Stuff happens, occasionally.

Well done, xkcd. View the full “Frequency” comic here, it’s truly mesmerizing. I had no idea there were so many Sagittarii named Amelia who were fans of carbonated beverages.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to continue waiting for my turn signal to synchronize with that of a stranger’s, longing for that unspoken, unknown connection, that most universal element of the human experience.

I can’t remember where I heard this, but someone once said that defending a position by citing free speech is sort of the ultimate concession; you’re saying that the most compelling thing you can say for your position is that it’s not literally illegal to express.

Free Speech

xkcd: Wikipedia article titles with the right syllable stress pattern to be sung to the tune of the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles theme song. (Here’s the song, for reference.)

All of these titles are examples of trochaic tetrameter, which is one of the most common English meters (a trochee is a foot consisting of STRONG-weak and tetrameter is four feet per line). Another example is Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, although that has a deficient last foot, but you can sing any of these titles to that tune as well if you just double the last note.

Trochaic tetrameter creates a strong feeling of sing-song “poem-ness” in English. Most Shakespearean characters, for example, speak in iambic pentameter (weak-STRONG, five feet per line), which sounds more natural, but a few speak in trochaic tetrameter for dramatic effect. For example, MacBeth and Lady MacBeth speak in iambic pentameter, which gives the effect of talking normally: 

Methought I heard a voice cry “Sleep no more!
Macbeth does murder sleep,” the innocent sleep,
Sleep that knits up the ravell’d sleave of care,

Out, damned spot! out, I say!—One: two: why,
then, ‘tis time to do’t.—Hell is murky!—Fie, my
lord, fie! a soldier, and afeard? What need we
fear who knows it, when none can call our power
to account?—Yet who would have thought the old
man to have had so much blood in him?

But the witches speak in trochaic tetrameter, which makes them seem like they’re delivering an incantation: 

Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.

Fair is foul, and foul is fair

Previous xkcd on poetry: metrical foot fetish, ballad meter, trochaic fixation. Language Log also has a long, interesting post on meter

4

Randall Munroe is a bit of a genius and hopefully he doesn’t see this because I’d be embarrassed to have him hear me say it. 

He’s one of the greatest science explainers of my generation…possibly the greatest. He does it not by explaining science and math and calculus and biology for the sake of understanding it, but by seeking answers. 

And look, that’s why we created biology and calculus and chemistry anyhow. So by searching for answers to really WEIRD questions. Questoins like “Can I build a jetpack out of machine guns” (surprisingly yes, but don’t) and “How much space would all of Google take up if it was on punch cards” (it would bury New England to the height of several kilometers.) And “What would happen if the Earth just stopped spinning but the atmosphere kept moving” (everyone would die, some people less slowly than others.)

To find these answers, Randall does intense amounts of research and also lots and lots of math.

In his “What If?” column he uses this marvelous toolbox that we’ve developed over the last 100,000 years of being a species in such exciting ways that you don’t even know how smart you’re getting as you read it. 

Now he’s turned “What if?” into a book and it is SO MUCH FUN. It’s hilarious and fascinating and shows the kind of obsession with the universe that I find infectious. I’ve been devouring it since I got my copy.

I’ve flown out to San Francisco to interview Randall on the Vlogbrothers channel (Colbert just did an interview with him last week so I guess I’m in good company.) His understanding of the world is extremely deep so he’s able to share only the bits that are either hilarious or fascinating. I’m nervous to spend a bunch of time with him, but very excited to bring his work (I hope) to more people and ideally help sell some copies of his book (which I’m sure is doing just fine without me.)

The Hangout starts in about two hours and I’m gonna go hang out in the chat for it right now

10

Check out these awesome dinosaurs. All pretty and baller and songbirdy and stuff!

Yup, birds are dinos. There are “avian dinosaurs” (Saurischia), which have hips that have legs sticking straight out underneath them, and “non-avian dinosaurs” (Ornithischia - confusingly, translates as “bird-hipped”), which have legs that splayed out to the sides. Birds first appeared during the Jurassic period, 150 million years ago, and they’re the only surviving member of the Dinosauria clade.

All carnivorous dinosaurs were warm-blooded, and were Saurischians. One of the two primary herbivorous dinosaur lines is also Saurischian - the Sauropodopmorpha (including Apatosaurus, Diplodocus, and Argentinosaurus) branched off around 230 mya, but well-known dinosaurs such as triceratops and stegosaurus are comparatively unrelated to modern birds.

Birds: The Late Evolution of Dinosaurs.

Dinobuzz: Are birds really dinosaurs?

Images:

Giant Heron and Sea Eagle
Pied Hornbill, Andean Condor, Leadbeater’s Cockatoo
xkcd: Birds and Dinosaurs
Ostrich, Weaver Birds
Rock Penguin, Roseate Spoonbill, Greater Flamingo

Wild Life of the World. Richard Lydekker, 1916.

Writing Skills: XKCD is on point about language again.

Here’s a study from this year on kids who use abbreviations while texting, and here’s a summary of previous studies: 

The first study, published in 2008, showed that 11 and 12-year-olds in Britain who used more textisms — whether misspelled words (“ppl,” instead of “people”), grammatically incorrect substitutions (“2” for “to” or “too”), wrong verb forms (“he do” instead of “he does”), or missing punctuation — compared to properly written words tended to have slightly better scores on standardized grammar and writing tests and had better spelling, after controlling for test scores in other subjects and other factors. A 2009 study, conducted by some of the same researchers on 88 kids between 10 and 12 years old, found similar associations between high textism use and slightly better reading ability.

Hovertext from the xkcd comic: I’d like to find a corpus of writing from children in a non-self-selected sample (e.g. handwritten letters to the president from everyone in the same teacher’s 7th grade class every year)–and score the kids today versus the kids 20 years ago on various objective measures of writing quality. I’ve heard the idea that exposure to all this amateur peer practice is hurting us, but I’d bet on the generation that conducts the bulk of their social lives via the written word over the generation that occasionally wrote book reports and letters to grandma once a year, any day.