Leap Year Trivia

Today is a leap day, so here are things you may or may not know about leap years:

1. Every fourth year is a leap year, as a rule of thumb. But that’s not the end of the story. A year that is divisible by 100, but not by 400, is not. So 2000 was a leap year, as was 1600. But 1700, 1800 and 1900 are not leap years. “It seems a bit arbitrary,” says Ian Stewart, emeritus professor of mathematics at Warwick University. But there’s a good reason behind it.

The year is 365 days and a quarter long – but not exactly. If it was exactly, then you could say it was every four years. But it is very slightly less. The answer arrived at by Pope Gregory XIII and his astronomers when they introduced the Gregorian calendar in 1582, was to lose three leap days every 400 years. The maths has hung together ever since. It will need to be rethought in about 10,000 years’ time, Stewart warns. But by then mankind might have come up with a new system.

2. Why is February 29, not February 31, a leap year day? All the other months have 30 or 31 days, but February suffered from the ego of Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus, says Stewart. Under Julius Caesar, February had 30 days, but when Caesar Augustus was emperor he was peeved that his month – August – had only 29 days, whereas the month named after his predecessor Julius – July – had 31. “He pinched a couple of days for August to make it the same as July. And it was poor old February that lost out,” says Prof Stewart.

3. The tradition of a woman proposing on a leap year has been attributed to various historical figures. One, although much disputed, was St Bridget in the 5th Century. She is said to have complained to St Patrick that women had to wait too long for their suitors to propose. St Patrick then supposedly gave women a single day in a leap year to pop the question – the last day of the shortest month. Another popular story is that Queen Margaret of Scotland brought in a law setting fines for men who turned down marriage proposals put by women on a leap year. Sceptics have pointed out that Margaret was five years old at the time and living far away in Norway. The tradition is not thought to have become commonplace until the 19th Century.

It is believed that the right of every woman to propose on this day goes back to the times when the leap year day was not recognised by English law. It was believed that if the day had no legal status, it was acceptable to break with tradition.

4. A prayer has been written by a female cleric for people planning a leap year day marriage proposal. The prayer, for 29 February, asks for blessings on the engaged couple. It reminds them that wedding plans should not overtake preparations for a lifetime together. The prayer has been taken from Pocket Prayers of Blessing by the Venerable Jan McFarlane, Archdeacon of Norwich:

“God of love, please bless N and N as they prepare for the commitment of marriage. May the plans for the wedding not overtake the more important preparation for their lifetime together. Please bless their family and friends as they prepare for this special day and may your blessing be upon them now and always. Amen.”

5. The practice of women proposing in a leap year is different around the world. In Denmark, it is not supposed to be 29 but 24 February, which hails back to the time of Julius Caesar. A refusal to marry by Danish men means they must give the woman 12 pairs of gloves. In Finland, it is not gloves but fabric for a skirt and in Greece, marriage in a leap year is considered unlucky, leading many couples to avoid it…

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(via BBC)

Bonus Drops and Wall Street

This Bloomberg piece describes some of the “crushing setbacks” of those working on Wall Street experiencing a reduction in bonus pay. It’s kind of ridiculous.

The man who spends $17,000 a year on two dogs:

Richard Scheiner, 58, a real-estate investor and hedge-fund manager, said most people on Wall Street don’t save.

“When their means are cut, they’re stuck,” said Scheiner, whose New York-based hedge fund, Lane Gate Partners LLC, was down about 15 percent last year. “Not so much an issue for me and my wife because we’ve always saved.”

Scheiner said he spends about $500 a month to park one of his two Audis in a garage and at least $7,500 a year each for memberships at the Trump National Golf Club in Westchester and a gun club in upstate New York. A labradoodle named Zelda and a rescued bichon frise, Duke, cost $17,000 a year, including food, health care, boarding and a daily dog-walker who charges $17 each per outing, he said.

Or how about a twentysomething guy who spent thousands on exotic vacations?

Hans Kullberg, 27, a trader at Wyckoff, New Jersey-based hedge fund Falcon Management Corp. who said he earns about $150,000 a year, is adjusting his sights, too.

After graduating from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania in 2006, he spent a $10,000 signing bonus from Citigroup Inc. (C) on a six-week trip to South America. He worked on an emerging-markets team at the bank that traded and marketed synthetic collateralized debt obligations.

His tastes for travel got “a little bit more lavish,” he said. Kullberg, a triathlete, went to a bachelor party in Las Vegas in January after renting a four-bedroom ski cabin at Bear Mountain in California as a Christmas gift to his parents. He went to Ibiza for another bachelor party in August, spending $3,000 on a three-day trip, including a 15-minute ride from the airport that cost $100. In May he spent 10 days in India.

Is the suffering relative and real, as one professor in the article attests?

Inside the World of Amalgamated Product Giant Shipping

Mac McClelland took a “brief, backbreaking, rage-inducing, low-paying” job at the Amalgamated Product Giant Shipping Worldwide, Inc. This is her story:

The culture is intense, an Amalgamated higher-up acknowledges at the beginning of our training. He’s speaking to us from a video, one of several videos—about company policies, sexual harassment, etc.—that we watch while we try to keep our eyes open. We don’t want to be so intense, the higher-up says. But our customers demand it. We are surrounded by signs that state our productivity goals. Other signs proclaim that a good customer experience, to which our goal-meeting is essential, is the key to growth, and growth is the key to lower prices, which leads to a better customer experience. There is no room for inefficiencies. The gal conducting our training reminds us again that we cannot miss any days our first week. There are NO exceptions to this policy. She says to take Brian, for example, who’s here with us in training today. Brian already went through this training, but then during his first week his lady had a baby, so he missed a day and he had to be fired. Having to start the application process over could cost a brand-new dad like Brian a couple of weeks’ worth of work and pay. Okay? Everybody turn around and look at Brian. Welcome back, Brian. Don’t end up like Brian.

Pretty harrowing.

Books with the Oddest Titles

I’d never hard of The Diagram Prize. Turns out, it celebrates the very best in books with odd titles published around the world. Judges from both The Bookseller and its sister consumer magazine, We Love This Book, whittled down the original submissions to a shortlist of seven. And it is spectacular:

A Century of Sand Dredging in the Bristol Channel: Volume Two by Peter Gosson (Amberley). A book that documents the sand trade from its inception in 1912 to the present day, focusing on the Welsh coast.

Cooking with Poo by Saiyuud Diwong (Urban Neighbours of Hope). Thai cookbook. “Poo” is Thai for “crab” and is Diwong’s nickname.

Estonian Sock Patterns All Around the World by Aino Praakli (Kirjastus Elmatar). Covers styles of socks and stockings found in Estonian knitting.

The Great Singapore Penis Panic: And the Future of American Mass Hysteria by Scott D Mendelson (Createspace). An analysis of the “Koro” psychiatric epidemic that hit the island of Singapore in 1967.

Mr Andoh’s Pennine Diary: Memoirs of a Japanese Chicken Sexer in 1935 Hebden Bridge by Stephen Curry and Takayoshi Andoh (Royd Press). The story of Koichi Andoh, who travelled from Japan to Yorkshire in the 1930s to train workers at a hatchery business the art of determining the sex of one-day-old chicks.

A Taxonomy of Office Chairs by Jonathan Olivares (Phaidon). Exhaustive overview of the evolution of the modern office chair.

The Mushroom in Christian Art by John A. Rush (North Atlantic Books). In which the author reveals that Jesus is a personification of the Holy Mushroom, Amanita Muscaria.

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(hat tip: Tyler Cowen)

The Quarter Million Pounder with Cheese

What is the world’s most expensive burger? It will be at least €250,000, if Mark Post has something to say about it. That’s because Mark Post wants to create the burger entirely from scratch, with meat grown in a laboratory. Dr. Post, who works at Eindhoven University in the Netherlands, hopes to disrupt one of mankind’s oldest industries:

Raising animals is a resource-intensive process. About 30% of the world’s ice-free land is used for it. Yet of the nutrients in the plants these animals eat, only around 15% is turned into meat. As the human population grows, and grows richer, demand for meat is increasing. Dr Post hopes to satisfy at least part of that demand by making the stuff in factories, in a way that converts about 50% of the nutrients into something people can eat.

For now, that something is not exactly fillet steak. Dr Post’s cultures, grown from stem cells, are sheets 3cm long, 1.5cm wide and half a millimetre deep. To make the world’s most expensive hamburger 3,000 of them will be needed.

The stem cells themselves are extracted from cattle muscle and then multiplied a millionfold before they are put in Petri dishes and allowed to turn into muscle cells. When they have done so, they are encouraged to exercise and build up their strength by being given their own gym equipment (pieces of Velcro to which they can anchor themselves in order to stretch and relax spontaneously). The fatty cells of adipose tissue, needed for juiciness, are grown separately and then combined with the muscle cells before the whole thing is cooked. In theory, one cow could thus supply as many hamburgers as a million slaughtered animals can today.

Producing meat in Petri dishes is not commercially viable, but Dr Post hopes to scale things up—first by growing the cells on small spheres floating in tanks and ultimately by using scaffolds made of biodegradable polymer tubes, which would both add the third dimension needed for a juicy steak and provide a way of delivering nutrients and oxygen to the steak’s interior.

 Lab burgers — a dinner of the future?

Producer vs. Consumer

This is a really good comment, courtesy of reddit:

I make sure to start every day as a producer, not a consumer.

When you get up, you may start with a good routine like showering and eating, but as soon as you find yourself with some free time you probably get that urge to check Reddit, open that game you were playing, see what you’re missing on Facebook, etc.

Put all of this off until “later”. Start your first free moments of the day with thoughts of what you really want to do; those long-term things you’re working on, or even the basic stuff you need to do today, like cooking, getting ready for exercise, etc.

This keeps you from falling into the needy consumer mindset. That mindset where you find yourself endlessly surfing Reddit, Facebook, etc. trying to fill a void in yourself, trying to find out what you’re missing, but never feeling satisfied.

When you’ve started your day with doing awesome (not necessarily difficult) things for yourself, these distractions start to feel like a waste of time. You check Facebook just to make sure you’re not missing anything important directed at you, but scrolling down and reading random stuff in your feed feels like stepping out into the Disneyland parking lot to listen to what’s playing on the car radio – a complete waste of time compared to what you’re really doing today.

It sounds subtle, but these are the only days where I find myself getting anything done. I either start my day like this and feel normal and productive, or I look up and realize it’s early evening, I haven’t accomplished anything and I can’t bring myself to focus no matter how hard I want to.

A solid addendum on Information Diet:

Starting your day as a producer means that your information consumption has meaning: the rest of the day means consuming information that is relevant to what it is that you’re producing. Waking up as a producer frames the rest of your habits. You’re not mindlessly grazing on everyone’s facebook’s statuses. You’re out getting what it is you need to get in order to produce. Waking up as a producer is procrastination insurance.

I’m afraid I’m still at the stage where I start the day by consuming information (either via checking Twitter, Facebook, or The New York Times homepage). But I am slowly learning to bypass so much consuming in favor of some producing. It’s not easy. And it shouldn’t be.

Inspirations: a Short Film Celebrating M.C. Escher

This is a beautiful short film celebrating M.C. Escher (1898-1972), the Dutch artist who explored a wide range of mathematical ideas with his woodcuts and lithographs. The filmmaker behind the film is Cristóbal Vila, who invites you to visit etereaestudios.com for more information about the film.

The film starts out with a view of a chessboard and what appear to be beans arranged on eleven of the board’s squares. This is a reference to the famous “Wheat and Chessboard Problem.” When the creator of the game of chess showed his invention to the ruler of the country, the ruler was so pleased that he gave the inventor the right to name his prize for the invention. The wise man asked the king: for the first square of the chess board, he would receive one grain of wheat (in some tellings, rice), two for the second one, four on the third one, and so forth, doubling the amount each time. The ruler, arithmetically unaware, quickly accepted the inventor’s offer, even getting offended by his perceived notion that the inventor was asking for such a low price. But when the treasurer started doing the calculations, it quickly surfaced that this was an impossible offer to fulfill. Given the request, the final tally would have been 18,446,744,073,709,551,616 2^64 – 1 = 18,446,744,073,709,551,615 grains!

Continuing along, we also see homages to such things as Fermat’s Last Theorem, Leonardo da Vinci’s The Vitruvian Man (Leonardo may have had some help in its creation), Hokusai’s The Great Wave, Jan van Eyck’s The Arnolfini Wedding, Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss (which I saw in person at the Belvedere Palace in Vienna, Austria), and much, much more. In essence, the short film contains a treasure-trove important cultural references. All of the artworks featured in the film may be seen here. All of the math references may be seen here.

If you’re interested in learning more about the creation of the film, take a look at the wireframes below:

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(hat tip: Open Culture)

(Update 3/10/2012: Corrected the count of total grains from 2^64 to 2^64 – 1.)

An Objection to Tim Parks’ “E-Books Can’t Burn”

A couple of weeks ago, I blogged about Tim Parks’ pro-ebooks argument in The New York Review of Books. I’ve still been thinking about possible objections to his thoughts (and they were excellent). This weekend, I stumbled upon a blog post by Epicurean Dealmaker (he remains anonymous on the Web) who eloquently distills his objections:

[M]y real objection to Mr. Parks’ argument has to do with the naive Platonism he attempts to sell us. His entire argument seems to boil down to the assertion that there is some sort of “pure text” at the base of every work of literature—words in inviolate sequence, to use his coinage—and that e-readers, by collapsing and standardizing our access to them, somehow make our experience of literature purer and more authentic. But this is just bullshit. The experience of literature—and reading in general—is always and everywhere a solitary interpretative act on behalf of and by the reader. Readers read literature in time, in space, and through some sort of medium. Time spent reading—pace, duration, intervals when one puts down the book—directly and ineluctably affects the reader’s experience of the text. Readers who read Ulyssess in three years may indeed have read the same text as those who read it in two weeks, but they certainly have not had the same aesthetic and cognitive experience. In addition, solitary reading involves the visual faculties and aesthetic senses, too. Font, line leading, margins, and even pagination affect a reader’s experience of a text, often subconsciously. No-one who has ever compared a cheap, cramped, badly-typeset version of a novel to a well-designed, spaciously laid out one can help but notice the difference. And noticing the difference in and of itself alters the experience of the work. Joyce may be as much Joyce in Baskerville as in Times New Roman, but I dare you to find him the same author in twelve point Comic Sans.

A book, properly considered, is a recorded performance of a piece of literature, just like a CD is a recorded performance of a particular piece of music. While musicians have more artistic discretion in interpreting a piece than a book designer and publisher do, the latter are not aesthetically invisible. They subtly influence a book’s format and packaging: font, margins, page breaks, cover art, etc. The sequence, timing, pace, and even completion of the work—its interpretation—lie in the hands of a reader, but the packaging and presentation of the physical object is not. And because reading is a performance, the time and place where you read is important, too. Reading Lord Jim on a plane is not the same as reading it on a tropical beach. The former is forgettable; the latter is not, as I can personally attest.

Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is the same music, whether it is interpreted by the Berlin Philharmonic or the Boise Symphony. But nobody ever hears Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony: they hear a performance of it. By the same token, nobody ever reads Ulysses, they read a version of it, as presented to them through the medium of some sort of delivery device at a particular time and place, and interpreted according to their own engagement, interest, aptitude, and sensitivity. A Kindle or an iPad is just another delivery device, constrained or liberated, as the case may be, by its technical and aesthetic capabilities and limitations. There are many texts where an e-reader’s ability to standardize, flatten, and minimize aesthetic variation may very well be an advantage. (I think in particular of current non-fiction, biography, history, and other trade books.) But to pretend it is therefore somehow more transparent to a work of literature than a physical book is wishful thinking.

A must-read in entirety. I especially like the strong conclusion with a reference to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave.

Teller (of Penn & Teller) Reveals The Secrets of Magicians

In this Smithsonian Magazine piece, the magician Teller summarizes the principles magicians employ when they want to alter your perceptions. After mildly lambasting neuroscientists and MRI equipment, Teller reveals the secrets of the magician:

1. Exploit pattern recognition. I magically produce four silver dollars, one at a time, with the back of my hand toward you. Then I allow you to see the palm of my hand empty before a fifth coin appears. As Homo sapiens, you grasp the pattern, and take away the impression that I produced all five coins from a hand whose palm was empty.

2. Make the secret a lot more trouble than the trick seems worth. You will be fooled by a trick if it involves more time, money and practice than you (or any other sane onlooker) would be willing to invest. My partner, Penn, and I once produced 500 live cockroaches from a top hat on the desk of talk-show host David Letterman. To prepare this took weeks. We hired an entomologist who provided slow-moving, camera-friendly cockroaches (the kind from under your stove don’t hang around for close-ups) and taught us to pick the bugs up without screaming like preadolescent girls. Then we built a secret compartment out of foam-core (one of the few materials cockroaches can’t cling to) and worked out a devious routine for sneaking the compartment into the hat. More trouble than the trick was worth? To you, probably. But not to magicians.

3. It’s hard to think critically if you’re laughing. We often follow a secret move immediately with a joke. A viewer has only so much attention to give, and if he’s laughing, his mind is too busy with the joke to backtrack rationally.

4. Keep the trickery outside the frame. I take off my jacket and toss it aside. Then I reach into your pocket and pull out a tarantula. Getting rid of the jacket was just for my comfort, right? Not exactly. As I doffed the jacket, I copped the spider.

5. To fool the mind, combine at least two tricks. Every night in Las Vegas, I make a children’s ball come to life like a trained dog. My method—the thing that fools your eye—is to puppeteer the ball with a thread too fine to be seen from the audience. But during the routine, the ball jumps through a wooden hoop several times, and that seems to rule out the possibility of a thread. The hoop is what magicians call misdirection, a second trick that “proves” the first. The hoop is genuine, but the deceptive choreography I use took 18 months to develop (see No. 2—More trouble than it’s worth).

There are two more items in the post. The biggest takeaway, to me, is the magician’s investment of time to getting his trick down to a T. Practice and then more practice makes the tricks appear flawless.

The Evolution of Jeremy Lin

The phenomenon that is #Linsanity has swept the nation… The saga began after Jeremy Lin had a 25-point Game at Madison Square Garden on February 4. Since then, Jeremy Lin has been averaging more than 20 points and dishing out nearly 9 assists per game for the New York Knicks. In my opinion, he has single-handedly resurrected the shortened NBA season.

But what of Jeremy Lin’s evolution? Cut twice by two NBA teams, this fascinating New York Times story reveals how Jeremy Lin’s evolution as a point guard we observe today was gradual. Over a span of eighteen months, he has shown dedication to get better at his game. It meant coming to the training arena before anyone else and leaving after everyone else has gone home. The Jeremy Lin that is now the starting point guard for the Knicks isn’t the same player as the one who entered NBA after his playing days at Harvard:

It began with lonely 9 a.m. workouts in downtown Oakland in the fall of 2010; with shooting drills last summer on a backyard court in Burlingame, Calif.; and with muscle-building sessions at a Menlo Park fitness center.

It began with a reworked jump shot, a thicker frame, stronger legs, a sharper view of the court — enhancements that came gradually, subtly, through study and practice and hundreds of hours spent with assistant coaches, trainers and shooting instructors over 18 months.

My favorite anecdote from the story is a game called “Beating the Ghost”. This passage shows Lin’s dedication to continue improving:

Doc Scheppler has coached in Bay Area high schools for 34 years. He first saw Lin as a scrawny eighth-grader. But even then, “he had the ability to see the floor, make the right decision, make the correct angle pass. And that is just not done at 13, 14 years old.”

Last summer, Lin sought out Scheppler to help him with his 3-point shot. It was improving, but Lin was still shooting too high and throwing the ball — a “flying weapon,” Scheppler called it.

Working mostly in Scheppler’s backyard in Burlingame, Lin learned to begin his shot on the way up and release it at his peak. They also worked on a variety of in-game situations: the catch-and-shoot, off-the-dribble shots, and hesitation moves to create space.

Lin’s perfectionist tendencies came out in a 3-point-shooting drill called “beat the ghost,” in which Lin earned 1 point for every shot he made at the arc and the “ghost” earned 3 points for every shot Lin missed.

On one occasion, Lin made 17 3-pointers but lost 21-17, then kicked the ball in anger, Scheppler recalled with a chuckle. He refused to stop until he beat the ghost. It took 14 games. When Scheppler tallied up all of the scores for the day, Lin had converted 71 percent of his shots from the arc. “That’s the beauty of Jeremy Lin,” Scheppler said. “It’s not about moral victories. It’s ‘I have to win.’ ”

Of all the stories I’ve read about Jeremy Lin, The New York Times piece is one of (if not) the best explainer of Jeremy Lin’s rising stardom in the NBA. It didn’t happen overnight.