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.