07 August 2010


Yesterday I wrote about Frink, a sophisticated programmable calculator that is wonderfully adept at dealing with units of measurement.

One of my readers asked in the comments to yesterday's post whether Frink is aware of the "Klafter" (an erudite, geeky, and witty lot, my readers).

The Klafter is a now-antiquated unit of length formerly used in many German-speaking lands.  It was said to be the distance between the tips of the middle fingers of a man with outstretched arms.  Like many units of measurement based on variable body parts, the length of the Klafter differed from place to place.

The Austrian Klafter (the only one that mattered much to me) was equivalent to 1.8965 meters.  I wrote about the Klafter many years ago in a review article published in the Haydn Yearbook on Mary Sue Morrow's Concert Life in Haydn's Vienna; the Klafter was used in old floor plans of the Viennese court theaters (the old Burgtheater and the Kärntnertortheater), and accurate conversions to modern units were necessary there for understanding the sizes of the theaters.  You can see snippets here (unfortunately only snippets) of what I had to say about Klafter.  (If I had a scanner, I would make the review available on the web.)
[UPDATE: My review-article on Morrow's book can now be downloaded or read online here.  Many thanks to the person who sent this pdf to me.]

The German Wikipedia article on Klafter brings to light that the Klafter is still in use in Liechtenstein as the basis for a unit of area, the Quadratklafter = 3.59665 m2 (based on the old Austrian Klafter of 1.8965 m).

As it turns out, the Klafter is one of the few units of measurement that Frink doesn't know about. 

A complete list of the many hundreds of units it does know about can be seen here.  These include, among many many others:
  • the lengths of days and years for all the planets in the Solar System
  • musical intervals (and the Pythagorean and syntonic commas)
  • French champagne bottle sizes
  • USA slang units (buck, fin, sawbuck, etc.)
  • British Imperial weights and measures
  • "Obscure British volume measures" (such as the bag, bucket, noggin, pottle, and puncheon)
  • paper measures and sizes (only modern ones, but hey, you can't have everything)
  • Scots and Irish linear measures
  • Ancient History units (such as the 16 kinds of cubits I pointed to yesterday)
And many more.

Thus one can easily discover, for example that 1 jereboam is equivalent to (rounded) 608.65 teaspoons.

This afternoon I was talking to a friend of Latvian heritage, who got quite excited about the possibility of easily converting the measurements in grams in her Latvian cookbooks to cups, tablespoons, and teaspoons.  This is very easy to do in Frink:
250 g / sugar -> cup
In other words, 250 grams of sugar is equal to 1¼ cups.

It is extremely easy to add units to Frink.  For example, to add the Klafter, I simply write:
klafter := 1.8965 m
And now I can easily convert Klafter to meters:
9.75 klafter -> m
gives the result 18.490875 meters.

Easy enough to do with a regular calculator, of course.  But now that Frink "knows" about Klafter, I can quickly calculate:
klafter -> egyptianroyalcubit
A conversion that may never previously have been done in the whole of human history.

Frink is also equipped with a very wide array of functions.  A couple that caught my eye:
factor[x] returns the prime factors of an integer x (I did a lot of factoring in my dissertation)

isPrime[x] returns false if the integer is composite, true if it is prime or probably prime  (yes, this will work with very large numbers).

char["Frink"] returns an array of the Unicode character codes for each symbol in the string.
The latter appears to work correctly on more "exotic" characters.  For example, char["ž"] returns 382. In order to make sure this was correct, I had to convert it to hexadecimal, which is very simple to do in Frink: the command is  char["ž"] -> hexadecimal, which returned 17e....which is, in fact, the Unicode character code for a lowercase z with a haček (or a Latin Small Letter Z with Caron, as Unicode describes it).

I was amused to learn that Frink even has a translation function. Regular readers will remember that a couple of weeks ago I wrote a post inspired by a game suggested by games with words, based on the iterative use of Google Translate (English to Japanese to English to Japanese ...) to look for interesting "non-converging" translations.  My post on this blog tracked the fate of the first sentence of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice through this kind of iterative translation in several languages.

The documentation for Frink uses a classic sentence that (so far as I can recall) was never tried in the thread at games with words:
"My hovercraft is full of eels." -> German
Which returns:
Mein Luftkissenfahrzeug ist von den Aalen voll.
(For the non-geeks in my audience, this phrase is from a classic Monty Python sketch:


So naturally, I decided to test Frink on the iterative translation game.  I began with one of the most "successful phrases" in the games without words thread, translated to Japanese and back:
Japanese["Colorless green ideas sleep furiously"]

This shows an alternative syntax for the translation function.  The complete first iteration:
Japanese["Colorless green ideas sleep furiously"] -> JapaneseToEnglish

As for thought of colorless green you sleep fiercely
It would be easy to write a short program in Frink to extend the number of iterations (one could probably even write it recursively).  But it's time for dinner, so I leave this as an exercise for the reader.

And, for my Dad (who first told me the classic meme about machine translation using this sentence):
Russian["The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak."] -> RussianToEnglish

Spirit is willingly ready but flesh it is weak.
And finally, Jane Austen, to Russian and back:
Russian["It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. "] -> RussianToEnglish

The universally confirmed truth, then single person in the possession success, must be inside wants husbands.
And the same in Japanese:
Japanese["It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. "] -> JapaneseToEnglish

That is recognized the wife being necessary, generally, the single person who owns that good fortune, there is a truth, it becomes, is.
Although your interpretation of that sentence may depend on what you think the meaning of "is" is.

Personally, I think Frink is the greatest thing since the invention of the roof.

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06 August 2010

Daily Digest, 2010.08.05

Thursday: more on the Walker decision overturning Proposition 8; professor claims to have been discriminated against and fired for being heterosexual; the history of infinity; fun with the Periodic Table; geometric morphometric forensics; Switek on the Darwinius affair; the financial state of the Philadelphia Orchestra (not good); Tommasini reviews the ratty Bayreuth Lohengrin; Masnick on Flattr (and infinite goods and the DMCA expemptions); Google stops development of Google Wave; Frink; Instapaper; a house made of books; stunning color photographs of everyday life in the U.S. in 1939-43; Atheist's Don't Have No Songs; a competition for a new chess rating algorithm; today's lesson in artistic good taste; cats out to destroy Earth.
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05 August 2010

Daily Digest, 2010.08.04

Wednesday: MIT's OpenCourseWare; Barnes & Noble is up for sale; is shared intentionality the foundation of human uniqueness?; experiments in language evolution; cognitive dissonance and conspiracy theories; philosophy and faith; copyright on sound recordings even more absurd than that on books; Tommasini reviews Lulu in Salzburg; two new books on early Bach reception; Werner Herzog reads Curious George.

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04 August 2010

Breaking News: Federal Judge Overturns Proposition 8

See the story by Jesse McKinley and John Schwartz in The New York Times.

This isn't the end of the battle—the case will very likely eventually end up in the Supreme Court. And the judge, Vaughan R. Walker, immediately stayed his decision pending appeals, so no new gay marriages will be performed in California just yet.

Some quotes:
“Proposition 8 cannot withstand any level of scrutiny under the Equal
Protection Clause,” wrote Judge Walker. “Excluding same-sex couples from
marriage is simply not rationally related to a legitimate state


During the trial, which ended in June, plaintiffs offered evidence from
experts on marriage, sociology and political science, and emotional
testimony from the two couples who had brought the case. Proponents for
Proposition 8 offered a much more straightforward defense of the
measure, saying that same-sex marriage damaged traditional marriage as
an institution and that marriage was historically rooted in the need to
foster procreation, which same-sex unions cannot, and was thus
fundamental to the existence and survival of the human race.

But Judge Walker seemed skeptical of those claims. “Tradition alone,
however,” he wrote, “cannot form the rational basis for a law.”

Even before appeals to higher courts, Judge Walker seemed ready to
continue to hear arguments, telling both sides to submit responses to
his motion to stay the decision by Friday, at which point he could lift
or extend it.
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Nussbaum's Mozart

Many thanks to my friends who have promised to send me Martha Nussbaum's article on Figaro as soon as they were able to get their hands on it.  A new "angel," someone I hadn't previously known, has beaten you to it, and has already sent me a copy (thanks SF!).

I'll likely report back only if it seems worth reading and commenting on.  But I'm very happy to have the opportunity to decide.
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Daily Digest, 2010.08.03

Tuesday: Massachusetts and the Electoral College; FBI takes a classic Chevy Chase fall; Mike Masnick on the opponents of Open Access; Kent Anderson on OCLC; a neutral theory of sexual signaling; the role in "self learning" of the FoxP gene in Drosophila; a review of recent work on Artificial Language Learning and Constructed Communication Systems; an experiment in cat cognition; evolutionary "Just-So" stories at NPR; a critique of the DSM-V; a critique of a critique of the DSM-V; is Big Pharma abandoning psychiatry?; Sandow on Mac Donald; music is not compatible with the values of an Islamic republic; Lorenz reviews a biography of blind piano virtuoso Maria Theresia Paradis; Mitch Miller has died; tools (Anthologize, Instapaper, and the "Dave" laptop stand).
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03 August 2010

Daily Digest, 2010.08.02

Monday: man arrested for videotaping policeman who threatened him with gun in traffic stop; plagiarism and the modern university student; Masnick debunks yet again a bogus claim about counterfeiting losses; Campbell's Soup writes (admiringly) to Andy Warhol (1964); RIAA sending takedown notices for the album Radiohead gave away for free; the future of the book is....the app?; Scientopia, a new blog collective; a way round Heisenberg's uncertainty principle?; The Rap Guide to Human Nature (no, seriously); a critique of methodology in the social sciences; a softening on the "nativist" side of the nativist vs. empiricist debate in linguistics?; music as an antidepressant; does music interfere with concentration in the workplace?; Sandow critiques Mac Donald on the rosy state of classical music; Tommasini reviews Dionysos; a Milton-Cross-like synopsis of Warren G and Nate Dogg's "Regulate"; a mechanical opera singer (well, not quite yet, but almost); what's wrong with Inception?
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02 August 2010

Weekend Roundup, 31 July – 1 August 2010

This Weekend: Thelonious Monk on being yourself; Army broadens investigation into leak of Afghan war diary; Wikileaks volunteer Jacob Appelbaum questioned; an interview with Andrew Bacevic on the Afghan war; testing the Wikileaks data with Benford's Law; an interview with Andrew Hacker on his book Higher Education?; Benzon on the state of the human sciences; Heffernan on science blogging, and a response; the mystical path to science understanding; Happy Birthday, Lamarck!; the variation in dog heads; fossil-fuel subsidies; "mike" or "mic"?; motor imagery and object identification; stress; an interview on neurodiversity; Paul Rozin's critique of psychology; bloody noses and high blood pressure at Bayreuth; more Rihm in Salzburg; a survey on German attitudes toward classical music and music education; more on hiring in musicology; Nussbaum on Figaro; review of the Leopold-Mozart-Werkverzeichnis; Tyler Cowen's five (six) best books on information; a review of The Enlightened Economy; a master class from Mark Twain on how to do a put down.
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