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?


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.

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.


Putting the clocks forward caused 1,000 heart attacks

This article from Sweden (hat tip Åsa) describes some research by the Karolinska Institute analysing hospital records from which they calculate that over the two weeks from putting the clocks forward, there is typically an excess of 30 Swedes dying from heart attacks. Conversely, in the Autumn, there are 10 fewer heart attacks in the period following the clocks going back.

Scaling that up, this gives a rough back-of-the-envelope calculation for 1,000 excess fatal heart attacks across the EU27 each year as a direct result of the stresses caused by getting up an hour earlier.

Not the news

Not that I read the BBC news website, because that would not be a good use of time, but a couple of items caught my attention today.

Lifted from an article reporting comments made by the Premier League chairman about FIFA

Premier League chairman Sir Dave Richards has apologised for his comments about Fifa and Uefa.

Speaking at a conference in Qatar he said: “England gave the world football. Then, 50 years later, some guy came along and said, you’re liars, and they actually stole it. It was called Fifa.”

He also warned fans may boycott the Qatar 2022 World Cup unless beer is made freely available.

“In our country and in Germany, we have a culture,” added Richards. “We call it, ‘We would like to go for a pint’, and that pint is a pint of beer.

“You might be better off saying don’t come. But a World Cup without England, Germany, the Dutch, Danes and Scandinavians. It’s unthinkable.”

Richards later hurt his leg when he fell into a water feature.

Genius reporting. And this quote from a Welsh council’s cabinet member for education, worrying about the effects of truancy

“To do so, it is vital that children and young people are given the best education possible. To achieve this, all children need to attend school regularly, with non-attendance being unacceptable.

“Missing a school day a week is the same as losing a quarter of the year’s education.”

Hmm. Perhaps improving the maths curriculum might help in giving Welsh kids the best education possible too.

Saint Valentine’s

Saint Valentine, patron saint of lovers. And epilepsy.


Inefficient equilibria

hat tip Geoff.

I did have a peek to see what the reason behind the Fahrenheit scale was in the first place…

The two key points used in deciding the numbering of the scale were the melting point of ice and normal human body temperature. Having already decided that 0F would be the temperature at which a mixture of ice, water, and ammonium chloride, a salt, at a 1:1:1 ratio coexisted*, Mr Fahrenheit manipulated the scale on his apparatus such that 32 came out to be the melting point of ice, and 96 the body temperature.

This meant there were 64 points between these marks – which, being a power of 2, could be drawn by a series of bisections. So the physical engineering of a scale based on the available technology in 1724 was what drove the decision, rather than easier mathematics for actual calculations.

*this is not too terrible a choice, as it’s a frigorific mixture, meaning it reaches an equilibrium temperature independent of the temperature of any of its component chemicals before they are mixed.

Sleeping satellite

I just watched the International Space Station pass by at 27,000 km/hr, something that most people on earth are in a position to do with the naked eye.

Before sunrise or after sunset, the ISS can appear to observers on the ground, with the naked eye as a slow moving, bright, white dot, slowly crossing the sky in 2 to 5 minutes. This happens before dawn and after dusk when the ISS is sunlit but the ground and sky are dark, which is typically the case up to a few hours after sunset or before sunrise. Because of the size of its reflective surface area, the ISS is the brightest man made object in the sky, with an approximate maximum brightness of −4 when overhead, similar to Venus.

It was surprisingly easy to find and follow, using an iPhone app to show where and when to look for it.



Lost in translation

Ask an English person how many European languages they speak, and they’ll probably say none. It will be a genuine answer too, not a political statement*.

According to Ethnologue there are some 2,700 languages that have 10,000 or more first-language speakers, with just 5 languages covering 1 in 3 of the world’s population. Using 1999 data we get this concentration curve:

There are another 4,000ish languages spoken by less than 10,000 people, to make a total of nearly 7,000.

Imagine there are only 10,000 people you can communicate with. How many will be within +/- 5 years of you? (For reference, I calculate that 987 is the average secondary school size in England.) What are the chances that most of this cohort can be matched up between each other so that everyone has an ideal life partner. Pretty slim. There are plenty of other issues with scale too.

As half of the world’s languages are expected to disappear this century, this type of inefficiency should fade away. But are there any downsides to a langauge going extinct? Some content would be lost, but it could quickly be replaced. Take Wales for example. I’m sure there is plenty of worthy cultural stuff that has been generated there in the past 1,000 years (though I only find something in English), but as Wales only represents 0.04% of the world’s population we can imagine that an equivalent corpus of works could be created in half a year in a global language being used by everyone. Not to pick too much on Wales, they just often seem to be chosen for comparisons, especially by More or Less.

The utility of a language is in the fact that the sender can encode his thought into a common medium/protocol for the recipient. If fewer and fewer people are using a particular protocol then it will fade away, and resources should not be spent trying to save it. Forcing children to learn a dying language to maintain its existence uses up time that could have been spent learning other subjects, putting those children at a disadvantage to other ethnic groups, ceteris paribus. Indeed, there are probably people in Wales who didn’t get taught essential physics like what happens if you drop a ball down a hole drilled from one side of the earth to the other. Mae eu colled.

Related posts:

How many words do you know?

*Another interesting question to ask is are you English or European. If in the same way you asked Germans,”are you German or European?” and so on across the continent, can you guess which population are most likely to say European? And which are least likely? Finland and England. I don’t think I need to clarify which way round it is…

How Twitter Rumours Evolve

The Guardian has a good analysis of selected rumours that were propagated by Twitter during the London Riots.

They’ve analysed 2+ million tweets based on their hashtags, performed a Levenshtein distance calculation across them all, and interpreted each as being either supporting/opposing/querying the rumour. The result is a moving graphic of how a rumour evolves.

Here’s another post on the London Riots