Monday, May 22, 2006

Are Armpits a Design Error?

Armpits sweat uncomfortably and often stink, unless you take measures to prevent that. Dogs have no armpits. But if you turn a four legged animal upright, and let the front legs hang down from the shoulders, you get armpits. A better design for human arms would be to have them stick straight out from the trunk, with an omnidirectional elbow, or at least have them hang down from cantilevered clavicles, away from the trunk. Even an octopus does not have armpits. The transition from four-legged to upright locomotion was not well-planned, with respect to armpits.

Friday, May 12, 2006


Why does a mirror reverse the image side to side but not top to bottom? If you hold a page of text up to a mirror, it is hard to read because the image is backward. But the top is still the top, and the bottom is still the bottom. Why is that?

Monday, May 08, 2006

The Size of the World

I was watching some documentary show about planetary exploration and I saw an image showing one of the Mars probes orbiting the planet. It looks like an aircraft coming in for a routine landing.

Mars is becoming familiar to us now. I imagine that in the future, after I'm gone, it will be very familiar. "Oh yes, we went to Mars Base Three on our vacation. You should go. Great food, interesting music."

And that, in turn, made me think about how small the world was for the ancient Greeks. For them, the whole world was the Mediterranean Sea. They had no idea what else was out there. The idea of north and south American continents was inconceivable. Their world was tiny but it was the big bad world as far as they were concerned. We look back on that and wonder, what would it be like to believe that the world was that small? It seems sort of comforting.

Now, our world is global. It is trivial to vacation in Rio, Bali, or Sydney. New Yorkers pop over to London for a meeting. People in Seattle go to Tokyo to see a friend. We visit family in Hong Kong, Cape Town, and Edinburgh. We don't yet think about casually going to Mars, but we will.

In the future, people will look back on our time and think, I wonder what it was like to live in such simple times, where you thought of your world as just one planet? That would have been so comforting.

Why Are there So Many Languages?

An acquaintance of mine speaks Xhosa, one of the click languages of South Africa. It is strange-sounding indeed. There are so many languages and they all seem so arbitrary. Imagine if people differed from each other in configuration of eyes and limbs, to the extent that Xhosa differs from English. It doesn’t seem reasonable that there should be so many mutually unintelligible languages when human beings are so much the same in so many other ways. Why can't we all understand each other?