Started today: The Man Who Broke Napoleon’s Codes: The Story of George Scovell.

Socialism 101

[This example has been used before; in this retelling, I’m adding a few details to make it more interesting.]

Halfway through the Socialism 101 course, Professor Gramsci came into the auditorium, looked around the room, and began the lecture.

So far, we’ve covered the history, theory, and practice of socialism around the word. Now, we will put some of these noble ideas into practice, right here in this class.”

The students shifted uneasily in ther seats, looked at one another uncertainly. Professor Gramsci gave them a minute to settle back down.

Over the past years, the grade distribution for this course has been about 10 percent As, 40 percent Bs and Cs, and 10 percent Ds. There have never been Fs – we don’t do that here. In accordance with the socialist ethic of fairness and equality, grades will be redistributed.”

Several students put down their pencils, others looked up from their Chromebooks. Everyone’s attention was focused on Professor Gramsci.

I will take points from the A students and give them to the D students. This will raise the Ds to Cs, and lower the As to Bs.

Al around the room, hands went up. “That’s not fair!!!” “You can’t do that!!”

Yes, I can”, Gramsci said. “As professor here, I’m more qualified to interpret socialist principles than you. As for ‘fair’, is it ‘fair’ “ (he emphasised that word with little finger quotes) “that Mr Smith, in the back row, drives a Mercedes to class, while Miss Jones walks here from the dorm? Go back and read Chapter 2 of the textbook.”

Gramsci continued: “Clearly, those who got As got there through white privilege and unfair advantage. Those who got Ds were obviously oppressed and marginalised. All we’re doing is breaking down the barriers of privilege and oppresssion.”

There was some grumbling and dissent among the students, but a contingent of the Cs and Ds was finally able to convince the As and Bs of the inherent justice in Gramsci’s plan.

At the last meting of the class, Professor Gramsci made another announcement.

This has been a valuable learning experience, showing the advantages of socialism over other forms of government and economics. Next semester, we will take it one step further. Everyone will be guaranteed a B, no matter what.”

Human nature being what it is, no-one showed up for class that next semester, except Mr Wu, a foreign-exchange student from China, who used what he learned in this and other classes (but mostly, others) to build an internet startup, which he later sold for $46 billion.

About that global warming…

Ski resort opens early

Killington Resort, which opened two trails Monday, was the first ski mountain in North America to open to the public this season.

. . .

This is the first time in more than a decade that skiing has started this early at Killington, resort spokesman Michael Joseph said.

π day: This year and next

This year has the perfect π day: March 14, at 9:26:53 (and a tad). Also written as 3/14/15;9:26:53, which is incredibly close to the value of π: 3.14159265358979323…..

Purists will object, of course, to the hour: 9. They will insist that time should be written 09:26:53. They will also object to 2015 being written as ’15’.

We will ignore those people.

This date and time happens only once every hundred years. But, like the infamous Y2K “millennium year” of 2000 (the new millennium really began in 2001), we’ll have another chance next year, on March 14, 2016: 3/14/16

There are lesser π days, one every year on March 14, at 1:59 (a.m., of course; the afternoon time would be 13:15).

3.1416 is a really good approximation to π. The difference between that value and π is one part in slightly over 136,000. This is good enough for engineering work, and certainly good enough for government work. Unless, of course, you’re sending space probes to distant planets, in which case you’d better be using all the digits your computer can handle.

For a number innately bound up with circles, π shows up in many mathematical contexts, in physics, cosmology, and higher mathematics. Thre are hundreds of formulas – mathematical series – for computing π, but since it has already been calculated to billions of digits, there’s really not much use for those series (except perhaps to check your arithmetic).

Here’s a website devoted to π.

Here’s theultimate π image

2015’s perfect calendar month

February has 28 days (most of the time).  There are seven days in a week, and 28 days takes up exactly four weeks.  This February’s calendar starts on Sunday, and ends on the Saturday of the fourth week.

This is the only case where a standard calendar takes only four lines (click on the calendar to enlarge):


This doesn’t happen very often.   The past time was in 2009.   It won’t happen again until 2026.  If you like, you can save this year’s calendar until then.

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.