res ipsa loquitur

Feynman and the "map of the cat"

Posted on: Sun, 06/13/2010 - 23:29 By: Tom Swiss

Richard Feynman was a Nobel Prize winning physicist and one of the most brilliant minds of the twentieth century. He was also a drummer, an artist, a ladies' man, and a raconteur. His book Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! is a collection of stories about his adventures. This excerpt, where Feynman takes a graduate-level class in biology while he's at Princeton, just to see what's going on in other fields, is one of my favorites.

The next paper selected for me was by Adrian and Bronk. They demonstrated that nerve impulses were sharp, single-pulse phenomena. They had done experiments with cats in which they had measured voltages on nerves.

I began to read the paper. It kept talking about extensors and flexors, the gastrocnemius muscle, and so on. This and that muscle were named, but I hadn't the foggiest idea of where they were located in relation to the nerves or to the cat. So I went to the librarian in the biology section and asked her if she could find me a map of the cat.

"A map of the cat, sir?" she asked, horrified. "You mean a zoological chart!" From then on there were rumors about some dumb biology graduate student who was looking for a "map of the cat."

When it came time for me to give my talk on the subject, I started off by drawing an outline of the cat and began to name the various muscles.

The other students in the class interrupt me: "We know all that!"

"Oh," I say, "you do? Then no wonder I can catch up with you so fast after you've had four years of biology." They had wasted all their time memorizing stuff like that, when it could be looked up in fifteen minutes.

100 proof beer on the horizon?

Posted on: Thu, 06/10/2010 - 16:19 By: Tom Swiss

Gizmag reports on the explosion of "extreme beers" containing more than 20% alcohol.

Typical beer has around 4 to 6% ABV (alcohol by volume); particularly strong beers using special strains of yeast and careful brewing can get up around 12%, giving quite a surprise to the unwary drinker.

In the 1990s, Samuel Adams upped the ante with their 17.5% ABV Triple Bock (1994), 21% Millennium (1999), and 24-27% Utopia series (2002-2007): beers said to be more like brandy or port than traditional beers, but still made without distillation. (No, I haven't tried any of these yet. You buying?)

Then, just over a year ago, interest in the century-old technique of "ice distillation" heated up. Ice distillation takes advantage of the fact that water freezes more easily than alcohol: freeze beer just right, and you can remove much of the water (as ice) and get a stronger beer left behind. (Note that according to the wik, freeze distillation can also concentrate poisonous compounds like fusel alcohols; so don't try this at home.)

Breweries using this technique have been in an arms race recently, rapidly taking the record from 31% ABV to an astounding 43% -- 86 proof, the same alcohol content Jack Daniels whiskey used to have (before JD's wimp-out of a few years ago).

"I am confident we can get to 50% with all the right qualities,", says Georg Tscheuschner of Schorschbräu, the maker of the 43% "Schorschbräu Schorschbock".

"kung fu" bear (more properly, bojutsu bear)

Posted on: Mon, 06/07/2010 - 16:13 By: Tom Swiss

Comic book geeks know that Master Splinter -- the rat who was the sensei of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles -- obtained his skills when he was the pet of a ninja master. He would observe and mimic his master.

Apparently, then, the bear seen in this video was once owned by a master of bojutsu, the art of the wooden staff.

While some have suggested that the footage is fake, the Telegraph has corroborating information about the "Kung Fu Bear": he's at the Asa Zoo in Hiroshima, where zookeepers encouraged his hobby by giving him sticks.

(A nice historical overview of bojutsu and jojutsu is at

what would Spock do?

Posted on: Thu, 06/03/2010 - 22:45 By: Tom Swiss

Somewhere in my parents' house is an old elementary school photo of me in a Spock shirt. I don't mean a t-shirt with a picture of Mr. Spock on it (I've got one of those now), I mean a dark blue tunic with a black collar and a silver patch in the shape of the swooshy stylized rocketship of the Enterprise (later, Star Fleet) logo, with the Science department symbol (an oval inside a circle, that always looks like a basketball to me).

When I was in high school, my physics teacher dubbed me with the nickname "Spock".

Clearly, as you can tell by the beard, I grew up to be the Evil Spock; nevertheless, this article at io9, "How You Can Live Like A Vulcan Without Bleeding Green", is right up my alley.

Vulcans have something most made-up races can only dream of: a central contradiction that's ultra-compelling. They're overflowing cauldrons of passion, who have mastered their emotions to such a high degree they appear almost robotic. No matter how pissed off or freaked out you might ever get, you can't be as hot-blooded as a Vulcan. And you'll have to work pretty hard to be half as cool.

Vulcans have a philosophy, a way of life, and a spiritual discipline. And they get things done. Best of all, you don't really need alien physiology and fancy powers to embrace the Vulcan way of life.


So here are ten ways you can live like a Vulcan, starting today.

Their advice is pretty good, including items such as: wish other people long life and prosperity, celebrate diversity, become a vegetarian (Spock was, as best I can recall, my only example when I stopped eating meat in the early 80s -- vegetarians were not yet everywhere!), and learn to meditate.

a study of joke religions

Posted on: Thu, 06/03/2010 - 18:22 By: Tom Swiss

As a genuine and authorized Discordian Pope, as well as an ordained minister of the Church of the SubGenius, and an early evangelist for Pastafarianism, I would be remiss if I did not share this thought-provoking paper by Laurel Narizny:

Satirical and parody religions developed in accord with what Agehananda Bharati calls the “pizza effect.” The original pizza was a hot baked bread exported to America, embellished, and returned to Italy, where it became a national dish; similarly, the first
joke religions cobbled together numerous aspects of popular culture, occulture, and counterculture; synthesized them with postmodern ideas about religion; and are now subtly transforming religion in the United States. Joke religions are, in effect, a synthesis of and a vernacular reaction to both institutional religions, such as Christianity, and the more loosely defined “institutional” occult and counterculture groups, such as neo-paganism.

David Chidester -— the only scholar so far, as noted above, to publish anything more than a passing mention of joke religions -— calls joke religions “authentic fakes.” They are authentic because they negotiate the politics of being human in relation to the divine, which is essentially how I have defined religion, but are also explicit parodies of religion—“simultaneously simulations and the real thing.”


Many people consider joke religions “fakes” because of their use of startling, even offensive, humor. As we have seen, however, religious humor is a form of “deep play” that works to renegotiate ideas about tradition, space, identity, community, and the body,
and uses paradox to further one’s progress toward enlightenment.

Frank Zappa and Linux

Posted on: Thu, 06/03/2010 - 17:50 By: Tom Swiss

In a ha-ha-only-serious investigation, Robin 'Roblimo' Miller explores the link between the music of Frank Zappa and the GNU/Linux operating system, the Free Software (free as in freedom, not (necessarily) as in price) alternative to corporate bastards like Microsoft and Apple.

And this is why he can say, with total authority, that Zappa's "Dinah-Moe Hummm" is totally about Linux, at least in spirit, while the song "Montana" with its talk of zirconium-encrusted tweezers and dental floss, "is obviously about Mac users."


In the early 70s Zappa wrote and performed a song called "Penguin in Bondage," a foretelling of the various anti-Linux lawsuits and threats from SCO, Microsoft, and other evildoers.

Zappa was also a heavy user of the Synclavier, an electronic music-machine that was a precursor to today's "studio on a computer" recording and sound editing software. Today, I strongly suspect Zappa would be using Linux and Ardour for most of his recording and composition.

"top kill" fails to stop leak; place your bets

Posted on: Sun, 05/30/2010 - 12:59 By: Tom Swiss

on Flash intros to web pages

Posted on: Thu, 05/20/2010 - 16:09 By: Tom Swiss

href="">Some words of wisdom on animated "splash" intro pages for websites, from Jared Spool, of Macromedia' User Interface Engineering group. Yes, this article is old enough to mention Macromedia, not Adobe; and yet some people still haven't got the message:

Jared said, "When we have clients who are thinking about Flash
splash pages, we tell them to go to their local supermarket and
bring a mime with them. Have the mime stand in front of the
supermarket, and, as each customer tries to enter, do a little
show that lasts two minutes, welcoming them to the supermarket
and trying to explain the bread is on aisle six and milk is on
sale today.

"Then stand back and count how many people watch the mime, how
many people get past the mime as quickly as possible, and how
many people punch the mime out.

"That should give you a good idea as to how well their splash
page will be received. That's the crux of it."

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