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The longest Chip in the World 18 December 2010

Posted by Oliver Mason in misc.
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In his Metamagical Themas: Questing for the Essence of Mind and Pattern, Douglas Hofstadter talks about numerical literacy, the ability to understand large numbers. This is especially important when state budgets are through around which deal with billions of pounds or euros. At some point you just lose all feeling for quantities, as they are all so unimaginably large and abstract. He then goes on to pose some rough calculation questions, such as “How many cigarettes are smoked in the US every day?” – you start with some estimates, and then work out an answer, which might be near the order of magnitude of the right answer (which we of course don’t know). Quite an interesting and useful mental exercise.

Yesterday we had Fish & Chips for dinner. The girls were comparing the sizes of their chips, and then we came on to the topic of the longest chip in the world. Obviously, with ‘proper’ chips this is limited by the size of the source potato. However, industrially produced chips are made of mashed potato formed into chip-shapes, so there is not really any fixed limit on the length. So, thinking of Hofstadter, I asked them how many potatoes we would need to make a chip that spans around the whole world.

Rough assumptions: one potato contains enough matter to produce 10cm worth of chip (the thickness is not specified). So, how many potatoes do we need for one metre of chip? This is also useful to practice basic primary-school-level maths… – 10. How many for a kilometre? 10,000. How many kilometres do we need to span the world? Roughly 40,000 km. So how many potatoes do we need? 400 million.

The next question is whether there are enough potatoes in the world to do this. Assuming a potato weighs 100g, how much do our 400 million potatoes weigh? 40 million kilogrammes, or 40,000 (metric) tons. What is the world’s potato production? According to Wikipedia, this is 315 million metric tons, so plenty enough. Now, if we were to turn the annual potato crop into one long chip, how many times would it go round the Earth? 7,875 times.

So, with a bit of basic maths (and Wikipedia for the data) you can make maths exciting for kids, practice how to multiply and divide, teach problem-solving, and have fun at the same time. And they also get a feeling for numbers: 400 million – that’s how many potatoes you need for a chip to span the Earth.


On the trouble with “Global Warming” 6 December 2010

Posted by Oliver Mason in linguistics.
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Global warming is a real danger to life on the planet. As I write this, another extremely cold bahn_wetterwinter approaches, with snow and ice (and -9 degrees) already starting in late November. Global warming? WTF!?

The term “global warming” is obviously problematic, for several reasons, two of which I will discuss here: firstly, the climate is a complex system, and secondly, the climate is not the weather. Both reasons have links to linguistics, which is my justification to talk about them on this blog.

Climate is a complex system

Chaos theory was discovered by meteorologists, running climate models on computers. Small changes in the starting conditions result in largely different outcomes. That is why nobody can really predict reliably what is going to happen, as there is no clearly visible link from A to B, the conditions today to the conditions at whatever time in the future. Reducing this to a simple statement such as “temperatures will increase globally” is dangerous, as climate is not that simple itself, and you then get people who demolish your argument on the grounds of inaccuracy.

Language can be seen as a complex system as well; it is influenced by so many factors that it is not possible to make any predictions about how language will change. Any statements such as those on the bad influence of text messaging on the English language are clearly not appropriate; broadly general statements of this kind miss the point about the varieties and different language communities that make up the “English” language.

The climate is not the weather

This point is somewhat related: ‘weather’ is what we’ve got now, but ‘climate’ is a broader, more general tendency. So while we might indeed have a cold winter, if we have a correspondingly hotter summer, the average annual temperature might indeed rise, even if it doesn’t feel like that as you shiver your way to work in the morning. And this year is a single event, which in context might be an outlier if it becomes really warm next winter. Weather is somewhat unpredictable and chaotic, otherwise the Met Office would be out of work.

Global climate would also mean that it could become colder in Western Europe, while other regions of the Earth heat up, and the people of Tuvalu will have have a different view about melting ice caps than American farmers in Arizona.

Michael Halliday compares langue and parole (or competence and performance) with climate and weather: while we can observe one (weather/parole/performance), the other can only be perceived indirectly (climate/langue/competence) through studying the former. But essentially they are different views on the same phenomenon, one short-term and one long-term.

A solution?

Coming to the point of this post, I would suggest abandoning the term “Global Warming” in favour of “Climate Change”. Change can go in different directions, and so it is harder for climate-change-deniers to win easy points whenever the weather is colder, and it also emphasises the climate as opposed to the weather. This might seem like a simplistic point similar to the political correctness debate, but lexical choices when representing reality in language are really important.

And thus we have moved from complex systems via Halliday’s view of langue and parole to Critical Discourse Analysis.