Hephaestus's Blog

Word of the Month: Contrafactum
November 5, 2015, 12:00
Filed under: Words of the Months

Etymology: circa 16th cent,; direct from New Latin contrafactum, neuter past participle of contrafacere, meaning to counterfeit, created from contra- (against) prefix and facere, to do. According to Merriam-Webster, contrafacere is a translation of Middle French contrefaire.

Definition: A song created by combining new words with a previously used tune.

Wow, this is another weird etymology, isn’t it? It’s not every day you find a word borrowed from a Latin translation of French.

Traditionally, the term was mostly applied to religious or liturgical music with secular words added. However, the definition has broadened to the point where we can apply it to songs where both the words and music are of a secular nature.

Some contrafacta you may know include:

The Star-Spangled Banner (Music To Anacreon in Heav’n, 1700s; words The Defence of Fort M’Henry, 1814)

My Country ‘Tis of Thee (Music God Save the Queen [King], prior to 1744; words 1831) (The tune may be even older, but it’s very hard to tell).

The Russian National Anthem (Music State Anthem of the USSR, prior to 1944; words 2000) (The first ever Russian anthem was a contrafactum on God Save the Queen).

`Two famous Christmas carol contrafacta are Hark, the Herald Angels Sing (Music Festgesang Cantata, 1840, words even older, dating to 1754 in their current form), and perhaps the most famous contrafactum in English poetry, What Child is This to the tune of Greensleeves.

Note that contrafactum and contrafact are not identical; a contrafact is a jazz term meaning a melody written on a borrowed harmonic structure (no words necessary).

Please let me know if there are any words you would like featured in the comments below.

Are We Simulated?
October 22, 2015, 14:57
Filed under: Uncategorized

Imagine this: Your entire world, along with everyone you know, everyone you’ve ever met, everything you’ve ever heard of, and you yourself, is a computer simulation. Nothing is real; it is all virtual reality created out of bits and bytes.

This scenario is one that has been considered many times, by many people, since the invention of the computer. As I see it, there are two main variations of the idea. I’ll call them the anthropic and the solipsistic.

The basic premise of the anthropic version is this: a sufficiently advanced civilization, or if you want to be cynical about it, a super-kid with a supercomputer, is simulating the entirety of our civilization and possibly our universe, along with everything and everyone in it. (The odds that the entire Universe is being simulated are extremely low, simply because it is impossible to build a computer powerful enough. As in, it would be bigger than the Universe and require more energy than exists).

On the other hand, the solipsistic version of the concept is that the entire simulation, or at least some part of it, is being run for your benefit, and you have some sort of existence beyond the simulation On a large scale, this is The Matrix. (I think… I haven’t actually seen it yet).

Most people, on first thinking of this, feel some sort of existential horror. I know I did. However, after some consideration, I have come to a rather comforting conclusion:

It doesn’t matter if reality is real or not, it’s what you do with it that counts.

Whether your actions, or mine, have any actual concrete impact is moot, if we consider them to be worthwhile, they are. We create our own meaning for our lives, and it is our duty to live our lives according to that meaning. In a simulated reality, the goals of life are the same, whatever they may be. Objective reality is not necessary for a meaningful existence, any more than fame and fortune.

Word of the Month: Precarious
October 15, 2015, 11:00
Filed under: Words of the Months

Etymology: From Latin precarius, ‘obtained through request or prayer’.

Definition: Uncertain, risky.

*deep breath*

This is a weird one. The word precarious entered English in the seventeenth century as a legal term. Something was precarious if it was held by the favour or consent of another. Somehow, over time, the meaning of the word shifted. As a position, or the ownership of a thing, being dependent on the caprice of another person is necessarily risky, the word came to mean ‘risky’. (In fact, my first instinct in that last sentence was to use ‘precarious’ instead of ‘risky’).

I decided to investigate this on a whim because a YouTuber I watched, Kurtjmac, was musing on where this word came from. It turned out to be a great deal more exciting than I anticipated.

Please let me know if there are any words you would like featured by commenting on this post.

Word of the Month: Boustrophedon
September 17, 2015, 20:12
Filed under: Words of the Months

Etymology: Direct from Greek βουστροφηδόν, meaning turning like an ox, from βοῦς (bous), meaning ox, and στροφή (strophe), meaning to turn.

Definition: Writing that switches directions 180 degrees with each line. (see arrows below)




As the name may suggest, boustrophedon is a feature of some Ancient Greek inscriptions. I couldn’t find any explanation for why people write like this, but they do, which I guess is enough.

Other examples of boustrophedonic writing include ancient scripts such as hieroglyphic Luwian, and the modern Avoiuli script from Vanuatu.

An extreme form of boustrophedon is seen in the Rongorongo script of Rapa Nui (Easter Island), where the writing also turns around another way, like so:




…that is, if it’s even writing at all. *Dun dun DUNN…*

But seriously, it’s never been deciphered, and its origins seem pretty hazy.

A Different Kind of Space Elevator
August 27, 2015, 07:04
Filed under: Space stuff

In my space elevator post last Thursday, I mentioned a different kind of ‘space elevator’ patented by Thoth Technology Inc. This is an intriguing concept, and I thought I would share it.

While a normal space elevator is a tensile structure reaching out past geostationary orbit, the concept by Thoth is rather… different.

Their idea is a 20 km-tall tower, “pneumatically pressurized” (inflatable), with elevators inside. On the top of the tower would be, essentially, a spaceport, from which spaceplanes could launch, thus beginning their journey above the thickest parts of the atmosphere.

According to Thoth Technology’s website, the tower could also be used for wind power generation and tourism (the latter presumably via some sort of observation deck).

While this tower would probably be quite the undertaking to build, not to mention becoming by far the tallest structure in the world, mind-bogglingly high by any measure save that of space elevators, it would still be many times easier to build than a bona fide Tsiolkovsky-Artsutanov space elevator.

Why Terra Needs a Space Elevator
August 20, 2015, 09:32
Filed under: Space stuff

First of all, we need to know: What exactly is a space elevator?

At its heart, a space elevator is a very long tether, running from the surface of Earth to a counterweight placed in Geostationary orbit.

Compared to other forms of space launch, such as rockets, the space elevator is a remarkably economic, if nearly impossible and prohibitively difficult to build, solution to the great challenge: Getting what’s down here up there.

Now why we need it.

Spaceflight is expensive. The cheapest (and also really small) launch vehicles still cost thousands of dollars per kilogram of cargo. As you can imagine, this puts the cost of placing anything larger than a loaf of bread into orbit out of reach of all but governments, institutions, and large corporations like SES or Boeing.

A space elevator is perhaps the only way of bringing the price of an orbital jaunt within the reach of the general public, or making possible voyages to space on a large scale; even a re-usable rocket vehicle, such as that being developed by SpaceX, will only cut the price to about one-third to one-sixth of the current figure.*

But there’s more. Rocketry is, by its very nature, a fast, dangerous and somewhat tenuous way of getting anywhere; if you can, it’s probably better to walk. A space elevator would have this crucial difference from rocket travel: it would automatically be 1) a permanent fixture on the planet, unable to move significantly, and 2) a slower, safer, more comfortable ride. (This applies to cargo as well: imagine if satellites didn’t have to be designed to take prodigious acceleration and vibration).

Although it may seem hard to believe, there are several groups dedicated to creating a space elevator. Among these are the International Space Elevator Consortium and LiftPort Group (who want to build one on the Moon).

Additionally, a company called Thoth Technology recently patented a very different kind of “space elevator”, an inflatable tower and launch platform, but that is beyond the scope of the current post.

In closing, a hypothetical space elevator would probably be a cheaper, safer and more reliable way of reaching space than any we have today. Good luck to the daring and maybe crazy engineers trying to make it happen in our lifetimes.

*These are all estimates; exact numbers on this kind of thing are extremely hard to find.

Sonnet: On Courtly Love
August 12, 2015, 15:00
Filed under: Poetry

I would not glorify it by the name

Of love, nor would I with those poets stand,

Who’ve given it such undeserving fame,

And sung its praises all throughout the land.

They, saying that its passion is in truth

True love, deserving everyone’s devote,

Did thus deceive impressionable youth

Who chose on ones unknown to them to dote.

Though Shakespeare with his talent gave it worth,

And Dante lived it, both of them were fools,

To speak of it as real as stony earth,

For such quick passion just as quickly cools.

I think that ‘courtly love’ is no more true

Than cake is stone, or planet Venus blue.