Summer break

June 29, 2014

As usual I will be taking a break from blogging over the summer months. I should be back around the middle of September.

Have a great summer!

Heel the world: how high heels conquered our planet

June 29, 2014


High heels, which have become a classic symbol of female sexuality, go back a long time in history. From Ancient Egypt there are depictions of both upper-class males and females wearing heels, probably for ceremonial purposes. Elizabeth Semmelhack, the curator of the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto, and a leading authority on the history of footwear, traces the origin of the high heel back to Persian horse riders in the Near East. The footwear helped the men to stay in the stirrups when riding at speed. This is why cowboy boots have the form they do.

The person generally credited with establishing the high heel as a fashion item was the vertically challenged Catherine de Medici. In 1533, at the age of 14, she was about to marry the powerful Duke of Orleans, who would later become Henry II, King of France. She felt insecure in the arranged marriage knowing that she would be competing for her husband’s affections with Diane de Poitiers the Duke’s favourite, who happened to be more attractive and significantly taller her. She needed to find a way to dazzle the French. Desperate situations require desperate solutions and Catherine decided to don two-inch heels for the ceremony. They proved a great success and high heels soon came to be associated with privilege. By 1580, heels were popular for both sexes, and a person who had authority or wealth was often referred to as well-heeled, while those suffering hard times were described as down at heel. Louis XIV was one famous devotee, wearing intricate heels decorated with miniature battle scenes. They were often as tall as five inches. The king decreed that only nobility could wear red heels and that no one’s heels could be higher than his own.

With the Enlightenment there were changes in how male and female clothing was perceived. Men were seen rational and educable, whereas women were irrational, sentimental, and uneducable. Dress began to reflect this dichotomy. Semmelhack describe it thus:

Men began to wear more dour clothing. They gave up makeup and highly ornamented clothing and heels. Those accoutrements became signifiers of femininity—especially the high heel, since it’s an irrational form of footwear, unless you are on a horse. So it became associated with femininity, and then was eventually linked to female desirability.”

However, after the French Revolution the high heel, with its aristocratic associations, went out of fashion both for men and women for more than half a century. The invention of the camera was the catalyst that led to its return. Indeed, Semmelhack sees a link with the rise of pornography.

An important landmark was the invention of the stiletto in the post-World War II period. Before this most heels had been carved out of wood. Christian Dior in collaboration with shoe designer Roger Vivier played a key role in popularising them. Stilettos, whose name means little dagger in Italian, could be made of solid steel or a very hard, thin plastic – an exceptionally thin heel could now support the weight of a woman without breaking.

Despite the rise of feminism high-heeled shoes are still in vogue today. TV programmes like Sex in the City and movies like The Devil Wears Prada reflect this ongoing popularity.

In his book The Economic Naturalist, which I have featured a number of times before in this blog, Robert Frank looked at a number of life’s mysteries from an economic perspective. One question he asked is this: why are women willing to endure the discomfort of high heels? They are uncomfortable and make walking more difficult. What’s more, prolonged use can injure the feet, knees and back. Some women even go under the knife to shorten their toes or inject Botox so that their feet fit more comfortably into a pair of stilettos

So why do women keep wearing them? The answer is of course that aesthetic reasons. Not only do they make women taller, high heels force the back to arch, pushing the chest forward and the buttocks rearward, accentuating the kind of exaggerated female figure which seems to attract men.

However there is a paradox here. If all women wear high heels any advantage is cancelled out. The relative height distribution is the same, and no one appears taller than if all had worn flat heels. A similar example would be if everyone stands up in a sports stadium, no one will see the action better. But they will be more uncomfortable. Women in the 21st century have more shoe choices than ever before. If they could decide collectively what shoes to wear, all might agree to a non-aggression pact and forgo high heels. But because any individual can gain advantage by wearing them, such an agreement is almost impossible to maintain. As a man I am rather glad men don’t have to wear high heels. A man’s height is also important and you can imagine a world in which men competed in this way.  I really can’t seem myself in five-inch stilettos.


June 22, 2014

Last week I looked at how facts are constantly changing. This week I want to look at the fact’s unreliable brother, the factoid. This word, which is basically a synonym for bullshit, was first popularised, if not coined, by Norman Mailer in his 1973 biography of Marilyn Monroe. The controversial author described a factoid as “facts which have no existence before appearing in a magazine or newspaper.” He created the word by combining the word fact and the ending -oid to mean “similar but not the same”, as in humanoid, asteroid or haemorrhoid. The Washington Times described Mailer’s new word as referring to “something that looks like a fact, could be a fact, but in fact is not a fact”.

However the word now sometimes also used to mean a small piece of true but trivial information, in contrast to the original definition. This has been popularized by CNN, which, during the 1980s and 1990s, used to frequently include such a fact under the heading “factoid” during news broadcasts. BBC Radio 2 presenter Steve Wright uses factoids extensively on his show. I don’t want to be pedantic, but I agree with William Safire, the New York Times’ language expert who favoured the use of the word factlet for a small or trivial bit of information that happens to be true.

Why are they so ubiquitous? Firstly, they can get past our defences. We often fail to make the effort to check them. They also fulfil a psychological need. They can be more entertaining than reality. Why let the facts get in the way of good story? Ultimately factoids shape our social reality.

Quotes about facts

June 22, 2014

If the facts don’t fit the theory, change the facts. Albert Einstein

Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence. John Adams

Get your facts first, then you can distort them as you please. Mark Twain

The truth is more important than the facts. Frank Lloyd Wright

NOW, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!Gradgrind in Hard Times by Charles Dickens,

Comments are free but facts are sacred. C.P. Scott

I don’t give a damn for anybody’s opinion, I only care about the facts. So I’m not an enthusiast for diversity of opinion where factual matters are concerned. Richard Dawkins

Cognitive psychology has shown that the mind best understands facts when they are woven into a conceptual fabric, such as a narrative, mental map, or intuitive theory. Disconnected facts in the mind are like unlinked pages on the Web: They might as well not exist. Steven Pinker

There’s a world of difference between truth and facts. Facts can obscure the truth. Maya Angelou

Facts are to the mind what food is to the body. Edmund Burke

Facts do not speak. Henri Poincare

There are no facts, only interpretations. Friedrich Nietzsche

Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts. Daniel Patrick Moynihan

The mark of a mature, psychologically healthy mind is indeed the ability to live with uncertainty and ambiguity, but only as much as there really is. Uncertainty is no virtue when the facts are clear, and ambiguity is mere obfuscation when more precise terms are applicable. Julian Baggini

Since the masses are always eager to believe something, for their benefit nothing is so easy to arrange as facts. Charles Maurice de Talleyrand

When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir? John Maynard Keynes



There’s no such thing as a brontosaurus – the half- life of knowledge

June 15, 2014

While watching an episode from the most recent K series I was shocked to discover that 60% of facts from series A, which was first broadcast in 2003, were wrong. Some of this will be down to errors by the elves. But the vast majority of these will be due to the fact that knowledge is in constant flux. This instability is reflected in a classic QI question: How many moons does the Earth have?  The best current knowledge is that there are now about 18,000 of what NASA calls “mini moons”. However, in Series A it was two and in series B this was revised to either one or five.

This revelation about the transitory nature of knowledge made me want to read The Half-life of Facts, a book by Harvard mathematician, Samuel Arbesman. The book’s subtitle is Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date. Arbesman is an expert in scientometrics, or the study of measuring and analyzing science, with his main area of study being how facts are constantly being made and remade. He is particularly interested in those facts that change slowly; he calls them mesofacts. The concept of half-life is usually used to refer to radioactive atoms; it is the time it takes for half of a certain substance to decay. Arbesman applies this to scientific knowledge, describing the amount of time that it takes for facts to be proven wrong.  He did not invent this concept. Fritz Machlup is the man said to have first referred to the half-life of knowledge.

In 1965 Derek J Solla, a pioneer in the field of scientometrics, found that scientific knowledge is growing at a rate of 4.7 percent annually. Using a simple rule of thumb – dividing 72 by this number – we can learn that at this rate scientific knowledge would double every 15 years or so. This has very practical implications for scientific knowledge. Studies show that the “half-life” of a paper in a physics journal is 10 years. By this we mean the time it takes to lose half its influence. This impact is measured in terms of how often it gets cited, and can be measured with some precision.

Some fields are well aware of this phenomenon. Medical students are taught that everything they learn is going to be obsolete soon after they graduate. There is even a website called that constantly updates medical textbooks. I think we should, like medicine, embrace this change. We need to do away with the idea that we can definitively learn a subject. Rather than learning facts and yet more facts, we need to be able to learn how to adapt to changing facts. I do think there is some value to having a basic notion of the facts, but it also true that this can also be outsourced to the cloud.

Wikipedia’s List of common misconceptions

June 15, 2014

Here is a brief selection:

Searing meat does not “seal in” moisture, and in fact may actually cause meat to lose moisture. Generally, the value in searing meat is that it creates a brown crust with a rich flavor via the Maillard reaction.

Older elephants that are near death do not leave their herd and instinctively direct themselves toward a specific location known as an elephants’ graveyard to die.

The expression “rule of thumb” did not originate from a law allowing a man to beat his wife with a stick no thicker than his thumb, and there is no evidence that such a law ever existed.

The forbidden fruit mentioned in the Book of Genesis is commonly assumed to be an apple, and is widely depicted as such in Western art. However, the Bible does not identify what type of fruit it is. The original Hebrew texts mention only tree and fruit. Early Latin translations use the word mali, which can be taken to mean both “evil” and “apple”. German and French artists commonly depict the fruit as an apple from the 12th century onwards, and John Milton’s Areopagitica from 1644 explicitly mentions the fruit as an apple. Jewish scholars have suggested that the fruit could have been a grape, a fig, wheat, an apricot or an etrog.

Eating less than an hour before swimming does not increase the risk of experiencing muscle cramps or drowning. One study shows a correlation between alcohol consumption and drowning, but there is no evidence cited regarding stomach cramps or the consumption of food,

“Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” was not composed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart when he was 5 years old; he only composed variations on the tune, which originated from a French folk song, and only at the age of 25 or 26.

It is commonly claimed that the Great Wall of China is the only human-made object visible from the Moon. This is false. None of the Apollo astronauts reported seeing any specific human-made object from the Moon, and even Earth-orbiting astronauts can barely see it. City lights, however, are easily visible on the night side of Earth from orbit. Shuttle astronaut Jay Apt has been quoted as saying that “the Great Wall is almost invisible from only 180 miles (290 km) up.”

It is true that life expectancy in the Middle Ages and earlier was low; however, one should not infer that people usually died around the age of 30. In fact, the low life expectancy is an average very strongly influenced by high infant mortality, and the life expectancy of people who lived to adulthood was much higher. A 21-year-old man in medieval England, for example, could by one estimate expect to live to the age of 64.

The redhead gene is not becoming extinct. In August 2007, many news organizations reported that redheads would become extinct, possibly as early as 2060, due to the gene for red hair being recessive. Although redheads may become more rare (for example, mixed marriages where one parent is from a group without the redhead gene will result in no children, but some grandchildren, with red hair), they will not die out unless everyone who carries the gene dies or fails to reproduce. This misconception has been around since at least 1865, and often resurfaces in American newspapers.

A penny dropped from the Empire State Building will not kill a person or crack the sidewalk. The terminal velocity of a falling penny is about 30–50 miles per hour (48–80 km/h), and the penny will not exceed that speed regardless of the height from which it is dropped. At that speed, its energy is not enough to penetrate a human skull or crack concrete, as demonstrated on an episode of MythBusters. As MythBusters noted, the Empire State Building is a particularly poor setting for this misconception, since its tapered shape would make it impossible to drop anything directly from the top to street level.

The notion that goldfish have a memory span of just a few seconds is false. It is much longer, counted in months.

Marina Abramovic The Artist is Present Trailer

June 8, 2014