Category Archives: Mathematics

How Many Robots Does it Take to Change a Planet?

In which The Author does some calculations

I expect most of you have come across Mondrian-like artworks like this recently:

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These so-called QR Codes are everywhere at the moment, from newspapers and magazines, through product packaging and point-of-sale, to advertising hoardings. For example, I found this particular example on the Arriva Trains Wales Valleys Lines Summer 2013 timetable. (It’s only valid for another week, so don’t get too excited!)
QR stands for Quick Response, and people with smartphones can use them as a short cut to associated websites. Mother pointed one out to me the last time we were in Brecon, wondering what on Earth it was (see Granotechnology.) It turned out that they’re dotted all over the place, giving visitors a handy personalized at-a-scan tourist guide to the sights and history of a fascinating city.
It’s very difficult to walk down a shopping street in 2013 without finding at least one QR code somewhere within easy zapping distance. Along with many aspects of life in the Twenty-First Century, these abstract digital badges seem to have arisen from nowhere, almost under everyone’s nose. It came as a bit of a shock last week, therefore, when I came across an early reference to QR codes in an old SF novel.
In Missing, Presumed Lost I told you how I’d been inspired to re-read Isaac Asimov’s book The Naked Sun, after a gap of three decades (at least.)
[A digression: I had a message from my old friend and regular blog follower Neil R. this morning. He’d read the list of books which have vanished from my personal library over the course of time, and he’s bought three of them as a Xmas present for me. One of them is The Caves of Steel, the prequel to The Naked Sun. He’s going to call over with them next week. How kind is that? In the meantime, I’ve thought of another half a dozen books which have vanished without trace. Swings and roundabouts…]
Anyway, to cut a medium-length novel short, Dr Asimov’s protagonist is an Earth policeman named Elijah Baley. He is seconded to investigate a murder on the planet Solaria. It’s a very long way from Earth, in terms of both distance and culture. The Earth of The Caves of Steel is hugely overpopulated, with megacities bursting at the seams with the vast burden of humanity. There’s no privacy, no sense of individuality, and no room to breathe. Everything is artificially lit, and it’s been several generations since anyone saw the sky.
On the other hand, Solaria is one of many planets where the colonists have turned their back on their collective history and decided to plough their own furrows. In particular, the Solarians have developed strange taboos and phobias about the human body. The inhabitants live alone on vast estates which make Australian sheep stations look like window boxes. The sun shines down on their huge dwellings, and there’s a pattern of day and night to which Baley is quite unaccustomed.
Any physical contact with other humans is shunned unless it’s totally unavoidable; they prefer to ‘view’ each other via real-time holograms (although the idea predates the technology by a decade or so.) Their idea of child-rearing owes much to Huxley’s Brave New World, and prefigures Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. Artificial insemination and in vitro fertilization are becoming the favoured methods of reproduction – and even sex only happens once the potential parents have been genetically matched. The extended lifespan of the population allows them adequate scope to pursue their interests wherever they may lie.
It should be a utopia. But it isn’t, of course. Arriving on the sparsely-populated and undeveloped planet, Baley finds himself terrified by the open spaces, endless sky, and lack of company. This culture clash provides much of the tension throughout the story.
The key feature of life on Solaria, however, lies a the heart of the novel: a planet slightly larger than Earth is home to only twenty-five thousand people.
Needless to say, Solaria could never be a thriving economy with such a tiny population (it’s smaller than that of my home town, spread across the entire globe.) The Solarians have hit upon a simple and elegant solution to this: everybody who would usually have worked on farms, in factories, in hospitals, in schools, or in the service sector, has been replaced by robots.
[A digression: I promised my pals in the band Replaced By Robots that I’d mention them in my blog again before the month was out. Well, I’ve done it – just! Their last gig of the year is tonight, in Porth. If you’re reading this afterwards, I’m sorry you missed it. You can get a taste of their sound in Robot Invasion of Earth (Phase II) in the meantime.]
It was while I was reading about Baley’s struggle to come to terms with this alien world that I came across a curious passage. The Earthman notices that each robot has a little identification plate fixed to it: a six-by-six square composed of silver and gold squares – something like this:

Asimov

So that we can see what Dr Asimov had in mind, I made this up myself, using the random number tables in H.R. Neave’s Statistical Tables to determine the distribution of yellow and grey squares. (I couldn’t be arsed to try and apply a metallic effect to the picture.)
Anyway, according to the story, Baley does a quick calculation in his head and comes up with a ball-park figure for the maximum possible number of individual robots on Solaria, based on this simple identification system. (He’s a better mathematician than I am, obviously!) It’s nothing short of staggering. In fact, I spent some time using smaller squares to prove to myself that I wasn’t imagining it.
With one square (the simplest case) it’s child’s play. If we use the figure 0 to represent silver and 1 to represent gold, we’re using binary notation. The square is 1 × 1. The number of outcomes is 2(1×1). That’s a total of two. Easy!
Let’s move up to a 2 × 2 grid and see what happens. Try it for yourself – buy some squared paper and draw little boxes, then shade them in. Start with a blank sheet (0000) and work your way through to a totally shaded grid (1111.) Remember that the orientation of the grid is significant. In other words, any asymmetrical pattern rotated through 180º, reflected vertically or horizontally, or reflected along the line y = x, counts as two different results, like these two.

0001-1

0010-1

Think about a football match – Cardiff v Swansea isn’t the same as Swansea v Cardiff. Same players, different situation. Make a cup of tea and have a potch. See you in a bit…
Welcome back. By now, if you’ve worked through the example, you should have sixteen different patterns on your piece of squared paper. We have 2(2×2) possibilities. 24 = 16. If you’re feeling brave, or foolish, or if (like me) you suffer from chronic insomnia, try a 3 × 3 grid.
Actually, don’t! There are 2(3×3) possible permutations available with just two colours. That’s 29, or 512. If you don’t believe me, leave a comment – I can email you a folder containing every last one of them. (See, I told you I wasn’t sleeping!)
I admit that I bottled out of the next step up – 216 is way too big to try and work out by hand. You get the general idea?
That brings us back to the planet Solaria, and the robots’ identification badges. Using only two colours (in other words, a binary code) in a 6 × 6 square, and bearing in mind that the orientation is significant, the total number of permutations is 236 – or 68,719,476,736! That’s about ten robots for every man, woman and child alive on Planet Earth today, with a few left over for spare parts.
Have a look at that QR code again. All the ones I’ve seen have two solid blocks at the top and one at the bottom, which I presume is Machine Speak for ‘this way up.’ Take a closer look. Count the tiny squares, each of which contains a bit (binary digit) of information. How many permutations are there? More than the grains of sand on the beach? More than the number of stars in the Milky Way? Who knows?
In Predictions (Part 2) I talked about the way the phone network keeps growing and growing, just by adding an extra number. When we start running out of QR codes, we can just add another row and another column and start again. If that doesn’t cause you a sleepless night or two, you haven’t thought about it hard enough.
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The Expert System

In which The Author reaches for the reference books

expert (eks’pûrt) n someone who is skilled in any art or science; a specialist; a scientific or professional witness. ● adj taught by practice; having a thorough knowledge; having a facility of performance (with at or in); skilful or adroit (with at or in). ● vt (Spenser) to experience. [Fr, from L expertus skilled, from experīrī to try thoroughly; see experience]

The Chambers Dictionary (12th ed.), 2011. (London: Chambers Harrap.)

I’ve mentioned it several times throughout this blog, so I thought I’d give you a sneaky peek at the Cosmic Tigger Reference Library.

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Actually, this isn’t the whole thing, and not all the books on these shelves are reference books. About 60% are ‘proper’ reference’ books; the remainder is made up of books which won’t fit on any of the other shelves in my house. Meanwhile, to save space downstairs, I’ve been forced to transplant a fair number of books – both fiction and non-fiction – to the upstairs landing. (At least those few visitors to my house won’t be able complain to they’re bored if they need to visit the bathroom.) The Cosmic Tigger Lending Library, meanwhile, occupies most of two walls of the front room. The books on those shelves have my permission to leave the house, as long as they promise to come back again.
Anyway, I thought I’d give you this exclusive look at my Reference Library for a reason. Have a closer look at the contents. On the top shelf, you’ll see The County Maps of Old England. It’s an absolute gem for map enthusiasts like me – bound facsimiles of the maps of Thomas Moule, the 19th century cartographer. Meanwhile, on the third shelf, you’ll see the 2012 edition of Who’s Who and The Oxford Names Companion. Those three are my latest acquisitions from the ongoing deaccession at Aberdare Library – I picked them up in the sale on Monday at a quid each. The council taxpayer’s loss is my gain, even if it did take me a while to shunt everything else along when I got them home.

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Squeezed in to the left of Who’s Who, you might just see my old friend Rob Hudson’s self-published book From East to West and Dawn to Dusk. It’s a beautiful photographic journey along the ‘Heritage Coast’ of South Wales, more or less from Barry to Porthcawl. I’ve got some copies for sale if anyone fancies one. I sent a copy to Jamila to say ‘thanks’ for helping me out of a hole back in December (see Entertaining Angels Unawares.) We never got to visit the beaches of South Wales together, in spite of talking about it several times – Jamila doen’t do buses if she can help it. I thought it would make a nice souvenir of the time she spent in Wales. Rob had gone out on several occasions when it wasn’t raining. Jamila even managed it herself once or twice.
Next to The Oxford Names Companion, you’ll see Chambers Biographical Dictionary, The Chambers Dictionary itself, the latest edition of Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, Collins English Thesaurus and the Larousse Desk Reference Encyclopedia. The thesaurus was a birthday present from Mother a few years ago; I won the others in competitions over the years, as I related in A Turn-out For the Books.
On the bottom shelf, amongst some books on railways, you might just make out the latest-but-one edition of Stuart Baker’s Rail Atlas of Great Britain and Ireland. I got hold of that in Manchester when I was in that fine city in November (see It’s Grand Oop North!), as the new edition was already in the pipeline. If I can gird my loins to tackle the mighty Amazon again, I might get the new edition as a Xmas present to myself. (No bugger will think of buying it for me, that’s for sure!)
Surrounding those are a seemingly-random assortment of goodies which I’ve accumulated over some thirty years or so. The Biochemistry, Botany and Zoology textbooks are hangovers from my first stint at university, when I learned to my chagrin that Applied Biology involved the bare minimum of Biology and precious little in the way of application. (I wonder what’s happened to the Physical Chemistry textbook I had at the same time. An early casualty of the then-informal Cosmic Tigger Lending Library, I expect…) The Forensic Science books next to them are hangovers from University v 2.0; the James Burke books in between are ones I picked up in a charity shop in Aberdare before it closed. (Oh yes, boys and girls, my home town really is such a shithole that even the charity shops are closing!)
The little off-white book next to James Burke’s Connections is the incredible Powers of Ten. It’s based on a famous educational film by Philip and Phylis Morrison, made in conjunction with a well-known design studio, the Office of Charles and Ray Eames. I did have a copy of the hardback once, but that went walkabout a long time ago. When the paperback was issued, I always made sure that Dillons had plenty of copies in stock, especially in the run up to Xmas, when we sold loads every year. It ticked over very nicely indeed, and I was quite surprised to find out a few months ago that it was out of print. Now, thanks to the wonders of the World Wide Web, I’ve got my own copy again. It’s not leaving the house unaccompanied, either.
Also on the shelves, you’ll find large-format books on Natural History, Egyptology, Architecture, History, Music, Art and Linguistics. I’ve got catholic tastes and always have had. I’ve even got some road atlases, although I don’t drive. They’re a legacy from the time when the boys (and sometimes the girls) from the Carpenters gang would rock up at my place and demand to go somewhere interesting (see Getting Stoned.)
Anyway, the point of showing you the CTRL (what a nice abbreviation! Mere coincidence, of course…) is to underline a statement I made on Facebook yesterday. A friend of mine had sent me a message in which she described me as an ‘expert.’ I sent Jeanette a rather sharply-worded reply, in which I told her that I’m not an ‘expert’ in anything, and that in fact I’m rather sceptical about the word itself. There’s are two good reasons for this.
The first reason is that the word ‘expert’ has become vastly over-used these days. Instead of having the specific meaning which I posted at the head of this entry, it seems to have become a shorthand for ‘anyone you know who knows more than you do about a subject.’
I first developed my deep aversion to the word ‘expert’ when I was working in Dillons. I was primarily responsible for buying the Law, Business, Computing and STM (Science, Technical, and Medical) books. Depending on who else was working when the reps called, I occasionally had to dabble in Art, History, Music, and the more general non-fiction areas (say, Gardening – a subject in which I have a limited interest and of which I have a very limited knowledge.) Over time, I picked up a little background knowledge here and there (mostly there, as Victor Borge once said, because I haven’t been here yet.)
Whereas some people would get excited at the sight of an Advance Information sheet for the new Fred Bloggs novel, I’d get worked up by an AI for the new edition of Moore and Agur’s Essential Clinical Anatomy – or, as we called it, ‘Little Moore’ (to distinguish it from ‘Big Moore’, the same authors’ Clinically Oriented Anatomy.) Some of my colleagues found my enthusiasm for new academic books amusing to say the least. However, I knew that I’d be ordering a twenty-odd-quid sure-fire seller, whereas Mr Bloggs’ much-hyped and heavily-discounted book could well have crashed and burned upon publication.
We all pick up bits of information in the general run of events, of course. I remember discussing a book on the Dambusters Raid with a customer one day. For some reason I thought that 617 Squadron had been formed especially for the mission. We flicked through the book and I was able to confirm my suspicions. I must have acquired that nugget of knowledge from watching the film, and it had stuck in my mind for some reason. It’s the way that we go about ‘learning’ most things, I think. Unless you’re studying a subject for a specific reason, is there any rational explanation for picking up bits of trivia like that? I can’t think of one at the moment.
It’s almost inevitable that after a spell in the trade, any half-decent bookseller will be able to pick up Ways of Seeing or A Brief History of Time or Wild Swans or Mort from the shelves without even needing to think about the author or the subject category. (Publishers try to keep booksellers and customers on their feet by changing the covers every so often.)
After at least one academic season, Essential Clinical Anatomy will probably form part of every academic bookseller’s mental repertoire as well. It may not be as entertaining as Mr Bloggs’ œuvre, but the illustrations are far better. (As if to precisely illustrate the point I’m arguing here, I’ve just had to look up the correct spelling of œuvre. I wasn’t even typing the wrong letters. I was typing all the right letters – I just wasn’t typing them in the right order! In order to solve this problem, even though I’m a trained proofreader, I myself had to seek an Expert Opinion – in this particular case, the one provided by The Chambers Dictionary.)
According to some people in the shop, however, I was the ‘expert’ on the STM books. What they meant, quite simply, was this:
‘We are frightened of these things. The Sciences are, by their very nature, remote and forbidding subjects, and have no place in our world. Our qualifications are grounded in the Arts and Humanities; therefore, by the Overwhelming Universal Principle and Immutable Law of the Two Cultures, we are exempt from knowing anything whatsoever about the books which live in those sections of the shop where Steve spends his days.’
It’s an interesting argument. It never seemed to apply the other way round, of course. As I said earlier, if I was the only buyer in on a day when (say) Alan Sedgeman rocked up with his bag of tricks, I’d have to sit through a huge stack of new History, Philosophy, Sociology and Cultural Studies titles, mostly flying on a wing and a prayer and occasionally crashing entirely (see Bullshit Detector.) On the other hand, if Daphne from Churchill Livingstone or Breffni from Williams & Wilkins called in on my day off, the best they could hope for was to mark up a ‘suggested order’ and pray that it found its way to me.
[A digression: The reps themselves didn’t need to be ‘experts’ about the contents of their books either. I remember reducing Daphne to fits of giggles one day, while we were reading the AI for a book called Reoperative Urology. There was a chapter called ‘Priapism.’ Daphne told me she’d asked a couple of people what the word meant, but she was still none the wiser.
I looked her in the eyes, smiled, and said, ‘It’s when you can’t get it down.’
Collapse of not-so-stout party.]
On the whole, of course, I didn’t need to know very much about the contents of the books I was selling and/or buying. The good thing about the STM market was that we were largely dealing with people who knew exactly what they were after, and who could make their own way in that weird world. Maybe Chalfont and Latimer’s latest book on non-linear dynamic systems really was a thrill a minute, but most people (me included) would probably find it deadly dull at best, and completely impenetrable at worst.
Now, we’ve reached the exact cut-off point where my expertise ends and someone else’s begins. If a first-year medical student wanted to know whether he/she should buy Little Moore or McMinn et al for the anatomy part of the course, my answer was always simple and direct: ‘Ask your lecturer.’
After all, that was why the lecturer was in the position that he/she was. On the other hand, I was a bookseller; we lived at different ends of the supply chain. I could tell you about the publisher, and how long it had been in print, and whether a new edition was in the pipeline, and what the sales figures were like. That was my area of expertise.
On the other hand, the lecturer is the expert on the content of the book (one would sincerely hope!) It wasn’t my place to recommend one title over another. You can do that with fiction. I think that Christopher Priest’s novels are far superior to J.K. Rowling’s. It may be a matter of opinion, but it opens the door to a dialogue with a customer who might want to explore the mysterious realm of ‘magical realism.’
You can’t do the same thing with academic books. The information they contain is specific, and courses are often structured around their content. My opinion of the relative merits of McMinn and Little Moore was totally irrelevant. What would be the point of being the only student out of two hundred armed with a copy of McMinn, when everyone else has bought Little Moore? That’s the key factor to take into account, and nothing else matters. My area of ‘expertise’ extended as far as it needed to in my line of work, and hardly any further.
Here’s another good example. The part of my body illustrated below gave me considerable grief for seven years (and still does from time to time.) While I have my own copy of Little Moore on the shelf, from which this diagram is taken, I have only a general background knowledge of what it represents. I keep the book for its unintended use in solving AZED crossword clues, rather than its primary function as a resource for medical students. I would hope that Steve H., Aimee T., Paul T., Chris B., and the other doctors I know have a rather more in-depth knowledge of the subject matter. Meanwhile, I’ve forgotten more about the book trade than they’ll ever know. It’s horses for courses, isn’t it?
Scanned Document-2
(From Moore, K.L, and Agur, A.M.R. (1995) Essential Clinical Anatomy. (Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.)
Certainly, there are times and places where the word ‘expert’ is undoubtedly apposite. For example, when I was on the list for surgery at Llandough Hospital, I’d have soon become very agitated if the consultants and registrars I’d met hadn’t been experts. Indeed, there are several levels of expertise within the medical profession.
GPs have a sort of ‘default’ setting based on the many people they’ve seen presenting similar symptoms over the years. The initial diagnosis (in my case, supraspinatus tendinitis) tends to be made because the doctor is used to seeing patients with the same complaint. If, as in my case, the initial treatment is unsuccessful, the patient is referred to a specialist with a certain level of expertise in one area of medicine. In my case, I was referred by my GP to an orthopaedics consultant, and then to a surgeon who specialised in shoulders. That sort of expertise is both useful and reassuring. After all, if I was going to be operated upon by a surgeon who normally did knee replacements, I’d have had good cause to worry. Bring on the experts, please!
[A digression: Oddly enough, I was listening to Radio 3 while drafting the previous section last night. There was an interesting programme on about travel writers, and their tendency to – let’s be kind here – be economical with the verité, as it were. (Way Off the Beaten Track, first broadcast in November 2012.) The writer and psychogeographer Ian Sinclair admitted to the presenter, Stephen Smith, that his account of Richard Little (the so-called ‘Mole Man of Hackney’) was completely exaggerated, to say the least.
The Polish writer Ryszard Kapuściński, who wrote searing accounts of Iran under the Shah and Idi Amin’s brutal regime, amongst others, has come in for a lot of posthumous criticism for embellishing the truth. Bruce Chatwin’s widow revealed that her husband elaborated large chunks of his ‘travel’ writing for effect.
Even ‘non-fiction’ writers seem to write fiction much of the time, apparently. Quite a number of years ago, Alex Haley’s Roots was quietly reclassified from History/Biography to Fiction. It turned out that he’d invented a substantial portion of his best-selling ‘family history.’ The same accusation was levelled at Henri Charriere, author of the prison ‘memoir’ Papillon. So much for their ‘expertise.’]
The second reason why I despise the word ‘expert’ is this:
Many people consider themselves ‘experts’ on a given subject purely by dint of their loudness and their constant repetition of dubious ‘facts.’
The Rugby Pundit I wrote about in Bugger Rugger is a perfect case in point. Compared to the commentators and journalists who make a living out of reporting on the game, the Rugby Pundit’s knowledge is – at best – only marginally better than that of his friends. However, because his friends constantly defer to him, he (and it is always a man) assumes the mantle of the ‘expert’, and eventually the flow of misinformation becomes phase-locked. This phenomenon isn’t confined to sport; you’ll hear the same conversations going on with regard to music, films, local history (see For the Fallen), and a hundred other subjects.
Nobody I’ve ever met has known everything about the subject he or she professes to know about – never mind the stuff that exists outside that particular box. I told you a few years ago about a lecturer in the History of the English Language who told a group of first-year students that Melvyn Bragg comes from the north-east of England. (He doesn’t – he was born in Wigton in Cumbria, on the opposite side of the country.) I’m perfectly qualified to tell you that this particular event took place. I was there.
[A digression: While we’re talking about Melvyn Bragg, the guests he has on his Radio 4 programme In Our Time really are experts in their chosen fields. So are the leading academics whom Prof Jim al-Khalili interviews on The Life Scientific. You don’t get to be a professor at a leading university unless you know your stuff, after all. Even then, they’re still undertaking research into their chosen subject, because they all know that their own fund of knowledge is incomplete.
The simple reason that nobody can ever know everything about a given subject is that there’s just too much to know. Every week, New Scientist features just a handful of key articles published in the latest batch of scientific journals. And there are several thousand journals, some well-known (Nature, JAMA), others almost wilfully obscure (Journal of Aerosol Sciences, Transactions of the Connecticut Academy of Sciences), published every year. These are where the experts exchange information, compare notes, and debate their research results.
It’s been said that the polymathic English natural philosopher Thomas Young (1773-1829) was the last man who knew everything. After Young’s time, Natural Philosophy evolved into the Sciences. Biology, Chemistry, Physics, and Geology were compartmentalised, and the gentleman amateur started to give way to the scholar. It was the first step on the sciences’ ramification into many thousands of specialised fields we have today.]
I don’t think I’ve told you about the Psychology lecturer who got himself into a knot one morning. We were talking about the way that children go from ‘just playing’ to ‘reasoning while playing’ (the Concrete Operational and Formal Operational stages of development.) He mentioned the classic example of a child playing with a weight and a piece of string, and then said something like, ‘I can’t remember what it is that makes the difference to the swing of the pendulum.’
I said, ‘It’s the length of the string.’
He looked at me in surprise, and said, ‘Are you sure?’
‘I did A Level Maths back in the day,’ I assured him with a wink. The young girls and boys (mostly girls) laughed. ‘In fact, twenty-five years ago I could have written down the expression for the periodic oscillation.’
However, time had ticked by steadily in that intervening quarter of a century. By that stage, neither a man with a PhD in Psychology, nor an Applied Biology drop-out with two decades of bookselling experience, could access that particular piece of information. Neither his expertise nor mine required it any more.
(Strictly for the record, it’s this: where l = the length of the string and g = acceleration due to gravity.)
Sometimes, however, when you’re dealing with limited domains (to use a term I’ve borrowed from Artificial Intelligence), one can unexpectedly find oneself the ‘expert’ in a particular field. Here’s a good example.
When I was taking part in Brain of Britain, I landed two lucky questions, one in the dry run/soundcheck/rehearsal/whatever, and one during the actual competition. First off, Russell Davies asked Scott Dawson for the title of a radio comedy quiz show, hosted by the late Brian Johnston, and with Sir Tim Rice and the late Willie Rushton as the regular team captains. Scott misjudged both line and length and the ball went wide.
As you’ll know if you’ve read No Laughing Matter, I’ve been listening to radio comedy for over thirty years. This question was right up my street, as I used to love Trivia Test Match. I buzzed in and answered correctly. I think I was the only one (apart from Russell himself) who’d heard of it.
During the recording, another gift of a question came up:
‘In a 1950s sketch, which South London suburb was described by Peter Sellers as “gateway to the south”?’
The question went initially to Darren Martin. I was convinced he’d know it. After all, it’s a classic routine, up there in the pantheon of radio comedy with Ned’s Atomic Dustbin and The Blood Donor. But – no, he blew it when he answered, ‘Cricklewood.’ Scott and I went for the buzzer, and Scott beat me to it. He answered, ‘Neasden.’
I couldn’t believe that they’d both got it wrong! I went for the buzzer again and gave the answer in the proper Sellers ‘American travel reporter’ voice: ‘Bal-ham.’
Russell was impressed by my answer and my delivery, and I got the point.
Anyway, during the course of the contest, Scott and Darren both dropped what seemed to be (to me, anyway) fairly easy questions. So did I. So did Bel Freedman, the fourth member of the panel. It wasn’t as though the pressure was enormous. We were all fairly relaxed, and had a bit of banter with Russell between questions. It was much more complicated than that. Sometimes a question comes up and it’s just way out of your field. Sometimes (like the Peter Sellers question) it’s an absolute gift.
Scott won our heat, and lost in the semi-finals to Barry Simmons, former Mastermind champion and regular panellist on Eggheads. Darren also qualified to the next round, as highest-scoring runner-up, and secured his place in the final. He lost to Barry Egghead after a valiant fight. However, now that he’s won the title, Mr Simmons can’t take part again. Scott, Darren, Bel and I can have a clear shot next time we become eligible to enter.
For forty minutes or so, out of four fairly committed quizzers, I’d become the undoubted ‘expert’ on vintage radio comedy. It’s a title I earned by default, as I failed to remember that HMS Troutbridge was the setting for The Navy Lark during a Cynon Valley Quiz League match years ago. (Luckily for us, Dad was on the team to pick up two easy points.)
I thought Barry Simmons himself was rather disingenuous on Radio 4’s Feedback a couple of months ago, when the programme featured a behind-the-scenes item about radio quizzes. Mr Simmonds told the presenter that the secret of winning Mastermind, Eggheads, Brain of Britain, and so forth, was the ability to simply memorise lists of facts. He’s way wide of the mark, surely. That technique might work for a multiple-choice exam in school, but how on Earth can one memorise lists of classic radio sketches (for example) in the hope that they’ll crop up in the competition? Where could you even find such a list? Surely, if you’re interested in the subject, there’s more chance you’ll retain information about it than if it’s something you find deadly dull. I’ll be far more likely to remember a character in Doctor Who than one in Coronation Street, after all.
I was talking to my old friend Geoff E. in the Library a few weeks ago. He’s a mainstay of the Cynon Valley History Society, and has written or co-written a number of books. He’s currently involved in a research project to find out about the Aberdare people who died in World War I, and who are commemorated on a plaque in St Elvan’s Church. He was asking Steven the librarian for help in finding out who designed the war memorial (‘cenotaph’) in the town centre. I had visions of them going round the houses for a good while until they found a name buried in some obscure manuscript in the W.W. Price Research Room.
Instead, I suggested to Geoff that he should take a look at the Glamorgan volume of the Buildings of Wales series. (They’re the equivalent of the Pevsner Guides to the Counties of England.) I’ve been using that, and the companion Gwent/Monmouthshire volume, as background research for my Vanishing Valleys project. It was only an inspired guess, but within a minute or so, Geoff had found the architect’s name and was hot on the trail. When he explained his interest in the war casualties, I gave him the link to For the Fallen. It would save him the hassle of contacting the Royal British Legion and the War Memorials Trust with regards to the cenotaph. I’d already done the spadework, after all. (I had a email from his daughter Anna a few days later. Apparently I was out of favour with his wife, Olga; she’d been hoping that Geoff would spend the whole afternoon in the Library, so that she could tidy the house.)
I don’t know how long it will take Geoff to finish his project, but I was pleased to help him out. We managed to solve another minor mystery together last week. As I’ve always told my student friends, the real skill in research is knowing where to find the information in the first place.
There were two rival ‘experts’ in Aberdare yesterday afternoon, and I just about managed to avoid them both. In the blue corner was a Christian evangelist, who’d brought a guitar and reams of leaflets to the new seating area in Victoria Square. In the red corner was a Dawkinsian evangelist, who was standing on the corner handing out leaflets headed THERE IS NO GOD. In 1811, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley was sent down from Oxford for co-publishing a pamphlet entitled The Necessity of Atheism, which began with those very words. I doubt if it was the same publication, though.
This was a stand-off of epic proportions. It was shame they hadn’t assembled in time for St Elvan’s Church to chime twelve. Aberdare could have done with its very own philosophical take on High Noon. It was obvious to me that the passers-by who inadvertently got caught up in this were just the latest collateral damage in a war which has been raging for several centuries. I was determined to get out alive, so I studiously avoided both camps on the way to the pub.
There’s simply nowhere for this so-called ‘debate’ to go, after all. The Christians are convinced that they have a rock-solid argument. So are the Dawkinsians. In terms of mathematical logic, we have two simultaneous but mutually-contradictory arguments:
A = B A ≠ B
There’s absolutely no way of reconciling these two statements. Their proponents don’t even accept the possibility that A ≈ B – the nearest mathematical approximation to agnosticism. I left these two rival ‘experts’ to it. After all, there are already plenty of bigots masquerading as ‘experts’ in Aberdare as things stand. We don’t really need to import any more.
I was being talked at by one of the pub bores (who shall remain nameless – let’s call him Bob P., for the sake of argument) a few weeks ago. The subject of anniversary gifts had cropped up in a conversation near the bar. Goddess knows why, but it had. Nobody knew what the traditional gift was for a fifth anniversary. I didn’t even know there was one, to be honest. The pub wifi wasn’t working, so I couldn’t even look it up online for them.
Anyway, Bob explained that, back in the day when he was part of a regular team, he and the rest of the boys used to divide up the chore of memorising lists of facts like that. For example, A— would learn ‘Anniversary Gifts Years One to Ten’, Bob would learn ‘Years Eleven to Twenty’, and so forth.
I said, rather unkindly, ‘Shame A— isn’t still alive, isn’t it? We could have asked him.’
As a quiz-winning strategy, it’s obviously deeply flawed. If one of the team has to miss a game, a quarter of your knowledge is missing as well. Still, Bob was satisfied that it worked for him. (The correct answer is wood, just in case you ever find yourself in the same unenviable position one day.)
I’ve just finished a bit of proofreading for some friends of mine, who have an IT-based business in West Wales. Once again, it was a case of horses for courses. They aren’t 100% confident about their use of written English, so they asked me to help them out. I’d never be able to design an e-commerce site on the Internet. I’d have to ask them for help. That’s how the modern world works. Similarly, I’ll dabble with DIY, but when it comes to the really tricky jobs, I pick up the phone to the specialists.
As I told Jeanette, I’ve never claimed to be an ‘expert’ on anything. Even when I was running the STM sections in work, I took comfort from the fact that the books would more or less sell themselves. In spite of that, there were publishers we didn’t deal with, subject areas which were out of our field, and customers who expected us to have read every book from cover to cover. Nobody could ever be expected to know everything about STM, not even if they worked until they were 100. One day, a customer took me to task over my lack of knowledge about a particular aspect of a particular textbook.
I asked him, ‘If I’d done a degree in Law and taken the Bar exams, do you honestly think I’d be working here for £6.50 an hour?’
It’s a valid argument, because if I had that level of expertise, would I really have been wasting my life in a fucking bookshop? Of course I wouldn’t have been. I’d have been earning hundreds of pounds a day in Court instead.
Martin H. and I were chatting a couple of weeks ago, and he asked me if I’d ever been tempted to apply for Mastermind. I haven’t, because I don’t know what my specialist subjects would be. (You need at least two, in case you make it through to the second round.) I think I’ve probably got three topics which I’d be happy to research in depth. The Life and Career of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, maybe. Doctor Who since 2005, possibly. Pink Floyd, for a third option. There are a few subjects which are interesting enough to me, and maybe to a TV audience, to make it worthwhile. But I’d never be able to take something like EastEnders or Cardiff City FC, 1927-present. I just wouldn’t find them interesting. At all. Mind you, I wouldn’t mind being considered an ‘expert’ on Doctor Who (or even Pink Floyd – I was able to put Bob right on a couple of Syd Barrett-related points a while ago.)
It would have to be something I could spend hours and hours reading about, watching, listening to, or otherwise revising in some form. After building up my own store of knowledge, I’d finally feel confident enough to get up there on TV with the other experts in their chosen fields. Not before, though. I’d hate to crash and burn on national TV. On radio, nobody can see you cry.
In the meantime, I’ll continue to defer to the real experts – people like Mr Graham, who operated on my shoulder – when I need to. I’ll also continue to ignore (or take the piss out of) self-appointed ‘experts’ like Bob, who’ve gained their status simply by talking more bullshit, far more loudly, than the competition.
In this new Internet age of universal access to more ‘information’ – much of which is in fact misinformation, disinformation, lies, bullshit, fantasy, fiction masquerading as fact, and downright fucking stupidity – everyone can be his or her own ‘expert’. The Internet is full of so-called ‘experts’ – as are most doctors’ waiting rooms, bus queues, pubs, radio phone-in shows, and a small (but nevertheless depressing) number of lecture theatres.
When I need to verify a particular statement (as I’ve done several times while writing this entry) I can either go online and find a hundred different answers to the same question; or I just can hit CTRL: the Cosmic Tigger Reference Library.
The books therein are compiled by experts, edited by experts, and proofread by experts. I can be reasonably confident that the information’s accurate. Even then, mistakes creep in from time to time. That’s why books sometimes have errata slips. It’s why ‘revised’ editions come out every so often. And it’s why publishers will always need proofreaders. That’s what I do, on the all-too-rare occasions that the opportunity comes my way. It’s the nearest thing I’ve got to a field of ‘expertise.’
In fact, a long time ago, I was working my way through a proof copy of one of those Napoleonic War naval sagas that the ‘author’ churns out regularly. (I suspect that they’re actually ‘novels by committee’, to be frank.) The publishers’ reps used to dish out proofs in the hope that we’d talk the book up when it was finally published. At one point, I picked up a huge clanging anachronism in the text. I can’t remember the exact wording, but it went something like: ‘X was undoubtedly a tyrant and a sadist, although Y would never have used those words to his face.’
Have you spotted it yet?
I did.
If you know that the word ‘sadist’ didn’t exist until Krafft-Ebbing published Psychopathia Sexualis in 1876, then go to the top of the class. The Marquis de Sade was alive only two decades before the book was set, but his writings were completely suppressed for decades. Not only wouldn’t the character have ever used the word – he couldn’t have.
With this in mind, I decided to take the bull by the horn (pun intended) and ring the publishers. I spoke to a rather dismissive lady in the editorial department, who seemed unconcerned by the existence of this howler. She told me that the book was too far into the production process for the mistake to be amended, but that she’d try to make sure it didn’t make its way into the paperback edition. Simon M. and I were talking about the whole sorry business a while later. He’s a fan of the books, and he reckoned that the anachronism had in fact survived into the paperback. Oh, well. They didn’t offer to pay me. I don’t care.
I might well be the best proofreader my friends know (I’ve had a few endorsements to that effect, in fact) – but then again, I know only one other person in the same line of work. Rob H. and I used to work together back in the day. Rob told me that, a couple of years ago, he was working on a history textbook from a large academic publishing house. He was shocked to find the date of the American Revolution given as 1789. To check that he wasn’t going mad, he took the previous edition out of the Library. The same blatant error was in there as well. Obviously, nobody had spotted it.
In fairness, he drops me a line every so often when he picks up a mistake in this very blog. I used to find his mistakes when we worked together. Nobody’s perfect, after all.