Oxford university is home of a lot of strange traditions, and New college is no exception. On Wednesday of 1st week, New college played host to the Mayor of Oxford (as well as a bunch of other nicely dressed council people) who went for a lovely walk along the old city wall with a group of New College dignataries (for want of a better word). The reason for this strange spectacle is simple; William of Wykham (the nice man who founded our college and whose expensive portrait can be seen in the Red Room) was given the land to build New College under the condition that he maintained the city wall to keep Oxford safe, and now because England (and Oxford in particular) love tradition the college is still charged with defending the city (from what I don’t know). You will all be pleased to hear Oxford is still safe and College passed this test with flying colours, although the Mayor did spot a weed in the wall and proceeded to pluck it out (for a joke about this moment from our very own Sir Curtis Price see the BBC Oxford video coverage of the whole affair. For those too lazy to do so, Sir Curtis was worried the wall might fall down, which would have been highly embarrasing).
As Oxford traditions go, however, this is very normal…. so here are my top 5 mental Oxford traditions (a freshers guide)
1) Merton College’s Time ceremony
Every year around the vernal equinox tutors and students in Merton College walk backwards around one of their quads quaffing port. This is all done (obviously) to prevent the ripping of the space time continuum, or so many claim, although the more beleivable story of the whole thing being made up by a few people mocking Oxford’s weird traditions in the 70’s is possibly more accurate (although i haven’t noticed any rips in space time so maybe it does work).
2) Oxford time
Certain bells in Oxford (most noticeably Tom Tower) tolls 5 minutes after GMT because Oxford has its own time zone. This is also apparently why lectures start at 5 past the hour.
3) May Morning
What better way to start summer than getting really drunk staying up till 5am and then breaking a limb! This is the Daily Mail’s favourite Oxford tradition as it gives them a lovely annual reason to be outraged. It stems back to the harvest traditions when thing like weather had more of an effect on what and how much food we can howave (this is why there are loads of Morris Dancers about). The whole ‘jumping into the Isis’ bit is a more recent addition stemming (and i am guessing here) from alcohol drinking.
Because its that time of year again!
Matriculation is something that every Oxford student has to do, ( it is kind of like graduation in reverse) and means you get to dress up in sub fusc without having an exam to go to and (like many many things in oxford) has become closely entwined in going to old fashioned Oxford pubs and drinking lots (see: Matriculash).
5) Ascension day
On ascension day Lincoln College opens the door linking it to Brasenose so that it can serve a pint of beer to Brasenose students. This originally involved serving a pint of beer poisened with ivy and was followed by somebody throwing hot pennies from the college tower for a group of young (school age) children to pick up (supposedly to teach the kids a lesson in greed). This and the whole Brasenose/Lincoln rivalry dates back to the town and gown riots when (so the story goes) two students, one from Lincoln and one from Brasenose were being chased by a mob through the city. They both tried to seek refuge in Lincoln College but the Brasenose student was refused entry and locked out and was killed by the mob of cityfolk. The beer is served to Brasenose students by way of apology for this, but was poisened so that the students didn’t enjoy it too much. (the townsfolk haven’t even so much as given Brasenose a box of Carlsberg to share amongst themselved…tut tut).
A note to all freshers contemplating taking to the wall themselves for a post Risa inspection of their own, rumour has it that climbing on the wall is punishable by a good hard sending down (but an even more tenuous rumour says that such an escapade is rewarded with tickets to the next comem ball). If the Dean and someone that knows about ball related things (McGlynn?) please get back to me at email@example.com to corrobarate or destroy these rumours I would be very grateful.
Also published in the Newt (hope this explains some of the weirdness).
Not to be outdone, Watson (IBM’s jeapordy winnng supercomputer) popped back into the news, having been employed (is that the right word, or is that a bit too human?) by WellPoint inc, the United States largest health provider with around 34.2 million members. The plan is to use Watson’s power and patient records along with the deep health care database to help choose treatment and medicine options for patients. Watson has a huge library of medical journals and textbooks on board and so should, (WellPoint hopes), be able to quickly and accurately assess a patient’s needs, leading to easy diagnoses. Watson will output a number of possible diagnoses and treatments, each ranked by suitability for doctors to then decide upon (so we won’t see a scalpel wielding Watson any time soon…. Thank god!).
Watson started its life in 2005 after IBM research manager Charles Lickel had watched Ken Jennings 74 game winning streak on Jeopardy and came up with the idea of building a computer to beat him at the game (In much the same way as Deep Blue was designed to beat Gary Kasparov at chess. One wonders if there is a British computer company as we speak working an a system to win at Total Wipeout…. If so please get in touch!). At first, and unsurprisingly, Watson was rubbish. It would have been one of those competitors that would do embarrassingly badly and ridiculed in the news for their performance. So the team went back to work and after 3 years wheeled out the new Watson to compete in a practice match on January 13th 2011….a showdown between Watson, Ken Jennings (the man who started it all) and Brad Rutter. Watson won but only by $1000 dollars, so it was hardly domination, but remember this was only a practice. Watsons official Jeopardy match took place between the 14th and 16th of February. In this bout Watson again came in first place with a staggering $1 million compared to Jennings $300,000. So great, we’ve spent millions and millions of dollars on developing a machine that can play a gameshow (but then give its prize money to charity) but how has this thing bettered society? Well, it’s not just WellPoint who have plans for Watson. IBM are planning to develop Watson into a commercial diagnostic timachine within 18-24 months, and plans are afoot to use its talents in legal research as well as government departments. And as processing power becomes cheaper (and importantly smaller) we might find ourselves running into lots of Watsons in our day to day life…think of all the opportunities to say, “Elementary……”.
A paper was recently published titled “Culturomics 2.0: Forecasting Large-Scale Human Behavior Using Global News Media Tone in Time and Space” (one of the more exciting titles for a paper I have seen if I’m honest). In it, the author discusses the possible use of powerful supercomputers to trawl the web ‘reading’ news articles and then using the data amassed to ‘predict the future’. “Amazing!” you might say, “this is an end to stock market crashes, an end to wars and an end to disasters and terrorist attacks" - but I think we all need to reign in our expectations a bit. So far it has only been able to predict things retrospectively (both oxymoronic, and also a bit useless), but it is early days yet. The first seismograph was invented in AD 132 in ancient China and was purported to be able to both alert people to an earthquake and show its direction. It did have some notable successes - its first measured earthquake was for “somewhere in the east”, and lo and behold, 8 days later a rider from the east came to report the earthquake! However it did on occasion indicate earthquakes when none were felt (maybe it was just incredibly sensitive…?). Still, two thousand years later and with vaster and much more advanced multi sensor systems people still die in earthquakes and volcanoes! Whilst we are much better at predicting them we still have no way to predict a specific day (or even month in some cases), so being able to retrospectively predict things doesn’t seem so bad. Give it a few thousand years and we might have it down to fine art (I mean science).
The research in the paper is centered around a computer called Nautilus which boasts 1024 Intel Nehalem cores, and a total processing power of 8.2 teraflops! (No, I don’t know what that is either but it does sound impressive…). It is based at the University of Tennessee, and spends its days (and nights) analyzing news feeds from a range of sources including the US Government’s open source news centre, the New York Times online archive and the Google news website. It tracks the mood and location of the news story and then plots this data as standard deviations from the mean against date, giving us a rather nondescript looking graph.
From these graphs we can (apparently) see a number of the big news stories of recent time. If we look at the graph for Libya, for example, we see that for the two weeks prior to the beginning of their uprising on 15th February 2011 there was a negative feeling nationwide that had only been so bad 4 times in the last 30 years. Similar things can be seen for the Balkans, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia. One thing all of the graphs seem to have in common is more negative feeling as the years go on. A plot of the whole world shows this negative trend even more starkly! The news is becoming steadily more negative with levels far lower than during the Second World War, even beginning to dip below the levels seen during the Vietnam War and Cold War.
So is this it? Is this empirical evidence that the world is in steady decline, that the ratio of good to bad things is swinging to the bad? Should we all just give up now?! Or perhaps it is much more benign - we have simply become more fixated on the negative and so the news has reacted. A cursory glance at the BBC news website shows lots of negative news and very little good news. Bad news seems to affect us all, whereas good news tends to be much more localised, so international news sites often dwell on the negative stories. Bad news is also more tantalizing and interesting; people love to read about the awful things in the world, in the same way that people love to watch horror movies. It gives people the opportunity to moan about all that is wrong in the world, and as much as we hate to admit it…that feels good. Maybe if we gave the computer a wider range of news to read we would see a different trend? Every time I open the local newspaper I see no end of stories about people doing good - there are sponsored walks, charity head shaving, leg waxings, and a myriad of other things. If we were to throw this data into the mix maybe we would see it the mood lifting - maybe we’re not so bad after all. If we give it Twitter and Facebook as well it would get even better, the constant stream of glee with which people tell the world that they just ate a whole bag of pistachios or just went to the cinema must be enough to buck the trend back up again!! ( at this point I am wholly aware that it seems a little like I am trying to prove myself (… our selves… in fact the whole human race) to this computer. It seems quite damning that an outside and impartial adjudicator has looked at our world and seemingly given it such a stamp of disapproval. “You’re going the way of the dodo, mere humans, and you’re grumbling about It all the way”.
The system also has other uses; it can be used to look at the spatial dimension of news, this was used to map news mentions of Osama bin Laden in an effort to extrapolate where he may be hiding. So did it work? Did the computer beep and say “Abbottabad”? Well no, not quite. It predicted Pakistan rather than Afghanistan (a good start) and suggested the cities of Islamabad or Peshwar. Now Abbottabad is about 200km from each of these places, so whilst it wasn’t a magical pinpoint location…. it was pretty good.
So while it doesn’t seem that I’ll be popping on my laptop to read tomorrows news anytime soon (maybe it will be an app called iPredict), but Nautilus does look like it can help. We obviously do need a little more practice deciphering its output (maybe a Defcon style system with smilies rather than colours?) but we will get there! My only suggestion is that we rename it…. Nautilus sounds a bit daemonic in my mind.
The Yes Men are a fluxional group of culture jamming activists who work to highlight social injustices throughout the world and bring them to the attention of the public. Nothing wrong with this you say? No i agree, but the ways in which they go about it are questionable in the least.
One of their most high profile stunts (and i suspect in some ways their proudest) related to the Bhopal disaster;
Bhopal is a city in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh and it was the chosen place for Union Carbide Corporation to build a pesticide plant. At about midnight on December 3rd 1984, methyl isocyanate (an extremely toxic substance that can cause damage by inhalation, ingestion and contact at concentrations as low as 0.04 ppm) was accidentally released from the plant. That night over 500,000 people were exposed to both this and other chemicals. The state government has confirmed a total of 3,787 deaths as a result of the accident and an estimated 40,000 others have been permanently maimed, disabled or are now in some way suffering from serious illness following the disaster. The Indian government sued the company and agreed to an out of court settlement of US$470 million. If one takes the Indian governments 2006 estimates regarding the number of people whose health was effected and divides up this pay out between them this equates to a little under US$1000 each. Obviously this is a crude estimate that doesn’t take into account the staggering cost for clearing up the damage caused, but does give a rough idea of the size of the disaster compared to the size of compensation given.
Some causes that have been suggested to have caused or worsened the disaster include:
Union Carbide never truly accepted responsibility for the disaster but in 2002 was bought out by DOW chemical who agreed to right some of the perceived wrongs that Union Carbide had committed. But it turns out this meant paying out a million dollars each to 6 texans who worked in a union carbide plant and were exposed to Asbestos and made no mention of Bhopal.
The long and short of it is that The Yes Men, as well as many many others, believe that Union Carbide have done little to help the area and the people affected. So in the runup to the 20th anniversary of the Bhopal disaster The Yes Men hatched a plan…..
They started by setting up a website for DOW ethics, a fictional branch of DOW that dealt with the moral implications of the company. The centerpiece of this fictional website was the new Acceptable Risk Calculator (ARC) a product to allow companies to offset the human risk against financial profits to decide whether or not the risk is worth it.This website quickly led to DOW ethics being invited to speak at a conference a group of finance professionals, where the Yes Men took ARC and presented it in what they thought would be the most shocking was possible. They took along with them Gilda, skeleton spray painted gold. The idea behind this was to put forward the idea that killing people is ok if it is profitable (ie some skeletons can be golden). The presentation got a round of applause, much to the shock of the Yes Men, and even more worryingly some people even approached them afterwards to tell them how much they enjoyed it and how it was something that “everyone knew but was too scared to say”.
The Yes Men were staggered and a little taken aback to say the least, what more could they do to shock these people into seeing what they saw? So it was back to the drawing boards for The Yes Men when out of the blue a great opportunity presented itself to them. They were contacted by BBC World who asked if they would be willing to go on live TV (to 300 million people no less) to discuss the Bhopal disaster exactly 20 years after it happened. So live on international TV The Yes Men told the world that Dow chemical who had recently bought Union Carbide were going to liquidate the company and use the money gained to pay off all of the people affected in Bhopal and other disasters caused by the company (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SlUQ2sUti8o). The world was unsurprisingly shocked and The Yes Men left feeling no doubt petrified about what the repercussions of what they had just done would be. It only too around 2 hours for Dow to put out a statement confirming that the announcement had nothing to do with them and so The Yes Men were back in the seat on BBC World but this time to discuss the hoax they had just staged and the following day they were on channel 4 discussing the matter with John Snow. One of the main points people were picking up on (aside from the obvious illegality of the prank) was the fact that the announcement tricked hundreds of people who had been affected by the disaster into believing that their lives would be changed, that the nightmare they had been living for years would be over (well, eased at least) only to have this hope ripped away from them. The Yes Men traveled to Bhopal to discuss with people directly effected by the disaster what they thought of the hoax. The general consensus was that many people were ridiculously excited upon hearing the news and then were utterly crestfallen to hear it was all a hoax and that they were still receiving no help following the disaster. All the people agreed though that the whole thing was worth it because it did highlight to lots of people who
assumed that everything had been sorted out that it wasn’t and that people were still suffering.
Unfortunately this didn’t cause Dow to pay out to people in Bhopal and didn’t fix all of the problems the disaster caused but it did raise awareness and that (i guess) was the aim.
The Yes Men have done lots of similar “Culture Jamming” activities and you can read about them here;
The Gruffalo is one of the most successful children’s books of recent years, it has sold over 11 million copies and has been adapted into a film, an audio book and even a West End play. But the roots of this story do not lie in the middle classed life of the playwright author Julia Donaldson but instead stretch way back into the Warring states period in ancient china (around 400 BC!). The story is as follows;
In the Chu state there was a minister to the king named Zhau Xixu. He was an aide to the king, but was also very well respected in his right not only by his own people but also people from other countries who held him in awe. One day the king turned to his court and asked the rest of the ministers, “I hear that all of the northern states are afraid of our minister Xixu, is this so?”. Many of the ministers remained silent, fearing that their reply would anger the King as it was true that much of the North feared Minister Xixu more than they did the king himself. Only one minister spoke up seeing an opportunity to increase his standing with the king, “Your Majesty it is true that many fear Xixu, but it’s you who people awe and respect most, not him! Have you ever heard the story The Fox who Borrowed the Tiger’s Terror?”
The King hadn’t and so implored his minister to continue.
One day a tiger was hunting in the forest and come across an unlucky fox, now the fox knew at once that he had no chance of escape, the tiger would surely kill him. But the fox was sly and quickly came up with a plan. “How dare you even consider killing me!”. The tiger looked at the fox taken aback and the fox carried on raising his voice arrogantly “Do you not know who i am? God has made me the king of this forest, going against me would be going against God!”
The tiger looked at the fox sceptically, “How do I know that you are telling the truth?”. The Fox continued un-phased “Ok Tiger, let us put it to the test, come with me and you shall see how much all of the animals of this forest fear me!!”
So off they walked, Fox striding proudly in front as the tiger slinked behind him. They came across a snake who took one look at the pair of them and slithered back out of the path and into his hiding place. A bit further along the path the saw a monkey who didn’t dare to leave the high branch where he was perched and eyed them warily. They continued down the path, animals fleeing as they came as they saw the Tiger. The Tiger was astonished, “what you say is true, you really are the scariest animal in this forset” and with that he too slinked off leaving Fox to live another day.
“You see my King” continued the minister, “just as the animals feared the tiger and not the fox, the Northern states only appear to fear Minister Xixu while in truth it is you who they are afraid of”.
The King was pleased with what he heard and never saw fit to question the Minister’s words.
It’s over! Apple have discontinued the macbook range, man’s budget entry into apple computing has now disappeared. The range went down not in a hail of pomp and circumstance as perhaps it deserved but instead was quietly pushed out without so much as a whimper. It seems that apple have decided that an 11inch macbook air is now what we deserve and that is what we shall get……sad.
The macbook was originally released in 2006 to replace the iBook and came in an exciting range of two colours, black or white. The black model met its fate in 2008 when apple decreed white was cool and it was ousted by the aluminium unibody version. The macbook was the first notebook to do a number of things that we now take as standard including non-mechanical latches, chiclet keyboards and glossy displays. No doubt years to come from now when I take my kids to the science museum there staring back at me from a display case will be a 2008 macbook unibody and on that day i will feel VERY old.
(throughout this post capitals letters in product names are seemingly spread fairly randomly all over the place, but from what i can gather that is the way of the apple)
I am a Oxford University chemistry graduate, currently working in an independent school. I like tea and science and have a lovely Macbook named Mr. Mac.
Mr Mac and myself go on all sorts of crazy adventures; usually to the library and usually to do chemistry….but a man can dream!