Monday, 28 April 2008

This is, sadly, completely true.

So I was watching some TV the other day, and I found my gaze constantly dropping to just below the screen. Took a moment to realise what was happening.

My brain was automatically trying to read the Youtube comments.

Something tells me I really need to spend less time on the Internet.

Not as bad as that time I stayed up all night playing Hitman: Codename 47, then got confused while watching athletics the next day because the runners weren't responding to my keypresses...

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Friday, 25 April 2008

The fact that half of these locations are now impossible to reach shouldn't deter you. Go and build a time machine if it's that important to you.

Quick completely unrelated note: There's been a bit of a slowdown in posting here over the past couple of weeks, for which I have to apologise - having had a very quiet few months entirely on my own schedule, things have suddenly got a lot busier and it's only going to get worse. I'll try to keep posting at a reasonable rate, but please do bear with me while I try to get everything sorted out and back into a rhythm. We now return you to your regular blog post, already in progress.

Music is sometimes thought of as something of a universal language. Even if you don't understand the words, the tunes and harmonies can frequently convey amazing amounts of emotion and meaning, which is generally enhanced even further if you do know the words. (Except in a few very specialised cases. If you didn't understand the words of The Smiths' "Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others" you'd think it was a sad and beautiful ballad. But I digress.)

The flip side of this phenomenon is that certain songs end up conveying such an atmosphere that they can't really be properly enjoyed outside of a very specific situation. I'll list a few examples here, with links to some version of the songs on Youtube.

Song: Boys of Summer
Artist: Don Henley
Album: Building the Perfect Beast
Best place to listen: In a convertible sports car, cruising along the beachfront somewhere in the US (California or Miami would be best), one evening towards the end of summer when the sun is low, the light is golden and the shadows are long. Wearing Ray-Bans is optional, but encouraged.
Acceptable place to listen: Anywhere sunny.
Worst place to listen: A small, dark office somewhere in Iceland.

Song: Livin' On A Prayer
Artist: Bon Jovi
Album: Slippery When Wet
Best place to listen: Your school's Leavers' Ball (that's Prom Night to any Americans reading). Livin' On A Prayer has achieved a special status as our generation's "Stairway to Heaven". (Cue torrent of abuse from Led Zeppelin fans claiming that "Stairway to Heaven" is this generation's "Stairway to Heaven".) Everyone knows the words - well, the words to the chorus, anyway. Oh, all right, they know to go "WHOA-HO, LIVIN' ON A PRAYER" at some point in the proceedings. Nevertheless, the song strikes a perfect balance of sounding vaguely inspirational while actually relating a desperately sad story which doesn't have much to inspire.
Acceptable place to listen: Student nights out at various points throughout your university career.
Worst place to listen: In your Volvo as you drive through Chelsea, aged 57.

Song: We Shall Overcome
Artist: Literally hundreds. I rather like Bruce Springsteen's version that he did with the Sessions Band, so that's where the link points.
Album: In this case, We Shall Overcome - The Seeger Sessions.
Best place to listen: At a poorly-attended rally, protesting against some piece of injustice which is obvious, crushingly oppressive, and immensely powerful, to the point that the rally isn't actually going to change anything. "We Shall Overcome" is a strange animal - the lyrics are triumphant in one sense, but they're deeply sad as well. "Darlin', in my heart, I still believe, we shall overcome some day" speaks volumes about how very little changes on a day-to-day basis, but how in the end good will win out.
Acceptable place to listen: Any kind of protest, although the song becomes less and less appropriate as the situation being protested becomes less important. Singing "We Shall Overcome" at a student rally protesting against high-priced accommodation, for example, would be ridiculous. Bet it's been done at some point.
Worst place to listen: Halliburton's annual shareholders meeting.

Song: Love For Sale
Artist: Talking Heads
Album: True Stories
Best place to listen: Somewhere in the USA, where you're constantly inundated with TV adverts - any of the big cities would do. Oh, and it has to be twenty years ago. Unsurprisingly, a song that consists of nothing but advertising slogans strung together into a bunch of nonsensical but compelling lyrics doesn't really age very well.
Acceptable place to listen: A household that watches a lot of TV, and/or likes laughing at cheesy 80's advertising.
Worst place to listen: One of those Tibetan monasteries that are constantly being frequented by Steven Seagal, Batman et al. In fact they're a pretty poor choice for any activity apart from furious kung fu training.

Song: A Space Boy Dream
Artist: Belle and Sebastian
Album: The Boy With The Arab Strap
Best place to listen: Late at night, when everyone else in your house has gone to sleep, when it's slightly chilly and you're sleepy. Put on some good big headphones and play this song, paying careful attention to the quiet, measured narration under the music.
Acceptable place to listen: At home surrounded by friends.
Worst place to listen: The middle of an especially noisy club somewhere. Admittedly, that would mean that the DJ has completely lost his grip on reality, which could be kind of fun.

Song: Gunning Down Romance
Artist: Savage Garden
Album: Affirmation
Best place to listen: Late in a highly-charged gig, given by - and this is the key - anyone other than Savage Garden. Why? Because this is a cracking song, stuffed to the gunwales with pain and rejection, and wrapped up in a great guitar part, but it really should not be sung by a skinny androgynous bloke in leather trousers. If you can bear to, watch the video I linked to above, and try not to burst out laughing when Darren Hayes starts wiggling in a way that he probably thought was suggestive, but actually had my eyeballs trying to crawl out of my skull and throttle me. If it was performed by someone who could still hit the high notes but with a grittier voice, and if they removed the effects from the guitar and let a full rock band loose on it, the result could be incredible.
Acceptable place to listen: If you're male and in public, it had better be somewhere you can feel confident enough not to mind the incredulous looks you'll be getting from all sides.
Worst place to listen: Just after a Mötley Crüe concert.

Song: Baba O'Riley
Artist: The Who
Album: Who's Next
Best place to listen: At a Who gig, back when Keith Moon was a) alive and b) conscious. That does give you a rather small window, I have to admit, but hearing Moon smack pretty much every drum in his kit in that intro that sounds exactly like someone's just thrown him and his kit down the stairs would be pretty special.
Acceptable place to listen: Anywhere you can rock out and play every single air instrument. How often do you get to play air violin, drums, synth and windmilling guitar in the same song?
Worst place to listen: The intro music to CSI: NY now that they've done a horrible editing job on it. What have you done to Keith?

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Wednesday, 16 April 2008

I'd like to apologise in advance.

How many hairdressers do you know (the businesses, not the people) whose names are not a hilarious hair-related pun? Oh, of course you'll find the odd one trying to be elegant ("The Gentleman's Hair Salon", for example), but the number that will choose something like "Upper Cuts" or "Cut 'n' Run" is just ridiculous. Is there something about hair in particular that means businesses want to make puns about it? Is hair unusually hysterical?

If hairdressers can have punning names, I think it's remarkably unfair that other types of business can't get away with it. Especially when there's so many great puns available.


  • A Bit Of Soft-Suin'
  • Sue Be Doo Be Doo
  • Don't Be Acquitter
  • Litigate Good Times, C'mon
  • Don't Dread the Judge

Music Shops
  • Duet Yourself
  • More Than The Minim-um
  • Let Me Be Breve
  • Stave It Off
  • If It Ain't Baroque

  • Let's Cremate Good Times, C'mon
  • What's Hearse Is Mine
  • Dead Right
  • Grave Consequences
  • Don't Have A Coffin Fit

Marine Biologists
  • Whale Of A Time
  • Spare Us A Squid?
  • Control Your Em-oceans
  • Bit Of A Dive
  • Like A Sturgeon

Pest Control Experts
  • Stirring Up A Hornet's Nest
  • Don't Rat On Us
  • Row Row Row Your Stoat
  • The Clap Trap Rat Trap Shop
  • Exterminate Good Times, C'mon

(OK, I'm done...)

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Sunday, 13 April 2008

Holy domain hosting, Batman!

The whole system of domain name registration on the Internet is, by Internet standards, incredibly old. Can't get much older, actually, given that it's the basis on which the entire net is built. If you couldn't get a domain name, people would have to find your site by knowing the IP address; it would be much the same situation as the humble BBS was in before the World Wide Web came along.

Given how long the system's been going, therefore, you might think that pretty much all the good domain names must have gone now, either bought and turned into decent sites, or bought up to sell to someone who wants to make a decent site. However, you would be wrong. All of the following domain names are, at the time of writing, available to register for a nominal fee.


If you can't find something to enjoy in that lot, I don't think I can help you. However, there is one domain name that would also be great, and yet is sadly unavailable.

Because I've got it. is, as of this evening, open for your delectation. It's going to basically have much the same kind of stuff as I've got here, but because it's privately hosted, I have considerably more control over it. That means that any fun bits of programming I do from now on will end up there (thank goodness...programming the "strange unit calculator" in a way that didn't break Blogger took forever), as will any photos that need more web space than I can provide with Photobucket.

Hopefully it will also let me post more multimedia-type stuff, especially music and so on. Just to be clear, The Beautiful Hypothesis is going to continue, and hopefully I'll be able to keep doing the same kind of stuff here as I have been up until now. Whenever I put something new up there, I'll mention it here (if it's worth mentioning), and anything I put here that's worth keeping will be backed up on Ballpoint Banana.

And if you were wondering about the site's name...the eighth bit of dialogue on this page should give you a hint.

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Sunday, 6 April 2008

This took an embarrassingly long time to create. Several "West Wing episodes", at least.

Have you ever noticed that, in a news story about some new and tiny piece of electronics or other technology, the expression "the width of a human hair" is almost guaranteed to appear? It seems to be the standard comparison for anything smaller than a millimetre, and yet it's not that good a comparison. Yes, we can see our own hairs, but because their length is by far the more obvious property, we just can't really process the idea.

However, we can process comparisons with bigger things. If you tell someone that an object is the width of a matchstick, or a Routemaster double-decker bus, or an Olympic swimming pool, then it's much easier. So, I reckon that what we need is an easy comparison between these different objects. (This idea's already partly been done by Chrico, with the Double Decker Bus Calculator; I'm going to try to do something a little different.)

First, we need to know how long or wide each of these things are. Below is a table of several objects, the approximate size of which everyone knows, but I've also included their actual size, using the best data I could find. To make the calculations easier, I've included the equivalent in metres.

Object Size Equivalent (m)
Human hair (width) 50 μm 0.00005
Matchstick (width) 2 mm 0.002
Mobile phone (Nokia 5310, length) 104 mm 0.104
A4 paper (length) 297 mm 0.297
Office chair (height) 93 cm 0.93
Volkswagen Beetle 1500 (length) 4026 mm 4.026
Routemaster double-decker bus (length) 8.4 m 8.4
Olympic-size swimming pool (length) 50 m 50
International rugby union pitch (length) 100 m 100
Wembley Stadium's arch (span) 315 m 315
Distance from London to Edinburgh 404 miles 650175
Diameter of the Earth 7926.28 miles 12756111

Hopefully, that was instructive. (Could be worse...I almost included the parsec as a unit, except that a) no-one knows what it is, and b) I don't think I could handle the calculations involved.) Now, all we need to do is set up an easy way of converting between these units...

Oh look, I appear to have found one. Type the distance you wish to convert into various other things in the box (in metres), then click "Go!". Alternatively, click one of the object names to fill in the box automatically.

Human hairs:
Mobile phones:
Sheets of A4:
Office chairs:
VW Beetles:
Olympic pools:
Rugby pitches:
Wembley arches:
London-Edinburgh trips:
Earth diameters:

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Saturday, 5 April 2008

This year's conference is straight outta Pwllheli. Word.

Several of my friends are shortly going to be attending the New Word Alive conference. For those of you who have no idea what this is, it's a week-long Christian event full of Bible teaching, worship and so on. Several fairly high-profile evangelicals are going to be speaking there (the "headliners" are Don Carson, John Piper and Terry Virgo), so as Christian conferences go it's a biggie.

Although I do respect the work that the conference is doing, there's a couple of things that make me laugh every time I hear it mentioned. The first is that it's called "New" Word Alive to distinguish it from plain old Word Alive, the conference that was a part of the much larger Spring Harvest conference up until last year. The split is mentioned on the Spring Harvest website, but you'll note that the site announcement makes no mention whatsoever of the reason for the split. That's because the organisers of Word Alive disagreed with Spring Harvest's practice of inviting speakers whose theological viewpoints differed from their own.

Actually, that's a rather simplified way of looking at it; it's probably fairer to say that the Word Alive people considered the theological difference so great that the Spring Harvest speakers were preaching things that were just plain wrong. Whatever the motivations, I can't help but feel that the new setup is pretty nearly the worst possible outcome. By sticking with almost exactly the same title, the New Word Alive organisers have ended up looking like kids who are taking their ball and going home because the other kids weren't playing nicely; equally, the Spring Harvest organisers look like heretics or like idiots who can't control their own conference, depending on which side of the theological argument you tend to come down.

Both impressions are wrong. The New Word Alive people made their split because they couldn't, in good conscience, be part of an organisation which disagreed with them on, as they saw it, an utterly fundamental point of belief. That's about as far from petty as you can get. Likewise, the Spring Harvest people seem to believe so strongly in allowing different shades of belief a voice that they're willing to sacrifice convenience for unity. Whichever side is "right" (and I think the situation's much more confusing than right-or-wrong), both have acted in the interests of the people they serve, and yet both have come out of it looking daft. It's the sheer absurdity of this situation that makes me laugh, although it's more from desperation than from any inherent humour in the situation.

On a lighter note, the other reason to find New Word Alive amusing is that they use the abbreviation NWA. I can only assume that most of the attendees have never heard of...errr...the other NWA...

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Thursday, 3 April 2008

Here, have some magical pixie dust bottled water. It will automatically improve your grades.

Last night on Newsnight, BBC 2's flagship news programme, Jeremy Paxman was in fine form. Paxman is great value most of the time (people still look back fondly on his interview with Michael Howard when he asked precisely the same question fourteen times in a row because Howard wouldn't give a straight answer), but one of his interviews last night was just brilliant.

The segment in question was on the subject of "Brain Gym", a set of exercises used in schools all over Britain that claim to improve children's thought processes and attention spans. The film part of the segment was good in itself - it's available here, if you want to watch it (at least until it gets yanked back off Youtube) - but the interview with the programme's founder afterwards was brilliant. I present it here for your delectation in Youtube format, or if you'd prefer, as a transcript.

Jeremy Paxman: Well, let's see now if we can talk to the brains behind Brain Gym, Paul Dennison, who's in Los Angeles – I'm sorry we couldn't hear you a moment ago, Mr Dennison, let's just check we can hear you now – can you just explain what a "Brain Button" is, please?

Paul Dennison: We have on our bodies certain reflex points that help us organise the body and the brain, and holding these points helps to activate the developmental movements that – they're called microinterventions – to help improve the connections and circuitry, and the apparent results are, people get a better sense of where they are in space, a sense of left and right, and able to move better. We leave the explanations to the experts – we've been explaining these the best we can over the years, and we’re open to inquiry to develop the best explanations for them, but the fact, they do indeed work.

JP: Well, yes, you say in your Teacher’s Manual here, when you talk about "hookups", that they "connect the electrical circuits in the body". What, exactly, are these electrical circuits, please?

PD: Well, I – it's my opinion that we are electrical, that we do have circuits and connections, and when we bring our energy to the midline, to the central point, we are breaking out of the reflex [flings arms wide] to go from one side or the other, and bring things back to the centre where we can be calm and relaxed.

JP: It is your-

PD: And focused, and this is-

JP: You say this is your opinion, that we are electrical, Mr. Dennison-

PD: Yes-

JP: Are you medically qualified?

PD: No, I am not medically qualified, I'm an educator, but I study and read, and there are studies that show that we do have electrical – acupuncture and other procedures are based on the fact that we are – electrical circuits in the body – and we are building on the shoulders of these people who've been doing this for thousands of years.

JP: Is the fact that you're not medically qualified explanation enough for statements in this Teacher's Manual of the kind that, [reads from Manual] "processed foods do not contain water", which, you know, is arrant nonsense.

PD: We're interested in helping children and these things work, and we explain them the best we can, and we are going to edit the Manual and rewrite it, so that it's-

JP: But you can see that that's-

PD: We really appreciate the help-

JP: Absolutely.

PD: Helping us point these things out.

JP: But you appreciate that is nonsense, isn't it?

PD: [crosstalking] But I explain that this is the best of my ability to help children and to help teachers have a context for why they are doing the movements.

JP: But if your manual can contain idiotic statements like that, is there any reason to believe anything else in it?

PD: I do believe those statements are true, and time will prove that they are-

JP: And you believe processed foods don't contain water, do you?

[crosstalk – JP repeats his question]

PD: I had a context for that statement, meaning that pure water is more immediately active and available to the brain, and that I'm not attached to either, but that was the best information I had at the time.

JP: [cutting across him] Perhaps you should have said that?

PD: Hmm?

JP: Perhaps you should have said that.

PD: Hm?

JP: [almost shouting] Perhaps you should have said that-

PD: Well, fifteen years ago-

JP: -instead of saying what you did say, which is nonsense!

PD: Fifteen years ago that was the best information I had, and no-one has complained about the Teacher's Edition-

JP: [crosstalking] That processed foods don't contain water.

PD: -until this point, and we're glad that we can – we’re glad that we can-

JP: [crosstalking] Let me ask you – a suggestion – sorry to cut across you, there's a delay on the satellite, just let me ask you this – how many schools in Britain are using this programme of yours?

PD: The Brain Gym programme is upraised and loved in eighty countries around the world, and I have no idea how many schools use it, but children love it because they learn better, teachers love it because they have kids that are ready, willing and able to learn, and love to be in school, and parents like it, and these are tools that I've developed as a reading specialist, over my whole career, because I just love to see a child come to life as he learns-

JP: Mr. Dennison, thank you very much indeed.

I need hardly say that almost everything Mr. Dennison says is complete rubbish, and can be seen to be with little more than a cursory knowledge of neurophysiology. Paxman catches him explicitly admitting that his "Teacher's Manual" contains things that he knows are false, and any time that he's not producing pseudoscientific rubbish, he's appealing to our emotions by saying that he's DOING IT ALL FOR THE CHILDREN. How sweet.

It's entirely possible that doing a few stretches and muscle movements before the school day begins can reduce stress and improve attention spans, simply because the kids have to stand still and stay quiet for a few minutes. Similarly, because the teacher is paying attention to the children and directly interacting with them, the kids may well feel more of a bond with their teacher and be more motivated to work.

Even if that's true, though, whether or not the Brain Gym exercises are helpful is really pretty irrelevant. The same effects could be obtained by making the children do some standard muscle stretches - you know, the kind of thing that will actually remove some of their tension - and would not involve filling up their heads with inaccurate mystical garbage that they will have to unlearn again as soon as they do any human biology.

Oh, and it wouldn't involve handing over sums of money to someone who's seen a way to make a quick buck off schools.

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Tuesday, 1 April 2008

This is not a rickroll in disguise. Although that would be funny too.

I made this video a while ago, but never quite got round to putting it online. It would appear to be appropriate to post it today. If you have ever wanted to watch the ultimate disaster movie - the kind of thing that would have people flocking to the cinemas - this is my take on what it would look like.

The material used in this video is probably copyrighted by a number of different people. I reckon that this kind of use of it should be reasonably OK, but just in case, the video's not here under my CC licence.

Confused by the title? Want to know what a rickroll is? Here.

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