Wikipedia’s unusual articles

March 28, 2010

Wikipedia has a page called Unusual articles where Wikipedians list articles that you wouldn’t expect to find in the Encyclopaedia Britannica. I can spend hours here for that perfect piece of trivia. Here is my selection:

Argleton A town in Lancashire, England, that only exists on Google Maps.

Baarle-Nassau A municipality of the Netherlands, containing small exclaves of Belgium, which in turn contain even smaller exclaves of the Netherlands. (The borders mean that there are houses and companies which are in both Belgium and the Netherlands.)

Battle of Tanga World War I battle where 8,000 British troops were defeated by a German-led force of 1,100 Askaris – aided by swarms of angry bees.

Boston Molasses Disaster Twenty-one people die in 1919 when a huge tank at a confectionery factory bursts, sending a wave of molasses down the streets of Boston.

Brainfuck An esoteric programming language noted for its extreme minimalism. It is a Turing tarpit, designed to challenge and amuse programmers, and is not suitable for practical use.

Carpatho-Ukraine Possibly the shortest-lived state in history, it was independent for only 24 hours.

Casu marzu Italian maggot cheese. Cheese designed to be eaten while it is infested with cheese fly larvae.

Dord A nonexistent English word, supposedly meaning “density”, which was listed in the second edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary from 1935 to 1939.

Hexakosioihexekontahexaphobia (literally, “fear of the number six hundred sixty-six”) is the fear that originated from the Biblical verse Revelation 13:18 which indicates that the number 666 is the Number of the Beast, linked to Satan or the Anti-Christ.

Islamic toilet etiquette The large number of rules to be followed by Muslims when relieving themselves.

Japanese toilet The most advanced toilets in the world with computers, nozzles and flashing lights.

Jimmy Carter rabbit incident Former President Jimmy Carter’s scrape with a killer rabbit.

John C. Turmel The world’s least-successful would-be politician, with a record of zero wins and 70 losses in campaigns since 1979.

Jumping the shark Metaphor for the point at which one can speak of a TV show as having had its best days behind it.

Le Train de Nulle Part A French novel, 233 pages long, written without verbs.

Let’s trim our hair in accordance with the socialist lifestyle A television show produced by the communist government of North Korea intended to educate the public on good and bad hairstyles.

List of chemical compounds with unusual names Some a consequence of their constituents or origins, others simply the work of whimsical chemists.

List of unusual units of measurement Fortnights and nibbles, super feet and Sagans.

Masturbate-a-thon A charity fundraiser that involves self-pleasure.

Ota Benga The tragic story of a Pygmy man from the Belgian Congo who was briefly exhibited in the Bronx Zoo.

Stanislav Petrov Potentially averted a nuclear war.

Whizzinator A fake penis used to beat drug tests (complete with dried urine, heater, syringe). Comes in white, tan, latino, brown, and black.

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The Scunthorpe problem

March 28, 2010

I love looking through Wikipedia – you never know what you are going to come across. The other day I saw a piece about the Scunthorpe problem which occurs when:

The Scunthorpe problem occurs when a spam filter or search engine blocks e-mails or search results because their text contains a string of letters that are shared by an obscene word. While computers can easily identify strings of text within a document, broad blocking rules will result in a false positive, causing innocent phrases to be blocked.

 I had been vaguely aware that the aforementioned town had had problems with AOL because of the substring of four letters within its name that represent the strongest swearword in the English language. Scunthorpe’s residents were in fact barred from joining AOL because the obscenity filter was unable to substring from the bigger picture. I am interested in censorship and I did a post Free speech versus Homo Censoris, but that was about human censorship. I hadn’t looked at the absurdities of computer censorship. Here are some examples I found on the Internet:

The Daily Telegraph had this example of an absurd sentence created by software designed to remove offensive words from articles posted on the internet;

“President Abraham Lincoln was buttbuttinated by an armed buttailant after a life devoted to the reform of the US consbreastution.”

In May 2006 Ray Kennedy from Manchester found that e-mails that he had written to his local council to complain about a planning application had been blocked as they contained the word erection when referring to a structure.

Résumés of magna cum laude graduates have been blocked by spam filters.

The BBC online chatrooms always used to automatically censor the word ‘shat’. This caused discussions about Star Trek, featuring that great actor William Shatner, to become a whole different experience. After several complaints from users, the word was (quietly) removed from the automatic censor.

Many Christian websites automatically change “gay” to “homosexual”. In June 2008, a news site run by the American Family Association censored an Associated Press article on sprinter Tyson Gay, replacing instances of “gay” with homosexual, thus rendering his name as “Tyson Homosexual”.

In February 2004, Craig Cockburn of Scotland reported that he was unable to use his surname with Hotmail, Yahoo! or his workplace computers. He discovered that his e-mails would be delivered if he spelled his name C0ckburn with a zero instead of the letter “O”

In February 2006 Linda Callahan, a resident of Ashfield, Massachusetts was initially prevented from registering her name with Yahoo! as an e-mail address as it contained the substring Allah. Yahoo! later reversed the ban.

Beaver College changed its name to Arcadia University and after 89 years of publication the magazine The Beaver changed its name to Canada’s History.

In October 2004, e-mails advertising the pantomime Dick Whittington sent by a teacher from Norwich in the UK were blocked by school computers

The words socialism, socialist and specialist contain the substring Cialis, the brand name for an erectile dysfunction medication commonly advertised in spam e-mails. Well I suppose there had to be some positive and anything that hinders the spread of socialism can’t be all bad.


My media week 28/03/10

March 28, 2010

The New Humanist, the magazine for free thinkers has an article by Sally Feldman exploring the sexual politics of toilets

The Philosopher’s Zone looked at the philosophical underpinnings of probability: What are the odds? Philosophy and probability

Jamie Oliver is on a mission to improve American diets. Reason.com is not too impressed: Jamie Oliver’s Ministry of Food Control.

The Onion had an article, City Of Chicago To Modernize Outdated Graft Programs and a video, Stouffers to Include Suicide Prevention Tips on Single Serve Microwavable Meals.


My journey into Sci-fi

March 21, 2010

I have to admit that I have never been a big fan of science fiction, but I have begun to take an interest in this genre. First of all there are a couple of things I need to get a couple of things out of the way. Firstly, I am going to refer to SF and not Sci-fi. This is because I have read that Sci-fi is seen as a pejorative term used by those who don’t understand the genre or who are excessively critical of it. Then there is the thorny question of definition; it notoriously difficult to pin this down. A famous definition was provided by Darko Suvin in the 1970s:

a literary genre whose necessary and sufficient conditions are the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition, and whose main formal device is an imaginative framework alternative to the author’s empirical environment.” I’m sure you’re much clearer after that.  SF is so hard to define because it includes such a wide range of subgenres and themes. I had no idea that there were so many subgenres – Cyberpunk, Biopunk, Space opera, Gay/Lesbian and Libertarian to name but a few. The typical themes and tropes include alternative societies, technology, cosmology and galactic travel. Within SF there is a distinction between soft and hard. Hard tends to be more concerned with the quantitative sciences, especially physics, astrophysics, and chemistry. Soft SF, which is what interests me, is more focussed on character and emotion and often deals with anthropology, economics, politics, psychology etc.

Science fiction has often been called the literature of change, and it has really influenced our culture and sometimes even driven technological change. A couple of examples show this. Asimov’s Laws of Robotics have gained widespread acceptance and did seem to influence the field of robotics. But with the increasingly complex nature of robots, the laws are more useful on the printed page and movies than in the real world. William Gibson, who coined the term “cyberspace” and would later popularise it in his famous novel Neuromancer,  created the iconography for the information age before the internet even existed. He was also able to foresee the rise of reality television and video games.

It’s difficult to say which book was the first work of science fiction. Vladimir Nabakov argued that it was Shakespeare’s The Tempest. I prefer to begin with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. This book was written at the height of the industrial revolution. It was an age when science was coming to the fore, but many people feared its effects. Gothicism and Romanticism had a huge influence on the birth and evolution of SF. Later on in the century Jules Verne and H.G. Wells really brought science fiction to the masses. This was a period when passion for science went well beyond science fiction. New technologies such as electricity, the telegraph and the new forms of transportation were transforming the world. This love of science and technology was best captured in the enthusiasm aroused by the World Fairs of the nineteenth century, such as the one in Crystal Palace in 1851. The next important figure was in the 1920s, Hugo Gernsback, a Luxemburger who founded The Amazing Stories magazine. Gernsback had a real love of science and this was definitely a golden age. He said he published scietifiction. This term would evolve into science fiction. In the 1940s of the greats emerged – Robert Heinlein, who also happened to be a libertarian. In fact, he coined the term TANSTAAFL (There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch), so beloved by many economists. Heinlein used the framework of science fiction to explore social themes such as individual liberty the influence of organised religion on society and various unorthodox family structures. Heinlein had an unconventional private life and was credited with popularising polyamory. The fifties and sixties brought us such titans as Ray Bradbury, Philip K Dick. Ursula K. Le Guin, Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. The quality of their writing and the ideas they explored helped to bring greater credibility and more readers to SF. After the New Wave of the sixties, the next interesting movement was Cyberpunk in the 1980s. Its seminal work was the postmodern, postindustrial Neuromancer. And finally we come to contemporary science fiction. There are two authors who seem to stand out. Neal Stephenson, who likes to incorporate areas such as mathematics, cryptography, philosophy, and the history of science. The other one is the Australian Greg Egan, whose themes include the nature of consciousness, genetics, virtual reality, sexuality, artificial intelligence, and his preference for rational naturalism over religion.

That then is a very brief history and I’m sure I will have missed out some important names. I have researched the history of the genre before actually reading the books. I wanted to get a feel for it before starting to get down to some serious reading – I am really looking forward to it.  I am going to remain a book omnivore as I couldn’t confine myself to one thing. But science fiction is a powerful way of looking at the world and what it means to be human. I will let you know how I get on.


Some Science Fiction opening lines

March 21, 2010

Here are some of my favourite opening lines from Science Fiction:

The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel. William Gibson, Neuromancer

Monday morning when I answered the door, there were twenty-one new real estate agents there, all in horrible polyester gold jackets. Rudy Rucker, The Hacker and the Ants, Version 2.0.

Two glass panes with dirt between and little tunnels from cell to cell: when I was a kid I had an ant colony. Samuel R. Delany, The Star Pit.

It was a pleasure to burn. Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

Brother Francis Gerard of Utah might never have discovered the blessed documents, had it not been for the pilgrim with girded loins who appeared during that novice’s Lenten fast in the desert.  Walter M. Miller, Canticle for Leibowitz

When a day that you happen to know is a Wednesday starts off by sounding like a Sunday, there is something seriously wrong somewhere. John Wyndham, The Day of the Triffids.

The Morris dance is common to all inhabited worlds in the multiverse. Terry Pratchett, Reaper Man

I’ve watched through his eyes, I’ve listened through his ears, and I tell you he’s the one. Orson Scott Card, Ender’s Game

Technically it’s two sentences, but…

Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun. Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-eight million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea. Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

The drought had lasted now for ten million years, and the reign of the terrible lizards had long since ended. Arthur C. Clarke, 2001 

I’ll make my report as if I told a story, for I was taught as a child on my homeworld that Truth is a matter of the imagination. Ursula K.Leguin, The Left Hand of Darkness

“In ten years, the penis will be obsolete!” said the salesman. John Varley, Steel Beach

A merry little surge of electricity piped by automatic alarm from the mood organ beside his bed awakened Rick Deckard. Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Today we’re going to show you eight silent ways to kill a man. Joe Haldeman, The Forever War

One minute it was Ohio winter, with doors closed, windows locked, the panes blind with frost, icicles fringing every roof, children skiing on slopes, housewives lumbering like great black bears in their furs along the icy streets. Ray Bradbury, The Martian Chronicles

Five hours’ New York jet lag and Cayce Pollard wakes in Camden Town to the dire and ever-circling wolves of disrupted circadian rhythm. William Gibson, Pattern Recognition


My media week 21/03/10

March 21, 2010

The website about e-books, Teleread, had a piece about why they have been so slow to take off in Spain.

A while back I did an article about Public Choice economics, Politics without romance. This week’s EconTalk  podcast featured Don Boudreaux talking about the application of economic analysis to the political process.

The website environmentalgraffiti.com has a fascinating history of a Finish sniper who killed 700 Soviet soldiers in 100 Days when the USSR invaded his country in 1939.

In Saturdays Guardian historian Tony Judt pleads for a new way of organising society. I don’t agree with a lot of things he says but it is well worth reading.


On eating well

March 13, 2010

I have just finished reading Food Rules by Michael Pollan. This book can be seen as a continuation of In Defence of Food: The Myth of Nutrition and the Pleasures of Eating, which came out in 2007. In fact, Pollan has been writing about food for a number of years now and in Food Rules he distils his knowledge into 64 rules. This book, which is just under 120 pages long, can be read in under an hour. For Pollan it all comes down to this simple slogan: eat food, not too much, mostly plants. We don’t’ need all these complicated nutritional science. Although I have reservations about some of his ideas, I do find him a very perceptive observer of our food habits and culture.

I have posted a complete list of the rules but here are some of my favourites:

  • Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.
  • If it came from a plant, eat it; if it was made in a plant, don’t.
  • It’s not food if it’s called by the same name in every language. (Think Big Mac, Cheetos, or Pringles.)
  • Don’t eat breakfast cereals that change the colour of the milk.
  • Be the kind of person who takes supplements—then skip the supplements.

 I think a lot of his advice is very sensible and it is difficult to disagree with many of the rules. I think we have lost our way with food over the last few decades. There have been some real horrors perpetrated over the years. Pollan mentions Go-GURT Portable Yogurt tubes. I haven’t had that particular gastronomic experience but I can remember Alphabet Spaghetti and Pot Noodles. I like his term for these culinary atrocities: “edible food-like substances.” Actually edible is exceedingly generous in most cases.

I like his attitude to food. He actually talks about eating as a pleasure. In many circles food has become the new sex. I read about this phenomenon in a fascinating paper by Mary Eberstadt of the Hoover Institute. We have seen a transformation in societal attitudes; food is marked by a whole series of taboos while  sex has gone in the other direction. So we get mindful eating and mindless sex. Of course as with sex in the past, one thing is the morality and a completely different thing is how we behave in reality. If food is the new sex, Eberstadt asks, “Where does that leave sex?” She says it leaves us with a kind of junk sex, akin to junk food. Personally as a libertarian I don’t want government sticking its nose in either the bedroom or the kitchen.

I do have some reservations about Pollan’s ideas. Firstly as I mentioned in a previous post, I am not a big fan of the Buy Local movement.  I am too influenced by economic ideas of specialisation and the benefits of trade. Pollan is a little too atavistic in his support of traditional food cultures. The reality is that despite all the horror stories about Western diets, we are living longer.

When people go on about natural food what exactly do they mean? I like this quote from Justine Brian:

Consider the ubiquitous olive. When we talk of sourcing, using and eating real food, does that mean in the case of the olive that we (a) go to a local olive tree, (b) climb said tree to shake the bitter, hard and inedible berries off it, and (c) pickle them in a brine solution for about four weeks to turn them into edible little morsels?

 I appreciate the fact that these days we don’t have to go out with a spear to hunt for our supper. It is true that food consumption is divorced from its origin. There are times when you just want convenience. You realise that what you are eating is not perfect but … I have a lot of respect for gardeners and eating your own fruit and vegetables must be wonderful but I have other priorities. It is not necessarily a sin to be ignorant of exactly where our food comes from. Life is just too short.

I am also sceptical about organic. Price is not a trivial question. As that contrarian economist Steven Landsburg has argued there is a problem with banning all pesticides: fruit and vegetable prices go up, people reduce their consumption of these foods and cancer rates consequently rise.

Industrialised agriculture has produced many benefits. With a fraction of the farmers who were at the beginning of the 1900s we produce more food. Those people who have been freed from the land have been able to go into other sectors thus creating more wealth. Pollan’s ideas about top-down regulations miss the point. If there is a demand for better quality food the free market is perfectly capable of meeting that demand. We can demand better food and reject all those “edible food-like substances.”