The less-union jack

Inquiring minds want to know, what will the British flag look like if the Scots scoot? Well, it will look like this:

british-flagThe reason involves one of the most famous creative heraldic hacks in history. If you look at paintings of British battles and ships before 1808, you will see that the Union Jack had only a white X, not a red one. More precisely, Azure, the Cross Saltire of St Andrew Argent [the Scottish cross] surmounted by the Cross of St George Gules, fimbriated of the second. This means, “on a blue field, a white X behind a red cross, the latter edged with white”. The white border on the red cross is required by the rule that metals (white/silver and yellow/gold) may not touch each other, nor may colors (red, blue, purple, orange, black, green).  Most baseball caps obey this rule, but incomprehensibly, the Mets and Giants take the field with non-compliant caps, an enduring scandal.

Upon the Act of Union with Ireland, it was necessary to add St. Patrick’s cross, a red saltire.  If this were centered, St. Andrew’s cross would disappear, becoming a mere fimbriation of the Irish saltire.  Placing the latter off-center as though slightly rotated, making St. Andrew’s cross an element in its own right, (given that the implied mess at the center crossing is hidden by the English cross), was a stroke of near genius and to my knowledge completely original in heraldic gimmickry.

If the white cross is removed, all that is necessary is to recenter the red saltire of (Northern) Ireland in its obligatory white border, hence the figure above: Azure, the Cross Saltire of St Patrick Gules, fimbriated Argent, surmounted by the Cross of St George Gules, fimbriated of the third.

 

Visa security kabuki

Lu had to go to Madrid for her interview on her application for a US visa. As it happened, this was on 9/11, and the embassy Stars and Stripes were at half-mast. Less impressively, the State Department continues the fight against the terrorist threat through searching questions on its visa form:

  • Do you seek to engage in terrorist activities while in the United States or have you ever engaged in terrorist activities?                                YES/NO
  • Have you ever or do you intend to provide financial assistance or other support to terrorists or terrorist organizations?                            YES/NO
  • Are you a member or representative of a terrorist organization? YES/NO

I bet that scares off al-Baghdadi! Do they really hope to catch idiots like Reid answering “yes”? I’ve applied for visas from China and Russia, with paranoid and efficient secret police forces, and they didn’t waste my and their time with such questions. The North Koreans don’t ask if you have ever spat on a photo of Kim il Sung. Iran just asks if you are a journalist, have a criminal record or a contagious disease, and where else you have been (read Israel).

The kabuki extends wider than terrorism – but falls well short of a full catalogue of high-profile Dr. Evil crimes. State asks if you are a money launderer, but not a currency forger; a génocidaire or torturer, but not a rapist; a procurer of forced abortions, but not a paedophile; a drug smuggler, but not an illegal arms dealer; a prostitute, but not a political consultant mafioso.

What is the mental process behind this? Is it the Al Capone tactic, of getting the bad guy through a technical offence? I don’t see how this would work. Dr Evil lies on his DS-160, flies to New York, tries to plant sarin in the subway, and is arrested. The prosecutor assembles a list of charges adding up to 2,000 years in jail. Would she weaken the media impact by adding the misdemeanour “lying on his visa application”? A similar argument holds for deportation. The false declaration only stands up if Dr. Evil’s substantive misconduct in the USA justifies deportation, in which case the false-declaration charge adds nothing useful.

The only way I can think of to generate this absurd list is an accumulation of random grandstanding by congresspersons of limited understanding. “What, Mr Under-Secretary, is the State Department doing to stop the entry into this great, pure country of foreigners guilty of the disgusting crime of [insert offence lifted from recent mail from constituent]?”

Better suggestions welcome.

 

Quote of the day

The flame of conception seems to flare and go out, leaving man shaken, and at once happy and afraid. There’s plenty of precedent of course. Everyone knows about Newton’s apple. Charles Darwin said his Origin of Species flashed complete in one second, and he spent the rest of his life backing it up; and the theory of relativity occurred to Einstein in the time it takes to clap your hands. This is the greatest mystery of the human mind — the inductive leap. Everything falls into place, irrelevancies relate, dissonance becomes harmony, and nonsense wears a crown of meaning. But the clarifying leap springs from the rich soil of confusion, and the leaper is not unfamiliar with pain.

– John Steinbeck, Sweet Thursday

While the language police are having donuts

As anyone learning it as a second language will tell you, English could use some tidying up. The orthography alone is a mess: a “Spelling Bee” would be completely silly in most other languages, where letters are used with some relationship to phonetics. Never mind Chinese. Then we have all those idiomatic traps (in front of, but behind);  illogicalities, real and seeming: loosen = unloosen, raveled = unraveled, inflammable=flammable; and all the words whose negating barnacles can no longer be pried off:

 It had been a rough day, so when I walked into the party I was very chalant, despite my efforts to appear gruntled and consolate. I was furling my wieldy umbrella for the coat check when I saw her standing alone in a corner. She was a descript person, a woman in a state of total array. Her hair was kempt, her clothing shevelled, and she moved in a gainly way. I wanted desperately to meet her, but I knew I’d have to make bones about it, since I was travelling cognito. Beknownst to me, the hostess, whom I could see both hide and hair of, was very proper, so it would be skin off my nose if anything bad happened….

What we don’t have, and could use, is the wonderful Italian kit of modifying suffixes .  I know, when you have two words for everything from Latin and German, plus colonial uploads like bungalow, yada yada…  But wouldn’t you like to be able to stick -accio/a on something to tersely express disdain in the middle of a noncommittal sentence (Tea Partaccia), or signal affection by just saying “Spotuccio!” when your dog brings your unchewed slippers?

They stack, too: “Spotinuccio” for the little pug. This needs care, however, as they can trip over each others’ feet, so if you try this, heed the following, what happens when rough and untrained hands are allowed to meddle with machinery.

The violin was christened a “small viol” (violino). It isn’t really a viol (square shoulders, tuned in fifths, etc.), but violino/violin it is, OK.  A double bass is a great big one, violone, and it really is exactly that.  The tenor of the violin family was named a “small big viol”, or violoncello (its official name, also in English, and note the second o) even though it’s more properly a violinone (skipping the viola, but see below) and not any kind of viol.  Worse, the pieces got disconnected, and we absurdly call this second-largest of  the strings a cello, literally “a small”. By curdled analogy, the tenor, larger mandolin (mandolino = small mandola, OK so far) is a mandocello.

The Germans got off this derailing train with Geige, Bratsche , and Bass-Geige, but even they passed up Kleine Bass-Geige for violoncello. Bratsche is its own mystery, supposedly an attempt to bring   viola da braccia, “arm viol”, across the Alps. But (i) how can that word not denote a horn? and (ii) how could it not have been called violaccia from the start?

Perovskite solar

Cross-post at CleanTechnica on recent progress in making cheap solar cells from synthetic perovskite crystals. If you are curious, it’s got enough links in it to stuff by people who actually know what they are talking about.

It was an interesting challenge for a dilettante, one I’m not in a hurry to repeat, to report on news at the research frontier to a general audience.

You shouldn’t take my piece as evidence that perovskites will win out over competing lines of development. My hunch in their favour is based on little more than an aesthetic pleasure in a project to use the very stuff of the earth’s rocks to save its biosphere, and a touch of alma mater sentimentality: one of the key labs is in Oxford. It is evidence that in the medium term pv solar is not limited to the current commercial menu, two sorts of silicon and one thin-film. The solar learning curve will continue. Just as well: it’s half of what stands between us and climate catastrophe.

CleanTechnica cut the photo of Michael Grätzel of Lausanne, the pioneer of the solar perovskite field. Doesn’t look like a superhero, but then real heroes don’t. The cell he’s holding is from a precursor project that did not pan out commercially, a useful reminder of the risks. I do hope he gets his Nobel.

Michael Grätzel holding  a dye-sensitized cell

Michael Grätzel holding a dye-sensitized cell

Annals of commerce

Let’s see, today we have Ebola, Gaza, Ukraine, and our freedoms under siege by an invasion of children.  Maybe we need a break for something a little less ponderous. Advertising never lets us down:
(1) ARCO thinks we want to buy gas everyone waits in line to avoid. “Eat at Joe’s! Nobody else will!”  Did this work in focus groups? Anybody shooing customers out the door to get a nice inviting empty store?
(2) Coors is selling beer with incredibly expensive little adventure sports productions, whose point is that their beer is really, really – wait for it – cold! Uniquely so: the cold is brewed into it by some secret process!  No other beer can possibly be that cold! This is probably well-targeted to the intelligence of their market, but…
(3) The Viagra people invite us to identify with a guy who drives around pulling a team in a horse trailer to rescue his truck, apparently because he (i) never figured out how to put the thing into 4WD,  or is too dumb to (ii) just drive around a mudhole instead of into it in the first place, or (iii) unhitch the trailer, drive up onto dry ground, and pull the trailer out with a rope. I guess the one who gets to play with the most toys at once wins.
(4) Finally, a blast from the distant past: Rheingold beer had a series of ads showing this or that ethnic group having a party…Greeks breaking dishes, Jews dancing the hora, and like that…drinking Rheingold, with the voice-over (from memory): “New York, a city of dozens of different groups and cultures. Who would think it would have only one largest-selling beer? Well, there is such a beer, and it’s Rheingold.”  I watched a fair number of those before the bell went off in my head: “You would think one beer would outsell all others, but no: it’s a dead tie, down to the last bottle!”

Point of view

This pictureshoe3has always irritated me.  It’s obviously not a footprint, but a torn-off piece of boot sole sitting upside down on some beach.  If you ask me, it’s a pathetic part of the conspiracy to make us think humans actually landed on the moon.  Why it keeps being reproduced, here for example, mystifies me.  Continue Reading…