A gift from Wales to the World

One of several blogs I keep an eye on is the aptly-named Math With Bad Drawings (though, actually, I think the drawings do have a certain charm and they are in any case done with pedagogical rather than aesthetic intent). ¬†This blog is by an American mathematician (hence the mis-spelling of maths ūüôā ) and consists of illustrated essays on a variety of mathematical topics.

I was recently flicking back through the archives of this blog and came across an interesting post that I didn’t notice when it first appeared, last December, even though I was following the blog by then (I guess it was pretty close to Christmas, which is generally a pretty busy time when it’s easy to skip over blog posts). It is a post that describes itself as a brief biography of the equals sign¬†(=).

You may be thinking that this isn’t the most enthralling of subjects and, although a mathematician myself (with a fairly keen interest in mathematical notation and history to boot), I’d be inclined to agree with you. ¬†However, here’s the exciting thing I learned from the post: the equals sign was invented in Wales (*).

The article doesn’t actually contain all that much information about the early history of the sign, though it has some fascinating stuff about its meaning and usage, as well as related symbols like > and <. ¬†There was just enough detail to enable me to hit Wikipedia and do a quick Google search for other sites to cross-check the facts (not very extensive research, I know, but probably sufficient to establish that Ben, the author of the MWBD blog, wasn’t just making it up).

Apparently the first recorded use of the equals sign was in a book called The Whetstone of Witte, by Welsh mathematician Robert Recorde, published in 1557. ¬†It is believed that Recorde invented this sign; before this, people used to just write “is equal to” (or words to that effect) when they wanted to indicate equality, so the sign was definitely a very convenient shorthand.

The same book is also credited with introducing the plus (+) and minus (-) signs to the English speaking world, though they (unlike =) were already known in other parts of the world so presumably Recorde became acquainted with them through perusing literature in other languages, or perhaps corresponding with other mathematicians, rather than re-inventing them independently.  In any case, the book definitely had a significant impact on the development of mathematical notation Рand the importance of having good notation for being able to develop mathematical ideas should not be underestimated.

(*) Actually, my¬†statement that “the equals sign was invented in Wales” is probably not quite accurate (the original article phrases it as “the equals sign was born in Wales”, which is little better). ¬†Robert Recorde was indeed Welsh (born in Tenby, Pembrokeshire) but he seems to have spent most of his adult life in Oxford, Cambridge and London (where he was a physician as well as a mathematician) so it’s more likely that the equals sign was born/invented in one of those places. ¬†Still, I think it’s fair to credit it as a Welsh invention.


Not quite nigh!

It’s now two years since I started my Doctor Who read-through project (Executive Summary: I’m (re)reading my entire (and now complete) collection of classic Doctor Who novelisations, together with (an incomplete set of) original novels/ audio-books set in the same era, in (internal) chronological order (more-or-less)). I purposely started this on 23rd November to coincide with the anniversary of the first episode broadcast.

By now I have reached the last few stories of the Peter Davison era.¬† That means I’m fairly well into the stories which I actually watched when they were first broadcast on TV (throughout most of the 1980s).¬† I’ve previously read quite a few of the novelisations of these stories, and watched a few of them on video/DVD, but my last attempted at a systematic read-through fizzled out mid-Tom Baker and I had many gaps in my collection (which I’ve subsequently filled – for the novelisations of TV stories at any rate) so for many of these, this is my first reacquaintance with them since I watched them the first time (and I’m sure I missed some episodes at the time).¬† This gives an extra sense of nostalgia to my reading from now on, although in general I actually prefer many of the earlier stories (Tom Baker and Patrick Troughton are my favourite Doctors).

The story I’m currently reading is Warriors of the Deep.¬† This is far from being one of the best stories in classic Doctor Who, or even within its own season, but it is quite an interesting story for me to revisit for two main reasons.

One is that it’s a story where I can fairly vividly remember at least one scene from the TV broadcast over 30 years ago.¬† The particular scene that’s etched in my memory is one of the episode cliffhangers, in which the Doctor appears to drown in a pool of water (supposed to be something to do with a nuclear reactor’s cooling system, I think).¬† Of course, the Doctor didn’t drown and I think that even watching it for the first time, at the tender age of about 7, I was aware that he wasn’t going to but it was still tense and exciting.

The other reason it’s interesting is that the story was written and broadcast at a time when the Cold War was, if not at its height, still pretty much in full swing and the story extrapolates from the then-present to a future (2084 to be exact – 100 years after the story was broadcast) in which the world is divided into two political blocs (East and West, who’d have thought it!) that are at war with each other.

Obviously, history followed a different course; the Cold War came to an end within less than 10 years and it doesn’t currently look like the future is going to be divided quite so clearly along those particular lines (any more than it’s likely that daleks will be invading the Earth in 2064 or any of the other futures posited by Doctor Who).¬† Still, the purpose of most (if not all) speculative fiction (including any Doctor Who story set in the future) is arguably, if not obviously, more to comment on (some aspect of) the world as it now is (at the time of writing) rather than to actually suggest that this is what the future will look like, so this story serves as in interesting reminder (for those of us who were there) or lesson (for those who weren’t) of how the Cold War affected our thinking in the early 1980s.

If Doctor Who from back then gives me a sense of nostalgia (i.e. warm fuzzy feelings about the past and how generally nice it was, or a desire to relive it), thinking about the Cold War gives me what can probably best be described as a sense of anti-nostalgia (a profound sense of gratitude that things aren’t like that any more).

I was too young at the time to have a very firm handle on the details of the world situation but I do remember an unpleasant sense of dread that everything was about to end in nuclear winter.  I remember on at least one occasion being particularly upset when I heard a plane flying overhead and thought it must be bringing a Soviet nuke to drop on our heads.

Perhaps more disturbing than the prospect of imminent Armageddon was the fact that, as tends to be the case in wars of any temperature, there was a strong tendency to think in terms of of “us” and “them” and, in particular, to view “them” (since they were safely hidden away behind the Iron Curtain and most of us didn’t come into any real contact with them to provide counterexamples to the idea) as all the same as one another and all evil, when in fact there was just as much difference among them as among us and most of them, like most of us, were just ordinary people trying to get on with their lives.

That is, of course, a huge simplification and very much a young child’s perspective on the Cold War (and one filtered by 30 years’ temporal fog to boot).¬† Still, to return to the Doctor Who story, this sensation of what it was like to live in a Cold War society (as well, perhaps, as the limitations of such thinking) is well conveyed, at least in the novelisation (another one by “Uncle Terrance”).

The story is also quite interesting, at least in hindsight, as it contains echoes of cyberpunk (a genre which was taking off at the time) in a tactical computer that is controlled by a specially-trained human operative interfacing it directly with his brain.  This turns out to be a definite weak point of the system, since the whizziest computer is useless if you disable the only person around who can operate it.

By the way, the story (as you might guess from the name) is set deep under the sea, on a top-secret West Bloc nuclear missile base (this is, incidentally, the first Doctor Who story for quite a long time to return to the classic base-under-siege formula that was a staple of the Troughton era) and the real enemy turn out not to be the East Bloc but a reptilian race who ruled the world before humans were on the scene and have now awoken from long hibernation and would like their planet back, if you please.  Though, if memory serves me, not to mention the Pertwee era stories Рboth of which I re-read last year РThe Silurians (novelised as The Cave Monsters) and The Sea Devils, they will also not turn out to be the enemy so much as the inbuilt human (and silurian) tendency to be somewhat territorial and to shoot before thinking.

According to the spreadsheet in which I’m recording my progress, I have 249 items of classic Doctor Who material in my collection and Warriors of the Deep is number 176 on the list. ¬†Therefore I’m about 70% of the way through my collection by now and fairly well on course for finishing by next November. ¬†If I can time it right, perhaps I’ll be able to finish the last book (“The Infinity Doctors” by Lance Parkin) on 23rd November 2015.

La Dame Azure

As I write this, I’ve just finished drinking a cup of what is currently one of my favourite types of tea – Blue Lady from The Kent & Sussex Tea & Coffee Company.

I first came across this company, which has become my favourite online tea merchant, sometime last year while searching, as I recall, for a place to get Russian Caravan tea (one of my perennial favourites – although their blend is a bit more delicate than I’m used to for this one).¬† Part of the attraction is that they are based in my home county of Kent, not to mention that they sell a wide range of interesting teas, coffees and other infusions (such as a very pleasant Spicy Chilli Rooibos) at quite reasonable prices (and no, I’m not getting paid to write nice things about them!).

The company is based in the village of Pluckley, which (despite having lived in Kent for almost half of my life to date) I don’t recall ever having visited.¬† It has a reputation as a haunted village and is sometimes claimed to be the most haunted village in the UK (according to Wikipedia, this assertion was backed up by an appearance in the 1989 edition of the Guinness Book of Records, though the article doesn’t mention what happened in subsequent editions).¬† Supposedly there are at least 12 ghosts which roam Pluckley and one of them is the Blue Lady after whom the tea is named.

Sadly I’ve been unable to discover the story of the Blue Lady, although several web-based lists of Britain’s Most Haunted Places which mention Pluckley (with no reference to a Blue Lady there) also talk about a Blue Lady either at Berry Pomeroy Castle near Totness in Devon (see here – NB Pluckley’s item #2 on the list and the Blue Lady is at #7) or at Temple Newsam in Yorkshire (in this Wikipedia list, which is in alphabetical order per country).¬† The tea company website is vague on the point, merely referring to “the blue lady spirit who roams our most haunted village” and mentioning that some of the locals call her Lady Blue (so it’s possible that she isn’t officially called The Blue Lady).

In any case, the name seems to have provided the Pluckley-based tea merchants with a good excuse to come up with a fine tea, which they describe as “a is a citrus scented blend of loose leaf black tea with exotic flowers.”¬† That seems to me to be a good description and in fact the next bit of their description – “A tea to really excite the taste buds. A powerful citrus aroma with a sweet scented taste!” – is also, while subject to a certain amount of marketing hyperbole, a fair enough description.

Incidentally, for those of you who know me as more of a coffee drinker than a tea drinker (which is probably not actually true, although I do retain a strong affection and appetite for the umber nectar, without which I can scarce contemplating starting the day), although I have thus far mostly sampled the teas (including rooibos, though it isn’t strictly tea) of the Kent & Sussex Tea Company, I’ve also recently finished a pack of their Brazilian coffee beans.¬† I enjoyed this coffee very much and I look forward to tasting a few more of their wares on that side of the fence too.

Hats and History

In my last post, I mentioned my brother Wulf.¬† He is a rather more regular blogger than me, with almost daily posts, and on his blog this morning he posted an interesting video he’d found.¬† Rather than repost the video here, I’ll leave you to visit Wulf’s blog if you want to see it.

The video is two short films of London shown side by side.¬† They both follow the same route round the city but one of them dates from 1927 while the other was shot last year (presumably with the express intention of comparing it to the older film; I suppose whoever made it didn’t have access to any good footage from 1913 and didn’t want to wait until 2027 to make his film).

It is an interesting comparison with, as Wulf points out, some features remaining the same and others being radically different.

One thing that struck me in particular was how in 1927 the vast majority of people are wearing hats and only a few are bareheaded, while in 2013 the opposite is true.  This is particularly noticeable in a scene showing the market at Petticoat Lane (although, to be fair, the modern version of that scene actually has more hats than most of the rest of the film).

In this respect, though certainly not in the relative formality of the clothes otherwise, I would actually fit in better to the London of 87 years ago than the present day, as I almost always wear some kind of hat when I’m outside.¬† In fact, it feels slightly strange to me to be outside with my head uncovered!

I have a reasonably large collection of different hats and I wear them for practical reasons (such as keeping my head warm in winter, and protecting my hair and eyes from sun, rain and seagulls) and, I suppose, largely out of habit rather than as a fashion (or anti-fashion) statement.

In the unlikely event that I should ever fulfill my dream of being a time traveller, I suspect that I’d find 1920s London a strange and not particularly comfortable place to be.¬† At least, though, I wouldn’t have to worry about adjusting to wearing a hat in order to fit in!