Flashback: Nostradamus and Y2K

1 07 2012

I admit this has little to do with the topic at hand but is such a cool photo I thought I’d put it up anyway! Think of it as a photo of planes NOT dropping out of the sky. Read on for more…
photo credit: licensed under Creative Commons from Beverly & Pack

Growing up in the latter part of the twentieth century, the year 2000 loomed large. It didn’t help that famed soothsayer and bane of the Spanish Inquisition, Nostradamus had predicted the end of the world in the year 2000.

Yes, way before the Mayan calendar, Harold Campling and unnumbered apocalyptic suicide cults, we worried that a middle-ages apothecary and reputed seer had predicted our demise in his obscure and vague quatrains. After all, the year 2000 was a nice round number, some Christian sects felt that God had given us two millennia to get our act together and was probably losing patience with our lack of progress. And if you looked hard enough, with enough confirmation bias, signs of impending cosmic doom could be spotted (fall of the Berlin wall in 1990 symbolised the coming-together of Europe etc).

Spoiler Alert! Earth survived.

However, even for those not prone to flights of fantasy, there was another impending doom associated with this date: the Y2K bug.

This was going to end our (increasingly computer-dependent) lives as we knew them. So the story was this. Apparently computer programmers in the late 1980s and 1990s didn’t realise that the year 2000 was coming. Seriously. It snuck up when no one was looking and all the computers that had a date in their programming were going to stop working. At least that was their story.

Planes were going to drop out of the sky. Water filtration and pumping was going to fail leaving cities to die. Banking systems would crash. Medical life-support machines would expire. And worst of all, having recently come out of the cold war, missile “defence” systems would malfunction and cause world war three, the nuclear version. Truly apocalyptic.

We responded in the normal rational way we humans always react. People stockpiled water, canned goods and medicines. Some built underground bunkers. Some left the cities or holidayed in the country at the fateful time. Staff were trained, emergency plans were formulated and put in place, back-up communication systems were tested, generators were on stand-by. People stayed at work overnight “just in case”. Computer programmers no doubt found themselves in great demand – job creation, perhaps?

Midnight New Year’s Eve came and went with the usual fireworks and sense of disappointment.

Nothing. No-thing. Not-a-thing. Nothing happened.

We all went back to our lives with a sense of mild embarrassment alleviated only by our commonality with others. If they didn’t mention it, we wouldn’t either. What to do with casks of water? Gradually the canned supplies dwindled away and we moved on with our lives. The only issue that remained was whether the new millennia started in 2000 or 2001. And really, who cared?

All in all, the 30 June 2012 leap second caused more drama, bringing down the airline booking system in Australia, Reddit, Linked In, Gawker, Foursquare and Yelp. Again one assumes the computer programmers didn’t know about leap seconds. There have only been 25 since 1972.

So when the Mayans (or latter-day crackpots) predict the end of the world – well, some of us have seen it all before.

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Did you sleep well?

1 07 2012

Did you wake this morning feeling especially rested? Or did you toss and turn all night wondering why the night was taking so long?

Either way, you were right. Last night we had an extra-long night (30 June 2012), thanks to a leap second.

Yes, our official time (courtesy of the atomic clock which measures time via atomic vibrations) gets slightly out of synch with “real” (solar) time, by which I mean the natural time set by the rotation of the earth around the sun. Again, the moon is at fault; the tidal surges, waxes and wanes are causing a slight slowing and wobbling of the earth’s rotation. Hadn’t you noticed the wobbles?

We could adjust the length of the unit we call a second to account for this, a minuscule lengthening. But then counting “one-hippopotamus, two-hippopotamus” etc might not work so well. And it’s not even regular about how often the atomic clock needs adjusting. It has been adjusted 25 times since such accurate time measurement began in 1972. The first year saw two leap seconds (June 30 and December 30), followed by seven years of one second per year. The last three adjustments were 1998, 2005 and 2008.

So instead we wait until a whole second has accumulated and add a leap second, just as we add a leap year, thereby adjusting our inflexible human system of measuring time to the mutable system that exists in nature.

And so we got an extra second last night, to sleep, toss and turn, or party, whatever you happened to be doing at 11:59:60 last night, which fell between 11:59:59 and 12:00:00 (midnight at the International Dateline).

Hope you enjoyed it! And if you wasted it, don’t worry another one is sure to come along sooner or later!

UPDATE: Latebreaking news! While the Y2K bug turned out to be a fizzer, the leap-second has actually had consequences! For those who are too young to remember the Y2K bug, this was the predicted beginning of the apocalypse caused because computer programmes in the 1980s and 1990s apparently didn’t have the forethought to realise that eventually in the not too distant future, computers with a clock in their functioning would need to click over from 19XX to 20XX. People (who would now be called preppers) stocked up on water supplies and canned goods and built underground bunkers. Planes were going to drop out of the sky. Nothing happened. Complete fizzer.

The leap second on the other hand has managed to bring down the airport check-in system at Australian airports, resulting in airline staff having to check in passengers and luggage by hand, delayed flights and lots of irritable grumpy passengers. Also reportedly brought down, Reddit, Gawker, LinkedIn, Yelp and Foursquare. And according to news reports, this is because the computer couldn’t cope with the leap second (which was 9:59:60 in Australia EST).

Have you heard of any other effects?

Want more? Try…
Why the moon rules your life and..
Lunar-tics





Why the moon rules your life

29 06 2012

I do not believe in astrology, particularly the sort published in newspapers and popular magazines. I do not believe that constellations of burning gases billions of light years away, so far that no human can ever make the journey from earth to these constellations in one lifetime, can possibly rule my life, let alone give me a commonality with 1/12th of the population.

The moon however is a different matter. This hunk of rock is orbiting the earth close enough for its mass and gravitational field to affect the oceans and tides, and, I would argue, us.

I have previously written about the effect of the full moon on human behaviour. Personally I think the tide goes out on our collective brains – some more than others. I accept that scientists have been unable to confirm this, but attest that no scientist ever accompanied me on a full-moon Saturday night shift in the medical emergency service I used to work at. People ran screaming from the building – and that was the staff. The punters ran screaming INTO the building. All in all, a noisy and eventful experience.

My back-up hypothesis is that the additional light from the full moon means people are more likely to be out and about, or at least unsettled. This sounds more plausible, but the tide out in the brain thing is much more interesting.

And while we may not enjoy the effect the moon has on us, I have recently discovered that the moon is also not enjoying our company. Apparently it is fleeing from our orbit at the rate of 2 inches per year. Seriously. Fast enough to make a difference, slow enough for us not to notice unless we are determined to use reflectors and lasers and trigonometry. And most of us aren’t, so you and I will have to take the word of George Darwin (son of Charles) who hypothesised this and the NASA scientists who confirmed it.

Now the effect f the moon on the earth apparently has some interesting effects on the earth. It is quite well-known that the moon influences the tides. This is particularly well-known to people who read the beginning of this posting quite carefully.

But the effect of these frequent tides is to slow the earth’s rotation down. So without the moon, the earth would be spinning a lot faster and hence our “days” would be much shorter – as much as three times shorter. Imagine an 8-hour day instead of 24 hours. You’d barely get anything done when it would be night again.

This of course, would not only be inconvenient, but probably we would all have evolved differently – different sleep patterns, different adaptations. Not just us, but plants and animals as well. And given that life is thought to have originated in the oceans….well, what effect would fewer tides have had on the mixing of the primordial soup?

And then the faster the earth spins, the more winds are generated – producing waves and weather. So if the earth is spinning slower, then weaker waves and weather patterns.

In other words, a different planet entirely.

Fascinating stuff, but one more important fact: You weigh slightly less when the moon is directly overhead. No moon means it is pointless to wait until the middle of the night to weigh yourself for maximum effect.

What – you don’t do that? Just me then.

PS – enjoy the July 4th full moon!





Nursery Rhymes

23 06 2012

Nursery rhymes are a lovely way to teach children to speak, to sing, to rhyme and have rhythm, and to develop memory skills.
You have probably heard that ring-a-ring-a-rosy is a reference to the Black (Bubonic) Plague. Turns out not to be so – the rhyme did not appear until many centuries after Bubonic Plague decimated Europe. Sorry to disillusion you. However many others seem to have dark and morbid antecedents that we would love to believe……

Goosey Goosey Gander where shall I wander,
Upstairs, downstairs and in my lady’s chamber
There I met an old man who wouldn’t say his prayers,
I took him by the left leg and threw him down the stairs.

This refers to the persecution of Catholics in 16th Century England. Priests were often secreted in “priest-holes” secret nooks built into the thick walls of private rooms in wealthy houses – for instance the lady’s chamber (bedroom). The old man who wouldn’t say his prayers probably did – but Catholic prayers in Latin, not protestant prayers in English. Being a Catholic – or ‘left-footer” in the vernacular of the time, he was thrown down the stairs – in all likelihood put to death for his beliefs, as would the family of the house who would have been considered traitors in Tudor England.

Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water
Jack fell down and broke his crown and Jill came tumbling after.
Up got Jack, and home did trot
As fast as he could caper
He went to bed and bound his head
With vinegar and brown paper.

This rather gruesome tale apparently refers to the execution of Jack (King Louis XVI of France) and Jill (Queen Marie-Antoinette). The last section refers to the treatment of the head after beheading, where it was held aloft for the crowd to see then thrown in a bag or basket.

Mary Mary quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells and cockle shells
And pretty maids all in a row.

Mary in this rhyme was Bloody Queen Mary, the daughter of Henry VIII of England and half-sister to the future Queen Elizabeth I. A staunch Catholic, she persecuted Protestants. The gardens were the graveyards of people she had put to death, the silver bells were thumb screws, cockle-shells were another instrument of torture used on genitals, and the maids was a slang terms for the guillotine.

Three blind mice
Three blind mice
See how they run
See how they run
They all ran after the farmer’s wife
who cut off their tails with a carving knife
Did you ever see such a thing in your life
as three blind mice

Again this refers to Bloody Mary (the farmer’s wife) executing three noblemen who had plotted to kill her to end her reign of terror. They weren’t blind, and they were actually burned at the stake rather than beheaded or having their tails cut off!

The grand old Duke of York
He had ten thousand men
He marched them up to the top of the hill
and he marched them down again.

And when they were up, they were up.
And when they were down, they were down.
And when they were only halfway up
they were neither up nor down.

The grand old Duke of York was Richard, Duke of York, who was killed in the War of the Roses in 1455. He built a fortress on earthworks where he marched his army (to the top of the hill), enabling them to have an excellent viewpoint to spot any army approaching army. However, he then marched them down again – leaving the fortress and tackling the opposing army on the plains – and was killed.

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the King’s horses, And all the King’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again!

Humpty Dumpty was a cannon – a very large heavy cannon that was installed on the walls of St Mary’s Church in Colchester during the English Civil War. A shot from a parliamentary cannon damaged the wall Humpty was sitting on and he did indeed tumble down and break. because of the immense weight of the cannon, all the King’s men and all the King’s horses could not get Humpty back atop the wall (possibly because of damage sustained to the wall as well).

Old Mother Hubbard
Went to the cupboard
To get her poor doggie a bone,
When she got there
The cupboard was bare
So the poor little doggie had none.

Old Mother Hubbard was Cardinal Wolsey, beloved of Blackadder aficionados, but a real person as well. Cardinal Wolsey was the man that Henry VIII (the doggie) wanted to get him a divorce (a bone) from his longtime (and first) Queen, Katharine of Aragorn. Cardinal Wolsey approached Rome, base for the Catholic Church (the cupboard) and was given the “no” answer. And on this was the basis of the Church of England born.





And you think you have it tough…

23 06 2012

I can’t vouch for the veracity of this information, but here are some interesting theories on the origins of some of the common sayings and traditions. Makes you glad you are alive in this day and age in a western country.

………………………………………………………………….

In the 1500s tanneries used urine to tan animal skins. Families used to all wee in a pot, and then once it was full it was taken and sold to the tannery. If you had to do this to survive you were “Piss Poor“.

But worse than that were the really poor folk who couldn’t even afford to buy a pot. They “didn’t have a pot to piss in” and were the lowest of the low.

Most people got married in June because they took their yearly bath in May and they still smelled pretty good by June. However, since they were starting to smell, Brides carried a bouquet of flowers to hide the body odour. Hence the custom today of carrying a bouquet when getting married.

Baths consisted of a big tub filled with hot water. The man of the house had the privilege of the nice clean water, then all the other sons and men, then the women and finally the children. Last of all the babies. By then the water was so dirty you could actually lose someone in it. Hence the saying, “Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water!”

Houses had thatched roofs – thick straw-piled high (see photo above). It was the only place for animals to get warm, so all the cats and other small animals (mice, bugs) lived in the roof. When it rained it became slippery and sometimes the animals would slip and fall off the roof. Hence the saying, “It’s raining cats and dogs.”

As there was no inner ceiling underneath the thatch in houses, there was nothing to stop things from falling into the house. This posed a real problem in the bedroom where bugs and other droppings could mess up your nice clean bed. Hence, a bed with big posts and a sheet hung over the top afforded some protection. That’s how canopy beds came into existence. The curtains around the sides were to keep the drafts out.

The floor was dirt. Only the wealthy had something other than dirt. Hence the saying, “Dirt poor.” The wealthy had slate floors that would get slippery in the winter when wet, so they spread thresh (straw) on the floor to help keep their footing. As the winter wore on, they added more thresh until, when you opened the door, it would all start slipping outside.
A piece of wood was placed in the entrance-way. Hence: a thresh hold.

In those old days, they cooked in the kitchen with a big kettle that always hung over the fire. Every day they lit the fire and added things to the pot. They ate mostly vegetables and did not get much meat. They would eat the stew for dinner, leaving leftovers in the pot to get cold overnight and then start over the next day. Sometimes stew had food in it that had been there for quite a while. Hence the rhyme:

Peas porridge hot, peas porridge cold, peas porridge in the pot nine days old”.

Sometimes they could obtain pork. When visitors came over, they would hang up their bacon to show off. It was a sign of wealth that a man could “bring home the bacon.” They would cut off a little to share with guests and would all sit around and chew the fat.

Those with money had plates made of pewter. Food with high acid content caused some of the lead to leach onto the food, causing lead poisoning death. This happened most often with tomatoes, so for the next 400 years or so, tomatoes were considered poisonous.

Bread was divided according to status. Workers got the burnt bottom of the loaf, the family got the middle,
and guests got the top, or the upper crust.

Lead cups were used to drink ale or whisky. The combination would sometimes knock the imbibers out for a couple of days.
Someone walking along the road would take them for dead and prepare them for burial. They were laid out on the kitchen table for a couple of days and the family would gather around and eat and drink and wait and see if they would wake up. Hence the custom of “holding a wake”. (I am assuming you would have to be consuming a lot of lead-laced alcohol for it to have this effect.)

England is old and small and the local folks started running out of places to bury people. So they would dig up coffins and would take the bones to a bone-house, and reuse the grave. When reopening these coffins, 1 out of 25 coffins were found to have scratch marks on the inside and they realized they had been burying people alive.

So they would tie a string on the wrist of the corpse, lead it through the coffin and up through the ground and tie it to a bell.

Someone would have to sit out in the graveyard all night (the graveyard shift) to listen for the bell. Thus, someone could be,
saved by the bell” or was “considered a dead ringer”.

catacombs underneath Paris were used to store bones that had been exhumed from Graveyards within the city walls of Paris.





Murder or Suicide? A twisted tale….

17 06 2012





I reject your reality and substitute my own…..

16 06 2012

Herbert A. Millington
Chair – Search Committee
412A Clarkson Hall, Whitson University
College Hill, MA 34109

Dear Professor Millington,

Thank you for your letter of March 16. After careful consideration, I
regret to inform you that I am unable to accept your refusal to offer me
an assistant professor position in your department.

This year I have been particularly fortunate in receiving an unusually
large number of rejection letters. With such a varied and promising field
of candidates, it is impossible for me to accept all refusals.

Despite Whitson’s outstanding qualifications and previous experience in
rejecting applicants, I find that your rejection does not meet my needs at
this time. Therefore, I will assume the position of assistant professor
in your department this August. I look forward to seeing you then.

Best of luck in rejecting future applicants.

Sincerely,
Chris L. Jensen