Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Random Discoveries

It is all too easy to fall into a channel with the morning's readings, and perusal of news and other items on the Web. It has always been thus, of course. Reading a book like The Pox and the Covenant, I was reminded by the bitterness and vociferousness of the debates in Boston as an epidemic of smallpox spread there in 1721 -- debates which began after Cotton Mather, based on his wide reading in scientific and medical literature, had recommended inoculation as a means of preventing the spread of the disease. Most of the learned doctors and physicians were vehemently against the practice, as they believed it contributed to the contagion by spreading it to otherwise healthy people. But his urgings persuaded one brave doctor to begin experimenting with the method -- starting with his own son.

Cotton Mather got his news from many sources, including the Journal of the Royal Philosophical Society, of which he was one of a very few members then living in America. Those opposed to vaccination got their news from many sources as well, including conversations with wide-traveled sea captains and sailors with their tales of the devastation wrought among native Americans wherever smallpox spread on the continent. But in time, the evidence of those who survived inoculation, versus those who perished without it, overcame the opponents, and the physicians quickly added the technique to their repertoire of eighteenth-century remedies.

We still face many calamities today, and on either side are to be found those who are firmly convinced either that they know the solution, or that they at least know what is not the solution. For all the progress since the eighteenth century, however, our methods of debate are still as crude and unenlightening -- full of invective and ad hominem attacks, instead of substantive analysis and objective evaluation of evidence.

Thus in perusing one's usual stops on the Web, every now and then one should deliberately try to break out of the well-trodden path, and head down some new byways. Google's Reader, which I use, has one function that is helpful, called "Recommendations", which will point you to articles and posts on the Web of a kind which are wholly different from your usual fare. Even then, one has to resist the too familiar, or too popular: one of the criteria for a site's being "recommended" is apparently the fact that 100 or more people have already told Google's engines that they "like" it.

Nevertheless, the feature turns up some real gems from time to time, and I thought this morning that I would share some discoveries with you.

You could do worse than start with this fantastic series of photographs of caves in glaciers around the world, and read the commentary of the brave photographer who dared to venture inside them. Here is a sample:

Next, the folks at National Geographic appear to have sponsored a team who replicated the feat in the animated film Up!, and launched a house into the air with helium-filled balloons:

Some of us, especially the ones who love mathematics and literature, will appreciate the droll reviews of a book called One Million Random Numbers on Amazon's site, as discussed here on Freakonomics. Once more, here is a sample:

1.0 out of 5 stars Not Nearly A Million, September 3, 2006 By Liron

This book does not even come close to delivering on its promise of one million random digits. My expectations were high after reading the first sentence, which contained ten unique digits. However, the author seems to have exhasted his creativity in this initial burst, because the other 99.999% of the book is filler in which those same ten digits are shamelessly reused! If you are looking for a larger offering of numerals in various bases, I highly recommend "Peter Rabbit’s ABC and 123".

3.0 out of 5 stars Wait for the audiobook version, October 19, 2006 By R. Rosini "Newtype"

While the printed version is good, I would have expected the publisher to have an audiobook version as well. A perfect companion for one’s Ipod.

5.0 out of 5 stars Wait for it…, February 10, 2009 By Cranky Yankee

It started off slow, single digit slow in the beginning but I stuck with it. I eventually learned all about the different numbers, 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9 and 0 and their different combinations. The author introduced them all a bit too quickly for my taste. I would have been perfectly happy with just 1,2,3,4 and 5 for the first 20,000 digits, but then again, I’m not a famous random-number author, am I? After a while, patterns emerged and the true nature of the multiverse was revealed to me, and the jokes were kinda funny. I don’t want to spoil anything but you will LOVE the twist ending! Like 4352204 said to 64231234, "2242 6575 0013 2829!"

And finally, here is a fascinating link to a site dedicated to the quiet, important things in life, such as looking into the flickering flames of the hearth on a winter's evening, or contemplative conversation with close friends. What unifies it all is the simple, but beautifully constructed little house (12 feet by 12 feet) in the mountains where it all takes place:

Take a minute to explore these sites, and follow links from there to some more random places. Your day will be the better for it, I promise.


  1. Absolutely wonderful post !!!

    It is so important to get some distance from the job at hand from time to time.

    Thank you for providing an extraordinary respite.

  2. I want you to know that you are a real gift TO God. Thank you for everything that you do.