Looking back: 1987

In 1987, my PhD work at the University of Tasmania was beginning to take shape, and I produced a technical report with some preliminary results. I also started a side-project on functional programming language implementation which was to result in the design of a novel computer (a computer, sadly, that was never actually built, although many people joined in on the hardware aspects).

Also in that year, Supernova 1987A became visible within the Large Magellanic Cloud (picture above taken by the Kuiper Airborne Observatory). The programming language Perl also appeared on the scene, and Per Bak, Chao Tang, and Kurt Wiesenfeld coined the term “self-organized criticality.” Prompted by a discovery in 1986, physicists held a conference session on high-temperature superconductivity, billed as the “Woodstock of physics.” The immediate benefits were somewhat over-hyped, however.

The usual list of new species described in 1987 includes Fleay’s barred frog from northern New South Wales and south-eastern Queensland (picture below taken by “Froggydarb”).

In the world of books, James Gleick popularised chaos theory with his Chaos: Making a New Science, Allan Bloom wrote The Closing of the American Mind (which Camille Paglia called “the first shot in the culture wars”), and Donald Trump co-wrote Trump: The Art of the Deal (nobody imagined that he would be President one day).

Horror writer Stephen King had a good year, with The Tommyknockers and several other novels being published. The term “steampunk” was coined in 1987, and Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead, the sequel to Ender’s Game, won the Hugo Award for best science fiction or fantasy novel (it also won the Nebula Award in 1986, the year it was published).

In music, The Alan Parsons Project released their album Gaudi (which included the single below), U2 released The Joshua Tree, and Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris, and Dolly Parton released Trio. The Billboard top song for 1987 was the rather silly 1986 single “Walk Like an Egyptian.”

Films of 1987 included 84 Charing Cross Road (based on the wonderful 1970 book by Helene Hanff), Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor, Japanese hit A Taxing Woman (マルサの女), sci-fi action film Predator, Australian film The Year My Voice Broke and, of course, the cult classic The Princess Bride (based on the 1973 novel by William Goldman).

In this series: 1978, 1980, 1982, 1984, 1987, 1989, 1991, 1994, 2000, 2004, 2006, 2009.


Sasol Solar Challenge 2020

I have been covering the lead up to the American Solar Challenge in July next year, but I do not want to ignore the South African race. Details here.


The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out

Underneath (or, perhaps, to the side of) adult culture sits an often poorly documented culture for children alone. There are, of course, many songs and stories directed by adults to children, but true child culture consists of games, riddles, songs, stories, and rules directed from children to other children.

A rather dark example, largely specific to North America, is the Hearse Song below (the video gives a more complete version, but I must warn my readers – it’s really very gross, and not at all suitable for adults):

Don’t ever laugh as a hearse goes by
For you may be the next to die
They wrap you up in a big white sheet
From your head down to your feet
They put you in a big black box
And cover you up with dirt and rocks …
And the worms crawl in, the worms crawl out
The worms play pinochle on your snout …

The song is essentially a form of gallows humour picked up by children at around age 10 – about the age that children first come to grips with the inevitably of death (although it is rather surprising, given that the US is a majority-Christian society, that Christian views of death barely appear in the song at all). The excellent article on the song by Charles Doyle also reports military versions of the song from World War I recorded by Carl Sandburg and John J. Niles, but those appear to draw on earlier childhood versions.

I’ve been experimenting with a textual analysis focussing on song snippets containing lines devoted to interment (2 to 6 lines, depending on the version). I compared versions with a variation of the Levenshtein distance at the word level, using a table of related words, and allowing for permuted lines. The multi-dimensional scaling diagram below collapses the calculated distances into two dimensions. The phrase “Doyle var” refers to variants listed by Doyle (e.g. “They put you in a big white shirt / And cover you up with rocks and dirt”), whereas “Alternate” refers to versions I have collected myself on the Internet (e.g. “They wrap you up in a bloody black sheet / And throw you down a thousand feet”). A large amount of mishearing and misremembering seems to be going on.

The numbers in brackets on the chart indicate the number of lines in each snippet. The 2-line child versions form a visible cluster in the diagram, with 4-line versions by modern bands (Harp Twins and Rusty Cage) a little more distant, and the World War I versions on the periphery all quite different:

Distances can also be visualised as an UPGMA tree. However, this cannot really be interpreted as an evolutionary tree, in that the 4-line band versions seem to be combining lines from multiple 2-line versions. Indeed, there seems to be a large pool of rhyming pairs within the culture that is assembled and reassembled in various ways, rather than any canonical song. Perhaps this reflects the character of the verbally innovative child culture in which the song (or, rather, song family) dwells.


American Solar Challenge 2020 Route

For fans of the American Solar Challenge in July next year, the organisers have announced the route (see map above, click to zoom). See also my updated teams list.

Route specifics:

The night-time image (see map below, click to zoom) shows how the race mostly avoids urban areas:


The fascination of large stones

There is a perennial interest in the megaliths (large stones) used in ancient construction. Sometimes the interest is driven by conspiracy theories. But what are the facts?


Stonehenge (click to zoom, photo by Adrian Pingstone – link)

Around 2580 BC, construction of the Great Pyramid of Giza began, using stones of up to 50 metric tonnes in weight. At about the same time, stones of similar weight were being erected at Stonehenge. Somewhat later, in 1350 BC, the Colossi of Memnon (650-tonne statues) were erected in Egypt


The Western Stone, Jerusalem (photo by David Shankbone – link)

The Western Stone is a large stone block at the base of the Western Wall in Jerusalem. It formed part of the Jewish Temple built by Herod the Great. Herodian architecture was characterised by large closely-fitting chiselled stone blocks, and the Western Stone is one of the largest, weighing about 500 metric tonnes.


Stone of the Pregnant Woman, Baalbek

At about the same time, construction of the Temple of Jupiter began in what is now Baalbek, Lebanon. Stones of up to 800 metric tonnes were used in the foundations. The quarry was 900 metres away, and still contains the 1,000-tonne Stone of the Pregnant Woman, which was not completely separated from the surrounding rock, and was never used. This stone was quarried at an angle, in order to allow it to be easily dropped onto rollers or a sledge.

Later centuries saw the Moai statues of Easter Island and the walls of Cuzco, although these involved weights far less than those of Roman construction.


The Russian Thunder Stone, during transport and in final form (photo on right by Andrew Shiva – link)

The Thunder Stone was a large granite boulder (of about 1,500 metric tonnes) discovered in Russia and transported to Saint Petersburg to be used (after some shaping) as the base of a statue of Peter the Great. Transport took about nine months, being completed in 1770. On land, a sledge was used, pulled by 400 men and rolling over bronze spheres. A special barge was used at sea. This boulder represents the pinnacle of megalith construction. For comparison, its weight was a little over the maximum capacity of a modern mobile crane, such as the Liebherr LTM 11200-9.1.


Construction of the Mussolini Obelisk, Rome

One of the most recent examples is the Mussolini Obelisk in Rome, constructed in 1929 during the fascist regime of Benito Mussolini. Carved from Carrara marble, it weighed around 300 metric tonnes, and was transported on land using a sledge running over planks lubricated with soap. The sledge was pulled by 36 pairs of oxen in Tuscany, and by a tractor in Rome. As with the Thunder Stone, a barge was used at sea. This was perhaps the last example of megalith construction using primarily ancient techniques. Since then, there have been more impressive examples of construction, but using smaller components, newer techniques, and more modern materials. The days of using large stones are over!

The chart below summarises the megaliths we have listed here.