Category Archives: Other

When you wake up worrying in the middle of the night…

Definition: night nags.
Night nags are the uncomfortable thoughts that come into your mind when you find yourself lying awake in bed at two o’clock in the morning. You may for instance find yourself worrying about mortality and the fleeting nature of existence: or perhaps about the insignificance of your life in the vastness of an infinite universe (same thing really): or maybe about a passing comment made to a friend the previous day that you think they may have taken wrongly.
Whatever the subject of your meditations they will feel unbearably burdensome and onerous at the time – the middle of the night – but they will have magically receded from your thoughts by the time you tuck into your breakfast in the morning.

Night nags are overblown thoughts of gloom and doom to which the mind seems particularly susceptible during the small hours. Susceptibility during those dark hours of the night is probably the result of changes in body chemistry that occur at that phase of a person’s circadian cycle, and is possibly nothing to do with the fact that you haven’t got anything else to distract you from the subjects as you lie there staring into the silent blackness that surrounds you.

These nocturnal worries are called night nags because of their nagging and intrusive nocturnal nature – and because of their relationship to  those other night-time unpleasantnesses, nightmares. The equestrian link between the words nag and mare is serendipitous, as the mare in nightmare is nothing to do with horses, instead referring to an irritatingly evil spirit.

The term night nag is a neolism (new word or expression), first coined, as far as I know, on 8th December 2013 by Jenepher Gordon while describing a night-time worry of the preceding night. She used the expression because she liked the alliteration.The link between the terms ‘nag’ and ‘mare’ was then noticed and the term instantly took root.

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Is noon 12am or 12pm?

Which is noon – 12am or 12pm?
I’ve always assumed that noon was 12am. And midnight was 12pm.
But there’s no consensus on this.
Here’s the reasoning that I use to justify my assumption.

Using the twelve hour clock the day is divided into two periods of twelve hours – those before noon and those after noon. Noon is the time at which the sun crosses the imaginary line – the meridian – that marks the middle of the day.
The twelve hours before noon – the morning – are denoted by am (for ante meridian – before noon) and the twelve hours after noon by pm (post meridian or after noon).

So, at one minute before noon the time is 11.59am, and at one minute after noon the time is 12.01pm.
That’s quite straightforward.
However, notice that one minute past noon is known as 12.01pm, with a twelve in it. This is quite a strange convention when you think about it, because it almost implies that the time is twelve hours and one minute past the meridian (noon), which it certainly isn’t. The time should perhaps better be known as 00.01pm, or one minute past noon.
This convention of retaining the number 12 for measuring times in the hour after midday is, I think, part of the cause of the confusion about whether noon is 12.00am or 12.00pm. That’s the convention though, and we’re stuck with it.

12.01pm – one minute past noon – is definitely in the afternoon, and is rightly referred to as pm.
Noon itself though isn’t in the morning or the afternoon, being the exact moment of transition between the two, and thus doesn’t strictly need a suffix of am or pm at all other than for the very important reason of distinguishing it from 12 o’clock midnight – which is why it’s so important not to get your 12.00ams and 12.00pms confused!

To me, noon should be designated 12.00am because the number twelve in the time is related to the numbers before noon, as in 9.00am, 10.00am, and 11.00am.

Times in the first hour after midday, such as 12.15pm, are designated as pm because they are firmly in the afternoon, even though their numbering convention includes the number twelve as some sort of leftover from the previous twelve hour period rather than starting afresh at zero.

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David Attenborough: “Humans are a plague on the Earth”

Sir David Attenborough has written in the current edition of Radio Times about the threat of human population increase on the planet, stating that “Humans are a plague on the Earth”.

In many ways I agree. A plague indeed.
It’s good to hear people such as David Attenborough use the word ‘plague’ to describe the current state of affairs regarding human population increase, because it’s an emotive word that has to be used with care.
In the hands of some commentators on the state of the world it could easily be dismissed as the sensationalist, misanthropic, headline grabbing, apocalyptic vocabulary of a doom-monger, of someone who seeks to see nothing but death and destruction at every turn.
David Attenborough is patently no such person. He seems to be a well balanced, sensible, optimistic soul, who, what’s more, likes people (possibly even more than animals). And on top of that he happens to have a good brain for management too (he used to be controller of BBC2 after all). So if he uses the word plague you know he’s using the word in a considered way and that he isn’t exaggerating for effect.

Having said that, I’d personally feel happier if most commentators on population growth steered clear of excessive deployment of the word. In David Attenborough’s hands the word has power, but in lesser hands it can have the effect of crude exaggeration (even though it isn’t) – with the danger being that it may only serve to make people reject the argument.

Here’s a cartoon of mine on the subject of human impact on the environment, in which I’ve depicted us humans as a plague-like pestilence. Very misanthropic!

humans eating the planet cartoon

Here’s David Attenborough in the Radio Times
And here’s David Attenborough in the Daily Telegraph

Here’s a riposte to David Attenborough’s article, written by Harry Mount on the Daily Telegraph blog. Mount is an ex-Telegraph leader writer. Mount’s criticism of Attenborough is accompanied by the headline: David Attenborough is wrong – the human race has never been so successful or healthy.
The problem is, increased health and success tend to lead to population increase unless a conscious effort is made to do otherwise.
I think this riposte falls into the trap of dismissing Attenborough as a Malthusian human-hater, which, as I mentioned above, I’m sure he isn’t (I’m pretty certain that I’ve heard Attenborough state that he finds humans the most amazing creatures on the planet – just as I do – it’s just that we’re far too successful for our own good). It also falls into the trap of equating increasing population with good – because of the fact that population increase is an effect of good health, plentiful food and so on. I agree that increasing health and prosperity are good (who wouldn’t?), but they don’t have to be accompanied by a population boom. At least not any more.

If you’re concerned about over population you may be interested in the Population Matters site.

You can see more of my environment cartoons here.

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British Birds at Alexandra Palace – peregrines and parakeets

My usual daily walk around Alexandra Park was particularly notable today because it included a sighting of a peregrine falcon perched high on one of the towers of Alexandra Palace.
Peregrines used to be very rare creatures in Britain a few decades ago, but now they are thriving and can be found in many cities, where they love the tall buildings. Here in London a peregrine can often be seen perched on the top of the giant chimney that is part of the Tate Modern art gallery (converted from a power station, hence the chimney).
This is the first time I’ve seen a peregrine at Alexandra Palace. I’m not sure whether it’s only here temporarily (perhaps driven here by the snowy weather we’ve had over the past few days) or whether it’s house hunting now that spring isn’t too far off and the housing market takes off. Ally Pally, with its stunning views and expansive parkland would make a very desirable residence for a peregrine.
Peregrines may or may not be in the process of seeking accommodation in the Alexandra Park area, but there’s another bird that’s definitely chosen to make the park its home over the past few years – the rose-ringed parakeet (psittacula krameri). Also known as the ring necked parakeet.
Over the past few decades this non-native species has enjoyed an explosion in numbers since first putting in an appearance in west London.
I saw my first small flock of parakeets near Maidenhead, west of London, in the mid 1990s and was quite excited by the event.
The parakeets are now becoming a serious pest, elbowing out woodpeckers and other native birds and generally destroying the ecological balance (or what passes as such in the modern world). The parakeets are quite aggressive, and because they start nesting very early in the year (FebruarY) they grab all the best nesting holes. They are also very hardy and aren’t put off at all by the British winter, despite their exotic tropical appearance.
Perhaps the peregrine at Ally Pally will do its bit to reduce their numbers. Fingers crossed.

To celebrate my peregrine sighting here’s a cartoon I drew a few months ago depicting my attitude to the dreaded ring necked parakeet, the grey squirrel of the air.

British Birds - Parakeet cartoon

If you’re interested in birds in Britain please have a look at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds website

If you’re interested in birds in London you can keep updated with daily sightings of interesting birds at the London Birder’s site

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Reflections on experimental typography

I’m doing a bit of experimental typography at the moment. Here’s an example.
It’s a typographical experiment using the word ‘typography’ as the subject, fittingly, and is prompted by my interest in perception, interpretation of visual stimuli and optical illusions.
I’ve taken the word TYPOGRAPHY, in a suitably bold and severe typeface, and reflected it, fusing the reflections of the letters with the letters themselves to create new, more complex shapes. But as well as that I’ve flipped each letter round so that the letters themselves are reversed.
Because of the way that the eye scans images and the brain interprets shapes, the letters can still be interpreted properly, and the word ‘typography’ can be easily read (I hope). This is helped by the fact that more than half of the letters in the work TYPOGRAPHY are symmetrical, so the brain gets a cue from them as to what the word is without it having to do too much work.

Typography reflected

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How We Recognise Words – Despite Variations in Pronunciation or Writing

In the lecture by Daniel Dennett featured in the previous post there’s a section about recognising language.
He discusses the manner in which we understand language by recognising the discrete packages of sound of which it’s composed.
To illustrate this, Dennett asked the audience to repeat after him an expression: “Mundify the epigastrium.” You may not know what it means, but you can make out the words and you can repeat them back (as the audience did, more or less). This is possible because the words are made up of phonemes (the smallest segments of standardised sound that are put together to form words in any particular language). Dennett then asked the audience to repeat after him a random string of odd sounds. It was impossible. This was because the audience didn’t have “the norms for correction of those sounds.” They just couldn’t get a handle on them.

Another illustration of the phenomenon of recognising the discrete packets of sound that make up words is the process that occurs when you learn a foreign language (Dennett didn’t actually mention this in his lecture – I’m adding it on my own initiative).
Some years ago I started to learn French. At the beginning of the endeavour whenever I heard any French being spoken it sounded like nothing more than a meaningless cascade of undifferentiated sound. How could anyone understand it? Over the years and with increasing familiarity with the sound structure of the language those amorphous sounds gradually crystallised into clearly differentiated words (even though I still don’t understand what half of them mean).

Because of the fact that language is composed of discrete packages of sound it’s possible to compensate for minor inaccuracies in the transmission of those sounds by mentally comparing the perceived sound with the expected, or probable, sound. You put this compensation into action every time you hear someone who has an unfamiliar accent.

The phenomenon occurs when trying to understand the written word too.
Dennett gave an example of this correction in his lecture. Here it is in this illustration.

This is the well known “optical illusion” consisting of the words “THE CAT” with malformed letters H and A.
With its modified H and A this wording looks slightly more like a contrived effect than it actually is. It looks slightly contrived because the letters are printed – and there are no printed letters that look like that H and A.
However, the phenomenon that you are observing – the correction in your head of letters to their proper form – is one that happens every time you read someone’s handwriting. Especially if you’re reading bad handwriting.
Here are the words as handwriting.

The effect is more or less the same. We recognise the intended letters immediately, due to their context, just as we recognise mispronounced or unusually pronounced spoken words due to their context.
But look at the following words. There’s ‘THE CAT’ on the top line – but what’s that word below it?

It’s HAT.
But can you read it as such? Possibly, but not as easily as you read ‘THE CAT”.
The H and the A suddenly start looking worryingly like made up letters. There just isn’t enough context for the H and the A to be interpreted correctly. You might decide that it’s the word AT with an extra A at the beginning.

Let’s give the word more cues by putting it in the context of a sentence. Here’s the title of a well-known children’s book.

Mmm. It still doesn’t look very convincing. What’s more, I suspect that the confusion over the H and A in HAT is creating a sort of contagion whereby the other Hs and As start to look shaky, but that’s another subject.
So it looks as though there’s a limit to the ratio of properly formed letters and malformed letters beyond which corrective interpretation breaks down.
It’s not simply a matter of the letters having to be framed within words (The H and A in THE CAT each being nicely bracketed by the T & E and C & T). Look at the expression THAT HAT, below.

It’s possibly nonsense. If you can read it as ‘THAT HAT’ there’s the chance that you’re doing so because you’re mentally referring back to the previous examples.
The problem is probably simply the preponderance of malformed letters. You just can’t get a handle on them. You scan backwards and forwards over the words and you can’t make any order out of them.

Scanning and order – important aspects of the process of understanding written words. But possibly in a more complicated way than you initially assume. To illustrate this, try reading the following sentence.

Algtohuh pcraialclty all of the wdors taht cpoosme tihs stecnene are jebumld you can plrbobay udetanrnsd waht it syas.

It reads: Although practically all of the words that compose this sentence are jumbled you can probably understand what it says.
It’s thought that this interesting phenomenon occurs because you don’t read words from left to right, letter by letter in order, but that you scan the words very rapidly, taking in the whole content at once. I assume that the words also have to be in the context of a meaningful sentence which gives clues as to the probable word that’s intended. I say this because individual words that are jumbled up are just anagrams – and I’m useless at anagrams (or amganars as tehy are smeometis claled). In similar vein, that phrase ‘smeometis claled’ doesn’t easily translate into ‘sometimes called’ in my opinion – maybe it’s too close to looking like real words itself, so it throws you off.

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The Meaninglessness of Dreams

People are intrigued by dreams.
What on earth are they? Why do we have them? What do they mean? (There we go again, trying to find meaning in things that we don’t understand.)

My own personal feeling is that they are relatively mundane things, made fascinating by little more than the bizarre juxtaposition of the events that (seem to) occur in them. In this respect they are a little like those children’s picture books that have pages cut into sections allowing you to compose strange and exotic creatures out of quotidian life-forms.

However, some people take them extremely seriously.
I recall hearing a Jungian therapist talking about dreams on the radio, and she was convinced of their importance. She was asked if she herself had had any particularly meaningful and life-changing dreams, and bizarrely (considering the importance that she attributed to them) she could recall but one.
She described it.
She was on the moon and in front of her was the Eiffel Tower. That’s a great dream image – the Eiffel Tower on the moon.
She didn’t just leave it at that though – as an interesting juxtaposition of two disparate objects – she interpreted it. The Eiffel Tower represented humanity’s hubristic impulse to construct edifices – not just follies such as the tower itself, but other follies such as bridges, motorways and skyscrapers – while the bleak lunar landscape represented the barren and wasted state that we are visiting upon the earth due to our enterprises in folly building.
As a result of the dream she resolved to devote more time to working towards averting the looming environmental catastrophe that we are engineering. This is a very laudable resolution of course, with which I have no objection, and which is far better than the other one that she could have extracted from the dream, that it would be a great idea to build replica Eiffel Towers on the moon.
It seems obvious to me that she took this dream to be particularly meaningful simply because her chosen interpretation of it resonated perfectly with an issue that was preoccupying her at the time. People see what they want to see in things.
You could interpret the children’s picture book figure above in just the same way. It could illustrate, for instance, the fact that people (represented by the human head) are capable of dominating the air (due to the insect wings) and the water and the earth (due to the bird’s webbed feet that can be used for walking or swimming). So far the interpretation’s looking good. But look more closely at the figure and a worrying factor creeps into the analysis. The ‘creature’ is segmented in such a way that none of the segments carries reproductive organs (It is a children’s illustration after all). The interpretation seems to point to the fact that this figure is doomed to oblivion. The creature has so much potential, but so little future.
I made that interpretation up as I went along, as you can probably tell, but it just shows how anyone can extract meaning out of nothing.
You may in fact say that my interpretation is wrong, because there is indeed just about enough room for some reproductive organs to be squeezed in there somewhere.
You’re right. Just like everyone else I ignore factors that don’t fit in with my theory. Otherwise I just wouldn’t have a theory, and where would I be then?

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