What is the most effective way of enhancing the speed at which you can learn a foreign language?

A customer of mine who very occasionally shares a sip of Italian wine with me after he has deposited items of Italian origin (but not I hasten to add great antiquarian value) in the Admiral storage facility.   And in so doing he has occasionally been known to say, on taking a sip, “In vino veritas” which I am sure you will know from your Latin at school (or can work out even if you didn’t study Latin at school) means “In wine there is truth.”

A profound saying, if ever I heard one.

Anyway, this saying has existed in Western civilisation for around 3000 years, give or take a few centuries, and is used to suggest that a person under the influence of alcohol is more likely to speak their hidden thoughts and desires than someone who is stone cold sober.

A more boring version of the phrase runs, “In vino veritas, in aqua sanitas“, i.e., “In wine there is truth, in water there is health.”

Anyway, apparently this phrase has spread to the Netherlands.  In Dutch, we have the phrase “De wijn in het lijf, het hart in de mond. Een dronken mond spreekt ‘s harten grond” (“Wine in the body, heart in the mouth. A drunken mouth speaks the heart’s meaning”).

Now, of course, in that part of Europe they do take their linguistic research most seriously, for it seems that they have set up at Maastricht University a research department to see what other effects wine can have.

Of course, you may think you know perfectly well what effect imbibing wine has on a person, but the Dutch are sticklers for research and they really, really did feel that they had to establish the effects of wine under proper and complete scientific conditions.

“You mean that we have all heard the story that a person who drinks a lot of wine eventually slumps in his or her chair and starts talking gibberish, but the Dutch wanted to prove it scientifically,” I suggested.

“Not exactly,” said my customer.  “You see in the Netherlands there is a story that circulates quite widely that having a drink or two helps non-Dutch speakers learn Dutch.”

“I imagine the research proving that theory to be true was conducted by a wine importer,” I said.

“Quite possibly,” I was told, “but nevertheless a group of researchers wanted to see if it were true.  So they got a group of native German speakers who spoke no Dutch, plied them with a glass or two of wine, and then taught them some of the researchers’ native tongue.

“Then they asked their volunteers to read a few sentences of Dutch, and the undisputed result was that the volunteers who had had a drink, all spoke better Dutch than those who had not.”

“So what was the outcome of this finding?”

“A massive increase in the number of volunteers for research programmes at Maastricht University,” said my customer.  “Plus multiple applications from university research teams across Europe to see if the same outcomes can be shown with other languages and nationalities.  It is a very important point to establish.”

“This all sounds a bit like something from the Institute of Certain Things,” I said.

“Quite possibly,” said my customer.  “Mind you at the University of Pennsylvania they run a seven hour course in existential despair – a course designed to show that despair is real and that it exists.  The students have to read a set text in silence for around four hours on a topic such as the end of a relationship, the struggle to know who you really are, the end of one’s life and so on.”

“So what is the experiment?” I asked.

“There are three groups,” I was told.  One has no special set up procedure and just reads the text and has a discussion.  In the second group each student can drink as much red wine as he/she wishes during the process, and the third also listens to the 6pm news bulletin in full.

“And what are the results?” said I.

“The no special set-up group end up miserable, the drinking group end up drunk and miserable, while the 6pm news group have to be stopped from ending it all.”

“And what is the purpose of this research?” I asked.

“To increase the number of British students applying to do research in Dutch universities,” my customer replied, And then, with a flourish, he pulled out two miniatures of Italian red, and following their consumption we found we had both rather forgotten the question.

Which only goes to show.

How following medical advice can sometimes have the most unexpected consequences

Now I am not normally a reader of “Work and Health in Canada” but one of my customers apparently is, for noticing just how much of the day I spend standing up, he pointed out to me an article in that august magazine in which it states that standing up at work is bad for one’s health.

It appears that workers who stand up all day are twice as likely to develop heart disease as those who sit down all day.

And this is not a health risk to be sneered at because standing up all day generates pretty much the same level of propensity to heart disease as can be gained from smoking regularly.

I found this particularly interesting because I think traditionally the idea has been that standing up is better than sitting down.

But the news  got one of my friends worried.  He does have a job which requires being seated at a computer terminal and he has recently been told by his GP that he should never be seated for more than 30 minutes at a time.  After that he should get up and wander around.

The trouble is, he told me, what to do and where to go when taking a break from sitting down.  One can of course go to the toilet but, he said, one’s colleagues notice if one suddenly starts popping off in that direction 10 or more times a day.

“I tried going over to the desks of one or two colleagues to pass the time of day, but both my supervisor and my colleagues quickly got tired of this one.  So in the end I just went for a walk around the building.  It takes about three minutes, but that is apparently enough to save me from whatever terrible illness it is that I can get from sitting down too much.”

“Did that resolve matters?” I asked.

“Not really,” he told me, “because one of the directors apparently had watched my new habit of getting up and leaving the building, and accused me of sneaking out either to smoke or to have clandestine meetings with a member of a rival company to whom I was passing over state secrets.  It seems that some of the smokers in the office had devised the tactic of walking around the building as if going to the annexe where we store past files that are kept ‘just in case’ and having a fag on the way.”

“So what happened then?”

“It turns out there is no easy way to prove that one is not a smoker without actually inviting others to sniff your clothes and breath – which is not normal procedure when talking to the boss – so my chum told the boss exactly what he was doing.  Also when a rival comes up with a similar advertising campaign to one’s own it is very hard to prove it was stolen.”

“Did that satisfy the boss?” I naturally asked.

“More than that.  My pal is one of those guys who never uses five words when 250 are available, so he expanded his exposition somewhat and said that the health benefits from the walk were not just longer life and less likelihood of various cardiovascular diseases suggesting the activity also makes the brain work better, because it involves a greater intake of oxygen that one gets by just sitting at the desk.”

“I guess he had to let you all carry on in the light of that,” I said.

“More than that.  The boss told everyone in the offices that they had to go for a walk every half hour to improve productivity.”

“And did it improve productivity?”

“No, not at all, quite the reverse,” I was told.  “The smokers liked it of course and took full advantage, but several members of the team who are, what shall I say, a little on the heavier side, objected, and one who did try it was taken to hospital with exhaustion before he could make it back inside.   But the biggest problem was that the boss failed to signify in the order about going out for a walk, just how far that walk might be.  Quite a few of the staff got into the habit of walking to the local supermarket and doing their shopping, while a group from marketing formed a walkers’ club.”

“There’s surely not much wrong with a walkers’ club is there?” I asked.  “I would have thought that such a thing would just make everyone healthier.”

“You obviously don’t know too many people in marketing,” he said, and I agreed that was true.  “They are phenomenally competitive,  and after the first couple of days they began to challenge each other as to who could walk the furthest in a limited amount of time.   By the end of the first week they were coming in in track suits, doing limbering up exercises, bunching at the door five minutes before the off and then racing out across the car park and into the great wide spaces.

“They had time keepers, route checkers to make sure no one cheated, referees, a panel of judges to resolve finish line disputes, and charts showing who had done what each day.  Within a week they had a team of sponsors lined up, a TV deal with Channel 4, and a series of interviews with the Financial Times about how healthy living was helping the company make ever greater profits.

“And was the company making ever greater profits?”

“Strangely yes,” he said, “but no one can work out how.  As far as I can see no one is doing any work at all now, and yet our turnover has just doubled.”

A silence settled over the room.

“Odd that,” I said.

“Very odd,” said he, and we decided to take a quick stroll around the warehouse.

One learns every day

How a study of one man’s activities in the first world war led to the discovery of the origins of fake news.

One of the great things about running a storage business is that it brings in a huge range of customers, each with different interests, and each of whom stores a wide range of different items.   And, as I have mentioned in the past, some of these customers do take up the offer of pausing for a moment for a brief natter and a coffee when they visit the Admiral facility.

In this way I find I get to learn about all sorts of things the likes of which would never have occurred to me in the normal course of events.

I mention this because one such occasion happened this past week when I found myself talking to a client who stores a range of documents and items he has collected from the era of the first world war – a period he has dedicated many years of his life to studying.

What I found fascinating was that he reported that research of the type that he undertakes often results in findings that turn up by pure chance and in our conversation he gave me two examples.

In the first case my customer told me he was following the history of a man called Henry Norris, who rose from very humble origins, leaving school at 14 without qualifications to work as a very junior clerk in an estate agent’s office, and ended the war as a knight of the realm and a Lieutenant Colonel in the army.

This was particularly difficult case, he told me, since the search for this man’s progress through the war was hampered by the fact that Mr Norris left no memoires or diaries, and most of the records of the War Office from the period of the First World War were destroyed by a bomb in the Second World War.

“I know he did do some work for the War Office for a short while in 1915,” my customer told me, “from the few records that survived” and for that he was given the rank of Captain, just so that other military men knew what position he held.  But after that I have found nothing.

“What tipped me off however was that he was asked to serve on the London County Council in 1917, but then after just a couple of meetings, his attendance was very erratic.  Now normally a person who is invited to be on a committee of such a powerful body, but then never turns up, is quickly removed and replaced by someone who does do the job – but not Norris. Which suggests he was using the LCC position as a cover for War Office work, although as yet I don’t know how or why.”

I must say at this point I wasn’t that impressed by the story – it all seemed a bit vague to me – and I was surprised that historical research of this type could be based on such scraps of evidence.

Something in my face must have revealed this, because my customer then went on…

“But that was only the start.  From there I started reading the local papers for the era, and gradually got immersed in what life was like in the war years.

“Looking back to the time before the war started, the local papers were fairly factual, they didn’t do rumours or gossip as happens now.  Obviously there was no radio or TV then, so they were the one source of information, and there clearly was a perceived need for them to be seen as accurate.

“But as soon as the war broke out in 1914, censorship was imposed by the government in order to avoid giving information to the enemy and to keep up public morale, and this left the papers with less and less to say about the main story of the moment.

“And so the papers started printing rumours.  At first they stated that these were rumours, but quite quickly this caveat was dropped and they were printed as if they were real stories.

“Then I found a story in 1916 about Belgian refugees who had settled in Fulham after Belgium was invaded by Germany, who themselves had built a couple of clubs at which they used to gather of an evening for a drink and a smoke.

“The story began to circulate that these clubs were being used by German infiltrators who were plotting to blow up London’s bridges.  The ‘evidence’ to support this was that people had heard those coming and going from the clubs speaking German.

“No one, in writing up the story, questioned whether it was likely that the Belgians, who had been thrown out of their own country and were now virtually penniless living in London, would allow their enemy to use their clubs.  But of course hardly anyone in Britain spoke German at the time – this was the height of the days of Empire, when the world most certainly had to speak English if they wanted to communicate with us.

“What passers-by probably heard was people speaking Flemish – one of the two languages of Belgium.  But the story was presented as fact, and the paper called on the government to act.”

Suddenly I saw where the story had gone.  “So you found an example of ‘fake news’ from 100 years ago,” I said.

“Possibly the first ‘fake news’ report of the modern era,” my customer said.  “It’s hardly an earth shattering discovery, but it gave me a lot of pleasure not just to find it, but to realise that it was caused not by a desire to get more readership, but by a desire to get more news – in fact any news – in a period of heavy censorship.”

As I said above, one learns something everyday – and for the first time, I got an insight into the world of the amateur historian.

How to be a whizz

Sometimes searching for information (rather like taking a lift) can be more fraught than you might imagine.

For reasons that are unlikely to become completely clear at this time, I recently visited Imperial College, a part of the University of London, and attempted to take the lift to the third floor.  The lift would not, however, oblige, and even though I pressed the third floor button several times, each time I was delivered to the second or fourth floor.

Now I had no problem with walking up or down a flight of steps so after the fourth trip between the second and fourth (or to be more precise, the second trip between the second and fourth and the second trip between the fourth and second) I decided to walk the rest of the way.

On discussing this odd situation with the receptionist on the third floor (which I must admit I had begun the believe might not exist) I was told that the idea of having lifts that don’t stop at every floor had come from America, where in many universities the lifts up and down the tower blocks only stop at every third floor.  The implication clearly was that by having a lift that stopped at every other floor I was getting it easy.

Apparently this was an idea introduced to encourage students to keep taking exercise, and from time to time the authorities would change the floors at which the lifts stopped, as they found that otherwise there would be a flurry of applications from students to change courses, with those that were on the floor where the elevator stopped suddenly becoming much more in demand.

It was also said that the business of making people walk up or down stairs encourages social interaction – it seems that people are afraid to talk in lifts.  This in turn led to the choral society of one part of the University of London putting on three person concerts of very short pieces and performing them in the lifts by way of entertainment.

Unfortunately this led to complaints that the music society members were taking up three places in the lift unnecessarily, thus delaying the arrival of others who now had to wait for the lift to return and then take it and walk up or down a couple of flights of steps.

Telling the music society students to desist, the university then decided to put 20 second adverts on screens in the lifts, which worked ok until a set of adverts encouraging students to take up teaching appeared, each suggesting that after only four years back in the classroom the students could move into management.

No one seemed to realise that this rather contradicted the fundamental message of the teacher recruitment programme by the Department for Education which has stressed the importance of teaching as a career.

It also ignored the fact that a significant part of the crisis that now exists in terms of the number of teachers working in schools declining all the time, is that an ever-growing number of teachers do actually leave after four years.

When challenged on why the number of teachers was actually falling while the number of young people in schools was rising inexorably year on year, the DfE said that it had spent more money on advertising for people to join the profession in the past year than ever before.  Upon being told this was a non sequitur the spokesperson for the Department asked what a non sequitur was.

At this point the spokesperson for the DfE was referred to the Latin Department of University College, but having heard about the fact that it was on a floor that was not serviced by a lift he decided to try to find the answer on line.

He then discovered that there is an on line guide to University College in which a student faces a camera and gives a talk about the work of each department.

Impressed by the coverage the person in charge of teacher recruitment advertising for the DfE sat pondering at the end of the lecture, while still gazing at the screen, and then noticed that the lady who had delivered the talk about the College was still looking straight at the camera, although over a period of a minute or so she started to look bored.

Then to the advertising man’s surprise she started looking around, and for a while seemed to be trying to climb inside the screen itself as if looking for the person who was looking at the video.   As the advertising manager tried ever more frantically to turn the connection off the student looked more and more bored. He clicked his mouse, pressed the bar space, tried control alt delete (always a favourite with advertising executives) and eventually did notice a button on the screen marked “end video”.

A sign then popped up saying, “This video was prepared by the drama department of University College.  It took you 4 minutes 22 seconds to find the “end video” button.  Your reflexes and observational level are rated “extremely poor”, and it is not recommended that you should go into teaching, but rather should proceed straight to management where you will undoubtedly immediately be a whizz.”

The more digital takes over, the more people are fighting back – and the funnier it is getting.

For many people there is nothing more frustrating than the way in which the personal involvement of, well, people, has been replaced by digital.  The world, in short, is becoming automatic, and it probably won’t be long before we can feel a little unwell, sit in front of our computer, be told what is wrong and have a pill forced into our mouth or an injection pushed into an arm, all via a set of digital decisions.

Once such thoughts take hold there is seemingly no end to the areas of life in which those annoying, expensive, and contrary very much non-digital human beings can be pushed out of the way. We’re already told by computer that we were driving at 35mph in a 30mph speed limit.  The machine clicks the speed, another system issues the notice, another recognises the payment of the fine, and another puts the three points on the licence.

Move on from there, and all other offences can be dealt with in the same way. The central justice computer announces you have been accused of murder, a second system tells you that you have been tried by computer and found guilty, and a third locks the doors of your house so you can’t get out.  A small food parcel is put through the letter box (by machine) each day until 30 years later you are let out, probably only to find that civilisation has long since gone.

It all seems fairly horrible – or if you prefer “utterly and extremely frightening” – but at least some people are starting to fight back.

For it appears that there is a new game in town which relates to writing ludicrous reviews of stupid products on Amazon.

Take for example the Tuscan Dairy Whole Vitamin D Milk which has been advertised for a while on the website.  Not only does it have 1890 reviews but it also has over 100 questions submitted, which people then answer.

For example, one person wrote in and said

I see that they sell “Used & New from: $45.00” – How can they sell “Used” Milk? Used as a car wax? Used as a paint thinner, or… something else? 

In another example a reader wrote in and said

If I spill it, can I cry?

And the answer was provided

If you do it is best to cry either next to it or below it. Crying over it is useless.

Readers can then vote on the helpfulness of this answer.  In this case 292 people found it helpful.

One person wrote a 60 line poem about the product which got a wide range of positive commentaries (it is actually extremely well crafted and very droll).

But of course some comments are shorter such as:

Be careful, there is no warning on the label, but this product severely damaged my iPhone when I immersed it.

There are many such commentaries and it seems that entire sub-cultures arise which revolve around certain products, undermining the products credibility, while giving lots of people a laugh and allowing a large number of individuals with incredibly boring jobs to sit at their computers pretending to work while actually doing nothing of the kind.

Take for example the Hutzler 571 Banana Slicer.  This has now become so popular that it has its own link to save you going to the trouble of finding it on Amazon: bit.ly/bananareview

There you will find 3682 positive reviews and one review which over 57,000 (yes 57 thousand) people found positive and helpful.  Although elsewhere there is the complaint that it only works with right curved bananas.

Eventually even the (normally rather serious) New Scientist magazine picked up on this, pointing out that one reviewer claimed the product “saved my marriage” while another said “What can I say about the 571B banana slicer that hasn’t already been said about the wheel, penicillin or the iPhone.”

Personally I think it is quite wonderful that people are beginning to strike back against these totally automated and (obviously) utterly unchecked systems, and have in effect taken them over.

And just to round this off let me offer you this – again from New Scientist which found for us another Amazon product, a book called “How to Avoid Big Ships”, which makes me think that the people having fun are not only the reviewers but also the actual retailers.  Thus raising the possibility that a lot of stuff on Amazon doesn’t actually exist at all.

So person A has a laugh by inventing the product and Person B has a laugh by reviewing it.  Everyone’s having fun.

Here’s one review of the book.  “As the father of two teenagers I found this book invaluable.  I’m sure other parents here can empathize when I say I shudder at the thought of the increasing influence and presence of huge ships in the lives of my children.”

Suddenly I feel the world has become a better place, while resting secure that by and large neither storage nor removal is done by digital machines.


Why you should be extremely cautious if anyone tries to tempt you into the internet of things

One of my customers who is something of an IT whiz loves to regale me with tales of IT disasters.

Now that might seem a little contradictory, but her view is that everyone – or maybe I should say “nearly everyone” – who works in IT, knows perfectly well that by and large digital technology is packed solid with flaws and errors.  “And,” says my customer, “we keep telling everyone but no one listens.”

So, determined as always not to be just part of the herd, I asked for more details, promising as ever a cup of my deliciously brewed and some would say “unique brand” of instant coffee.

Curiously my client declined the offer, but settled down to tell me another outrageous story anyway.

“Digital technology,” she said, picking up her theme, “is imperfect in many regards.  And yet it is sold as being perfect.”

“That is not particularly unusual,” I countered.  “I mean everyone knows that cars break down and have crashes, but we still all expect our cars to work immediately and perfectly every day.  No one allows an extra hour for a journey in case something goes wrong.”

“But at least with cars, we know more or less what sort of things might go wrong,” she countered.  “With digital technology no one imagines what can go wrong.”

That seemed quite a challenging statement, so I demanded an explanation.

“If you were to visit Moscow,” I was told, “and you try to use any satellite navigation system to help you find your way to Red Square you will find you can’t.  For what the local government calls ‘security reasons’ all the satnav systems in the area are blocked.”

“But in that case,” I countered, “I know it is blocked, because it doesn’t work.  That doesn’t seem too different from a car to me.”

“True enough,” said my customer, “but with the car most of the time we know that the worst that can happen is that we can be late.  To stay with satellite navigation there are far worse things that can happen.

“If your satnav stops working, that’s that – you know at once.  But if it starts giving you false information and sending you to the wrong place, that can be more frustrating.  If it sends you over a cliff, or along a road that has been mined, that is rather more disastrous.  In the past six months we’ve seen about 100 ships being sent dangerously close to a rock strewn shoreline when they thought they were in a safe navigable channel.  The satnavs had been hacked.”

“OK,” I agreed, “hacking satellite navigation is dangerous.  But most of the internet of things is about everyday objects that don’t have life threatening effects.”

“You mean like your electrical appliances and the fact that you can switch them on to brew you a wonderful cup of … er… instant coffee so that it is ready just as you walk in the door.  Of course I understand that view, and I investigated one such two months ago.

“It was a system that allows you to set things up in your house when you are not there – like pulling the curtains, letting the cat in and providing cat food, and indeed turning on the kettle.

“When I did my review I found that it was all set to allow control via an app which worked through Bluetooth.  It had within it an unchangeable access code of 0000.  Meaning anyone with basic IT knowledge can enter the system and do anything from overfeed the cat to set the house on fire by keeping kettles boiling long after the water has run out.

I agreed this sounded worrying, but my customer was by no means finished.

“I wrote to the company selling the system three times to tell them of the fault – they have never replied and they are still selling the system with the same 0000 code.  But in the latest edition it now also includes the option of having an electronic key to the front and back doors so that when you pull up outside and then lock your car, the front door is simultaneously unlocked, so you don’t have to fiddle with the key while holding the stuff you have just unloaded from the car.

“Anyone can hack it in about three seconds, and thus gain total access to your house, immobilise the burglar alarm, steal anything they want, and should they wish, have a cup of coffee.

“That is why I keep copies of paper documents in the Admiral warehouse, even though I have them on two computers.  There is a chance that your warehouse might be sitting on top of a long forgotten volcano and I might lose my documents – but that is about a 1 in 100 million chance which is similar to the earth being struck by an asteroid similar to the one that killed the dinosaurs.

“There is a chance that my computer will be hacked and my documents corrupted.  That is about one in 100 even with all the security I have. Yours is the best back up option.”

I pondered my customer’s words for several moments, sipping my instant (not digitised) coffee made with water from a regular (not IT of Things) kettle.   Eventually I asked, “Would you like to write adverts for me?”

“No,” she replied, “but you can use this conversation on that blog of yours if you like.”

How we need to get back to the diet of the Stone Age ‘cos that’s how we’re meant to be

I have a friend who is getting on a bit and is in fact retired, but who, despite this, is rather annoyingly fit.  He’s not amazingly slim, but just seems to look rather well for his age.  What’s more, he’s quite active – going for a fair number of walks, swimming regularly, and doing a spot of yoga too.

He told me an interesting story recently about the way other people respond to his fitness and his lifestyle.

“They seem to be desperately trying to tell me that I am not fit, not all right, and indeed quite likely to be rushed off to hospital tomorrow,” he said.  “If they ever ask me what I do to stay fit, I tell them, and then they give me a long lecture on how this is not the right thing to do.”

Now the interesting point in all this is that my chum doesn’t follow any particular diet plan or any regulation activity regime.  He’s not a smoker, but he does partake of alcohol, he likes his puddings and is known occasionally to consume chocolate, custard, ice creams and so on.

Recently, in desperation, one of his friends tried to find a sure-fire reason why, despite looking ok and not having any known illnesses that are likely to knock him down in the next couple of hours, he really shouldn’t be too pleased with himself.

“I didn’t know I was pleased with myself,” he told me, “but apparently I seem to give that impression – which is something I am going to have to stop.”

“But what were you told to do in order to stay alive?” I asked.

“Well,” he replied, “I was basically told to eat like a caveman.  All this modern-day food I was consuming was wrong for me, because the human digestive systems have not changed since the stone age, so I should have a more stone age diet.”

“You mean like more stones?” I asked frivolously.  It earned me a scornful look.

“Our bodies were not built for sitting around all day, and having cooked apples and custard apparently.”

“I find that hard to believe,” I replied, but then seeing the look once more decided not to press the point.

“We were built for running away from big animals, hunting down little animals, and gathering up fruit and veg,” I was told.  “Since we are still the same sort of homo sapiens as our stone age ancestors, we ought to eat the same as they did.”

“And go hunting cats and dogs?” I asked.

“Quite possibly,” he said, “but I think that bit is not obligatory. The main point is not to be sitting around at computers all day. We have changed too quickly for our genes, and they can’t catch up with us, so our genetic makeup and our food intake is all out of balance.”

“So what should you eat?” I asked.

“Not just me,” he said, “all of us.  We should all be eating nuts, vegetables, game, fish and fruit.  Get rid of the grains and the dairy.  No more milk.”

“That’s all right,” I said, “I quite like black coffee,” but his scowl told me I was still not taking this as seriously as I should be.

But he changed direction.  “You’re quite right to mock though, we have evolved,” he said. “We didn’t start drinking milk in gallons overnight, and gradually our systems have developed so that we can. That is part of natural evolution – as long as there is enough time available, life forms change their diet to suit whatever there is around.”

“So we shouldn’t try to eat what the cavemen ate?” I asked, proffering a biscuit and deciding that I could give myself some milk in the coffee.  I’d lied about liking it black.

“Trouble is, we don’t really know what cavemen actually ate.  The few bits of evidence we have seem to suggest that different cavemen in different parts of Europe ate different things.”

“So you mean they might have had Cornish pasties in Cornwall, but Yorkshire puddings up north.,” I ventured.

“I still don’t think you are taking this seriously,” he replied and we decided that yes, as there was nothing particularly pressing to do, a second biscuit would be most satisfactory.

How the naming of things has become such a curious adventure.

There is a view of the world that says you can judge what sort of environment you are in by the names of the public houses that appear across the landscape.

This is not to say that I encourage people to go around sampling the wares, nor do I wish anyone to drive dangerously while peering out at passing public house signs, but still, it is a fascinating topic, as I hope to show in the next few lines.

For example, I read recently that in the town of Billingham in County Durham there are pubs called The Astronaut and The Telstar.

As you may (or indeed may not, depending on your generation) know, Telstar was the name given to a fairly early set of communication satellites launched in 1962.  Apparently both Telstar 1 and Telstar 2 are still floating around the earth, but neither work anymore as is the habit of technological devices.

Telstar was also a piece of pop music (I use the term “music” in its loosest form at this point) originally recorded by the Ventures, and then by the Spotniks (don’t blame me for these names) and then by the Tornados who in true popular music fashion released an album after the earlier versions of the song were released called “The Original Telstar”.

In contrast I recall a public house in Dorset called “The World’s End” for reasons which never became apparent, and in Portsmouth there is one called the “Jolly Taxpayer”.  I think someone’s imagination was getting carried away at that point.

Staying in the south there is the The Nobody Inn, in Doddiscombsleigh, in Devon – a town which ought to have a prize for its own name, let alone the pub.  While moving north we might find the Bunch Of Carrots in Hampton Bishop, Hereford.

The appallingly sexist The Quiet Woman, in Earl Sterndale, Buxton has a picture of a lady carrying a tray but without a head, and we should undoubtedly move on rapidly from there to perhaps the longest (although I am sure I am right to say “perhaps” because there’s bound to be an exception) pub name which is the The Old Thirteenth Cheshire Astley Volunteer Rifleman Corps Inn, which is to be found in Stalybridge.

However, I personally have had a liking for the bizarre such as “The Case Is Altered” in Pinner which reminds me of “The Bull And Spectacles” in Blithbury, Staffordshire which was originally called The Bull.  I think someone was just trying to grab attention.

Anyway, all of these seem to be supplanted now by the Octagonal Pine Cube, a public house that appears to offer a mix of the traditional and exotic.  Not to mention the downright impossible.

Moving back from the pub to the satellite, I wondered what satellites were called these days, and was disappointed to see that most were named after scientists – which of course is fine as a tribute, but not really imaginative.

Israel has named some satellites after old testament prophets (they have a communication satellite called Amos, for example) and China celebrates its philosophical heritage with Mozi hao named after Mo Di the philosopher who lived from 470BC to 391BC.  Sadly I am not knowledgeable enough to tell you what he philosophised, but I am sure you can find out via Google.

Mexico has a satellite named Morelos after the revolutionary Jose Maria Morelos, which seems rather apt.  But I do particularly like the fact that some of the great science fiction writers of the past now are in space, as with the satellites Jules Verne and Lem, the latter named after Stanislaw Lem – who was one of the first writers of sci-fi humour as well as the very non-humorous Solaris.

Recently, however  the Galileo satellites have been named after competition winners which has made a nice change.  I wonder if pubs have ever thought of doing this – run a competition and have the pub named after the winner for a year.  If you ever see this happening remember you read the idea here first.

If pub owners don’t do that I fear that the suggestion that turned up recently in New Scientist magazine of a pub called the iPhone and Dongle might well come to pass.   A pub in which, I presume, no one ever talks to anyone face to face.  It would then presumably become known locally as The World’s End.

New Scientist did, however, do us the service of finding a few other pubs which have been named after scientists coming up rather interestingly with Sir Richard Owen, the naturalist who is remembered for creating the word Dinosauria.

Actually from what I recall Owen was himself something of a “Fearful Great Reptile” (as Dinosauria means) whose work led to the creation of the Natural History Museum, an institution which changed the perception of what museums could be.

Trouble was he had a nasty temper and was always rowing with other scientists, so his popularity was never high.

But still, he’s had a pub named after him, which is, I guess, more than most of us have.

I wonder if anyone has ever thought of naming a pub “The Admiral”.

Why is it that schools won’t teach things that are valuable to us as individuals and to our society as a whole?

While reading the news on line today I saw one of those annoying pop ups that invited me to do a quiz.  In this case it was a science quiz, highlighted by the fact that 98% of adults could not pass this basic science quiz.

Now, because in my job I find it helpful to be able to chat to people about what it is that they are storing in the Admiral Storage Facility, I do like to keep abreast with the news and current affairs and everyday information.

And so, although I had better things to do with my time, I had a go at the quiz and found it to be of the type that asks, “which one of these elements is not a gas at room temperature?” which I suppose is ok, but really not particularly relevant to anything. One might be expected to know that if one deals with such matters in one’s day to day life, but otherwise… does it matter?  (The answer to the question is at the end if you are interested).

I was still pondering on that when the next question came up which asked which of the following four was not a sign of the Zodiac.  The options were Cancer, Capricorn, Aquarius, and Socrates.  The answer, of course, is Socrates who was a Greek philosopher, but my point suddenly was that I was supposed to be doing a science quiz, and here was a question about astrology.

Now I do know that the Zodiac is based on stars in the sky, (the sky within about 8° either side of the ecliptic if you really want to be technical) and so in one sense they are part of astronomy, but no astronomer I have come across ever uses the Zodiac as part of his or her work.

So that raised an issue for me.  If the quiz masters were confusing issues relating to astrology and science, what right did that give them to tell me if I would fail the test or not.

Then I realised there were two other issues within the test: I had no idea how many questions there were in it, nor what the pass mark was.  It was all getting very vague; a badly set quiz that apparently only 2% of adults could pass and which was testing knowledge which was irrelevant and not actually scientific – and here I was doing it.

At that point I stopped, and instead of doing the quiz started to ask myself questions about knowledge.  Such as what sort of knowledge was helpful to my life?

Is it helpful to know what to do if one gets acid on one’s skin?  Yes.  Is it helpful to know which planet out of Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto is the farthest from the sun?  Not really, unless one has a fascination with outer solar system.  I’ll give you the answer at the end as well in case you are interested.

Anyway this led me to wonder just how much we are taught in schools is actually helpful.  Which instantly led to another thought.

I recently read that tragically around half the people over 65 in our society say the television is their main source of company and classify themselves as lonely.

Now loneliness is not just an annoying thing to be avoided, it is in fact an awful psychological illness – normally described in medical terms as the feeling of social isolation.  And this is something we can all easily get because our whole makeup makes us predisposed to be gregarious.  We really do feel it when we perceive ourselves to be lonely.

In fact when we stop being social and feel lonely the brain changes, but tragically instead of these changes making us feel ok about being lonely the reverse happens.  This was originally a survival instinct to force us into behaviour that makes us go out and seek others, so our loneliness is overcome.  But our society today makes that harder to achieve.

Now in the modern world this often can’t happen – imagine a stranger approaching you asking to be your friend.  You might respond positively but more likely you would back away, perhaps even being concerned about their mental state.

But the effects of loneliness are both physical and psychological, and the result is as detrimental to a long and fulsome life as smoking, obesity, and constant excessive alcohol intake.  It lowers both willpower and resistance to illness so that people who feel lonely are at heightened risk of all major chronic illnesses: heart attacks, cancer… the lot.

However… there is a twist.  It is not a case of not being around other people that is the issue – it is the feeling that one is missing out on what everyone else is doing that is the problem.  Often known as “Saturday Night Syndrome”, it is the feeling that the rest of the world is out partying on a Saturday night and I am the only poor fool left sitting at home watching ITV.  In fact, of course, most people are not out partying on Saturday night – but it is the perception that one is separated from the mainstream that is the danger.

So the solution – which would save billions of pounds on our NHS bills every year and make people a lot happier – would be to teach people about loneliness and how to avoid feeling lonely.

But, I thought, as I turned away from the very silly science test that distracted me, who learns about loneliness and how to avoid it at school?  No one.

Lots of knowledge is valuable if you are engaged in a field of work where it is needed, but knowing which is the only element that is liquid at room temperature is not very helpful to most of us.  Knowing how to avoid the catastrophic illness of loneliness in old age is important.  But tragically, no one is being taught.

I wonder why.

And as for that question about the further planet from the sun, that is Neptune, because although Pluto spends most of its time (although not all of it) further away from the Sun than Neptune, Pluto is no longer classified as a planet.  And the metal that is liquid at room temperature is mercury.

The destruction of Western Civilisation and what I am doing to help it along.

For myself, as a person who grew up without social media, I must say I find the whole thing a bit odd.

Odd in the sense that last week I was sitting in my office observing a customer who was bringing some items into storage and seemingly checking messages on his phone at the same time.

It was not a very efficient way of operating in my estimation for if my customer had simply put his phone away for a few minutes and dealt with the storage he could then have gone back to his phone and dealt with the messages.  But no, each time there was a buzz on the phone, he stopped, put things down, and attended to the phone.

Now what made me particularly interested was the fact that a sort of scowl passed over my customer’s face each time the phone buzzed, as if he was annoyed at the interruption.  And I have noticed this with other people.

But my contention is that there is rarely any reason for anyone to look at every message that comes in, as it comes in. If something is really important, then again in my experience, a person will make an actual telephone call.

Yet phones now seem to have taken over life.  I recall one occasion in which I employed a young lady in the office only to find that she worked with her phone on the desk, and messages that came in to her were dealt with ahead of the work she was being paid to do.

I tried to be reasonable and ask her not to interrupt her work in order to deal with incoming phone messages but this didn’t have any effect, and I was forced to “let her go”, as they say, after I overheard her say to a customer on the phone “hold on a moment” as she fiddled to pick up her mobile and type a reply to a message.

I was quite sure that I had just picked what we used to call “a bad ‘un” and so immediately asked the lady to leave our employment, and a few days later held interviews for a new office assistant.

At this point I realised that I was not quite seeing the world in its full modern reality when a lady I was interviewing picked up her phone during the interview to look at an incoming message.

Puzzled by all this odd behaviour I then decided to sign up to Facebook myself – not because I felt it might be beneficial to me, but rather because I wanted to learn about this monstrous outrage that was (quite clearly) destroying western civilisation – or at least western civility.

Of course, it takes a little while to get into any new form of technology, but with the help of a couple of 8 year old nephews I managed to get started and soon built up a network of friends, most of whom I didn’t know.

What struck me as I started to read, is that there are many more negative comments than positive on social media, and that people by and large find it hard to:

a)      Pay genuine compliments to others (other than saying thank you occasionally for something the other person has done for the writer)

b)      Talk about anything other than that which they are doing.

Facebook also seems to me to have become the repository of opinion without any evidence to back it up.  A person says, “I find the shop assistants in Marks and Spencer very rude” and another replies, “I find them very helpful”, and I am left thinking, “what benefit has any of us gained by that exchange?”

Indeed, I can’t see how the two protagonists would have gained anything from the exchange if they were sitting opposite each other in a coffee bar – but to share it with all their on-line friends too… what is the point?

Over lunch I discussed this with a colleague who is of a similar mindset to myself, and, in the way that old chums do on occasion, we asked each other where all this would end.

We saw two outcomes.  In one, Facebook would replace the real world, and all life and living would take place on line.  In the other, Facebook would break down, be hacked or be subject to a terror attack, and everyone would be left without it.

My thought was that in this second scenario most people would then be left walking around aimlessly looking at their phones and occasionally pressing buttons in the vague hope that something might happen.

“That sounds like a film script,” said my friend.  “Facebook Apocalypse”.

I think we may be on to something.