The Resilient Brain, Part 1

War and other traumas give doctors great opportunities to study brain damage.

The brain seems remarkably plastic – parts that are injured often have their duties taken over by other parts, or the duties of those other parts are enhanced – sometimes remarkably.

The brain seems to be a highly redundant system – parts can drop out and the whole continues, often with little loss in fuction.

Large-scale attacks, like Alzheimer’s, seem to destroy or shut down large areas,
and there, even redundancy doesn’t help.

There are a few remarkable recent cases (and one well-known historical case).

In 1848, a 25-year-old railroad crew foreman named Phineas Gage and his crew were drilling blasting holes in rock. They were using a tamping iron to pack the blasting powder in a hole, when a spark set off the powder, sending the iron (3′ 8″ long, 1.25″ diameter at one end) through Gage’s head, entering under a cheekbone, exiting through the top of his head. (The iron was found some 30 yards away.)

Thanks to the miracle of then-modern medicine, he survived, and about four months later, apparently resumed a normal life.

Unfortunately, his personality changed, from “the most efficient and capable foreman”, to “a complete loss of social inhibitions”. That was attributed to the complete loss of his frontal cortex.

After he recovered, he wasn’t able to hold down a regular job, so he toured the country, with the tamping iron, raising a little money here and there. There is a photo of him with the iron. It’s almost unbelievable that he even survived.

His skull and the iron rod are now at the Harvard University School of Medicine.

The Gage case was one of the forerunners of research into localizing various functions – language, motor control, &c. – to areas of the brain.

Composer of the Day

The Composer of the Day is Ottorino Respighi, born in Bologna, Italy on 9 July 1879.
Like many composers, his early teachers was one of his parents: his father, who also taught piano. He went on to study violin and viola, and, after getting his diploma in violin, went to St. Petersburg, where he was principal viola in the Russian Imperial Theatre orchestra. While there, he studied composition with Rimsky-Korsakov (18 March 1844, who also taught Stravinsky (17 Jun 1882), Glazunov (10 Aug 1865), and Prokofiev (23 April 1891), among others).

He’s best known for three tone poems: “The Fountains of Rome” (1917), “The Pines of Rome” (1924), and “Roman Festivals” (1928). “The Pines of Rome” has the first use of a nightingale at the end of the 3rd movement. Unfortunately, at the time, there were no nightingales in the musicians union, so Otto specified a recording. Immediately following the nightingale comes the “Pines of the Appian Way” section, a stirring and dramatic musical portrait of Roman Legion soldiers marching along the Appian way. The drama is intensified by the organ playing a low B-flat in the pedal.

He also wrote string quartets, five ballets – La Boutique fantasque among them, two Suites of Ancient Airs and Dances. a delightful suite, “The Birds”, and a lot of vocal and choral music.

He died in Rome in 1936.

Composer of the Day

The Composer of the Day is Percy Grainger, born in a suburb of Melbourne, Australia on 8 July 1882. He was a true eccentric, but an extremely talented eccentric. (If you’re weird but not talented, you’re just “odd”.) Like a few other composers (Rachmaninov), his best-known work, “Country Gardens”, was his least favorite. He hated it, but whenever he gave a concert, people insisted he play it as an encore.

He didn’t like the standard Italian annotations (“molto allegretto” &c), and wrote them in English (“somewhat pertly”). He lived recently enough that you can find recordings of him playing – there’s a YouTube cut of “Irish Tune” (better known today as “Danny Boy”) . The sheet music goes by as he plays. The tempo is marked “Slowish, but not dragged, and in wayward time”. (Either he or the editors put in the Italian notations.) The dynamics run from ff to pppp. It’s lushly harmonized, with the melody in the upper left hand. And made many piano rolls – so you could have Percy playing in your parlour.

A true eccentric, he rated himself the 9th-best composer ever – between Mozart (27 Jan 1756, not quite so good,) and Delius (29 Jan 1862, a little better), with Bach (21 March 1685) – to no-one’s surprise, Nr 1.

He met Grieg (15 June 1843), and performed his piano concerto in concert. During the 1920s, he earned the equivalent of $60,000/week on the concert stage. A bit of an overachiever, he spoke 11 languages fluently (I wonder if there’s a connection between language and music). When he married, it was at the Hollywood Bowl.

He was one of the first to go seriously into electronic music – he wrote a piece called “Free Music No. 1 (For Four Theremins)”, which has recently been adapted for 4 iPhones.

He died in 1961 in White Plains, New York. There is, of course, a Percy Grainger Society.

Circles and Spheres

Standard formulas for the area of a circle, and the surface area and volume of a sphere, involve the constant π. Most of us remember that π is about 3.1416. That’s pretty close, but not exact. Even closer, π is about 3.1415926536. Now that’s really close, but still not exact. π has no exact numerical value – it’s been computed out to more than a million decimal places, but no matter how many we compute, there are always millions more. So there’s really no point in asking for the exact value of π. We can come as close as we want – or that we can afford (in terms of computer time).

Another way of looking at it is to realize that there is no pair of integers, a and b, such that a/b = π. There are a few that come close. The first is 22/7 = 3.142857…. (the decimal part repeats). Then comes 355/113 = 3.141592920353982….  (that one goes on for at least 30 decimal places with no repeat in sight)

This gives us a hint that there may be a way of calculating approximate areas and volumes that are “close enough”.

Start with the standard formula:

Circle area: A = πr2

It’s not always convenient to measure the radius directly. We can measure the diameter and divide by 2, but suppose we could work with the diameter directly:

A = πr2
r = d/2
A = π(d/2)2
A = πd2/4

which we rewrite as

A = (π/4)d2

We can look up the value for π/4; it’s almost exactly 0.7854.

So our area formula becomes

A ~= 0.7854d2

We use ~= to mean “approximately equal.

A very good approximation is

A ~= 0.8d2

this is within slightly less than 2%

It’s easy to multiply something by .8: double it three times, then divide by 10.

If d=12 inches, then A = 0.8*12 = 9.6 in^2.

Let’s see how that works out:

Suppose you have a garden with a 10-foot diameter circular area you want to plant with flowers.  You’ll need the area.   The actual area is 78.53982 square feet.  Using the “very good approximation”, we get 78.54 square feet.

The difference is 0.00018 square feet, or about 1/4 square inch.  And, it’s always a little lager than the exact value, so you never have to worry about running out.

We can also get the area if we know the circumference. The circumference of a circle is not so easy to measure – unless you’re working with a cylinder (like a tin can) and you need to get the volume. But the formula will be useful later on, so let’s develop it here.

A = πr2
c = πd
c = 2πr
r = c/2π
A = π(c2/4π2)
A = c2/4π

Moving right along to spheres

First, the formulas:

As = 4πr2

You may recognize the “πr2” part as the area of a circle with radius r. The surface area of a sphere is exactly 4 times the area of the circle whose center is  the center of the sphere (sometimes known as a great circle).  An old Greek guy figured that out, before anybody knew what π was.

Rewriting that to use the diameter:

r = d/2
As = 4π(d/2)2
As = 4πd2/4

Which simplifies to

As = πd2

That’s nice, but no help from the world of approximations.  But note that the area of a sphere is 4 times the area of a great circle.  We start over:

As = 4Ac

Now, we just go back to our circle area approximate formula:

Ac ~= 0.8d2

Plug that into the sphere area formula:

As ~= 4*0.8d2
As ~= 3.2d2

Finally, let’s find the area from the circumference. That’s a lot easier to measure, on a sphere. (Think of a basketball.)

As = 4Ac
As = 4(c2/4π)
As = c2

Calculating, 1/π = 0.3183, which we can round off to 0.3, or

As ~= .3c2

This gives a result that is just 6% too big.

Finally, the volume of a sphere:

Vs = (4/3) * πr3

From the diameter:

r = d/2
Vs = (4/3) * π(d/2)3
Vs = (4/3) * π(d3/8
Vs = (π/6) * d3

Calculate π/6 = 0.5326 Using 0.5 is too far off, so we’ll need to use 0.53:

Vs ~= 0.53d3

Now let’s step back and ask if it’s possible to calculate the area of a circle without using π.

Start with the basic formula

A = πr2

Rewrite that as

A = πr*r


r = d/2

replace one of the r’s:

A = π(d/2)*r
A = πd*r/2

But πd = c, so

A = c*r/2

The trick is that π is contained in c – because c = πr.

Ikea’s Magic Elevator

Seen in an Ikea store in Southern California:



The Essence of Zen

Zen concepts can be difficult for Western minds to comprehend. In order to help us understand the essence of Zen, I’m providing this helpful explanation, which will save you thousands of hours of meditative exercises:

That that is, is not; that that is not, is.

The Glamorous Grammarian

Digging into word origins is fascinating, and can be rewarding, especially when something new and unexpected pops out. That was the case with these two words: grammar and glamour.

In modern usage, the two are unrelated. One refers to the rules for combining words of a language into correct sentences; the other, to an attractiveness (usually in women) that includes an alluring, elusive quality.

I leave it as an exercise for the reader to determine which is which.

Back in the 1930s through the 1950s or so, many Hollywood actresses were glamorous. That quality of glamour sustained many a soldier, sailor, and Marine during World War II. Betty Grable was one of the better-known glamorous actresses. Her pin-up photos graced many a ship or submarine’s wall, many a foxhole at the front, and many a makeshift aircraft hangar around the world.

I can’t think of any Hollywood stars of today with that quality. The elusive and mysterious aspects have largely disappeared.

Nowadays, even grammar seems to be becoming a lost art. I wonder how many high school graduates can name the eight parts of speech (or is it seven?…… (or that there is even such a thing)), or know the obscure notion of subject/verb agreement.

Considering how different in meaning these two words are, it came as a surprise that they stem from the same source.

Here’s the etymology for “grammar”, from an online Oxford English Dictionary:

late Middle English: from Old French gramaire,
via Latin from Greek grammatikē (tekhnē) ‘(art) of letters’,
from gramma, grammat- ‘letter of the alphabet, thing written’

And for “glamour”:

early 18th century (originally Scots in the sense ‘enchantment, magic’):
alteration of grammar. Although grammar itself was not used in this sense, the Latin word grammatica (from which it derives) was often used in the Middle Ages to mean ‘scholarship, learning’, including the occult practices popularly associated with learning

The common root of “grammar” and “glamour” is a word meaning “occult practices”, perhaps including witchcraft. Few witches in literature are described as glamorous, but a recent depiction of this one comes pretty close. And of course, Glinda the Good Witch

Another related word is “grimoire” (one rarely used, except perhaps by Harry Potter fans):

a manual of magic or witchcraft used by witches and sorcerers.
1850–60; < French, alteration of grammaire ‘grammar’ < Old French gramaire; see grammar

“Glamour” is one of the few words (perhaps the only one) that didn’t change from the “-our” lending to “-or” (as with “colour”/”color”) when it came to the States.