Category Archives: Other

A Mathematical Joke …

On the subject of numbers, here’s a mathematical joke.

There are 10 types of people in the world: those who understand binary and those who don’t.

This joke can be extended. There are 10 types of people in the world: those who get this joke and those who don’t.
I suppose the ones who don’t get it can be divided into 10 categories too: those who don’t understand binary (and thus don’t stand a chance of getting it) and those who do understand binary but who don’t have a sense of humour.
If you’re one of the people who gets the joke, do you have a smug sense of self-satisfaction about the fact? Don’t worry, that’s nothing to feel guilty about. It’s all part of the whole business of humour, and is one of the reasons why humour is so satisfying.

If you don’t get the joke because you don’t understand binary, here’s a quick explanation of what binary is.
In our everyday numbering system there are ten individual digits: 0,1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,and 9.
When you’re counting, once you’ve reached 9 you extend the sequence by starting all over again with the same numbers, but adding a digit in front of them to signify that you’re on a new sequence – so you get 10 to 19. Then you extend the sequence again, to 20 and 29 and so on.
There’s no particular mathematical reason why numbers go up to nine and then start repeating. We use that system essentially because we’ve got ten fingers. This system is based on ten digits (zero and the numbers one to nine), and it’s described as being to the base ten.
We could just as easily use a system in which the only digits are 0,1,2,3,4 and 5. In this case, once you’ve counted up to the number 5 you can’t simply go on to the number 6 as you can in the ten digit system – because there isn’t one. Instead, because you’ve run out of digits, you have to extend the sequence just as you did after reaching 9 with the ten digit system – by starting the sequence again with an extra digit in front of it. So you have to go back to the figure zero and precede it with a one. This number is written as “10”, but it isn’t the number ten in the familiar ten digit system, even though it looks like it: here it represents the number six. (In this six digit system the number ten is written as a one followed by a four, or “14”.)
That example of a numbering system had six digits, but you can equally have a system that only has TWO digits. While the six digit system lacked the digits 6, 7, 8 and 9, the two digit system lacks ALL OF THEM except for zero and one. While with the six digit system you had to start a new sequence after the number five (because there is no number six), with the two digit system you have to start a new sequence after the number one (because there is no number two). The number two is therefore written as a zero preceded by a one – as “10”.
This two digit system is what we refer to as the binary system (binary meaning two).
So, the number “10” in the binary system is the same number as the 2 in our normal, ten digit system.

The number “10” in the joke is actually the binary way of representing the number 2. That’s the core of the joke.
Having waded through this explanation you probably won’t suddenly find the joke hilariously funny, because an essential part of the enjoyment of a joke is the satisfaction of “getting it”. But at least you’re now prepared for the next binary joke that comes along. I’ve been told that there are 101101 of them – rather thin on the ground in other words.

Binary is the numbering system that is used in computers and other electronic equipment – because electronic equipment can only ‘recognise’ two states with which to build up numbers: on or off. (While we have ten fingers with which to do it.)


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How Different Book Cover Designs Give Books Different Feels

Following my previous post concerning the similarity between the cover designs of my recently released book and the popular science book by Christopher Potter (which also coincidentally has the same name as this blog, You Are Here), I thought that it may be a good idea to exhibit a small selection of other designs that I came up with for my cover (and finally rejected).
I rejected the first one because it has something of the feel of a self-help publication, or perhaps a religious publication, about it, which I wouldn’t want it to be mistaken for (although I’m quite happy for it to be read by people who like to read either of those types of book of course). The second design simply looks suspiciously like the cover of a book published by a spiritual cult, possibly under the guise of a serious inquiry into the meaning of life. It looks a little too ‘pumped up’ for me. The third, cosmic question mark, cover was rejected because it looks too much like a generic cover for a book on its subject and it’s a little too self-important looking (I like the cosmic question mark itself very much indeed, but feel that it’s not quite right for this publication). The fourth, text-based cover makes the book look a bit too much like a popular title that’s trying to look more academic than it actually is, although I’m otherwise very keen on it (especially the lettering of the title itself with its differently sized and coloured letters, and the way that they naturally form a triangular shape).

More about my book here.

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You Are Here in the Zeitgeist – as illustrated by a book about the universe by Christopher Potter.

Here’s an interesting thing.
It’s a minor illustration of the theory that we’re all hopelessly trapped within the zeitgeist while at the same time we’re labouring under the illusion that we’re independent thinkers.
My book on the subject of our place in the universe is due out any day now, as it’s just been whisked off to the printing presses. You can find out more about it here.
Meanwhile I see that a book on a not unrelated subject has this very month been published elsewhere: it’s written by Christopher Potter and is published by Hutchinson.
So far, so slightly coincidental. After all, the subject of our place in the universe isn’t exactly a theme that’s been neglected over the years.
What’s a bit on the spooky side though is that Potter’s book is called You Are Here – the same name as that of the very blog that you’re reading at this precise moment.
What’s more, my own book was at one point going to be called You Are Here too. The main reason that I dropped that specific title was because it’s the name of my regular cartoon slot in Philosophy Now magazine, so I decided that I’d reserve the title for any future collection of those cartoons should one ever see the light of day.
I mentioned this seemingly bizarre coincidence concerning the use of You Are Here as a book title to my partner, who dismissed it with the comment that it’s a rather obvious choice of title for a book on the subject of our position in the universe. So much for my delusion that I was capable of moderately original thought.
Fortunately for me (and my self respect), there’s another weird coincidence concerning Christopher Potter’s You Are Here and my own book.
Look at the covers.

Just imagine if I’d kept the title of my book as You Are Here – the coincidence would have seemed more than uncanny.
I say “seemed more than uncanny” because, surprisingly, it wouldn’t have been all that uncanny at all. The similarity in cover art isn’t as bizarre as you may think. The rather artless graphic style and the hand-written lettering are very much in the contemporary mode. I created my own cover design while I had a copy of The Kingdom of Infinite Space by Raymond Tallis sitting on my desk (It’s an exploration of the workings of the human animal from the neck upwards). Here it is. I was obviously influenced.

I decided on this particular cover style because I think that it expresses the nature of the contents of the book quite well: accessible, not too weighty, slightly irreverent, slightly humorous.
Having seen the similarity between the covers of Potter’s book and my own I toyed with the idea of changing mine, but then decided that the similarity was actually a significant point, and was enough to justify keeping it. The significant point is that one of the themes of my book is that people tend to independently reach the same conclusions about things simply because of the way that our brains work – which often convinces people that they’ve reached a valid conclusion, while all along they’ve simply reached the inevitable conclusion, which may not be right at all.

There’s yet another coincidence between Christopher Potter’s book and mine.
Christopher Potter worked in publishing before writing his book, and I’m a cartoonist. Both of us seem to be singularly unqualified to write the books that we’ve just written.
Apparently his is excellent though.
I’m not so sure about my own.
I haven’t read You Are Here yet, but the reviews that I’ve seen give me the impression that Potter’s work and mine do diverge in some ways. Potter’s seems to be a factual book about the universe with a slight dusting of the spiritual thrown in. My book is much more of a personal reflection on how we perceive our place in the universe, which makes the book sound as though it might be spiritual although it is in fact totally devoid of the sentiment (although the subject of spirituality comes into it a lot).
More about my book here.

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In Praise of the Church of England’s Logo!

Hot on the heels of my previous post, I’ve decided that while I’m busy singing the praises of various Christian public relations and recruitment exercises I may as well mention my admiration for the logo of the Church of England, which was launched in 1996 (I think). As a non-believer myself, this admiration is entirely at the level of the aesthetics and the psychology of communication underlying the logo – however it’s genuine admiration nonetheless. Here’s the logo.

To me this logo is a classic.
Firstly, it looks nice, and secondly it’s very clever.
It contains all of the elements that it needs to, in an incredibly elegant form. It incorporates the c and the e of Church of England (and probably the o too). And the crossbar of the e forms part of a cross – inspired!
The arms of the cross are wider than those of the usual Christian cross, and are also tapered towards the centre, so the cross looks very welcoming and expansive – as though it’s got its arms out in greeting (It has completely lost all reference to the cross as an instrument of torture in the crucifixion).
It also looks both ancient and modern at the same time, having something of medieval lettering to it coupled with a modern simplicity (including a modern, lower case e for a proper noun) – thus conveying the church’s traditions and its role in the modern world.
To cap it off, it echoes the symbol of CND, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (below), which gives it the feel of being the symbol of an organisation that is interested in peace and harmony.


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Reacting To Things Before You Know That They’ve Happened

Here’s a funny thing.
I recently had the bizarre experience of reacting to something before I noticed the thing that I was reacting to.
It happened like this.
Although I’m a cartoonist by profession I also have a small sideline in creating ceramics. That’s me in my studio, below.

Me in my ceramics studio

Me in my ceramics studio

Part of the process of making ceramics is that the objects being created have to be glazed: this involved coating the object with powder that’s suspended in water (so that it can be brushed on, which is what I’m doing in the photo). The object is then placed in a kiln and heating it to a very high temperature – over a thousand degrees Celsius. At this temperature the powder melts and turns to coloured glass. The temperature is then lowered and the ceramics are taken out of the kiln when they are cool enough to handle.
A few days ago I took the ceramics out of the kiln when they were still quite hot (about 200 degrees C), using a pair of specially insulated oven gloves. You can see the objects in the photo – they are the shiny, greenish, roundish things in the middle. As these objects cooled down they occasionally emitted a very short sharp pinging noise.
Because the objects were very hot, quite large and quite heavy, I had in my mind fantasies of them exploding as they cooled too rapidly: as a result I jumped very slightly every time there was a ping.
This was where the bizarre thing happened. I could swear that with most of the pings I actually jumped before I was aware of the sound.
I suspect that if that is what actually happened (and that it wasn’t an illusion) it’s normal. I therefore suspect that itís quite common to react to anything in a knee-jerk, automatic kind of way before being conscious of the thing that is being reacted to. What may have set my example in my ceramics studio apart from most such situations, and what made me notice it, may have been simply the fact that the thing that I was reacting to was a very short, sharp and precise sound and the reaction was very slight and short, so the delays or overlaps between the reaction and the registering of the sound were noticeable.
It seems that my ears picked up the ping and my brain then sent it to my muscles before it sent it to my hearing centre. Quite sensible really.
I’m sure that I’ve heard of this phenomenon before, but it’s very interesting to actually notice it.
By an interesting coincidence, for several days after I experienced this time-lag, there were numerous articles in various newspapers and magazines about Malcolm Gladwell (he’s got a new book out: Outliers), whom I’m pretty sure mentioned a similar time-lag phenomenon in his book Blink: that people make decisions before they are aware that they’ve made them. This seems logical to me, as I’d presume that the brain’s conscious/deliberate verbalisation of a concept must follow the underlying formulation of the concept, otherwise it can’t put it into words for the simple reason that it’s got nothing to work with. The apparent novelty of the idea that people make decisions before they know it is, I suspect, due to the fact that it’s an overstated assumption that people actually think in words, or that an idea isn’t actually nailed down until it’s verbalised. I spend a lot of time trying to be as creative and original as possible in my work as a cartoonist and elsewhere, and I know that dragging the ideas to a conscious, expressible level often diminishes the ideas rather than making them real.

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A Stunning Hubble Photograph of the Question Mark Nebula

What do you think of this?
You’re staring into space and wondering what the underlying nature of the universe is, when suddenly you’re confronted by a gaseous nebula in the form of a cosmic question mark.
How spooky is that?

A nebula in the form of a question mark

Unfortunately this image is nothing more than something that I made up in Photoshop.
It’s an image that I created with a view to using it on the cover of my book-in-progress (See the tab at the top of the page).
I’m now thinking that it may just be a little too cosmic, so I’m looking into ideas that reflect a more human scale. However, I like this image, so here it is.



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The Olympic Games: sport as religion

Today sees the start of the Olympic Games in Beijing, China.
I’ve heard that it is going to be the largest and most important event in modern Chinese history (I think that there’s a bit of hyperbole there, as I’m not sure that it’s quite as important an event as the revolution, but perhaps I’m being pedantic, or I’m just not getting into the spirit of the thing).
A fortune has been spent on building the stadia, not forgetting the Olympic village, a complete, brand new airport and other infrastructure. The world’s media are in a frenzy. The athletes have been training for years, often dedicating their lives to their chosen sport and to the goal of an Olympic medal.

The huge amount of time, effort, money and emotion that are poured into the Olympic Games is truly staggering.
All this for a mere two weeks of activity that ultimately leads nowhere (other than in circles round a running track).
Personally I’d rather see the nations that compete in the games competing in something more practical and useful, such as trying to be the first to eradicate disease and poverty, or to reverse global warming. Why can’t people get as excited by those goals as they are over who’s going to win the 100 metre sprint?
The reasons are probably all there deep in our brains, hard wired from the days when physical prowess, such as the ability to down a mammoth with a javelin, was actually important. So it’s something we just can’t shift – although it may whither away over evolutionary time as the need to admire physical prowess becomes as redundant as the need for physical prowess itself (I’m writing this from the viewpoint of a physically inferior specimen of humanity, as you may suspect).

Despite its total lack of practical use, and its astonishingly high expenditure in terms of time, money and resources, sport at the level of the Olympics is for many people an ultimately worthwhile event due to the added value that it gives to their lives. In this way it sounds very similar to religion to me.
Those five interlinked circles of the Olympic symbol even look like haloes.
Religion makes people feel better and gives their lives direction and purpose – just as sport does (Both can go horribly wrong of course. Such as when you meet a group of over-excited supports of a rival team down a dark ally). Both sport and religion are based on, to me, spurious, vacuous or illusory ends, but they make people feel good about themselves. You can’t deny it – even if you wish it weren’t true.

As a committed non-religionist and non-sports fan I don’t want to sound smug – as though my own interests were somehow much more meaningful. We all have a tendency to inflate our own interests to a level of significance. Personally, I spend a lot of time wandering round art galleries looking at pictures. How much of a waste of time is that – shouldn’t I be saving the whales rather than admiring Botticelli’s Venus?

There’s something in the way that we pursue our interests, whether they be sport, art or whatever, that makes us inject them with great significance. The fact that we bolster the importance of our interests and concerns in this way is perhaps one of the reasons for the creation of religion in the first place. We took a normal concern like the meaning of life and blew it up out of all proportion.


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