A couple of videos about foodies

November 24, 2012

This is from The Onion:

And this one is from the comedy Portlandia

Fed up with the Gastroculture

November 24, 2012

Steven Poole thinks we are eating ourselves stupid. Poole is the author of a new polemic called You Aren’t What You Eat: Fed up with the Gastroculture. I have been unable to get hold of the book, but I have heard a number of interviews with the author. While I don’t agree entirely with Poole’s thesis, I do think he is onto something. We are living in an age in which what we eat has become an important way of expressing our identity. Television schedules are awash with cookery programmes. Bookshops are full of the offerings of the nation’s TV chefs. If Gordon Ramsay, Jamie Oliver and Nigella Lawson are too vulgar for you, the patent troll entrepreneur Nathan Myhrvold the patent troll entrepreneur, who I featured a few weeks ago, has published “the cookbook to end all cookbooks“, Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking, a six-volume, 2,400-page set that reveals science-inspired techniques for preparing food. It will set you back £375.25. And Jamie Oliver has been complaining that 30,000 linen napkins a month are stolen from his restaurants ­— it’s almost as though they’re religious relics.  At the heart of this trend is the rise of the foodie.

I have heard different versions of the origin of the word foodie. The OED’s very first citation is from 1980, from a New York magazine piece about a Parisian restaurant. Another variant is that it was first used in a Harper’s & Queen article entitled “Cuisine Poseur” in 1982. Whatever its origins may be, Foodie now seems to have supplanted gourmet everywhere. The latter tem has snobbish connotations. But foodies also claim to have superior powers of discrimination. Poole actually prefers the more pejorative term foodist, which invokes the idea of fanaticism.

Poole takes aim at locavores and organic farming. I have already covered many of the points Poole makes in previous posts. I have no problem with it but for me there is no intrinsic virtue in buying local. If a product can be made cheaper and/or better somewhere else, I think we all benefit from the deal. The concept of food miles is applied very simplistically Transport represents is only one component, less than 10%, of the total environmental impact of food production and consumption. I am also sceptical about organic. I think organic foods are a con. What’s more they are most definitely not the solution for feeding seven billion people.

We also have the rise of celebrity chefs, especially in the USA and the UK. They are in many ways today’s rock stars. Jamie Oliver makes a fascinating case study. He seems to inspire love and hate in equal measure. I am more inclined to the former. He does have an evangelical passion for food. But there are times when it can be cringe-inducing. I thought that his campaign to reform school dinners was a noble one; I was shocked at what kids were being given to eat. If I were to criticise any aspect, it would be that he tried to change too much with the subsequent backlash from some parents. Matters came to a head in Rotherham, where parents started taking lunchtime fast food orders to pupils at RawmarshCommunitySchool. Who can forget the pictures of parents pushing fast food orders through school railings? Maybe ratatouille pancakes were just a bit too exotic. Oliver has been described as a serial glutton for punishment; he actually went back to the Yorkshire city to make his Ministry of Food. He was not given a warm welcome by everyone. When he spoke to 5,000 fans at Rotherham United football club they drowned him out with chants of “Who ate all the pies?” His attempts to convert Americans to healthy met with similar hostility.

What really irks Poole is food snobbery. There is a notion that if you don’t care about food as they do, there is something wrong with you. I think there are so many other fascinating things in the world. There is an air of moral superiority. The masses are eating badly and we, the experts, must somehow educate them or force them into what we think they should eat and they should be prevented from eating what is bad for them. This kind of snobbery is faithful reflection of the human character. We enjoy engaging in this kind of one-upmanship: I am more organic than year. I buy all my goods from farmers’ markets. I have tried more exotic foods than you. I am a more ethical eater than you. While sex has gone in the other direction, food is now marked by a whole series of taboos. We are much less tolerant of people’s food choices than we used to be.

I do disagree with Poole in some aspects. I think that we know more about food than ever before. We have become very cosmopolitan in our tastes. The variety of food you can see is breathtaking. There has never been a better period to experience quality and innovative food dishes. However, at the same time there is a lot of rubbish out there. And then we have the problems of obesity and hunger co-existing in the world.

In this debate about foodies I also see a parallel with linguistic snobbery. I love language, and I hope I have been able to reflect this sentiment in this blog. Language should be celebrated for its beauty and diversity. But I do not see it as weapon with which to demonstrate some kind of social superiority. I feel the same about food. Perhaps Poole has the wrong term – we should be really talking about food pedants. I think it s great when people are passionate about something. However, there can be thin line between passion and pedantry.

Singing from the same hymn sheet

November 17, 2012

What is the connection between Spain, the United Arab Emirates, San Marino and Star Trek’s United Federation of Planets? These polities all have anthems without words. This is pretty rare, although there are countries that have been without words for a few years. A couple that come to mind are Russia, between 1991 and 2000 and Afghanistan under the Taliban. According to the historian Timothy Garton Ash having a wordless national anthem is symptomatic of a troubled country. Anthems lay bare the weaknesses and fracture-lines in the body of a state. The fact that Spain has a wordless anthem seems to be lost on Irish football analyst, Eamon Dunphy who earlier this year opined:

There is a unity between the Catalans and the Spaniards which is very important… Traditionally Spain have underachieved because the players of Barcelona, and the Basque country indeed, and the Castilians don’t get on. But that rift has been healed by this generation of players. And notably, when the Spanish national anthem was being played no Spanish player sang it. I think that was a recognition that [the players] say nothing… keep quiet. For the purposes of football, they have left a culture and their politics in the dressing room and played for their nation.” I will be coming back to the Spanish national anthem at the end of this post.

Today I am going to be looking at national anthems. I want to begin with a bit of history. It is difficult to say the oldest national anthem. The Japanese national anthem, Kimi ga Yo, has the oldest lyrics, dating from the ninth century, but the music is from 1880. It is the Dutch national anthem, the “Wilhelmus” which is generally considered the oldest – it was written between 1568 and 1572 during the Dutch Revolt. It can also lay claim to being the most complicated as the 15 stanzas spell an acrostic of William of Nassau, in the original Dutch, contemporary Dutch and English.

National anthems became popular among the European monarchies in the late 18th century. It was probably started as a means of praise to their rulers, but republics also saw the value of songs to rally the people. However without modern mass media most anthems were unofficial. Not until the 1920s and 1930s were they officially adopted. Indeed the United Kingdom has never officially adopted God Save the Queen; it emerged as the “de facto” anthem through popular use.

On his excellent website about national anthems, Canadian David Kendall, self-styled “anthematologist” has a typology of anthems:

Latin American epic anthems: Possibly the easiest to identify, these are found in Latin American (Spanish-speaking Central and South America) countries and tend to be rather long, have an epic quality in the music, often containing both a quick, patriotic section of music, and a slower, stately part, and consists of many verses, usually chronicling the history of the country. Many are also composed by Italians (or other Europeans). They also tend to have a similar history in that they are usually written for another piece of music, but later the music is replaced but the original words are kept. In many cases, all the verses are official and, whether or not all verses are often sung in the country or not, children are expected to memorize the entire anthem in school in some of these countries. Examples include Argentina, Ecuador, El Salvador, Honduras, and Uruguay.

Western hymn: The oldest type of anthem, originating in Europe and common to European monarchies and their former colonies, they are stately and smooth in music style. Examples include Australia, Canada, Germany, and the United Kingdom.

European march: Often used by non-monarchical European nations, and often by socialist nations, and/or nations born in revolution, these anthems are in a march style and often speak of war. Examples include France, USSR (1922-1944), and USSR (1944-1991).

Eastern Folk: Anthems that are reminiscent of the “national style” of music, often adapted from folk music, and sometimes utilize native instruments. Examples include Japan, India, Kenya, Swaziland, and Senegal.

Arab fanfare: Common to states in the Persian Gulf (usually sheikdoms or otherwise ruled by royalty) at one point in their history, these are short anthems consisting of little more than a fanfare and flourish. They often have no words as well. Examples include Bahrain, Kuwait (1961-1978), and Iraq (?-1959).

So what makes a good national anthem? Although I’m not really into nationalism, there are some that give me goose pimples. I have a number of favourites including the Star Spangled Banner, the WelshLand of My Fathers, La Marseillaise the old Soviet anthem and Il Canto degli Italiani.

I like God Save the Queen; I use it for teaching the subjunctive mood. But let’s be honest, it doesn’t reach the heights of the abovementioned anthems. In fact, I much prefer William Blake’s Jerusalem. GSTQ would be more interesting with the rarely sung verses such as the second verse:

O Lord our God arise,

Scatter her enemies,

And make them fall:

Confound their politics,

Frustrate their knavish tricks,

On Thee our hopes we fix:

God save us all.

And we mustn’t forget the fifth verse about stuffing the Scots:

Lord grant that Marshal Wade

May by thy mighty aid

Victory bring.

May he sedition hush,

And like a torrent rush,

Rebellious Scots to crush.

God save the Queen

The Scots got their revenge with the English-bashing Flower of Scotland which commemorates the Battle of Bannockburn. It was written way back in …erm… 1967.

Here is the final stanza:

Those days are past now

And in the past they must remain

But we can still rise now

And be the nation again

That stood against him

Proud Edward’s Army

And sent him homeward,

Tae think again.

But if you want bloodthirsty, the Marseilles is the anthem for you.

Do you hear in the countryside

The roar of those ferocious soldiers?

They come right here into your midst

To slit the throats of your sons and wives

Those nice chaps at QI unearthed some interesting trivia about La Marseillaise. The French National anthem was not written in or about Marseilles but in Strasbourg, which is half German. Moreover, the words were written by Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle, a Royalist, while the music was composed by Giovanni Battista Viotti, an Italian court musician who worked for Marie Antoinette. And it was dedicated to the Bavarian-born Count Nikolaus Graf von Luckner, the commander of the French Army on the Rhine, and incidentally another Royalist. Only later was it co-opted by the revolution; it inspired the French troops to their first great victory over the Austrians at the Battle of Valmy in 1792. On Bastille Day, 1795, it was adopted as the Republic’s national anthem. However, Napoleon, who was suspicious of its Royalist origins, had it banned. It was subsequently banned and unbanned several times before it was finally written into the constitution in 1887.

Despite the fact that the text and tune of the German national anthem the Deutschlandlied are remarkably peaceful compared to what we have seen so far, the song has frequently been criticised. The opening stanza, which begins Germany, Germany above everything/Above everything in the world, has often been cited in this respect. Friedrich Nietzsche called this “the stupidest phrase in the world.” I have read that is more a call for national unity than for world domination.

Spain can lay claim to one of the world’s oldest national anthems. It dates to 1761, when it was called “The Spanish Infantry’s Book of Military Bugle Calls.” There are two versions: one for the king and a shorter version for the prime minister, prince or during sports events. A few years ago there was a half-baked attempt by the Spanish Olympic Committee to introduce words:

Long live Spain!

We sing together,

with different voices,

and only one heart.

Long live Spain!

From the green valleys,

to the immense sea,

a hymn of brotherhood.

Love the Fatherland,

which knows how to embrace,

below the blue sky,

people in freedom.

Glory to the sons,

who have given to history,

justice and greatness,

democracy and peace.

It is very difficult to write words for a national anthem now. Every word is potentially a source of conflict. How can you find a piece that is non-controversial but not banal? I like my anthems a bit more passionate, bloodthirsty if you will. They could have included a reference to bombing Catalonia, in the spirit of General Spartero, who in 1842 suggested that Barcelona be bombed every 50 years to keep the Catalonians at bay. That may be an extreme solution, but my more modest proposal would be precision bombing of the CampNou and La Masia.(1)  A few surgical strikes would surely bring a swift resolution to Spain’s current territorial difficulties.


(1) La Masia de Can Planes, usually shortened to La Masia, (The Farmhouse) is the name given to FC Barcelona’s training facilities located near the CampNou in the Les Corts district of Barcelona, and is often used to generically describe the youth academy of Barcelona.

National anthem trivia

November 17, 2012

Here is some trivia about national anthems I found on the internet and from books while I was researching for this week’s post:

Greece’s “Hymn to Liberty” is in fact an 1823 poem written by Dionysios Solomos. It runs to 158 stanzas. Mercifully only the first three and last two are usually played. Uruguay’s national anthem is about 5 minutes. “Oh, Uganda Land of Beauty” runs to a meagre eight bars. All three verses are performed at international football matches.

Under Olympic rules, anthems cannot last longer than 80 seconds.

Sometimes, a little persuasion proved necessary to generate a new national anthem, as was the case in Costa Rica in 1853. The president of Costa Rica at the time, Juan Rafael Mora Porras, wanted to receive them with the national anthem. However, Costa Rica didn’t actually have one. Therefore, the president requested that the director of the Costa Rican National Army orchestra, Manuel María Gutiérrez, compose the music for a national anthem. Gutierrez insisted he knew nothing about musical composition and the president sent soldiers out to apprehend him and he was thrown in jail until he composed an acceptable song. He would only be set free once he had produced the piece of music, which turned out to be three days. The resulting composition was played for the first time in the Presidential Palace on June 11, 1852 and is still the country’s anthem today.

Using the English translations that appear on David Kendall’s national anthem website site, the most frequently-occurring word seems to be “our”, followed by “we”, “land”, “God”, “all”, “you”, “your.

Addressing New Zealand’s unique situation of having two official anthems, “God Save the Queen” is to be played at occasions where a member of the Royal Family is present or loyalty to the crown is stressed, where “God Defend New Zealand” is to be played where the national identity of New Zealand is addressed. There are no regulations as to whether English or Maori language versions are to be performed, and to which order, yet common practice says that if the first verse is sung in Maori, it should be repeated in English.

In Thailand, the anthem is played at 8:00 in the morning and 6:00 in the evening every day, to respect the country and the sovereign. Sometimes the national anthem would come on in the middle of a television broadcast and patriotic images are shown, the anthem is given top priority. In movie theatres, patriotic images are shown between the trailer and main feature, and the royal anthem is played. In all these situations, standing and observing silence is mandated.

Upon adoption of a new anthem in early 2006 by Kazakhstan, a law was passed “obliging everyone to stand and press the palm of their right hand to the left side of their chest when the national anthem is performed in public”

The Andorran national anthem contains the fine line: “I am the only remaining daughter of the Carolingian empire.

Brazil spent a century without one after King Pedro of Brazil whipped up “Himno da Carta” in three and a half hours one September evening in 1822, then performed it himself. But when he became King of Portugal, he took that anthem with him. “Hino Nacional Brasileiro” didn’t come along until 1922.

Liechtenstein is the last survivor of the 343 states that once made up the Holy Roman Empire of German Nations. The national anthem is sung to the same tune as “God Save the Queen.”

Paul Robeson sang a version of the Soviet national anthem in English. Here is part of it:

Through days dark and stormy where Great Lenin led us

Our eyes saw the bright sun of freedom above

and Stalin our Leader with faith in the People,

Inspired us to build up the land that we love.

At Somaliland’s independence on 26 June 1960, the nation’s new wordless national anthem was played. Five days later the new nation merged with the former Italian Somaliland, to become Somalia, and the anthem was scrapped.

Finally here are a few famous gaffes involving national anthems:

Spain demanded an apology after the wrong Spanish National Anthem was played before a Davis Cup Tennis Match in Australia in 2003. The pre-Civil War Republican National Anthem was played for the Spanish team!

Croatia rose to the occasion in their crucial Euro 2008 defeat of England – after an apparent X-rated gaffe by an English opera singer at Wembley.Tony Henry belted out nearly all of Lijepa Nasa Domovino (Our Beautiful Homeland) flawlessly in the pouring rain before the vital Euro 2008 qualifier – despite the ill-mannered booing from some England fans in the 90,000 sell-out Wembley crowd. But instead of singing ‘Mila kuda si planina’ (‘You know my dear how we love your mountains’), he instead sang ‘Mila kura si planina’, which translates as ‘My dear, my penis is a mountain’. Immediately after Henry sung the line, which is written in old-style Croat, players including Vedran Corluka and Luka Modric started grinning. Even the team’s child mascots had a giggle at the gaffe. Croat fan websites have called for the Londoner, who now lives in Inverness, to get a medal for helping the players relax ahead of their 3-2 victory. Some want him made an official mascot for Euro 2008 while an online petition asks the Croatian FA to employ him for the tournament next summer. Aeljka Tomljenovic, from the British- Croatian Society, said: ‘His version didn’t sound like the original but our national anthem is very hard to sing and I don’t envy him because the pronunciation is so difficult.’

Earlier this year Kazakhstan’s shooting team has been left stunned after a comedy national anthem from the film Borat was played at a medal ceremony at championships in Kuwait instead of the real one. The team asked for an apology and the medal ceremony was later rerun. The team’s coach told Kazakh media the organisers had downloaded the parody from the internet by mistake. The song was produced by UK comedian Sacha Baron Cohen for the film, which shows Kazakhs as backward and bigoted.The original Borat movie offended the Kazakh authorities. Footage of Thursday’s original ceremony posted on YouTube  shows gold medallist Maria Dmitrienko listening to the anthem without emotion and finally smiling as it ends. Coach Anvar Yunusmetov told Kazakh news agency Tengrinews that the tournament’s organisers had also got the Serbian national anthem wrong. “Then Maria Dmitrienko’s turn came,” he said. “She got up on to the pedestal and they played a completely different anthem, offensive to Kazakhstan.” The spoof song praises Kazakhstan for its superior potassium exports and for having the cleanest prostitutes in the region. You can see the video here.

Feng shui: don’t try this at home

November 11, 2012


We owe the Chinese a great deal: we have their fertile minds to thank for the compass, printing, paper money, gunpowder, the rectangular wooden coffin, fireworks, tea, noodles, rice cultivation, forensic entomology, toilet paper and more recently the electronic cigarette. That is an impressive roll call, especially when you consider how incomplete this list is and how early they came up with many of these inventions. However, there is a Chinese legacy which I find less inspiring. I have already done my secret history of acupuncture. Today I want to look at feng shui, the so-called science of arranging buildings, objects, space and life to achieve harmony and balance.

A definition

Feng shui literally translates from Chinese as “wind” (feng) and water (“shui”). Feng shui, like acupuncture, sees the world as driven by unseen forces. It is necessary to “unblock” the way, so the forces can flow freely and create balance in a space. The first actual use of the word “feng shui” is in the Burial Book from the Chin dynasty (265-420 B.C.). The phrase varies in pronunciation: It’s “foong swee” in Cantonese and “fong schway” in Mandarin.


However, it may not actually be Chinese, as India can also lay claim to the origin of feng shui. Archaeologists have discovered evidence that about 5,500 years ago, Indian mystics practiced vastu shastra, literally translated as building science. It shows how to design and construct buildings, houses and cities. Followers of vastu believe that every building is a living organism with its own energy, and they study the effects of the five elements — earth, water, fire, air and space — on the world around them. According to some historians, about 3,000 years ago, Indian monks crossed through Tibet and into China bringing vastu shastra with them. The Chinese adopted and adapted Vastu principles, which subsequently evolved into the various schools of feng shui. But, those who favour the Chinese origin claim they can trace feng shui’s origins to village gravesites that date as far back as 6000 B.C. Who is right? We have to remember that these two countries have nuclear weapons and that this dispute could get very ugly indeed. Having said that I am more worried about the decades-old dispute between Australia and New Zealand over the pavlova dessert.

Tools and concepts

I need to give a bit of background to feng shui. First is the concept of Xi (Chi), the term for the universal energy, or the energy that permeates everything around us. In feng shui term it refers to the energy inside your body, as well to the energy inside and outside of buildings.

Then we have the five elements through which chi moves:

  1. Earth (rocks, ceramics)
  2. Fire (candles, fireplaces)
  3. Metal (electronics, silver picture frames)
  4. Water (fountains, aquariums)
  5. Wood (living plant or tree — dead wood, like furniture, doesn’t count)

And finally we have the bagua one of the main tools used to analyze the energy of spaces in homes, offices or gardens. It is an energy map of your space that shows you which areas of your home are connected to specific areas of your life.

Different schools

There are plenty of variations of feng shui, but here are three of the most important schools:

The Form School, which is often called “classic feng shui”, originated in southern China and is the oldest of the three. The rugged typography of this region of provided the inspiration for finding the most propitious sites for dwellings and burial sites using a combination of meteorology, geography and geology. It was a way for people who lived in the mountainous regions of China to protect their dwellings from the harsh winds and ever-present danger of floods.

Northern China’s Compass School is based on orientation. It is the most complicated as it requires a feng shui compass, Chinese astrology and mathematics. As the Chinese migrated from the mountains to other areas of China that were less hazardous new methods emerged. The Compass School places importance on the compass directions, a person’s birth date along with favourable and unfavourable directions.

Finally we have the most recent and easiest incarnation, the Black Hat sect, founded by Professor Thomas Lin Yun in the 1980s. It is the most intuitive for beginners who want to feng shui their house. Black Sect is concerned mainly with the interior of a building. The bagua is oriented to the entrance. Each of the eight sectors of the bagua represents a particular area of one’s life. This simplified version seems to be feng shui lite.


It seems to have myriad applications, which you can see by looking online you can find services promising to feng shui your car, hair, garage, toilet and even your partner. Donald Trump, Madonna, Tommy Hilfiger, Bill Gates, Sharon Stone, Steven Speilberg and the former cricketer Geoffrey Boycott are all said to be fans. Many companies have also jumped on the bandwagon. I suppose that western firms doing business in Asia may well have to play along with what is a cherished tradition.

Hong Kong Disneyland

Before opening Hong Kong Disneyland in 2005, the multinational hired a local feng shui master. A piece from The Disneyland Report describes how feng shui was implemented. Here are some of the features:

Hong Kong Disneyland’s main gate and entrance was positioned in a north/south direction for good luck based on the ancient Chinese art of Feng Shui.

 Hong Kong Disneyland was carefully positioned on Lantau Island in Penny’s Bay among the surrounding hills and sea for the best luck. The lucky feng shui hill formations in the area include “white tiger” and “green dragon.”

The actual Hong Kong Disneyland Park entrance was modified to maximize energy and guest flow. This would help the park’s success.

Large rocks are placed throughout Hong Kong Disneyland Park because they represent stability in feng shui. Two boulders have been placed within the park, and each Disney hotel in the resort has a feng shui rock in its entrance and courtyard or pool areas. The boulders also prevent good fortune from flowing away from the theme park or hotels.

A bend was put in a walkway near the Hong Kong Disneyland Resort entrance so good “chi” energy doesn’t flow into the South China Sea.

2,238 crystal lotuses decorate the Chinese restaurant at the Disneyland Hotel because the numbers sound like the phrase “easily generate wealth” in Cantonese.

The main ballroom at the Disneyland Hotel at the Hong Kong Disneyland Resort is 888 square meters, because 888 is a “wealthy” number.

The elevators at Hong Kong Disneyland Resort do not have the number four, and no building (including the Hong Kong Disneyland hotels) has a fourth floor. The number four is considered unlucky in Chinese culture because it sounds like the Chinese word for death.

Red is an extremely lucky colour in Chinese culture, so it is seen frequently throughout the park, especially on the buildings on Main Street, USA.

No clocks are sold at the stores in Hong Kong Disneyland because in Chinese the phrase “giving clock” sounds like “going to a funeral.”

No green hats are sold in Hong Kong Disneyland stores because it is said in Chinese culture that a man wearing a green hat is cheating on his wife.

The bleeding obvious

Michael Shermer, publisher and editor in chief of Skeptic magazine has argued that it’s not completely bogus:

Obviously, there are ways to structure rooms, the interiors of buildings and so on to help make these more efficient, easier to walk through, to make them feel better psychologically.” A lot of this is just common sense. Our lives can be affected by our physical and emotional environment. Feng Shui practitioners have been able to tap into some basic facets of human perception or aesthetic appreciation. It is a good idea to keep your home clean, reduce clutter, have beautiful decoration and live in harmony with nature. But these practitioners are right for the wrong reasons; there is no such force as Xi – feng shui is simply superstition and consumer psychology dressed up as ancient wisdom.

Quantum nonsense

What’s more practitioners want to give it a scientific air by linking the traditional conceptions and terminology of the practice with the lexicon of modern day quantum physics. James Randi, another magician and sceptic has pointed out how they will invoke the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, quarks or a quantum effect to give to make it sound better.

Impossible to parody

It’s very difficult to parody this stuff. On her website Karen Rauch Carter, a professional feng shui consultant tells us how to feng shui the toilet.

There are many ways to counterbalance a toilet so vital energy does not escape by being flushed away from a feng shui standpoint. Here are some ways using traditional cures:

1. Run a line of red (anything red will do) around the outgoing pipe with intentions of not allowing any vital energy from being flushed away. The problem with this fix is that sometimes it is hard to disguise the red. So, let me give you some alternatives to this:

2. Place a mirror face up on top of the toilet tank with intentions of deflecting vital chi back up instead of allowing it to be pulled down and flushed away. The mirror can be sitting there alone, or something decorative can even be sitting on it. Another alternative is to open the tank lid and place the mirror on the bottom of the tank inside (under water) with intentions of deflecting the water energy upwards, and not allowing vital chi to “go down the drain.” I’d recommend at least a 4″ diameter one, or use multiple smaller ones if that does not fit inside or on top of your tank easily.

3. Hang a crystal above the toilet or in the centre of the bathroom ceiling with intentions of dispersing the energy before it has the capacity to congregate over the toilet and get flushed away. Any round, multi-faceted crystal will do (I’m not talking about a natural stone here, but instead, a leaded glass crystal.) I’d recommend a minimum of a 30 mm one.

4. Hang a large wind chime the same as the crystal. I personally prefer the crystals because they are more visually discreet, but either one will do.


I do recommend that you watch the episode of Penn and Teller’s Bullshit! in which the two eccentric magicians deconstruct this dubious Chinese art. They call in three feng shui experts to rearrange furniture in the same Californian house. Although feng shui is supposed to be a science, each of the three “experts” comes up with completely different arrangements of furniture. The first expert said that the red sofa was bad for the family – she mentioned several health problems that would result. Then the second one said red was “absolutely perfect”. Does this prove that feng shui is bullshit? Well no, of course not. Penn and Teller’s show is about entertainment, which it does very well. It’s knockabout stuff. The sample size is too small. But it’s not the job of Penn & Teller or anyone else to prove that feng shui is bullshit.  If it is a science, then it is the proponents of feng shui who have to show that it works. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Evidence for its effectiveness appears to be based solely on anecdotes. There is also a lack of a credible methodology. As Penn points out on the video, if the practitioners could demonstrate or measure the Qi force they claim to be able to direct, they’d win a Nobel Prize for Physics. But that would be far less lucrative than what they’re doing. What we see is the conflicting advice you see in Bullshit! I’m convinced that many of the effects are merely placebos. However, I would be interested to know if ay serious scientific studies have been carried out.

Call me closed minded if you will, but I subscribe to that famous quote popularised by Carl Sagan and Richard Dawkins:

“By all means let’s be open-minded, but not so open-minded that our brains drop out.” Don’t be hoodwinked by superstition masquerading as oriental wisdom. I realise that feng shui itself is pretty harmless, but I think we need to oppose this kind of sloppy thinking.

Tim Minchin – Storm the Animated Movie

November 11, 2012

This animated video is by Australian-British comedian, actor, and musician, Tim Minchin. In this acclaimed 9-minute beat poem Minchin argues with a hippy named Storm at a London dinner party about science, truth and Scooby Doo. It has had 1.9 million hits, and there isn’t a skateboarding cat in sight. Enjoy!

Patents as weapons of mass destruction

November 3, 2012

The Patent Office is the mother-in-law of invention.  Anonymous

Next came the patent laws. These began in England in 1624, and in this country with the adoption of our Constitution. Before then any man [might] instantly use what another man had invented, so that the inventor had no special advantage from his own invention. The patent system changed this, secured to the inventor for a limited time exclusive use of his inventions, and thereby added the fuel of interest to the fire of genius in the discovery and production of new and useful things.  Abraham Lincoln

Don’t negotiate with terrorists; patent trolls have done more damage to the United States economy than any domestic or foreign terrorist organization in history, every year. Entrepreneur Drew Curtis during a TED presentation.


 For the last few years the world’s biggest technology companies have been embroiled in a series of acrimonious legal disputes. Apple, Google, Samsung Microsoft, HTC HP, Amazon and others have being suing one another in courts around the globe, alleging that they are infringing one another’s patents. Steve Jobs famously threatened to “go thermonuclear” over what he saw as Android’s ripping off of the iPhone. Indeed, Apple recently won an important legal victory over Samsung in the U.S. courts. All this litigation has been a goldmine for lawyers. In the smartphone industry in the past couple of years, as much as $20 billion has been spent on patent litigation and patent purchases. Why has it become such a controversial and expensive area of the law?

A patent is the government grant of monopoly on an invention for a limited amount of time. Different countries have different periods of time; a typical period is around twenty years. The economic rationale behind granting patents is relatively clear; imitation is a lot cheaper than innovation. If there were no patents, then someone who invested time and money to create a valuable invention would not necessarily be rewarded commensurately. Not every idea is susceptible to being patented; In order for a patent claim to be valid, the invention must be “useful,” “novel,” and “nonobvious.”

Patent trolls have become an important force in patent litigation in the last few years. This pejorative term is used for a person or company that enforces patents against one or more alleged infringers in an aggressive or opportunistic way, with no intention of making or marketing the patented invention. Patent troll was popularized in 2001 by Peter Detkin, former assistant general counsel of Intel, to describe TechSearch, its CEO, Anthony O. Brown, and their lawyer, Raymond Niro, while Intel was defending a patent suit against them. He first branded the litigants “terrorists”, but they threatened to sue him for libel. So he decided to organise a competition:

… we got a lot of suggestions, but none really fit. But at the time my daughter was, I think, four or five and she liked playing with those little troll dolls. The original one, in fact, is still in my office. And so I turned to her and I said, oh, the story of a troll kind of fits because the whole Billy Goats Gruff thing. It’s someone lying under a bridge they didn’t build, demanding payment from anybody who passed. I said, how about a patent troll?

There is a less loaded term for such companies – NPEs, non-practising entities. One of the key players is Nathan Myhrvold. The former Chief Technology Officer at Microsoft is co-founder of Intellectual Ventures, one of the top-five owners of U.S. patents. Its business model is focussed on developing a large patent portfolio and licensing these patents to companies. Intellectual Ventures has received a little over 1,000 patents on what they’ve invented in their labs, but they have bought more than 30,000 patents from other people. They claim that their goal is to assist small inventors against corporations. It could be someone with a brilliant idea. He has a patent, but despite this, companies are stealing his idea and he has neither the money nor legal nous to stop them. Intellectual Ventures can buy this inventor’s patent and make sure that companies who are using the idea actually pay for it. Curiously, Peter Detkin, who coined the term “patent troll” now, works for Intellectual Ventures.

I do think that patents are a good idea, but we need to be aware that there are downsides. By creating a monopoly you are imposing higher prices on consumers. And patents can also have a negative effect on innovation, becoming a toll gate on the road of innovation. Opponents of patent trolls point to the statistics about their economic impact. From 2004 to 2009, the number of patent infringement lawsuits jumped by 70%, while licensing fee requests went up 650%. According to James Bessen, the costs of patent litigation exceed their investment value in all industries except chemistry and pharmaceuticals. In the software industry, litigation costs are twice the investment value.

One noticeable trend is that companies are patenting concepts. Companies come up with a concept, and they file the patent for this concept before they actually figure out how to convert it into a product.  It becomes a race to get your invention to the patent office first. When you have vague, overreaching patents, it becomes harder for people and companies to innovate without falling foul of them. One of the more ridiculous examples of the granting of a patent must be Amazon patenting their one-click buying system. Then there is Drew Curtis’s company Fark.com, which was sued along with Yahoo, MSN, Reddit, AOL, TechCrunch and others by a company called Gooseberry Natural Resources. Gooseberry owned a patent for the creation and distribution of news releases via email! And finally last year Google was sued over its Google Offers business venture. This is like those daily offers I receive from Groupon on my PC every morning.

The federal lawsuit, which was filed in Delaware, involves four patents owned by research firm Walker Digital. They have also sued Amazon and the aforementioned Groupon. In fact, there were some 100 companies involved. They were all accused of infringing the following patents:

7,039,603: “Settlement systems and methods wherein a buyer takes possession at a retailer of a product.”

6,249,772: “Systems and methods wherein a buyer purchases a product at a first price and acquires.”

6,754,636: “Purchasing systems and methods wherein a buyer takes possession at a retailer of a product.”

7,689,468: “Purchasing, redemption and settlement systems and methods wherein a buyer takes possession at a retailer.”

The cases were settled out of court with Walker Digital receiving $25m. The previous November they had sued Facebook for friending, or “Method and system for establishing and maintaining user-controlled anonymous communications“.

Invention is always going to be a minefield. History is littered with inventors unable to benefit from their creations. You need to strike a balance between protecting inventors and having a system that chokes off further innovation. It has to be said so far technology does seem to be a pretty vibrant sector. Of course this may be despite the patent system. Judge Richard Posner has argued that patents are unnecessary. He contends that even if other companies and copy and imitate their products, Apple will still be more than adequately compensated for their investment in research and development. I wouldn’t go as far as Posner but I would like to see more flexibility. How about 3-year patents in technology? And I would like to see them issued a little less liberally. In August two congressman brought in the SHIELD (Saving High-tech Innovators from Egregious Legal Disputes) Act, a bipartisan bill aims to bring in a “loser pays” system for software and hardware patent lawsuits, to protect start-ups from companies that want to force settlements through the threat of high legal bills. However, there is no perfect system. Individuals and companies will always try to game the system.

The Etymologicon #3

November 3, 2012

Here is my final selection from  Mark Forsyth’s wonderful book, The Etymologicon: A Circular Stroll Through the Hidden Connections of the English Language, book which looks at the unexpected connections between words:


Once upon a time, cough medicines all contained morphine. This made people worried. You see, morphine is addictive, which meant that if you had a bad cold and took the cough medicine for too long, you might cure the cough but wind up physically dependent upon the remedy. The poor cougher of a hundred years ago was therefore faced with a choice: keep hacking away, or risk becoming a morphine addict. Many chose the cough. So in 1898 a German pharmaceutical company called Bayer decided to develop an alternative. They got out their primitive pipettes and rude retorts, and worked out a new chemical: diacetylmorphine, which they marketed as a ‘non-addictive morphine substitute’. Like all new products it needed a brand name. Diacetylmorphine was alright if you were a scientist, but it wasn’t going to work at the counter of the drugstore. They needed a name that would sell, a name that would make people say: ‘Yes! I want to buy that product!’ So Bayer’s marketing chaps set to work. They asked the people who had taken diacetylmorphine how it made them feel, and the response was unanimous: it made you feel great. Like a hero. So the marketing chaps decided to call their new product heroin. And guess what? It did sell. Heroin remained a Bayer trademark until the First World War; but the ‘non-addictive’ part turned out to be a little misguided.

Water Closets for Russia

In 1911, Winston Churchill was moved from the position of Home Secretary and became First Lord of the Admiralty, where he was in charge of developing new and more lethal methods of killing the enemy.

One of the ideas that he oversaw was the landship. The oceans of the world were, at the time, dominated by the Royal Navy. Britannia ruled the waves. Huge steam-powered gunships chuffed around the globe making sure that the Sun never set on the British Empire. These ships were covered in iron, so that they were immune to enemy fire, and they had huge guns mounted on them, so that they could destroy others. However, on land Britain was not so invincible. The British army still consisted of men and horses, which are made of flesh rather than iron and could be killed in their millions.

So, under Churchill’s supervision, a plan was hatched to take the principle of the iron-clad warship and apply it to land warfare. The British started to design the landship. It would be iron, like a warship, it would be motorised, like a warship, and it would have guns mounted on it, like a warship. It would be a destroyer, but it would be used in the field and not in the sea.

The idea was pushed forward by an officer called Ernest Swinton. Plans were drawn up and manufacturers approached, but everything was done in deadly secrecy. No mention of landships was ever made in public, which is why they aren’t called landships today.

The landship was such a secret that not even the workers in the factory where they were built were to know what they were. By the outbreak of war in 1914, Russia was fighting on the Allied side, so Swinton decided that a good cover story for the new weapons would be to say on all documents that they were Water Carriers for Russia, but when Swinton told Churchill about his ruse Churchill burst out laughing.

Churchill pointed out that Water Carriers would be abbreviated to WCs and that people would think that they were manufacturing lavatories. So Swinton had a quick think and suggested changing the name to Water Tanks for Russia. Churchill could find no objection to this codename, and it stuck.

Well, it didn’t all stick. Water Tanks for Russia was a bit cumbersome, so water got dropped. Then it turned out that the tanks weren’t going to Russia at all. They were going to the trenches on the Western Front, so Russia got dropped too. And that’s why tanks are called tanks. If Winston Churchill hadn’t been so careful about lavatorial implications, they might have been called carriers. If Swinton hadn’t been so careful, they would definitely have been landships.

Queen Gunhilda and the Gadgets

Gunhilda was the Queen of Denmark in the late tenth and early eleventh century. She was married to Sven Forkbeard and, as is the way with Dark Age queens, that’s all we really know about her. She was the mother of Canute the Great (he of the waves), and presumably she helped her husband out with his beard every morning. She must also have known her father-in-law, King Harald I of Denmark, who lived from 935 to 986 AD.

King Harald had blue teeth. Or perhaps he had black teeth. Nobody’s quite sure, as the meaning of blau has changed over the years. His other great achievement was to unite the warring provinces of Denmark and Norway under a single king (himself).

In 1996 a fellow called Jim Kardach developed a system that would allow mobile telephones to communicate with computers. After a hard day’s engineering, Kardach relaxed by reading a historical novel called The Longships by Frans Gunnar Bengtsson. It’s a book about Vikings and adventure and raping and pillaging and looting, and it’s set during the reign of Harald Bluetooth.

Jim Kardach felt he was doing the king’s work. By getting computers to talk to telephones and vice versa he was uniting the warring provinces of technology. So, just for his own amusement, he gave the project the working title of Bluetooth.

Bluetooth was never meant to be the actual name on the package. Blue teeth aren’t a pleasant image, and it was up to the marketing men at Kardach’s company to come up with something better. The marketing men did come up with something much blander and more saleable: they were going to call the product Pan. Unfortunately, just as the new technology was about to be unveiled, they realised that Pan was already the trademark of another company. So, as time was tight and the product needed to be launched, they reluctantly went with Kardach’s nickname. And that’s why it’s called Bluetooth technology.


The number of hidden beards in the English language is quite bizarre. Bizarre, for example, comes from the Basque word bizar or beard, because when Spanish soldiers arrived in the remote and clean-shaven villages of the Pyrenees, the locals thought that their bizars were bizarre.

The feathers that were stuck into the back of arrows were known by the Romans as the beard, or barbus, which is why arrows are barbs, and that’s ultimately the reason that barbed wire is simply wire that has grown a beard.

Barbus is also the reason that the man who cuts your beard is known as a barber. The ancient Romans liked to be clean-shaven, as beards were considered weird and Greek, so their barbers plied a regular and lucrative trade until the fall of the Roman Empire. Italy was overrun by tribesmen who had huge long beards which they never even trimmed. These tribesmen were known as the longa barba, or longbeards, which was eventually shortened to Lombard, which is why a large part of northern Italy is still known as Lombardy.

The Romans by that time had become effete, perhaps through a lack of facial hair, and couldn’t take their opponents on. If they had been more courageous and less shaven, they could have stood beard to beard against their enemies, which would have made them objectionable and rebarbative.

What the Romans needed was a leader like General Ambrose Burnside, who fought for the Union during the American Civil War. General Burnside had vast forests of hair running from his ears and connecting to his leviathan moustache. So extraordinary was his facial foliage that such growths came to be known as burnsides. However, Ambrose Burnside died and was forgotten, and later generations of Americans, reasoning that the hair was on the side of the face, took the name burnside and bizarrely swapped it around to make sideburns.

And it’s not only humans that have beards, nor only animals. Even trees may forget to shave, namely the giant bearded fig of the Caribbean. The bearded fig is also known as the strangler tree and can grow to 50 feet in height. The beards and the height and the strangling are connected, for the tree reproduces by growing higher than its neighbours and then dropping beard-like aerial roots into their unsuspecting branches. The beards wrap themselves around the victim until they reach the ground, where they burrow in and then tighten, strangling the host.

There’s an island in the Caribbean that’s filled with them. The natives used to call it the RedLand with White Teeth, but the Spanish explorers who discovered it were so impressed with the psychotic and unshaven fig trees that they called it The Bearded Ones, or Barbados.

Cynical Dogs

The Cynics were a school of ancient Greek philosophy, founded by Antisthenes and made famous by his pupil Diogenes.

Diogenes was, by any standards, an odd chap. He lived in a barrel in the marketplace in Athens and used to carry a lamp about in broad daylight, explaining that he was trying to find an honest man. His one worldly possession was a mug that he used for drinking. Then one day he saw a peasant scooping water up with his hands and immediately threw his mug away. Accounts of his death vary, but one story is that he held his breath.

Cynic meant doglike. But why was Diogenes’ school known as the dogs?

There was a gymnasium near Athens for those who were not of pure Athenian blood. A gymnasium in ancient Greece wasn’t exactly the same thing as a gymnasium today. For starters, it was an open-air affair. It was more of a leafy glade than a building filled with parallel bars and rubber mats. People did do their physical training at the gymnasium, in fact they did it naked. The word gymnasium comes from the Greek gymnazein, meaning to train in the nude, which itself comes from gymnos, meaning naked. But if you could take your mind off the naked boys (which many Greek philosophers found difficult), gymnasiums were also places for socialising and debating and teaching philosophy. Diogenes’ gymnasium was known as the Gymnasium of the White Dog or Cynosarge, because a white dog had once defiled a sacrifice there by running away with a bit of meat.

Diogenes, not being a native Athenian, was forced to teach in the Dog’s Gymnasium, which is how one hungry and ownerless canine gave his name to a whole philosophical movement. A fun little result of this is that any cynical female is, etymologically speaking, a bitch.