Some sort of tribute


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Benoit Mandelbrot died on 14th October.

(Non-breaking news from me. i.e. Probably 4 days after everyone else knows it. A good tribute on the BBC by the way but the images are poor.)

He was the main man for making maths beautiful, even to mathematically challenged people like me.. Fractal mathematics is the mathematics of life. In fact, for atheists, fractal maths is pretty much a direct route to what simpler people call looking at the face of “god” .

Here’s a beginner’s guide to what fractals are with links to some image galleries.

In the mid-nineties there were any number of graphics packages that let you play around with creating fractals, from a standing start, on a 486…. Especially the venerable and respected fractint.

I found a version that’s still online. version 20. It’s been updated to work on Windows 3.0…. Hmmm, even my PC isn’t quite that elderly.
(Wahay. I found a 2008 ftp site. Must try it out again.)

Here are a few fractal image links from tinterwebs.

* The classic Mandelbrot set.

I like the source that I got this image from. It points out that someone might see a visual representation of a Mandelbrot set as evidence for “Intelligent Design” and answers

But in fact, the Mandelbrot set is the product of a relatively simple mathematical equation.

That’s the non-divinely miraculous nature of fractal images. A few simple changes in start conditions and/or a slightly different equation and another infinite set of magical things appears.

* A fractal vegetable.

from wikipedia- image of a romanesco broccoli

Romanesco broccoli


Ok that’s cheating. Pretty much any living thing is “fractal.” The difference is that romanesco broccoli LOOKS like a generated fractal.

* The coastline of Norway
Space view of the coast of Norway

The coast of Norway looks like a generated fractal too. But, then, any coast is fractal. Zoom in and it breaks up into infinitely recursive self-similar patterns.

In fact, everything is pretty much fractal. Incredibly simple and endlessly complex. And we can see this mainly thanks to teh work of Mandelbrot.

Raising an eyebrow

Time for a new topic. Why do so many women pluck or wax their eyebrows?

I find this really hard to understand. By definition, pulling hairs out by their roots has GOT to hurt. A lot.

So why is this a well-nigh universal female practice?

(Except for people like me, blessed with such a depth of vanity that we assume we are naturally close enough to perfect. And would, at least, need some damn good proof to the contrary before we underwent some painful beautifying process. )

Everybody wants to look acceptable, at least to the degree that strangers don’t stare and point at you in the street.

I’m not an eyebrow purist. If you have an embarrassing novelty eyebrow, I can’t see any problem with correcting it. It would seem perfectly reasonable to me to shave off the middle of a total unibrow. If your eyebrows were growing into eye moustaches and reaching your cheekbones, fair enough. Cut the buggers.

I’ve been carrying out an unscientific survey of men’s eyebrows. (This involves looking at brow ridges quite a bit more than would be considered polite if they were other body parts.) Even in this groomed-within-an-inch-of-its-life world, men’s eyebrows are still allowed to grow as they choose. And I haven’t seen more than – oh, I don’t know – one in a hundred men of any age who have eyebrows far enough on the outlying edges of a conceptual normal eyebrow-size-and-distribution curve to warrant a second look. Let alone a shriek or an instant gagging response.

So, do a disproportionate percentage of women suffer from gross eyebrow deformities? Perhaps there’s a bizarre tendency for women to grow comedy eyebrows, that can only be kept in check by pulling hair out at the roots.

All the same, I shudder to imagine a natural eyebrow growth of such a luxuriant excessiveness that it would be weirder than the eyebrows that I see on women every day. (Some of which actually do make me want to point and giggle. At the least, my eyes are inexorably drawn to the novelty eye furniture, to the point of being unable to take in anything the wearer says.)

My favourites include the one where the browridge has been depilated to the bone and the eyebrow replaced with an approximation of a eyebrow. Drawn on. Using a jet black pencil. Even when the wearer’s head hair has been bleached to a brilliant yellow. What do I mean “even when…” . The correct phrase is “especially when…”

This artwork is based on the “incredibly surprised” model from “Drawing cartoon faces 101”.

More sedate eyebrow models include simply plucking the hairs until the eyebrow is about 2 mm thick and starts to sprout just above the pupil. This also tends to make the wearer look constantly surprised, if slightly more mammalian.

(When I was at school, there was a brief fashion for girls to shave their eyebrows completely and then draw an unskilled approximation of a curve onto their newly-blank forehead canvases. This was initially quite impressive to a 14-year-old me, until the impressionist sketches were seen to be nesting in a visible lawn of brow prickles a week later.)

It’s hard to see what possible advantage this brings anyone, in terms of attractiveness. Do men really think “Well, I quite fancy her but she doesn’t look surprised enough?”

Wild things

What is the best survival strategy for wild animals? The evidence suggests that it’s being hated by humans. There is nothing like a programme to bring any species’ numbers down to boost the population. This seems to bode ill for pandas and polar bears, but it’s working out fine for for magpies, rats, mice, pigeons, flies and fleas.

On the Guardian website, Graham Holliday says that there’s a war on wild boar in France.

In the UK guidance by Defra on how to cull the growing wild boar population was published in February. The British government has decided against a state-led cull saying that the damage currently caused by wild boar is too minimal to be of concern, but some people in France are seriously worried.

There are 1,000 feral boar in the UK, apparently. DEFRA have given advice on how to kill them, which doesn’t seem too hands-off to me, but, then, I haven’t read the guidance.

The French are apparently taking the threat of wild boar rampaging through their celtic villages, snuffling their magic potion and overturning their roundhouses seriously. Oh sorry, that was in Asterisk.

And if you read the Observer article about the French, it seems their imaginary wild boar rampages caused

…. an estimated 20,000 car accidents a year involving the animals and hundreds of millions of pounds of damage to crops and property

To reference another meat animal – Bull. Those figures are so blatantly spurious, they are hardly worth challenging.

The surprising thing is how many people see wild creatures as threats to people, rather than welcoming them as signs that we still haven’t managed to destroy the ecosystems that support us..

One commenter (Trxr) says

where you get the munters (including certain celebs who should concentrate on paying their divorce settlements to their temporary trophy-wives) screaming about a roo cull here in Australia. There’s a lot more than a thousand of the things roaming about here.

Another commenter (the aptly monikered “Ishouldapologise”) on the Guardian article says, in what I assume to be a sarcastic way:

Bring back the Weald, I say. Bring back the bears and the wolves and the wildcats. Bring back the eagles and the adders and packs of wild dogs. Bring back a little magic into this overfarmed country. Who cares if the occasional tourist or country inhabitant gets killed or eaten. That’s what the same people want for Africa and the Amazon, don’t they.

Well, yes, actually, that sounds like a pretty good idea to me.

It is really lucky – in terms of survival of some species, if not biodiversity – that all the creatures we hate and fear seem to thrive on our opposition if they don’t get made extinct. Any creatures that we like seem to be going extinct in direct proportion to how much we value them. Except for pets, but I doubt that the pet species could survive for long without Pedigree Chum and Whiskas.

One BBC writer on hating magpies on the grounds of an almost universal UK superstition:

The sight of another lone magpie still stops me short. Far from wanting the numbers to halve, I instantly want them to double.

Maybe the point is relevant in a wider context. Our desire to wipe out certain wild species might just serve to double their numbers, following some obscure law of nature….

Yet another badger rant

The science shows that culling badgers would spread, not limit the spread of cattle TB, according to Roy Hattersley, writing in the Guardian today

.. the assumption that culling will reduce the incidence of the disease is wrong. Indeed, unless we brush aside the work of Britain’s most distinguished conservation scientists, we have to conclude that the sort of cull proposed by Sir David King, the government’s chief scientific adviser, will do more harm than good.

Well said, Roy. He points out that killing badgers will only placate the influential National Farmers’ Union leaders who have either no rational idea what to do or who see more effective responses as too costly.

The argument is that limited killing of badgers would be counter-productive. David McDonald of Oxford University calculated that a cull in Cornwall – the central focus – would cut the TB incidence there by 20% but increase the level outside the cull area by 27%.

An unlimited culling of badgers would surely be an environmental crime of immense proprtions. No government needs to placate farmers that badly. Can’t we just pay them to leave the badgers alone or to vaccinate their cattle?

Roy Hattersley, points out that, even if the government doesn’t follow the simple moral path and refuse the cull, there would be a serious political fallout.

there is no doubt that, should ministers decide to follow his (the chief scientist’s) advice, they would unleash a countrywide campaign that would make the pro-hunting protesters seem half-hearted.

Well, I’m not holding my breath on the government’s taking an ethical stance on this. However, as a distinguished old-Labour politician, Hattersley is probably pretty shrewd when it comes to judging what might have influence on the Department of the Environment. Let’s hope that a government keen to paint itself as green doesn’t miss his message.