Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Ask Finnginn II: The Recursion Excusion

An emergency call has come through on the flashing red telephone I keep handy in case anybody has any obscure questions they are unable to google.

"Finn! Can you please explain: "Soldiers soldiers soldiers fight fight fight."?

I don't actually have a flashing red telephone, but I do have a facebook account and I am always pleased to receive your obscure questions as it saves me having to think up something to write about. The question is beautifully googleproof so, even though I started to answer it on my facebook page, I thought it deserved a fuller treatment here for posterity.

The sentence, "Soldiers soldiers soldiers fight fight fight", has been devised by wily linguists to show the limitations of the human mind's ability to parse overly recursive sentences.

A couple of technical definitions: To parse is, broadly speaking, to read and make sense of a sentence. Recursion is the property of language that allows a category to include an instance of itself. For example, a sentence may consist of two sentences linked by "if... then...". A verb phrase can be constructed from a verb and a noun phrase followed by a verb phrase. (Irrelevantly, the verb phrase, "...can be constructed from a verb and a noun phrase followed by a verb phrase," also happens to be an example of itself - but that's just me showing off.)

Back to our main plot:

"Soldiers soldiers soldiers fight fight fight" is an example of a triple embedded sentence. Triply embedded sentences are on the borderline of parsability. We can't understand them but we can understand how they would be understood if our brains were capable of it.

Let's break it down.

"Soldiers fight" is a sentence any native speaker can parse.

"Soldiers that soldiers fight also fight" is a similarly understandable sentence. 

In English, the "that" and the "also" are optional. We can lose them and have the double embedded sentence, "Soldiers soldiers fight fight". This sentence works in the same way as "Doors I close stay shut", or "Girls Georgie-Porgie kisses cry." It is a bit more confusing because both nouns are the same and one of the verbs is transitive and the other intransitive, but we can pretty much work out which verb belongs to which regiment and get a pretty clear picture of what is going on.

Now, if "Soldiers soldiers fight fight" is a legitimate sentence then we should be able to use the principle of recursion to plonk it down in the middle of "Soldiers fight" and give us our target sentence of "Soldiers soldiers soldiers fight fight fight". In fact we should be able to use the principle of recursion to extend our "soldiers" and our "fight" out to infinity.

Our human brains are capable of understanding that principle, but incapable of parsing a triple embedded sentence.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

The Bergman Simile

I tried my hand at another job over the summer - leading groups of students from the language school on a walk along the Norfolk coast from Cromer to Sheringham. Most of them hated it (the weather was awful) and I don't think I'll be doing it again next year. The only reason I mention it really is because I came up with a great simile to describe how this job felt and I think it was under-appreciated at the time due to my friends' lack of knowledge of the oeuvre of Ingrid Bergman. 

To start with, whenever people asked me how a walk went, I would explain that I felt like Ingrid Bergman at the end of Inn of the Sixth Happiness. This would be met with a blank response and I would have to explain that (spoiler alert) at the end of Inn of the Sixth Happiness, missionary Gladys Aylward - played by Ingrid Bergman - has to lead a load of Chinese school children on foot over the mountains to escape the Japanese invasion of China. The simile works as follows: I felt like Ingrid Bergman at the end of Inn of the Sixth Happiness in that I (Social-Programme-Assistant Finnginn - played by me) had to lead a load of English-as-a-second-language students on foot around East Runton to escape the vagaries of the British weather!

Actually now I come to spell it out, I'm not sure it was that good after all. 

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Making a Success out of Failure

What I love about success is that you can set the bar as low as you like. I consider my day a successful one if I manage to time leaving my flat to walk to work so that I arrive at the traffic lights at the bottom of Nelson Street during the thirty second window of a five-minute turnaround when it is possible for a pedestrian to cross without risking life and limbic system. 

Now I come to think of it, success in other people's eyes may be considered more important and be significantly harder to come by.

All this musing on the nature of success may have been brought about by the book I have been reading this week: The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure. This work of fiction started life as a conceptual art project by my friend C.D. Rose. Over the course of a year, he composed 52 biographical sketches of failed writers, uploaded them to this website (that now bears only an epitaph) and then deleted the archive. Melville House Publishing obviously thought that artistic completeness was an insufficient reason to lose these satirically astute literary portraits and practically bit his hand off to secure the publishing rights.

I've tried my hand at book-reviewing once before when I was still experimenting with a voice and purpose for this blog. I can't say it is a form that comes easily to me. The BDLF has already been reviewed by the Huffington and Washington Posts - both of whom follow the golden rule of book reviewing: start with a seemingly unrelated quote/fact/amusing story about traffic lights and then drop the book review in as if it was a footnote in a longer conversation about Anton Chekov, Samuel Beckett or the nature of success.

When you look up "success" in the index of The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure, it says simply "See failure", when you look up "failure" you are directed "passim". 

I hope the editor will see it as a compliment when I say that this would be a particularly good bathroom book. (Terry Pratchett once observed in a footnote that all the best books wind up in the bathroom or certainly the funniest and most read ones) I recommend all of you buy a copy for each bathroom in your house. Buy it from the publisher or, if you live in Norwich, pop down the Book Hive on London Street and get a signed copy.

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Good without God

I have just completed my second stint this month of looking after the pub and am gladly ensconced back in the flat. Spike has been watered, Charlie has returned safely from her marathon drinking binge (I mean girls' holiday) in Portugal and much is right in the small world of Finnginn that previously seemed askew.

When I stay above the pub, I have a little morning routine whereby I stroll out to get the papers from the nearby paper shop and loop back to the pub stopping to pick up a bacon sandwich and a vegetable samosa from Louis' Deli (home of the best sausage roll in Norwich). That sounds nice, you may think, a thoroughly pleasant morning walk with the incentive of a locally-sourced free-range bacon sandwich with homemade tomato ketchup to munch in front of Millionaire Matchmaker before opening the doors of the bar to the public. But you have not made the mistake of once wearing a badge that bore the legend: 'Good without God' and thus incurred the fury of the enthusiastically religious guy who runs the paper shop. The first exchange went something like this:

"Good Morning." 

"How can a morning be Good without God? God is goodness. There is no goodness without God."

"I just mean... I mean the badge means... I mean the message that the badge intends to convey and it is a message I agree with is that atheists can be moral people."

"There is no goodness without God."

"Fine, can I have an Evening News as well please."

"You should take off your badge."


"£2.75 please."

"May I have a receipt with that?"

The next day it was raining and I was wearing a different coat.

"Good Morning."

"I see you have removed your badge."

"I'm wearing a different coat."

"Is this the coat you wear when you realise that you cannot have goodness without God?"

"No. This is the coat I wear when it is raining. Can I have an Evening News as well please?"

"You should renounce Satan."

"I'm sorry?"

"£2.75 please."

"May I have a receipt with that."

The next day, I went to a different paper shop, but it was much further away and the route didn't take me on a convenient loop back past Louis' Deli and I was running late and I didn't have time to grab a bacon sandwich. So that night, I downloaded The Euthyphro - Plato's dialogue wherein is contained the proof that God and goodness cannot be equated if God wills us to be good.

Essentially, the argument raises the following question: does God will us to do good because certain acts are good or are certain acts good because they are God's will? For the atheist this is a no-brainer. You can remove God from the question and be left with human acts both good and bad. But if you believe in God then you are left with the tricky choice between saying: 'acts are good or bad regardless of God's will' or the rather empty: 'God wills what is God's will'. 

Thus prepared, I donned my badge and set off to buy the papers.

"Good morning."

"Good Morning, would you like an Evening News to go with those?"

"Why thank-you yes I would."

"£2.75 please, here is your receipt."


"Next please."

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

The Wire and the Swiss

The usual arrangement when I look after the pub is that I do the dayshifts and then sit upstairs watching back-to-back episodes of The Wire until called upon for help by whoever has agreed to do the evening shift. The hypocrisy I felt in running a business and telling staff what to do was balanced by the fact that I really like The Wire and my boss has the complete boxset.

But recently the usual order of things has been upset. When my boss took his family away this summer, I did my first dayshift and went upstairs excited to restart season 4. The boxset was gone. Turns out it was never his in the first place. He had just borrowed it from a friend and kept it for two years. During which time, I had looked after the pub only enough to times to view three seasons.

People think that if you run a pub then you spend all your time drinking. But it's nothing like that. I enjoy a drink in my free time, but when you run a pub you have no free time. But then who needs to drink when they have felt the joyous ecstasy of locking the bar door after the boors have bolted. The echoing silence of an empty pub after a raucous night. Slam the toilet windows shut. Kill the slot machine and the pool table lights at the socket. Double check the doors are locked, then tap each light-switch on a large panel of switches to its 'off' position until only the back bar is illuminated. Zed the till. It's 2am. Ten hours until opening time.

As if the disappearance of The Wire boxset wasn't enough to contend with, in my most recent stint of management I couldn't hang out in the flat upstairs at all. The pub had been adopted by an enormous group of Swiss students so I had to work the evening shift as well (this is referred to in the trade as an AFD - I'm sure you don't need me to spell out why).

The Swiss are a raucous bunch. Our ones I mean - the students who've been drinking in the pub - not the nation. I'm no tabloid journalist but even I know that the national characteristics to be ascribed to the Swiss include fastidious bank-accounting skills and devotion to accurate timekeeping. Not raucousness. But this lot are young enough to just want to get drunk and hook-up with each other. However, they do react with astonishment when the our British taxis don't arrive exactly when they say they will so there is hope for them yet.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

The Cons

Nothing puts a chap off breakfasting on the remains of the previous night's curry like switching on the television to see David Cameron giving a speech to conference: the smug oiliness of his delivery, entitlement oozing out of every pore. The loathing rising inside of me met the slightly stale but dhal-dipped coriander and garlic naan bread on its way down and, strong of stomach though I consider myself, caused a slight acid reflux for which David Cameron is squarely getting the blame.

"Three million apprenticeships! Full employment! The most competitive corporate taxes in the G20! Elimination of the deficit through spending cuts not tax rises!" 

If you don't speak Tory, I can translate these promises for you:

"Passing the responsibility and cost of youth employment to the private sector! Fudging of numbers to remove single parents and incapacity claimants from the unemployment statistics! Tax breaks for the rich! Removal of essential services for the needy to raise money for enormous banking corporations!" 

Then came his sop for people like me: The Conservatives, if elected, intend to raise the threshold at which subjects start to pay income tax to £12,500. The upshot of which is that if you work a thirty hour week for minimum wage (currently £6.50 an hour) you would pay no income tax. My hourly rate is slightly more than that and I would pay no income tax. Presumably there would still be National Insurance deductions so I wouldn't get the full whack. 

You may be shocked to read this, but last tax year, I paid £500 income tax (and about the same in National Insurance). Can David Cameron buy me for £500? That's a lot of money. I could use a new laptop.

Five hundred quid. What do I get for that? My share of all the schools, hospitals, roads, drinking water and Middle Eastern wars must be pretty small. 

Five hundred quid. It seems a small amount for our ruler to offer for a stealth disenfranchisement. "Here's your five hundred quid," he seems to be saying, "Now go and spend it (preferably on booze and fags and gambling so that we can get most of it back) while we get on and cut the services that make your lives tolerable."

Five hundred quid? What do I have to do to get the money? "Vote Conservative in 2015." (Vote for another 5 years of austerity for the poor and relief for the wealthy). And when do I get the money? "Er... by 2020." 

No thanks.


Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Ambiguous predictions

I consider myself uncannily good at making predictions. At work, I always like to guess in my head what drink a customer is going to order and have something like a twenty percent success rate on first drinks and maybe 90% on second drinks (most people drink the same thing all night). Regular readers will have already observed that most of my predictions for 2014 have come true: just pumpkins, moustaches and Xmas to go.

A family story tells that when I was a little boy, my mother bought some heather or a rabbit's foot or something from an old gypsy lady. The gypsy pointed at the ginger-locked toddler accompanying my mother and said: "That child will never have a grey hair!" My mother, who wanted me to grow up to look like 80s newscaster Nicholas Witchell, was delighted by this. But when I was old enough to understand the prediction, I saw it for what it was: a curse. However you read the gypsy's prediction, I would die before a grey hair appeared on my scalp. At what age do people start to go grey? I wondered. Forty? Thirty? How long did I have?    

For a really long distance prediction, you need to instill a degree of ambiguity. There are two main ways of doing this. Ambiguity of date and ambiguity of encryption.

Ambiguity of date works as follows: I might make a prediction for Scottish Independence, say, but as long as I don't specify a date for the referendum/revolution/destruction-of-England-in-nuclear-war my prediction will never be wrong, just in a kind of "hasn't happened yet" limbo until it happens. Successful religions employ this kind of ambiguity with their Second Comings and Judgement Days. Never be pinned down to a date. You just look like an idiot when nothing remotely apocalyptic happens on the 15th March 2015.

Ambiguity of encryption is the type of prediction practiced by Nostradamus and his ilk. The cryptic signifies that we have entered the realm of prophecy. With sufficiently cryptic prose you can claim to have predicted any momentous event after it has happened:

When winter winds wind widdershins,
Then thorns that threaten thrice
Shall sink Scotland's shallow shining sun.

(Worryingly, when I googled Nostradamus for the above link to his Wikipedia page, the third link was to an article by online stocktrader rag Business Insider hailing Michele de Nostredame as a savant genius.)

My first grey hair came and went years ago. So our gypsy's oral prediction of my early demise has not come true. But a third ambiguity may come to her rescue. An ambiguity of sound perhaps in the form of a homophone. I have never possessed a grey hare.  

Friday, 26 September 2014

A bargain in Mile Cross

Check out what I bought in Mile Cross for less than a fiver!

That's right! Two rocks of Quartzite and a bag of Potassium Aluminium Sulphate. Now I can grow my own crystals in the airing cupboard. (Note to self - remember to tell Charlie that I am growing Aluminium Sulphate crystals in the airing cupboard.) Expect updates.

The two charity shops on Mile Cross are a goldmine. I nearly came home with a genuine set of steel petanque balls that only had a light dusting of rust for £1.50! They could have lived so happily beside the (unused) table tennis bats (£1) and the authentic Yangzhou writing-brush kit (£2).

But it's the books that are the real bargain. Six for a pound on paperbacks. The Oxfam bookshop in the city centre charge a fortune for books they get for free (they will barely even take a donation from you unless it's a signed first edition hardback) and in the Golden Triangle you are looking at two to three quid a book. 

And paucity of choice makes a decision easier. In the Book Hive on London Street, I can happily lose an hour and not buy anything because I want to buy everything. I've banned myself from going in there except to buy gifts. In a Mile Cross charity shop the six readable paperbacks out of two-hundred leap out at you.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

The Brief Briefcase Brief

At a recent family gathering, my father presented me with a briefcase full of documents from my childhood and adolescence that he (understandably) no longer wanted to be storing. Most of it was pretty tedious: long-forgotten pieces of half-completed 'homework'.

Homework gave me anxiety when I was too young to know what anxiety was. I would start worrying from the moment it was set. I would put off doing it until the last possible minute and spend the time I could have spent doing it, worrying that I wouldn't have enough time to do it. I would get it done, but often hurriedly and scrappily at breaktime or worse, on the schoolbus. I was far too much of a coward to turn up to a lesson wondering whether I could get an extension or whether the teacher might forget to ask for it in. If most people's experiences of homework were like mine - the only thing it improved was our ability to do shoddy work at the last minute in unusual circumstances.  

Most of the briefcase's contents went straight in the recycling. I did find this early poem, though. Judging by the handwriting, I wrote it when I was about nine and it is the earliest extant example of a poem in my 'lists of things that don't quite rhyme' style: (more modern examples of which can be found herehere and here)

Oily puddle poem

Red is a sparkling red wine
Orange is a sunset scene
Blue is a bright sapphire
Green is a cox's apple
Violet is a purple flower
Yellow is the brilliant sun

I am quite pleased that my nine-year-old self refused to countenance the ridiculous 'indigo' invention (included by mystically inclined Isaac Newton because he liked the number seven!)
See! Six! I told you!

There are six colours in a rainbow. I know this because I have counted them. You can count them for yourself in this photograph I have taken of a rainbow I created using only sunlight and Charlie's prismatic bottle of DKNY perfume.

I have a couple of problems with the imagery in the poem though - 'sparkling RED wine'? That's quite a niche taste. And 'violet is a purple flower' reads like a placeholder - a line a writer includes intending to replace it with something better later but never does. (Douglas Adams pointed out that the greatest placeholder to have entered the musical canon is Rodgers and Hammerstein's line "Lah - a note to follow Soh" in the Doh - a deer song from The Sound of Music.) 

Other items of mild interest I found in the briefcase included a sheet of Badges from Soviet-era Russia, a complete setlist from the imaginary Britpop band The Choral Variation that my friends and I invented (and whose story can be found here) and an SFW photograph of me having a wee whilst wearing a dress at a festival, the provenance of which is a mystery. I invite any readers who might remember to tell me when and where it was taken.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

A list

Former Chancellor of the Exchequer, Alistair Darling, gave a speech to the 'Better Together' campaign to keep Britain united in which he asked, "What could be scarier than not knowing what your currency will be?" This is the sort of terror that keeps the economist awake at night? Lucky bastard. 

Finnginn's list of things that are scarier than not knowing what your currency will be:

Spiders (obviously)
Crowded Flights
Crowded Trains
Horror Movies
Alzheimer's (or any degenerative disease)
The sting from a wasp
The death of bees
House spiders
The dark
And Walking home alone at night
A stranger lurking just outside the light
Climate change and global warming
Ants and cockroaches (anything swarming)
Ferocious animals like tigers and bears
And daddy-long-legs (when they fly into your hair)
Orb-weaving spiders
Zombies that walk
Zombies that run
The ultimate heat-death of the Sun
Vampires in their vampire hats
Werewolves' teeth and vampire bats
Bird-eating spiders
Deep water - seas and lakes
And lizards and amphibians
Guns and the people who are into guns
Sleep paralysis
Crowded spaces
And spiders (obviously)


Spike next to my disappointing gladioli (apologies for the terrible photo)
My Gladioli are refusing to open. They stand in their vase, turning the water a pale green, stubbornly refusing to open. It's been a week. It looks like I have decided to display six giant spears of asparagus in a vase. They come with a little sachet of plant food, but I always give it to Spike in the hope that he might relent and flower. Sometimes I think Spike might be one of those desert cacti that only flower once every hundred years, but my failure with the Gladioli suggests that the more likely solution is that my fingers are whatever colour denotes lack of gardening skill. Let's go with red because it is the primary colour that is left over when you have finished making green out of blue and yellow. I have redfingers.

I entered a sonnet into a sonnet competition and received 'highly commended' (which I'm thinking of as 'equal-second - must try harder'). I was surprised how much the other poets on the website disliked the form. Some going so far as to enter a sonnet about their hatred of the constraints of sonnets into the competition.
Here's mine:

On Raver's Beach, with blistered lips, we drank
Our privilege - a champagne toast to days
Ahead. Looked inland as a charabanc
Spewed cargo mutely dressed in blues and greys.
"Not us (not quite)," we laughed and went in search
Of shade to shade our burning skin and ice
To chill the wine. There, underneath a birch
Tree's gaze, we laid a picnic paradise.
We ate and drank and dozed and when we woke
A charitable child asked: "You alright?
A bus just left with all of the old folk."
"Not ours!" we laughed indignantly. That night
We danced and partied barefoot and felt free
(And hid our breathless resting in the sea.) 

Friday, 12 September 2014

Ask Finnginn

Some of my recent posts have inspired some of you to contact me with questions of varying degrees of difficulty. Here I select a few of my favourites and attempt some responses:

Stuart, 29, of North Pickenham asks: "What are the roots/is the history of maths? Was it developed independently by various people around the world?"

A hypercube unfolded into three dimensions so you can see it
To answer the second question first: yes. 

The answer to the first question is a little trickier to manage in a paragraph, but here goes: The roots of human mathematical understanding are in a few mental capabilities common to all humans. These include: spatial reasoning, counting, logic and abstraction (the ability to notice common properties in different objects). The interplay between these properties is the key here, I think. By applying logic to spatial reasoning you get Euclidian Geometry and you can abstract from those principles to imagine four-dimensional hypercubes that we could never actually see. A similar process will get you from counting sheep to imaginary numbers. As discussed last month, I see this process as discovery not development - it so happens that conditions on this planet have been such that creatures with brains sufficiently complex to comprehend mathematical truths have evolved. It's a big Universe, I bet it's happening all over the place. And the truths will be the same, whatever is comprehending them.

Clare, 32, of Southampton doesn't like numbers. She wants to know "Why do you think humans feel the need to quantify things?"

Well Clare, as usual it is the farmers who are to blame. Pre-agricultural societies such as the Piraha lack number words. Crucially, they do not lack the cognitive ability to understand numbers, so when a culture needs to develop a complex counting system - due to the development of farming, say, or the sudden arrival of hordes of Anthropology students demanding that they count batteries (this happens more frequently than the development of agriculture) - they can, as dismaying as that may be for you.

Anonymous sets up a false dichotomy with his question: "Do you think there's a logic to the mathematics of quantum physics that we haven't discovered yet? Or is it truly random?"

As I understand it, there are several competing explanations for observed quantum phenomena, none of which are compatible with the relativity we observe in the Macro-Universe. When dealing with large numbers of repeated experiments, probability theory can be used to make fairly accurate predictions.

Finally, Tim, 62, of Weymouth wants to know "Since when was elfs the plural of elf?" 

It never has been. The plural of "elf" is "elves". I used the word "elfs" in a list of non-existent supernatural entities. So whatever the hell "elfs" are, I don't believe in them. (Still undecided about elves.)  

Thursday, 11 September 2014

The Scottish Question

I have returned from a holiday spent idling about the Isle of Wight and sightseeing in sunny St Malo to find a nation (almost) divided. With independent polls putting the "yes" and "no" camps evenly matched the referendum on Scottish independence could not be more exciting for us news junkies.

Last time I talked about politics, I gave you my twopenceworth on the Gaza conflict. The number of hits I got from Israel went from zero to double figures over night. I imagine some poor Mossad agent having to wade through my musings on the ontology of numbers or cross referencing my sausage roll bakery preferences to get a handle on where I live and work.

With Scotland though, I think I am on safer ground (for now - don't forget Bannockburn) for, as my ginger hair and pale freckled skin denote, I have Scottish ancestry. And therefore appreciate an argument as much as the next bekilted Celt (provided everyone agrees not to unsheath their sgian-dubh)

As long as there have been highlanders in the highlands the Scots have been a nation. The question on the ballot-paper asks whether Scotland should leave the United Kingdom and become a nation-state. I've been giving this quite a lot of thought this week and have even changed my mind a few times.

Obviously, I don't think there should be any states at all (or any unjustifiable power structures or hierarchies) and the sooner we can all agree to just get on the better. It may seem prima facie that adding an extra state gets me one step further away from the anarcho-syndicalist goal of a stateless society. But we anarcho-syndicalists are cleverer than that. This won't happen overnight. You have to pick your battles and your weapons. The biggest obstacles to human freedom at the moment are the corporations and financial institutions that are storing up all our wealth and using it to generate more wealth. The only weapon powerful enough to fight them with is the state and we shouldn't be afraid to use it. What I mean by this is we have some control over the state - we elect them - and the state can curtail some of the excesses of corporations - impose taxes, choose not to sell them important parts of our justice system etc.

Now, what do you do when the state won't listen to you and they start handing over the profitable chunks of your health and education systems to people whose only interest is money? In a functioning democracy, the people get together talk about what is in their best interests and demand it from those in power. If those in power won't listen to your demands, you throw them out and get someone who will. This is what we are seeing in Scotland. This is what democracy looks like when it is working. Politicians in both camps bending over backwards to give the people what they want. Some want a nation state and some don't - but they all want a say in their future and when 80% of a population turn out next week to vote, politicians have to listen, because otherwise the people will throw them out and elect someone who will.

A lesson we should all take note of.

In other news: Spike is well despite going two weeks without water (did I mention I'd been on holiday?) and the owner of the coffee shop next door to work continues to try to persuade the under-caffeinated residents of the Golden Triangle to hurl themselves off the bridge.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Pastry related thoughts

The Lithuanian lady that works in the pasty shop gave me a free pasty once. I sneezed a polite 'thank-you' (the Lithuanian for 'thank-you' is pronounced 'achoom') and went about my day - my inner being warmed by that simple act of human kindness (and delicious peppery skirt steak folded in shortcrust pastry). Whenever I felt pessimistic about human nature, I would think back to that day and wonder if I'd ever see such a purely altruistic act again.

That was four years ago. A few weeks ago, I went into Louis's Deli on St Giles street to order a sausage roll to eat at work during a Tuesday day shift...

(You may be wondering why I was in Louis's when I walk right past the Upper Crust bakery on my way to work. The Upper Crust sausage roll is a travesty in my opinion. Twice the length and half the price of his cousin at Louis's he may be. But the rusk to meat ratio is way too high and they always leave me with a vague sense of disappointment and mild nausea. I would always recommend making the trip over the bridge to Louis's if you have the time and, if you don't have the time, Upper Crust do a passable date and chocolate flapjack. Because it is covered in chocolate the staff always warn you that it contains dates. A policy that I like to assume was brought in because so many were returned: "Ugh! Someone's put dried fruit in my chocolate-covered golden syrup oat bar!")

...and the servitor announced that she had given me two for the price of one because that day's batch were burnt on the underside.

There's bound to be a moral in this somewhere. Memories bake where pastry flakes or something. I'm not terribly good at morals.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Some Metaphysics

Last week I wrote a semi-political post that expressed the desire to punish weapons-manufacturers with eternal torment in the Ninth Circle of Hell. Among the responses was this enquiry from my old friend, boss and one-time flatmate (she let me doss on her sofa for three weeks way back in the summer of 1999) Grainne:

Since when do you believe in hell?

I don't believe in Hell. I was drawing on a rich cultural tradition of post-death reward and punishment common to many mythologies (not universal however or at least not included in my favourite list on the internet Donald E. Brown's list of human universals) to make clear my disapproval of the moneygoround which is the world of arms dealers, Western governments and their client states.

I hope that's cleared that up. It may surprise some of you that despite not believing in hell, heaven, ghosts, God, elfs, goblins or the Easter Bunny, I do have some quite out-there metaphysical beliefs that hitherto I have kept more or less to myself. Amazingly, I now have a regular readership to share them with.

I think numbers (even the imaginary ones) are real. I think Mathematical truths are discovered not invented. I think that one plus one would equal two even if there was no human mind to think it. I think that one plus one would equal two even if there was no Universe in which a mind capable of thinking it could evolve. In fact, I think that one plus one would equal two even if there was no Universe at all.

I struggle with these beliefs and have not arrived at them arbitrarily. My beliefs stem from a choice: Either mathematics is embedded in the Universe (i.e. in the minds and cultural memory of one species of primate living at the bottom of a gravity well orbiting one out of a trillion stars in one out of a trillion galaxies) or the Universe is embedded in mathematics and anything capable of counting and reasoning will reach the same conclusions. I find the former proposition less elegant than the latter although I admit that this an aesthetic rather than a purely logical choice.

Next week: Why I would be a Cartesian mind/body dualist if only there was more evidence for the body.     

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Circle #Nine

According to Dante's Inferno, the Ninth circle of hell is a frozen lake populated by the perpetrators of history's great betrayals: Cain, Brutus and Judas (and a bunch of medieval Italians we've never heard of, this is Dante after all) number among those who suffer there. Their bodies twisted into painful contortions with just their heads (or sometimes just their faces) poking out.

If I was in charge of hell, this is the place I would reserve for arms manufacturers and their child-murdering collaborators in our government.

You may wonder why I am mixing a metaphor cocktail of warm Vitriol and easy target. Especially in August, when a more typical contribution might include a sonnet about lying on my back watching the Perseids wishing I didn't have work tomorrow.

But I've been reading about the bombings in Gaza so I will save the sonnets and the Perseids and the lying on my back wishing I didn't have work tomorrow themes for another day and add my small voice to the condemnation of the Israeli government's disproportionate slaughter of the Palestinians living in Gaza.

But that is not enough. It is our own complicity in the murder that makes me really upset. Some of those bombs have 'made in Britain' stamped on the side.

And I have not been put in charge of hell. But if I was, those who love money so much that they have contrived a complex system whereby they are handsomely rewarded for the production of destruction, agony and misery would be first in line for the lake of ice.

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Flower Grower

Believe it or not, sometimes when I sit down to do one of these, I have no idea what I am going to write about. Other times, I think I am going to write an amusing, informing and above all authoritative account of why it's cool to be an empirical Rationalist, but uncool to be a rational Empiricist and out comes a poem about flowers:

On the flower farm

Her ungloved hands are bloody from the thorns
Of a thousand roses picked
One February morning.

In the drought, she once walked many miles
To fetch water with her daughter
Who was always smiling.

On the flower farm the water flows,
Makes the sandy soil seem dark and rich,
Makes a woman wonder why
We eat so many roses in the West.

Monday, 30 June 2014

Pernickety about Piketty

In preparation for this weekend's stag do in Brussels, I've been reading Thomas Piketty's Capital in the 21st Century. I don't want to find myself blind-drunk in a nightclub chatting to some Eurocrat and be unable to remember whether return on capital (r) is greater than economic growth (g) or the other way round. How embarrassing would that be?

So that I don't get confused, I have invented the handy mnemonic "rum is better than gin". I imagine this will soon be adopted by economics teachers the world over. 

Piketty's main argument is that the rich get richer because having money earns you more money than merely working. This has been the case throughout the history of modern capitalism except for a brief blip during the Twentieth Century when the wealthy nations felt guilty about all the suffering they had caused during the two World Wars and briefly introduced some laws that redistributed wealth. Since the 1970s things have been returning to the status quo - money goes to money and screw the poor.

This is all explained in the introduction and then he presents several hundred pages of evidence. This is remarkable because it is something that no economist has ever thought to do before (even all the raw data is available online). Smith, Marx and Keynes all wrote enormous tracts on political economy with no evidence whatsoever. (And don't get me started on the Marginalists and their neoliberal apologist successors). Some of the evidence has been disputed by the Financial Times, but nothing which affects the central premise.

Spoiler Alert! The following paragraph contains an equitable solution for the future of humanity: 

Piketty concludes that the only way to change things is to tax the wealthy. Actually take their money and spend it on things that benefit everybody.

And that is the message I will be taking to Brussels... on a stag do... during the World Cup... I'm sure everybody will be hanging on my every word.



Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Proverbially speaking

A coffee shop has recently opened up next door to the pub I work in. This is great news because now when someone asks for a coffee, I can give them my best withering look that says "Really? You want to pay a pound for a cup of Nescafe instant in a stained mug when there is a coffee shop right next door serving the best flat white north of Haringey?" I have to communicate this sentiment using eyebrows only. If I said it out loud I would probably be sacked. 

The only downside of this coffee shop is that the owner insists on littering the pavement with blackboards bearing soul-destroyingly cheerful messages of hope, love and encouragement to buy coffee. "Think Big!" an A-board yells at me as I autopilot my hungover body back to the bar I left only eight hours previously to clear up the mess that I left only eight hours previously. As I fumble for the key to open another day's drudgery my peripheral vision is assaulted with meaningless chirpy aphorisms: "Only YOU control your life", "A journey of a thousand miles begins with just a single coffee", "Happiness is in YOUR hands". You get the idea. There are new ones every day, including the comically ill-situated one pictured.

*Not to be taken literally
 The grammatical and semantic oddness of "The best things in life are Coffee" deserves a blog-length deconstruction all of its own. Maybe I'll come back to it. 

But it has been a while since I brought up that old favourite of this blog: Donald E. Brown's list of Human Universals. This is the anthropologist's list of things that are either (in the weak interpretation) common in every human culture or (in the strong interpretation) universal to every human being. It's a fascinating read that I like to revisit whenever I need reminding that humans share a lot more in common than is commonly appreciated. Anyhow, way down the end of the list, 28th on the additions since 1989 addendum, is: "Proverbs and sayings in mutually contradictory forms" (An example from English would be: "too many cooks spoil the broth" and "many hands make light work").

What do I conclude from this? Not much and much. There is much that is contradictory in human behaviour. I suppose our proverbs would reflect that. I read this Anglo-Saxon one the other day and it seems as relevant today as when anonymously penned (or quilled or carved or whatever they did in those days) more than a millennium ago:

Man deþ swá hé byþ þonne hé mót swá hé wile 

Man does as he is when he does as he wishes

Or, as philologist Tom Shippey translates more coloquially: "You show what you are like when you can do what you like." It works on many levels. I like to read it as a moral lesson showing the worthlessness of the idle rich, but also as a reminder to myself to spend my free time productively. I have a day off today. Maybe I'll go for a coffee.  


Saturday, 14 June 2014

Broccoli and (propositional) calculi

One of the good things about being alive is that life is forever affording you the opportunity to learn little lessons so that you can conduct the rest of it with less difficulty than you have previously experienced.

Take for example this simple (and I imagine, universal) rule: If you have in your possession a Brassica and you don't have a specific meal planned that involves it, in three weeks time you will be dragging a plastic bag full of cauliflower sludge out of the fridge. This can be formulated using a fairly standard notation as (p & ¬q --> ¬p).

Human brains are brilliant at rearranging such logical formulations and I expect you will quickly notice that (¬p v q) follows and so next time you're browsing the broccoli aisle you can think to yourself: Either don't buy it or make a plan to use it now. 

And that is the lesson that I had intended to implement in the coming weeks. Except then I had to buy a sweetheart cabbage today because otherwise my shopping would have consisted of a bottle of wine and a pack of butter and I don't want to be judged by the staff in Lidl. Although, I think they might have judged me because I was the only person who wasn't buying or wearing something with the St George's cross emblazoned on it.  


Friday, 6 June 2014

World Cup Questions. Answers sought.

There's a kind of fever sweeping the nation and I'll give you a clue it's not yellow or dengue. It is, of course: World Cup Fever. I'm talking about the Association Football World Cup that starts in Brazil imminently (sorry to disappoint those of you who are gearing up for the lacrosse World Cup in July but I try to keep it topical). Last week at work, I watched six grown men spend three hours swapping stickers and casual xenophobia in an effort to complete their commemorative sticker albums. 

Naturally, all this has got me thinking: What is it for? Why should we care? I reject the tribalism inherent in supporting a team as I am suspicious that it teaches a kind of jingoistic nationalism, an unquestioning subservience to power at which I instinctively recoil. Do fans support a team because they wear the same colours as them or do they wear the colours because they support the team? Why do fans pin their emotional well-being to the failures and successes of people they have never met and probably wouldn't get on with if they did? 

On the one hand it seems arbitrary: Why are teams divided geographically? Why not by height or hair colour or age? If we are to have geographical teams shouldn't they be drawn from constituencies of equal size? Why all the fuss about this World Cup and not the one played by the other gender? In tennis, equal coverage (and pay) has been granted to both genders (after a long struggle). Why is football so far behind?

On the other hand it seems sinister: The massive corruption at FIFA that their internal investigation process is amazingly unable to investigate because... er... there's a World Cup starting. The billions spent on stadiums in Brazilian cities with barely functioning hospitals and no public transport. The hundreds of migrant workers enslaved in Qatar (due to host the tournament in eight years time) their passports impounded on arrival, forced to work and watch their colleagues fall to their deaths. The beautiful game.

I would quite like a caxirola though.


Wednesday, 4 June 2014

n = 5/24(n cubed + 17n + 30)

Like any anarcho-syndicalist blogger, little makes me angrier than unearned income. Now suddenly I have some. And I've been experiencing guilt about the value of bitcoins. I will assume that my tech-savvy regular readers are familiar with the electronic currency, but for anyone who may be reading this from a future (perhaps researching a doctorate in the origins of the philosophical-bartending movement that came to dominate poetry in the mid Twenty-first Century) where bitcoins have gone the way of the groat and the ecu, a brief explanation follows:

Bitcoins are mined by setting a computer to solve increasingly difficult equations. There is a finite number of bitcoins available. For each equation solved a bitcoin is earned. All the easy equations have been solved now, so you would need a supercomputer to be a miner. However, the coins can be exchanged for 'real' money and then swapped back or spent at the limited number of places that accept them. They are a volatile currency to say the least. Early adopters might have spent a hundred bitcoins on a pizza. Before Xmas last year, a bitcoin was worth nearly $1200. They have since crashed in price and I bought a fraction of a bitcoin (0.038 to be precise) at the recent low in May. That £10 investment is now worth £15.07.

Fortunately, my local pub is one of about three in the country that take bitcoins, so I can spend my windfall on a couple of pints of bitter this afternoon, instead of worrying about getting a fortnightly 50% dividend which would net me... *grabs pen and back of envelope*... one moment... *opens calculator app*... bear with me... *opens Wolfram Alpha calculation engine*...Ahem: Which would net me £3760 by the end of the tax year if they continued to rise at this rate.  

Incidentally, the simple equation this blogpost has as its title is the one for which I had to consult Wolfram Alpha in order to reach the total £3760. My old maths teacher Frederick J. Clarke would be ashamed of me. Also I couldn't work out how to get the little superscript '3' in the title so I had to write 'cubed' instead. This would have come as no surprise whatsoever to my old computer science and business studies teacher Louise Absom.

Wednesday, 7 May 2014


The beginning
The world record for solving a previously unknown 500 piece jigsaw is 54 minutes and 10 seconds (this is a link to a records site that quotes the source not an hour long video of a man solving a jigsaw puzzle). This one took three of us a little over five hours. Spike said he wouldn't help unless it was a Doctor Who puzzle. He loves Dr Who. 

My favourite jigsaw record-breaking story features craftsman and fellow Weymuffian,Dave Evans' attempt to build the world's largest jigsaw. He made the 40,000 piece giant puzzle only to see it collapse a week before it was to be presented to the Queen for her Golden Jubilee. The experts claim the time to complete a puzzle quadruples as it doubles in size. So if Evans had brought in me, Charlie and Spike to reassemble his puzzle it would have taken us:
The end!

5 = 5
10 = 20
20 = 80
40 = 320
80 = 1280
160 = 5120
320 = 20480
640 = 81920

Let's be generous and say it would have taken us 30,000 hours or a little over three and a half years!

Thursday, 1 May 2014

Election Blues and Clerihews

It's coming up to European election time. Lacking the glamour of the general election and the relevance of the local election, the European election can come across as a bit faceless and boring. You don't even get to vote for a person. Just a party (not the good kind). Here in the East, there are seven seats that are distributed to the parties according to the proportion of the vote received. Asleep yet?

Honestly, I am boring myself just writing this. Vote Green. Here are some Clerihews of three of the party leaders:

Nigel Farage's
Party's the largest
Bunch of xenophobics.
(That's Greek for racist pricks!)

David Cameron
Lives in a mansion
Surrounded by Nitwits
Cutting workers' rights and disability benefits.

Nick Clegg
Is a chocolate egg
That likes to lie to you.
(One part of the sentence above is not true.)

If you think you can do better, why not write one for Edward Miliband and whoever is leading the Green Party this week? A small prize will be awarded for the best one in the comments below...

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Forth! The Three Walkers!

Every year or so or whenever we can fit it in, my brother, my father and I go on a holiday. To stop us drinking all day and arguing we tend to theme the break around a pleasant walk. And by 'pleasant walk' of course I mean 'ridiculous endurance challenge'. 

Last year found us struggling against driving snow and forty knot headwinds on the Norfolk coast. Not to be outdone, my brother has organised this year's trip. We are going to walk the Test Way, which follows the river Test from source to mouth for forty-six miles across most of Hampshire.

Obviously, that seemed a bit easy for our normal long weekend, so he has made it tougher by restricting us to two days and insisting we start the first day before it gets light so we can get a couple of leagues in before breakfast. This is all very well for my country-dwelling coffee-drinking companions. Whom early nights and early starts have made healthy, wealthy and free of farts (or something, not too up on my rhyming aphorisms). But for the indulged city-boy who would never rise before noon given the choice it presents something of a challenge. I am actually writing this, in bed, at quarter-to-three in the afternoon. I did get up earlier so I could lie in the bath for a bit. Forty-six miles. Two days. Hmmm...  

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

A Fairy Tale

Once upon a time the King of Nursery Rhyme Land called his Chief Teller of Fairy Tales to appear before him.

"I want a fairy tale," said the King.

"Your wish is my command," said the Chief Teller of Fairy Tales.

"One without wishes," said the King.

"No wishes, your highness?" said the Chief Teller of Fairy Tales.

"In all the fairy tales you tell, there are always wishes being granted by talking frogs. I want a story with no wishes and no frogs," said the King.

"No frogs?" said the Chief Teller of Fairy Tales.

"No frogs!" said the King.

"How about a toad?" said the Chief Teller of Fairy Tales.

"No toads!" said the King.

"What about a newt?" said the Chief Teller of Fairy Tales (but he didn't hold out much hope).

"No amphibians!" declared the King. "And, by the way, why do things always have to happen in threes?"

"Things always happen in threes, Sire, that's how things happen. If things didn't happen in threes there would be no order to the world and things would just happen randomly and unexpectedly in twos... or even... fours! I don't want to think about it to be honest!" said the Chief Teller of Fairy Tales, the colour draining from his face, "I suppose we should also scrap the "Once upon a time... ...and they all lived happily ever after" framing device while we are at it?" 

"Good idea!" said the King, "I have never understood why a story has to take place in an ill-defined distant history or why its protagonists should enjoy enduring happiness after the tale's conclusion."

"If I have this correct then, Sire, you want a story set in a modern day world, where frogs can't talk, events just occur randomly, wishes don't come true and nobody lives happily ever after."

"Yes!" said the King.

"Well," said the Chief Teller of Fairy Tales, "I can set a tale in such a world, Sire, but I wouldn't want to live in it!"