Monday, 31 August 2015

a circular presentation

Although it is not the mathematical symbol for infinity, the circle is the best geometrical representation of this concept. For example, a circle can be visualized as a polygon with an infinite number of sides, and the ratio of its circumference to its diameter, which is represented by the Greek letter π, is a transcendental number. This means that even if its value is calculated to an infinite number of decimal places, there will be no repeating number sequences.

The circle, and its three-dimensional analogue the sphere, do not occur in nature. The orbits of planets around their parent stars, which Copernicus postulated were circular, are in fact elliptical. And although the growth rings of trees are roughly circular, there are always minute variations in the thickness of individual rings. Meanwhile, stars and their accompanying planets are only approximately spherical.

None of this is relevant to the purpose of this post, which is to present a series of abstract photographs that use the circle as a motif. Each picture is followed by a brief comment on the image.

a bigger splash

The title of this photo references the title of a painting by David Hockney, although it doesn’t resemble that painting. The image was created by tossing a small cobble into a nearby stream.


This image is of water dripping from trees into a puddle on the road. I’ve given it this title because the ripples do not appear to be interfering with each other.


Although this picture is self-evidently a cross-section through a tree, it immediately reminded me of an impact crater.

set the controls for the heart of the sun

Another cross-section through a tree, but this one looks like some kind of aiming device. The title comes from a song on Pink Floyd’s 1968 album Saucerful of Secrets.

straw man

The arms and legs of this stick figure radiate from the centre of a series of concentric circles (a tree cross-section again). In normal use, the phrase ‘straw man’ refers to a particular type of fallacious argument in which the person who is making the argument constructs a false image of an idea, which is obviously much easier to criticize than the real thing. Incidentally, a circular argument is another type of logical fallacy.


This is the most nearly circular of the oil stain photos I’ve taken this summer, although the jagged edges make it the least circular of the images here.

The first two photos were taken in Hong Kong last winter, while the rest were taken this summer in and around my home town of Penrith.

Thursday, 27 August 2015

spelling bee

I assume that English is quite an easy language to learn to speak, given the number of people who speak it in one form or another, but it is probably no easier than any other language to speak well. And when it comes to writing the language down, the problems are exacerbated. There may not be a problem remembering the gender of nouns, or the myriad inflexions of verbs that plague other languages, but English is probably the least phonetic in its spelling of any major alphabetic language (an ideographic language such as Chinese carries no phonetic information in its script). This means that English is so riddled with irregularities and disparities between pronunciation and spelling that even native speakers can easily make mistakes with the latter.

There are twenty-four consonants in English as it is usually spoken but only eighteen usable consonants in the alphabet (because C can be rendered by k or s, depending on the context, Q by kw, and X by ks). However, four of the six remaining consonants can be represented by two-letter combinations (ch, ng, sh, th), and th can easily represent the unvoiced consonant in thin or the voiced version in this without confusion, while the voiced version of sh heard in words like leisure and treasure is sufficiently uncommon that the absence of a specific signifier shouldn’t cause any difficulties.

This doesn’t mean that a given written consonant will always be pronounced in the way indicated by the letter or letters. Most people will now be familiar with George Bernard Shaw’s fatuous attempt to ridicule English spelling with his invented word ghoti, which if you’ve never encountered it is pronounced ‘fish’ (gh as in cough, o as in women, and ti as in nation). However, this misses the point. The real problem is with the vowels.

Take a look at the following grid, in which words in the same column rhyme, but the way the rhyming part is spelled is different in each case. Words in the same horizontal row have the same spelling, but the pronunciations differ. It is possible to construct many such pronunciation grids for words of one syllable, some much bigger than the one shown here, although this example includes what is probably the largest number of different letter combinations to represent the same pronunciation.

I do not wish to imply that there are no problems with consonants. Someone whose only exposure to English is in its spoken form would think the following spellings perfectly reasonable: casl, resl, brisl, josl, rusl. Note that in each case there is a ‘silent’ t in the orthodox spelling, while resl also includes a redundant w. All five words also include a superfluous final e. There is a trend towards eliminating such final e’s, although care would need to be taken if this tendency is to be encouraged. For example, definite, doctrine and hypocrite could lose their final e’s without creating ambiguity, just as the final e has been dropped from deposit and fossil, and, more recently, from proletariat and secretariat. But dropping the final e from hearse would obviously be a mistake.

Initial w’s are a bit of a nuisance in a range of situations: silent in wreck, wring, writhe, write and wrong (among others); silent in who and whom, but pronounced in what, which and why; and distorting the following vowel, as in warm and worm, which if pronounced as they read should rhyme with harm and form, but don’t.

There are other letters that don’t appear to be playing a logical part in the accepted pronunciation: the s in island; the c in muscle; and the n in column and solemn. However, in the last two of these examples, in the words derived from these nouns (muscular, columnar, solemnity), the ‘silent’ letter is pronounced, so rectification of these spellings would be illogical.

Perhaps the most egregious of the redundant letters that crop up in English words are the b in debt and doubt, and the p in receipt. We have the great eighteenth-century lexicographer Samuel Johnson, in his Dictionary of the English Language of 1755, to thank for the last of these. At a time when spellings were not standardized—Shakespeare spelled his name in several different ways—Elizabethan scholars had added a p to conceit, deceit and receit, and although the three words are cognate, Johnson removed the offending p from only the first two. Another spelling anomaly introduced by Johnson is seen with deign and disdain, which derive from the same root.

The English language is very good at appropriating words from other languages when the need arises, but in the case of French in particular, such words have often been imported with their original pronunciations intact. Why, for example, is ballet not pronounced to rhyme with mallet; debut to rhyme with rebut; and debris to rhyme with hubris? The spelling would then be obvious, but the effect of the current arrangement is to separate pronunciation and spelling into different compartments, with the potential for yet more confusion.

Systematic reform of English spelling would seem to be called for, but there is a major caveat. It should be more important for a printed word to convey its meaning than its pronunciation for someone seeing the word for the first time, and if we were to spell nation as nayshon, for example, then its meaning would not be grasped automatically by speakers of other languages that contain a recognizable variant. The US spelling fotograf conceals its origin in ancient Greek, and for anyone with some knowledge of this language also its meaning.

Although I am not recommending any such reform, this doesn’t mean that there won’t be occasional ad hoc changes in pronunciation driven by what are essentially illogical spellings: how long, for example, can a word like clerk resist the spelling clark? Or might a new pronunciation emerge in which clerk rhymes with jerk? Given that most people learn to speak a language before they can read or write it, the pressure is likely to be on the spelling to change.

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

boom! boom!

When I heard news, a few days ago, of the explosions in the Chinese port city of Tianjin, I was immediately reminded of a similar incident that took place in West, Texas, a little more than two years ago, in April 2013. Both involved residential areas being located far too close to facilities where dangerous chemicals were being stored, and in both cases a disproportionate number of those killed were firefighters. In neither case did these men have any idea what they were up against.

In the US incident, more than 245,000 kilograms of ammonium nitrate exploded while the fire crews were responding to a small fire that had broken out at the storage facility, yet nobody had thought to warn them in advance that this highly explosive material was there. Nobody—other than the company that owned the facility—knew it was there.

The identity of the chemicals that exploded in Tianjin is much less certain, although it almost certainly included an accelerant (oxidizing agent) like ammonium nitrate. The purported presence of sodium cyanide may just have been the kind of scare story that inevitably spreads around whenever there is a shortage of hard information, although a British chemical expert who appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Today program did suggest that sodium metal was present. I think we can discount this hypothesis, because sodium does not occur as a metal in nature, and as far as I can tell the only use for this element is to have tiny slivers dropped into large tanks of water by chemistry teachers to demonstrate to their pupils the violent reaction that occurs. This would not justify storing enough of the metal to cause the explosions.

Perhaps the most realistic assessment of the chemicals involved that I’ve seen is a combination of calcium carbide, potassium nitrate (saltpetre) and ammonium nitrate. Calcium carbide, when mixed with water, produces the highly flammable gas acetylene, while the other two are both powerful accelerants (saltpetre was used in the original Chinese recipe for gunpowder) as well as being used as fertilizers. A ready supply of oxygen to feed an incipient fire is obviously a recipe for disaster.

However, the most striking similarity between the two incidents is not the presence of accelerants but the secrecy involved. Nobody but the employees of the West Fertilizer Company knew that a huge quantity of ammonium nitrate was being stored on the firm’s premises, while nobody will admit to knowing precisely what was being stored in the warehouse in Tianjin. The juxtaposition is striking: defenders of the American company would probably cite commercial confidentiality, while the Chinese Communist Party will probably invoke state secrecy laws if anyone has the temerity to probe too deeply. In other words, despite the ideological competition between the ‘land of the free’ and the ‘middle kingdom’, politicians in both countries couldn’t care less about ordinary citizens.

Thursday, 13 August 2015

quiet riot

I wrote earlier in the summer about how I wasn’t doing any cycling because it was either cold, wet or windy—or all three—but conditions have been improving recently, so I have started to get out on my bike. The bonus is that during the last three weeks, the roadside verges have been a riot of pinks, purples, blues and whites, with the occasional splash of yellow provided by ragwort, buttercups and a few late dandelions. It is an unexpected bonus, because most of the wildflowers that provide this display should have finished flowering more than a month ago, but as I pointed out in Haywire, the weather has been even more unpredictable this year than it usually is—in the case of Hong Kong, warmer than usual; in the UK, colder than usual, so much colder that I’ve been wearing a thermal undershirt, which I’d brought with me so that I could continue to cycle into October. I didn’t expect to need it in July!

In Twenty Miles of Bad Road, written last summer, I described a 3.2-mile addition to the 20-mile circuit that I’d originally devised, and this is now my default ride. It is probably around the maximum distance that I can manage and still have enough energy to do it again the following day. In fact, last September I set myself a small challenge: to do the 23.2-mile circuit every day—unless it rained. However, I reckoned without the driest September on record and ended up doing it 13 days in a row. Oddly enough, I felt more tired after the second day’s ride than I did after the tenth.

Anyway, enough of this waffle. You would probably prefer to see some pictures. Easily the most spectacular, in bloom, of the roadside flowers is rose bay willow herb, which grows in huge stands containing up to a thousand individual flower spikes. There are many such stands on the route, and here are photos of two of them. The colour is more intense than these pictures suggest.

Another plant that grows in large stands is shown in the next photograph. I have yet to identify these cream-coloured flowers, which remind me of candy floss (cotton candy).

The pink flowers in the next photograph are much less common, and they are also as yet unidentified. The cream-coloured flowers in the foreground are the same as those in the previous photo.

Purple vetch is scattered in small clumps along the way but was dying off by the time I decided that I wanted to take a photo:

Yet another common flower that I haven’t been able to identify is shown in the next picture. This too grows in small clusters (the cream-coloured flowers are clover).

Thistles are attractive plants to look at, but their spiky leaves, and the fact that they also grow in large stands, make them a vicious obstacle on an overgrown path. The thistles in the next photo are about to start dispersing their airborne seeds (the main reason they are so ubiquitous).

The next picture shows a comparative rarity. I’ve tentatively identified the white flower as a northern marsh orchid, and on this route it is seen only along a short stretch of the road that marks the highest point, where, surprisingly, the ground is quite boggy. Like many purple flowers, it has faded to white in the sun. The yellow flower is a dandelion.

Finally, I’ve included two photos of a plant that looks to me to be far too elaborate for a mere wildflower. I wonder if it is an escapee from someone’s garden. It can be seen at only two locations on the route, which does provide some support for my hypothesis. There is one photo from each location.

I don’t like unanswered questions, so I will be updating this post once I’ve discovered answers to the questions posed above.