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.