Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Santa Claus v. The Laws of Physics

I’m blatantly stealing this from elsewhere but it’s worth wheeling out at this time of year, I think. Merry Christmas! I’m signing off until January.

  • So, Santa Claus has 31 hours to work with, thanks to the different time zones and the rotation of the earth, assuming he does the logical thing and travels east to west. This works out as 822.6 visits per second.
  • For each ‘Christian’ household with good children, Santa has 1/1000 of a second to park safely, leap out of his sleigh, jump down the chimney, fill the stockings, distribute any remaining presents under the tree, eat whatever dubious snacks have been left, scramble back up the chimney, climb into the sleigh and move on to the next house.
  • To achieve this, Santa’s sleigh needs to move at 650 miles per second, 3000 times the speed of sound. For purposes of comparison, a common or garden reindeer can run at 15 miles per hour.
  • Even if each child only gets one small toy, the sleigh is still carrying 321,300 tons, not counting Santa, who is invariably described as overweight.
  • If we’re generous and assume that magical red-nosed reindeer can carry ten times more weight than regular reindeer, Santa would still need 214,200 reindeer – increasing the overall weight of the flying vehicle to 353,430 tons.
  • This alarming bulk of flying animals, gifts and a worryingly obese driver travelling at 650 miles per second creates enormous air resistance, which will heat the reindeer up in the same fashion as spacecraft re-entering the earth’s atmosphere.
  • The lead pair of reindeer will absorb 14.3 quintillion joules of energy per second each. In short, they will burst into flame almost instantaneously, exposing the reindeer behind them, and create deafening sonic booms in their wake. The entire reindeer team will be vaporised within 4.26/1000 of a second. Santa, meanwhile, will be subjected to centrifugal forces 17,500 times greater than gravity. A 250-pound Santa (a generous estimate) would be pinned to the back of his sleigh by 4,315,015 pounds of force.

Ho ho ho.

p.s. SEW7KNGMZYNH - sorry, that's just a gobbledegook code I need to insert for Technorati, apparently. I don't understand technology.

Santa Claus: Looked Like a Boxer

Sorry about the delay to the weekly service: Christmas is a bad season for finding the time to ponder stuff. So this week (well, for the past three weeks), I have mainly been pondering Christmas.

Back in February, I rather inexplicably wrote a blog about the origins of Father Christmas. In a nutshell, his jolly attire was first described in Clement Clarke Moore’s poem ‘A Visit from Saint Nicholas’ (‘’Twas the Night Before Christmas etc etc’) in 1823. In 1863, an illustrator named Thomas Nast first drew ‘Santa Claus’ (from ‘Sinterklaas’ – ‘Saint Nicholas’ in Dutch), gradually turning his coat from brown to red. By 1881, Nast had pretty much transformed the character into what we might through gritted teeth refer to as Coca-Cola Santa – bearded, jovial, a hit with the kids … a less disturbing Captain Birdseye, if you will.

But actual Coca-Cola Santa – the one who drives around treacherously snowy mountain passes delivering carbonated drinks – wasn’t invented until fifty years later (1931), making him three years younger than Mickey Mouse. The Coca-Cola Company had been trying throughout the 1920s to push Coke as a year-round drink (‘Taste Knows No Season’ proclaimed an early ad – a slogan latterly nicked by the likes of Magners and Pimm’s), and they eventually decided to appropriate Christmas. Coca-Cola Santa’s creator, Haddon Sundblom, used Clement Clarke Moore’s poem and Thomas Nast’s illustrations as his inspiration – hence the red attire – and the character finally made the leap from niche publications to national magazines, whose pages he graced for over thirty years. So: Coca-Cola did not invent Santa’s red suit.

But who is this Sinterklaas/Santa Claus/Saint Nicholas character anyway? Right. So Nicholas was a pretty ordinary boy from a third-century southern Turkish fishing family. Unfortunately, that’s about as much historical info as we seem to have, because the rest of his life story digresses into nonsense about miracle-working, for which he became known as Nicholas the Wonderworker. One of his miracles was to resurrect three boys whose remains were being sold as pickled ham by a mentally unhinged butcher.

Saint Nicholas was also known for his anonymous generosity to the poor, for which he inexplicably became the patron saint of pawnbrokers – who are surely known less for anonymously helping the poor than for conning them out of their prized possessions and selling them on at a profit? But I digress. The three golden balls (steady on) that often hang outside pawnbrokers’ shops are a reference to the three sacks of gold that feature in the most famous Saint Nicholas story, in which he helped a poor widower who couldn’t afford to give his three daughters a decent dowry, by secretly throwing three bags of gold into the daughters’ bedrooms at night. This presumably happened on or around 6 December, since that is when we celebrated Saint Nicholas Day at my primary school – Saint Nicholas C of E – although what our teachers neglected to tell us was that the three daughters were probably about to be sold into prostitution by their dear old dad.

Saint Nicholas is unique in that most of his bones have been preserved in one spot, a crypt in Bari, Italy. In the 1950s, the Catholic Church allowed a scientific survey of the bones. In 2005, when these findings eventually found their way to a forensic laboratory in England, it was revealed that Saint Nicholas was barely five feet tall and had a broken nose.

‘But what about the reindeer?’ I hear you cry. Well, Ancient Norse mythology tells of Thor, the God of Thunder, who was known to fly through the stormy skies pulled in a chariot by magical goats (that’s right, magical goats) named Gnasher and Cracker. Suddenly Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (invented in 1939) no longer seems quite so bizarre.


Friday, 27 November 2009

IQ: Dumb-dumb-dumb

When we think about geniuses (genii? Or is that many genies?), we obviously think about Einstein and his ilk. You’d probably include Pythagoras on your list, although lord knows his much-ballyhooed theorem hasn’t done me much good in life; and Darwin, despite his anxieties about raising a mad and inbred family; and maybe Shakespeare, if you ignore The (so-called) Comedy of Errors and that best-forgotten one about nymphs and shepherdesses prancing around in the forest. You probably would not include Sir Paul McCartney on your list, despite perhaps enjoying a rousing rendition of ‘The Frog Chorus’ when you’re a bit pissed, and yet 16.3% of respondents to this week’s Guardian poll – Who Is The Greatest Living Genius? – did just that. According to the poll, Macca is deemed to be seven times more of a genius than the woman who identified HIV as the cause of AIDS, and only a little bit less of a genius than the man who invented the world wide web. (Massively in the lead with 40.7% was, of course, Stephen Hawking.)

So this week, I have been thinking about intelligence, genius and IQ.

‘IQ’ stands for the German phrase Intelligenz-Quotient (er, Intelligence Quotient), a term coined in 1912 by psychologist William Stern. There are two main ways of calculating IQ: the old-fashioned ratio IQ, which divides your mental age by your actual age and multiplies by 100, and the more modern deviation IQ, which measures you against an average IQ of 100, generally generating a lower figure than your ratio IQ. According to some tests, a score over 115 makes you ‘bright’, over 130 ‘moderately gifted’, over 145 ‘highly gifted’, and over 160 ‘exceptionally gifted’. A score of over 175 puts you among the ‘profoundly gifted’, an elite group containing less than 1% of the human population and chaired, one imagines, by Sir Paul McCartney.

The highest (ratio) IQ ever recorded was a whopping 228, which earned the aptly-surnamed Marilyn vos Savant a place in the Guinness Book of Records. Her enormous brain got a bit carried away with itself, however, and vos Savant went on to write a widely ridiculed book discrediting the findings of Andrew Wiles – who had just solved the notorious 350-year-old maths problem Fermat’s Last Theorem – showing that a high IQ isn’t necessarily accompanied by a great deal of common sense.

A lot of no-doubt-highly-IQ’d people have done a lot of research into IQ, and come to the totally underwhelming conclusion that a high IQ makes you more likely to live long and prosper, while a low IQ puts you at greater risk of accidentally injuring yourself whilst engaging in reckless criminal activity. Things that can affect your IQ include your parents’ IQ, the structure of your brain’s cortex, your childhood musical training, and whether or not you were breastfed (breast is indeed best).

So that’s IQs sorted out, but what about genius? While some scientists have come up with formulae to calculate genius (‘Measure a person’s general ability, then measure their cleverness, then square both numbers and add them together, then take the square root’ – JCM Garnett), others have spent lifetimes philosophising about what makes a genius. Personally I think anyone who has officially been labelled a polymath (a bit of an all-rounder) deserves to be called a genius – the likes of Goethe, who discovered a bone in the human jaw and wrote the marvellous Faust, or Benjamin Franklin, who drafted the Declaration of Independence and invented the lightning rod and bifocal glasses.

Yet more scientists – ones with far too much time on their hands – have trawled the annals of history to try to work out the IQs of people who had the audacity to be brainy before IQs were invented. Somehow they came to the conclusion that Goethe had an IQ of 179, putting him below Wittgenstein (190), but above Descartes (162), Mozart (153) and that thicko Charles Darwin (152).

But are all these numbers and tests ultimately meaningless? At my secondary school, we were compelled by the careers woman to do a test called the Morrisby Profile. We spent hours locked in the sports hall doing a variety of verbal, numerical and spatial tests to help us determine what sort of glittering careers awaited us in later life. One of the tests involved writing as many ‘S’s as you could in the space of a minute. The sports hall was freezing, it being November and the heating being off as usual, and I only managed about 30 before my hand turned into an icy claw. The test results criticised my poor dexterity and suggested I become a soil engineer.

Friday, 20 November 2009

Headlines: Behold the Front Page

If there’s one thing I loathe (there is not: there are many), it’s headlinese. I know headlines have to squash an awful lot of info into a snappy linguistic snippet, but the language used is just so ugly and functional. I don’t like the American convention of using commas instead of ‘and’ (‘White van, old granny involved in hit, run’), I don’t like the enthusiastic overuse of ‘bid’ – as in ‘X in a bid to quell rumours’ or, worse, ‘X in rumour denial bid’ – nor of ‘set to’, as in ‘X is set to storm the charts/launch rumour denial bid’, and I REALLY hate the ones that are just a string of nouns. From the BBC News website this week:



And one that’s managed to slip in just a very short non-noun:


As one of my current favourite bloggers so rightly points out, headlines these days sound like cryptic crossword clues.

That said, there have certainly been some clever or otherwise memorable headlines over the years, and it seems fitting to celebrate them in a week that marked the 40th anniversary of The Sun newspaper, champion of boobies and Our Boys, and hater of anyone who won’t get their boobies out for Our Boys.

The Sun was first published in November 1969 with the headline ‘HORSE DOPE SENSATION’, which scores 7/10 on the string-of-nouns front but 0/10 for the pun-tastic ‘humour’ that has become the paper’s staple. Some Sun classics from over the years:

(Caledonian Thistle thrash Celtic in Scottish Cup match)

(Paddy Ashdown has affair)

(George Michael caught cruising in public toilets)

(Policeman becomes policewoman, retains job)

(Diamond heist at Millennium Dome)

(Keith Chegwin told to quit drink)

That last one’s a bit mean, but it brings me neatly to my all-time favourite ‘headline’, which I fear is more urban myth than authentic since I can’t find any non-anecdotal reference to it: ABSINTHE MAKES THE FONDAS GROW HEARTIER. Genius.

Funnily enough, The Sun’s most famous headline of all time is one that was only ever seen by a small portion of Northern England. When Our Boys torpedoed the Argentine ship Belgrano during the Falklands War, the paper ran with the headline GOTCHA. The first print run had already gone off for distribution by the time the editor thought it might be prudent to tone it down a bit, so the rest of the country got the same story with what was presumably considered to be a much more restrained headline: DID 1,200 ARGIES DROWN?

While some ‘hilarious’ headlines are simply awful (WE’RE ON OUR WAY TUTU SOUTH AFRICA – England qualify for 2010 World Cup), and some are used with far too much regularity (HOW DO YOU SOLVE A PROBLEM LIKE KOREA?), and others are in horrifically bad taste even for a tabloid (SHOOTS YOU, SIR – Gianni Versace murdered), the occasional nugget of true brilliance makes a compelling argument for establishing tabloids and local rags as national institutions.

My top ten from this week’s research:

(Peter Mandelson is recalled to the Cabinet)

(1980s MP Michael Foot chairs anti-nuclear lobby group)

(Field Marshal Montgomery returns by air to the WW2 frontline)

(Beleaguered New York transit system bailed out)

(Prison vicar admits smoking crack cocaine)

(Estee Lauder gets new and improved computer system)

(Ike Turner dies before battered ex-wife Tina)

(Librarians go on strike in Essex)

(Crystal Palace player Gerry Queen sent off for on-pitch violence)

(Hertfordshire man awoken by kestrels falling down chimney)

I can’t leave this subject without posting one of my favourite jokes from b3ta.com (albeit in slightly unfortunate taste), entitled ‘The only headline they’ll ever need’.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Fonts: The Best of Times (New Roman)...

At a wedding last summer, the conversation at my table took an unexpected but rather marvellous turn when someone brought up the subject of fonts. Everyone, it transpired, had a favourite font. When someone declared their favourite to be Verdana, I felt compelled to interject on behalf of Verdana’s more attractive cousin, Trebuchet – the font of this blog – only to hear a scream from down the table: ‘Oh my GOD! I LOVE Trebuchet!’ By the end of the lunch, I had promised to email a few Trebuchet-curious friends a sample of the font of glory so that they could put it to daily use and spread the good word.

The word font comes, believe it or not, from the same roots as fondue – the ultimate 1970s dinner-party fare – because type was formerly made of molten metal. Something I didn’t actually know until today is the difference between a font and a typeface. While typeface refers to the name of the lettering style – Times New Roman, Courier, Lucida, anything we would normally call a font – font is far more specific: 10-point Arial is technically a different font to 12-point Arial, even though they are the same typeface. If you really wanted to let your hair down, you could go for a different font entirely: 12-point Arial Italic Bold. Put that in your email and smoke it.

As you will perhaps remember from school IT lessons in about 1992, the whole point of typing anything on one of those new-fangled ‘computers’ was to use as many typefaces as possible. I used to write all my essays in an illegible italic typeface that seems to have died out, with main headings in Algerian and sub-headings in Brush Script, and with a healthy dose of Zapf Dingbats all down the margins. As long as I didn’t resort to the ‘dweeb’ of fonts, Times New Roman, I was a typesetting pioneer. (Unfortunately, a recent Facebook ‘What Font Are You?’ survey told me that I am Times New Roman, also cleverly intuiting that I am ‘a no-nonsense taskmaster … over the age of 60’ who has ‘always been good at math’.)

Times New Roman was first used in the Times newspaper in 1932, and was specially commissioned after the paper’s previous typeface – Times Old Roman (seriously) – was accused of being typographically uncool. It is perhaps ironic (will check with A. Morissette) that, in 1994, Times New Roman’s own uncoolness spurred a certain Vincent Connare to design the worst typeface ever invented: Comic Sans. He was designing some kid-friendly software for Microsoft and came across a cartoon dog with a speech bubble that contained text in Times New Roman. Realising it looked a bit crap, he started designing a new typeface based on traditional comic-book speech bubbles, literally drawing the letters on-screen using his mouse. The rest, as they say, is ghastly.

The typeface was originally called Comic Book but Connare didn’t think that sounded very typefacey, so he changed it to Comic Sans, since the typeface is a sans-serif one, i.e. it doesn’t have flourishy bits at the end of each stroke. Inexplicably, though, the capital I of Comic Sans is avec serif. Nowadays, with anti-Comic Sans hate groups springing up around the world, even Vincent Connare has admitted that his most famous creation is truly appalling. ‘If you love it,’ he once said, ‘you don’t know much about typography. If you hate it, you really don’t know much about typography, either, and you should get another hobby.’

Interestingly (are you still there?), the same man invented the font of glory, Trebuchet. He named it after the missile-launching device of medieval battle fame, because he ‘thought that would be a great name for a font that launches words across the internet’… Oh dear.

My new favourite font goes by the marvellous name Mrs Eaves. Mrs Eaves! It was designed by Zuzana Licko in 1996, and is based on the elegant older font Baskerville, which was designed in 1757 by typesetter and papier-mâché expert (thems were strange times) John Baskerville. Mrs Eaves is named after Sarah Eaves, who was Baskerville’s housekeeper. When she and her five children were abandoned by Mr Eaves, she and Baskerville got it on, working together and eventually marrying when the estranged husband died. Wikipedia describes her as ‘a forgotten heroine of typesetting’.

Mrs Eaves wouldn’t have used Arial in her essays, that’s for sure.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Guy Fawkes: Quite Some Guy

Four hundred and four years ago today, Guy Fawkes was at the Tower of London being tortured for his involvement in the Gunpowder Plot – or Gunpowder Conspiracy, as it was known in 1605. As we all remember-remember from our school days, the Gunpowder Plot was an attempt by a group of British Catholics to blow up the Palace of Westminster and kill the Protestant King James I and most of the aristocracy. One of the conspirators, Guy Fawkes, was caught red-handed in a cellar in the early hours of 5 November 1605, and the rest, as they say, is bonfires, fireworks and ill-fashioned effigies constructed from bin bags and papier-mâché.

But what else? Given that, until I was about 10, I thought Guy Fawkes was a national hero whose marvellousness was celebrated annually by means of brilliant fireworks, a few choice facts seem to have slipped through the net.

It’s strange, once someone has passed into popular mythology in the way Guy Fawkes has, to imagine that that person actually had a date of birth (13 April 1570) or parents (Edward and Edith) or a day job (soldier and occasional waiter), and quite possibly also a wife (Maria) and a son (Thomas). It is likely that Fawkes’s extensive military experience is what qualified him to be put in charge of the 36 barrels of gunpowder hidden under the Houses of Parliament in readiness for the State Opening of Parliament.

Three things I did not know about the Gunpowder Plot until today:

1. The plot had been in the planning stages for a year and a half, since May 1604, and was postponed a few times due to a plague that delayed the State Opening of Parliament. As a result, the gunpowder had actually been sitting in the cellars since March 1605.
2. The conspirators intended to kidnap the king’s children, install one of them as a Catholic monarch, and incite a popular rebellion beginning in the Midlands.
3. They had rented a house next to the Palace of Westminster and begun digging a tunnel into the cellars. By a rather splendid piece of luck, however, the underground storeroom they were trying to burrow into came up for rent, so they simply laid down some cash and wandered on in.

The whole plan started to unravel in late October, however, when someone involved in the plot sent an anonymous letter to a Catholic member of the House of Lords, Lord Monteagle, advising him:

‘to devise some excuse, to shift your attendance at this parliament; for God and man have concurred to punish the wickedness of this time And think not slightly of this advertisement but retire yourself into your country where you may expect the event in safety, for though there be no appearance of any stir, yet I say they shall receive a terrible blow this Parliament and yet they shall not see who hurts them.’

Lord Monteagle made the letter public – possibly so that the conspirators would hear that they risked being rumbled – and the cellars were searched in the early hours of 5 November on the orders of the king. When asked by the startled searching officer who the devil he was, Guy Fawkes quick-wittedly answered ‘John Johnson’ (‘…but everyone here calls me Vicky’ – So I Married an Axe-Murderer), which presumably provided evidence enough that this shifty-looking gentleman clutching 36 barrels of gunpowder under the Palace of Westminster at midnight on a Tuesday had something fishy to hide.

Long story short, ‘John Johnson’ soon revealed his true identity after some good old-fashioned torture, the whole plot was discovered, King James commanded his subjects to commemorate the event with public fires and general thanksgiving merriment, and Fawkes and his co-conspirators were sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered on 31 January. On the day itself, Fawkes contrived to avoid the drawing and quartering part of his death by leaping from the gallows, thus ensuring he died instantly.

So, all in all, an unfortunate sort of tale. But – and this is the facty cherry atop the facty cake – when children began cobbling together Guy Fawkes effigies in the nineteenth century and demanding ‘a penny for the Guy’, the word ‘guy’ gradually came to mean ‘funny-looking fellow’, and thence passed into the language as another word for ‘chap’. And that’s a fact.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Moon landings: 'One small step for everyone.'

In May 1961, JFK announced: ‘I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.’

And sure enough, on 20ish July 1969 (of which more momentarily), Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and ‘that other one’ (Michael Collins) were able to announce, ‘The Eagle has landed.’ The Eagle being the American-metaphor-laden name of their landing module. The Russians were not best pleased, having hoped to beat the Americans to the moon, and put out a sombre message on national radio, while an American flag flapped about (of which also more momentarily) beyond the night sky.

Poor Michael Collins never actually made it to the moon since someone had to man the space shuttle Apollo 11, so, like someone’s impatient mum, he was forced to circle round and round while Neil and Buzz bounced about and collected samples.

So that’s all quite a nice story. But there are a couple of popular misconceptions about the moon landings. Firstly, while the landing module did indeed touch down on 20 July 1969 (at 2017 hours GMT, to be militaristically precise about the timing), Neil Armstro
ng didn’t actually step onto the surface of the moon until 0256 GMT on 21 July – and surely GMT is the standard time by which non-earth-based events should be judged? It wasn’t any specific date by the moon’s standards, what with nobody ever having established time zones or an annual calendar on the moon. I think a strongly worded letter is in order.

Secondly, Neil Armstrong made a total balls-up of his pre-planned ‘one small step’ line, allegedly written by a weirdy-beardy British scientist called Gary Peach (although Gary Peach looks like the kind of weirdy-beardy old man who’d allege to have done such a thing – he probably shot JFK as well). The line should have been:

‘That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind’

So, like, a small step for a single specific man called Neil, but a big advancement for humankind in general. What Armstrong said was:

‘That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind’

- which is pretty much ‘six of one, half a dozen of the other’, since ‘man’ used in that non-specific context means the same as ‘mankind’. So essentially, one of the most famous lines in the history of the world doesn’t actually mean anything. A fairly epic mistake.

Not as epic as some of the conspiracy theories, although unfortunately I really don’t have time to go into all that here. The main theory, however, seems to be ‘the flag was flapping in the wind despite there being no wind on the moon.’ WELL, unless I have been entirely duped by trick photography, I can proudly announce that this is total nonsense. The flag was crumpled from being squashed into the glovebox for a week, and, as these two slightly-different photos show, remained crumpled in the non-wind of the moon. It later fell over when the Eagle took off.

The other theories involve mysterious letter ‘C’s marked on rocks (printer error, apparently) and vital tapes going missing in Australia (it’s a big place), and are all rather dull.

So, in conclusion, some people landed on the moon at some point in July 1969 and talked gibberish. And that’s (probably) a fact.