Category Archives: Random

How old is the tale of the smith and the devil?

Comparative phylogenetic analyses uncover the ancient roots of Indo-European folktales

Sara Graça da Silva and Jamshid J. Tehrani

Ancient population expansions and dispersals often leave enduring signatures in the cultural traditions of their descendants, as well as in their genes and languages. The international folktale record has long been regarded as a rich context in which to explore these legacies. To date, investigations in this area have been complicated by a lack of historical data and the impact of more recent waves of diffusion. In this study, we introduce new methods for tackling these problems by applying comparative phylogenetic methods and autologistic modelling to analyse the relationships between folktales, population histories and geographical distances in Indo-European-speaking societies. We find strong correlations between the distributions of a number of folktales and phylogenetic, but not spatial, associations among populations that are consistent with vertical processes of cultural inheritance. Moreover, we show that these oral traditions probably originated long before the emergence of the literary record, and find evidence that one tale (‘The Smith and the Devil’) can be traced back to the Bronze Age. On a broader level, the kinds of stories told in ancestral societies can provide important insights into their culture, furnishing new perspectives on linguistic, genetic and archaeological reconstructions of human prehistory.

Command-line PHP on QNAP hardware

QNAP network-attached storage devices run a lightweight Linux derivative. It’s not a fully-functional Linux (specifically, it can’t update itself from the command line), but a lot of “Linuxy” things are possible nevertheless. Specifically, it is possible to run PHP from the command line, as long as you take care to either refer to the PHP executable by its full path or add its location to $PATH.

On my HS-210, the PHP executable resides in /mnt/ext/opt/apache/bin. To verify which executable it is, I ran the following command:

/mnt/ext/opt/apache/bin/php -r "echo php_sapi_name();"

which returned


This signifies that the executable is the command-line (CLI) executable rather than the CGI executable.

Canons of good spin

Dan Dennet’s canons of good spin (heard in Reverse-engineering Religion):

  • It is not a bare-faced lie
  • You have to be able to say it with a straight face
  • It has to relieve skepticism without arousing curiosity
  • It should seem profound

GPS and relativity

In order for GPS to work correctly, the software must explicitly take into account both special relativity and general relativity.

Adjustment for special relativity is needed because satellites fly around the Earth at approximately 8 km/s, which by itself results in time aboard a satellite flowing about 7 microseconds per day slower compared to time on Earth.

Adjustment for general relativity is due to the fact that GPS satellites orbit at a distance from Earth, where its gravitational pull is somewhat weaker compared to that on the Earth’s surface. This (again, by itself) leads to time aboard a satellite flowing approximately 45 microseconds per day faster compared to time at the sea level.

(Source: public lecture by Barry Barish at the Fermilab)

Literature: fantasy vs. realism

…judged by the standards of fantasy, modernist realist fiction, with its narrow focus on daily details of contemporary human affairs, is suffocating and unimaginative, almost unavoidably trivial, and ominously anthropocentric.

(Ursula K. Le Guin, The Critics, the Monsters, and the Fantasists)

BMJ goes myth-busting

The British Medical Journal recently did some serious myth-busting (see part one and part two). Apparently, all of the following are myths:

  • Sugar causes hyperactivity in children
  • Suicides increase over the holidays
  • Poinsettia is toxic
  • Not wearing a hat causes excess heat loss
  • Eating late in the day makes you fat
  • You can cure a hangover
  • People should drink at least eight glasses of water a day
  • We use only 10% of our brains
  • Hair and fingernails continue to grow after death
  • Shaving hair causes it to grow back faster, darker, or coarser
  • Reading in dim light ruins your eyesight
  • Eating turkey makes people especially drowsy
  • Mobile phones create considerable electromagnetic interference in hospitals.


Dani Rodrik’s academic fantasy

Dani Rodrik writes:

I once had a fantasy. I would devote a whole year, perhaps a sabbatical, just to reading and thinking, and would not write anything. I mean really nothing: no papers, no articles, no op-eds, no contributions to collected volumes. I would turn down all invitations to contribute papers to conferences or books by saying “Thank you. but I am just reading and thinking this year, not writing.” The idea was to force a fundamental correction in the balance of trade between what went in my head and what came out.

I really don’t think it works that way, unless you have a total recall. You read a book by A, and you get really intrigued how it resonates with another book written by B twenty years ago on a completely different factual material (and with your own thinking on the subject). If nothing else, it begs a note to self…