Monday, 20 August 2012

Yes, I have just bought a camera ...

Is this  a picture of:

a)     structures growing on the surface of Mars?
b)     the top of my lawyer's bald head?
c)     something else entirely?

Answers on a postcard please. And apologies to Clive Anderson.

Still living in Snowland

Well, the Olympics are over and there's a sense of national regeneration in the air here in London, but
I'd just like to remind you of an aspect of our culture that still needs to be raked out and stamped on. But first a few questions:

Do you, noble reader, consider yourself well educated? If you do, then answer the following:

1) Do you know what a ribosome does?

2) Could you state any one of Kepler's laws of planetary motion?

3) Are you able to write down an example of a differential equation?

A big "no" on all three? Don't know even where to begin? It doesn't matter, you can always Google it, right?

Actually, you shouldn't be having any trouble, because these are all pretty basic questions if you have a nodding acquaintance with science.

We are still living in the Snowland of 1959, C.P. Snow's divided culture, and you should look him up on Google. Suffice to say that Snowland is a place in which the properly educated make the half-educated feel uncomfortable, and the ignorant are marginalized without knowing it.

Only a fool misunderstands the difference between stupidity and ignorance. In this context, "ignorance" means having never learned any science or maths, while a true fool is one lacking the ability to understand either. Fortunately, there are many more in the former condition than there are in the latter. The basics of science aren't hard to grasp, they aren't hard to teach and they aren't hard to recognize as important. They can be taught generally, while engendering a tremendous sense of wonder in the student, but most importanly this stuff must be taught to the kind of people who go on to form our elites. If it isn't obvious why, then you really are a fool.

In a society that will soon have to make its living once again by knowing how to profit from understanding how the world works, comprehending the works of Michael Faraday is going to be far more important than digesting the works of John Keats. The point here is an important one. All the scientists I know (and I know a few top ones) have usually had a representative exposure to poetry, but the literati I've know have absolutely no idea about science or maths, and what's more: they tell you so with a degree of pride.

Not only does this educational black hole make them dangerously ignorant, it often makes them resentful. The BBC, and especially its Radio 4 "Today" Programme, became notorious for slighting comments about newsworthy science items, with shy-away phrases like: "We'll have to get a boffin to explain that to us", and: "All rather beyond me, I'm sure." Announcers who had no trouble pronouncing the name of an obscure African dictator, would stumble over the most commonplace scientific term, and the stumble would be worn like a badge of pride rather than the stigma of ignorance it actually was. The sub-text running through this kind of treatment is, "Neither you, Dear Listener, nor I, know what these outlandish people (the aforementioned boffins) are talking about, and we don't really want to know, do we? But we've been aked to report it, so there it is."

Not really good enough, is it?

Some years ago I had reason to visit a cubicle in the lavatories of one of Oxford University's science labs on South Parks Road. A wag had drawn on the wall an arrow pointing at the loo roll; above that he had writtten, "Humanities Degrees, Please Take One."

Be warned.

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

A Place by Any Other Name

Can somebody please explain to me why the Indians have changed the names of three of their best known cities?

I refer, of course, to: Bombay, Calcutta and Madras. (I'm sure these places are not alone, and there is a rolling program of doing this.) There is a governmental foolishness about this kind of thing that defies description let alone understanding. It's like London being renamed by some crazy despot "Londinium", or the American government foisting "New Amsterdam" on New York.

What purpose does it serve and who is the maniac behind it? Perhaps his brother is a publisher of atlases and globes.

A Rose by Any Other Name

Thousands of emails have been pouring in, telling me that Namgyal Wangdi wasn't the man who first climbed Everest along with Ed Hillary in 1953. Well, I exaggerate: I have received comparatively few emails on the subject. But the concensus seems to be that it was someone called Sherpa Tenzing.

Well, you see, I set a trap for you, my noble readers, because Namgyal Wangdi was Sherpa Tenzing. Actually, referring to the man as "Sherpa Tenzing" is rather like referring to Ed Hillary as "New Zealander Ed", because Sherpa Tenzing's actual name was Tenzing Norgay. (Norgay means "lucky".)

So, who's this Namgyal Wangdi feller?

Ah, well, the name Tenzing Norgay was a name given to Namgyal Wangdi when he was a child by the prior of Rongbuk monastery. It means something like "lucky pilgrim." Isn't that fascinating.

Bizarre Economics

Mervyn King - no, not Mervyn "The King" King the darts player, and not Mervyn King the England bowls international, nor even Mervyn King the South African judge - I mean Sir Mervyn King - the Mervyn King as it were, current governor of the Bank of England ...

Has there been a wager over how many times Mervyn King can be mentioned in one short blog? Am I going for the name droppers' world record in Mervyn King mentions? Is this some curious experiment connected with search engine optimization as regards Mervyn King?


I just wanted to say that even Mervyn King, with all he knows about money (presumably), could not explain a recent lump of modern economics that recently befell me. Get this:

I have an old Sony camcorder, and old Sony camcorders have a screw thread at the front on which you can mount accessories such as filters and the like. This thread has a diameter of 37mm (don't ask me why.)

I recently found, on my beloved ebay, a pair of lenses: one x0.5 wide-angle, the other x2 telephoto, contained in a handy little leatherette case. It seemed too good to miss, so I placed my bid, and at the fall of the notional hammer I acquired the same for a bargain £3. This bargain soon more than halved, however, since to actually take possession of the item I had to stump up a further £3.50 in postal charges, a tad more, note, than the actual value of the item.

Once the lenses arrived, I discovered that they were not threaded for 37mm, but for a measely 28mm. Since it would have cost me a further £3.50 to return them to the remote isle from whence they came, I sucked it up and went hunting for a gadget that would solve my problem.

The gadget in question is called a 37-28 step down adapter ring. Not an ideal solution, as the photographers among my readership will know, but it will probably suffice for what I want, which is rostrum work.

There is, these days, only one recourse when a body wishes to acquire an item as specialized, not to say exotic, as a 37-28 step down adapter ring. To attempt to find a small, friendly local photographic shop would be absolutely out of the question. This is, after all, London, and small, friendly local photographic shops are hard to find, mainly on account of the rents, which are not inconsiderable hereabouts. Add to that the traffic chaos of the Olympics and ... no, no, no, no!

So it was back to ebay.

There were five 37-28 step down adapter rings listed. Four were from China, which three out of the four spell "Hong Kong" since they know that the average Brit will trust "Hong Kong" more than "China." (This is an artefact of our imperial history and need not concern us more here.) The point is that the four Chinese rings were priced at between £2 and £2.50, including shipping. The one remaining ring, sourced from a UK distributor based in Britol, weighed in at a whopping £8.99 including shipping.

More than three times the price!

Now, I know we're not talking gigantic Mervyn King-like sums here, but it's the principle: the Chinese can get one to me, despite being 10,000 miles away at less than a third the cost of the one coming from Britol, which is, what? A hundred miles away?

To add insult to injury, they all come from China anyway!

Good luck sorting this economics stuff out Merv, old buddy. It's certainly beyond me.