Bless you

Or, why Mandarin won’t be the language of the future:

The learner needs to know at least 3,000-4,000 characters to make sense of written Chinese, and thousands more to have a real feel for it. Fewer and fewer native speakers learn to produce characters in traditional calligraphy. Instead, they write their language the same way we do—with a computer. And not only that, but they use the Roman alphabet to produce Chinese characters. If the user types in wo shi zhongguo ren, “I am Chinese”, the software detects the meaning and picks the right characters. With less need to recall the characters cold, the Chinese are forgetting them. David Moser asked three native Chinese graduate students at Peking University how to write ‘sneeze’:

“To my surprise, all three of them simply shrugged in sheepish embarrassment. Not one could correctly produce the character. Now, Peking University is usually considered the “Harvard of China”. Can you imagine three phd students at Harvard forgetting how to write the English word ‘sneeze’? Yet this state of affairs is by no means uncommon in China.”

More here.

How many words do you know?

How many languages are there in the world?

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How times change

As late as 1971, women were banned from going into Wimpy Bars on their own, after midnight, on the grounds that the only women out on their own at that hour must be prostitutes.

More observations on 1970s life in the UK here.

Earth to reach boiling point in 400 years

As an ex-physicist who realises later in life that he’d probably rather have studied economics, I’d like to paraphrase from an interesting article by Tom Murphy. It uses fundamental physics to argue that economic growth cannot continue indefinitely, albeit under the assumption that increases in GDP require an increased use of energy*:

US energy consumption has increased by about 3% per year for several centuries.This is partly due to increases in population, but per-capita energy use itself has grown also — our energy lives today are far richer than those of our great-great-grandparents a century ago.

So even if population stabilizes, it’s fair to say we are accustomed to per-capita energy growth.

The Earth has only one mechanism for releasing heat to space, and that’s via infrared radiation. It’s well understood. If we use more energy (it must all end up as heat energy) then more must be radiated away, and the surface temperature of the planet will increase.

This graph, which presumes a constant 2.3% energy increase per year, plots the Earth’s surface temperature over time:

Graph of earth temperature over time at constant energy growth

The upshot is that at a 2.3% growth rate, the Earth would reach boiling temperature in about 400 years. This statement is independent of technology. Even if we don’t have a name for the energy source yet, as long as it obeys the laws of thermodynamics, we cook ourselves with perpetual energy increase. Thermodynamic limits impose a cap to energy growth due to the process of radiating the spent energy away.

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*Under a model in which GDP is fixed, with conditions of stable energy, stable population, and steady-state economy, then if we accumulate knowledge, improve the quality of life, and thus create an unambiguously more desirable world this is a form of economic growth, but one which more normally falls under the title of “development” rather than “growth”.

Let there be light

I’ve come across this a few times over the years, and been meaning to post it the next time I saw the numbers somewhere. And today I have, here:

In 1800, a candle providing one hour’s light cost six hours’ work. In the 1880s, the same light from a kerosene lamp took 15 minutes’ work to pay for. In 1950, it was eight seconds. Today, it’s half a second. In these terms, we are 43,200 times better off than in 1800.

The 1800 number I think is too high (I reckon you can go and find some wood in less than 6 hrs, or buy some for an amount smaller than 6 hrs of labour). Order of magnitude correct though.

I also think it takes less than half a second, by the way, today, plugging in average salary and electricity kw/h numbers for the UK.

But the thrust of the point is clear, we are massively better off than generations before because we have gotten more efficient at producing things. Four of the basic human needs, food, clothing, fuel, and housing, are now far cheaper in terms of the average wage.

And given it’s Easter, remember, stars died so that you could live.

How did you arrive?

The blog passes 10,000 page views today, and I thought it might be entertaining to look at how people arrived at the site.

Most people reading the blog regularly do so using an rss feed, or via the automated emailing function, and don’t actually visit the site. Therefore page views are mostly down to people clicking a link, or following a Google search. WordPress collects the search string.

Sadly, a number of lost souls wondered: “why do people get more birthday posts than me on Facebook”. One more solution-orientated individual however, wanted to know “how to be more popular than your friend”.

Perhaps the two people curious about the “going postal % rate in workplace” are the same two interested in the “human melting temperature”. I don’t know what has led Google here for that! But I guess I’ve just gone and strengthened the weighting that Google will give to my site being the source of an answer…

By far the most frequently used search term was “marc gawley”, with my favourite variant being “powerstance marc gawley”. Yeah.