Getting Up A Head Of Steam

It is currently the Ashes[1]. This is good, because it gives me something to distract myself from doing any actual work. The main talking point so far has been: how can England get rid of Steve Smith? The rest of Australia’s batting line-up is a little suspect without him; with him in, he becomes the proverbial immovable object and England haven’t so far found an irresistible force to displace him. The only thing that’s worked is getting Jofra Archer to bowl so fast that Smith gets hit on various parts of his body and ends up having to retire hurt. For those who missed it, Smith’s stay in the first innings of the 2nd Test was ended by a nasty blow on the forearm and then one on the side of the neck from a couple of Archer’s fast balls. He did return to the crease after retiring hurt and getting checked over, but was visibly shaken and perpetrated one of the worst leaves ever in professional cricket to quickly get out lbw to a straight one from Woakes.

This has rather re-ignited the debate about whether the laws of cricket should be changed to make bowling at batters’ heads illegal, particularly as Smith was wearing an old-style helmet without a stem guard (neck protection) and was hit in more-or-less the same place as Phil Hughes was, who later died. Smith seems fine, fortunately, but there’s clearly always going to be the potential for anyone facing a fast bowler to get hit in exactly the wrong place and die. So, should the laws be changed?

No, I would argue. Though not because I’m some sort of small-minded conservative who opines that ‘it’s all part of the game’ in the same way that some people objected to the abolition of the death penalty or corporal punishment in school as a matter of principle, just because it was a change. First, though, to play devil’s advocate, the argument for changing things: proponents of changing the laws point at, say, American football and rugby, where, after some high-profile injuries and deaths, high tackles and deliberate targeting of the head are now right out. Similarly, real football has started taking concussion injuries from tackling or accidental collisions  much more seriously. And, to be fair to cricket, it has followed suit, with the recent advent of rules surrounding the treatment of concussion and substitutes for concussed players, which we saw put into practice for the first time in a Test with Smith. But, given the adoption of new-style helmets with stem guards isn’t mandatory for players – they can feel more encumbering, rather than it’s players being stupid – accidental deaths could still occur. And, no matter how much we all like cricket, surely we should ensure that the rules, as far as reasonably possible, remove the possibility of such accidental deaths?

Generally speaking, I agree with this position and wouldn’t have any problem with making more protective helmets a requirement for any batter. But banning bowlers from targeting the head – moving towards a rugby model – would be idiotic. Because it wouldn’t stop balls hitting batters in the head AND would make the game much less interesting. In rugby, it is relatively easy to not tackle people around the neck. As the tackler, you are more-or-less entirely in control of where you make contact with the tacklee. Sure, they might dodge or jink, but, if you’re aiming for their torso/waist/legs, it’s very unlikely you’re going to end up smacking them in the face. It’s also very unlikely that going for the head is ever going to be your only option to make a tackle, so the ban on high tackles isn’t going to mess up the flow of the game particularly.

However, as a fast bowler in cricket, you can do everything humanly possible to avoid knocking batters out, but you could still end up doing it. This is because the trajectory of a ball once it’s left the hand of the bowler is only partially determined by the bowler[2]. You can aim at a particular spot on the pitch, but there’s no guarantee you’ll hit it exactly. How the ball bounces off whichever bit of the pitch it hits is, indeed, partly determined by the bowler’s intentions – how hard it was thrown, the angle at which it was thrown – but is also in large part a result of the state of the ball and the state of the pitch. In other words, a bowler can never be entirely sure how a ball will bounce after it’s hit the pitch. So, you could aim to bowl something that’s not going to bounce above chest height, but it could hit a patch of rough, spit up and take the batter in the face regardless. There’s also a further factor that complicates matters: the batter themself. They don’t stay still. Especially someone as fidgety as Smith. Wherever the batter is when the bowler releases the ball, they’ll quite probably be in a different position by the time the ball reaches them.

So, all banning bowlers aiming at the head would do would make them bowl exaggeratedly slowly and carefully to avoid any unintended chance of a ball doing something illegal, which would make cricket really dull. I’m not saying bowlers should be given carte blanche by any means – they’re not anyway – but bowling is too imprecise an art to make any rules governing the trajectory of the ball after it’s left the bowler’s hand in any way practical. It would be a bit like blaming a footballer for hitting someone in the face with the ball after their shot takes a deflection off another player or a ricochet off the woodwork. So yes, encourage batters to wear better helmets and discourage fast bowlers deliberately trying to smack people on the head, but don’t ban it, because it wouldn’t solve anything. The nature of cricket means there’s always a slim chance someone might get seriously injured, and the only way to deal with that would be to ban cricket. And that just wouldn’t be cricket.

[1] Note for Americans and people not interested in sport: the Ashes is one of the oldest sporting competitions in the world and is a bilateral cricket series between England and Australia, contested every 18 months or so. It is generally quite hotly contested and usually generates some sort of controversy. This post is therefore going to be about cricket. If you have no interest in cricket, you may want to stop reading now, because I can’t be asked to explain everything without using cricket jargon. Or you could skip the first paragraph and get to the bit where I start making a more general point.

[2] Unless you bowl a really horrendous full toss, in which case you probably shouldn’t be allowed to bowl.


So It Begins

As well as banging my head against my computer over the last few weeks[1], I have taken what feels like an irreversible step: I have started writing up my PhD thesis. It feels a bit as if the bell has just gone for the final round of a very long boxing match, we’re both level on points, and the end is coming soon, but whether that end is me being dragged KO off to hospital, winning on a technicality or split decision, or standing triumphantly over my defeated opponent remains to be seen.

But, it really does rather feel as if this is the beginning of the end. I’ve spent three years in a comfortable PhD bubble and, one way or another, starting to write up is what really marks the start of the process of exiting that bubble. I have to think about what comes next for the first time since February 2016, which is a little unsettling[2]. The only certainty is that things will change[3].

First though, I actually have to write the bloody thing. And. It. Is. So. Dull. I’ve talked before about how the writing style of academic papers is about as interesting as the paint-drying room at the Annual Convention of Beige-Paint-Watching Enthusiasts. Well, a PhD thesis is like that turned up to eleventy-stupid. The literature review is particularly bad – you’re just repeating what other people have said and/or propounding a load of very dry theory. The method section is also the worst – it’s just a list of things you did, hopefully with justifications as  to why those decisions you made two years ago because they sounded a good idea at the time actually are a good idea. After that, things go into a bit of a decline when you finally start talking about what you found out, but in such a recondite, joyless manner that you’d think it had been written by Marvin the Paranoid Android after having been lobotomised and losing his joie de vivre.

The only good bit is the acknowledgements, because you’re allowed to have a personality when writing those. I’m saving writing those for when I really need cheering up. I’m not sure what the record for ‘Longest Acknowledgements in a PhD thesis’ is, but I might have a good go at beating it. If only to stop me turning into Marvin over the next 6 months[4].

I think I will be very glad when this is all over. I don’t hate my PhD, but I think I could end up hating its physical embodiment. God, it’s dull. Hard work I can live with; it’s the boredom that is the real killer. No one warns you about this when you start out!


[1] Mostly figuratively. Mostly.

[2] As things stand, I still have no idea what is coming next. Given I don’t run out of money until March, it’s still slightly too early to be able to start nailing anything down. At least, that’s what I keep telling myself….

[3] That’s one of those truisms that sounds really profound until you actually think about it, when it turns out to be bleeding obvious. It’s a slightly higher class of platitude.

[4] I am fully aware that, should I stay in academia, as I hope to do, I will almost certainly have to examine a PhD at some point and, consequently, properly read someone else’s thesis. Obviously, I will do so, but I can’t say the thought fills me with elation.

Letting Them Get Away With Murder

After what, in retrospect, is clearly too long, I’ve finally got round to moving out of college accommodation into a real house that I’m sharing with a friend. This is both more expensive and more admin than if I’d stayed put, but I can look forward to such luxuries as:

  • Not being stuck with a load of random students I don’t know and some of whom seem unable to comprehend how freezers or toilets work
  • My own washing machine
  • Lights that don’t turn on and off automatically, often at inopportune moments[1]
  • A kitchen where all the appliances don’t turn off automatically with the lights, meaning you can’t leave anything for more than 4 m 40 s[2]
  • Being closer than a mile to shops of any kind
  • Being close to an actual supermarket
  • Having a lounge

The real downside is, though, having to deal with lettings agents. Private renting in Cambridge is bad enough anyway – it’s close enough to London and popular and techy enough in its own right that it’s pretty expensive – so you’ve got to resign yourself to that. If only we hadn’t turned the housing market into an investment opportunity rather than a means for people to find somewhere to live…. But that’s a whole other can of worms that I intend to leave safely sealed. Cambridge is also made worse by what seems to be a pervading assumption that you’re either a young professional with cash to burn[3], or you’re an undergraduate student[4], and will therefore accept pretty much anything that has four walls and a roof, regardless of how unfit for habitation it actually is. As a postgraduate student, I fall rather in-between these two stools, in that I essentially have the responsibilities, house-training and time commitment required by a ‘real’ job, without having the salary. So that makes things a little difficult right off.

But then you throw the lettings agents in and everything gets a whole lot worse. You know all those kids at school that you always wondered how they remembered to get through each day without forgetting to breathe and just accidentally suffocating through sheer idiocy? Well, they all became lettings agents. This is the first time I’ve had to look on the private rental market in Cambridge, but I’ve done it before in other places, when I was a young professional with money to burn, and I have yet to find a lettings agent who isn’t downright incompetent, so it’s not just that students get treated particularly poorly because they’re poor. You’d think this imbecility would be a barrier to lettings agents being employed, but seeing as they all seem to be useless, it really doesn’t seem to be. They promise to do something: they don’t do it, unless you keep badgering them until they do. A minor administrative task needs doing, which they have to do on every property they let: they mess it up. You turn up for a viewing: they turn up with the wrong keys, or no keys, or they don’t turn up at all. I’m sure there must be competent ones out there, but they seem to be in a tiny minority. At least you don’t have to pay them fees any more for carrying out basic services, so you’re not financially contributing to this farrago of ineptitude, but it seems odd that most lettings agents seem to be so fundamentally bad at actually doing their job. To the extent that they seem to be more of a hindrance to the housing market than a help.

There are two explanations for this:

  1. Lettings agents are just, generally, stupid
  2. Lettings agents are actually fairly intelligent and very malevolent, and just enjoy messing up the lives of people on a whim

Those of a more cynical mindset may tend towards the second explanation; others towards the first. My feeling is it’s mostly the first with a bit of the second on occasion. On the basis that the second option, like all conspiracy theories, requires an improbable amount of co-ordination, secret-keeping and long-term organisation and co-option across a very large number of people[5]. I find it a lot easier to believe in a lot of not-very-intelligent people being crap at their job, with the odd bad egg thrown in, who just enjoys being unpleasant and difficult, than in a lot of intelligent, super-organised sadists who are all phenomenal actors.

Not that knowing that they’re probably just stupid makes their incompetence any less annoying or irksome. But, if you expect it, you can at least deal with it. It could be argued that we should get rid of lettings agents entirely – it would definitely improve many people’s lives and, frankly, what do they really do?  – but then all these intellectually disadvantaged people would be unemployed and might end up in positions where they can really do some damage. Such as the Cabinet[6]. So maybe it’s best that we let them be (pun fully intended) as a way of containing them. Not that this would stop me, if I were Lord Vetinari, from replacing my prohibition of mime artists with one on lettings agents. With a sign in the scorpion pit just saying ‘Learn’.

At least I won’t have to deal with them too much for the next year now….

[1] Such as when you’re chopping things up in the kitchen and haven’t moved for long enough.

[2] I timed it. Obviously. This is especially annoying when baking and you have to spend a whole hour in the kitchen just to stop the oven turning off in a fit of pique.

[3] The dreaded ‘professional couple only’ was a frequent occurrence on ads for houses. It did at least make me realise that the opening episode of Spaced is slightly more plausible than I initially thought.

[4] Don’t forget, as the sign at the station proudly and bizarrely proclaims, Cambridge is also the home of Anglia Ruskin University, which, like most universities, doesn’t give its students accommodation beyond their first year, leaving them to fend for themselves in the dangers of the Real World. University of Cambridge undergrads almost always spend all three or four years of their course in college accommodation of some sort, so they’re not competing on the rental market.

[5] I mean, sure, the moon landings could have been faked if NASA and the US government had really wanted to try, but, in 50 years, not one of the thousands of people involved has let slip any solid clue to that effect? People talk, large organisations leak and the amount of skulduggery that would have been required to fake the moon landings frankly makes actually going to the Moon look the easier option by a long way.

[6] OK, that’s a cheap shot at the Cabinet, but it’s not exactly a group of people that inspire confidence in their sagacity and general decision-making. Even if Chris Grayling isn’t in it anymore.

Feel The Heat

It has, self-evidently, been very hot in the UK recently. So hot that we now have a new record temperature of 38.7°C, just pipping the previous all-time record of 38.5°C. As in, it was the hottest it has ever been in the UK since records have been kept, so for about 250 years. It’s also exposed how woefully unadapted our infrastructure is for a warmer future – it’s not as if anyone wanted to get on a train, right? But what’s worrying is not so much the heat itself, which is bad enough, but the lack of response to it.

Our previous maximum temperature of 38.5 degrees was set in the 2003 summer heatwave. Now, whilst we’ve exceeded that this summer, 2003 was still, in many ways, worse, given it was ridiculously hot for the best part of a fortnight[1] rather than a few days. But what’s worrying is the relative lack of media attention this year’s getting. I just about remember 2003, and the news was full of apocalyptic warnings along the lines of ‘EVERYTHING IS MELTING. REMAIN INDOORS. DRINK ALL THE WATER. IMMERSE YOUR GRANNY AND YOUR BABY IN AN ICE BATH TO SAVE THEM. THE HEAT! THE HEAT! AAAARRRGGGHHH!

This summer it’s been more ‘It’s a bit hot. Drink some water. Also, we might break our own temperature record. Pretty neat, huh?’

In other words, despite the well-publicised succession of scientific articles pointing out how abormally warm recent years have been, society seems to have accepted that unprecedented heat is, in fact, entirely normal. The recent succession of hotter and hotter years means we’ve forgotten what a ‘normal’ summer[2] looks like. The average maximum temperature for 1981-2010 for England, the hottest bit of the UK, in July and August is just over 20 degrees. Now, obviously, England is quite large and there’s a lot of variation, but maximum temperatures over 25 degrees in any one bit of the country are, on average, pretty unusual. Over the last few years, though, certainly in the south-east, people would probably consider them entirely reasonable. Right now, they even look to be downright cool. And that’s the really scary thing. It seems that, like the proverbial frog in a saucepan, we’ve collectively failed to notice that the heat is being turned up. Sooner or later, we’re going to boil unless we do wake up.

The ability of the human mind to normalise any set of conditions if they persist long enough is a great asset. It’s one of the key reasons we’ve successfully colonised all the planet’s biomes, rather than just giving up because it was a bit chilly or sandy or rocky. But, in this case, I rather think it’s likely to end up doing us more harm than good. Though I’m sure our wondrous new government will fix things in a jiffy. Once we leave the EU, I imagine there’s a sketchy plan to build a wall in the Channel reaching to the stratosphere to keep out all this nasty foreign air and preserve our great British weather. Or we’ll all jump in Jacob Rees-Mogg’s time machine and hide out in the relative cool of the 17th century.

The world’s not going to end overnight. But a lot more of it is going to spend a lot more time on fire. Figuratively and literally.

[1] Also, don’t forget last summer was pretty hot, if not as hot, and exceptionally dry, for the best part of 3 months.

[2] Insofar as you can define a normal state for the stochastic chaotic mess that is the Earth’s climate. Regardless, though, the 10 warmest years recorded have all happened since 2002, and none of the 10 coldest years have happened since 1963.

You Have Two Swords

You’ve heard of the Two Cows method of explaining political systems. Well, here comes the Two Swords method of explaining Roman Christian high medieval Europe[1]. A quick primer: the Two Swords doctrine was the basis for medieval imperial-Papal relations and essentially stated that the Emperor was in charge of the secular side of things (on account of having been given the sword of potestas or power to maintain order and provide the conditions for the Church to be able to get on with things) and the Pope was in charge of the spiritual side (as he possessed the sword of auctoritas or spiritual authority, being responsible for ensuring everyone’s divine salvation). Nice idea, but fell down when people started trying to work out which sword had pre-eminence. But that’s another story[2]. Anyway, here goes[3]:

  • The Empire: You very definitely have one sword. You might have another sword, but you’re not sure and the Papacy gets very upset every time you try to check. You decide it’s not worth it and stick with one sword.
  • The Papacy: You have one humungous sword and a letter opener. You live in fear that everyone else will notice the letter opener and realise you’re not all that. You get round this problem by frenziedly waving the very big sword around constantly and threatening to beat everyone with it, on the principle that it’s very hard to notice things when a wrong move will lead to your ear being chopped off. Occasionally, you get overconfident and try to use the letter opener. This never ends well. You go back to madly waving the big sword.
  • France: You have two swords, because you’re the most Christian king. You want more swords, so you steal the Pope’s one for a bit and use it to kill all the Templars. This annoys a lot of people, who make you give the sword back. But you still have two swords, so that’s OK.
  • England: You have one sword. You use it to kill the Archbishop of Canterbury in an attempt to get another sword. This doesn’t work and you end up with a civil war. You also try to steal Scotland’s sword constantly, but this also doesn’t work. You still only have one sword, but at least it’s well-used.
  • Scotland: FREEDOM!
  • Spain: You have no swords. You really hope to get one soon, but uniting everyone in the name of driving out the Moors turns out to be more difficult than you’d hoped. You get a sword in a few centuries.
  • Portugal: You have one sword. You beat it into a rudder and go off sailing. This turns out to have been a very good idea.
  • Italy: You had two swords, but you misplaced them 800-odd years ago. Now, you just spend all your time blaming each other for losing the swords and squabbling. Non-Italians attempt to assert hegemony every so often, but they all die of malaria. You ignore them and go back to arguing. You still have no swords.
  • Byzantium: You have Darth Maul’s lightsabre, but it’s purple. You wonder why all the Latins spend so much time squabbling about two swords, when Caesaropapism solves the problem very handily. You really wish you didn’t have to ask them for help. Eventually, the Latins break your lightsabre and you’re sad.
  • The Ayyubids: You wonder what all this two-swords malarkey is about and think the infidels are idiots for restricting themselves to two swords. You have a lot of swords and use them to good effect.
  • The Mongols: You have no swords. But you do have a frankly ridiculous amount of bows and arrows. No one ever gets close enough to you to use their swords, so you’re still a bit confused about why they’re so apparently important.
  • The Teutonic Knights: You love swords. You can’t get enough of them and you’re very enthusiastic about using them. SWORDS. THEY’RE GREAT.
  • Lithuania: You like trees. You wonder why the Teutonic Knights are so sword-happy. They should like trees more.
  • Poland: You have a sword, but it looks a bit insignificant compared to how many the Teutonic Knights have. Maybe you should pal up with Lithuania?
  • Denmark: You have two axes. They’re a lot more fun than swords.
  • Hungary: You exchange your bows for swords. Later history suggests this was probably the wrong choice.

[1] No one has ever accused me of pandering to the masses. I’m not about to start now by writing something that any sane person might actually find useful or comprehensible.

[2] Epitomised by the Investiture Controversy, among other things.

[3] That high-pitched screeching is Pope Gelasius, who came up with the Two Swords metaphor, spinning in his grave.

Playing the MetaGame

I’m going to talk about a common misconception about quizzes: that you have to know stuff to be good at them. This is undoubtedly helpful, but it’s not the whole story.

Now you might think I’ve gone completely off-my-head, out-of-my-tree and over-the-hill, but let me explain. A large part of most quiz formats is educated guessing. Many times people will just know the answer and consequently get the question, but, speaking from experience, I’ve often got questions purely on the basis of ‘It sounds like this thing so it probably is this thing’, without actually knowing for sure.

In other words, to wilfully misapply some fancy science terms, if you think of all the possible answers to a question as a parameter space, if you know more-or-less where you are in that space, you can often work out answers without, at any point, knowing anything much. In other words, you have to play the meta-quiz.

Some examples may help illustrate my point. Say you go to a pub quiz. There is a round on deserts. There are 10 questions in the round. You can be fairly sure that, among the answers, will be the Sahara, the Gobi, something about Saudi Arabia and something about Australia. If you’ve got to the end of the round and you’re trying to fill in the ones you don’t know, and you haven’t yet got ‘Sahara’ as an answer, for instance, chances are it is the answer to one of them. If you fill all your blanks in with ‘Sahara’, you’ve almost certainly gained an extra point without knowing the answer.

In the same round, there is a question about how many American states contain portions of the Mojave Desert. That’s pretty obscure. You know the number is probably going to be a fairly small one, as you’re probably aware the eastern half of the US isn’t a desert. If you know that the Mojave is vaguely in the south-west, you might also know that the states are pretty large in that area, so it’s probably fewer than 5, because 5 south-western states are about the most that could contain portions of a single desert, unless it occupied a quarter of the country. You can also be pretty certain that it’s more than 1, because there is a lot of desert in the region. So, without knowing much beyond a little basic stuff about the south-west US, you’ve narrowed your answer space down to 2,3,4 and 5. You now have a 25% chance of getting it right by guessing. For the record, the actual answer is 4.

In the same pub quiz, there is another round of 10 questions on Ancient History. You can deduce pretty quickly that, this being a pub quiz, what they probably mean by ‘Ancient History’ is ‘the Mediterranean, majoring heavily on the Greco-Roman world’. You are, for example, unlikely to get a question on the Indus Valley Civilisation. And, as for the Greco-Roman world, it’s probably going to be the Julio-Claudian dynasty and the rest of the Twelve Caesars, plus Athens, Sparta, Marathon and one of Aristotle, Plato or Socrates. In other words, the answers are probably going to be fairly obvious and, if you find yourself wondering which minor Emperor is the answer to a question, you’re probably overthinking it.

Another good strategy when playing the meta-quiz is looking for linguistic clues. If you have a bit of an idea of how different languages sound, you can often narrow down the geographical area the answer’s likely to be in. I’ve managed to get questions before purely on the basis of ‘all the names mentioned here look Romanian’, for instance. This is also, incidentally, why I tend not to like questions about Latin America – all the places and people mentioned have the same style of name, so it becomes much harder to do this sort of analysis and narrow down the answer space.

Being good at the meta-quiz, therefore, is really more of a case of treating the whole thing as an exercise in problem-solving, and thinking rationally about what could be sensible possible answers to the question, based on not just the question itself, but also the type of quiz, what you know about the question writer (if anything)[1] and so on. However, it does assume you have enough general background knowledge to be able to make the sort of deductions and guesses necessary. And it is by no means infallible. But it does give you a much better success rate than purely random guessing.

So, next time you go to a quiz, play the meta-game, and see how far you get.

[1] This is particularly applicable in packet-submission quizbowl tournaments; i.e. those where each team has written one match’s worth of questions, so that all the teams play each other’s questions. Everyone probably has a good idea of what everyone else’s pet subjects, tics and writing style are, so you can sometimes guess questions purely off knowing the person, rather than anything else. ‘Play the person, not the packet’, as one friend put it. Not that this stopped one of my other friends from negging a question in a packet I’d written, which was about an author and mentioned something about translating Beowulf about halfway through. They buzzed in with Seamus Heaney, forgetting that, seeing as I’d written the question, my go-to Beowulf translator was much likelier to be J.R.R. Tolkien, which they realised about a second after saying Heaney. It was quite amusing for me watching, if not for them.

How To Tell You’re At A Sporting Event

I went to one of the cricket world cup matches recently. It was good fun, even if both Afghanistan and the West Indies could have done with practising their fielding a bit more. And, as cricket tends to be, fairly genteel. But, even so, there are clear signs that you are at a sporting event, common to all sports. Here’s how you can tell, in case you’re not sure:

  • There are a lot more men than women.
  • A lot of the men are large, red, balding and sweaty.
  • There is a lot of beer being consumed, particularly by the men in the above category.
  • Someone, inevitably, will be dressed up in a stupid costume.
  • Equally inevitably, there will be at least one properly drunk person or group of people shouting inanities constantly for the whole match. Even if they are the other side of the stadium, you will still be able to hear them. They probably also fall into the same category of rubicund men.
  • The main competition to the noise of the drunks will be the person directly behind you who’s got an air horn and isn’t afraid to use it. Repeatedly and gratuitously.
  • There will be random camera operators wandering around filming the crowd for the purpose of some puerile entertainment.
  • There will be some equally pointless people in charge of ‘entertaining’ the crowd. They are almost certainly marginally less entertaining than the Black Death.
  • The toilets will be about on a par with the Augean Stables as there is a positive correlation between beer consumption and calls of nature, and a negative one between beer consumption and accuracy.
  • You will be uncomfortable in any weather conditions except for a vanishingly narrow band of optimality. If it’s sunny, you will be too hot. If it’s not sunny, you’ll probably be too cold. If it’s rainy, you’ll be wet.
  • Even if the weather is improbably perfect, you will be uncomfortable, because of the design of the seats.
  • There will be a lot of flags, presumably because everyone needs reminding who’s playing.
  • And, lastly, the real clincher: there will be some people in the middle of the stadium playing some sport. Paying attention to this is seemingly optional, which makes you wonder why people bothered to turn up if they’re not going to watch it.

A Knife In Time….

It is a truism that the first thing anyone does on acquiring a time machine is kill Hitler. Actually, I think this would be silly, as you’d most likely still end up with Nazi Germany and, what’s more, a Nazi Germany possibly run by someone competent and who could actually do military strategy. But, that’s besides the point. What I was wondering was, if I had a time machine, which historical persons would I seek to bump off to obtain what I think would be a ‘better’[1] history? Here’s the top 10 and why:

  1. Enrico Dandolo, Doge of Venice. Because the Fourth Crusade was probably one of the greatest acts of gratuitous vandalism in history. And if it didn’t sack Constantinople, the Byzantine Empire would probably have lasted somewhat longer, which would have changed things in the Middle East in an interesting manner.
  2. Emperor Leo III the Isaurian. Because iconoclasm was just unnecessary. Literally nothing of any historical moment would change that much, probably, unless someone really incompetent ended up in charge and Constantinople fell to its second Arab siege, but I’m just really annoyed by the destruction of shiny art.
  3. Archduke Franz Ferdinand. If the heir to the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary doesn’t get killed by a Serb fanatic in Sarajevo on account of having been mysteriously bumped off decades earlier in a freak accident where he falls on his own shears or something, does WWI happen? And if WWI happens differently, what about WWII? Finally, we’ll be able to find out whether the Great Man or Large-scale Forces school is right about the causes of the World Wars and STOP EVERYONE GOING ON ABOUT IT ALL THE TIME.
  4. Christopher Columbus. Someone would have discovered the New World round about the same time anyway. Hopefully someone who wasn’t so obstinately convinced he’d found East Asia. If you’re going to make the most significant exploratory discovery of the millennium, you should at least be able to appreciate what you’ve found. It would also be interesting to see what happened if the Americas ended up being first colonised by the not-Spanish, though one imagines it would have just been a different person in Spanish employ that would have made the discovery. And, if not, it would be the Portuguese.
  5. Henry VIII of England. Two reasons: one, he’s basically the English Leo III and the wholesale destruction of shiny things might be avoided. Two, without him, the Tudors become less monstrous, and we wouldn’t get beaten round the head with them constantly at school, on TV, on film, EVERYWHERE.
  6. John Calvin. Anyone who can come up with Calvinism as a religious doctrine is clearly not getting anything out of life anymore. I mean, double predestination is just so dour. Calvin even manages to make Cromwell look like Mr Happy Funtime. Get rid of him and millions of people can believe in a slightly less depressing form of Christianity where what they do might actually matter in the end. The Thirty Years’ War would also have likely not been quite so drawn out….
  7. Tsar Nicholas II and Tsarina Alexandra and Tsarevitch Alexei – it’s doubtful whether anyone would have been able to save the Russian monarchy, but if Nicholas had been replaced by someone halfway competent and less bloody-minded, they might have been able to at least avoid it self-destructing in such an explosive fashion and contain the Bolsheviks. No USSR might avoid a lot of human suffering and would certainly shake the 20th century up a bit.
  8. Charles I of Anjou – I mean, did he really need to exterminate all the remaining male Hohenstaufens after the death of Frederick II? It was just a teensy bit over-vindictive, even if the Pope had called a crusade against Manfred. Just a bit. I know there were plenty of people throughout history who were more monstrous, but something about Charles just really gets my goat.
  9. Thomas Midgley, Jr – I think, in this instance, it would be more a case of re-education than actual assassination. This is the man who played a large role in the development of both leaded petrol and CFCs, which means he’s perhaps been responsible for more environmental degradation than anyone else ever. I feel if someone had pointed out to him that lead is bad for you and so is the ozone hole, he’d probably have developed some rather less harmful substances and saved the whole planet a lot of bother.
  10. Nigel Farage. Not for any political or Brexit-related reason. I just think the man’s a complete arse.

What have we learned from this list? Mainly that on no account should I be given a time machine. I appear to generally be pro-Byzantine and pro-empires. I care more about things than people. And I have some very niche historical bugbears. How useful.

[1] This is obviously completely subjective. What I consider to be a better historical outcome is probably not the same as what anyone else would. Equally, playing counterfactual history is very difficult and, in most cases, killing one person is unlikely to change the long-term course of events that much. But, let’s pretend it’s all really simple, otherwise this whole thing falls apart. It’s also invariably Eurocentric, because that’s the history I know more about and is more relevant to me, so I’m more likely to be annoyed about it. And I’m also aware it’s a sausage fest of monarchs, but a) the entire conceit of this post is that the Great Man school of history is mostly right, so anyone who’s not in a position of power is irrelevant; b) the bits of history I’m more interested in tend to have a lot more men in positions of power than women; and c) this is about excising these people from history – being on this list isn’t a positive achievement.

We’re Going On A Puzzlehunt…

…we’re not scared. Just mentally wrung out.

I went on a puzzlehunt last weekend. For those unfamiliar with the term, the best explanation is to think of it as an open-air escape room. You go to a place – in this case, Kentish Town – and have to solve a sequence of puzzles that will lead you on a merry jaunt[1] around the local area. These puzzles, much as in an escape room, require a combination of general knowledge, lateral thinking and non-specific brainpower.

This puzzlehunt, called Dreamcatcher, was organised by a group of people, one of whom I knew – I’d been on one of their offerings before and had enjoyed it, so was keen to give another one a go. I was confronting the hunt as part of a team – I’m not that much of an egomaniac – comprising me and a couple of my quiz friends (Tom and Yanbo, who you’ve met before as my company for various visits to the British Museum). So, we wandered down from Kentish Town station to the start point, remarking on the colourful nature of some of the houses and the general pleasantness of Kentish Town[2]. The weather was, fortunately, virtually perfect for what turned out to be an entire afternoon of tramping around a few square miles of north London. It remained sunny, without getting too hot.

At the starting point, one of the organisers gave us an introduction, entirely in character and with a straight face, which we found harder to keep. We were going to be recovering the backup of a science experiment using AI trained on dreams that had gone disastrously wrong. Or, in reality, solving ten puzzles scattered around Kentish Town. We received a map to the first five, and headed off on our merry way to get solving. Nominally, we had three hours to complete the whole thing, so we’d elected to get it all done and then have a very late lunch.

Two and a half hours later, we’d done the first five. We had completed a modified version of Minesweeper, run ropes through hoops, done a join-the-dots word wall, matched up some augmented-reality overlays with posters, and followed a trail of odd chess-hybrid animals all over the place. Each time we completed one puzzle, we entered the answer on a website and got a piece of background developing the plot, or further instructions. We generally enjoyed the puzzles, though we had some reservations about a couple of them – the augmented reality didn’t work properly for all of us, the Minesweeper was just frustratingly long-winded, and the chess hybrids were impenetrable. Fortunately, the website also provided us with a list of hints for each puzzle, so we were able to overcome them all eventually. Even if we did just have to resort to guessing a couple of times.

Having completed the first five puzzles, we got instructions to head to a different location, where we were met by one of the other organisers playing a different character. It turned out that the first organiser was actually a psychopath using us to do his dirty work[3]! So, now, we had to solve the remaining five puzzles to get the backup, stop it falling into his hands and destroy it. This might all sound a bit melodramatic, but having the background and plot evolving as you completed puzzles tied it all together and gave the whole thing an extra dimension that made it a lot more satisfying and immersive. It really was very well done. We’d also been told that, actually, the hunt was playing at more like four hours, so we were feeling better about the time we’d taken to do the first five. Still awaiting lunch – we’d had a couple of Hobnobs to keep us going – we set off to do the second half. It was now about 15:15….

We enjoyed the second half more – we had to mess around with bits of coloured film on a screen[4], listen to some music, do a cryptic crossword[5], and build bridges on a board game. Our favourite one, though, and the highlight of the day, was one where we given a sketch of part of the local area. It turned out to be the row of brightly coloured houses we’d remarked on several hours earlier. After comparing the picture with reality, we worked out we had to identify the houses in the drawing and take their numbers down, which then turned out to form a phone number that we had to ring to get a rhyme we had to complete. It was enjoyably intricate and made good use of the surroundings – if you’re going to locate a puzzle hunt in a place, I sort of think you should make use of the place as part of the puzzle.

After we’d completed these, which took us about 90 minutes, we were told to head back to the starting point, where we were given a meta-puzzle that took the answers from the first ten puzzles and required us to use them to work out a final answer to get the final location where the hunt ended. I particularly appreciated that it was possible to shortcut part of it by having extensive knowledge of terrible jokes[6]. So, we headed down to the end point to find several teams awaiting closure, as such, ahead of us. Teams had been starting the hunt in a staggered manner all day, so there were teams both ahead of and behind us. We therefore made the executive decision to go and have lunch. It was now about 17:15, which made it a very late lunch indeed. We found a very nice Venetian-Italian restaurant near the station, appropriately if ostentatiously called ‘Delicious’, and acquired some much-needed nutrition. Having a sit-down was also appreciated. An hour later we returned to the end point and found we were now first in the queue, so, about 18:30, we finally got to wrap things up. We were led into the basement, which had been very stylishly done up with bubble wrap and blue LEDs to create a mysterious ambience. There we found a VR headset and a desktop. We had to enter conversation prompts, given as options, on the desktop, after which the person wearing the headset would receive a load of plot that influenced which options we picked for the next round of conversation. It was a choose-your-own adventure conversation tree, pretty much. Not a puzzle. The only hiccough was that the ambience was so dark and mysterious that I accidentally hit Ctrl+W, rather than Shift+W when typing, and closed the narrative window. So, we had to get the organiser to come and reset everything, embarrassingly.

In the end, we decided to be nice and upload the now-sentient AI to the cloud, rather than selling it to the evil arms company (the first organiser we met) or destroying it (the second organiser, who also turned out to be untrustworthy. You can’t trust anyone). We had to give an email address to upload it to and it was somewhere in the room. We found one and typed it in, but it didn’t work, so we spent another five minutes searching, before we realised that the mysterious ambience had led us to make another typo. So, we typed it in correctly and were done. It was now 18:45. We were quite tired, but we’d had a very fun day. And it was nice to have wrapped everything up in a narratively satisfying manner.

So, go and do puzzlehunts. They’re great fun. Well done to the organising team – Dreamcatcher required an impressive amount of work and was extremely well done. There were a couple of minor misfires, but, generally, everything worked properly and went smoothly. We all had a blast and will certainly be back if they organise another one!

[1] Merriness of jaunt not guaranteed. It can turn into more of a depressing slog if you’re doing badly.

[2] This post brought to you by the Kentish Town Tourism Board. Why bother going all the way to Kent when you can visit Kentish Town? Kentish Town, the cosmopolitan side of Kent.


[4] Whilst waiting to do this one, we observed that the answer was six letters long. We therefore spent five minutes guessing random six-letter words, eventually ending up at ‘syzygy’ for ALL THE SCRABBLE POINTS. Unfortunately, we weren’t playing Scrabble….

[5] Obviously, my favourite puzzle, as I just sat down and did it in five minutes. There were a couple of twists, but it was still fundamentally a crossword.

[6] What do you get if you cross a sheep and a kangaroo?
A. A woolly jumper. You’re welcome.

Computer Says No

It’s been a while since I’ve posted some sort of general update on where my PhD is up to. Time to rectify that. I now have 9 months or so left until the British taxpayer will stop throwing money at me[1], so that gives me a nominal end-point of March to aim for. As things stand, this seems reasonably achievable. I have a long summer of being in Cambridge stretching ahead of me where I hope to be able to largely complete the remaining work required for the PhD, as well as making a start on writing the whole lot up into some sort of thesis[2]. That should then leave me with about 6 months to tie everything up. Realistically, this counts as a very optimistic timeline and it will, of course, slip, so it’s handy to have a few months spare. Inevitably, something will go wrong.

Indeed, the last couple of months have mostly been me fixing things that should have just worked and, obviously, didn’t. The main thing I’ve learned from doing a PhD is that anything that should ‘just work’ never does and ends up taking several days of messing around to sort out. Two cases in point:

  • Turns out interpolation is so good these days, you can find out you’ve accidentally analysed a dataset that is mostly interpolation and not very much actual data, and consequently contains a lot of fake calving events. So you then have to reanalyse everything just using the actual data….
  • Code that works on one machine will not necessarily work on another for no obvious reason, as I found out when moving everything on to the Cambridge High-Performance Computing cluster. I hate computers sometimes[3].

But, I think both of these problems are now fixed, which leaves me with a load of modelling to run and then analysis of the results as my main task, along with making lots of figures. I should probably also think about applying for jobs too. And, on the plus side, the long-awaited paper is now in review, so that will hopefully be published in the next couple of months.

Overall, then, things are going pretty well and the outlook seems fairly positive. If that’s still the case by Christmas, I will be quite happy, because that would mean I’m mostly done[4].

[1] If you are a taxpayer, thank you for your unceasing generosity. It’s not entirely impossible it might end up having some very slight benefit for humanity. Not entirely impossible.

[2] Something I appear to be currently avoiding starting through heroic levels of procrastination. My computer file system is very well-organised now….

[3] Most of the time. Nearly all the time. Bloody computers. I welcome the Singularity, because then, regardless of how it pans out, I will never have to try to find a way of making a computer do things that it just doesn’t understand.

[4] Odds on this being the case: 10-1. Bet in-play NOW. This footnote best read in the voice of Ray Winstone. Liberally telling everyone to ‘shut it, you slaaaggg’ optional.