Friday, November 24, 2006

*** Decoding the Universe by Charles Siefe

An excellent book that describes information theory in a down to earth fashion, and surprisingly enlightens you to the fact that information may be at the very heart of how quantum mechanics and cosmology affect the entire universe. The book also does an excellent job of explaining away the Schrodinger’s Cat paradox, along with the Einsteinian pole in a barn relativity paradox. You’ll never be puzzled again about such bizarre phenomena. -Ben

During WW2, the war in the Pacific hinged on one missing piece of information - Where was AF? AF was the Japanese code name for an American target for which the Japanese were planning a major offensive… The head of the Navy's cryptography ordered the base at Midway to transmit a phony request for help stating that the water distillery had been damaged and the base was nearly out of water. Knowing that the Japanese would be eavesdropping, Navy intelligence soon picked up the signals of 'AF is short of water'… The battle of Midway was decisively won by the US, and this information was crucial to setup the plans for that victory. p6

A sentence in English always has more information than you need to decipher it. This redundancy is easy to see. J-st tr- t- r—d th-s s-nt-nc- . p11

A std 3 rotor enigma machine used by the Nazi’s from WW2 could be configured in more than 3x10^114… If every atom in atom in the universe were an Enigma machine, and each were trying a million billion combos per second from the beginning of the universe, they would only have been able to try 1% of all the possible configurations. So how did the small cadre of codebreakers [one of which was Alan Turing] at Bletchley Park, England, break the unbreakable code? The enigma would never leave a letter unchanged; therefore an encrypted ‘E’ could be any letter except an ‘E’, yielding a tiny bit of information about the message. Also the predictability of weather reports and language offered other forms of redundancy… Eventually, they got so good at it, they could crack a new coding scheme in a matter of hours. P19

Shannon realized that a question with N possible outcomes can be answered with a string of logN bits – you need only logN bits of info to distinguish among N possibilities. To distinguish among 4 outcomes, you need only 2 bits; 8 outcomes, 3 bits… I could therefore tell you that I have picked out an atom somewhere in the universe. Since there are 10^80 atoms in the universe, and log10^80 is about 266, it would take only 266 properly chosen yes/no answers to find it. P66

A linguist can figure out who won the battle of Hastings [1066, William the Conqueror, and all mate]. Look at the words for foodstuffs. Beef comes from a French word – boeuf, while cow comes from Old English. Mutton is French for – mouton, while sheep is Old English. Pork, French for – porc; pig, English. The English speaking serfs, who lost the battle, tended the animals. The victorious French nobility, ate them. This information is preserved in our language nearly 1000 years after this event. P114

Keep watching (measuring actually) a radioactive atomic nucleus over and over and you can prevent it from decaying. Repeated measurements can prevent nuclear decay. This effect is known as the Quantum Zeno effect. If you start with a pure state 100% 0 & 0% 1 (superposition between 0&1 with a 100% probability of 0), the nucleus is unbroken. If you measure the nucleus quickly, by bouncing a photon off of it, you’re nearly guaranteed to measure it in the 0 state because it wouldn’t have had much time to evolve a superposition away from the pure state; it would now be 99.999% 0 and .001% 1. But the act of measurement destroys the superposition and resets it to the pure state of 100% 0. Thus you can measure it again, and reset it again. If you do this over and over, it will never decay! P198

** History of the world in 6 glasses by Tom Standage

History of the world in 6 glasses by Tom Standage
A fun, light hearted historical romp on the 6 most popular beverages of all time. Bottoms up.

There was almost certainly no beer before 10,000 BCE, but it was widespread in the near East by 4000BCE, when it appears in a pictogram from Mesopotamia, depicting 2 figures drinking beer through reed straws from a large pottery jar. Ancient beer had grains, chaff, and other debris floating on its surface, so a straw was necessary to avoid swallowing them. p10

Beer was not invented but discovered… Grain that was soaked in water so that it sprouts, tastes sweet. It was difficult to make storage pits that were watertight, so this fact would have become apparent as soon as humans first began to store grain. The cause of the sweetness is because moistened grain produces an enzyme which converts starch to maltose or malt…At a time when few other sources of sugar were available, the sweetness of malt would have been highly valued… Gruel that was left around for a couple days became fizzy and intoxicating, as the action of wild yeasts from the air fermented the malt sugar into alcohol. The gruel became beer. p14-15

A 1960's experiment show how efficient an ancient flint bladed sickle could have been in harvesting wild grains, which still grow in parts of Turkey. In one hour the scientist gathered more than 2lbs of grain, which suggested that a family that worked 8 hour days for 3 weeks would have been able to gather enough to provide each family member with a pound of grain a day for a year. But this would have meant that the family stay near the wild grains to ensure they didn't miss the most suitable time to harvest. And having gathered a large quantity of grain, they would have been reluctant to leave it unguarded. p13 Thus, this proves that it is just a few short steps from a flint sickle to Manhattan.

Ancient brewers noticed that using the same container repeatedly for brewing produced more reliable results… because yeast cultures took up residence in the containers cracks and crevices. Finally adding berries, honey, spices, and other flavorings (like hops which came much later) altered the taste of beer in various ways… Egyptian records mention 17 kinds of beer. p17

Clinking glasses with a drinking buddy is older than you think
Sharing a drink w/someone is a universal symbol of hospitality and friendship. The earliest beer brewed in a primitive vessel predated the use of individual cups would have to have been shared. The clinking of glasses today symbolically reunites the glasses into a single vessel of shared liquid. p18

The practice of raising a glass to good health, a happy marriage, or a safe passage is the modern echo of the ancient idea that alcohol has the power to invoke supernatural forces. p20

Since beer was made using boiled water, beer was safer than water to drink. Although the link between ill health and contaminated water was not learned until modern times (Cholera epidemic in 19th century London), ancient humans quickly learned to be wary of unfamiliar water supplies. p21
The drunk pyramid builders
During the construction of the pyramids, the std ration for a laborer was 3 to 4 loaves of break and 4 liters of beer… One team of workers styled themselves as the 'Drunkards of Menkaure' while they build King Menkaure's pyramid. p37

The earliest physical evidence for wine, in the form of reddish residue inside a pottery jar, comes from the Zagros mountains in northern Iran, and has been dated to 5400BC. P47

The reason why wine is so expensive
The Greek historian Herodotus, who visited Mesopotamia in 430BC, described the boats used to carry goods to Babylon and noted that their chief freight is wine. Once the boats arrived downstream and had been unloaded, the boats were nearly worthless, given the difficulty of transporting them back upstream. Instead they were broken up and sold for only a 1/10 of their value. This cost was reflected in the high price of the wine. P50

Wine snobbery I: What did that beer drinking barbarian say?
Greece’s presumed superiority over foreigners were apparent in the Greek love of wine. It was drunk at formal drinking parties or symposia, where drinkers would try to outdo each other in wit, poetry, or rhetoric. The symposia reminded the Greeks how civilized they were, in contrast to the barbarians – foreigners were called barbaroi because to the Greek ear their language sounded like babbling ie. bar bar bar - who drank lowly unsophisticated beer. P52

Wine Snobbery II: What? You only have an 15 acre vineyard?
In 6th century Athens the property owning class of citizens were categorized according to their vineyard holdings: the lowest class had less than 7 acres, and the next 3 classes owned 10, 15, and 25 acres respectively. P54

We’ll do whatever you want, as long as you let us crush our grapes!
During the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, Spartan troops had arrived just before grape harvest time at Acanthus, an Athenian ally. Fearing for their grapes, the locals held a ballot and decided to switch allegiances. The harvest was then conducted unaffected. P54 Proving once and for all that you can’t trust a wine drinker to stay loyal. Would any beer drinking man change sides over chardonnay grapes? Not on your life or your keg.

Ancient Greeks drank with mixed with water. A mixture of equal parts wine and water was regarded as strong wine… Some wines were boiled down before shipping to only ½ or 1/3 of their volume, had to be mixed with 8 to 20 times as much water… Drinking fine wine without mixing it with water was considered barbaric. P57

The original wine cooler.
Snow was collected in winter and kept in underground pits packed with straw to keep it from melting. P57

Let’s party like its 99, BC that is
In 161BC, the Romans passed laws to reign in the conspicuous and excess consumption by the elites specifying the amount that could be spent on food and entertainment on each day of the month; regulated what sorts of meats could be served, and that dining rooms in private homes must have windows facing outwards so officials could check that no rules were being broken. By the time of Julius Caesar, inspectors burst into banquets to confiscate banned foodstuffs, and menus had to be submitted for review by state officials. P77

It has been suggested that the Christian church’s need for communion wine played an important role in keeping wine production going during the dark ages after the fall of Rome. P87

Wine drinking with meals still predominates in the south of Europe, within the former boundaries of the Roman Empire. In the North, beyond Roman rule, beer drinking without meals is more common. P89

1000 years ago, the greatest and most cultured city in western Europe was not Rome or Byzantium or London. It was Cordoba, capital of Arab Spain. There were parks, palaces, paved roads, street lamps, 300 public baths, drainage and sewage systems. Most impressive of all was a public library containing 500,000 books. And it was merely the largest of 70 libraries in the city! P93

Distilling makes any alcoholic beverage stronger because the boiling point of alcohol is 78C, while that of water is 100C. As the alcohol is heated, its vapor begins to rise long before the liquid boils. Drawing off and condensing this alcohol rich vapor produces a stronger drink, though it is far from pure alcohol since some water and other impurities evaporate even at temperatures below 100C. However, the alcohol content can be increased by repeated distillation, also known as rectification. It was the Arabs who discovered and perfected this process initially. One the first Europeans to experiment with this process was an Italian alchemist in the 12th century who learned it from Arab texts. P95

Since distilled wine could be set on fire, it was called aqua ardens, which means burning water… Wine was widely used as a medicine, so it seemed logical that concentrated and purified wine should have even greater healing powers. Distilled wine was being acclaimed in Latin medical treatises as a miraculous new medicine, aqua vitae or water of life. P98

Even the hardiest of yeasts cannot tolerate an alcohol content greater than 15%, which places a natural limit on the strength of fermented drinks. P99

Whiskey, Brandy, and Rum
The Gaelic word for water of life (aqua vitae) is uisge beatha, and is the origin of the word whiskey… Aqua ardens was called burnt wine in German or Branntwein and in English brandywine or brandy. P101… Rumbullion or Kill-Devill is made of sugar canes distilled, and is a hot, hellish, and terrible liquor. Rumbullion was southern English slang for a brawl or violent commotion. This was soon shortened to rum. P109

Beer contains no vitamin C, and in 1795 the Royal Navy switched from beer liquid rations to grog which included the addition of lime or lemon juice, making British crews far healthier… Since wine contains small amounts of vitamin C, the Frency Navy enjoyed some scurvy resistance, except on long cruises where brandy diluted with water was substituted. This offered little protection against scurvy. One British Navy physician reckoned that this contributed directly to Britain’s eventual defeat of the French and Spanish fleets at Trafalgar in 1805. It also how British sailors came to be know as ‘limeys’. P110

Care for some Pennsylvanian olive oil to go with your Virginian Chardonnay?
The English hoped that the American colonies would have a similar climate to the Mediterranean region since it lay at similar latitudes. As a result the English hoped they would be able to supply such goods as olives, fruit and wine, to reduce England’s dependence on continental Europe. P112

Custom of the early colonies decreed that anyone who backed out of a contract before signing it had to provide ½ a barrel of beer or a gallon of rum in compensation. P116

Rum formed the basis of a thriving industry in New England as merchants began to import raw molasses rather than English rum from the Caribbean… Rum soon grew to account for 80% of New England’s export revenue…. And it was being consumed at a rate of nearly 4 gallons per year for every man, woman, and child in the colonies. P118

How a bit of sugar spelled the beginning of the end for English
Parliament’s passing and failure in enforcing the Molasses Act in 1733 [restricting and taxing the importation of French Caribbean molasses over English Rum or molasses which were more expensive] was a colossal blunder because it made smuggling socially acceptable in colonial America, undermining respect for British law. Henceforth, the colonists felt entitled to defy other laws that imposed seemingly unreasonable duties on items shipped to and from the colonies. Widespread defiance of the Molasses Act was early step along the road to American independence. P119

Rum toddy: Mix sugar, water, and rum, plunge with a red-hot poker to taste. P120

Don’t mess with Uncle Sam
In 1791, looking for a way to raise money to pay off the vast national debt incurred during the Revolutionary War, the federal government imposed an excise tax of 7 cents on every gallon of liquor produced at the point of distillation not sale. This meant that whiskey (moonshine) produced for private consumption was subject to excise. Many settlers to America complained that the new federal govt was no better than the British govt whose rule America had just shaken off. Many farmers refused to pay up. Revenue collectors were attacked, and federal marshals were sent to serve writs on farmers who refused to pay… A mob of armed ‘whiskey boys’ swelled to 6000 who gathered near Pittsburgh. President George Washington requisitioned 13,000 troops who were sent to demonstrate the preeminence of federal govt to the secessionists. The Whiskey rebellion, the first tax protest since independence forcefully illustrated that federal law could not be ignored, and was defining moment in US history. P124-6

Scotch-Irish rebels moved farther west into the new state of Kentucky. There they began to make whiskey from corn instead of rye, giving it a unique flavor. The production of this new kind of whiskey was pioneered in Bourbon county, so the drink became known by that name. p126

The introduction of distillation in Mexico by the Spanish led to the development of mescal, a distilled version of pulque, the mildly alcoholic indigenous drink made by the Aztecs from the fermented juice of the agave plant. P129

The breakfast of champions
In 17th century Europe the most common breakfast drinks were weak beer and wine. P136

Care for a nice cup of qahwah?
Drinking coffee seems to have first become popular in Yemen in the mid-15th century… Coffee was known as ‘qahwah’ in Arabic. P137

A wide wake drunk
“Coffee sobers you up instantaneously” a French writer in 1671. The notion that coffee counteracts drunkenness remains prevalent to this day, though there is little truth to it; coffee just makes you an alert drunk and actually reduces the rate at which alcohol is removed from the bloodstream. P136

Starbucks owes the Pope big time.
In 1605, Pope Clement VIII was asked to state the Church’s position on coffee. Opponents argued that since Muslims were not able to drink wine, the Christian holy drink, the devil punished them with coffee… Venetian merchants provided samples and the Pope was enchanted with the aroma and taste. P141

If you ever go back in time, don’t drink the coffee.
In 17th century England coffee was taxed by the gallon, which meant it had to be made in advance. Cold coffee from a barrel was then reboiled before serving, which can’t do much for the taste. Common laments were ‘syrup of soot’, ‘essence of old shoes’. P144

I need a refill mate, why don’t ya beat the daylights outta him.
London coffeehouse customs of the 17th century included that social differences were to be left at the door, toasting to other people’s health was banned, and anyone who started a quarrel had to buy coffee for everyone present. P156

Now you know the rest of the story…
Edward Lloyd’s circa 1680 London coffeehouse became a meeting place for shipowners, merchants, and ship captains, who went to hear the latest maritime news. Lloyd began to collect and summarize this information in the form a newsletter. Some underwriters began to rent booths, and in 1771 a group of 79 of them collectively established the Society of Lloyds, which survives to this day as Lloyd’s of London, the world’s leading insurance market. P163

Tea time
Tea drinking is over 5000 years old, and is documented in Chinese writing. Prehistoric tea from 1000s of years earlier was consumed in a medicinal gruel in southwest China, the tea leaves were mixed with shallot, ginger. Northern Thai tribes boiled them and formed them into balls, then ate them with salt, oil, garlic, fat, and dried fish. Tea was medicine and food before it was a drink. P178

Clueless Europeans
Black tea, which is made by allowing the newly picked green tea leaves to oxidize by leaving them overnight, was regarded by the Chinese as suitable for barbarians, and dominated the exports to Europe. Clueless as to the origin, Europeans wrongly assumed that black and green tea were two entirely different botanical species. P186

The Dutch must have mighty small cups or mighty big bladders…
A 17th century Dutchman proclaimed that people who were ill should consume 50 cups of tea a day; he also proposed 200 cups as an upper limit… He also disapproved of the practice of adding sugar to tea (some medical authorities of the time regarded sugar as harmful). P187

Madame, do you favor your tea with milk or sugar or sheep’s dung?
18th century British tea was often adulterated (due to its high cost). Tea was adulterated in one way or another at almost every stage along the chain from leaf to cup, so that the amount consumed was far greater than the amount imported. Tea was stretched by mixing it with ash and willow leaves, sawdust, flowers, and even sheep’s dung. Black tea became more popular than green partly because it was more durable during long voyages, but also because many of the dyes and chemicals to make fake green tea were poisonous, making even adulterated black tea safer. P189

Doctors and Statisticians agree that there’s nothing like phenolic breast milk
By the early 19th century, doctors and statisticians agreed that the most likely cause of the improvement in British health was the popularity of tea. This allowed the workforce to be more densely packed in cities without disease since tea is boiled. Infants benefited too, since the antibacterial phenolics in tea pass easily into breast milk, lowering infant mortality, and providing a large labor pool for the nascent Industrial Revolution. P201

You could’ve guessed this
During the late 18th century in Europe, artificial mineral water was prepared using sodium bicarbonate (baking soda). This was called soda water or soda for short. P228

You knew about the coca, but what about the cola?
The original Coca-Cola had a small amount of coca extract and therefore a trace of cocaine. This was eliminated in the early 20th century…The nuts of the kola plant from West Africa were another wonder cure that had been discovered by the West around the same time as the coca plant, and also had an invigorating effect when chewed, since they contain 2% caffeine. P238

If only it was Stalin, how different the world would’ve been
Soviet General Zhukov helped end the war in Europe by capturing Berlin. During postwar negotiations Zhukov was introduced to Coke by Eisenhower, and he took a strong liking to the drink. But he was reluctant to be seen enjoying an American icon. Zhukov made an unusual request to his US partners: was it possible to make a Coke w/o coloring so that it resembled vodka? His request was passed Coke HQ, which obliged with a colorless version bottled in cylinders with white cap and red Soviet star on the label. P256

Italians are the most enthusiastic drinkers of bottled water, drinking an average of 180 liters per year each. P267 Have you ever had the tap water in Rome? I think the water system was last updated by the Emperor Hadrian