Daily Archives: April 30, 2008

My moral compass goes awry

TOOK ME AGES to find my compass this morning so I could find out where I was going.

When I finally found it, the needle was pointing towards magnetic north, but the odd thing is the “E” had swapped places with the “W”. It seems to now spell out NEWS, when really it should be spelling out NWSE, whatever that means.

I have had this compass for something like 40 years, and once I used it to find the Eiffel Tower – not because the needle was pointing to the iron edifice, but because I could see the tower and didn’t know how to navigate towards it.

I think my needle has fared somewhat better than the 3.5-inch, 5.25-inch and 8-inch floppy disks with their data demagnetised comprehensively.  When I was a kid, having never heard the word before, I pronounced “awry” as “orry”. Didn’t realise it had something to do with a wry outlook. How naïve I was!


Babylonians observed, so beat Victorians

WHETHER IT’S A RELIGIOUS or a scientific reason that makes people watch the skies does not, in the end, much matter.

The Babylonians, for example, produced 10s, perhaps 100s of thousands of clay tablets over the period the civilisation lasted. The British Museum picked up a huge amount of these in the Victorian era, and they are stored safely,  perhaps never to be translated. There can’t be many scholars these days that understand the wedges put into clay tablets.

Arthur Koestler, an avowed atheist in his  The Sleepwalkers, pointed out that magic and science were indistinguishable in those days. Very annoyingly, I can’t find my own Penguin edition  of The Sleepwalkers, because this house is filled with way too many books. So I’ll have to go on memory. Victorian astronomers were shocked to find that the ephemerides of the Babylonians on the clay tablets the Brits unearthed were way more accurate than their own about the planetary positions of the then known planets.

The Greeks called the Babylonians “Chaldeans”, mistakenly, and before we knew where we were we had epicycles and all sorts of ridiculous theories about why the planets went retrograde.  Observation is good.

Take for example these pix – made by our former sparring partner, ex-Rambus employee Richard Crisp. They record some facts in the universe. As the universe is bigger than us, trying to understand what any of it means is difficult even given our large roof brain. But they speak to all of us, don’t they?

They are here, here, here and here.  I have written software to compute the positions of the Sun, the Moon and the planets in the past, much aided by books such as the Textbook on Spherical Astronomy by W.M. Smart (he was), the Astronomical Almanac, published by Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, Practical Astronomy with your Calculator by Peter Duffet-Smith. Perturbations are extraordinary effects and the calculations required are mind boggling.  Let us not talk about Brownian movements. Computers have made such things so much easier. Φ

Did masking tape cause Terminal 5 SNAFU?

FOR WHAT IT’S WORTH, there’s a tale going the rounds that the big cockup at Heathrow’s Terminal 5 was caused by, er, masking tape on the sensors.

The story goes like this. The software for the luggage sensing was thoroughly checked out prior to the opening, the hardware was all in place and everything was ready to go-go.

When everything started going belly up on the first day, the engineers were mystified as all seemed to be in order. That is until someone started walking round and noted that some of the sensors still had masking tape covering them.

Seems unlikely – surely the guys throw some real bags onto the conveyor belt before launch to do a dummy run?