Archive for the ‘100 Interesting Things’ Category

100 Interesting Things: #6 Swedish

March 6, 2010

Swedish is a great language. It is really hard to learn, and the Swedes are very unforgiving when it comes to pronunciation. It has vowel sounds in it that, as a native English speaker, are impossible to master. They maintain, though I don’t believe it, that their “o” and “u” sounds are completely different, but they both sound like “oo” to me.

They put the “the” after the noun, which is freaky. “The dog” is “hunden” and “the car” is “bilen”. They have two genders “en” and “ett”, both neuter. For some reason “ett” is only used in 15% of cases (“a child” is “ett barn”).

Anyway, here is a (quite) funny introduction to swedish on you tube.

Another cute quirk of Swedish is that they have some very specific words that fit just right, “lagom”, for example, means “just right” – not too much and not too little. If you are feeling healthy and ready to go, you are “pigg”. Then, for swedes, morning, afternoon and evening are not enough for them, they also have a “förmiddag”, which is the (imaginary) time between morning and afternoon. Then of course there is the verb, “fika”, which means “to coffee and cake”. “Sambo” is very useful, because it means “the person who I live with but am not married to”, which means 50 year-old unmarrieds don’t have to disgustingly refer to each other as boyfriend and girlfriend. Another sign of the swedish practicality, is that they have a word for both the grandma on yer mother’s side, and yer father’s side – “mormor” for maternal and “farmor” for paternal.

But the best thing about Swedish is that the words are so earthy and literal. Here are some examples:

English Word Swedish Word Literal English
nipple bröstvårt boob wart
vegetables grönsaker green things
gum tandkött tooth meat
mormor maternal grandmother mothermother
turd bäjskorv poo sausage

100 Interesting Things: #5 Time

March 1, 2010

The Law of Conscious Relativity states that time slows down when you’re at the dentist and speeds up when you’re doing a Sudoku.

Einstein knew time as the fourth dimension, after the three spacial dimensions. Try this: a body, motionless in space, is moving through time at the speed of light. Move the body in space and it will move a little “slower” through time. As the body goes faster through space, time, relative to it, slows down. Of course, this raises more questions than it answers about relativity, but I find it a nice way to visualise the screwyness of how time slows for fast moving “bodies”, i.e. movement just “borrows” a little from the arrow of time.

Anyway, the only reason we are so puzzled by time is because our thinking processes and general experience is intertwined with it. We experience time passing at a certain speed (according to the Law of Conscious Relativity 🙂 ) because our brain itself is a clock. Our experience corresponds to the speed it ticks in much the same way as the number of calculations a computer can do in a second corresponds to how fast its clock ticks. (My old ZX Spectrum went at 50 ticks per second, and could therefore do 50 operations per second).

Our brains are record players spinning at a certain rate through time. The record is the outside world. The stylus is our consciousness, our “present”. We sleep when the tone arm lifts.

100 Interesting Things: #4 Dreams

February 21, 2010

Dreams are another of the great unknowns. Sometimes ones own dream can be the most exciting and interesting thing, although can bore the pants off the person you tell it to. I might do that to you in a minute when I describe one of my recurring dreams.

I am going to skip the research and the encyclopaedic regurgitation of facts, which you can read here. I’ll go straight to my own musings, which is what self indulgent blogging is all about.

Have you ever “woken up”, so that you are left in a conscious, though a definitely not normal state, where, when you close your eyes, you see patterns that you are not consciously controlling? Patterns which, could have been generated by a computer (like the Mac OS screen saver Electric Sheep) and change and evolve constantly. Shapes swiftly morph into other shapes, in full colour on a black background. This is a strange state to be in because you can literally just lie there and enjoy the show that your brain, and not you, is controlling.

One important property of this introverted light show is that the shapes are most definitely fractals, and as the observer you have the power (or the illusion of it) to zoom in and out of the patterns. The definition of the “image” is enormous, we’re talking HD TV x 100. There is no blurring. The image is perfect.

I have had this experience enough times to know that it was not a dream itself. I have pinched myself and am sure it was a “real” experience. My theory is that, when we sleep, our brains are creating fractal images all the time in our “mind’s eye”, or the screen on which, while awake, the real world is projected from our eye-balls. I don’t know why the brain does this, but it must do it because I’ve seen it. The interesting thing is that I think the patterns, generated by one part of the brain, cause the dreams in another part. The unconscious dreaming brain is forced to look at the screen, as it is always forced to look at the screen, day and night. The screen is the source of input to the part of the brain that thinks while we’re awake and dreams while we’re asleep. This part of the brain cannot help but “look” at the screen and have it search for and manipulate mental symbols (we know the manipulation of our own mental symbols as “experience”), and thus, dreams are created and pushed hither and thither by the randomness of the patterns on the “screen”.

That’s it really, except that I was wondering if anyone out there can tell me why I have the following recurring dream: I am back at school studying for my A-levels (I am now 33 years old BTW) and time is running out. The exam is imminent but I have not been to a single Maths class, and I know that there is no way on Earth I can pass it. The dream seems to go on for ages and is quite unpleasant. Why do we so often dream about the past? Or is it just me?

100 Interesting Things: #3 Death

February 13, 2010

There are almost 7 billion people in the world and in 100 years 99.9% of them will be dead. That’s the great thing about death, for the time being at least, it happens to everyone. However, no-one has a clue what happens afterwards. Of course, for the dead, there is no “afterwards”. The brain, which ticks like a clock during life, stops ticking at the moment of death, stopping time for the brain’s owner.

All religious beliefs assume the continuity of the soul through time. Christians believe the soul goes on to heaven or hell. Buddhists believe in reincarnation, and I think they assume that the new animal will live on earth after the old animal in terms of Earth time.

Nietzsche wrote about the concept of Eternal Return whereby every “soul” on Earth is doomed to live their lives over and over again. We’re not talking about Groundhog Day here, where you get endless chances to make things better. We’re talking the same identical life recurring infinitely. I’m not sure if Nietzsche intended it, but this concept highlights the absurdity of “soul”: because there is exactly zero difference between living the same life infinite times, and living it once. Just like “Howard the Duck” on DVD , it doesn’t matter how many times it’s watched, it’s still a shit movie.

We have to get used to the idea that there is no soul, and there is nothing for us to experience after death, but at the same time, it’s ok. Our lives are self-contained atomic units, like a painting or a movie. When we think about lives like JFK, Marilyn Monroe, or Michael Jackson we kind of accept this, but it is true for all of us, as well as the pet dogs we owned as children. Look up JFK on Wikipedia and you’ll see something like:

John Fitzgerald "Jack" Kennedy (May 29, 1917 – November 22, 1963), often 
referred to by his initials JFK was the 35th  President of the...

The entity JFK starts in 1917 and ends in 1963. There is no JFK outside those limits… He’s dead.

100 Interesting Things: #2 Synesthesia

January 28, 2010

Synesthesia is a strange condition where the brain mixes up the senses. There are different kinds, the most commonly known is where people think that certain letters and numbers have certain colours. Obviously, letters and numbers are abstract concepts and do not have a colour, but synesthetes think they do, so there must be something funny going on in their brains right?

A more interesting form is where people actually think that letters or numbers have personalities. Like, they actually think that the letter “G” is a bitter grumpy old man who hits children with his walking stick, or like the number “4” is a kind and generous man in his thirties resembling Jesus.

Synesthesia can go beyond being best mates with the alphabet, and can be traced in, on the face of it illogical, simile and metaphors, like “bitter wind” or “sexy car” or “ignoble baboon”.

I have a form of the condition, which was “worse” during my childhood. I always had the sense that certain letters and digits were either male or female. I am not as sure about the sexes of all the letters as I used to be but here are the current standings:

A:female  B:male    C:female  D:male    E:female
F:female  G:male    H:female  I:female  J:female
K:female  L:female  M:female  N:female  O:male
P:female  Q:male    R:male    S:male    T:male
U:female  V:female  W:female  X:female  Y:male
Z:male
1:male    2:male    3:female  4:male    5:female
6:male    7:female  8:male    9:female  10:male

It is only the small numbers who have gender though. I’m not sure what 17288 is. On second thoughts 17288 is obviously female…

The idea that synesthesia is a “condition” is bollocks. I’m gonna go out on a limb here and state that everyone has this to one degree or another. Surely everyone agrees that R, S and T are male, right?

Synesthesia is one of those phenomena that will one day help us to crack the mysteries of the brain because it must give some clues as to how the brain is wired up, or to the computer scientists among us, how the brain is implemented. It probably means that the brain stores information in some unintuitive way. I.e. the brain groups things together in ways that do not match what we see at the everyday level.

100 Interesting Things: #1 Eclipses

January 26, 2010

Eclipses come in different kinds. Sometimes the moon appears bigger than the sun and it’s called a total eclipse, and sometimes it appears smaller and then it ain’t quite so spectacular. That’s an annular eclipse. Then there’s another kind when the total part of the shadow of the moon on the earth misses and the rest of the shadow grazes the earth causing a partial eclipse. Other important words are Umbra and Penumbra. Umbra is the total part of the shadow and penumbra is the partial part.

Eclipses are special because they remind us that the Universe is in charge and not the stock market. They tell us that there is something that exists more important than Tom Cruise‘s pants.

One of my favourite usages of an Eclipse as a narrative device is in Herge’s “Prisoners of the Sun“. Tintin, Calculus and Haddock are in deep shit because they have been captured by an Inca tribe. As a quirky bonus they are allowed to choose the exact date and time of their execution. Tintin happens to learn of a total eclipse due to pass over them within weeks and chooses that particular moment. When the three of them are tied to their stakes on which they will be burned to death, Tintin starts pretending he is summoning the Gods to punish the Incas. They fall for his game and release them immediately thinking Tintin’s some kind of god.

The last total eclipse to pass over England was on August 11th 1999. I was in Cardiff at the time and we only got about 80% of the eclipse. It was a really strange light, like nothing else. It was not like dawn or dusk because it was too bright somehow because the sun was still shining, just very weakly. Neither was it like cloudiness, because then the light is bounced around by the cloud giving a much softer, though equally dim effect. I can only describe it as though someone had switched the sun for an eco-sun with a much lower wattage. It was quite an unpleasant dimness, a dimness you might expect from a sun millions of years in the future when it’s on its last legs.