Monthly Archives: August 2013

50 Years Ago Today…

Martin Luther King gave the ‘I Have A Dream Speech’.

The full text is here.


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Bad Ideas

I just caught a snippet of Come Dine With Me. The topic of conversation turned to, ‘If you were Dictator for a day, what would you do?’ A lady replied, ‘I’d ban isms – sexism, racism, ageism.’ All very laudable, blaming people for characteristics they can’t control is illogical as well as bigoted.

But how would she go about this? She’d make everyone blind – presumably so we can’t tell each other apart. And in case that’s not enough – say you can distinguish a woman from her higher voice – she’d make everyone deaf as well.

So her simple way to make the world a better place – make everyone blind and deaf! I sometimes wonder whether giving everyone the vote was such a good move.

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The A – Z of Music: G

I think this has to be one of my favourite songs – Glen Campbell‘s Wichita Lineman.

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The $63.99 Question

Alongside working through an economics textbook, I like reading popular economics books – those books aimed at introducing a technical subject to a general audience. I’ve particularly enjoyed Tim Harford ‘s oeuvre, and am currently reading Steven E. Landsburg‘s The Armchair Economist. These books are at their best when they apply economic thinking to explain strange things in everyday life.

Something both authors talk about is why shops always seem to sell things at £4.99, rather than £5.00 (or £4.49 rather than £4.50). My first thoughts on this, which I suspect would be many of yours, is that it tricks customers into thinking something is cheaper than it is. The leftmost number is a 4 rather than a 5, and we focus on this rather than the rest of the figure, so £4.99 seems closer to £4 than to £5. That penny difference seems to have grown closer to a pound. The books suggest another explanation is needed.

They say that this form of pricing came to be introduced around the time that tills were introduced into shops. The first till was invented because a saloon owner wanted to prevent his staff from pilfering his profits by pocketing the customer’s money without recording the sale. The till made sure he could monitor all the money coming in from sales. However, criminally minded staff could still get round this. Say a customer gave the exact change for a purchase, the staff member could circumvent using the till and take the money. By making the price of all items something awkward, ending in .99 or .49, it would be very unlikely customers would give the correct change. The staff member would have to use the till to get the change, and the till would ensure the staff member’s honesty.

Which got me thinking, surely we have better ways of monitoring staff these days? Just put a camera by the tills to keep an eye on them. Then we can go back to having nice rounded prices. So why don’t we? Are we all being lumbered with huge numbers of coppers out of sheer inertia, or is there another explanation?

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Red Herrings and White Elephants

I so enjoyed the last Albert Jack book I read that I decided to read another. However, rather than dealing with the meaning and origin of nursery rhymes, Red Herrings and White Elephants deals with ‘the origins of the phrases we use every day’.

Red Herrings and White Elephants

I’ll give a couple of examples that particularly struck me.

First, Dead Ringers, as used to indicate a lookalike. I very much doubt the following explanation is true, but it’s too grisly and macabre to waste. In medieval times, the medical profession was not particularly advanced. Doctors were prone to pronounce dead anyone not conscious (unlike this fellow), not really understanding comas. This resulted in horrific examples of people being buried alive. When their coffins were later exhumed, you could see their fingers worn to the bone, and scratch marks on the inside of the coffin, where the awakened ‘corpse’ was desperately trying to claw their way out. Fearing this, and distrusting medical opinion, some would bury their dead with strings attached to their wrists, which were connected to a bell above the grave. If the body came back to life, then the bell could be heard and the coffin dug up, so the person could resume their lives. Hence, if an acquaintance saw such a resurrected person in the street who they were sure had been dead and buried, they would say they were a ‘dead ringer’.

Secondly, Shi… er, the naughtier version of ‘poo’ (I try to keep this blog clean). Manure and dung were often used as fertiliser, and would be sailed across Britain in boats and ships. However, when manure gets damp, it gives off methane gas, which could become an explosive hazard if it builds up. Sailors therefore realised keeping it stored in the holds was dangerous. Better to keep it in the dryer upper decks. Hence ‘Store High In Transit’ would be stamped on the containers, which eventually shortened to an acronym.

Actually, I don’t think this is true either. A quick internet search on the etymology of sh… that word, shows that it in Old English you had the noun scite and the verb scītan, which became the Middle English schītte and shiten. There are similar words in German (Scheiße), Dutch (schijt) and Swedish (skit) – all of which would suggest that it is a very old word that evolved with different variations in the Germanic languages of Northwest Europe.

This isn’t turning out to be a very good advert, throwing doubt on the book’s explanations! But actually I suspect most of them are perfectly true… from Codswallop, to In a Nutshell, to Wash Your Dirty Linen in Public.

As for the title: Red Herring refers to the fact that, pre-refrigeration, in the 18th and 19th centuries, herring, a widely caught fish, could only be preserved by salting and smoking, which would turn it a deep brownish red colour. It also had a strong smell. Early anti-fox hunting campaigners would drag the strong-smelling fish along hunt routes, but away from the foxes, which would cause the confused hounds to follow the ‘red herring’ rather than the foxes. Hence the phrases’ meaning as a false or misleading clue.

White Elephants were revered in Siam (modern-day Thailand) – so much that any that were found automatically belonged to the King. They were so revered that you could not neglect, work or ride the elephant – that is, it was prestigious but useless. The wily King found a way to deal with subjects that displeased him. He’d give them a white elephant. They’d have to look after the animal – requiring a huge amount of time and food – but couldn’t get any benefit from working or riding the animal. It was a sure-fire way to ruin them. Hence why we call big, expensive projects that aren’t all that useful white elephants.

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In Search Of My Marbles

Reading this blog, you’ve probably gathered that I lost my marbles some time ago. So today I went in search of them at the House of Marbles, near Bovey Tracey, by Dartmoor.

It may sound a bit dull, but it’s a good day out. They sell a lot of marbles (obviously), but all other sorts of glassware and pottery, all housed in an old pottery. There’s also some history of the place, a glassworks where you can see the products being made, a shop and restaurant, and an excellent collection of old toys and games. But the best bits are the Rube Goldberg-esque marble runs:

Marble run


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Pop Goes The Weasel

I apologize for the blogging hiatus. I’ve had me a nice holiday, seeing family and recharging my batteries.

Whilst away, I read a great book called Pop Goes the Weasel: The Secret Meanings of Nursery Rhymes by Albert Jack.

Pop Goes the Weasel

I think the subtitle pretty much explains what the book is about. It’s well worth a read, so I’ll just pick a couple of examples and leave it to you to read the rest.

Firstly, Baa, Baa, Black Sheep, which, as I’m sure you’ll know, goes thusly:

Baa, baa, black sheep,
Have you any wool?
Yes, sir, yes, sir,
Three bags full;
One for the master,
And one for the dame,
And one for the little boy
Who lives down the lane

Except in one earlier version the last line is actually, ‘And none for the little boy who cries in the lane’ .

The meaning behind the rhyme, on this book’s interpretation, is that it is an anti-tax song. In the Middle Ages, England’s main industry was wool*, which it exported to the Continent. Naturally, this led to King Edward I imposing a hefty tax on wool exports. Hence the King (the master) and the monasteries (the dame), which were home to wealthy wool merchants, received most of the money from the wool, leaving very little to the poor shepherd (the little boy).

Secondly and finally, Humpty Dumpty:

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again.

Humpty Dumpty has always been portrayed as an anthropomorphic egg, for which you can blame John Tenniel‘s illustration in Lewis Carroll‘s Through The Looking Glass. But this book suggests it was the name of a cannon used by the Royalist  forces (the Cavaliers) in the English Civil War to defend Colchester from the besieging Parliamentarians (the Roundheads).

Manned by One-Eyed Thompson, who made up in the cool-name department for what he lost in the ocular-organ one, the cannon successfully kept the Roundhead army, led by Thomas Fairfax , out of the town for eleven whole weeks – until the church tower the cannon was placed upon was blown up from under it, sending Humpty Dumpty crashing to the ground. Obviously an attempt was made to retrieve the cannon from the rubble and repair it, but, ‘All the king’s horses and all the king’s men/ Couldn’t put Humpty together again’. The Roundheads took the town, and the rest is history.

The Colchester church tower which saw these sad scenes was that of St Mary-at-the-Walls, which I visited only this last week:

St Mary-in-the-Walls

You can see that the top of the tower is made from different, newer bricks than the rest. Maybe I was standing on poor Humpty’s resting place when I took this picture.

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