Thursday, October 29, 2009

Happy Halloween! - horror films from the silent era.

For my Halloween post I thought I would focus on some early horror films.

Here's a good introduction the the genre.

Many of you may be familiar with the French director Georges Melies, whose pioneering films include "A Trip to the Moon" (1902). His directed the very first horror film, "Le Manior du Diable",from 1896.

Here is a brief excerpt, with modern narration.

Three more by Melies:

The first version of Frankenstein was filmed by Edison Studios in 1910. The quality is poor in places, There is only one known surviving copy, and it remained unseen by all except for its owner for many years.

Here is F.W. Murnaus's 1922 film "Nosferatu", the first filmed version of the Dracula legend. Murnau was successfully sued by Bram Stoker's widow for copyright infringement.

There are several very interesting films from the silent era here.

This is a great bibliography of horror films, from 1895-1950

I will discuss the Carl Dreyer film "Vampyr" in a separate post on Dreyer.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Martin Gardner turns, 95 - recreational math, flexagons and "The Annotated Alice"

I've always loved the writings of Martin Gardner, who turned 95 this week. He has long been the best known recreational mathematician. He has written on many different topics, but most of his writings focus on puzzles and puzzle solving. He has written over 70 books, including a puzzle and essay collection that was released this month.

Here's a good article on Gardner's career.

A few of Gardner's puzzles.

My favorite article by Gardner is a very early one (from 1956) which introduced me to the wonderful world of flexagons. They were invented at Princeton in 1939 by a graduate student, Arthur Stone. A "Flexagon Committee" that included fellow graduate students Richard Feynman, who went on to win the Nobel Prize in physics, and Bryant Tuckerman, was formed.

I first made flexagons with my dad on the kitchen table, but later started making them at school (this was fifth grade) during boring classes. Sometimes I would sell them, and use the money to buy junk food at lunch.

This picture comes from a great, comprehensive site on flexagons.

The Wikipedia article doesn't provide much information about flexagons, but it does show how to make tetraflexagons and hexaflexigons.

There area number of technical articles on flexagons. This one provides a good overview.

There are many videos of flexagons online. This one is silent, but has some pretty nifty flexing.


Gardner's "The Annotated Alice" is terrific. It provides detailed information on the many obscure jokes and references in "Alice in Wonderland" and "Through the Looking Glass". The "Definitive Edition" contains "The Wasp in the Wig" , a chapter that was left out of "Through the Looking Glass".

Amazon has some interesting editorial reviews of this.

A Gardner bibliography:

Friday, October 23, 2009

Zebroids: zorses and zonkeys

I wrote a post a while back about quaggas, a subspecies of zebra that were once thought to be separate species, that became extinct in the nineteenth century. There is an effort underway to "recreate" the quagga through genetic engineering. I thought I would write about some odd and interesting zebra hybrids.

The zorse is a horse-zebra hybrid. It's the offspring of a zebra stallion and horse mare. Like other hybrid equines (such as mules) it is sterile. The offspring of a zebra mare and horse stallion is called a hebra, though there are multiple names for equine hybrids. They are collectively known as zebroids, and are found both in the wild and in captivity.

Here's a zonkey.

Here is another zonkey, referred to here as a zenky.

A list of hybrid equines:

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Fish and the evolution of speech

Recent research has shown that sound arose quite early in the evolution of vertebrates. dating back about 400,000,000 years. It first arose in fish, and many fish today use vocalization as part of the process of social communication.

A team of researchers at Cornell, lead by Dr. Andrew Bass ( talk about a fitting name) focused their research on midshipman fish, which are found in the Pacific Ocean, off the coast of the U.S. and Canada. Males hum to lure females and grunt and growl to scare away other males from their nest. Female midshipmen fish growl to claim and protect territory, but don't make the other sounds males do.

The most interesting part of the teams research showed that the neural networks responsible for vocalization in fish and had the same location as that in other vertebrates, indicating that not only was vocalization something very ancient, but that its form, structure, and function have been highly conserved throughout time.

This research could be useful in helping to develop treatments for those who have had damage to the neural network that controls speech.

This is an interesting article on this research.

Another good article, which includes the picture at the beginning of the post:

The abstract for the original research article:

Here is a video of humming and grunting midshipman fish:

Here is a link to a speech by Dr. Bass about his research:

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Strange book and comic book covers

Today's post is on strange and bad book and comic book covers.

Here are three from

These look like good candidates for the Museum of Bad Art.

A bizarre comic book cover:


Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Old English, Furthoc, and Caedmon's Hymn

Old English is a very different language from modern English, and was spoken from the fifth into the twelfth century. It was a northern Germanic language, and later was influenced by Old Norse after the Viking invasions of the ninth and tenth centuries. It was also influenced by Latin, as the influence of Christianity grew, and the presence of clergy who knew Latin increased. It originally had a series of grammatical cases, as Latin and Greek did, but eventually these began to die out.

There were four main dialects of Old English - Mercian, Northumbrian, Kentish, and West Saxon, but the Wessex Dialect spoken by Alfred the Great became dominant after he unified Anglo-Saxon England in 878.

Old English was originally written using the Futhorc variation of the Runic alphabet. Runic was used to write many Germanic languages. Futhorc was eventually replaced by the Latin alphabet.

One of the earliest surviving works in Old English is by Caedmon, a late seventh century monk and poet. Although he was said to be highly prolific, his only surviving work is "Caedmon's Hymn", which supposedly came to him in a dream.

There are versions of "Caedmon's Hymn" in Northumbrian and West Saxon.

The Northumbrian version:

Here are the West Saxon, Latin, and Modern English versions:

A recitation:

All our knowledge of Caedmon comes from St. Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People."

The Lord's Prayer in Old English:

The most famous work in Old English is "Beowulf", which I will leave for a separate post. For now, here are a couple of great (and very extensive) Beowulf sites:

Here is an Old English to Modern English Translator:

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Nobel Prizes 2009 - Physics - optical technology

Nobel Prizes are often given for work done a long time ago that has proven to be highly valuable in the ensuing years. This years Nobel Prize in physics was given to three inventors for their work in optical technology from the 1960's.

Willard S.Boyle and George E. Smith were given their prizes for the invention of the charge-coupled device, (CCD), which revolutionized the development of imaging devices by capturing images of light electronically. It led to the development of the digital camera, bar codes, and medical imaging technology and other devices.

CCD's work by converting pixels into electronic charges, which are linked to a corresponding color.

Charles K. Kao shared in this years prize for his pioneering work in the development of fiber optics. He was the first to calculate how light could be transmitted over long distances

Here's a basic description of a charge coupled device:,,sid5_gci295633,00.html

Boyle and Smith discussed the invention of the CCD during a presentation at Bell Labs in 1978. The basic design of the CCD only took an hour! It took three more days for a prototype to be built, and another week for some basic testing.

A fiber optic strand, which is bundled into a cable, consists of three parts: 1) the core where the light travels 2) the cladding, which reflects light back into the core and 3)a protective buffer coating. The entire cable is protected by an outer jacket.

Light in optical fibers travels a long way due to the cladding reflecting the light back into the core, but the signal does degrade. It's boosted by a set of optical regenerators, which are specially coated optical fibers whose signal is amplified by a laser. The incoming signal is then decoded and sent to an electronic device, such as a computer or phone.

How fiber optics fibers are made:

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Rube Goldberg: cartoons, games and devices

The cartoonist and inventor Rube Goldberg was best known for creating "Rube Goldberg machines", which were complicated machines designed to perform simple tasks. Goldberg's machines led to the development of the popular game "Mouse Trap", developed in the 1960's, and to a series of competitions at Purdue University, in Japan, and elsewhere, to build the best Rube Goldberg device for a certain task, such as putting a hamburger together.

Here is Goldberg's alarm clock:

Purdue University's Rube Goldberg Contest:

The 2007 competition at Purdue:

The original version of the Mouse Trap game was released in 1963. The object is to build a Rube Goldberg style mouse trap, and then capture all of your opponents mice.

There are many videos of Rube Goldberg devices online. Here is one of my favorites.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Nobel Prizes 2009 - Part One - Physiology or Medicine

This will be the first of several posts on this years Nobel Prize Awards.

Congratulations to Elizabeth H. Blackburn, Carol W. Greider, and Jack Wzostak, winners of this years prize in Physiology or Medicine. Their work involved understanding the synthesis and function of telemeres, which are a structure found on the ends of chromosomes that protects their integrity. in eukaryotic cells. Telemeres replicate, but ultimately the process stops because one of the strands of the double helix grows a little shorter with each replication. This relates to the aging of cells, since when one of the strands grows too short, the cell can no longer divide.

The researchers who won the Nobel Prize discovered and worked with the enzyme telemerase, which controls the adding of sequences to the shorter strand so that the two strands remain of equal length. Telemerase is only active early in a cells life, and its inactivation is what causes cells to stop growing. It was discovered, quite surprisingly that the replication of these added sequences is controlled by RNA.

Understanding how telemerase works is important in understanding cancer. In order for a cell to replicate again telemerase must be reactivated. Reactivated telemerase is found in most cancer cells, and researchers are working to find drugs that inhibit it.

Here's a good article on the prize winners and their research.

The website for Dr. Blackburn's lab is:

Here is the announcement of the prize, and the winners discussing their work.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

ScratchBot - robots and rat whiskers

Here's the first of several posts on advances in robotics. Let's start with a robotic rat.

A team of researchers at the Bristol Robotics Lab, in association with Professor Tony Prescott of the University of Sheffield, have developed ScratchBot, a robotic "rat". This tactile sensing device is based on the processes a rat uses when its whiskers sense its environment, and on computer modeling of the rat brain This technology would allow robots to be used in areas where vision is poor, such in smoke filled areas or under the sea. ScratchBot is part of a European project to develop artificial intelligence systems modeled on biologic ones.

Rat whiskers serve as an excellent model for robotic sensing. They are able to accurately locate and determine the size, shape and texture of an object. The hope is that damaged robotic whiskers can be easily and cheaply replaced, thereby lowering maintenance costs for a highly complex system.

A video of ScratchBot:

Here are two articles on the ScratchBot project.

(this includes the embedded video)

A gesturing robot from the Bristol Robotics Laboratory:

Friday, October 2, 2009

Sound and color in early film

From the beginning of film history, there were attempts to incorporate sound and color into film. The early attempts are very primitive by today's standards, but very interesting.

Edison's first attempt at incorporating sound and film involved the use of the kinetophone, in which film was watched a film through the peepholes of a kinetoscope. The cabinet of the kinetoscope contained a phonograph, and the viewer/listener heard the sound through a pair of ear tubes.

Information about kinetoscopes and kinetophones can be found here.

Here is the earliest Edison sound film, from 1894.

I don't know anything about this film, but it's very cool.

Sound films really came of age through the development of "sound on film" where the sound was optically recorded on the side of a film strip. The helped solve the problem of synchronization, which was poor in earlier sound films. Several researchers developed a "sound on film' process but it was the one developed by Lee De Forest that became commercially successful.

Although the first full length film to use De Forest's process was "The Jazz Singer" from 1927, it was used in several shorts, starting in 1923.

Here's a great one, featuring Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake.

Here's a preview of a future post on color in early hand painted film, from 1895.

The Wikipedia article on the history of sound in film is really good.