Archive for the 'Maps' Category

Shakespeare Follow-Up: America

Friday, July 4th, 2014

In The Comedy of Errors, Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse, while visiting Ephesus, are quite surprised that two women have claimed them as husbands. In actuality, they are the wives of the Syracusians’ long-lost twins, but our travelers don’t know this. Dromio describes his new-found wife as spherical, like a globe. Antipholus asks where particular countries can be found, and Dromio makes bawdy wordplay based on various parts of her anatomy. At one point, Antipholus goes somewhere unexpected:

Where America, the Indies?

USA! USA! USA!

But, wait… Shakespeare wrote The Comedy of Errors in the late 16th century, over a hundred years before Thomas Jefferson was even a glimmer in his pappy’s eye. There was no USA. O, say can you see the need for a Shakespeare Follow-Up?

The 1492 expedition of Christopher Columbus introduced Europeans to what they would later refer to as “The New World.” But at the time, Columbus thought that he had circumnavigated the globe and found a new route to the Indies. Despite being in error about this, the islands he reached continue to be called the West Indies and the native people he encountered are still commonly referred to as Indians, though the latter title seems to be phasing out.




The earliest-known use of the word America was in a 1507 map by German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller. The Library of Congress has a digital version of it, and it’s really worth checking out. You can see how much and how little they knew about the “New World.” Most of what they had charted was what we today call South America, and very little of the North American landmass is depicted. At the top, apparently overseeing his discovery, is Amerigo Vespucci, the Italian explorer credited for realizing that the landmass discovered by Columbus was not part of Asia, but rather an independent continent.

According to my Arden edition of the play (R.A. Foakes, ed.), Shakespeare wrote The Comedy of Errors around 1591-1592, give or take a couple of years. For our purposes here, it will suffice to note that the play was written after the first English colonists set up in the New World (the ill-fated Roanoke colonists, arriving July 4, 1584), but before the first permanent colony was established in Jamestown in 1607.

So what did Shakespeare mean by “America”? The Arden note is inconclusive: “the only specific reference to America in Shakespeare’s writings; here, like the ‘Indies’ named in reference to its proverbial wealth.” However, according the Folger’s Shakespeare in American Life website, Shakespeare’s characters would refer to the New World as “the Indies,” as it appears Antipholus is dong here. So my best inference would be that “America” also is referring to the New World in general, and not necessarily the middle section of the North American landmass.

Isaac Asimov, by the way, is silent on this issue. He does note that, during this section, Antipholus and Dromio have completely abandoned any pretense of being from ancient Greek city-states.

The Declaration of Independence was signed in Congress on this date, July 4, 1776, and today is commonly celebrated as the birthday of the United States of America. The word “America” is now most commonly used to refer to this nation.

So… Happy Birthday, America!

Shakespeare Follow-Up: Age of the Earth

Friday, October 11th, 2013

When, in As You Like It, Orlando threatens to die of unrequited love, the disguised Rosalind has some words of wisdom for him:

The poor world is almost six thousand years old, and in all this time there was not any man died in his own person, videlicet, in a love-cause.

Whether or not one could actually die from love will be beyond the scope of this Shakespeare Follow-Up. But we do want to examine how close is Rosalind’s estimate of the age of the planet to what we believe today.

Almost 6,000 years was a good guess for Shakespeare’s day. But today, scientists believe the Earth is over 4,500,000,000 years old, give or take. How can we account for such a breathtaking discrepancy?

Early estimates for the age of the planet were based on Biblical scripture. God created Earth “in the beginning” which puts its origin on the first day of creation. Adam was born on the 5th day, and then the begetting began. Genesis actually goes into quite a bit of detail about how old each begetter was when he begat, so a literal interpretation and little bit of arithmetic was all that was necessary to trace how much time passed since the first day of creation and pinpoint the age of the earth.

Dating creation at 4000 BC was a popular estimate during Shakespeare’s lifetime. Shortly after Shakespeare’s death, Bishop James Ussher published a chronology that placed the creation of the universe on Sunday, October 23, 4004 BC. Hey, someone has a birthday coming up!


But how many candles?

Still, nature was rife with clues that were ready for us when we were ready for them. As early as the 17th century, Nicolas Steno noticed the questions raised by fossil evidence and rock stratification, and other naturalist scientists would find reason to revise the Earth’s age gradually upwards.

In 1862, Lord Kelvin (before he was Lord Kelvin) used the cooling rate of the Earth to place its age at around 98 million years. That’s not quite there yet, but Lord Kelvin was getting warmer!

In the 20th century, scientists began measuring the decay of radioactive isotopes for dating objects that are very old. This is called “radiometric dating” or “radioactive dating,” but I’m only going to call it radiometric dating because I already have something that I call radioactive dating. Radiometric dating puts a rock native to Quebec, the Acasta Gneiss, at over 4 billion years old, and certain zircons found in Western Australia turn out to be over 4.4 billion years old. Based on non-terrestrial evidence, scientists put the age of the solar system at around 4.567 billion years, meaning the Earth can’t be any older than that. This gives us a window between 4.4 and 4.567 billion years to place our best guess.

Although science is long past the time of an Earth whose age could be measured in the thousands, the general public is not as unified. According to a 2012 Gallup poll, 46% of Americans believe that “God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so.” Now, there is a difference between the age of the Earth and the age of the human being, but there is a lot of scientific evidence that humans have been around a lot longer than 10,000 years. Suffice it to say that the first homo sapiens are believed to have evolved in Africa about 200,000 years ago.

But whether, in all this time, there was any man who died in a love-cause, I leave as a question for the reader.

Shakespeare Follow-Up: Cosmology

Friday, October 4th, 2013

The inaugural Shakespeare Follow-Up is dedicated to Rebecca.

As she can tell you, when Puck is first introduced in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, he meets a fairy who tells him:

I do wander every where,
Swifter than the moone’s sphere;

But what is the moon’s “sphere” and why should we believe it is particularly swift? To fully appreciate this line, and many like it across the canon, it’s important to know a little bit about how Shakespeare and his contemporaries viewed the cosmos.

In the Metaphysics, Aristotle described a system of concentric spheres, based on the works of pre-Socratic philosphers. Each observable planetary body, including the Moon, was embedded in one of these spheres. The spheres were made of transparent matter, in contact with one another, and able to rotate independently. (Positing a thin layer of WD-40 between spheres would have been beyond the technological capabilities of the ancient Greeks.) The Moon’s sphere was the closest to the Earth, and therefore, could move the fastest. This was followed by Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and the sphere of the stars. Outside the spheres was the Prime Mover, which is the original source of all motion. God, if you like.

Claudius Ptolemy was an astronomer living in Alexandria in the 2nd century AD, while Egypt was part of the Roman Empire. Ptolemy noticed that some of the data, particularly retrograde motions of the planets, could not be explained by the existing model. He added the idea of epicycles, spheres rotating within spheres, which allowed for irregular movement of the planets, and the concept remained the dominant cosmological model for centuries.

Around the 12th century, Aristotelian concepts (including Ptolemaic cosmology) became intertwined with Christian theology. By the time Copernicus developed his heliocentric model in the early 16th century, it was not only a challenge to Aristotle and Ptolemy, but also to Church teachings that God put man in the center of the universe.

This is the world that Shakespeare and Galileo were born into in 1564. The theories of Copernicus were known, but not commonly accepted as true. It should be noted, however, that even Copernicus accepted the idea of celestial spheres; he just put the Sun in the center instead of the Earth. Shakespeare makes reference to the spheres all throughout his plays, often metonymously for the cosmos as it affects our fates, or simply as a shared cultural reference.

So the Bastard in King John can ask “Now, now, you stars, that move in your right spheres,/ Where be your powers?” as Demetrius in A Midsummer Night’s Dream observes “Yet you, the murderer, look as bright, as clear,/ As yonder Venus in her glimmering sphere.”

Fixed and unchangeable, the spheres also serve as a convenient metaphor for the rightfulness of hierarchies here on Earth. Shakespeare draws this comparison often, most notably in this speech from Ulysses in Troilus and Cressida:

The heavens themselves, the planets, and this centre
Observe degree, priority, and place,
Insisture, course, proportion, season, form,
Office, and custom, in all line of order:
And therefore is the glorious planet Sol
In noble eminence enthron’d and spher’d
Amidst the other; whose med’cinable eye
Corrects the ill aspects of planets evil,
And posts, like the commandment of a king,
Sans check, to good and bad: but when the planets
In evil mixture to disorder wander,
What plagues, and what portents, what mutiny,
What raging of the sea, shaking of earth.
Commotion in the winds, frights, changes, horrors,
Divert and crack, rend and deracinate
The unity and married calm of states
Quite from their fixure!

When we see the Sun referred to as “the glorious planet Sol,” it has the power to remind us just how much distance is between the scientific understanding of Shakespeare’s time and our own. And reading this in 21st century America, we also feel the gap in worldview as we see hierarchic culture defended so fiercely. Both celestial spheres and geocentrism will likewise fade in the century following Shakespeare’s death, but the ideas remain forever embedded in Shakespeare like the planets in their spheres. Thus, we understand that when, in 1 Henry IV, Hal tells Hotspur that “Two stars keep not their motion in one sphere,” it’s Elizabethan for “This town ain’t big enough for the both of us.”

Astronomers during Shakespeare’s lifetime, most notably Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler, already began using observational data to cast doubts about both geocentrism and the celestial spheres. The observation of comets was making the sphere model difficult to maintain. Galileo also took up the idea of heliocentrism and, after a long battle with the Church, was pressured into recanting. But the theories of Isaac Newton and the Scientific Revolution later in the 17th century gave heliocentrism a much stronger grounding in modern science which led to a wider acceptance as the culture became more open to the reexamination of our scientific understandings.

It wasn’t until the 20th century, however, that science learned that none of these models was the center of the universe, but rather one solar system among billons across a vast sprawling cosmos.

One can only wonder what Shakespeare might have done with such a revelation.

Shakespeare Anagram: Hamlet

Saturday, November 10th, 2012

From Hamlet:

I cannot live to hear the news from England;
But I do prophesy the election lights
On Fortinbras.

Shift around the letters, and it becomes:

Math prognosticator Nate Silver predicted the whole state finishing roll, one-none.

Fun hobby!

Earthquakes, Hurricanes, Floods, and Tornadoes

Sunday, August 28th, 2011

Okay, so I missed the riddle this week. I do apologize, but I’ve been constantly besieged by natural disasters of biblical proportions. Sort of.

I was actually in Virginia for the earthquake. I’ve spent the last week vacationing with my family, visiting Jamestown and Williamsburg and the like. On Tuesday, we were at Busch Gardens, and when the group split into different factions, I took the opportunity to set off on my own for a while. I went to go see the Pirates “4-D” movie. A “4-D” movie is like a 3-D movie, except they shake your seat and squirt water at you at appropriate moments in the film. It has nothing to do with the fourth dimension, but it’s fun all the same. At one point, the whole theatre shook from side to side, which I thought was pretty cool, but I later learned that I was actually at the epicenter of a 5.8-magnitude earthquake. It even kind of fit with what was going on in the movie, so I just enjoyed it as part of the show.

After I left the theatre, I ran into my nephew Ian (age 7), accompanied by Dave, a family friend. Dave told me that there had been some kind of earthquake, and that all of the rides were shut down. I assumed that this was a story Dave told Ian to get a break from the roller coasters, so I gave him a knowing smile and went along with the charade. It’s worth noting that, at this point, I had both felt the earthquake and had been told there was an earthquake, and still I did not know there had been an earthquake.

Pretty soon, however, it became hard for even me to stay in the dark, as reports of the unusual phenomenon spread rapidly. It stayed big news for a day or two, but was just as quickly overshadowed by news of an impending hurricane. Hurricane Irene was expected to sweep up the Eastern seaboard and hit New York City by Saturday night. I decided to cut my trip short a day and head back home a bit early. My train was delayed a bit because of flooding below Washington, D.C., but my trip was largely uneventful and I made it back to New York City in time to do some grocery shopping and put my earthly affairs in order.

As I settled in for a grocery-enhanced night of a Kill Point marathon sporadically interrupted by checking online weather maps, I learned of an impending Tornado Watch for New York City. Really?

Anyway, there was no tornado, and not even really a hurricane. Irene was downgraded to a tropical storm before it hit here, and even by that standard, it was pretty mild. I had no interruptions of power or Internet, and could only occasionally hear the rustling of wind outside my window. I did make it through the entire series of The Kill Point, which was about a hostage standoff in a bank, so that was pretty exciting, but that was about it. I can’t say I’m disappointed, but I’m not feeling all that relieved either.

Mostly, I’m disappointed that I missed a riddle, which usually means I’ve been neglecting the blog for too long. I think I’m about ready to return. This week, I survived earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, and tornadoes, so I’m feeling pretty unstoppable. That’s right, Mother Nature, if you want a piece of this, next time you best bring a FREAKIN’ VOLCANO.

Feel free to post relevant quotes from King Lear in the comments. The Shakespeare Teacher is back.

Fifty Apps for the iPad

Sunday, January 9th, 2011

Last year, I wrote that I didn’t need an iPad, because I had an iPhone and a Macbook Air. I still have them both, and they are still working out great. But my nephews got iPads for the holidays, and this is how I bond with them, so I had to get an iPad too. How’s that for a rationalization?

But now that I’ve bought one, I’m glad I did, because it’s adding value in ways I hadn’t anticipated. True, it is basically an iPod Touch with a larger screen, but that larger screen makes a big difference. There are a lot of things I can technically do with my iPhone, but usually don’t because the screen size is too small. And I’m finding it easier to do those things on the iPad.

So here are the top ten things you can do on an iPhone or iPod Touch that you can do better on an iPad:

1. Watch: I’ve been carrying around movies and TV shows on my iPhone for years, but I’ve watched more on the iPad in the last couple of months than I ever watched on the little screen. The Videos app (Included) is the very first app on my iPad. But I’ve also signed up for accounts with Netflix (Free app + $7.99/mo.) and Hulu Plus (Free app + $7.99/mo.) that let me stream video content from their impressive libraries. The combined monthly cost is far, far less than the Cable TV I’m canceling. And apps for YouTube (Included) and ABC Player (Free) help establish the iPad as a truly flexible video viewer you can take anywhere.

2. Connect: The power of social media has risen incredibly in the past year, and the App Store (Included) has kept pace. There are a variety of apps to help keep you connected, but I use Reeder ($4.99) as my Google Reader client, Friendly (Free) as my Facebook client, and Twitter (Free) as my client to access the Twitter account I finally broke down and created so that I could follow the national conversation where it seems to have gone. You can also consolidate the three, and much more, in one app called Flipboard (Free), which formats the content into a friendly magazine layout for casual browsing. There is also a WordPress app (Free), which allows me to blog on the go, and Yahoo! Messenger (Free) – actually an iPhone app – which lets users exchange text messages and participate in voice chat. And the iPad Mail interface (Included), designed for the larger screen, is much easier to use than its iPhone counterpart.

3. Read: The biggest surprise for me on the iPad is how much I love my Kindle app (Free), which lets me download books from Amazon and read them on the iPad. And these are real books that I actually want to read, not the limited eBook selection available through Apple. However, there are a lot of places online to get free books in ePub format, which can then be imported into your iTunes library and read on iBooks (Free), so you should definitely get it. I’m a fan of Offline Pages ($4.99), which allows you to save websites (from the iPad or from your home computer) and read them on the iPad, even after you’re no longer connected to the Internet. I also highly recommend the Shakespeare Pro app ($9.99) if Shakespeare’s your thing, and the Newspapers app ($2.99), which lets you access local newspapers from across the country on a daily basis.

4. Play: Any game you can play on the iPhone, you can play on the iPad, either in the original size, or expanded to fit the screen (sometimes with the expected loss of quality). But the expanded real estate has given developers something to code about, so there is a whole spate of new games and revamped versions of old games at the ready. Plants vs. Zombies is the absolute best game to ever grace the iPhone, and Plants vs. Zombies HD ($6.99) is even better on the iPad. Games like Cover Orange HD ($0.99) and Cut the Rope HD ($1.99), which combine tricky puzzles with engaging animations, demonstrate a new level of what is possible in portable gaming. Even the simple games, like Saving Seeds HD ($0.99) or Aces Traffic Pack HD ($2.99), really make you feel like you’re using a next generation device. I was able to play GT Racing: Motor Academy ($0.99) with my two nephews, each of us on our own iPads, racing each other on the same track. This was cool on a level they could not possibly appreciate.

5. View: I’d be remiss if I didn’t discuss how viewing photos is better on the larger screen, obvious as it may be. The iPad has a built-in Picture Frame feature, which lets the device function as a digital picture frame when it’s not otherwise in use. There are also apps that take advantage of the view, like Beautiful Planet HD ($0.99) that shows high-quality images from across the globe, and The Guardian Eyewitness (Free), which shows a different news photo every day. And The Elements ($13.99), the flagship app of the iPad, is everything it’s hyped to be: an interactive periodic table in which you can rotate high-quality 3D images of each of the elements. But it does take up almost 2GB of storage space, so don’t even bother with it if you’re only working with 16GB.

6. Work: The iPad is expensive to begin with, so it seems worth it to me to invest just a bit more in the iWork suite – Pages ($9.99), Numbers ($9.99), and Keynote ($9.99) – to add value to your device. I’ve also become fond of GoodReader ($2.99), which reads PDF files, and Teleprompt+ ($9.99), which allows you to load up text documents from your desktop and use the iPad as your own portable teleprompter. Try that with an iPhone.

7. Organize: I’ve actually not had a problem with the Calendar app on the iPhone, but the iPad’s Calendar interface (Included) makes it possible to see my whole month at a glance, which is a useful feature. As a MobileMe user, I like to use iDisk (Free app + $99/yr. for MobileMe) to coordinate between my desktop, laptop, iPhone, and iPad, but if you’re not a member, I’ve heard good things about Dropbox (Free app + Dropbox account). And I have to mention the Delivery Status app ($4.99), which lets you follow multiple packages from FedEx, UPS, etc. as they are tracked through the system.

8. Browse: The fact that the iPhone had a fully functioning web browser was a major breakthrough, but the iPad takes it a step further. It’s not only that the screen is larger, but also the fact that it allows you to view the full versions of your favorite websites, as opposed to the version optimized for mobile devices. Safari (Included) also syncs your bookmarks bar from its desktop counterpart (via MobileMe, I think), which I have found very convenient. It’s worth checking to see if the websites you frequent have their own apps as well. I recommend Google (Free), WolframAlpha ($1.99), and Articles ($4.99), which is a sharp-looking Wikipedia client.

9. Explore: Here’s how you know you are living in the future. Download GoSkyWatch Planetarium (Free) to your iPad. Then point it at the sky at night. It will display for you the same stars at which you are gazing, along with their names and even the constellations drawn in. Move the iPad around and the display will adjust. It’s also worth getting Solar Walk ($2.99), which gives you more freedom to move around the solar system and see what’s going on, including watching our own artificial satellites as they orbit around the Earth. The more expansive interface also breathes new life into old favorites such as Maps (Included) and Google Earth (Free).

10. Distract: So you’ve bought your iPad and now the kids want to play with it. What can you download to keep them out of your online banking app? The boys have their favorites, but Elena, who is now almost two, can work the icons along with the best of them, even knowing to hit the menu button when she’s bored with one app and wants to switch to another. Voting with her fingers, she recommends Sound Touch ($2.99), Art in Motion ($2.99), Tesla Toy ($1.99), and Drawing Pad ($0.99). Ian (age six) is really into roller coasters, so he enjoys games like New York 3D Rollercoaster Rush HD ($4.99) and Underground 3D Rollercoaster Rush HD ($4.99). But he really loves an app called Coaster Physics ($0.99), which lets him design his own roller coaster and then ride on it as he learns about kinetic and potential energy. He also likes to practice his Dolch sight words with All Sight Words ($0.99) and play Math Bingo ($0.99), while his older brother Jason (age eight) prefers MathBoard ($3.99) to hone his arithmetic skills. I highly recommend the BrainPOP Featured Movie (Free) and PBS’s SUPER WHY! ($3.99), two excellent educational apps by sources from whom we’d expect no less. And there are a whole host of apps that simulate baking different sugary confections, but Cupcakes! XL ($0.99) makes the best use of the iPad’s capabilities.

I certainly mean no disrespect to the iPhone. It’s still, hands down, the coolest thing I’ve ever owned, including the iPad. It has a phone and a camera and it fits in my pocket, so the new kid is really no threat. The iPhone is also better for listening to audio, recording voice memos, MusicID, and playing Doodle Jump or Catan. Most of the things I do with the iPad are things I wasn’t really doing with the iPhone anyway. So the iPad did add value after all.

And now all of my portable digital requirements really are met, and I therefore have no need for any new thing that should happen to be introduced by Apple or anyone else.

Do I?

Shakespeare Anagram: A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Saturday, January 10th, 2009

From A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

And thorough this distemperature we see
The seasons alter: hoary-headed frosts
Fall in the fresh lap of the crimson rose,
And on old Hiems’ thin and icy crown
An odorous chaplet of sweet summer buds
Is, as in mockery, set. The spring, the summer,
The childing autumn, angry winter, change
Their wonted liveries, and the mazed world,
By their increase, now knows not which is which.
And this same progeny of evil comes
From our debate, from our dissension:
We are their parents and original.

Shift around the letters, and it becomes:

A sharp column in the Washington Post this month, wherein faded global warming is reframed in some depth as a hidden security issue, hit home.

In this column, he described three harsh ways that these few overwhelming horrors can render war: rampant scarcity from hotter, drier lands; renewed open-handed abundance; and fresh issues of common sovereignty, making two geopolitical zones of tension.

We should take this solemn threat to our security seriously, or we’re finished.

Ties (and the tying tiers who are tied)

Friday, November 21st, 2008

Via Electoral-Vote.com, we find a website with pictures of some of the disputed ballots in the Minnesota Senate recount. You can also vote on whether each ballot should count, though it’s just for fun. If Franken wins the recount, the eyes of the nation will be on the December 2 runoff election in Georgia, to see if the Democrats will wind up with the 60 seats they need to block a Republican filibuster.

In the presidential election, Missouri has finally reached a decision. The state has been won by John McCain, bringing the final electoral college count (barring any faithless electors) to 365-173. And in Iowa County, Iowa, we find an exact tie between Obama and McCain, with 4,173 votes each.

You see? You should have voted.

Meanwhile…

Tuesday, November 18th, 2008

We know who our next president is going to be, but political junkies are still keeping a close eye on the race for the Senate. If the Democrats can take 60 of the 100 seats, they will have a filibuster-proof majority. Right now, they have 57.

All signs point to Democrat Mark Begich defeating Republican Ted Stevens in Alaska, bringing the total to 58-40, with two seats still in play. Republican Saxby Chambliss and Democrat Jim Martin are competing in a runoff election for the Georgia seat, so we’re unlikely to have an answer there before December. In Minnesota, Democrat Al Franken and Republican Norm Coleman are anxiously awaiting the results of a recount, which could also stretch out into December.

Stay tuned…

Purple America

Wednesday, November 12th, 2008

Via Electoral-Vote.com (which I’m still reading for some reason), we find another really cool map. This is an animated GIF showing the electoral results by county for every presidential election from 1960 – 2004. It’s called Purple America, and it was created by from Robert Vanderbei from Princeton University.



You can watch counties change from blue to red and back again. You can see where Ross Perot and George Wallace had the most support. Or you can squint your eyes and watch the entire country change its shade like a mood ring. Enjoy!