experiences of Io this week have deepened my understanding somewhat, although I think I’m still a very long way off full mastery of the concept.

The advanced features of Io which are the culmination of Tate’s tutorial are its facility for writing domain-specific languages (essentially by rewriting the syntax of Io itself) and its tools for handling concurrency.  Neither of these are areas of which I have much previous experience, so I’m not in a position to judge how much of an improvement Io offers over other languages for work in these areas.  I think several of the other language tutorials in the book will also be looking at concurrent programming (I’m not sure about DSLs) so hopefully by the time I’ve finished the book I’ll have a better idea which language to turn to if I should ever need to do anything like that.

The film character Tate associates with Io is Ferris Bueller, the protagonist of the 1986 movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.  I first saw this film (or at least a large chunk of it) very shortly after it came out, as it was shown to my primary school class on the last day of term.  In hindsight, I find it quite a surprising choice of film to show in this context since (a) it’s all about somebody skiving off school who is clearly depicted as the hero of the film and not seen to suffer any ill-consequences from his truancy (an odd message for a teacher to want to convey, surely!?) and (b) it’s 15 rated in the UK and none of us in the class were older than 11.  Still, I suppose it was the last day of term and the party mood was probably affecting our teachers too (as in, they just wanted something to keep the kids quiet while they went and made a start on their own end-of-term party).  My second viewing of the film took place only a few days ago and I enjoyed it a lot more than I thought I was going to; unlike many films of its era it doesn’t feel painfully dated by now.

Returning to the programming language, the name Io is shared with (and presumably comes from, though I’ve not been able to find anything to confirm or contradict the supposition) one of the moons of Jupiter.  Interestingly, one of the languages listed as an inspiration for Io is Lua, which is the Portuguese word for moon (to find out why, check out the Wikipedia article on Lua).  I don’t know whether that’s a coincidence or whether Lua inspired the name as well as some of the features of Io.

At first, I found Io quite fun to play with.  As I began to try to go deeper, it quickly became quite frustrating as it was so different to other languages I’ve used (although that is, really, the point of the exercise).  After a few days, some of the ideas began to click and I was able to make fairly good progress.  I was heartened to notice that Bruce Tate himself said that it took him several weeks of working with Io to really begin to get a grip on it.  I’m glad to have made its acquaintance but I don’t plan to do any more work with Io for the moment as I think my limited programming time can better be spent in other directions.  I may well return to it for another look in the future though and would certainly recommend it as an interesting language to have a look at.

About time

I’ve now had this blog for just over a year.  As soon as I set up my shiny new WordPress site, I put up an “about” page with a quick bit of placeholder text to say that details would follow soon.  A few months later I amended it to warn the reader not to hold their breath…

I have now, at last, got round to updating the about page to actually say something (admittedly, still not very much) about me.

[Grammar fans may like to pause to consider the different shades of meaning in the word “now” at the start of the two previous paragraphs.]

If you are especially interested in my blogging history, you may like to read one of my earliest posts on this blog, which was a history of my earlier blogs (but I won’t be mortally offended if you don’t bother).

Today is another landmark in the history of my blog as it’s the first time (at least in the current blog) that I’ve posted twice in one day (judging by my usual track record, twice in one month is above average:)  I must admit that I’m doing this more out of curiosity to see how WordPress handles multiple posts on one day than out of a belief that anyone will actually be that interested to know that my About page has been updated, so I hope you’ll bear with me.  (While in confessional mood, I should probably also admit that I just couldn’t resist the obvious title for this post that sprang to mind as soon as I’d finished the page update – that’s really the main reason for posting!)

155.891 smoots (or maybe two)

When I started my occasional series of posts about length measurements just over a year ago, I mentioned that there were two reasons why I had chosen to use the Menai Suspension Bridge as the reference object for all the different units (to be measured via the Google Maps DMT wherever possible).  One reason was that I regularly traverse this landmark.  The other, as I said, was a bridge-related connection to one of the units which was to be related in due course.  Now is the time!

The smoot is a unit that originated in October 1958 when a bunch of engineering students at MIT used one of their number (Oliver Smoot, later to be Chairman of the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and President of the International Organization for Standardization (ISO)) as a measuring stick to measure the length of the Harvard Bridge.  One smoot is equal to Oliver Smoot’s height (at the time of the measurement), which was 5’7″ (i.e. 67″ or 1.7018m). The bridge’s length was measured to be 364.4 smoots plus or minus one ear, with the “plus or minus” intended to express uncertainty of measurement.  That’s about 620m in the rather more boring but somewhat more common metric system.

The Menai Suspension Bridge, according to my measurement on Google Maps, is 155.891 smoots long, so it’s a bit less than half the size of the Harvard Bridge.  Incidentally, the Menai Suspension Bridge looks very similar to the Széchenyi Lánchíd (Széchenyi Chain Bridge) in Budapest:

Széchenyi Chain Bridge, Budapest

The Budapest bridge was actually built about 15 years later by a different engineer (and modelled on a bridge over the Thames).  Wikipedia lists its length as 375m, which Google Calculator tells me is about 220 smoots.

In case you’re wondering about the possibility of two smoots indicated by the title of this post, it’s actually a reference to two Smoots since Oliver has a cousin, George Smoot, a physicist who won the Nobel Prize (for physics, unsurprisingly) in 2006 and has appeared as a guest star on The Big Bang Theory (which is quite appropriate since much of his physics work has been on the big bang).   Arguably, George is more famous than his cousin although I’m not aware that he has any units named after him.  I decided to go ahead and write this post after I discovered (from Wikipedia, where else?!) that today is George Smoot’s birthday.  So, happy birthday George (in case you should ever happen to read my blog, which is admittedly fairly unlikely)!