Nominative predeterminism?

Story in today’s Guardian: “Let’s fix Britain’s drinking problem” by Stephen Ginn.

I have nothing more to say.


September 11, 2009 at 12:28 pm Leave a comment

Sex sells, even to gardeners

I recently bought a little pot plant for my office, which is now sitting on my window sill, slowly dying in all likelihood. There’s no label on it, so I have no idea what it is. I decided to start googling for pictures of houseplants, thinking I’d recognise it visually. And then I stumbled upon “The Nursery at TyTy“. Like many garden centre websites, it has many pictures of flowers, plants, bushes – all lovingly described to help the customer make their purchase. For example, we are told:

The Domestic Nandina works well as as evergreen line of shrubs that always show berry colors of red or fragrant flower colors of white displayed on delicate lace-like, medium green leaves that constantly move in a breeze. Nandina’s size is 6 to 8 ft. tall, but only 3 feet wide, meaning it works well in narrow spaces.

Fine. But the picture to accompany this? Well, it (and more) is below the link.


August 19, 2009 at 11:50 am 1 comment

Stalked by a bridge

I just got an email telling me that “London Bridge is now following you”. To be honest, there have been late-night walks across London when I’ve half-believed that unseen eyes are watching me, that someone’s lurking in *that* shadow *there* – “Come out come out, whoever you are!” I’ve wanted to shout, like Holly Martins after a few drinks. (CLOSE SHOT – KITTEN).

Anyway, turns out it’s just a Twitter update. The 21st Century is indeed “a very strange place“.

August 18, 2009 at 11:43 am Leave a comment

Mis-reading headlines

Reading can be seen as a special type of visual perception. When we read a piece of text, our eye produces only a fairly low-quality images, skipping over or blurring many letters and even whole words. Our brains, magnificent machines that they are, then fill in those gaps and use our prior knowledge to make a good estimate of what we’re actually reading. The same thing happens with vision in general, the whole time: our brain is filling in the gaps, and hypothesising about how the world must be arranged in order to produce the current percept. Anyway…

When things go wrong, and we mis-read something, our brain usually replaces one word with another that (at least at a grammatical level) makes sense, and (at a purely visual level) looks similar. Hence my mis-reading of a headine in today’s Guardian. I read it as:

Scouse arrested after Iranian protest

and I thought a) why is the Guardian using the word “scouse” which is slang at best, and derogatory at worst? And b) why is some Mersey-sider getting especially involved in Iran? But then the rest of my brain kicked in, my eye skipped back to the more prosaic truth:

Scores arrested after Iranian protest

And suddenly the world makes sense again, even as it becomes a little sadder.

July 31, 2009 at 11:32 am Leave a comment

Beware the spinal trap

This is an edited version of an article published in The Guardian for which Singh is being personally sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association. See Sense About Science for more details.


Some practitioners claim it is a cure-all, but the research suggests chiropractic therapy has mixed results – and can even be lethal, says Simon Singh.

You might be surprised to know that the founder of chiropractic therapy, Daniel David Palmer, wrote that “99% of all diseases are caused by displaced vertebrae”. In the 1860s, Palmer began to develop his theory that the spine was involved in almost every illness because the spinal cord connects the brain to the rest of the body. Therefore any misalignment could cause a problem in distant parts of the body.

In fact, Palmer’s first chiropractic intervention supposedly cured a man who had been profoundly deaf for 17 years. His second treatment was equally strange, because he claimed that he treated a patient with heart trouble by correcting a displaced vertebra.

You might think that modern chiropractors restrict themselves to treating back problems, but in fact some still possess quite wacky ideas. The fundamentalists argue that they can cure anything, including helping treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying – even though there is not a jot of evidence.

I can confidently label these assertions as utter nonsense [Singh originally wrote “bogus” – the word of contention in the libel case it seems –  DC.] because I have co-authored a book about alternative medicine with the world’s first professor of complementary medicine, Edzard Ernst. He learned chiropractic techniques himself and used them as a doctor. This is when he began to see the need for some critical evaluation. Among other projects, he examined the evidence from 70 trials exploring the benefits of chiropractic therapy in conditions unrelated to the back. He found no evidence to suggest that chiropractors could treat any such conditions. (more…)

July 30, 2009 at 10:45 am Leave a comment

A giant octopus wandering through the forest

I’m trying to resist the urge to spend hours browsing through TVTropes – yet another time-sucking marvel of the digital age. Then I saw this quote, and found another film I simply have to see:

At the end of the Japanese version of Frankenstein Conquers the World…  the monster gets randomly attacked by a giant octopus wandering through the forest.

And checking the IMDB, I see the film has a bewildering array of alternative titles, including:

Frankenstein Conquers the World
Frankenstein Meets the Giant Devil Fish
Frankenstein and the Giant Lizard
Frankenstein vs. Baragon

A sure sign of a quality film!

July 20, 2009 at 4:13 pm Leave a comment


I just took the practice UK citizenship test online. I’d heard that some parts of it a bit trivial and far-removed from everyday life (e.g. questions how many days schools must be open for, or what year divorce laws were reformed). Still, I thought that a) I’m a well-read British citizen, and b) I enjoy pub-quizzes. So how hard can it be?

My citizenship test result

My citizenship test result

Final score: 50%. Fail. I think the pass mark is 75%, so I wasn’t even close.

Well, I’ve failed exams before, so no biggy, but I was surprised to find that the offical guidebooks for citizenship and for the test itself are for sale by the Stationery Office. For some reason, I’d have thought that that kind of advice would be free, like a government leaflet. I suppose £6-17 is not too much extra to pay if you’re serious about gaining citizenship, but I am curious to know how much help is given in those books.

I’m also mildly surprised by the 45 minute time limit. There’s 24 questions, all multiple-choice. Even if you’re a slow reader with English as your second/third/fourth language, it can’t take that long. There’s nothing to work out – either you know where the EU parliament meets or you don’t.

Perhaps everyone should be given citizenship tests for every country in the world, and then sent to live in which ever country they get the highest score in. Do I know more about US citizenship than UK? Or French maybe? Mais non…

July 13, 2009 at 4:19 pm Leave a comment

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