Thursday, February 05, 2015

The Joy of Estimation

One of the tragedies of growing older is that just as one’s wisdom and insight expands and unfolds like some exquisite water lily then the willingness of other people to pay any attention to what you’re going on about takes a serious plunge. This leads to an increased use of the phrase ‘if I had my way’ to preface every suggestion. Sad really, but there it is.
Anyway, if I had my way, children would be taught the art of estimation from an early age. Not only is it fun but it promotes deep insight and, more importantly, develops a sense of proportion. A simple example might be something like: “Imagine each year as a 1cm mark on a ruler. Now cut a piece of string that matches your age; if you are 10 years old then it will be about as long as a pen. Now imagine a piece of string that matches the amount of time since the last dinosaur was alive (not counting our feathered friends). How long would it be? Would it stretch to the bottom of the garden, to the next town or from here to London? You’re allowed to know that it is 66 million years since the dinosaurs disappeared so it’s simply a matter of getting a feel for how long a 66 million centimeter piece of string would be. The answer is 660 kilometers or about the same as traveling from London to Paris and back. That’s quite a long way - or a long time ago.
Of course that’s a fairly easy one.
Slightly more difficult is to work out roughly how many grains of sand there are on all the beaches of the world and whether this is more or less than the number of stars in the universe. I can recommend this as an alternative to counting sheep when trying to fall asleep.
Let me take you through it: 
(arithmophobics are excused if they choose get off at this stop).
Let’s start with the easy bit — the number of stars in the universe. Our galaxy (the Milky Way) is said to consist of about 100 billion stars. That’s 1 followed by 11 zeros or 1011. The number of galaxies in the universe is about the same - 1011 so if we assume that our galaxy is about average that makes the total number of stars 1022 or ten thousand billion billion (as Brian Cox would put it). The point is not so much the number — it’s fairly meaningless — the point is to compare this number with the number of grains of sand on the beaches of the world and to find out how different the two numbers are.
The grain of sand calculation is a bit more difficult so let’s warm up by working out the number of pebbles on Chesil beach. Chesil beach is a magnificent shingle bank 29 km long, 200 metres wide and 45 metres high. If you haven’t been there, I can recommend (I believe the correct term is heartily recommend) a visit. You really have to sit on it to get a feel for just how many pebbles there are there.
So if we think of Chesil beach as a 29km long shoe box it’s easy to work out it’s volume - about 26 million cubic metres or, allowing for the fact that it isn’t square but is a sort of rounded hump, about half that - say 10 million cubic meters. That’s one of the tricks about estimating, by the way; as long as the number of noughts is about right you can be a bit free with the 6s and 7s.
Now the pebbles on Chesil beach are interesting because the natural action of the waves and currents have graded them so that at one end the pebbles are all about the size of frozen peas while at the other end they’re the size of tennis balls. This leads to the tale that local fishermen, landing somewhere along the beach on moonless nights were able to tell where they were from the size of the pebbles. So let’s choose an average sized pebble — say the size of a grape — and work out how many there are in a cubic metre. Thinking of each pebble as about 1cm in diameter and box-shaped rather than round gives the answer - about a million per cubic metre. And so the total number of pebbles in Chesil Beach is (very roughly) 1013 or 10 thousand billion. That’s about 100 times more than the number of stars in the Milky Way - which is disappointing as I was hoping that the two numbers would be about the same.
When it comes to working out the number of grains of sand on all the beaches of the world, we come up against what is known as the coastline paradox or the fact that measuring the length of a coastline will give different answers depending on the length of your tape measure. Not to be daunted, Wikipedia quotes the CIA’s World Factbook in giving the total length of the world’s coastline as 1,162,306 km. (or roughly 1 billion metres) so let’s take this to be the right figure. If we assume that this length consists of around 10% beach (as opposed to rocky cliffs, mangrove swamps and so on) then the total volume of sand — assuming an average beach is about 2 metres deep and 50 metres wide to the water’s edge — is around 1010 cubic metres.
Sand grains are smaller than pebbles - let’s say about 1mm diameter so there are 109 (or 1 billion) in a cubic metre. So the total number of grains of sand on all the beaches of the world is about 1019 or about a thousand times fewer than the number of stars in the universe (give or take a few).
In all of this, there’s one number that stretches the imagination more then any other — 1011 — the number of galaxies that are thought to exist in the universe — about the same as the number of pebbles in a 300 metre section of Chesil beach. When you consider that each galaxy is made up of thousands of millions of stars, it is a monstrous number that makes a mockery of the imagination.
Maybe I’ll go back to counting sheep.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

That 1%

No doubt in common with many other people, I was struck by the recent Oxfam research predicting that by next year the richest 1% of the world's population will own over half the world’s wealth.
It led me to speculate how dispensing with that parasitical 1% would instantly make the rest of us twice as well off — an attractive, if somewhat provocative, suggestion — that is until I found myself thinking:
“1% of the world’s population - that’s 73 million people to be got rid of and, more crucially, can I be absolutely certain that I’m not one of them?”
So perhaps I’ll stick with the associated statistic - namely that the world's richest 85 people own more than the poorest 50%. When it comes to the risk of accidentally lining myself up for culling, I’d rather stay on the safe side.
It’s interesting though, the same analysis that underlies the Oxfam research could easily be adapted to support a phone app that would tell you how you rank in terms of the world’s wealthiest people. I find it impossible to imagine how I would score but I wouldn’t be all that surprised to find myself in the top 1%, simply on account of there being so many poor people. 
While we’re on the subject, here is Oxfam’s seven-point plan for reversing the accelerating slide towards dangerous levels of inequality (which thankfully doesn’t involve any culling):

  • Clamp down on tax dodging by corporations and rich individuals.
  • Invest in universal, free public services such as health and education.
  • Share the tax burden fairly, shifting taxation from labour and consumption towards capital and wealth.
  • Introduce minimum wages and move towards a living wage for all workers.
  • Introduce equal pay legislation and promote economic policies to give women a fair deal.
  • Ensure adequate safety-nets for the poorest, including a minimum-income guarantee.
  • Agree a global goal to tackle inequality.



Christmas with the Ecclestones

My Christmas piece from Horsley's Over The Wall magazine

Despite the fact that, generally speaking, we are 'not at home to Mr Murdoch', there appears to be little I can do to prevent Santa from including a copy of Hello Magazine in Mrs Wormwood's Christmas stocking.
I pretend to be disapproving but, if I’m honest, I have to admit there's something strangely comforting about snuggling down after a good Christmas dinner to leaf through the pages of Hello and its parade of wastrels, poseurs, musk-cats and prick-me-dainties all set off against a backdrop of grotesque interior decoration.
And besides - it is good to be reminded that the people in Hello magazine have real human feelings and emotions just like the rest of us. So, for example, it’s lovely to know that Tamara Ecclestone and her partner, having decided to trade the British cold for the warmer temperatures in Dubai, chose to delay their Christmas Day flight till the late afternoon, simply in order to have the whole Christmas morning ‘chilling in their specially bought Christmas jumpers’.
It’s not like life at the top is all a bed of roses either. Articles in Hello magazine regularly include obscure references as to how so-and-so is ‘battling with demons’ - which doesn’t sound very nice. Mrs Wormwood tells me that this is not to be taken literally – as some sort of titanic struggle with the forces of Beelzebub – but is a figure of speech discretely hinting at a form of addiction or compulsive behaviour such as an over-fondness for Maltesers, excessive shopping or killing wild animals - all of which, nevertheless, must be very trying.
Whatever else we might think of it, Hello magazine serves a valuable and admirable purpose in helping raise our eyes above the tawdry and inconsequential trivialities of our own boring lives and encouraging us to aspire to better things. It is comforting to think that with just a little bit more effort and entrepreneurialism we too might enjoy a palatial home set in 900 acres of parkland along with a trophy ‘love of our life’ and an adorable baby. The people who already have these things come all too often from humble beginnings and if they can heave and claw themselves out of the common slime then surely we can too.
This year I found the touching story of Princess Gloria von Thurn and Taxis especially moving. After the sudden and unexpected death of her ancient husband, Gloria found herself threatened with the loss of her 500-room home. Employing what she describes as her ‘simple, motherly, household accounting brain’ and cutting down on the parties, shopping trips, African safaris etc., she set about ‘living within her means’ with exemplary and uncomplaining stoicism. Despite these admirable efforts, she was eventually forced to endure the indignity of auctioning off her jewels at Sotheby’s along with 75,000 bottles of vintage wine, just in in order to make ends meet. She now lives a life of austerity and selfless piety - starting each day with a personal Mass in her private chapel.
I confess, I found the whole piece immensely touching and a welcome reminder that, whatever our own difficulties, there are those who soldier on with a quiet, uncomplaining dignity - an example and inspiration to us all. 

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Time's unstoppable flow

It has always been my intention to post a number of witty and insightful blogs on this site. However, since -- for the time being at least -- I have clearly failed, I am posting another piece from Horsley's Over The Wall, just to keep you going. (They get all the best stuff) 

I can't be the only one to have noticed that time has begun to speed up at an alarming rate. As if growing older weren't enough of a challenge without suddenly discovering that another whole year has flashed by in what – in one's childhood – would have been the space of a single summer's day.

It's a bit like those people who go over the edge of the Niagara Falls in a barrel – you know: the accelerating rush, the deafening roar, the helplessness as they are drawn toward the foaming brink.

Readers: Goodness – did they survive?

Personally, I prefer to think of myself as one who, rather than trusting to the mercy of time's cruel current, chooses to swim against it, like a magnificent salmon leaping through the tumbling rapids.

Readers: “I guess they didn't make it, eh?”

Who?

Readers: “The guys in the barrel.”

Forget the guys in the barrel; I'm sharing some of my best insights here.

For example, it has been shown that, when it comes to resisting time's inexorable course, one of the best strategies is to set about acquiring a new skill. It might be learning to speak a foreign language, playing a musical instrument or a mastering a juggling trick.

There is one crucial point to remember however and it is this: on no account must you be tempted to allow curiosity to develop into an actual proficiency. Quite apart from the fact that you will undoubtedly discover the whole business to be far more complicated than you first thought, the fact is you simply don't have the time to sit back and practice your new found skill.

Or, as all good hedge-fund managers will tell you:
Never trade today's reality, for tomorrows potential”

Readers: “It's fine for you to talk about forgetting but once you've planted an image like that it takes some shaking off.”

I take it we're still on about the barrel here?

Readers: “The slow, strangely silent fall followed by the inevitable, sickening impact”

Oh, for goodness sake. Who's meant to be writing this piece?

OK, have it your own way: they all went over the edge and I'm not sure any of them survived.

Readers: Alas - it is just as we feared.

I'm beginning to regret ever bringing up the subject.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Bonuses

Q:  What about this latest round of bonuses then?
A:  Might I respectfully refer the reader to my post of 27 February 2009

Yes it was a long time ago, wasn't it?
And, yes nothing has changed in the meantime.

Monday, April 07, 2014

Smell checkers

(First published in Horsley's Over the Wall magazine)

Of all the truly marvelous technological innovations that nowadays enrich our lives, the spell-checker is surely one of the most beneficial. After all, what could be more heart-breaking than to see a perfectly sound piece of writing utterly devalued, purely on account of poor spelling.

As is now widely accepted, difficulties with spelling should not be taken to indicate impaired intelligence or creativity. It is not widely known, but both Agatha Christie and Gustave Flaubert couldn’t spell for toffee. Fortunately they had amanuenses to help them out. Nowadays, thanks to the smell-checker, we can all enjoy a similar degree of literary confident.

All the same, as is soften the case with radical innovations, there are people who, out of ignorant, fear or predicate, would have us turn our backs on this wonderful boom. One school of thought is happy to accept smell-checking but draws the lime at auto-collection, arguing that the latter risks robbing us, not only of our swords, but of the very ideas that under spin them. It is one thing to be averted to the fact that you have made a smelling mistake; it is quite another to have some completely random word hoisted upon you. People can become so valiant on spell checkers - so these alarmists claim - that they no longer have the fastest clue as to whether the worms appearing on the scream are the ones they meant to write - all they know is that they are spelled corrects.

Another common objection is that we are increase and singly wallowing electron technocracy to take control of what we communicate to otters - with truly tightening embrocations. Identity heft is usual mistaken as the risk that our personal details might be stolen by hacketts, coincidence tricksters and other criminals. On the contrary - so the unguent goes - it will be our own increasingly clever computers and mobile homes that will empty our bank amounts and cause us to be falsely abused of all sorts of unspeakable chimes.

At the extreme end, there are those who put about the paranoid fear that, despise our best tuffets, the words we writhe will soon no longer make any sense a tall and that - like streetwalkers - we risk slithering inexorably back into the dark cages.

Personal I consider all such backward-smoking worries unruly pepsi-mystic and uttermost without foundations.

Bait balls

As an enthusiastic and attentive viewer of Mr Attenborough’s wildlife programmes, I am thoroughly acquainted with the distinctive - and highly photogenic - behaviour adopted by certain species of animals, when under threat from predators.

Whether by flocking (birds), swarming  (insects) or by adopting the mesmerising form known as a ‘bait ball’ (the undoubted favourite of our finny cousins) the basic strategy appears to be the same: namely to present the predator - be it a hawk, bat or seal - with such an intoxicating abundance of options that, out of pure indecision, it ends up empty-handed.

It has been much the same way with this blog.

The reason the last post on here was dated over a year ago is that - far from having nothing to write about - it has been a case of there being too much. Like a leopard seal attacking a flock of penguins, I have found myself unable to select a single topic from amongst the myriad that presented themselves.

Anyway it’s high time I got over it. There’s been a head of stuff building up for some time now and I don’t believe I can hold it back for much longer.

For those who’d prefer to be spared the forthcoming deluge there are two options:

either

1) you can email me and ask me to remove you from the mailing list

or

2) you can set up a rule to redirect mails whose subject contains the word ‘Omnivorist’ directly to your trash can (This is by far the most sensitive and considerate approach)

To everyone else: thank you for reading.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Wisdom of Wormwood


If you have asked Santa for a Kindle or an iPad for Christmas you’ll be wanting something to read on it. So what could be nicer than to snuggle down after Christmas dinner, in front of a big log fire, dipping into an assortment of bite-sized literary delights from the pen of your very own Wormwood.

Now, with the kind permission of Horsley’s Over The Wall magazine, you can enjoy all of your favourite Wormwoods, gathered together in one handy electronic book.



And, as a way of wishing everyone a very Happy Christmas, you can download it FREE OF CHARGE between now and Boxing Day.

I hope you enjoy it. (It goes without saying that enthusiastic, five-star, on-line reviews will be greatly appreciated)

Saturday, November 03, 2012

Tommy Flowers: would-be wealth creator


Earlier this week I watched a BBC Timewatch documentary: Code Breakers, Bletchley Park’s Lost Heroes. The program told the stories of two men who had worked at the code breaking centre at Bletchley Park during the second world war - Bill Tutte and Tommy Flowers. Between them, it was argued, they had helped bring the war to an end, avoiding the needless loss of millions of lives. But it was Tommy Flowers’ story that touched me most deeply.

Tommy Flowers was born in the East End of London in 1905. His father was a bricklayer. He was a bright young man and studied for an engineering degree at night-school before going to work at Dollis Hill, the General Post Office research laboratory in London. In 1939, with the outbreak of the Second World War he was assigned to Bletchley Park to assist in the codebreaking activity for which that place is now famous. In the course of this work he invented the world’s first electronic computer - Colossus.

Built of glass valves and no more powerful than a modern calculator, Colossus represented an immense engineering achievement. The first machine was delivered in December 1943 and worked first time. The second followed in June 1944 just in time for the D-Day landings. Throughout the last years of the war both machines were used to read communications between Hitler and his general staff - messages that were encrypted using a code which the Germans mistakenly believed to be unbreakable.

With the end of the war, Tommy Flowers was sworn to secrecy and returned to work for the GPO. The Colossus machines were quietly shipped away to GCHQ where, remarkably, they continued to be used until the 1960s.

Meanwhile Flowers, possibly recognising the enormous peacetime potential of computing machines, applied for a loan from the Bank of England to build another machine like Colossus. He was denied the loan because the bank did not believe that such a machine could work and the the Official Secrets Act prevented him from providing the evidence necessary to persuade them.

The Timewatch program described how Tommy Flowers faded into relative obscurity, haunted by a persistent sense of ‘what might have been’ had his working-class roots and cockney accent not weighed against him. He died in 1998 at the age of 92.

Further development of computer technology was largely confined to the USA where, in February 1946, the US Army announced the creation of “the world’s first computer” - ENIAC.

The program concluded with what for me was an unbearably poignant detail. In 1993, at the age of 87, Tommy Flowers bought himself a PC. Finding it difficult to get the hang of, he enrolled on a course in Basic Information Processing at Hendon College at the conclusion of which got a certificate with his name written on it by his tutor - who I imagine was entirely unaware of Tommy’s story.





Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Chloe Smith MP


The sudden cancellation of the rise in fuel duty was defended on Channel 4 News and Newsnight by junior treasury minister Chloe Smith MP.

Personally, I don't think I have ever seen a better example of what might be termed the blocking interview technique, in which the aim is to stick resolutely to one's own ground and at all costs to avoid answering questions or confirming the interviewer's assertions, however innocent-seeming. And in this specialised skill I have to acknowledge Chloe Smith to be something of an expert. You can judge for yourself here:

http://tinyurl.com/cgs7bh3 (the fun starts 6 minutes in)

Anyway, it led me to speculate on behind the scenes conversations at the treasury:

It's Tuesday, 26th June and Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander summons rising star, Chloe Smith MP for a briefing:

DA: So Chloe, we have to put someone up against Paxman tonight. I'd do it myself but I have a parent's evening. It's a nuisance but I really can't get out of it. Anyway, I've been discussing it with George and we both think you're totally capable of handling this one.
CS: Oh thank you boss. If you think I can help then I'll give it all I've got.
DA: Brilliant! I felt sure we could rely on you. Now as you know, Paxman is a vicious bruiser. It's not going to be easy.
CS: Don't worry boss - I know what to do. I came top of my group in the training and I'm ready to put it to work.  
DA: Good girl. Show him what you're made of.

DA (Later on the phone to George): Well she's plucky - that's for sure. I just hope she's up to it.

At the Newsnight studios, later that evening - Chloe Smith MP is interviewed by the formidable Jeremy Paxman.

JP: So Mrs Smith, what time did you get up this morning?
CS: I slept very well thankyou (as I always do) and found it very refreshing.
JP: I am sure we are all very pleased to hear that but that wasn't my question. My question was what time did you get out of bed this morning?
CS: My bed is very comfortable. It is a kingsize bed with a Hungarian goose down duvet.
JP: So it is clear that you did sleep last night and now here you are in the studio, so at some point in between you must have got up. Or is there some flaw in my reasoning?
CS: I am not here to comment on your reasoning; I am here to report on the fact that I had a deep and refreshing sleep.
JP: So if we can take it that you are no longer asleep right now then at some point since last night you must have woken up. When exactly was that Mrs Smith?
CS: What your viewers are more concerned with is the fact that, after a good night's sleep, I am here -  awake, alert and working on their behalf.
JP: So you're not going to tell us what time you got up then?
CS: As I have said, I slept extremely well.
JP: Chloe Smith, thankyou.

DA (on the phone to George Osborne after the show): Isn't she a little cracker? Wow! Told you George. What a performance! Might be an idea for you to give her a call and thank her personally George. You know - she's hungry and ambitious and up for anything I reckon.  
GO: You're right Danny. We're going to need her again.