Friday, February 28, 2014

Element of the Month: Mendelevium!

February's Element of the Month:


Atomic Mass: 258ish amu
Melting Point: maybe around 827 °C
Boiling Point: they're not even guessing

Mendelevium is an extremely fakey element that you make by taking Einsteinium, itself a highly fakey element, and further provoking it by shooting helium nuclei at it and that sort of thing. It was first cooked up in 1955 by the University of California Golden Bears during an all-night physics binge -- really! -- and was formally named after Dmitri “Mr. Table of the Elements” Mendeleev a few years later.

There is very little Mendelevium around. It does not occur naturally, and it is impossible to manufacture with household equipment, and furthermore its most stable isotopes have a half-life of only one or two months. There are sixteen known isotopes of Mendelevium… but isn’t it interesting how the familiar patterns of words shape the way we think about the world? For there really aren’t ANY “known isotopes of Mendelevium,” if that phrasing implies that Mendelevium is a naturally occurring thing that people have gone out and learned about, so it could “known.” Let’s say that sixteen different isotopes of Mendelevium have been constructed through various chemical/physical procedures, with the two most recent having been brought into being in 1996.

The Centerfold!

There is some confusion about exactly how much of Mendelevium has been conjured into existence. The website of the Royal Society of Chemistry, which you’d expect to have the down-low, says that “only a few atoms have ever been created” and, further down the page, says that after the California experiments “further experiments yielded several thousand atoms of mendelevium, and today it is possible to produce millions of them.” MAKE UP YOUR MIND, ROYAL SOCIETY OF CHEMISTRY.

In conclusion, Mendelevium is a very ineresting element, and one well worth studying.

The great chemist Dmitry Mendeleev, for whom Mendelevium was named,
chillin' in his academic robes.  Painted by Play-In Tournament artist Ilya Repin, 1885.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

The Infinite Art Tournament, Left Bracket Second Round: Delauney v. Gainsborough!

Robert Delaunay
1885 - 1941

Lost to Eugène Delacroix by a two-vote swing in Round 1. YOUR VOTE COUNTS!!!
Squeezed by living sculptor Richard Deacon 6-5 in First Round Elimination. YOUR VOTE COUNTS!!!

Thomas Gainsborough
1727 - 1788

Beat Renaissance Florentine Taddeo Gaddi in an amazing come-from-behind victory in Round 1. YOUR VOTE COUNTS!!!
Tied with Paul Gauguin in a thrilling Round 2 shootout. YOUR VOTE SURE COUNTS!!!
Lost to Honoré Daumier in Round 2 Tiebreak.

Vote for the artist of your choice in the comments, or any other way that works for you. Commentary and links to additional work are welcome. Polls open for at least one month past posting, but likely much longer.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Wednesday Post

Audubon's Birds on Stamps

It is not hard to find stamps featuring the work of John James Audubon.

Audubon went 2-2 in the Infinite Art Tournament before leaving us in January, gathering up 32 votes for to only 28 against.  His technical mastery and broad-based appeal make him one of the most popular postage stamp artists both in the United States and in the world at large.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Infinite Art Tournament, Left Bracket Second Round: G. David v. Delacroix!

Gerard David
c.1455 - 1523

Lost to Honoré Daumier in Round 1.
Knocked out 20th Century artist Stuart Davis in First Round Elimination.

Eugène Delacroix
1798 - 1863

Defeated Robert Delaunay by a two-vote swing in Round 1. YOUR VOTE COUNTS!!!
Lost to some guy named Degas in Round 2.

Vote for the artist of your choice in the comments, or any other way that works for you. Commentary and links to additional work are welcome. Polls open for at least one month past posting, but likely much longer.

Monday, February 24, 2014

A User's Guide to "Forty Maps that Will Help You Make Sense of the World," Volume VII

Michael5000 continues his grouchy exegesis of that ubiquitous internet atlas of our times, Forty Maps that Will Help You Make Sense of the World.

A User's Guide to "Forty Maps that Will Help You Make Sense of the World," Volume VII

Note: In cutting and pasting the images (at low resolution and for purposes of critique in a non-commercial forum, yo!) I included "Twisted Sifter's" own attribution.  They aren't live links here, so to see the original you would have to go to the original post and click through from there.

31. "Earth's Population by Longitude and Latitude"

Technical Merit: Not terrible, with one major caveat: if you're displaying two maps for side-by-side comparison, it only makes sense to use the same base map, or at least the same projection, for both.  In this instance, it doesn't really matter too much, but I had to stop and think about whether it mattered.  If I have to stop and wonder if the cartographer is screwing up a simple map, the cartographer is to a certain extent screwing up a simple map.

Artistic Merit: None attempted, none gained.

Helps One "Make Sense of the World": This is our third map that uses an innovative approach to describing the world's population distribution.  None of these have been anywhere near as effective or revealing as a straightforward map of the world's population distribution.

32. "Map of Contiguous United States Overlaid on the Moon"

Technical Merit: "boredboarder8" clearly has intermediate or greater skill with image software.  

Artistic Merit: I like it.  It's silly but fun, and even a little bit grand.

Helps One "Make Sense of the World": No, except in the very limited sense that it might help you visualize the size of the Moon.

33. "Frequency of Lightning Strikes Throughout the World"

Technical Merit: The color data scale on this map is both attractive and effective, so that's good.  The projection -- Robinson or something similar -- is an "equal-area" treatment, which is appropriate for a display of data per square mile.  After that, things go downhill.  Choosing a projection that puts the Pacific Ocean, a data hole, in such a dominant position, pushes most of the action out to the edges, where shape distortion is increasingly maxed out as you approach the sides of the map.  If you wanted to go with a shape-curving projection in this scenario, the best bet was to split the world on the international date line, getting as much buffer as possible between the high-distortion map edges and the meat of your data.

Artistic Merit: See above.

Helps One "Make Sense of the World": I grew up in one of the least lightning-struck areas on my continent, and throughout my childhood thought that lightning bolts and forks were an artistic convention along the lines of the "Pow!" bubble where a comic book character threw a punch.  Consequently, I find the geography of lightning strikes kind of fascinating.  However, it is also a complicated pattern, and unless you know quite a bit about meteorology, a map of the pattern in and of itself isn't going to help you make sense of anything.  Also, it is not especially important.

34. "Overall Water Risk Around the World"

Technical Merit: The scale of pale yellow to dark red is a good, visually intuitive one.  The choice of an unalloyed Mercator Projection will not make everyone happy.  Me, I'm more concerned about the egregious cropping and especially the complete failure to define terms.  For instance, what the hell is "water risk," let alone the difference between "Medium to high risk" and "High risk"?  Are we talking about water quality, water availability, trends in water availability, water availability per capita population, aquifer depletion, siltification, chemical contamination, a heady cocktail of some or all of these things, or something else entirely?  I devoutly hope that the World Resources Institute has a short essay's worth of text explaining what it is they are trying to show here, and if so I've got no beef with them.

What's my beef, again?  It is with the idiotic practice of chopping a map like this out of any context, and then offering it to us as helping us make sense of the world.  This map can't help us make sense of the world.  As it stands, it can not even convey meaning.

Artistic Merit: None attempted, none gained.

Helps One "Make Sense of the World": No.

35. The Most Dangerous Area in the World to Ship Due to Pirates

Technical Merit: Looking at this map embarrasses me.  It has a base map, it has symbols, but its dominant elements are big blocks of texts attached to clumsy arrows and saying things like "Black, Caspian seas remain problmeatic."  Well, problmeatic is certainly the word for it; if your map is focused on textual headlines that are not supported by map data, you shouldn't be making a map.  You should be writing a paragraph.  Duh.

I would further argue that a "hotspot" that comprises half the Indian Ocean has outgrown the concept of a "spot," as has Indonesia.

The regional inset maps are poorly rendered, but the inset world map is just bizarre.  What is it even doing up there?

Artistic Merit: The stupidness of this map is rendered more obnoxious by the underlying serious-business aesthetic.

Helps One "Make Sense of the World": One of several ways that I am habitually a killjoy is that I don't see why people think piracy is funny.  This map, for all of its egregious problmes, is a reminder that pirates are not just colorful people who dressed and talked in an amusing way while torturing, killing, and raping people in the distant past.  Recognizing this is a valid piece of making sense of the world.

Next Time Out: Maps 36 - 40

Saturday, February 22, 2014

The Infinite Art Tournament, Round 1: Jones v. Jordaens!

Allen Jones
b. 1937


Jacob Jordaens
1593 - 1678


Vote for the artist of your choice!  Votes go in the comments.  Commentary and links to additional work are welcome.  Polls open for at least one month past posting.

Friday, February 21, 2014

The Reading List: "Labyrinths"

by Jorge Luis Borges, 1962.
a collection of material published in the 1930s and 1940s.

Labyrinths is a collection of short pieces by the great Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges. It consists of around 30 abstruse short stories that Borges calls “Fictions,” 10 literary essays, and a handful of “fables,” very short prose fantasias on literary topics. In all of these pieces, Borges serves up a heady intellectual brew. His fictions, which are less different from the literary essays than one might expect, have whimsical plots that are sometimes on the verge of pulp science fiction. With Borges, though, these plots are generally vehicles for exploring the big questions of philosophy: what is the nature of reality? How do we know what we know? What is the nature of time? And such like that.

Borges' M.O. is a little hard to explain. The way I picture it, Borges in any given tale will pluck at a loose thread in reality and he’ll keep yanking on it and yanking on it, watching the fabric of lived experience unravel with a placid, avuncular smile on his face. More lucidly, here's a book-cover blurb for Labyrinths:
The groundbreaking trans-genre work of Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) has been insinuating itself into the structure, stance, and very breath of world literature for well over half a century. Multi-layered, self-referential, elusive, and allusive writing is now frequently labeled Borgesian.
Well, that certainly sounds pretty awesome.  How does it play out on the page?  Here's an attempt at a summary of the first story of the volume, “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.”

"Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius"

Two friends discover an entry for a country called “Uqbar” in a single copy of a cheap encyclopedia set. The article mentions that the literature of Uqbar consists only of fantasies set in two imaginary regions, one of which is called Tlön. They look in vain for any other references to Uqbar, but some time later the narrator chances across Volume XI of the Encyclopedia of Tlön, which he learns from context is found on, or is perhaps another name for, the planet Orbus Tertius.
Now I held in my hands a vast methodical fragment of an unknown planet's entire history, with its architecture and its playing cards, with the dread of its mythologies and the murmur of its languages, with its emperors and its seas, with its minerals and its birds and its fish, with its algebra and its fire, with its theological and metaphysical controversy.

Exploration of the encyclopedia is a springboard to short descriptions of the theology, philosophy, and linguistics of Tlön. These are discusussions erudite and increasingly absurd:
There are no nouns in Tlön's conjectural Ursprache, from which the "present" languages and the dialects are derived: there are impersonal verbs, modified by monosyllabic suffixes (or prefixes) with an adverbial value. For example: there is no word corresponding to the word "moon,", but there is a verb which in English would be "to moon" or "to moonate." "The moon rose above the river" is hlor u fang axaxaxas mlo, or literally: "upward behind the onstreaming it mooned."
The preceding applies to the languages of the southern hemisphere. In those of the northern hemisphere (on whose Ursprache there is very little data in the Eleventh Volume) the prime unit is not the verb, but the monosyllabic adjective. The noun is formed by an accumulation of adjectives. They do not say "moon," but rather "round airy-light on dark" or "pale-orange-of-the-sky" or any other such combination.

Philosophy on Tlön is of an extreme idealist bent – so much so, in fact, that belief that an object exists (for instance looking for a pencil that one believes should be there) is often enough to invoke that object into being.

So, that’s what we get in the main body of the story. Then, there is an afterward explaining that since the “article” was originally published, the author has been able to determine that the Tlön encyclopedia was a secret project commissioned by an eccentric American millionaire. Except that, as knowledge of the encyclopedia begins to spread, artifacts from the Tlön universe begin to manifest themselves on Earth, as people hope or believe them into reality.

Borges and his Postcursors

As you have gathered from the quotations, Borges’ style is professorial and erudite, the very embodiment of the classical man of letters. At one point Mrs.5000 asked me which story I was on, and I read her the first line: “The night of March 14, 1943, in an apartment in the Zeltnergasse of Prague, Jaromir Hladik, the author of the unfinished drama entitled The Enemies, of Vindication of Eternity, and of a study of the indirect Jewish sources of Jakob Böhme, had a dream of a long game of chess.”

“I don’t remember which one that is,” she said.

“Well,” I pointed out, “they all start kind of like that.”  It's true.

In an essay called “Kafka and his Precursors,” Borges looks at works written before Kafka that treat what we would might call “Kafkaesque” elements. He makes the point – I can not tell if it is tongue-in-cheek or not – that we probably read these early works differently because of Kafka’s influence. Similarly, I think that for most people reading Kafka today, our reading of the work is influenced by later writers (including Borges) who were themselves influenced by Kafka; in practical terms, the arrow of influence points both backwards and forwards in time. It is hard for me not to read Borges in implicit comparison with later writers he influenced, specifically Italo Calvino, Umberto Eco, and Jose Saramago. Those three are big influences on [my reading of] Borges.

I saved Labyrinths for the next-to-last Reading List book because I expected to revel in it. I knew the general sort of thing that Borges would be up to, and it sounded great. It's Multi-layered, self-referential, elusive, and allusive, for crying out loud!  I mean, aren’t I the guy who invented the Forgotten Lands? That was clearly a Borges-inspired project, even if I didn’t realize it at the time. Also, I really like a lot of Calvino, Eco, and Saramago. I knew that Labyrinths was a big favorite of Mrs.5000. I thought I’d be an ideal audience for Borges.

Michael5000 Lets Down the Team

Disappointing to relate, the fictions mostly just made me feel stupid. I spent a lot of time reading this short book, and much of that time was spent going back and trying to find the point where I had stopped absorbing the words. I fell asleep a few times. I was, dear reader, often kind of bored. I confess this gives me a real feeling of having let down the team, but there you have it. I may not be smart enough to take my Borges straight. Maybe I just need to come back and try it again when I’m a little older.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Infinite Art Tournament, Round Two: Hockney v. Hodler!

Polls close Saturday for The Play-In Artist SubTournament: Phase 2, Flight 4!

David Hockney
Born 1937
British; works in United States

Beat Howard Hodgkin in Round 1.

Ferdinand Hodler
1853 - 1918

Defeated Hans Hofmann in Round 1.

Vote for the artist of your choice in the comments, or any other way that works for you. Commentary and links to additional work are welcome. Polls open for at least one month past posting.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Saying "Protactinium" at South Point

South Point, the aptly named southernmost point of the island of Hawai'i, is also the southernmost point of the United States.

(Oh, fine.  Yes, Puerto Rico extends its odd geopolitical status further south.  Yes, the U.S. has de facto or de jure control of military bases, embassy grounds, and other miscellaneous chunks of real estate further south.  Yes, the United States operates a research station at the freaking South Pole.  But -- and this is a reasonable but! -- if you consider the fifty states which are the core entities of the United States, you can't get any souther than South Point.)

I had the presumably once-in-a-lifetime chance to visit Hawai'i a few months ago, and visited South Point.  In this picture, I am the southernmost human in the 50 United States.

While I was there, I set a record.  I didn't want to announce it at the time, because it would have opened up the possibility of mischievous competition from a known gentle reader who was also on the island at the time.  But now, I am ready to claim my title. 

While standing on the rocks of South Point, I said "Protactinium."  I confidently claim this as the southernmost utterance of the word "Protactinium" within the 50 United States.   Who holds that record?  I do, that's who.  Michael5000.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Infinite Art Tournament, Round Two: Hicks v. Hiroshige!

Edward Hicks
1780 - 1849

Beat Nicholas Hilliard in Round 1.

Andō Hiroshige
1797 - 1858

Defeated Meindert Hobbema in Round 1 by a two-vote swing. YOUR VOTE COUNTS!

Vote for the artist of your choice in the comments, or any other way that works for you. Commentary and links to additional work are welcome. Polls open for at least one month past posting.