Sunday, February 24, 2008

Neat, fascinating weirdness in computer science

I mostly use computers for straightforward computational work (and for playing around on the internet), and I don't do a lot of fancy programming. For my astronomy work, I use IDL, IRAF, and SuperMongo (SM). IDL has a kinship with FORTRAN that makes it easy to pick up and simple to crunch your way through a heavy computational problem, and it's adapted for image processing, which we do a lot of in astrophysics. IRAF is its evil-mad-scientist cousin, which is also for image processing, but screwy to deal with and has a lot of black boxes. And SM is a language for making publication-quality plots, as well as calculating things from large tables.

When it comes to writing a quick program to calcuate what I need, I prefer IDL and its FORTRAN-like simplicity and directness. But I have a fascination with the varieties of programming languages out there, and especially the totally different concepts behind some of them. It's like breaking out of the Indo-European languages most of us reading this are familiar with (say, English, German, Spanish, Latin, Russian, and even Sanskrit and ancient Hittite), with their conjugations of verbs and declensions of nouns...and seeing how the Semitic languages work (Hebrew verbs have gender, and expressing the genitive case is done by putting two nouns next to each other). Or Vietnamese, which has neither plurals nor past tense, and differences in meaning come in part through the tone of voice.

In that vein, take a look at some of the "Esoteric Programming Languages" listed here in Wikipedia. If your familiar with the simpler BASIC or FORTRAN, see how different the concepts can be and still get the job done. One of my favorites is perhaps the extreme case of a single-instruction language. If chosen carefully, you can do any computation with clever arrangements of that one instruction!

I've taken too long in posting this and want to go on to something else, so I'll get back to it later--more weirdness in programming to come, as well as how this connects with frontiers of physics!

Monday, February 11, 2008

Scholarly shenanigans in Koranic studies?

Nuts--I couldn't find another s-word to put in that title. Oh, well.

Anyway: I've been excited to discover that Christoph Luxenberg's The Syro-Aramaic Reading of the Koran has finally been translated into English. This had previously been available only in German, but it still made a real sensation when it was first published in 2002 or '03. You may have read about the conclusion that the supposed 72 "virgins" the islamist terrorists think they're going to get in heaven might actually be raisins. Really, though, it's not as silly as that: the pseudonymous author says that the passages of the Koran talking about the things in paradise are vague, and the passage that's been thought to refer to virgins awaiting the martyrs doesn't say that explicitly. It speaks of something "white" or "white-eyed" (I'm doing this from memory, so don't quote me on this), and while that's traditionally been thought to refer to virgins, the word is more usually applied to grapes (or raisins). And it would make sense in context, where it's describing the fruits of paradise. Literal fruits, in this case!

But back to our topic: it's now out in English, and I can't wait to get a copy! The publisher quite helpfully links to positive, mixed, and negative reviews of the book. The negative review is written by Angelika Neuwirth, of the Free University of Berlin. From what I've seen on the web, she's considered Germany's foremost Koranic scholar. In trying to find out more about her, I came across this recent notice in the American Thinker's blog. Apparently, the Bavarian Academy of Science had taken photographs of a number of early manuscripts of the Koran, and these photos were (incorrectly) said to have been destroyed during the bombings in WWII. But a scholar there had hidden the photos for decades and (from what I gather) lied about their destruction. His student was this same Angelika Neuwirth. (You can read the Wall Street Journal's article about this here.) She's now leading a team to study them, but very slowly, and without having released the copies of those early manuscripts. They're wanting to produce the first "critical edition" of the Koran--one which accounts for the textual variations amongst the manuscripts. This is the sort of thing that's been done for a long time with the Bible, but never before for Islam's holy book.

Considering the much more direct claim of divine authorship of the Koran and its comparatively recent origin, any textual variations are liable to cause some problems for Moslem theologians. This has been speculated about for some time, but someday, the world will see what those manuscripts actually say. 'Til then, this would all make for an interesting Moslem version of The DaVinci Code!

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Georgia tries to sieze a piece of Tennessee

Given the ongoing drought across the South, I'd expect a bit of desperation, but this attempt by Georgia to redraw the Tennessee border takes the cake. The idea is that a border survey done in 1818 was inaccurate, putting the border about a mile too far to the south. It's intended to be the 35th parallel.

Nobody would have pursued this, if it weren't for the drought that's struck Georgia (as well as Tennessee, I'll note). If the border were moved northward, part of our Nickajack Lake (outside Chattanooga) would lie within Georgia, giving them access to a bunch more water right there.

Now moving an interstate border around in the early 19th century, when few people lived there, is one thing. But trying to fudge with it now, when lots of people have property running up to the state line, would cause a lot of problems!

I suspect this won't go anywhere. Tennessee's not allow it. The people who live in Tennessee now (but would become Georgians if the border were changed) are absolutely going to refuse to it. And even if we did agree to let it be redrawn, before anything ever got done, the drought would hopefully be over, and the real reason for pursuing the matter would be gone.

Also take a look at the comments of "dajedikidd" (2/8/2008 11:57:36 PM). He seems to know about surveying, and he gives good advice on the fact of errors (you'll always have measurement errors) and why you don't necessarily redraw a line because of them.