Wednesday, December 08, 2010

A well rounded review

I was alerted last night (via @wiggioloz on Twitter) that a website called Good Reads had featured my book Joined-Up Thinking. As you may (or may not) know, the book takes the form of 30 short chapters, or 'rounds', in which a series of interesting facts are linked together into a circular chain; you start at the beginning and leapfrog your way through until you come back to where you started. So I had a look at the website and was delighted to read comments that were complimentary but which also said that 'once you've read a few rounds you want to have a go yourself. And someone has! Here's a round created by Trevor from Melbourne. Well done Sir! I am hugely flattered. x

My friend Nell sent me this nice book. Of course, I mean nice in the modern sense and not any of its old meanings. Nice started life meaning foolish and senseless and then meant wanton and loose – along the way it has also meant strange, slothful, lazy, effeminate, delicate, over-refined, shy, dainty, trivial and finally agreeable or kind. It has been a very busy word.

English is considered to have more words than any other language, so you might wonder why nice has needed to have quite so many meanings. Of course, deciding how many words a language has is not an easy matter – the fact is that it is quite impossible. All languages have words for numbers, for example, and we all know there is an infinite number of those and so all languages must have an infinite number of words.

Some numbering systems are much more logical than others. It is hard to imagine that the placement system which seems so obvious and logical to us today actually had a hard time getting accepted and that some of the greatest of mathematicians did all of their mathematics using numbers that did not use it. I used to believe that this would make doing multiplication hard, except they didn’t actually do multiplication with Roman Numerals, but rather with an abacus. Roman Numerals were only used for recording calculations, not for actually calculating them. It seems also true that the fact that some languages use logical names for their numbers positively affects how well their children learn mathematics.

Asian languages tend to have names for numbers that directly relate to the numbers or fractions being described and are also consistent with the numbers’ placement system. So that 14 will be ten four rather than the very odd English fourteen which is backwards and confuses kids even more by sounding remarkably like our word for 40.

Life is supposed to begin at 40, but really, for me it began in Northern Ireland. I mention this because this book was sent to me for my birthday. I’ve only just learnt that one of my heroes was also born in Northern Ireland – James Burke, most famous for his television series The Day the Universe Changed and Connections. Both of which ought to be compulsory viewing. In Connections he shows how no single event or discovery in history is unconnected to its time. Sometimes those connections and the consequences of them are surprising or even shocking. They are always interesting. This book does for trivia what Burke did for history, shows a series of fascinatingly linked up facts.

The most famous Burke in Australian history was the Irish policeman with an appropriate looking long beard who died on the misadventure to the Cape of Carpentaria known as the Burke and Wills Expedition. Burke was forced to take Ludwig Becker with him, a German scientific artist, socialist and, well, to be frank another hero of mine. Becker at the time was in his fifties and Burke felt that if Becker lived through the expedition people would say it couldn’t have been all that hard – so he effectively worked Becker to death. An act of cruelty and stupidity that pretty much summed up this ‘scientific expedition’ and explains why you don't put a jock in charge of science.

James Burke made his name covering another scientific expedition – the Apollo mission - as a journalist. I had always assumed he must have been a professor of history somewhere, but instead his life and interests sound disturbingly similar to mine. Of course, for anyone interested in ideas history is an inevitable attraction, just as anyone interested in words will tend to end up interested in poetry.

For a lot of people poetry is too much like hard work, but the odd thing is how frequently lines of poetry spring into one’s mind at unexpected times. This is often true in what I guess could be called ‘crisis points’ in one’s life. Excessive joy or pain are particularly prone for this little trick poetry likes to play – although sometimes the connection as to why a line of Keats should suddenly come to mind while we are eating muscles may remain forever obscure. Such being but one of the happenstances of life.

HappenStance Press is a poetry publisher specialising in poetry pamphlets. It has produced some delightful books of poetry by some wonderful poets – a breed of person that our world could do with more of. It was set up by my very dear friend of a thousand names, one of which is Helena Nelson. There is a lovely saying that a favourite child tends to have more names than God. One of the other names I know Ms Nelson by is Nell.

My friend Nell sent me this nice book ...

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