Tuesday, 4 December 2007

Things I learned from playing Civ4 - part two of an occasional series

"If you speak the truth, have a foot in the stirrup." - Turkish Proverb

This is often misinterpreted as meaning that if you are going to tell someone a home truth, then it is best to be ready for a swift get-away. But I'd like to unpack it a little further and share the fruits of my research...

Ten years before writing the liberal loveliness that is "The West Wing", Aaron Sorkin wrote the play (later made into a film) 'A Few Good Men', including the famous dialogue:
Tom Cruise: I want the truth!
Jack Nicholson: You can't handle the truth!
Nicholson (or his character - I forget which) then shouts a lot, seeming to forget that despite other faults, Tom Cruise isn't actually deaf. As an aside, Cruise said in a recent interview, "When I was about seven, I had been labeled dyslexic", and claimed that Scientology cured him of that. Presumably they replaced the "dyslexic" label with the "gullible" one... Ithankyou.

Anyway, Sorkin is clearly suggesting here that mere hands are incapable of grasping such a fundamental substance as "truth".

An earlier version of the proverb continues: '...and shout!'. The meaning of this becomes clearer when one recalls that the stirrup (or stapes) is a small bone in the middle ear, that connects the chochlea to the eardrum, via the anvil and hammer (or incus and malleus respectively, in posh). Clearly, if you have your foot inside someone's middle ear, then you are going to have to shout in order to make yourself heard when speaking the truth. On reflection, the truth or otherwise of your words are probably not of utmost import if you have your foot inside someone's ear. Moving on...

As is often the case with proverbs, this was handed down orally for many years, like a game of Chinese Whispers. But in Turkish. Further research from Turkey was needed, and it is now generally accepted that Noah's ark landed in what is now modern Turkey. Contemporary documents reveal that Noah and his extended family were big fans of dairy-based puddings, on account of spending a long time at sea with seven cows. Noah also liked a tipple, to put it midly, (Genesis 9:20-21) which combined with never getting his "land legs" back after nigh on 6 months afloat meant that he was a notoriously messy eater. (Though to be fair, he was 600 years old at this point, so probably a bit frail.) "Great walloping scraggles of nurgle!" he would shout (Milligan 6:9) as he smeared custard into his beard. "That's your ear, dad!" his son Japheth would shout. "Left a bit!" Shem would join in. "That's it!" would shout Canaan, his third and least-good son. Thus my research confirms that the original proverb was in fact:
"If the old man has some fool in his stirrup, you'll have to shout very loudly."

I hope this clears up any confusion.

Thursday, 27 September 2007

"I am a Spartacus order." "No, I am a Spartacus order..."

The unsavoury allegations about Alisher Usmanov have been well-publicised, by the former British ambassador to Uzbekistan among others. Nice-guy Usmanov hired nice-guy laywers Schillings to protect him, and they forced a couple of blogs to be removed from the web, hence killing the story dead. A bit. Usmanov's also (maybe) trying to buy Arsenal FC, who are now desperately backtracking, blaming the "wrong sort of millions" or somesuch.

So who are Schillings, and why did their attempt to kill a story instead cause it to mushroom? They're not inexperienced in such matters. In fact, besides claiming credit for "Hasselhoff wins apology from OK!", they also boast of past success regarding "The internet attacker". Their sob story begins:
Our client was the founder and CEO of a financial services company. An anonymous source created a website which accused our client of assault, various financial crimes and unethical behaviour.
Like most people, lawyers are of course paid to do a job, not paid to be nice, so perhaps it's unreasonable to hope that their response was to ask whether their client was guilty of assult or other "unethical" (not to say illegal) behaviour. Then maybe attempt to put his side of a complicated story, or spin the news agenda a bit? No - Schillings take the lawyer-ish way out and kill the story. As they say:
The internet is not lawless. All the laws that apply to traditional publications apply, plus new regulations have been created. In this instance we:
  • applied to Court for a "Spartacus" order requiring the source to identify himself or his ISP and webhost to identify him; and
  • contacted the host, ISP and various search engines advising them that even though the allegations had physically been posted in the US they were defamatory under UK law as they could be accessed here;
  • search engines and ISPs removed the material.
Once the source was outed and starved of the oxygen of publicity, he quickly settled to avoid a defamation claim.
But can you "out" someone and starve them of publicity at the same time? "Hey everyone! Ignore that person! That person we're pointing to over there!"

However, it is worth being reminded that "The internet is not lawless"...

Packets of tumbleweed get switched past... a man appears in a #000000 hat, riding a #000000 horse into the domain. Doors and other portals slam close and Windows are shuttered. The terrified townsfolk cower, peering out between hubs and from behind hyperlinks. Is he threatening wikivandalism? Denial of service? He sure looks mean...
'Not so fast,' says schillings.co.uk, straightening its #FFFFFF hat while cocking its gun. The man under the #000000 hat spins round, his right hand reaching for his perl-scripted revolver, but that's the last thing he ever does. Two shots ring out, the stranger pauses, frowns, then falls to the floor, his server crashing for the last time. No reboot hill for him. Schillings.co.uk mounts its #FFFFFF horse and rides into the peaceful sunset... The inevtiable comedy-drunk staggers out, leading the grateful crowds on to Main Street, shouting "Who was that stranger? He saved us all!" As if in answer, the wind whips a torn sheet of fanfold paper. The bank manager grabs it and reads out loud:
10 PRINT "I am a Spartacus order! No, "
20 GOTO 10

Thursday, 20 September 2007

I have an enormous optic chiasm

Paul Pierre Broca was a French surgeon and anatomist, with degrees in literature, maths and physics too. In 1861, he described two patients who had lost the ability to speak. After they died, he examined their brains, figured out which bits were knackered and planted his flag there. Recently, these brains, which had been pickled in alcohol (which I'm sure partly explains the original loss of speaking) were scanned using new technology, and it was found that the damage was NOT in Broca's area, but was quite widespread and different in each case.

So should Broca's area be renamed? Or even moved? Mais non! as he would have said, being French and all. For this is the man who also proposed "Broca's rule", viz. that a man should weigh as many kilos as he is centimetres more than one meter. By jingo, he's right! Which means that every centimetre of my body, starting roughly with the tops of my thighs, must weight about one kilogram. I'm not sure whether to be horrified or delighted, so I shall be neither.

A more contemporary brain expert is Dan Hodgins of Flint, Michigan, where he is some kind of educational advisor. He's recently been noted for his claim that in girls' brains, "the crockus is four times larger than in boys". Some people seem surprised by this claim based on the trifling technicality that it doesn't even exist. When pressed, Hodgins claimed it was named after a Dr Alfred Crockus. Who also doesn't exist.

However, I'm with Hodgins on this one: if we limit our claims about neuroscience merely to those brain regions that exist, then we are hobbling ourselves necessarily. This needless entrammelling is a classical sign of people with an under-developed habenular nucleus. Those of us with larger habenular nuclei, which I'm sure includes Hodgins, are quite prepared to go beyond mere observation of reality when we need to win an argument. For example, I have an enormous optic chiasm. If you stand on one side, you can't even see the other side. Admittedly, that's partly due to the high cloud density in the area because of excess moisture in my infundibulum. What they don't teach you at school (and, frankly, shouldn't) is the importance of maintaining a tiny uncinate fasciculus. This can be achieved through a series of meditation/filing exercises: just close your eyes, and visually sort all of your body parts into alphabetic order for 15-20 minutes a day. I do. It does me wonders. To do the rest of the world wonders, I recommend changing your olfactory bulb if you haven't already done so, especially in these times of climate change worries. Use a low-energy replacement, such as a middle temporal gyrus, or even an inferior temporal gyrus, if you don't mind making that little extra sacrifice for the good of humankind.

Thank you.

Thursday, 26 July 2007

Three hundred and eleven

It has recently come to my attention that the number three hundred and eleven has a certain significance.

The London Monument was built as a memorial for the Great Fire, built so that if it toppled over in just the right direction, then the top would land on the exact spot where the fire started at a bakery in Pudding Lane. However, it was also designed to allow scientific studies on atmospheric pressure. Specifically, each step is six inches high, so you can walk up carring a barometer and calibrate it, for instance. Point being: there are exactly 311 steps.

Elsewhere and earlier, the Roman emporer Galerius lead the persecution of Christians for many years. In 308CE, he issued an edict stating that *everyone* had to offer sacrifice to the gods, "and that all provisions in the markets should be sprinkled with sacrificial wine." This is of course against mainstream Christian practice, so they had to sin or starve .
This practice finally ended when Galerius changed his mind and decided to allow Christianity to flourish unhindered, as long as they agreed not to destablise the state. He did this on his deathbed, issuing his "Edict of Toleration" on May 5th. The year? 311.

Then things got interesting. In a foreshadowing of post-war France (where Nazi collaborators were hounded), many Christians had helped the Roman persecution of their fellow believers, even going as far as helping to burn Christian writing. There was then a debate about whether they could ever be forgiven for such terrible apostasy, and one particular sect was founded which refused to forgive them at all. This was Donatism, founded by a chap called Donatus Magnus. The year? 311 (still).

Elsewhere and later, in the USA in fact, the police use codes on their radios for reasons I've never understood. Why not say "this guy's drunk" rather than "this guy's 390"? Does it save time? Reduce ambiguity? Anyway, code 311 is for indecent exposure. I'm sure you can see where I'm going with all of this.

Meantime, the National Center for Biotechnology Information is a fantastic source of biomedical information, all free thanks to the US government. One part of this is a list of biological compounds, each of which is given a unique compound id, or CID. So what, I hear you ask, has a CID of 311? It's Citric acid, as if I need spell it out. Or 2-hydroxypropane-1,2,3-tricarboxylic acid if you want to get technical.

So to summarise: Wren's phallic monument to a careless baker exposes the indecency of tolerating citric acid as a flavouring for doughnuts.

Thursday, 5 July 2007

Things I learned from playing Civ4 - part one of an occasional series

Obviously, the first thing I learned playing Civilisation 4 is that it's very easy to spend many, many hours playing that darned game. Iain Banks apparently once delayed the proof-reading one of his books due to his game-playing, and that meant he missed the Christmas rush. I'm sure he got over it more easily than Peter the Great will get over my destruction of his crossbowmen with a mere handful of tanks! (insert evil laugh). Anyway, one of the joys of playing is the little quotes that pop up when you learn a new technology, complete with Spock's voice-over. So anyway, part one:

"You can get more of what you want with a kind word and a gun than you can with just a kind word" - Al Capone

Although everyone agrees that Capone said this, or possibly "You can go a long way with a smile. You can go a lot farther with a smile and a gun," I've not been able to find the original source. In any event, it wasn't until nearly 20 years after Capone's death in 1947 that the exact extent as to how much more you can get, or indeed how much farther you can go, with a gun was measured. In 1966, the Russian mathematician VS Anishchenko supervised a series of experiments under the auspices of the Soviet space program that were kept from the public record until the mid 1990's, robbing him of the fame he deserved. Briefly, he analysed the works of Tolstoy to identify all the "kind" words. Then using only those words (along with selected propositions and verbs), he saw what he could get by (in strict order) asking, supplicating, cajoling, and finally beseeching from a series of shop-keepers in Evenksky. He then repeated this using exactly the same form of words, but this time accompanied by a gun, pointed firmly at the floor at all times. In total, from 50 shops he obtained 1307 more things with a gun than without, so Anishchenko proposed the SI adopted as a new measuring unit the millicapone. Any item with one millicapone leads to the obtaining of 1.3 more items than without. In his seminal work, Anishchenko demonstrated that:

  • a pistol has one thousand millicapones, or one capone (by definition);
  • a knife has 700 millicapones;
  • a clenched fist scores 230-470 millicapones, depending on whose fist is clenched
  • a banana has -72 millicapones.

This last score, being negative, indicates that holding a banana while asking for anything reduces the chance of you obtaining it, a problem that I'm sure we are all familiar with.

Friday, 1 June 2007

Maraschino cherries and orange futures

The Maraschino cherry makes every Manhattan perfect. Well, actually having equal measures of whiskey and dry vermouth makes a Manhattan perfect, of course. And while it is hard to improve upon perfection, any cocktail is surely improved by being served at the Savoy's American Bar. It's described as "American" after Harry Craddock, an influential barman of the 1920's, and not after Ernest Wiegand, the American professor at Oregon State University who re-invented the maraschino cherry in the 1920's (thanks again, Simone!).

Interestingly enough, the name "vermouth" comes from Wormwood, a herb more famously used to flavour Absinthe. Wormwood is also a road of bankers in the City of London, and the name of a "great star" in the book of Revelations at the tail end of the Bible, which claims it will fall to earth, making "one third" of the planet's water fatally bitter. As Kato Mivule said in a dream, "I was like, no Lord no!", which seems like a fair reaction to the upcoming apocalypse. On further investigation, I learned that the makers of Vermouth add sweeteners to it, because otherwise it tastes too bitter. So if you see a "great star" burning across the sky, just reach for a Maraschino cherry and the sugary juice they come with. Should do the trick nicely.

Going back to the Manhattan cocktail, although there are various claims to its origin and originator, it was certainly made famous by Winston Churchill's mother, Jennie Jerome, who was a bit of a goer, by all accounts. Her husbands, besides Lord Randolph Churchill, included George Cornwallis-West and Montague Phippen Porch, both good working class lads from the clay pits of Bedfordshire. Mrs Churchill's active promotion of the Manhattan led to a surge in demand for Maraschino cherries, much as Delia Smith's comments on cranberries did some years later. There is no evidence to suggest that either Churchill or Smith personally profited by careful investments in fruit futures, showing that art doesn't always imitate life.

Wednesday, 23 May 2007

Tubular balls

Mathematically, a "metric" is a function that defines the distance between pairs of points. The usual, everyday metric is the Euclidean metric, but there are plenty of others. The Euclidean metric is defined as the square root of the sum of the squares of the distances along each dimension, such as the north-south difference and east-west difference between two points. So if you draw a line between two points on a map, and form a right-angle triangle with the north/south and east/west grid lines, then the Euclidean distance is the length of the hypotenuse of the triangle. Other metrics include the so-called "taxi cab" or "Manhattan" metric, which adds together the north-south distance to the east-west distance, just like walking along the lines of grid.

In general, all metrics are non-negative (nothing is closer a point than the point itself), symmetric (going is the same as coming back) and have triangular inequality (meaning there's no shortcut to a straight line). If we take the p-th root of the sum of the differences, each raised to the power p, then we have the p-norm. So the Euclidean distance is a 2-norm and the Manhattan distance is the 1-norm. There's also an infinity norm, which if you don't mind thinking about taking the infinitieth-root of numbers raised to the power infinity is actually very simple: it's just the length of the single longest side of the triangle not counting the hypotenuse, in the map example.

And today I learned that travelling from King's Cross to Euston on the London Underground is 0.1 miles shorter on the Northern line than it is on the Victoria line. Let's use the notation that <A>L<B> means travelling from A to B on underground line L. So if I do <KC>N<E> then <E>V<KC> I end up back at King's Cross where I started, but travelled further on the way back (Victoria line) than I did on the way out (Northern line). By extension, if I do <KC>N<E>V<KC>N<...>V<KC> (i.e. repeat the looping journey) enough times, then I should end up back where I started, but will have travelled a negative distance. Thus that corner of North London obeys none of the three laws of metrics listed above.

Given that the Parisian underground is the "Metro", which sounds a lot like "metric", one can only assume that their system is more rigorously Euclidean, and no such shortcuts are allowed with typical Napoleonic efficiency.

Monday, 14 May 2007

The inevitable Sweeney post

Everyone knows that ITV's classic gritty cop show, The Sweeney, was centred around two characters called Carter and Regan, between them a mere one letter away from the 39th and 40th presidents of the USA respectively. The actor who played their boss, DCI Haskins, is called Garfield Morgan (James Garfield was the 20th president). The 19th president was Rutherford B. Hayes, and large parts of the show were filmed in and around Hayes, in West London. We're told in one episode that Regan's mother came from Cleveland (c.f. Grover Cleveland, 24th president).

The show's title is of course rhyming slang (for Flying Squad), and the characters often use it. For example, in the episode "Crane Flies", George Carter describes one petty vandal as being "a bit William Howard in the 'ead, guv", meaning "daft" (after William Howard Taft, 27th president). And several times, Regan refers to desk-bound police officers as being "herberts", a clear reference to Herbert Hoover (31st president), who was notoriously desk-bound after a horse-riding injury. And now the Greater Manchester police have an Assistant Chief Constable Vincent Sweeney, responsible for Territorial Policing. I can hardly Adam'n'Eve it, guv!

(Of course, if you add up all the numbers of the presidents listed above... well, I needn't spell it out.)

Wednesday, 9 May 2007

Various Portlands

With somewhat belated thanks to the lovely Simone, I recently learned that many of the characters in the popular animated television series, "The Simpsons", are in fact named after streets of Portland, Oregon, where said Simone currently resides. Apparently this is very well known, but I've never been to that Portland and in fact have only visited the UK's Portland Bill the once, on a school field trip. Somehow, I had never heard of the FilmFair cartoon series, The Adventures of Portland Bill until today, though it does sound a) cracking, and b) exactly the kind of thing I lapped up when I was a kid. Back to the Simpsons' Portland though, and what people seem to have forgotten is where it got its names from in the first place. One of the cities founders, a Francis W. Pettygrove, chose in 1845 to name Portland after his hometown (also called Portland, in case you were wondering). He bought the claim to the land from a Mr Overton who had bought a land claim for half the area. The other half was owned by lawyer Asa Lovejoy, who later became mayor and chief justice, and is lovingly recorded for posterity via the character of the Reverend Lovejoy in the aforementioned Simpsons. Anyway, Lovejoy was a big fan of Charlotte Mary Yonge and in particular, her novel "Heartsease, Or, the Brother's Wife". When the street layout of Portland (Oregon) was being designed, Lovejoy went through his bookshelf and noted down suitable names from this and a handful of other books. So yes, Ned Flanders is named after Northeast Flanders St., but Northeast Flanders St. is only called Northeast Flanders St. because Yonge set part of "Heartsease" in a fictional Lancastrian village of Wrangerton, whose local vicar was called... Flanders. Indeed, in Heartsease there is a passing reference to a "Bishop Fox", "a north-country bishop" who was obsessed with the future, and particularly the Twentieth Century. No mention of Television though, clearly.

Just for the record, the opening lines from Heartsease are:
The sun shone slanting over a spacious park, the undulating ground here turning a broad lawn towards the beams that silvered every blade of grass; there, curving away in banks of velvet green; shadowed by the trees; gnarled old thorns in the holiday suit whence they take their name, giant's nosegays of horse-chestnuts, mighty elms and stalwart oaks, singly or in groups, the aristocracy of the place; while in the background rose wooded coverts, where every tint of early green blended in rich masses of varied foliage.
They don't write 'em like they used to...

Thursday, 26 April 2007

Tea for Two

Those crazy Spanish academics in Barcelona have figured out why green tea is good for you. Apparently, it's because of "an extremely narrow adiabatic potential-energy profile corresponding to the hydrogen abstraction by the peroxyl radical," which is much as I always expected. I once took part in a study at UCL into the benefits of black tea, which included being made to do stressful tasks while someone measured my cortisol levels. I had to drink some rather unpleasant fruit tea for 10 weeks, and no coffee, no chocolate, no cranberries. Still, I was well paid and contributed more to science in those 10 weeks than the previous three years (during which I completed my PhD in tea studies).

The Dormouse in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland was occasionally woken by the Mad Hatter by having hot tea poured on its nose. While this is cruel and unusual, the real point that Carroll was making is a reference to a Biblical story. Lewis Carroll was the pen-name of the Reverend Charles Dodgson, sometime vicar of Daresbury. A favourite sermon topic of his was an account of when then prophet Elijah was wandering in the desert, near starvation, he prayed to God. The next day, some ravens bought him some meat to eat, under God's command, and a dormouse bought him tea to wash it down with, as is every Englishman's right. By the way, Dodgson's middle name was "Lutwidge" which is anglicized via Latin as "Lewis", while "Charles" becomes... Carroll. Hence the pen-name. Rather more impressive than the usual porn-name generator.

Thursday, 12 April 2007

I can sing a rainbow

Aristotle believed that rainbows were made up of just three colours: red, green and violet. He said that sometimes, you can also see yellow, but this is just "due to contrast for the red is whitened by its juxtaposition with green." He was sadly unaware of refraction and so tried to explain rainbows purely in terms of reflection, which is tricky. Does a cloud look like a gigantic ball of mirrors to you? Ibn al-Haitham introduced the idea of refraction (along with camera obscura, possibly) and totally re-invented optics towards what we know today. He way cool. Isaac Newton was convinced there were seven colours in the rainbow, so he made up the name "indigo" for one of them.

In fact, we can see around seven million colours in the rainbow, though we don't yet have names for all of them. A UN-sponsored project, headquartered in Sweden, is collating every colour name used in every language spoken (and as many extinct languages as can be analysed). The aim is to come up with a definitive list of all 7 million visible shades.

Monday, 2 April 2007

Irradiating bathers

Seurat's rightly-famous painting "The Bathers" has many interesting features, including the use of irradiation. That is to say that if a light object is placed on a darker background, then it appears even lighter. So certain light objects (e.g. the bathers' skin) are enhanced by darkening their backgrounds (e.g. the water) in a way that is a) totally artificial and b) very pleasing. This has been known for centuries, and is an example of simultaneous brightness contrast. The eye is not trying to tell us exactly how the world is, but only allowing us to behave usefully in the world.

Irradiation also refers to bombarding objects with radio waves (such as gamma or x-rays), typically in order to sterilise food. When anthrax was sent through the US mail repeatedly a few years back, the postal service started routinely irradiating parcels and letters. This led indirectly to the bankruptcy of at least three mail-order cheese companies, whose products were irradiated to the extent that the mould in the blue-cheeses was killed, along with widespread problems regarding magenetic tapes, photographic films and slides becoming corrupted.

Wednesday, 28 March 2007

Stigler's Law states that scientific laws are typically named after the second person to have discovered them, or else the person who promoted someone else's original idea rather more successfully. For example, Haley didn't discover Haley's comet, nor did Planck invent Planck's constant. And finally nor did Stigler invent Stigler's law...

Speaking of laws, according to the (unrepealed) 1738 Flotsam Act, it is technically illegal to 'cause any man-made illumination to be visible to shipping' off the coast of Cornwall. It was introduced to stop Cornish criminals luring ships onto the rocks in order to pinch their cargo, but theoretically also applies to flipping the kitchen light on in Penzance when you fancy a late-night cuppa. Don't say you haven't been warned!

Monday, 26 March 2007

Just how hungry are you?

In 1884, four sailors were left adrift after their ship sank. They had two tins of turnips and managed to catch the (very) occasional fish. So, after 20 days adrift, they slit the throat of the cabin boy and ate him, before being rescued a few days later. As I write this, it's is past my usual lunchtime and I'm quite hungry. So my immediate response is "20 days?! They waited 20 days before getting dinner ready? Such self-control is admirable."

Don Lerman once ate 800 grams of butter in 5 minutes. How long would a cabin boy of lasted him?

Monday, 19 March 2007


The area of South London known as "Elephant and Castle" gets its name from the Infanta di Castille, or "The child of the castle" in English. Specifically, "Infanta" referred to the eldest daughter of a Spanish monarch without a claim to the throne, and in this case, it was Eleanor, wife of Edward I but originally from Castille. Much like Victora two hundred years later, the newly expanding area was named after the current queen.

The area of South London known as "Elephant and Castle" gets its name from a local cutlery company in the area from the 18th century. They made ivory-handled forks and spoons, and so their logo was an elephant with a howdah on its back. The howdah is a kind of oversized saddle with a roof on, and looks a little bit like a castle. If you squint. The logo of the The Worshipful Company of Cutlers also features an elephant and howdah/castle.

Thursday, 15 March 2007


By 2010, it is estimated that nearly 3% of the capacity of all digital storage media (hard disk drives, flash drives, memory sticks, the lot) will consist of photographs and video clips of the London Eye. At this rate, we'll have to start deleting medical records from The Spine just to make room for holiday snaps and wannabe artists' works. Which will be no bad thing (ooh! Bit of politics there!)

But well before then, in fact just now, the first mass-produced terra-byte hard disk drives have reached the market, so we're safe for a while yet.

Monday, 12 March 2007

Nearly there...

According to the OED, the word 'nearly' has six distinct meanings as an adverb, and one more as an adjective. There are also a number of special compound forms listed, such as "nearly new" and "nearly man". Which leaves undefined the compound "nearly nearly", as in "we're nearly nearly there." If one treats the first nearly as an adjective modifying the second nearly, which in turn is an adverb modifing 'there' in this case, then it is clear that being "nearly nearly X" is equivalent to "nearly (nearly X)", i.e. "almost as near as nearly X, but not quite as near." But of course if the first nearly modfies the same root as the second nearly, then it is an emphasiser to be interpreted as "(nearly nearly) there", i.e. "even more near than nearly X is". So being nearly nearly there is either more nearly than being nearly there, or less nearly than being nearly there. With me?

After Zeno of Elea had proved that "that the flying arrow is at rest", the Greek army disbanded their archery division and replaced them with a platoon of mirror-wielders. They would focus beams of reflected sunlight onto the shields of opposing armies, causing small fires to break out. Sadly, the entire platoon was wiped out during an ill-conceived pre-dawn raid.

Monday, 5 March 2007

Bring me sunshine!

Recently, I was dancing madly in the style of Morecambe and Wise at the sheer joy of having been married for two entire years. However, unlike those great men I am a mere amateur at many of the entertainment arts, including dancing. And so I somehow contrived to kick my own hand rather sharply somewhere behind my back. Not only did it hurt, but a later x-ray revealed that I had managed to fracture the joint and must wear a splint for weeks.

Prometheus, a Greek Titan and brother of Atlas, sister of Wendy, was also a big fan of Morecambe and Wise. So was Icarus. Indeed, they were inspired by the signature song to steal fire from the gods and bring it to men using wax-coated fennel. Men that Prometheus had previously shaped out of clay, breathed life into, and then noticed that they got cold at night. Might have saved a lot of trouble if he'd thought about that in advance and given us central heating instead. That, or Bovril.

Wednesday, 28 February 2007

What colour's that? And when?

The Welsh traditionally had no words that directly correspond to the English words green, blue, grey or brown. The word "glas" matched part of what English would call green, but a totally different word covered what (to English) would be another shade of green. That term also covered blue and some of grey. I knew that certain cultures made different boundaries between colours, but Welsh was a surprise - the physical experiences and their significances must be very similar on either side of Offa's Dyke.

The word "grue" to a logician/philosopher refers to things that are green before the year 2000 and blue afterwards. Similarly, "bleen" things are blue before 2000 then green. It was introduced in 1955 by Nelson Goodman as a way to discuss potential paradoxes in predicate logic. The choice of the year "2000" in 1955 and subsequent writings was of course shorthand for "some point in the future" but now, in 2007, is better understood as "some point in the past." Thus one inherent paradox of predictate logic no longer applies, and we can safely use it.

Thursday, 22 February 2007

You can't see me!

Well, not if I'm painted just the right shade of green and you're reading this of a standard monitor. Monitors show colour by mixing red, green and blue light sources, so-called primary colours. Mixing them in different proportions produces a huge gamut of colours, but nonetheless, there is no mixture that produces wavelengths around 500nm - or "green" to you and me. To get that, as I understand it, you need to either have a negative amount of red (impossible if you're just adding light to other light) or else start with super-saturated light sources (also impossible). A normal RGB monitor will of course show green, just not certain wavelengths of it.

It also might be true that if you balance a scared chameleon on the back of a randy squid, it will die, for one of two reasons. Squids attract partners by changing their skin colours, often quite rapidly and extremely. Chameleons change their skin colour to blend in to the background, especially when frightened by a potential predator. This takes a lot of energy, so the chameleon will rapidly exhaust itself and die. Either that, or it will drown first.

Tuesday, 20 February 2007

Big bags

Paddy Doyle holds the world record for bag punching. In 1983, he punched his way out of 38 wet paper bags in under a minute, an achievement never officially bettered. (The Soviet athlete, Alexander Borchuk, claimed to have punched through 41 in the same time in 1986, but this was never officially accepted.)

Things on the floor around ten feet (or more) away from you appear closer that they really are. The higher something gets, the further away it looks. At eye level, things look further away than they really are. www.purveslab.net

Friday, 16 February 2007


The Spanish national anthem has no words. Every time they 'sing' it, they feel the need to explain this, just in case observers think that they have all forgotten them. Still, that's better than having to sing "...May she sedition hush and like a torrent rush, Rebellious Scots to crush, God Save the Queen!" as the British anthem concludes. Sadly, I haven't made that last bit up. It's just that the word were written at a time when the Scots were playing up a bit, and we never got round to changing them.

Smacking things

Some things I learned last week.

"Among heroin users, the major artery for injection is known as "your bitch", hence the Prodigy's most famous track Smack My Bitch Up," according to Kate Figes in her article "Who are you calling a bitch?" http://www.guardian.co.uk/women/story/0,,1999060,00.html
I feel slightly happier about that song now.

In Avignon, the traditional way to cook snails is to fry them in garlic and white wine after shelling. The shelling takes place by dousing the live snail with eau de vie and then sharply smacking the back of the shell. The snail is too drunk to hold on to the inside of its own shell, and falls neatly into the waiting hot pan. A local children's playground game is known as "frapper l'escargot!"


I've been thinking about setting up a blog for ages. Years, probably. So finally I've done it, and will faithfully maintain it with regular updates until the inspiration runs dry.

Facts are sacred, but some more so than others. So half of this blog will consist of things that I have learned, usually on or shortly after I have learned them. The rest will consist of random stuff I make up. I only hope that it is obvious which is which, at least half the time... For example, every sentiment in this entry is true, up until this point. From now on, who knows? After all,
if I say I'm eating a banana while typing, who can contradict it?