Saturday, 29 September 2012

I don't think this can be correct

Sign seen last week in a Motorway service station:

My first thought: and that leaves where, precisely?

My second thought: and the claim is rather easily refuted...

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

wonderful weather

Driving out on Saturday evening, we saw a marvelous pillar of light rising vertically from the setting sun.  By the time I had stopped the car, got my camera, and snapped the picture, it was a lot less bright, but still quite visible (much more so than in the photo):

sun pillar, Sat 15 Oct 2012, 19:32 BST

There is a much better picture of the same effect from the rising sun at WeatherQuesting, and a note about the effect in by A.S. Herschel in Nature from 1901.

Not as rare, but still quite spectacular, was a dark cloud effect late afternoon yesterday:

menacing cloud, Tues 18 Oct 2012, 17:25 BST

Sunday, 16 September 2012

le banana split

On my recent trip to France, a particular menu item, in a menu entirely in French, was “Le banana split”. This caused great hilarity among the Brits present. We also quizzed out French colleagues, “why ‘le’”? They professed ignorance, particularly due to the fact that it is, au contraire, “la banane”. Is it that all foreign introductions are assigned masculine gender? They didn’t know.

This then segued off into a discussion of gendered languages, with the French asking the Brits, “so, if you were to give the sun, or a table, a gender, what would it be?” and the Brits responding with baffled incomprehension. The question makes about as much sense as, or possibly even less sense than, the party game “if you were a piece of furniture, what would you be?”

Another aspect of the discussion caught my attention. The menu item is pronounced by the French something like (to my English-tuned ears) /lʊ  bæ'næ'næ  spliːt/ (“le ban-ann-ah spleet” *): all three “a”s the same, and a long “i”. In contrast, banana in (my dialect of) English is pronounced /bə'nɑːnə/ (“buh-nah-nuh”) , or even /bə'nɑːnəː/ (“buh-nah-ner”), with three different pronunciations of “a”.

And that led me to recall the peculiar sentence (there are different variants of it, but this is the one I know):
The thoughtful rough-necked dough-faced ploughman strode, coughing and hiccoughing, through the streets of Scarborough
If you are a native English speaker, you will have read that with no trouble (except, possibly, for hiccough). If not, you may possibly have groaned at the eight oughs there, each with a different pronunciation. Let’s enumerate them:
  1. ough can be pronounced /ɔː/ (“awe”); thought is pronounced /θɔːt/. Other words ending in /ɔːt/ include aught, bought, brought, caught, court, daughter, fraught, fort, fought, haughty, naught, nought, nautical, ought, port, quart, snort, sort, sought, taught, taut, tort, wart, and wrought.
  2. ough can be pronounced /ʌf/ (“uff”); rough is pronounced /rʌf/. Other words ending in /ʌf/ include bluff, buff, chough, cuff, duff, fluff, gruff, huff, muff, enough, puff, ruff, scuff, slough, stuff, and tough.
  3. ough can be pronounced /əʊ/ (“oh”); dough is pronounced /dəʊ/. Other words ending in /əʊ/ include blow, bow, crow, doe, foe, Flo, flow, go, glow, grow, hoe, Joe, low, mow, no, oh, roe, row, sew, show, sloe, slow, snow, so, though, throw, toe, and tow.
  4. ough can be pronounced /aʊ/ (“ow”); plough is pronounced /plaʊ/. Other words ending in /aʊ/ include bough, bow, brow, cow, dhow, how, now, ow, pow, prow, proud, row, scowl, Slough (the place), sow, tao, vow, and wow.   And drought has the same ough sound.
  5. ough can be pronounced /ɒf/ (“off”); cough is pronounced /kɒf/. Other words with /ɒf/ include coffee, doff, off, quaff, slough, soft, toffee, trough, and waft.
  6. ough can, in one word only, be pronounced /ʌp/ (“up”); hiccough is pronounced /'hɪkʌp/. Other word ending in /ʌp/ include the much more prosaic cup, pup, sup, up. Hiccough is a somewhat archaic spelling, and is more likely to be written hiccup today. 
  7. ough can be pronounced /uː/ (“oo”); through is pronounced /θruː/. Other words ending in /uː/ include blew, blue, boo, chew, clue, coo, do, due, dew, flew, flu, flue, goo, grew, grue, hew, Hugh, Jew, lieu, loo, moo, new, poo, queue, (kanga)roo, rue, shoe, shoo, shrew, slew, slough, sue, too, threw, true, view, who, woo, zoo 
  8. ough can be pronounced /ə/ (“uh”), the unstressed schwa sound; Scarborough is pronounced /'skɑːbərə/, or even /'skɑːbrə/. Other words ending in /ə/ are legion, and include anger, author, cellar, colour, comma, sofa, thorough
Presumably the strode is in there to try to trick you into writing something like stroughed. And why not?

Then there is the town of Loughborough, with two ough occurrences, each pronounced differently: /'lʌfb(ə)rə/ (“Luff-bruh”). Variant pronunciations don’t end with ough, of course. The examples above show that each vowel sound has several possible spellings; in particular, both bow and sow can be pronounced to rhyme with either plough or with dough. The other way round, slough must hold the record, with the same word having three different meanings, each with its own different pronunciation of ough: /slʌf/ (“sluff”, to shed), /sluː/ (“slew”, a swamp), and /slaʊ/ (the town of Slough, and, confusingly, the Slough of Despond, or swamp of despair).

Why? Why so many vowel sounds with the same spelling? And why such a weird spelling at that? Well, it’s actually one vowel sound and following consonant, that has meandered off in many directions over the years. The clue is in yet another pronunciation of ough, as /ɒx/. That’s a sound that is no longer in English, except in the word loch (as in Loch Ness), also spelled lough for Irish lakes, for example Lough Neagh, and some lakes in the north of England. Even this sound is fading, as many people pronounce loch as /lɒk/ “lock”. Computer scientists will also know this /x/ sound, as the final sound in Knuth’s TeX (but not necessarily LaTeX).

More detail (as ever) on ough can be found on wikipedia.

This disappearance of original sounds explains some (but by no means all!) of the weirdness of English spelling. Take, for example, bright, light and night, pronounced /brʌɪt/ (“brite”) /lʌɪt/ (“lite”), and /nʌɪt/ (“nite”) respectively. Aargh! It’s that silent gh again! And for the same reason: it did used to be pronounced. It is still be heard in some Scots dialets.  Consider:
It's a braw bricht moonlicht nicht the nicht.
(It’s a grand bright moonlit night tonight.)
Here the gh, morphed to ch, can still be heard, pronounced /x/.

At the front end of some English words is that other weird silent letter, k, as in knife (/nʌɪf/, “nife”), knee (/niː/, “nee”), and, just to combine the pain, knight (/nʌɪt/, “nite”). As you can guess, the k was originally pronounced. These words all derive from Old English words beginning cn. But that’s also not a sound that has survived into modern English. Where the initial k is still pronounced, the English form has added a vowel: good old King Canute of wave fame is actually Cnut.

So, knight was once probably pronounced something like /knɪxt/ (“k-nicht”); now we’re (somewhat) in Monty Python territory, and back to French!

And after writing this, I was so thoroughly fraught that I thought I’d forgotten how to spell. If I just tough it out, though, I’ll get through it.

* pronunciations like /kʌp/ are written using the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), as given by the online Oxford Dictionaries.  I also append my attempt at transliterating these (“cup”), but this is, of course, ambiguous, precisely because English spelling is not phonetic

The IPA is explained on wikipedia, including some variant transcriptions.

Saturday, 15 September 2012

gamified research

My day job includes working with people who research on flocking, social networks, and other complex interactions of groups of agents.  A while back, some of our researchers decided to see if their work could be brought to the public through "gamification".  Over the summer, the University has funded a couple of interns to work on this, and now ComplexCityApps have just released the first game for the Android: Floqua.

As the game's website says:
Find all of the lost fish in each level and guide them to safety in the castle. The tricky part is keeping them in your flock. Swim too fast and you'll leave your fish behind. Watch out for the predators: they're hungry!
The game is now available through Google play.  I confess, I've spent more time than I should herding fish.  It's easier than herding cats, which is part of my day job...

In addition to being a fun game (we hope!), it's educational (we also hope!).  You can simply play the game.  But, if you want to know more, there are pointers to the science behind the app.

And the developers have bravely been keeping a blog, so you can also dig down into some of the game design process, including effort to make sure the colour-coding of fish types is accessible to colour-blind players.

Okay, I'm off to try the next level, which has two rather hungry predators trying to eat my fish...

hiding from predators...

Saturday, 8 September 2012

unconventional identity

I'm just back from a wonderful week in Orleans, at the Unconventional Computation and Natural Computation conference, and associated specialist workshops. Interesting people, fascinating science, good weather, great food: what more could you want?

Here's the semi-obligatory photo from my hotel window, with the cathedral visible in the distance (oh, the bells! the bells!):

As well as the packed science programme, there was the customary conference event.  The conference organisers spoiled us with a choice: a visit to Chambord Castle, or kayaking on the Loire.  Unsurprisingly, I chose the castle.  Very impressive, with an excellent guided tour giving us all the history, from its original use as a hunting lodge, to the bullet holes from WWII.

It's difficult to know how much to believe on these tours.  We were told that eating with a fork was introduced, because it was needed to get past the ruff worn around the neck. It sounds no sillier than the reasons behind any other piece of etiquette, but I can find no evidence for the claim.  The web seems quite happy to credit Catherine de Medici with introducing both the table fork and the ruff to France, but doesn't connect the two, in fact claiming that the fork didn't catch on for a while. Ah well, it's a nice story.

My favourite bit of the castle was the four storey double helix staircase, allegedly designed by Leonardo da Vinci:

This trip was followed by a walking tour of Orleans itself, which seemed to involve a lot of different statues of Joan of Arc.

several statues, of varying size
Our guide told us that all these statues depict Joan of Arc wearing a dress, because it used to be thought wrong for a woman to wear "boys clothes", as she actually did.  Why revere someone for saving you, yet deny what they actually did?

One of the things on the tour that was not a statue of Joan of Arc was Joan of Arc's house.  Except that it wasn't actually her house, she only stayed there; also, the original was destroyed in WWII, and later reconstructed, but at a different size.  It reminded me of the story of "my grandfather's axe". Identity is a slippery concept.

The availability of cheap and plentiful smart-phone photography changes what I snap, too.  As well as the obvious statues, vases, furniture, stair cases, carvings, and other typical touristy shots, I also photographed the timetable at the tram stop:

I didn't snap it (only) because it's a nice example of a stem-and-leaf plot, but because I actually wanted a copy of the timetable, for my trips back-and-forth between the conference venue and the city centre. I was accused by my colleagues of taking the most boring tourist photograph ever.  And then one of them photographed our restaurant receipt, for their expenses claim...

Saturday, 1 September 2012

ratty book review

My favourite tongue-in-cheek film review, attributed to Rick Polito in the Marin Independent Journal, goes:
Transported to a surreal landscape, a young girl kills the first person she encounters, then teams up with three total strangers and plots to kill again.
Now this is being challenged for brilliantly missing the point by an equally great book review. Reported by Laurie Taylor (back in 2005: never mistake this blog for being up-to-the-minute!), it's a review by the Vice Chancellor of that leading-edge educational establishment, the University of Poppleton. The VC's choice for Book of the Year is reported thus:
... it told the story of a middle-aged man who fails to recognise the benefits of the community in which he resides. Instead of identifying with its mission statement, he persists in pursuing a selfish, individualistic path and ends up having an illicit sexual relationship with a close organisational colleague.
Fortunately, there is a happy ending. Following an intervention from Human Resources and a slightly overdramatised episode involving large rats, he realises his mistakes and re-commits himself to the ongoing strategic plan.
I wouldn't have identified it without the rat reference.

Congratulations if you recognised the film as The Wizard of Oz.