zooms

Today we started out at the Yas Marina Circuit to join the happy throngs at the most popular race of the year: radical (?) qualifying and the Clio Cup.

Me hanging out with all the other people

My issue with car racing as a spectator sport, besides the complete mockery it makes of the effort to de-emphasize the role of the personal automobile as a necessary agent of personal freedom and agency in an effort to still have somewhere for our species to live, is that the range of risks available for the competitors to take that exist within acceptable bounds of non-lethality is extremely small. In most sports, athletes have the option of making visible, noticable and exciting risks: a high-value move that could result in a fall, an audacious steal of the ball or puck, a breakaway that could win the game or leave you worse off than before. The risks of these moves generally range from embarassment to the potential for minor injury. In motor racing, the potential “loss” outcome of any big move that the audience can actually see is fiery death for you and everyone around you. So while arguably just being in a car going that fast is inherently audacious and exciting, it doesn’t exactly look it to me, a person who has seen cars go before, and when the most exciting crazy move that anyone might pull is to intentionally get close to another competitor, there isn’t a lot of room in the “I want to be excited and impressed but not worried about witnessing horrible deaths” space.

A moment of extreme sporting excitement

Some excitement apparently happened somewhere else

In the afternoon we went to the Louvre Abu Dhabi, which I didn’t take a huge number of photos of, probably because everyone else was. I mean to the point that it was difficult to look at objects, because they were constantly in use as the backgrounds to people’s photos. There was also one of my favourite places, one of the funniest things I have ever seen, one of the many sights of this trip which made me wish David Foster Wallace had lived long enough to see it, which we observed for quite a while whole eating lunch at the cafe: the Hot Girl Observation Deck. The HGOD setup was that a Hot Girl walks out on this runway thing:

A photo captured with difficulty in the brief moment of pause in the Hot Girl lineup

Then, her boyfriend takes photos for her instagram (presumably???) from either the steps or from here:

Then they fight about the photos, and if necessary she rejoins the runway lineup to redo them.

This was obviously the intended usage of this piece of architecture, so I can’t really fault them for showing off how hot they are in the show-off-how-hot-you-are-for-instagram place. However, it would be nice if in front of every single work of art were not ALSO the show-off-how-hot-you-are-for-instagram place.

Showing off how deep I am in front of a different place, I guess

Camels, opera

We read in the paper at breakfast that it was the final day of an important camel racing tournament held just outside of Muscat. Scouring the website of the Oman Camel Racing Federation failed to turn up any sort of event schedule, so we just got in the car and drove out to the grounds– until the very final turn, where we realized that 4 wheel drive was more or less a requirement to make it to the stadium; the rented Suzuki Dzire was not going to do it.

So we turned around, and this was as close as we got to any camels:

After the outlawing of child jockeys, robot jockeys are now the standard in the UAE; I’m not sure about Oman, however, so cannot report back for obvious reasons. (News reports on the events seem to report the name of the camel and the owner, but not the jockey; so the jockey seems to be at least considered a nonperson, which is either benign or sinister depending on whether or not they actually are.)

So we went to the opera house instead. The Royal Opera House Muscat opened in 2011. If a survey of history has ever left you with the nagging feeling that democracy is good for many things but impressive buildings is not one of them, the opera house of Muscat would not do anything to counterindicate your hypothesis. It’s the kind of place that doesn’t seem possible to build in the 21st century; in the context of physical infrastructure for Western classical music, in scale it seems like the kind of place must have been build hundreds of years ago and involved a Habsburg. Which is of course more or less the correct context within which to understand it; it exists because Sultan Qaboos was a personal fan of the arts, and is both a performing arts space and a visible demonstration to foreign investors that Oman’s ability to position itself on the world stage. Sultan Qaboos’ personal collection of historical instruments is displayed in the lobby, which includes a few ceramic serpents as well as brass and string instruments, a glass flute, and my personal favourite, this little dude:

This is a pochette, an instrument I had never heard of apparently developed to allow dance masters to have an instrument handy while teaching steps and carry it around in their, well, pochette.

My pictures don’t exactly do the architecture justice, so here are some other ones:

By Khalidalbusaidi - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=51531638

By Khalidalbusaidi - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=51560838

مَسْقَط

At the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque Sohar we were the only people there during the visitor hours. At the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque Muscat, that was… not the case!

Before visiting the mosque in Sohar I had been somewhat perplexed by a line in the article about it in Oman Magazine stating of the Sohar mosque that “The carpet has a horizontally-lined pattern, which makes it less artistic than the unlined carpet of the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque in Musct, but definitely more practical.” A lined carpet, presumably, keeps people organized while praying; but why was a lined carpet “less artistic” than an unlined one? It turns out “unlined” does indeed mean “without lines,” but not, as I read it, without decoration, so I can confirm that this carpet is indeed the more artistic. In fact, this carpet is the second-largest carpet in the world, weighs 21 tonnes, and took four years to produce.

Now, while it is definitely the first most impressive carpet I have personally seen, that title of second-largest does lead one to ask… and the answer is that the numero uno carpet is at the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, a short drive away from our hotel this weekend in Abu Dhabi.

This is also the site of the second-largest chandelier in the world:

and… you’re not gonna believe where the first is…

Irrigation

Archeological evidence indicates that irrigation systems existed in Oman from 2500 BC; here’s one that’s still hard at work today. The water looked really yummy. You ever seen a body of water that made you want to crouch down and slurp? You have now:

Falaj Daris, a UNESCO World Heritage Site

Contemplating a good slurp

You need a big fort to protect all that prime irrigated land, which Nizwa has, and has had since the 1650s, when Sultan bin Saif, the second of the Yaruba dynasty of Imams, got the massive fortification and castle done in less time than it’s taking to build the Eglinton Crosstown.

Me in his office

The fort from the outside, which I didn’t get a good picture of because it was getting dark– by Andries Oudshoorn, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6841227

Mike’s natural habitat, the coffee preparing room (not to be confused with the coffee making room)

POV: you are about to get boiling oil dumped on you

Pats please

HELLO, I SAID–

high/low, on/off, and other flighty metaphorical entities

Speaking of unexamined cultural assumptions– such as the notion that a number “goes” in order from most to least significant digit-- all of the light switches seem to work in reverse here. As in, the light is on when it’s in the down position, and off when it’s in the up position. This feels wrong, as if there must surely be some real, physical justification as to why up-on/down-off is the correct way for a light switch to work, which of course there isn’t.

Which reminds me of this document which showed up on my RSS reader a few weeks ago: Musical Pitch is Not “High” or “Low”, about different metaphors for pitch. Which was the first time I’d seen it suggested that the idea of high and low pitches is a metaphor; it’s so deeply ingrained in Western musical culture that it feels as if it must be a literal description of physical reality.

And sure, high notes are “high frequency”– but then also, they’re “low period,” so why not that definition instead?1 High notes seem “high” if you play an on-the shoulder string instrument because your hand is closer to your face… but then, if you play a between-the-legs string instrument, high notes have your hand closer to the ground. Vocalized, “high” notes feel higher in the body– but that’s because the only piece of objective physical reality at play here is that shorter objects produce “higher” pitches, and in the context of singing that translates to a higher feeling in the body. If you wanted to map shorter vs. longer objects to a vertical axis, though, a reasonable way to do so would be to stand them up on the shared reference point of the ground– in which case the terminating point of a shorter object is lower to the ground than the terminating point of a longer one, which is higher. And indeed, several cultures and studies on the list do indeed use the high/low metaphors in that other, “reversed” fashion.

Which direction do numbers go?

Feels like a weird thing to not have known, but now I know: the symbols we refer to in the West as “Arabic numerals,” aka regular ol’ numbers, while indeed (“Western”) Arabic, are not the (“Eastern”) symbols used in conjunction with the actual Arabic alphabet.

While learning to count in Arabic, it occurred to me that English having acquired the (Western) Arabic numerals from a language written right-to-left, the way we write numbers in left-to-right English is arguably backwards in relation to the rest of written language. This probably would not have occurred to me had I not just taken a class on digital logic, where the basic material often involves converting between decimal and binary (or hexadecimal if you’re fancy). The understanding required to do that, which generally goes unspoken even though everyone who has mastered counting does know on some level know it, is that a “number” is a collection of symbols representing multiplications of each power of whatever base you happen to be counting in, going up from the right to the left, starting with the base to the power of 0. So the number 6358, in our base-10 system, is implicitly understood as (6 × 103) + ( 3 × 102) + (5 × 101) + (8 × 100), or if you prefer, (6 × 1000) + (3 × 100) + (5 × 10) + (8 × 1).

When you’re reading a number in English, your eyeball hits the most significant digit, i.e. the one on the left which is multiplied by the largest power, first; but you don’t actually know what that digit means until your eyeball hits the least significant digit, i.e. the one on the right. The fact that the number 6358 starts with a 6 means nothing about its magnitude until I know that there are four digits making up the number. In regular life nobody could possibly care about or even notice this discrepancy with how the rest of the language works. But if you wanted to convert numbers between different bases, the first thing you might do is write out all of the powers of the base you have, from 0 up to the highest power needed to give you the number you want– and the only reasonable way to do that is starting at the right and working to the left, since that’s the order in which the final number is going to be written. Similarly, any basic arithmetic operations have to proceed in a right-to-left fashion, since you need to add/multiply/whatever the digits in the smaller positions in order to bring any carries forward to the larger.

Numbers, then, are written in reverse from the rest of the English language in terms of the direction in which you need to work through them. The names we give to numbers fixes the “don’t know what the first digit means until your eye hits the last one” problem, if that could be called a problem; in general the most significant digit is stated first, using a word that tells you how many digits there are going to be in the number before you actually know all of them. The word “twenty nine” tells you from the first word that there are only two digits. In contrast, the Arabic words for numbers reads them out right to left, giving them in order of least to most significant; so 29, or ٢٩, is read “tis’a wa-’ishrun”; first there’s a 9, tis’a, and then a 20, ‘ishrun. You don’t know the order of magnitude of the number until it’s finished being stated, but proceeds in what seems to be a more logical and extensible fashion, from smallest to largest.

So for instance this page states that “numerals in Arabic are written from left to right, while letters are written from right to left.” Unless it’s perhaps referring to usual stroke order, in which case I have no idea, this seems to me to be incorrect or at least Anglocentric. An Anglophone would consider the “direction” a number goes to be from most to least significant digit, but there is no reason that insist that’s the case, and several good reasons to say it’s not and the real “direction” of a number is from least to most significant digit. In which case numerals in Arabic are written right to left, just like they secretly are in English.

Today’s journey through the Hajar mountains, from Sohar to Nizwa by way of Ibri:

صُحَار

The fort in Sohar

Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque Sohar, where we were kindly shown around by a woman from their library. Apparently this mosque is more inspired by Persian architechture, as opposed to– well, I guess we’ll find out when we see the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque Muscat.

The corniche

A restful canon

Two loud green birbs

Dubai

If you ever get too wrapped up in the metaphysics of authenticity, the Dubai Mall Gold Souk wants a word with you. Can a self-conscious recreation of a particular heritage aesthetic, right in the middle of an enormous shopping mall, ever be a “real” example of the kind of thing it’s attempting to recreate?

In North America the answer would be no, go to Tacky Jail for a thousand years. In the Gold Souk, one wonders– okay, if this isn’t the real thing, then what exactly is it? What could possibly make it more “authentic” than it already is? Or rather, what makes things “inauthentic”? If the architecture were made out of cheaper materials than the ones being imitated, perhaps, but clearly no expense has been spared on that front. If it were being used for some purpose other than the one being imitated or by some group other than the ones laying claim to the heritage in question, but in this case it is indeed a place where you can buy gold, precious stones, and perfume for the enrichment of Emirati merchants.

The real purpose of this space seems to be to remind anyone concerned about the authenticity of what they’re viewing: every monument of the ancient world was once an infrastructure project built by a government or individual who wanted to remind you, personally, that sometimes money can in fact buy good taste, or at least buy the ability to determine what good taste is, thank you very much, and hoi polloi are very welcome for the nice place to sit/pray/eat/shop/etc.

Anyway, yesterday we ate breakfast at a place in the middle of it:

And spent a lot of time waiting around in the mall for a place that sold SIM cards to open, before deciding that actually it would be better to just wait out the 24 hour UAE tourist SIM card and then get a longer-term one in Oman. “Waiting around” in the Dubai Mall meant a lot of opportunity to hang out with these guys:

There is an official aquarium tunnel that you can pay to walk through, but the tank is just as visible from the outside of it. We also walked around outside, including to the (outside of the ) opera house; there isn’t anything on at the moment, so this is the closest we could get without paying for a really expensive tour:

Having thoroughly fucked up the get-over-jet-lag-in-Dubai plan by having a four hour nap, we tried to salvage the rest of the day by taking the public transit boat thingy across the creek to Deira:

Dubai was just a short stop on the way to the main purpose of the trip, Oman; we flew to Muscat this morning, then picked up a rental car and drove to Sohar, where we’ll be for the next few days.

Arriving

Toronto to Dubai is 12 hours; I tried sampling the in-flight entertainment system, which now has a huge number of titles, but many didn’t have subtitles and you can’t hear anything over the airplane itself, so unsure what the point is. Ended up rewatching stuff where I already knew more or less what they were saying, namely the episodes of Succession in which this guy mops the floor with those rich fucks (“You can’t make a Tomlette without breaking a few Gregs?”)

Perhaps this was on the mind because my only previous association with Dubai was also this particular guy being really fed up, namely, in the reboot of Interview with the Vampire:

At the limits of that entertainment I also worked on what I’d meant to be working on for the last year, which was that I’d wanted to at least be able to sound out words in Arabic by the time I spent two weeks in the Middle East. Not exactly for practical purposes– in most of the places we’ll be going, all important signs and directions are transliterated anyway– but it would have been nice to have some mode of interaction with the environment other than wandering around saying “English?” like the north american anglophone tourist I am. However, I spent the past year learning circuit analysis and digital logic, not Arabic, so here we are.

I downloaded an Anki deck for the alphabet, and by the time we got off the plane was able to pan around Oman on OpenStreetMaps (the only one I’d downloaded yet since that’ll be most of the trip) and read the place names with, hmm, perhaps 57% accuracy. Extremely introductory language learners– I have noted many times from the other side– are the absolute worst company, because they are likely to point to any word they recognize in the wild and force a full reckoning of their thought process upon anyone in the vicinity. “Look!” I say, pointing to the sign that also says “Dubai Duty Free” in English right there. “That says ‘Souk Dooty something’!”

The UAE gives all incoming travellers a SIM card that works free for 24 hours, right there when they stamp your passport, which is both a) a thing that the kind of person who prattles about surveillance capitalism and the horrors of the corporate web and uses a VPN and surfs the Fediverse as a primary internet activity would never use, and b) a thing that anyone who has just spent 12 hours on an airplane and was already worrying about having to go find a SIM card first thing is absolutely going to use immediately.

Took the metro (“look! those letters spell ‘metro’!”) to the hotel. Perhaps this is just a function of it being, well, not cold as balls outside, but we were remarking on how the residential area surrounding the hotel, at around 10 PM, had a whole lot of people just hanging around outside in ways that you don’t tend to see in the West; for instance, sitting in circles in the middle of a parking lot outside storefronts selling snacks to fuel your parking-lot-sitting. I got some samosas from one such storefront and brought them back to the hotel to eat while engaging in my usual hotel activity of reading the literature provided beside the bed.

From the first few sections of the English Quran, I remarked in even more irritating fashion that a lot of Arabic words are recognizably, and understandably, derived from ancient Phoenician: for instance بَيت bayt, “house”, which corresponds to the (indeterminately vowelled since the Phoenician writing system was an abjad that only included consonant sounds) “BT” listed in the Xeroxed 1974 dissertation on the Phoenician and Punic languages lying around on my computer somewhere. Similarly, the Gideon Quran’s footnote on the use of the word رب rab, “lord/master,” which made me suddenly remember that that was the title applied to Carthaginian political leaders. Which is practically the only words I know in either of those languages, so not exactly conclusive, but (doofenshmirtz voice) it’s weird that it’s happened twice!

Physical intuitions for impedance matching and critical damping

This semester I took an introductory class on electrical circuit analysis. One of the concepts introduced was impedance matching: the idea that if you want to deliver maximum power to a load, the amount that the load “pushes back” on the power source should be equal to (the complex conjugate of) the amount the rest of the circuit pushes back. If you were writing a textbook, you would convince your readers like so:

But what if you weren’t writing a textbook, and wanted to convince someone who was planning on simply getting up and walking away the moment any of those libertine little d’s or, god forbid, the imaginary unit (or the jmagjnary unjt, as the case may be) made an appearance?

Then you could say, imagine you are playing that game where you put a jump rope on the ground and send a pulse through it. You want to try to make sure that the pulse that reaches some given point on the jump rope is, as precisely as possible, exactly the same as the pulse that leaves your hand. You have two choices.

First, you could use two jump ropes tied together, where the two ropes have different thicknesses, or might be made of different materials, or maybe one of them is that beaded kind that hurts like a #!%$ when you hit yourself in the ankle with it:

Or your second option, you could just use one really long jump rope, that has the same thickness and material used throughout.

It’s intuitively obvious that, if there’s a possibility of you being asked to transmit that as-faithful-as-possible pulse to the far side of the rope, you’re way better off with the one long rope. If that isn’t obvious, it’s obvious that you can go buy some jump ropes and try it out for yourself. Of course, the rope that has the same “impedance” throughout is going to transmit the pulse more faithfully, while the tied-together bit is going to muck things up.

A piece of physical intuition that was less obvious to me at first was that for critical damping. In one assignment, we simulated in software and built in meatspace three different versions of an LRC circuit: an underdamped one, overdamped one, and then figuring out what resistive value to swap in to get it critically damped.

Of course, an underdamped circuit oscillates, as seen in both the simulation and the oscilloscope hooked up to a breadboard:

And an overdamped circuit decays exponentially:

A critically damped circuit– i.e., one where the characteristic equation of the circuit has repeated roots, and there is only one natural frequency– decays faster than an overdamped one:

Why, though? When the words are spoken, it sounds like the thing called “overdamped” should do the thing called “decaying” the fastest. The math, of course, is entirely clear: with repeated roots to the characteristic equation, the solution to the differential equation has an exponential decay term multiplied by the independent variable of time, while the overdamped case has no such thing. So of course the critically damped case has to decay faster. But that’s just a property of multiplication, not a good explanation (and we lost the no-libertine-d’s-or-i’s-or-j’s observer some time ago.)

The physical intuition, then: imagine you are dropping a little ball into a glass of some kind of fluid. Your goal is for the ball to come to rest on the bottom of the glass– equilibrium– as quickly as possible. If the fluid is not sticky enough to slow down the ball before it hits the bottom, it will bounce (underdamped.) If the fluid is sticky, it will slow down the ball enough that it won’t bounce– but there is a point of stickiness beyond which any extra stickiness isn’t actually helping to prevent bounces, it’s just delaying the ball reaching the bottom. Just the right stickiness to prevent bouncing, without slowing down the ball’s progress more than necessary, is critical damping; excessive stickiness is overdamping.