Month: October 2019

I have fallen in love with spandrels

One of my paid jobs now is to check Very Short Introductions online. Very Short Introductions, or VSIs for short, are books which do just what it says on the tin: they provide a very short introduction to a subject. Oxford University Press has been publishing these books since when I worked there. In fact, I was a colleague of the very clever editor who first came up with the idea and I remember it well. There are hundreds of these books now, over a decade later, providing very short introductions to subjects ranging from the Avant Garde to Number Theory (and many things between the two).

This afternoon I was checking the forthcoming Very Short Introduction to Philosophy of Biology online (due to publish this autumn). Anything with the word ‘philosophy’ in the title is going to fascinate me and it wasn’t long before I became distracted by the content of this book rather than checking that it looks good online. As I was scrolling through the text I came across an image which caught my eye. It was very similar to the one below.

The grey bits are spandrels

The caption read: ‘A spandrel is the triangular space between a curved arch and a rectangular frame or dome.’ This occurred to me as an odd image to find in a biology book. Surely, I reasoned, this concept, of the spandrel, related to art, architecture and perhaps even mathematics.

I decided to ask more of my friend google. I found out that a spandrel is, originally at least, an architectural term to describe the curved triangular shape between an arch and the outer surface, as indicated in the image in the Philosophy of Biology book. How had I never heard this term before? I asked myself. I delved deeper.

I was right to delve deeper, there is more. A spandrel isn’t just this shape, which is amazing in itself. A spandrel has been adapted to mean something more abstract and more interesting. Those biological philosophers discussed in this book I was checking today also use the term. In their eyes, a spandrel refers to a phenotypic (relating to the observable characteristics of an individual resulting from the interaction of its genotype with the environment) characteristic that is a byproduct of the evolution of some other characteristic, rather than a direct product of adaptive selection. This, as dear reader you can tell, has nothing to do with architecture.

Rather, that is a little sciency. So, basically, in more layman’s terms perhaps, a spandrel is something that has evolved biologically which isn’t directly related to survival, but which ends up being useful for survival. It’s a bit like an afterthought that becomes useful. Just as the triangular shape above an arch is almost the ‘cut out’ from the shape, so the afterthought, as is a biological spandrel an afterthought or ‘cut out’.

An example can be seen with the human brain. Many secondary processes and actions have evolved over time, which come in addition to the main functions of the human brain. These secondary processes and thoughts can eventually turn into an adaptation of some sort, or even provide a fitness advantage to humans. Just because something is a secondary trait or byproduct of an adaptation does not mean it has no use. So we are full of such spandrels! A good example is music. We have learnt to make music. It has no obvious use at first, but it can be used to our advantage: as a language, as a skill and as a form of entertainment or distraction. A better example might be human culture.  We created it to counter-act the anxiety we feel about death. If we feel that we are individuals of importance then we don’t worry so much about death. We have caused ourselves to feel that life has a meaning so therefore preventing ourselves from existing in a constant state of existential crisis (or, perhaps not all of us feel this way).

Again, I feel energised and excited about something I have just learnt at this age I am. How on earth have I managed to avoid spandrels thus far? They are brilliant!

I need to find other examples, perhaps this geeky passion of mine which leads me to investigate something for hours on end is a spandrel. It isn’t obviously necessary for my survival in the big wide world but it is certainly acting as a distraction to life’s anxieties.

I will end here with perhaps my favourite spandrel: a man’s nipples. Why are men’s nipples spandrels? I will leave that to you to work out.

A random man’s hairy nipple – a spandrel

My little number friends

Last night, I started a discussion on Facebook questioning whether the number 1 was a prime number or not and this inspired  the previous blog post which I wrote earlier today. As I was falling asleep last night, I considered numbers further (I have a busy brain). I started to feel sorry for 1 for not being allowed to be a prime number anymore. The number 1 is a pre-teen boy and he wants to be liked. He doesn’t like being alone all the time. He is white (as in colour, not ethnic origin). I then moved on to think about the number 2. She is a slim and elegant young lady, she is bright yellow and always cheerful. I would love to be more like her. She is smooth, symmetrical and even. She is always right.

My little friends

Then I thought to myself: am I bonkers? Do numbers really have personalities? It seems that to me they do. I asked myself: is this normal? I had no idea. So I decided to go through the other numbers and their personalities came readily and vividly to me. Here are the rest:

  • 3 is male, early twenties, ambitious, good-looking and a deep green.
  • 4 is also male, a bit more serious and geeky. He likes maths. He probably works in IT. He’s a lovely deep navy blue.
  • 5 is a middle-aged man, laid back, probably has a manual job and enjoys a pint in the pub with his friends. He’s sky blue.
  • 6 is a curvaceous lady, she is orange, jolly, cheerful. She is homely and motherly.
  • 7 is a lady too, but a bit spiky. She’s in her forties (not me, honest). She’s a deep orange. She probably works in a library.
  • 8 is an older lady, she’s in her sixties, also motherly and homely, like 6. She’s a luscious dark red. She has a bosom you just want to sink into.
  • 9 is a man, he’s very serious and very dark. He has no sense of humour at all. He’s tall and solitary.  His black, of course. He’s very intelligent though. He deserves respect.
  • 10 is a man too, he’s cream coloured with a hint of beige. That’s all I know about him. He’s good with his hands, he likes DIY.

I could go on, but I won’t, not yet. Should I start on the alphabet next?

I’ve just googled this ‘thing’ I have. It seems this is a real ‘thing’. It is called OLP or ordinal-linguistic personification. I have a new ‘thing’ and I’m not crazy (or, perhaps I am a little) after all. Whoopee. I’m quite excited. I want to learn more.

Is Number 1 God, or is it just a lost soul?

Two days ago I discovered, much to my horror, that a few years ago (I’m not sure how many but sometime after the mid-1980s) it was decided, by someone, that the number 1 is not a prime number. I was very shocked at this discovery as I had been taught that it was the first prime number, being divisible by 1 and itself.

The god of all numbers

The argument goes that you cannot divide yourself by yourself twice, you can divide yourself by yourself only once (were you to be the number 1 that is). So, if you are the number 2, you can divide yourself by yourself and you can divide yourself by the number next to you, in other words, 1. And if you are the number 3, then again, you can divide yourself by yourself. If you try to divide yourself by the number next to you, 2, you get a fraction, and then so that leaves 1. Of course the next number, 4, is a lucky so-and-so for he can divide himself by himself, and not by poor old 3, but he can by the lovely 2, and he can by the lucky number 1.

So, I have found out that the ‘one-is-not-a-prime-number’-ers argue that to be a prime number, a number needs to have two separate divisors.  Therefore, the number 2, interesting in itself for being the only even prime number, is the first prime number and number 1 is just, a, erm, lonely old soul that sits sadly without significance.

My counter-argument is (I do love to stick my fingers up to science sometimes despite being an artist) to ask: what if there are two number 1s hanging around? If that is the case, then one of those number 1s is divisible by itself and the other number 1. Who is to say that number 1 is unique? Ha, got you there, you sciencey types. I’m sure they will disagree but there is always that teeny tiny possibility that I might be right.

I’ve been doing a bit of digging on the Internet about this, and I have learnt that apparently, the ancient Greeks, didn’t even consider number 1 as a number, so it was therefore not considered as a prime number. I am starting to feel sorry for number 1. Not only is it quite lonely on its own, but it is being excluded from one of the most beautiful mathematical theories just because it is itself. How would you feel if you were excluded just for being you?

And, I have more to say on the matter, what about minus numbers? Is -2 a prime, is -1 a prime? I’m not enough of a mathematician to work this out and argue the case but I suspect they should be. I love that mathematics, which might by some be considered by many to be a system of logic and common sense, isn’t actually as clear cut as it might first appear.

Whatever the answer to the prime thing is, number 1 is very important and should not be forgotten. After all, none of the other numbers would exist without the number 1 to start them off. Does that make number 1 a god? The god of all numbers?

Why I want to write a book called ‘#funwithhashtags’

My most recent obsession is a TV programme on Channel 4 called The Circle. There are many reasons why I like this programme: it’s entertaining, it has a psychological depth that isn’t immediately apparent, it speaks volumes about the loneliness (or, ironically, otherwise) of online engagement, and it is all about having fun with hashtags.

The Circle

I haven’t really used hashtags much before. I have only just about got to grips with the point of them on the likes of Twitter and Instagram. And I have only used them sparingly and with much consideration of how useful they will be. That is, until recently. They have been using them on The Circle without their proper purpose in mind and this fact I find fascinating.

Hashtags, just in case the reader of this blog doesn’t know, are joined up words fronted by a hash symbol (#) which then become searchable on social media and the Internet in general. If you type in, for example, #thecircle into the search box in Twitter you will see a whole stream of tweets that have recently been posted with #theccircle in them.

In The Circle, however, the messages passed between the contestants are not searchable. Their online engagement is fake. It isn’t linked to the Internet. Yet they use hashtag language at the end of most of their messages.

So, this weird habit of not using hashtags properly is catching, and I have started to use them with my WhatsApp messages to my two sons. It is driving them bonkers. Result. They don’t understand why I am doing it, as my hashtag phrases are not searchable. I have acknowledged that. But it is still fun #windingchildrenupisfun. I just love finishing sentences with a hashtag #smallpleasures.

Some of our messages

So what do you think? #sheisnuts #herblogsareweird

Where are they now and why do I suddenly care?

I know I have written about nostalgia here before, but the nostalgia bug has bitten me again recently. I’ve been thinking about the past a lot over the last few weeks. Perhaps it is my age. I am (reluctantly) approaching 50 (28 months to go and counting). I am in denial. Even typing that, seems absurd. Fifty? Me? No way! I’ve always been ‘the youngest’ (of three). I’ve always been the childish one. I’ve always been the fun one. I’m the one who doesn’t like adulting. This ‘child’ me is part of me and hasn’t yet gone anywhere. How on earth can I be approaching 50? That is just bonkers. That is old.

A university friend of mine and I have recently been playing a game we have named ‘cyber stalking’. This is a game where we try to find out what has happened to people we both knew at university (25 years ago) who have somehow disappeared off the face of the earth, not even appearing on that omnipresent social media forum known as Facebook. We have found a few old names / faces each and shared our findings. Paul Blew – looks a very young 47. Gideon White – has no hair now. Nick Johnson-Hill – looks very good for his age. There is no escape, it seems, even if you manage to avoid Facebook. These distant names and personalities we remember are there, if you google their names and / or locations, perhaps with less hair and more wrinkles and life experience than we remember than at 18. I find I am fascinated with finding these lost people. I need to know where they are and how they are, without actually getting in touch and screaming ‘remember me?’ at them. (No doubt they’d say ‘oh, yes, I remember you, the weird one who shared a room with Sara Jenkins and Caroline Whatserface’ And, while we are on the subject, where are Sara without an ‘h’ and Caroline now? I haven’t yet managed to find them. We slept in the same room for a whole year and they are now lost to me.)

I wonder if this need for nostalgia is normal at this age and if it is a sign of the approaching end decade. It probably is. That fact alone, makes me want to yawn, as someone who has always sought not to fit type. How boring, to be predictable! Perhaps I just need to admit that I have become that ‘middle aged’ (shudder) person and embrace this time of my life. So what did ever happen to Pete Butler from the top floor? Where is he now? Every time I hear ‘There She Goes’ by the Las I think of him, but I can’t for the life of me remember why.

This song reminds me of Pete Butler, but where is he now?

The joy of being pricked with little pins

I haven’t had a weird thought for a very long time it feels, and this isn’t so much a ‘weird thought’ as a desire to tell the world about a new, profound, yet completely unexpected experience that I’ve just had. I write this now, sat in a charming little bar in the small market town of Stone, sipping an Americano, just after the experience in question. Sipping coffee here isn’t the profound experience in question, lovely though it is.

My coffee

That experience I’m referring to is acupuncture.

I didn’t wake up this morning with the knowledge that I was going to not just allow, but actively encourage someone to stick a load of pins into me. I had no idea that this was going to happen. I did wake up, however, with the knowledge that I was finally going to see a physiotherapist about a niggling arm pain that I’ve had for two years.

I thought today would entail a load of forms, a few pokes and prods, a lot of ‘hmmms’, ‘oh dear that is bad’s, and some ‘go away and do this over and over again’s, I didn’t expect to leave an hour after arriving feeling not only simultaneously energised and relaxed, and in much less pain (not completely cured, don’t get too excited), and as if I were floating on the cloud of mental well being. It was just one of the most wonderful experiences I have ever had, second to hypnotherapy and interestingly very similar.

I didn’t quite have this many pins stuck in me

I have had this niggling arm pain for so long that it has become the norm. I assumed it was old age. It wasn’t, it was ‘tenderness of the rough cuff’ or something like that. It is a real thing, not just old age. That’s not the exact wording of the diagnosis but anyone in the know reading this will be able to work out what I mean. It is treatable. It isn’t something I have to live with. I should have done something sooner. I am a bit of an idiot for not.

The treatment  today (after the predicted forms, prods and ‘hmmm’s) involved acupressure (and that was also bizarrely painful yet pleasurable) and then acupuncture (no pain, no discomfort, but a sensation of enormous well being). The acupuncture involved me lying on my stomach, with pins placed at various points, my head poking through a strange hole, staring at the carpet, and being left with Ken Bruce for company for 20 minutes. I did quite well at Pop Master today (no Captain Sensible did not sing ‘Spread A Little Happiness’, it was Sting of course).

Ken and cat

I also have to do some exercises, as I predicted, but I didn’t expect to feel this much changed in my mind and body. I will happily trot off home to do my homework.

I’m not sure what the point of this blog is except to say: don’t ever put things off, it’s not worth it, and if you ever get the chance to have someone stick pins in you – go for it. It feels better than a double gin and tonic and without the hangover!