Posts Tagged ‘humor’

Two days ago I started reading James Gleick’s new book, The Information. I don’t know what the critics think, but it has met my two most important criteria: It held my attention; I learned something new. And a third, good prose style — efficient if not poetic — is also satisfied. So here is today’s little gem from the book: Talking Drums. The first, brief report of these to the European public was by Francis Moore in 1730, who navigated the Gambia River on a reconnaissance mission for the slave trade. A century later, Captain William Allen, on an expedition up the Niger River, noticed more. Speaking of his Cameroon pilot, he wrote:

Suddenly he became totally abstracted, and remained for a while in the attitude of listening. On being taxed with inattention, he said: “You no hear my son speak?” As we had heard no voice, he was asked how he knew it. He said, “Drum speak me, tell me come up deck.” This seemed to be very singular.

Singular it was indeed! It was not until the publication in 1949 of The Talking Drums of Africa, by the missionary John Carrington, that non-Africans understood and deciphered the drummers’ code. Carrington realized that drummers could quite communicate complex information — “birth announcements, warnings, prayers, even jokes” — over long distances through a specialized tonal language. It was a language that was nearing extinction just as its secret was uncovered.

I don’t want to take away your reading pleasure, so I will leave you with these (1) the drummers had developed an amazingly sophisticated system of disambiguation and error correction that allowed them to communicate complex sentences using only two tones, (2) A man from the Lokele village, where Carrington lived for many years, had this to say about him:

He is not really European, despite the color of his skin. He used to be from our village, one of us. After he died, the spirits made a mistake and sent him off to a far away village of whites to enter into the body of a little baby who was born of a white woman instead of one of ours. But because he belongs to us, he could not forget where he came from, and so he came back.” The man added, “If he is a little bit awkward on the drums, this is because of the poor education that the whites gave him.

Postscriptum. As a fun little programming exercise, JC and I worked up something to transform text to an imaginary musical language. Below is the text and the “music.”

Hey man, look at the sun!
Hey man, it keep us warm!
It grow our our food,
It keep us warm.
Hey man, look at the sun,
And feel it be warm on your face!!

Hey man, look at the sun!

For the source code for converting text to music, if you are interested in such things, see our github repository. It is part of our sf2sound project. The most relevant files are talk.py and talk.sh.

NOTES. The transformation of text to “music” effected by talk.py encodes vowels as quarter notes — a = do, e = re, i = mi, o = fa, u = sol. Consonants are encoded as a pair of eighth notes, e.g., p = do re, b = re do. All the plosives are encoded as a major second, unvoiced ones rising, the voiced ones falling. In general, members of a phonetic group — fricatives, liquids, etc. — share some musical feature, e.g. the same interval. Spaces and punctuation marks are coded by a short melodic fragment. See the code for talk.py for further information.

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Yesterday I stopped by Bob Slate’s to pick up a new brush and some acrylic paint. The nice thick kind that comes in tubes, not that thin watery stuff. Also looking at the painting supplies was an elegant and beautiful woman, perhaps sixty years old. She wore a long dull green coat and a fur hat. A friend greeted her, her voice ranging over an octave and half in the course of eleven words: “Mary, how ARE you? It is so good to see you!” Mary, at a lower and more compressed pitch range, but with the melody rising at the end of the phrase: “Wonderful, except that I just MUST find a good chiropractor for my dog. Can you recommend one?”

Strange customs in my new country! I will have to tell my friends back in Reykjavik.

By the way, it is 27 degrees Fahrenheit in Reykjavik and 21 here in Cambridge. My emigration to southern latitudes is full of surprises!


PS. The weather has been horrid (see photo below). So I decided to check some numbers: Reykjavik is at 64 degrees North latitude, Cambridge, Massachusetts is at 42. Rome is at 41 degrees North! So what have I done wrong!! I doubt that my Italian friends are suffering like this. In fact, I know they are not: it is 59 degrees there, 3 o’clock in the afternoon, and they are all at the local bar talking, drinking coffee, and ogling the passersby. From time to time they whistle, or break into song – or so I imagine. Time to review my emigration documents!


Cambridge, Massachusetts, February 2011

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I found the following on a friend’s facebook post:


Sample art from xkcd.com

It is proof that comedy can be found anywhere, even in Inner Geekdom. Click on the image above and see for yourself!

PS. The drawing you find by clicking deserves careful study. The more you look at it, the funnier it gets. Especially if you know about electrical circuits and other mysteries of this mortal world. Note, for instance, the function of the rectifier circuit and its close proximity to a capacitor operating on a decidedly innovative substance. Further up, near the right margin is a timer circuit provided by the Beast himself. Fortunately one lead has not been connected, so perhaps the timer will not fire. Also reassuring is the exceptional quality of the circuit ground. See lower right-hand corner. Further textual analysis is left to the interested reader.

PPS. More humor


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