# 1bn Hiroshimas = 1 (Isle of Wight) x 20 (speeding bullets)

I think one of the problems with science journalism is that before a science story can be reported in the news media, someone has to convert everything from metric to journalist units. But some recent work may allow us to do science directly in journalist units, thereby making scientific papers immediately understandable to laypeople. According to a throwaway letter in the Guardian

1 billion Hiroshimas = 1 Isle of Wight × 20 speeding bullets

This is based on a G2 article about the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs that described the asteroid’s mass, energy and speed in those terms.

Unfortunately, the equation is wrong, as you can’t multiply speed by islands to get explosions. But it’s not far off. In fact, kinetic energy K = ½mv2, where m is mass and v is speed — so actually

1 Chicxulub asteroid strike = 109 Hiroshimas = ½ Isle of Wight × (20 × speeding bullet)2

I’ll forgive the correspondent the factor of 2, but he should have known that the speed needed squaring given that the only other sentence in his letter was “Who needs E=mc2?” Honestly, it’s as if some people have no grasp of dimensional analysis at all.

In fact, this is also wrong, because the Isle of Wight is more correctly a unit of area, not mass, so to use standard journalism units, we should really write

1 Chicxulub = 109 Hiroshimas = ½ (Isle of Wight³⁄₂ ρrock) × (20 × speeding bullet)2

Better still, that should be

1 Chicxulub = 109 Hiroshimas = ½ (Isle of Wight³⁄₂ ρrock) × (21 × speeding bullet)2

as the rock hit 20 times faster than a bullet, not 20 times as fast as one.

And we can test this hypothesis simply by typing “(1/2) * (density of rock * (isle of wight area)^(3/2)) * (21 * speed of bullet)^2″ into Wolfram|Alpha. It returns the figure 5.023×1023J, and if you click on that figure, it rephrases it to “≈ 1.005 × estimated energy released by the Chicxulub meteor impact”.

Let’s just bask in the impressiveness of that for a moment.

Done basking? Then it’s time to admit there are a few problems with this. Alpha cites this as 8 billion Hiroshimas, not one billion. Alpha also takes ‘a bullet’ to be a rimfire .22LR usually deployed against small pests and tin cans, whereas Dr Collins appears to favour the somewhat meatier M16 assault rifle. Maybe that’s standard for a speeding bullet. Also I assumed the asteroid was a sphere that would cover an area of land equal to one Isle of Wight. In fact the Isle of Wight is long and thin so if we spun it around its major axis it would be a bit lighter than this; equally we could attempt to estimate the mass of the Isle of Wight and that could go either way.

The point is that you absolutely can do science in these units. They totally work. We use metric instead only because the numbers are easier — 1 Joule is 1 kilogram metre per second squared, avoiding having the annoying factor of 21 kicking around that the journalism units version above does. (I’m not going to quibble about the billions, though, as you only need to define the ‘gigashima’ to make that go away.)

To make life easier for anyone choosing to do science in journalism units, I have identified some relationships that may prove useful:

• 1 coal-fired power station ≈ 1 Hiroshima per day
• 1 thickness of human hair ≈ 1000 Olympic swimming pools per area the size of Wales
• 1 weight of a double-decker bus ≈ 1 Hiroshima per distance to the moon and back

All of these are approximate, but they’re all exactly true for at least one combination of reasonable guesses, so all we have to do is identify a mutually-convenient set of plausible values, then agree to use it forever. We can’t really fiddle with

• 1 Isle of Wight = 381km2
• 1 distance to the moon and back = 3.85×108m
• 1 Wales = 20,779km2

and we know that defining

• 1 speeding bullet = 340ms−1
• density of rock = 2.65g/cm3
• 1 Chicxulub asteroid strike = 5.023×1023J

gives us one neat relationship. Let’s add to that

• 1 Hiroshima = 1 Chicxulub ÷ 8 billion = 6.27875×1013J
• 1 coal-fired power station = 1 Hiroshima ÷ 24h = 726.7MW
• 1 double-decker bus = 1 Hiroshima ÷ 1 moon and back = 8.416 tons
• 1 Olympic-size swimming pool = 2,500m3
• 1 thickness of a human hair = 1000 Olympic pool ÷ 1 Wales = 120.3μm

Now all our relationships are spot on, and we can hopefully get on with doing some science with journalism units. At least, science that involves using coal to power buses to the moon.

Ie, the best science.

# Might Qwerty be optimal on touchscreens?

It’s a common misconception that the Qwerty keyboard is designed to slow users down to prevent typewriters jamming. It fact, it’s designed to keep commonly consecutive letter pairs apart, so that two adjacent levers won’t collide.

(A more fun, but irrelevant, Qwerty story is that it is also designed such that the word ‘typewriter’ is all on the top row, to make demonstrating it easy. This story, if true, is itself fun but sucks all the fun out of the fact that the longest word that can be typed on the top row of a typewriter is ‘typewriter’. One of these is a fun fact, but I’ve no idea which.)

Nowadays, obviously, there are no swinging arms to collide, so we want the commonly-used keys to be reachable, and if possible to alternate hands as much as possible. Dvorak and Coleman have each had a stab at designing a better layout, but both aimed at the computer keyboard.

But increasingly, I type on my phone, using one very mobile thumb. I can get to any point on the screen, more-or-less right away — but sometimes I miss, and usually the phone figures out what I meant and autocorrects it. So maybe the most important thing about any given keyboard layout is how likely it is that a typo will result in a real word that the phone isn’t to know isn’t what I meant.

I wondered if suddenly Qwerty might be optimal again — separating pairs of letters that can be swapped to make another real word and that appear next to each other in English words aren’t totally different goals. So I thought I’d investigate.

So first I loaded the CSW12 Scrabble word list, and worked out a big table of how many places in the list you can replace each letter with each other letter to create a new word.

 A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z A 176 681 305 5253 182 216 252 4180 15 208 477 166 401 4717 297 5 483 953 453 2898 52 201 54 585 30 B 176 1240 1238 284 1157 1123 775 91 360 406 1003 1383 761 157 1579 14 1407 1127 1344 74 398 836 70 366 151 C 681 1240 1109 375 876 1218 843 162 261 1102 1004 1036 1379 265 1418 24 1117 1832 1783 120 418 816 153 274 209 D 305 1238 1109 715 776 1445 709 205 299 942 1600 1467 1838 227 1242 18 7549 10979 2348 107 549 726 135 616 307 E 5253 284 375 715 186 553 454 4712 22 459 938 1010 683 3434 470 4 956 2123 1734 1893 87 291 57 2162 57 F 182 1157 876 776 186 723 592 76 261 357 846 829 632 126 1040 11 782 1037 1121 57 387 620 30 203 89 G 216 1123 1218 1445 553 723 556 186 333 747 812 810 1013 191 1018 39 914 1194 1514 103 373 669 130 371 180 H 252 775 843 709 454 592 556 137 261 641 1186 979 635 260 1098 6 1079 1215 1453 81 239 805 34 356 137 I 4180 91 162 205 4712 76 186 137 35 129 519 130 380 2786 154 3 387 525 331 2671 42 200 23 1118 28 J 15 360 261 299 22 261 333 261 35 117 311 301 224 27 331 2 344 320 346 1 125 196 7 136 66 K 208 406 1102 942 459 357 747 641 129 117 947 779 892 145 911 50 816 929 1340 71 379 517 119 273 180 L 477 1003 1004 1600 938 846 812 1186 519 311 947 1420 1938 479 1363 15 3271 1876 2049 286 599 899 142 394 248 M 166 1383 1036 1467 1010 829 810 979 130 301 779 1420 1085 238 1898 14 1321 1225 2912 119 575 747 130 380 250 N 401 761 1379 1838 683 632 1013 635 380 224 892 1938 1085 286 1367 7 2439 1925 2091 301 529 711 259 440 250 O 4717 157 265 227 3434 126 191 260 2786 27 145 479 238 286 296 6 574 531 389 2291 58 314 36 596 27 P 297 1579 1418 1242 470 1040 1018 1098 154 331 911 1363 1898 1367 296 11 1255 1528 2061 166 580 1011 141 377 243 Q 5 14 24 18 4 11 39 6 3 2 50 15 14 7 6 11 0 12 30 16 5 10 2 2 2 R 483 1407 1117 7549 956 782 914 1079 387 344 816 3271 1321 2439 574 1255 12 4806 2173 447 591 885 205 613 250 S 953 1127 1832 10979 2123 1037 1194 1215 525 320 929 1876 1225 1925 531 1528 30 4806 3126 327 617 887 232 2621 6540 T 453 1344 1783 2348 1734 1121 1514 1453 331 346 1340 2049 2912 2091 389 2061 16 2173 3126 256 682 1187 215 602 429 U 2898 74 120 107 1893 57 103 81 2671 1 71 286 119 301 2291 166 0 447 327 256 43 416 15 239 12 V 52 398 418 549 87 387 373 239 42 125 379 599 575 529 58 580 5 591 617 682 43 353 96 142 154 W 201 836 816 726 291 620 669 805 200 196 517 899 747 711 314 1011 10 885 887 1187 416 353 108 400 136 X 54 70 153 135 57 30 130 34 23 7 119 142 130 259 36 141 2 205 232 215 15 96 108 74 58 Y 585 366 274 616 2162 203 371 356 1118 136 273 394 380 440 596 377 2 613 2621 602 239 142 400 74 108 Z 30 151 209 307 57 89 180 137 28 66 180 248 250 250 27 243 2 250 6540 429 12 154 136 58 108

As you can see, the letters involved in typos that are genuine words are also the most common letters — except C and P. (The frequency values are on an arbitrary scale to match the typo figures.)

Then I wrote a Python routine to generate a ‘badness’ score for each layout, which is the total number of words you can make by replacing a letter of another word with one of the six keys adjacent to it. Running it on 10,000 random layouts, the average badness is around 83,603, with a standard deviation of 14,024.

Here are some other layouts I tried:

Qwerty 119,170 2.54
Dvorak 121,458 2.70
Colemak 112,354 2.05
Best random 46,414 −2.65
Worst random 151,438 4.84
Alphabetic 74,064 −0.68
Best I found 31,992 −3.68

(Predictable answer to question in title: “haha, no”.) Alphabetic uses the same key layout as Qwerty: 10 on the top row, 9 on the second and 7 on the bottom. The ‘best I found’ layout was derived from a random board on that Qwerty grid (since actually Dvorak and Coleman don’t really fit on a phone), by swapping letter pairs at random and keeping the change if it seemed to work. (This is called a ‘genetic algorithm’, albeit a crude one.) I think I did 5,000 steps, five or six times. Here’s the layout it found:

 D W E B K R I T Q S O J V U Z F X A M C L G H N Y P

The most obvious thing it’s done is put S (the most typoable letter) in a corner and shoved Q up against it. Another potential improvement to the model is to account for second-nearest neighbours — since flagging an error but correcting it to the wrong thing isn’t much better than missing it.

Another thing it’s done is put all the rarest letters in the middle where they have lots of neighbours — almost precisely the opposite of what Dvorak and Coleman did. Which makes sense, both intuitively and because all the standard layouts are in the worst 5% of all layouts (assuming normal distribution).

Anyway, I think we can all agree this is plainly the best possible keyboard layout for smartphones, and we should name it Taylak and petition Apple and Google to include it as the default for everything ever. I certainly can’t imagine how using the same layout on phones and computers could possibly be more desirable than this.

Here, to end on, is the worst layout I could find, with 204,290 = μ + 8.61σ possible real-world typos:

 V N T M B G E I J Q Z S D P C K A O X Y R L F H W U

Nobody use that layout.

# Extrapolating into the past, we’ve missed three increasingly implausible opportunities to do this before.

On July 5 2010, Total Film fooled a lot of people into believing that that was the day Marty McFly and Doc Brown visited in Back To The Future Part II. In fact it was October 21 2015.

Yesterday, on June 27 2012, Simply Tap fooled a lot of people into believing that that was the day Marty McFly and Doc Brown visited in Back To The Future Part II. In fact it was still October 21 2015.

To punish people for falling for such nonsense, I propose more of these, increasing in frequency as we approach the actual date, so that when it actually happens, nobody believes it. But when?

The first of these errors was 1934 days premature. The second was 1211 days premature. (I’m not counting the copycat hoax on July 6 2010.) I think the reason these hoaxes are so seductive are that $\frac{1934}{1211}=1.60$, and that’s very close to the golden ratio, $\phi$. $\phi\approx1.62$, and has the lovely property that $\frac{1}{\phi}=\phi-1$ (or, $\phi^2=\phi+1$). It’s the only number of which that’s true, and it often appears in nature, art and architecture.

(Or, if you prefer, reports of $\phi$ appearing by accident are mostly coincidence and optimistic rounding, and so is this. I’ll leave that decision to you.)

Continuing the Golden Cascade of Back To The Future Hoaxes, we should have the next on September 23 2013. There will be two in 2014: on July 4 (when the alien mothercraft destroys the Hill Valley town hall) and December 28. The hoaxes will have to come thick and fast in 2015: April 18, June 27 (like this year), August 10, September 6 and 23, and October 4, 10, 14, 16, 18, 19 (twice), and then 25 separate hoaxes on the day before Future Day.

To be honest I suggest we use areweinthefutureyet.com for those ones.

# Crappy interfaces in real life

I spend a lot of time getting cross at crappy interfaces on software, but the fact is that real life objects are just as bad. I’m typing this at a laptop, for example, with a trackpad. And while Apple have multitouch, click-sensitive trackpads that make sense, this one scrolls using the right hand half a centimetre of pad, which is visually and tactilely indistinguishable from the rest of it. It’s the little things, like Jeff Atwood’s cat feeders, but it’s also the really big things. Our old DVD recorder which asked, when you put a DVD in, if you would like to “access the disc contents” — and to get to the DVD menu, you had to say ‘no’. Toasters which measure time in completely arbitrary units, at least as far as I’m aware. Washing machines that have a key to their own interface on the front. TVs that have a hundred buttons to do basically one thing and you still have to tap ‘circle with an arrow’ four times to watch a DVD.

It’s like people don’t learn. I remember when I could operate a microwave oven by typing in a time and pressing ‘cook’. Ryan North has one where you can just bark numbers at it. And yet this is the thing we have at work:

Obviously that’s absurdly overcomplicated for a device which, much as manufacturers kid themselves otherwise, has only two modes: on and off. (Really, who wants to ‘slow defrost’ anything?) But my main objection is that I have had a bagel spinning around in there for ages, with the microwave all humming to itself and lit up, and without the bagel getting so much as lukewarm. Apparently it only heats food if you set the timer. Where exactly the clue to this is supposed to be is not clear. I assumed when a microwave lit up and span your food round it was cooking. Apparently this one also has a ‘shop demonstration’ mode.

Because the fact is that outward appearances matter. I forgive the absurd obsession of washing machine manufactures with putting any and all options on dials because that at least makes their products obviously washing machines. Humans in Western society have loads of cues and associations built in — say, we pull doors with handles — and it’s daft not to take advantage of them and insane to actively work against them. Putting a handle on a push-only door will confuse and annoy, and this… This is the sink in a bar in Manchester:

Perhaps they considered it designery and artsy, but in fact what they have done is add taps to a urinal and call it a sink. The thing is that I took it for a urinal when I first saw it, and while I noticed the taps fairly quickly, I don’t trust the entire inebriated male population of Manchester to all have done so on any given night. That is a sink which I confidently predict has been pissed in and that is enough to put me off washing in it.

What you need, when cleaning yourself, is a clear interface. So don’t get this brand of shower:

I put it to you that it’s less than totally clear which way is ‘hot’ on this dial. The arrow points right, but it’s on the left. If you’re standing in a room full of steam and you wear glasses, that’s fairly dangerous. And it’s obvious what the dial does, so all they had to do was convey which way was which. That is literally the smallest amount of information it is possible to encode. And still it’s ambiguous.

Even stranger is the dimmer switch in our new conference room.

This has two buttons, one at the top of the switch, and one at the bottom. Here is how I assumed it would work:

• Pressing the top switch would make the lights brighter.
• Pressing the bottom switch would make the lights dimmer.

Here is how it works:

• A short tap of the bottom switch turns the lights on or off.
• A long hold of the bottom switch makes the lights brighter.
• A second long hold of the bottom switch makes the lights dimmer. This alternates between brighter and dimmer.
• The top switch exists only to make the object resemble a lightswitch.

The upshot of this is that we all look stupid when presenting the work of the Unit to outsiders, because we are supposed to be carefully controlling illumination in clinical trials and can’t operate our own office lights.

And I suppose I just thought that stuff like toasters and lights would have been around for long enough by now for us to have basically mastered the art of making them usable. We don’t have Steve Jobs around any more to fix this stuff up for us, so perhaps it would be a fitting tribute to him if we all stopped making watches that require one long and fourteen short button presses, each with its own high-pitched beep, just to correct for daylight savings, hmm?

# Visual effects of the 1930s

Yesterday, I saw Betty Boop and the Little King. It was made in black and white in 1939, and I mention it because there’s a rather impressive 3D effect at around 1:50 (then again later).

Here’s a link from Archive.org if you prefer, but I had less luck with their embedder.

What I like about it is how it was achieved. It was done the same way all visual effects in the 30s were done: they built the thing and pointed a camera at it. That approach wouldn’t even occur to us now.

They had an entire rotating set built to create 30 seconds or so of footage.

I really like a lot of the CGI stuff we have now, and when it’s used well it’s just flawless, but it’s almost impossible to feel a sense of wonder at a visual effect in a modern film because it’s sort of clear how all of them were done. And there’s an elegance to the 1930s solution that the modern one lacks.

# @cuff

Apparently, there are plans to make a TV improv comedy show where viewers can tweet ideas.

This sort of thing annoys me. Partly it’s because the audience at a studio recording of @cuff (formerly “Fast and Loose”, formerly “Mock the Week”, formerly “Whose Line Is It Anyway”) is already sufficient to generate ideas, and I suspect that the hassle-factor involved in getting tickets and physically to a recording will increase the average quality of suggestions, too. If you have a room full of self-identifying improvised comedy fans, who have to shout ideas in person in front of seven professional comedians, then they’re surely bound to give you funnier ideas than Jeff and Tina McRandom sitting at home tapping out “now do it like a horror movie” and hitting “send” — not least because Jeff and Tina will post their first thought without knowing that (or wondering if) it’s horrendously clichéd.

Also, once you get a million people tweeting ideas, you can pretty much do whatever you were going to do anyway and rationalise it post-hoc by searching the Twitter stream for the ten or twenty people who will inevitably have suggested it. It would be a lot of fun to pre-record an hour’s scripted and predictable comedy, then show it as a “Twitter experiment”, with a live ticker of tweets from real users whose uninspired suggestions best matched the next bit of the script.

Ultimately, though, to the average viewer, @cuff will be indistinguishable from Fast and Loose: many will be using iPlayer or watching repeats, so won’t be able to post ideas; the majority of those who can probably won’t bother; the majority of ideas that are posted won’t be read because there will just be too many to track; and the majority of ideas that are read won’t be used. So what’s the point?

# Towards a Mathematically Optimal Scrabble Bag

There aren’t a lot of Ses in a Scrabble bag. Despite being the seventh most common letter in English, it is the joint-eighth rarest in Scrabble.

Excluding the two blank tiles, there are 98 letters in the bag, and for the most part, the number reflects the amount that appear in English text. Z, Q, X and J are over-represented, but only because they wouldn’t appear at all otherwise. The other end of the scale is a bit more haphazard, though: S and T are roughly one third less common in Scrabble than in English text, while H, for some reason, is two thirds less likely — 6% of any given book is the letter H, but Scrabble players get but two of them.

It’s not really clear why that should be the case. The original letter distribution was devised in 1938, based on the frequencies of each letter in different length words in newspapers and a dictionary, so perhaps that methodology shafted H, or perhaps it was the texts chosen. Maybe H just wasn’t used much in 1938. Who knows.

This is interesting, because it suggests the dearth of Ses is not an artificial limitation to counter their obvious usefulness: you can stick an S on the end of 77,392 different words, making them instantly valuable — but the similarly underrepresented T only goes on the end of 1,393 words. The second most useful letter for this is D, which appends 8441 words. (The least useful letter for this is Q, which goes on the end of TALA and TZADDI. J goes on HA, TA, BEN, HAD and HAJ, although there’s only one in the bag so HAJJ doesn’t come up much. There’s no particular pattern to what you can put on the start of a word.) That means that we can ignore usefulness of letters, and apply the same model as Butts did in 1938 to create an optimal bag: two blanks, a Z, a Q, a J, an X, and then 94 other tiles in proportion to their frequency in English text. Right?

No. It’s not, in general, possible to do that. Consider the case of three letters, A, B and C, which occur equally, and you want to put them in a two-tile Scrabble game. You can’t. The errors get smaller as you get more tiles, but they don’t go away. It’s the same problem faced by electoral systems that use proportional representation: you have to agree on an algorithm before you start or else you’ll end up in an impossible situation — if the vote is 60/40, and there are four seats, do you split them 50/50, or 75/25? But you can get it near enough for Scrabble.

Is that a good idea, though? After all, while the word “at” appears a lot in newspapers, it only comes up once in the Scrabble dictionary. And in fact, these things don’t correlate well at all: there are 5 times more Zs in CSW12 than English, 13 times as many Js, and 7 times as many Ks and Bs; whereas English has 15 times as many Es as CSW12, and 13 times as many Is. Should we be playing with a tile bag containing 10 Ses, 8 Cs and 8 Ps — but only 4 Es? It sounds unthinkable, although at least you’d be less likely to get a rack full of Old McDonald lyrics.

Alternative letter distributions, based on CSW12, normal English, and the current Scrabble bag:

 CSW12 English Scrabble A 6 7 9 B 5 2 2 C 8 3 2 D 6 4 4 E 4 11 12 F 4 2 2 G 3 2 3 H 4 6 2 I 3 6 9 J 1 1 1 K 2 1 1 L 3 4 4 M 5 3 2 N 2 6 6 O 3 7 8 P 8 2 2 Q 1 1 1 R 5 6 6 S 10 6 4 T 5 8 6 U 3 3 4 V 2 1 2 W 2 2 2 X 1 1 1 Y 1 2 2 Z 1 1 1 Blank 2 2 2

Of course, players don’t know all 270,163 words in CSW12, and it’s likely that the obscurity of many of them will shift the letter distribution back towards that of normal English. In that respect, the ideal bag of tiles probably depends to some extent on the skill of the players. In the hardcore CSW12 bag, there are 19 vowels rather than 42, so it would change the game a lot.

This would probably also require different scores for each letter: X and Y currently score 8 and 4 respectively, but both are rarer in CSW12 than Z or Q which score 10. You get 1 for an N, but it’s rarer than G and D (2 each), B, M, P and C (3 each), and H and F (4 each). Thing is, scaling between 0 and 10, then rounding up, this is the closest fit you can get:

 CSW12 English Scrabble A 1 1 1 B 1 1 3 C 1 1 3 D 1 1 2 E 1 1 1 F 1 1 4 G 1 1 2 H 1 1 4 I 1 1 1 J 2 5 8 K 1 1 5 L 1 1 1 M 1 1 3 N 1 1 1 O 1 1 1 P 1 1 3 Q 3 8 10 R 1 1 1 S 1 1 1 T 1 1 1 U 1 1 1 V 1 1 4 W 1 1 4 X 10 5 8 Y 4 1 4 Z 3 10 10 Blank 0 0 0

I think that looks a bit boring, to be honest. I think the game will be more fun if the scores are more varied. Maybe some kind of gamma function would help increase the contrast on the low scores and reduce the power of X. Still, though, I’d like to have a game with the alternative distribution and see if it works at all. I feel sure it can’t, with so few vowels, but then, maybe that’s just because I’m so used to the current, vowel-heavy version that I don’t use the vowel-light words much.

Of course, if we really wanted to optimise the game, we would invent a new set of words to play with that were designed to be fun rather than similar to English. But that would be taking things a bit far, don’t you think?

# Scum of the earth, unite!

Late last year, I read a post on another skeptic’s blog which annoyed me. It had nothing to do with skepticism. It was about how pleased he was that his preferred footballing troupe had beaten what he called “the scum”. It was this term that annoyed me.

(I’m not going to link to the specific post because I don’t think it’s relevant. It’s an example of a wider trend and I don’t want to pick on anyone. Arguably I’m cutting out the opposing arguments by doing so but then he can link it himself if he reads this and wants to.)

Obviously I’m well aware that “scum” is a pretty common term for your footballing rivals. And in this case he was insulting the opposing players, not their fans, although this is why that doesn’t make it OK:

I just can’t see how calling Ipswich Town and/or their fans “scum” is any different from using a racial or religious slur, except that it’s less imaginative. In principle there’s nothing to stop you choosing what football team you support, but that’s true of religion and we all know that in practice you can’t really choose either. You get invested in one in childhood, and that’s generally it for life. There are people who will pick whichever is most popular or successful, but they’re widely agreed to be missing the point.

I would hope that any sport worth following would be interesting enough on its own merits without having to pretend that everyone in Ipswich is a massive cunt so you can convince yourself that anything of any genuine meaning or importance has happened on a football pitch since 1914.

When Ron Atkinson called Marcel Desailly as a “lazy, fucking thick nigger”, Jimmy Hill said

In that context, you wouldn’t think that words like nigger were particularly insulting: it would be funny. Without meaning to insult any black men, it’s us having fun.

What about jokes about my long chin? I mean, nigger is black – so we have jokes where we call them niggers because they’re black. Why should that be any more of an offence than someone calling me chinny?

While I agree that calling him “Chinny” is no cleverer than calling Desailly a nigger, neither qualifies as a “joke” to anybody who understands how to construct a joke. It’ll serve the same purpose as a joke, in certain circumstances, but that doesn’t make it one any more than it makes my lap a banqueting table. Quite rightly, nobody bought it and Atkinson resigned. I don’t see how this is different, except that ‘scum’ is as common now as ‘nigger’ was in the fifties. ‘Scum’ is perhaps the worst thing I can think of you can call someone without actually knowing anything about them, and here it is being applied to people just based on where they’re from. I think that’s a very ugly aspect of football culture that is very probably putting people off getting into it, and I think it’s a downright vindictive thing to say while celebrating a win.

I think that just because it’s accepted doesn’t mean it’s OK, I think that fans of a skeptical bent should be more self-critical about these things, and I think that “banter” implies a level of wit well beyond chanting “we all hate Ipswich scum” for an hour and a half.

# Featuring a new villain Time Lord, the Proctologist

I’ve heard a theory that a trick Steven Moffat uses to make Doctor Who scary is taking things that kids are afraid of anyway — ticking, shadows, monsters under the bed, cracks, France, statues — and making them genuinely deadly. Maybe. Well, I think we could stand to make Doctor Who play on fears a little more grown-up, so here are some adult monsters that the BBC can use for the next series if they want:

The Hooded Death

On the planet of Suburbiton, in the year 50,235, the population live to be 300. Not because of their physiology, but because of the local sun’s exo-plasmic radiation which heals their cells and extends their lives. But there is a dark force at work: the evil Chavineds, a race of humanoids who live only 25 years, mostly spent underground because exo-plasmic radiation is toxic to them. When they emerge from their caves, cloaked in hoods to protect them from the light, they torment the local population by hanging around shops and stealing food. Sometimes they will paint symbols of deadly magic on walls, to give power to their leader, Azboh.

The White Assassin

Planet A1 of the Tahmax cluster consists mostly of narrow ledges, surrounded on all sides by huge drops, forged in the searing heat of the planet’s exposed lava mantle. The population survive by driving small, single-passenger vehicles carefully along the ledges, between the few habitable zones that remain. But their way of life is threatened by Daleks! A fleet of the new-style Daleks landed on A1 about a year ago, but the intense heat destroyed all but the most reflective — the white ones — and even their weapons do not function in the heat. Now the white Daleks are forced to exterminate the locals one at a time by trundling recklessly and inconsiderately along the narrow roads.

Terror From Relatively Nearby

The planet of Daleimale is threatened by a race of aliens who look human in all respects except one — they have slightly darker skin. The invaders come from Nannistait, the next planet towards the local star (called The Star, or The Sun). Their planet is a bit poorer than Daleimale. The entire population can see the invaders’ evil plans, but the being who rules Daleimale, known only as “The Guardian”, has long-since lost his mind. Ignoring the obvious danger, it bestows gifts of jobs and houses on the aliens, while meting out increasingly absurd laws for the humans to follow, banning salt or dictating what shape sausages must be.

The Invisible Killer

The Doctor lands in London, in the year 1241, but is surprised to see many of the locals have mobile phones and internet access way in advance even of 2011′s. After some investigation, he discovers that a sinister government cabal are using the mobile phone transmitters to beam leukaemia and/or mind-control rays into British children. Unable to use the Tardis to travel to a time when tin foil had been invented, how will he fend off the invisible and probably actually harmless waves that surround him at every turn?

The Impossible Corridors

After crash-landing on a rocky moon that wasn’t supposed to be there, the Tardis repairs itself. As with Time Lords, this involves changing its appearance — internally. When it finally opens, the Doctor must venture into its vast larder, to find something to do for dinner. But when he arrives he finds all the aisles have moved around and why must they always do this and he used to know where everything was but now he can’t find anything and he bets they’ve got rid of the nice kind of yoghurt.

# 05:06:07 08/09/10

At exactly 06 mins and 07 seconds after 5 o’clock on Aug 9th 2010, it will be 05:06:07 08/09/10. This won’t happen again until the year 3010

Pretty impressive, no?

No. This stuff bugs me. Mostly it annoys me for the spectacularly banal observation that “this won’t happen again until the year 3010″. Well, no. What you’ve done there is to truncate the number of centuries from the date, and announce that it won’t reoccur for a century (and in the event you did even that wrong and said it won’t reoccur for a millennium; in fact there’ll be an 05:06:07 08/09/10 in 2110).

That’s true of any date. That’s just the modulo function. There won’t be another 05:06:07 08/09/10 for a hundred years, but then there won’t be another 16:27:05 06/01/10 for a hundred years either and nobody’s impressed by that. Why? Because 16, 27, 5, 6 ,1, 10 doesn’t look like anything much. There’ll be a date and time as remarkable as 16:27:05 06/01/10 later today, say 17:09:42 06/01/10.

But then, 05:06:07 08/09/10 is only a sequence written one particular way. In this case, it’s relying on a rather obtuse American way of writing the date, and even then it only works if you use two-digit years and write the time, including seconds, before the date.

So when will there next be a date and time that’s at least as impressive as 05:06:07 08/09/10? If we allow British dates to be used then we get another 05:06:07 08/09/10 not in 3010, nor even in 2110, but in September. We’ve cut it down from a millennium to a month already.

Moreover, there’s no reason we have to start at 5. We could start at 8, and then wait for 08/09/10 11:12:13, and cut the wait down to slightly over six hours. Indeed, there’s no reason we have to write down the number of seconds, so we could celebrate at 06:07 08/09/10 and get the wait down to an hour and fifty-two seconds.

Exactly 6 minutes and 7 seconds after 5 o’clock on Aug 9th 2010, it will be 05:06:07 08/09/10. This won’t happen again for about an hour.

Hands up if you’re still impressed.