Thursday, October 26, 2006

The Guatemalan Fabulist

The Guatemalan Fabulist

The writer Augusto Monterroso, who died in 2003, is known for being the author of the micro-story known as "The Dinosaur" which I reproduce here in its entirety, both in the original Spanish and followed by my English translation:

Cuando despertó, el dinosaurio todavía estaba allí.

When he awoke, the dinosaur was still there.

Monterroso devoted himself to the study of the short form. Several of his other short fables can be found on this page, taken from larger published collections such as The Black Sheep and other Fables. I will also offer my clumsy translation of "The Burro and the Flute":

Out in the middle of the country there had been, for a long time, a Flute, which nobody played, until one day when a Burro which was passing by, gave it a forceful blow and produced the sweetest sound of its life - that is to say, the life of the Burro and of the Flute.

Incapable of understanding what had happened, since rationality was not their strong point and both believed in rationality, they went their own ways, embarrassed of the best thing that either one had done during their unhappy life.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

A Lip-Reading Puzzle

I've been going through Sam Loyd's Cyclopedia of Puzzles and marveling at their diversity and their ingenuity.

Ed Pegg Jr also provides an overview of this early Bible of Puzzles, some so famous that you already know them. Others, like this lip-reading puzzle, are simply innovative and fun:

"Here is a class of a dozen boys, who, being called up to give their names were photographed by the instantaneous process just as each one was commencing to pronounce his own name. The twelve names were Oom, Alden, Eastman, Alfred, Arthur, Luke, Fletcher, Matthew, Theodore, Richard, Shirmer, and Hisswald. Now it would not seem possible to be able to give the correct name to each of the twelve boys, but if you practice the list over to each one, you will find it not a difficult task to locate the proper name for every one of the boys."

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Bikes, Fat Cats and Strange Men

Friday, October 13, 2006

Bailar la Cumbia

Bailar la Cumbia!

This past weekend was the wedding of my cousin Sonia. I dont know her very well but I grew up with her older sisters. Also, her father, my uncle Antonio - kind, witty, gregarious - is one of my favorite relatives. He knew that I was a rare sight at family weddings and, for this one, had good-naturedly demanded my presence. When I kissed and greeted Sonia at the wedding she whispered to me: "It means so much to me that you came." These statements mean much in a family with about 20 aunts and uncles and over 40 cousins.

In enormous families, such as mine, the act of planning a wedding, already a convoluted affair, must bear additional complications. The first is how to manage the guest list. An "intimate wedding", such as Sonia's was, including only close family and friends of the bride and groom and their families still could not be reduced below 300-400 people. As might be imagined, a received wedding invitation within the family creates a reciprocal contract and this obligation only serves to fatten up the wedding lists, lest someone accidentally be slighted.

The second obstacle is planning a date that doesn't collide with other family obligations. This includes baby showers, baptisms, funerals and of course, other weddings. It's an impossible art. The day of Sonia's wedding several family members had traveled South, just past the Mexican border to attend the wedding of another distant cousin.

For Sonia's reception, my uncle had booked the band La Sonora Dinamita. They are a well-known Colombian band, famous for their Cumbias. Although Cumbias originated in Colombia, they are popular all over Latin America. The music has a driving, irresistible beat. As soon as La Sonora Dinamita started playing, half the guests, young and old, crowded the dance floor. I danced for a couple hours straight among my aunts and uncles, my cousins and their children, among familiar strangers.

I've included an mp3 file of Sonora Dinamita performing a medley of some of their more popular Cumbias:

La Sonora Dinamita: Cumbia Mix (mp3)

The reception was well-attended - more so than the wedding itself. Exactly 350 of us packed the dance hall. I know this is the number because thats what the owners of the venue pointed out to us as the maximum we could have before violating the fire code. Wedding Guests #351 and onwards had to wait outside.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Shakespeare in the Stars

Shakespeare in the Stars

1. When I was an undergraduate in astrophysics i used to spend hours in the CfA library poring over their star atlases. Millions of stars and galaxies, entire worlds, each identified only by a series of arbitrary letters and digits. You could gaze at a little clump of galaxies and realize that you may have been the first person to ever give them much attention. The largest atlas occupied about ten volumes each volume covering some portion of the sky.

Unfortunately these atlases - a collection of thousands of individual photographic plates - are only accessible to research institutions. The best a layman can do is possibly the Millennium Star Atlas which contains approximately one million stars and thousands of galaxies. But even the Millennium has been out of range for most budgets - the cost of the hardback collection approaching $1,000. This February a softcover edition was finally released for considerably less. And, I've just ordered it!

In the extract from the catalog above, the only star that might be faintly visible to the naked eye would be the one on the lower left. The lines emerging from a few stars are indicators of its motion, ending at where the star will be when it is viewed in 1,000 years. A reminder that the night sky is dynamic.

2. In the first Act of Hamlet, Bernardo says:

Last night of all,
When yond same star that's westward from the pole
Had made his course to illume that part of heaven
Where now it burns, Marcellus and myself,
The bell then beating one,--

But what star is he talking about? This question was pursued by Owen Gingerich (who was at the CfA at the same time as I was) and others. The conclusion is that Bernardo is referring to Supernova 1572A, so named because 1572 is the year in which it was observed.

The Supernova SN1572A is better known as Tycho's Supernova. The astronomer Tycho Brahe provided detailed observations of this new bright light in the nightsky. Since Hamlet was written around 1600, Shakespeare would have been familiar with this recent star as well and, accordingly, would have been a small boy when it first appeared.

There is another curious relation between Brahe and Shakespeare. In one portrait of Brahe, he is surrounded by the Coat-of-Arms of his ancestors. One of them is Rosencrans and another is Gyldenstern. It remains unclear as to whether this was a coincidence or something more.

A certain Eric Altschuler has used much of the above information to argue, in a physics paper titled Searching for Shakespeare in the Stars that Shakespeare must have lived earlier than thought since he references this astronomical event of 1572 but not equally important ones in 1609 and 1610. So this leans the evidence toward Shakespeare being Edward de Vere, he argues, who lived from 1550-1604.

Perhaps. Eric is familiar to me too. Not only was he a student at the same time I was...he was my study partner. Sometimes I'd see him in the CfA library too, like myself, paging through star atlases.