Category Archives: Little things

Bill Bryson – A Short History of Nearly Everything

In August I was at the Edinburgh TV festival being lectured by Eric Schmidt about the need to end the divide in the UK society between ‘luvvies’ and ‘boffins’. As Schmidt argued, ‘there’s been a drift to humanities’ with the result, ‘engineering and science aren’t championed’.

This has meant the UK’s been left behind:

‘The UK is home of so many media-related inventions. You invented photography. You invented TV. You invented computers in both concept and practice. (It’s not widely known, but the world’s first office computer was built in 1951 by Lyons’ chain of tea shops.) Yet today, none of the world’s leading exponents in these fields are from the UK’

Brian Cox picked up the theme the next day in a Q&A. He pointed out that while no politician on Newsnight would say ‘I know nothing about economics’ – even though that might be an honest admission –  all too often we hear the same sentiment expressed about science. ‘It should be socially unacceptable to know nothing about science’, he said. (Considering David Cameron claimed last Sunday that the British invented DNA, Brian Cox has got a lot of work to do.)

For me, it was the theme of the festival. So on the train journey I devoured DK’s Science. It’s 500 pages of beautifully illustrated, magazine-sized nuggets and articles. For four hours I didn’t stop, jumping all over the place, scribbling down questions in a notebook.

(I love picture books, and especially those by Doris Kingsley. I have them any number of topics. When I was a primary school teacher, I used to love the school library because it was stacked full of visual, easy to understand non-fiction books.)

I’ve always thought people learn best by going in layers. If you want to learn English history, start with picture books/movies/stories that bring it alive and give you an overview, and then repeat the process in a higher level of complexity (Dimbleby’s 7 Ages of Britain for e.g), and then again and so on.

The next layer of complexity was Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything. I’ve heard praise for this book from every quarter for years, so I realise I’m very late to the party in saying that it is wonderful. (See Dave’s post earlier this year) Bryson’s book is packed full of wonderful nuggets and little biographies of extraordinary characters.

Here are some of the little facts I learned:

  • The average adult is carrying around 2 kg of dead skin
  • If the history of the planet is 24 hours, humans appear on the scene 1 minute and 17 seconds before midnight
  • Eighty per cent of the world biomass are microbes
  • Because of the Earth’s spin the west coast of the Pacific is a foot and a half higher than the east coast (like the little wave of water you’d get if you suddenly tugged a tray of water towards you)
  • Lightning heats the air to 28,000 C, which is hotter than the surface of the Sun
  • An atom’s nucleus is tiny in proportionate to the rest of the atom. ‘Like a fly in a cathedral’ as it has been described, except the fly is thousands of times heavier than the cathedral.
  • The North Star might have burnt out 680 years ago
  • Unlike most illustrations in science text books, the planets are extraordinarily far away from each other. If the Earth was the size of a pea, Jupiter would be 300 metres away. Seen from the surface of Pluto, the sun is a pinprick in the night sky.
  • Mastadon means ‘nipple teeth’
  • To see the atoms in a drop of water with the naked eye, you’d have to magnify the drop until it was 24 km across.
  • If you managed to drill a hole to the centre of the earth and dropped a brick down it, (presuming you could dig such a hole, and that our brick wouldn’t incinerate long before reaching the centre of something that wouldn’t melt). You’d expect the brick to take 45 mins to drop the 6,370 km to the centre, but in fact it would slow as the gravitational effect of the mass above the brick took effect, until by the time it got to the centre it would be floating.
I also learnt that far from being ‘invented’ by the British, DNA wasn’t even discovered by Watson & Crick in 1953. In fact it had been known about since 1869 when it was discovered by Friedrich Miescher, a Swiss scientist, who was looking at pus in surgical bandages. Rather, Watson (who was actually American) & Crick worked out it’s molecular structure – still, I’m happy to admit, quite an achievement.
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Deadliest Killer in the Home? Stairs

Stairing death in the face

One of the big themes of John Lanchester’s Whoops is that people are terrible at understanding risk, but that modern economic theory does not account for this (amongst a number of other basic psychological basics).

He illustrates our crude understanding of risk by pointing out that stairs kill around six hundred deaths every year. That’s roughly the same as the number of murders every year. And yet no-one feels particularly scared of stairs.

It’s a chance for Lanchester to indulge in another wonderful little aside.

“A warning about the government mortality statistics: if you are of a nervous or hypochondriacal disposition, avoid them at all costs. Here are some of the categories of deaths: ‘Accidental suffocation or strangling in bed’ (eight deaths), ‘Contact with plant thorns and spikes and sharp leaves’ (one death) and ‘Drowning and submersion while bath tub’ (eighteen deaths). Interestingly, only one person died after being bitten by a rat, but ten from being ‘bitten or struck by other mammals’. But which mammals? Dogs? If so, why not say so? Badgers? Dolphins?”

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How the Baby-Boomers Wrecked Music

I’ve written about the power of the boomers in shaping the political agenda, but it seems that that’s not the only marketplace in which they’ve been exercising their clout.

James Harkin is a “futurologist” and in his book, Niche, he describes how as the general audience declined, the companies he worked for became interested in particular demographics. After chasing teenagers and young people, companies realised that the money was in catering to the baby-boomers.

“Bugger youth culture, went the new mantra: a generation that once promised to die before it got old was now living out a middle youth, and it was up for us to help them feel good about it. Only two years after I had been hired to write fevered reports about the temperature of global youth, I was working for ad agencies and think tanks in New York and London to find out who older people really were … whole days flew by in a research haze of Steppenwolf songs, day spas, and Stannah Stairlifts”. [pg 69]

One business that made the shift was the music industry. In the early 2000s, it had become obsessed with teenagers investing in genres like rap, hip-hop and teeny pop just as the teenage audience was working out how to download things for free. By 2004 in the UK, more middle-aged people were buying albums than teenagers. That was all soon to change, though how the shift begun took everyone a bit by surprise.

“In retrospect, it would be easy to blame everything that happened next on a twenty-three-year-old jazz-piano crooner. In February 2002 Norah Jones, the daughter of Ravi Shankar, had released a folksy album called Come Away With Me. The album won some admiring reviews but no one expected it to sell very well, and it duly chugged along at the bottom of the charts. As the year progressed, however, sales began to quicken. The album seemed to have become ethe unofficial mood music for coffee shops and bookstores frequented by a discerning older clientele. Despite a lack of publicity, it was obvious that Norah Jones had somehow acquired a devoted army of fans. … By February 2003, a full year after its release, Come Away With Me has ascended to No. 1 on the Billboard album chart, where it remained for three weeks. In the same month it took five Grammy awards, including pop album of the year … it sold an incredible six million copies – most of them, a little research reveal, to music lovers at least two decades older than the singer herself.” [pg 67]

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Is Anything Truly Random?

I hated science lessons at school.  Looking back, it was miraculous that the science curriculum and those that taught it managed to make a subject so fascinating – a subject with such universal appeal to the inquisitive minds of children – so dull.  I imagine my science teachers put this skill to use in their downtime by going to parties and turning all the wine into water.

Bill Bryson expresses a similar concern in his Introduction to A Short History of Nearly Everything.  In writing this book, Bryson produced the grand daddy of popular science books but beyond him there is a wealth of non-fiction science books aimed not just at Physics MSCs, but rather anyone that has a healthy mind and enjoys asking the question “why?”.

Marcus Chown - We Need To Talk About Kelvin Front CoverThe more science I read, the more I appreciate it’s place in the arts alongside philosophy and psychology.  Marcus Chown, in We Need To Talk About Kelvin – What Everyday Things Tell Us About The Universe, attempts to help us rekindle our child-like enthusiasm for intellectual discovery by describing how normal things can prove mind-blowing concepts.  And so on to the question at hand; a question which is seemingly philosophical in nature.

It could easily be argued that nothing is random. Much of human behaviour has been shown to be predetermined by our genes and our behaviour.  A coin toss is caused by gravity, resistance, the velocity and angle of the throw and the detail of the surface it lands on.  One could argue that if these causes could be perfectly simulated then the result could be predicted.  Due to technological limitations we are not able to produce such a perfect simulation but it is a compelling argument nonetheless.

What does Chown say to the question ‘is anything truly random’?  His answer is: “yes, God plays dice”.  What everyday thing proves this according to Chown?  Your reflection in a window.

Imagine looking through a window when the light outside is low.  You can see your reflection in the glass, but you can also see beyond it to the other side of the window.  Let’s say that the glass appears 60% opaque.  So what?  Well, some light is reflecting back and some is continuing through.  This makes sense if light is a wave, like a ripple in a lake spreading out and continuing despite hitting a small floating obstacle.  However, light is also a stream of photon particles, each particle identical.  Commons sense and observation tell us that the overall effect is stable; so how is it that some photons pass through and some reflect?

It took the genius of Einstein to realise that this dilemma was a bomb-shell dropped into the laws of physics.  The only logical answer is that 40% of the particles are being reflected back.  Giving that each photon is identical, each photon has a 40% chance of being reflected and a 60% chance of continuing straight through.  This means it is impossible to predict what a single photon will do when it reaches the glass; it effectively has to ‘decide’ itself.  Unlike the lack of computing power required to simulate a coin toss, predicting the behaviour of a photon when it reaches the glass is not a practical issue.  It is impossible to predict because the photon’s beahviour is completely and utterly random; effect without cause.  It’s not just light either; at the microscopic level, the entire world is governed by chance.

But this is just the beginning of the madness.  Chown goes on to draw further conclusions from this everyday observation.  It can also be demonstrated that light is both a wave and a particle, that a single photon can be in two places doing two things at once, and that particles can break the speed of light by instantaneously influencing another particle at any distance.

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McMafia – Misha Glenny

We live in the era of globalization. The shift from national to international in business, politics and ideas, over the last twenty years has defined this period of history, and we have got used to living in a global economy in which businesses, captial flows, and jobs flow across national borders.

But did you know about the  global shadow economy?

This is what Misha Glenny’s book is about. The international shadow economy is big – according to figures from the IMF, World Bank and other research organisations, it accounts 15-20 per cent of global turnover – and yet we know little about it.

Obsession with Al-Qaeda and terrorism has blinded us to a bigger story. As Glenny points out, “in terms of the death and misery caused, terrorism is primitive and relatively insignificant”.

International crime is now global and spreads across national border much like Shell, Nike or McDonalds. Hence the title: McMafia.

From this starting point, Misha Glenny takes us on global tour of crime. We go from country to country, from internet crime in Brazil to smuggling in East Europe. The chapter I’m in the middle of at the moment is about the Japanese yakuza.

I am familiar with the popular image of the Yakuza from when I lived in Japan. Every now and again, in parts of Tokyo, or around the red light district of Fukuoka, they’d be pointed out to me. I kept my distance but I had heard of their enormous and intricate tattoos and the missing pinkies, taken to pay for an error or misdemeanor.

Misha Glenny explains the yakuza’s involvement in the bubble that built up in the 1990s, their ties to big business and so on, but the part that is most fascinating is his exposition of the their semi-legitimate relationship with Japanese society.

Until changes in the 1990s, the various yakuza groups would have publicly registered head offices, complete with signs and receptionists. Although that has since been clamped down on, they still exist in a bizarre semi-legal relationship with the state. Whilst technically illegal, every year the groups submit their membership details to the police. (Can you imagine burglars and muggers registering every year with Scotland Yard?) When Glenny meets his guide though guide to the Japan underworld, the guide explains he is the sixth-generation oyabun of the Yamaguchi-gumi. “This is like having a lawyer in the US who introduces himself breezily as Lawyer to Don Antonio Soprano of the New Jersey Mafia Corporation.”

This lawyer explains how the yakuza‘s rise to power all started with a misguided government policy after the war.

The key date was 1949. In that year, in an effort to discourage litigation which conflicted with the Japanese idea of wa (harmony), the government ruled that only 5000 students could graduate from the Legal Research and Training Institute in Tokyo every year. This has had a dramatic effect on the number of lawyers in Japan. By the late 1990s, whereas Britain had one lawyer for every 656, and the United States one for every 285 citizens, in Japan there was one lawyer for every 5,995 people.

Because the more lucrative option for these lawyers was to go work for big companies, few were left to represent ordinary members of the public. Into this vacuum stepped the yakuza.

The lawyer to the Yamaguchi-gumi explains: “If anybody went to court in order to get a debt paid, it would take an eternity and, if judgement was finally passed down in a case, it often resulted in nothing. The yakuza are able to offer a much quicker solution to the problem”.

The yakuza became a privatised police force. They expanded into any number of areas: business disputes, security, insurance, and property development.

A brilliant example of the law of unintended consequences.

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The Economist

One of the things I love about John Lanchester’s Whoops, is despite a strict determination to keep it to 200 pages, he’s still finds space for wonderful little asides.

“You get a glimpse into the world view [of myopic economics] when you look at the Economist. It is an excellent newspaper (a term they prefer to ‘magazine’) in particular full of good first-hand fact-finding. The first 80 per cent of almost every article is full of fresh things. But every single piece, on every single subject, reaches the same conclusion. Whatever you’re reading about, it turns out that the solution is the same: more liberalization, more competition, more free markets. However nuanced and original the detail in the bulk of the piece the answer is always the same; it makes The Economist seem full of algebraic formulas in which the answer is always x.”

Unfortunately (or fortunately) their consistency seems to be working. James Harkin in Niche, uses the magazine as an example of a media organization that has successfully shunned the mainstream. While Time‘s worldwide circulation has fallen from 4.07 million to 3.3million, and Newsweek’s circulation fell from 3.14million to 1.97 million in the last decade, the Economist‘s circulation almost doubled, from 720,000 to 1.4 million. Time and Newsweek now operate with less than half the staff they had in the 1980s.”

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The birth of the Penguin paperback

I’m currently enjoying Niche by James Harkin, which is about how the mass-market is declining. The big idea of book is on the flap: “There’s a new rule in business: forget about the general audience and instead stake out an identifiable niche”.

James Harkin is like a museum curator, leading us through exhibition after another. On our guided tour through the not-too dusty halls of modern life we pass HBO making money by giving its writers creative control, Gap trying to appeal to older and younger audiences and failing to please either; MyBarackObama, the social networking site that won Barack Obama the election, and a thousand other fascinating little stories, many of which I will no doubt be writing up here.

One such little story is about the birth of the mass-market paperback.

“In Britain, Allen Lane, a director of the Bodley Head publishing house, designed a new size for his proposed paperbacks and assigned different colours for each genre, including the now-iconic orange for fiction, green for crime and dark blue for biographies. He also gave the company’s imprint its own name: Penguin. The first ten in his selection appeared in 1935, and included novels by Mary Webb, Compton MacKenzie and Dorothy L Sayers as well as Ernest Hemingway’s contemporary classic, A Farewell to Arms. …”

In order to break even however, Allen Lane had to sell lots of copies, which meant finding unconventional places to sell them. In June 1935, Allen Lane persuaded Woolworths to take a big order. Priced at sixpence, placed amongst the sweets, clothes and other nik-naks, it changed the face of publishing. Books which had once been exclusive and expensive items, were now available to the masses.

It’s a great story, but the thing that strikes me is that 6 pence converted to new money and adjusted for inflation is £1.29. Even if you calculate it as a measure of average earnings, the price is £4.88.

Maybe one of the reasons book sales are declining is because the books are overpriced!

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