News Briefs 15-09-2014

I wonder if Justice Sotomayor's view of the current situation would change if she could read her own NSA file?

A big thanks to Greg, Grailseeker, and RedPillJunkie for their help.

Quote of the Day:

To your first earth, ascend, to the place from which you were transplanted, to the fine abode of the uthras. Bestir yourself, put on your garment of radiance and put on your resplendent wreath. Sit on your throne of radiance, which the Life set up for you in the Place of Light. Rise up, inhabit the skinas, among the uthras, your brothers.

A bit of Gnostic cosmology that seems to imply that the Uthras are scouts or representatives from the Mandaeans' true, heavenly home.

The Power of Optics: A Rube Goldberg Machine Powered by Light and Magnifying Glasses

A fun little Rube Goldberg set-up that primarily uses light and magnifying glasses to set off a number of the chain reactions, by melting ice, popping balloons and so on. An advertisement for Japanese high-speed optical internet service au Hikari, it's beautifully done.

(via Colossal)

Paranthropology 5:3


The latest issue (Vol 5, Number 3) of the free PDF journal Paranthropology ("anthropological approaches to the paranormal") is now available to download (or you can read it online via Scribd). Here's the complete rundown of features in the latest issue:

  • "The Spectrum of Specters:
 Making Sense of Ghostly Encounters", by Michael Hirsch & Jammie Price
  • "

The Witch from “His-Story” to “Her-Stories”: Changing Contexts", by Matt Coward
  • "
The Complexities of Evaluating Evidence for 'Psychic' Effects:
    Spontaneous Case Research in Parapsychology and Some Considerations for Progression", by S. Alexander Hardison
  • "Ritual as Therapy:
 Steps Towards an Ethnography of the Invisible", by Peter Mark Adams
  • Abstract of "Research Among Spirits, Ghosts and Deities: How to Study Non-Ordinary Realities", a panel at BASR Annual Conference, The Open University, 
September 2014
  • "Progressivism, Materialism, Anthropology, Politics, and the Paranormal: Reflections on a Talk on William James' 'Excision'", a commentary by T. Peter Park
  • William Rowlandson's review of Talking With the Spirits: Ethnographies from Between the Worlds, edited by Jack Hunter & David Luke

(Full disclosure: I am the publisher of Talking With the Spirits)

In case you haven't read this great resource before, all of the previous issues remain available to download from the site as well. I know from experience the work that goes into doing something like this, so if you get something out of the journal make it your mission to throw some money their way with a PayPal donation. Even small amounts help!

News Briefs 12-09-2014

"An expert is someone who knows some of the worst mistakes that can be made in his subject... and how to avoid them."

Quote of the Day:

“The more precise the measurement of position, the more imprecise the measurement of momentum, and vice versa.”

W. Heisenberg

The Mysterious Celestial Spheres of the Ancient Mughal Empire

The famous celestial globe of Muhammad Salih Tahtawi

Before the advent of Google Earth, when one wanted to see what the planet looked like, or to find a certain faraway place without actually travelling to it, one would consult a map - and you’ll recall that they didn’t always fit in your phone. We’ve made maps for millennia. It’s an art form unto itself, and as anyone with a love for antique maps can tell you, the variation in form and artistic style is both immense and awe inspiring.

Of course, there are different kinds of maps. From a technical perspective, there are topological and topographical maps, navigational maps, population maps, faction maps, marine maps, even wind maps. Most are concerned with demonstrating relative locations on Earth, but people have been making maps of the stars for almost as long as they’ve been giving each other badly drawn directions to the corner store. Celestial maps, as they’re called, offer a standardised view of constellations and individual stars, along with their relative position compared to specific points on Earth.

One of the problems with celestial maps, and actually with all maps, is the two-dimensional representation of a three-dimensional object or space. In order to accurately plot locations and show a realistic measure of their position relative to all others, the cartographer must distort the actual shape of either the Earth or the heavens. This, obviously, can cause some problems when one wants to clearly understand the actual relationship between two locations. The answer? Globes!

Globes too, are split into two categories, terrestrial and celestial. The earliest known terrestrial globes date to ancient Greece (6th to 3rd century BCE), though no examples have survived the ravages of time. Celestial globes may have gotten a start much later, possibly as late as 2nd century CE, as a part of the Farnese Atlas, which is a Roman replica of the classical Hellenistic sculpture of Atlas, but depicting him holding up the heavens, rather than the world. Though, since no examples or records of celestial spheres have been found (yet) prior to this point, it’s not known when or who exactly started the trend. Antique celestial globes are most often made out of metal, usually bronze, and are usually hollow, but are also found in marble and other sculpting mediums.

In the realm of celestial globes, also known as celestial spheres, there are some spectacular surviving examples, and among those gems are hidden one of history’s most vexing puzzles.

In the 1980s, a Smithsonian historian of science, Emilie Savage-Smith, embarked on a journey throughout the middle-east, with the purpose of finding and studying celestial spheres from antiquity. She found a bounty of them, some of the most incredible works of cartographic art and engineering ever made by human hands.

Among those she found there were two distinct types; seamed and seamless spheres. Seamed spheres are, or were, made by moulding two halves of the sphere separately and then soldering them together, ultimately buffing the soldered seam to make a smooth sphere. Then artisans and astronomers would engrave the surface according to whatever specific element of the skies they wanted to depict.

Seamless spheres, however, were another thing entirely; something Emilie Savage-Smith discovered quite unexpectedly.

Up until Savage-Smith made her discovery, it was thought by virtually the entirety of the academic community and by metallurgists the world over, that all examples of hollow metal celestial spheres in existence were of the seamed type. This was owing to the long held belief that creating seamless hollow metal spheres is impossible. It turns out, that isn’t true.

One of the earliest examples of a seamless celestial sphere found by Savage-Smith, was found to be from a workshop in Lahore, Pakistan, though she soon found that the technique, described as ‘secret wax casting’ was widely known by metal craftsmen in Northern India from at least as early as the late 16th century and coming from the Mughal Empire. In fact, some of the workshops identified continued to use the technique up until the 19th century. Though it has apparently now been lost to modern manufacturing techniques.

According to some, the best surviving example of a hollow, seamless celestial sphere is one made by a Mughal metallurgical master and astronomer named Muhammad Salih Tahtawi in 1631. The sphere, known as the celestial globe of Muhammad Salih Tahtawi, is a massive bronze globe adorned with ornate engraving in both Arabic and Persian, as well as numerous pictographic representations of celestial bodies. Its manufacture would have been an immense undertaking, though Salih Tahtawi surely succeeded in creating a masterpiece unparalleled before or since.

A detailed portrait of the Mughal Emperor Jahangir holding a globe

The existence of the spheres, which are commonly known as Islamicate Celestial Globes, isn’t without controversy though. Aside from the obvious resistance among modern metallurgists to the idea that these objects were created as Savage-Smith asserts, there exists a good deal of misinformation about these spheres, stemming from what appears to be a reluctance to attribute such mastery to the Muslim ruled Mughal Empire. Several people have asserted that the existence of both Arabic and Persian language on many of the surviving examples is explained simply by the suggestion that those features were added long after the spheres were made. Presumably implying that the spheres themselves were made by a much older culture, perhaps even in a different area of the world.

Bronze casting techniques similar to that which may have been used to create these spheres, such as lost-wax casting, originated approximately 5700 years ago in Israel, but there is no evidence thus far to substantiate such a claim.

Circumstantially, it is a well-established fact that Arab and Muslim cultures were responsible for a great many technological and scientific advances throughout the middle-ages and long before. There seems to be no valid reason to deny that this particular innovation also came from their masters.

Unfortunately, the subject of seamless celestial spheres is little known in mainstream culture, and as such, in the few places it is discussed, the facts are often distorted or even completely made up. There are those who would like to claim that these magnificent examples of our history are actually OOP-ART (out-of-place-artefacts), suggesting that their origin is related to either a lost pre-historic human culture or aliens. Though as with most such arguments, there isn’t enough information at present to really dive into the discussion.

In any event, once again we are awed by the sophisticated and masterful creations of our forefathers, and once again, our steady march toward modernity has cost us the wisdom of the ages.

News Briefs 11-09-2014

Sorry Apple, but I stopped using watches 25 years ago --& I'm staying that way.

Thanks to Chris Savia & Gustavo Cerati --Hasta siempre, genio!

Quote of the Day:

"Wisdom begins in wonder."


Romancing the Stone (with the Sword)

A French animation short, giving a nice ooh lala! twist to the Arthurian legend of Excalibur.

One wonders about the kind of incentive that would be offered for the Grail...

Fol'Amor, directed by Augustin Clermont, Gilles Cortella, Marthe Delaporte, Clement De Ruyter, Maïlys Garcia, Gaspard Sumeire, and Pierre Rütz. Short film released online by Gobelins L'Ècole de L'Image.

[H/T io9]

Expanding Our Reality By 'Jacking' New Data Into Our Brain Through Technological Augmentation

As I've discussed previously, we tend to fall into the trap of assuming that 'reality' consists of what we sense around us via our sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch. But the truth is that we only see electromagnetic waves and hear audio waves from a tiny section of their entire spectrums. In the video above, neuroscientist Dr. David Eagleman discusses this topic, noting that this tiny slice of reality that we mistake for the totality of our environment is labeled our 'umwelt'. Our umwelt is determined by the physical apparatus we have at our disposal to take in sensory data - which to this point has largely been our biological sense organs.

But Eagleman also points out that the brain is hugely adaptable in terms of interpreting signals and forming the perception of the outside world from it:

The thing to understand is that your eyes and ears aren't doing the seeing in the first place. Your brain's doing the seeing, and the thing to appreciate is that it is locked in silence and darkness in the vault of your skull. So all the brain ever 'sees', are electrical signals coursing around in giant populations of neurons...that's all the brain ever experiences. It's not seeing the light or the dark out there, or the colours. It's not hearing the conversations. This is all that the brain is experiencing and nothing more.

But the brain is so tremendously flexible that what it's really good at doing is saying "okay well, I've got these data cables coming in...I don't know what information is carried on them." I mean we call those data cables the optic nerve and the auditory nerve, but it doesn't know what it is. All it sees is this kind of stuff, but it's really good at extracting patterns, and figuring out what to do with them, and eventually - amazingly - how to have a direct perceptual experience that it constructs about the outside world.

...It turns out that the brain doesn't care what the peripheral devices are that you plug in. These organs that we know and love like eyes and ears and fingertips - these are plug and play peripheral devices, and you can put anything you want into the system and the brain will figure out how to use it.

These two factors: the limited environment (umwelt) that we perceive through our biological sense organs, and the brain's adaptability to interpreting data fed into it, leads us to an exciting area of the future - augmentation. With the continual growth in technological power - and the continual shrinking in size of that technology - we have now entered an age where we can augment our natural sense organs with new data streams, feeding these new additions to our umwelt into our brains via our current sensory channels.

Eagleman currently has a Kickstarter project running which looks at augmentation as a means to cover the gap left by the failure of a sensory channel - in this case, the hearing impaired, via a sensory substitution vest which converts audio data into tactile data. This allows the brain to gain access to an 'information channel' which normally can't reach it. And as Eagleman explains, the brain quickly learns to recognise patterns from this 'new' data source and make sense of it.

This is just the beginning however - as Eagleman explains, we could feed any data source we wanted into the vest, as long as we have access to it in some way. From invisible radiation sources to stock prices and Twitter trends, we could 'jack' these information channels directly into our brains via augmented devices - in this case a vest, but the possibilities go much further than that - in order to expand our umwelt beyond our current limitations.

Link: Kickstarter: Vest. A Sensory Substitution Neuroscience Project

Go Home Reality, You're Drunk

Horizontal Line Optical Illusion

The horizontal lines in this image are all straight, and parallel.

Go home reality, you're drunk.

(via @Sci_Phile)