The Strange Lure of the Ugly

It is interesting to note how the value placed on beauty varies from person to person, from region to region, and from time to time. If you were around during the late 60's and 70's, you might remember a distinct trend towards making things uglier. I can point out two independent areas where this is visible.

The first is architecture. Many office buildings erected during the period had the shape of plain cubical boxes, covered in mirrored glass, and with no ornament whatsoever. (As Ayn Rand has pointed out, progess in architecture demands that the ornament of a building should be appropriate to its purpose, not that the ornament should be missing entirely.) Does this "style" of architecture even have a name? Contrast this with the exuberance of the Googie style of the 50's and 60's.

The second, independent trend was in film studio logos. Look, for example, what happened to the MGM lion in 1966:Similarly, Columbia, Warner Brothers, and Paramount all modified their logos to a sketchy joyless cartoon version.

The confluence of similar trends in such diverse areas makes me think these were a reflection of some broader spirit of pessimism in society.

This line of thought was provoked by a recent experience of putting some paper money in my wallet and being struck by the extreme ugliness of the new designs. The currency redesign was motivated by a desire to make our cash harder to counterfeit, which is sensible, but I see no reason why it can't be attractive and harder to counterfeit at the same time. Virtually every element of the design has been uglified: the old lovely ornate borders, which were unique to each denomination, have been replaced by austere boilerplate, the atmospheric perspective engravings of buildings on the back have been replaced by almost two-dimensional elevations, and that is not to mention the tiny little numerals scattered around by smallpox lesions.

Compare all this with a five-dollar bill from 1896:

Whatever else you might think about this note, it is clear that the designer wanted it to be pretty.

My point is not that our currency today ought to look like this. But there must be something appropriate to our era that could be pleasing or even inspiring to the eye.

Kyoto, PA

Photo by embleton_s

If you've seen a Rocky movie then most likely you've seen the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It figures promininently in the training montage when he runs up the steps leading to the museum and galumphs about at the top.

Guidebooks will tell you about the various collections: Asian art, Dutch masters, modern art, armor and weapons, as well as the impressive building that houses the museum. But my favorite musueum experience is not mentioned in any guidebook.

Some of the most interesting items in the museum collection are reonstructed buildings and rooms from a variety of cultures and time periods: a mediaeval French cloister, a Chinese scholar's study from the Qing dynasty,... and a 14th-century Buddhist temple from Japan. If you go there, be sure to seek out this last.

Now: before you leave, close your eyes and inhale deeply. What you smell is the aroma of incense that has seeped into the wood over hundreds of years. It's the atmosphere that surrounds you as soon as you enter the great hall of any temple in Japan. It's a wonderfully evocative experience, and as far as I know this is the only place you can taste it on this side of the Pacific.

The Bacterial Pump

It is a fairly well-known story how Friedrich Kekule solved the structure of the benzene ring after having a dream of a snake biting its own tale. Also there is the case of Elias Howe, who succeeded in building a workable sewing machine only after dreaming of being menaced by natives wielding spears with holes in the tips. My dreams have yet to provoke any brilliant revelations, but have once or twice included some modestly useful ideas.

Last night I dreamed of a pump to be powered by bacteria. The idea was to confine a large number of swimming bacteria to a box with water-permeable membranes at each end. If all the bacteria could persuaded to swim in the same direction, then the water in the box would be pushed in the opposite direction. In my dream this was to be accomplished by engineering the bacteria to swim oriented to a magnetic field or to seek light.

In the cold light of day this at first seemed like a totally infeasible idea, but now I'm not so sure. I see that some forward-thinking people have measured the force produced by a single bull sperm and found it to be 0.000025 dynes. Elsewhere I find that the average density of sperm (for humans) is 65,000,000 per milliliter. I'm not sure what the density is for bulls but I don't think it can be that much different. If I combine these numbers I get a total force of 1625 dynes per milliliter. And 62 milliliters of bull sperm yield a force of over 1 newton--in other words, enough to accelerate a liter of water at over one meter per second squared.

The flagellum, the so-called "whiplike tail" of the sperm and some types of bacteria, is not really whiplike but more like a rotating corkscrew-shaped propeller. We don't usually think of living things as manifesting wheel-and-axle type structures, but bacteria (and sperm) do. Another waking thought I had was that the base of the flagellum should provide an excellent model of a rotating motor for nanotechnology enthusiasts. Naturally I am not the first to think of this.

Peak Fitness for the Midde-Aged Codger

Try the following thought experiment: ten peopler across the U.S.A., young and old, male and female, wake up one morning with the sudden resolution to get into shape. All start exercising with high enthusiasm; working out several times a week and giving their all each time. During the first week, one pulls a muscle in his shoulder is forced to quit exercising; the second week another develops Achilles tendonitis and again is force to quit; the third week, a third person strains his back; and so on. After ten weeks, we find nine of the ten have developed injuries which forced them to quit exercising, while the tenth, lucky one is in truly awesome physical shape.

Inspired by her transformation, the tenth person thinks, "if I can do it than anyone can" and writes a how-to book based on her experience. Perhaps this explains why, of the score of exercise books I've read over the years, none gives the issue of avoiding and coping with injury the attention it deserves. Perhaps motivation is the first obstacle for many, but once that is surmounted, injury looms as the next, particularly for the middle-aged athlete.

Your capacity for physical development declines with age. Just how much is an open question--certainly not as much as is generally assumed (see for just one example the case of Dr. Jeffry Life).

One the other hand, the middle-aged have one advantage over the young--if nothing else, we have learned that time passes. You remember the story of the Tortoise and the Hare from grade school, don't you? That story never made sense to me until at the age of about thirty-five I thought back on various projects I had started with fervor and energy, only to drop out after a week, a month, or in any case before completion.

The big difference between the Fitness for the Middle-Aged Codger exercise program and the others is a modest amount of patience. Give yourself a year. Pick any given measure of fitness--body fat content, distance run, weight lifted. If you can improve it by two percent a week, that adds up to one hundred per cent improvement in a year (actually more, because of compounding effects). Perhaps that one-hundered-per-cent improvement just isn't feasible. In that case, your goal is to reach the peak value for you personally.

Don't want to wait a year? Then go for one of the many twelve week, six week, or other short-term programs out there. Just remember: the fast track to the top is littered with the wreckage of those who ran off the road. The stairs are much safer.

My next post on this subject will detail a technique I call summit running. The goal of this technique is to help you reach your personal peak performance in running speed and aerobic fitness, while minimizing the chance of injury.

The Real Problem with Global Warming

No, not the fact that the Earth will soon be reduced to a baked wasteland and we're all going to die--some scientists say we are approaching a "tipping point" within the next ten years, beyond which self-reinforcing effects of global warming become irreversible. See the news story here or the original article here.

No, I mean the problem that it's so hard to take this seriously. Both in the collective sense--our government has so far managed to avoid taking any action proportionate to the level of the threat--and in the individual sense. Come on, now, do you really believe that the end of the world is less than ten years away?

And that's because the global-warming story conflicts with a basic principle of intuitive logic. You can compare the situation to leaning against a stream radiator which gradually heats up to a dangerous level. If you keep touching the radiator, eventually it will seriously burn you. But well before that happens, you will first feel mild discomfort, and then severe discomfort, and then intolerable pain. In fact it would require considerable force of will to seriously injure yourself in this way (as opposed to accidentally leaning against an already-hot radiator, which is easy to do).

But, although everyone talks now about how bizarre the weather is, for most of us it really isn't that bad. Here in Maryland in late July, high temperatures in the low 80's (Fahrenheit) are forecasted for the next several days--hardly oppressive heat. The weather is like a mildly-warm radiator--it's hard to believe that a serious burn is imminent. Unless you're one of the unlucky few who have been flooded out of their homes, your gut feeling is: yeah, it may be a little warm but I can handle it.

Of course, intuitive logic is sometimes dead wrong.

Too bad we can't have just one summer with average temperatures of, say, 110 degrees F across the U.S. Then everyone would believe.

Practical Joke #1

The set-up for this one is rather elaborate--in fact, you need to wait until you're on your deathbed, with your loved ones surrounding you. Let them go on with the usual stuff for such an occasion: we love you, are you in any pain, we'll always remember you blah, blah, blah... then, when you feel yourself slipping away, lunge at the nearest loved one and grab him or her by the shirt. Cry out, "Avenge me! Avenge me!" Then fall back dead.