Historical Blind Dates and other Calendar Troubles

Did you hate learning dates during History class?  If so – join the enlightened majority. It now comes out that our reluctance to remember inane phrases such as “in 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue”, was not due to laziness – but was a protection mechanism. Our subconscious was at work.  Apparently, and Medical Science will surely confirm this someday soon, we come equipped with a “bull-dust detector” – and all those Historical Dates set off the alarms. Historical?  More hysterical, as you will see.  Read on MacDuff.   You were told that History is about What Happened When, right?  Or, to put that in a more grammatically correct order, it’s about  When Who Did What Where?  Think again. Let’s illustrate it this way:

(And, by the way, folks, this IS worth remembering – it could make you RICH – it’s sure to come up sometime as the question for a $1,000,000 Quizz Show prize)

Q: How long was the longest Calendar year in recorded History?

A:  366 days  B: 378 days  C: 426 days   D: 445 days

And the answer is . . .  read on, Watson. It’s buried in here, somewhere.  (And, yes, I do know what you’re thinking . . . that yours truly is a swine for not spilling the beans right now. Be that as it may . . . ; )

Here (in brief) is how it happened. By the time of Julius Caesar (the same bloke who got famous for saying “I came, I saw, I conquered” and started his Gallic Wars best seller with the statement “All Gaul is divided into three parts”  – which must be the most pathetic opening line of any book, ever) – anyway, by his time the Roman calendar was . . . well it was roaming . . . all over the bloody place. The official calendar keepers hadn’t the foggiest about niceties like leap days, and no-one had boned up on the exact length of the solar year, which is, to whit: 365.24219 days (Tropical average), give or take a few seconds. (Dammed unsporting that – one would think the Solar System would arrange things so that Planet Earth manages the round trip in whole days.) Anyway, ours is not to question why . . .

So, getting back to the Romans and their wayward calendar, Big Jules decided to sort things out. So he hired an astronomer or two, and a mathematician, and they hitched up their togas and got to calculating. Now this was long before pocket scientific calculators – even the Chinese were still counting on fingers and toes, with an abacus for the really big numbers – so all was NOT plain sailing. Nevertheless, this astronomer geezer came up with a new calendar, which Big Jules promptly named after himself.  Hence the Julian Calendar.

BIG PROBLEM was – the backroom boys realized that the Roman Republic Calendar (the old model, the one that was a-roaming in the gloaming) . . . well – it was not just slightly out of whack – it was 80 days out.

No wonder the Romans were always having those military disasters, like when Hannibal and his elephants beat them up at Cannae. Obviously, because the calendar was screwed, the generals and the military planning staff were always preparing for the wrong thing at the wrong time.  A whole lot of mysteries about Roman History resolved themselves (in my mind, anyway) on learning this little fact – a critical item which (to date) historians curiously seem to ignore.

Anyway, the boffin in the backroom, one Sosigenes of Alexandria,  tells Big Jules the happy news.  About the 80 day snafu, that is. Not long thereafter there was a lot of weeping and wailing, mainly from the guys who had messed up with the old calendar, as they were sold off into slavery, and Caesar used the opportunity to Tweet that “the situation was very serious, a matter of national importance, their whole Roman way of life was threatened” . . . besides other public spirited announcements made to calm the panicking population . . .and boost his popularity.

Having scared everyone out of their sandals, he also announced that he “had a plan”. And – if they made him Dictator – he could save the situation. So, long story short, they gave him the go ahead. Not that they had much option. He promptly added 23 days between Februarius 23 and Martius 1.  (No wonder alcoholism and/or suicide was so attractive to public-spirited Romans. Sober, you just didn’t know what the heck was going on.)

But the best was yet to come.  His coup de grace was to add TWO EXTRA MONTHS between November 30 and December 1.  Hence the saying: “tomorrow never comes”.   This whole trying episode was commemorated in a popular ballad of the time,  “Oh, its a longlong time from Maius to Decembris.”   A satirical play (the big hit of that year),

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, alludes in brief to the considerable confusion Rome was experiencing while all this re-organization was in progress. All in all, it was not surprising that Brutus and his mob decided to bump Caesar off. Sanity demanded it.

The nett effect was to make the year officially 445 days long, counting from Ianuarius 1 to the finis of Decembris.  Talk about a “Leap Year” with a difference!  More like a “Long Jump Year”.  Did everyone need a holiday after THAT!  Imagine the arguments at reunion parties, when people tried to work out what happened, when. No wonder the Romans went bonkers – lead in their wine was the least of their problems. I mean – if you got married, or born, in that crazy year – how the heck did you ever celebrate your anniversary, or birthday, with any certainty?  Most husbands have a difficult enough time remembering these little events in a “normal” year, agreed?

Well, naturally there was a lot of stiff upper lip type whinging from the patrician classes about the absolute confusion in their social lives, but life went on, even though the old calendar was shot to hell. And as the slaves still went to work, irrespective of how long the year was, so the wheels of Empire kept turning. On the plus side, the Calendar Business made record profits that year, as everyone had to buy lots of special, one-off 445 day calendars – or you didn’t have the foggiest what month you were in, never mind day of week.

And, as we now know, the world didn’t come to an end, although the big shots weren’t done with messing around with the Calendar. As you may remember, J. Caesar esquire later decided to add an extra day to “His” birth month, Julius, and swiped one from poor old Februarius. Meaning that the calendar printers had to re-adjust all their calendars – again.  Then along came Augustus, who decided that He also deserved an extra day for “His” month. And swiped another day from Februarius.  Which makes one wonder – why does every one have it in for February?  What’s February done to them, anyway?

Meantime, in an insignificant little province of the Empire, the birth of a humble carpenter was about to cause all sorts of new calendric complications. How so?

Well, the Romans were chugging along with things, after Caesar’s reforms. They had sort of worked out the leap year system, even though, in the beginning, they misread the instruction manual, and added a leap year every THREE years.  I kid you not. Obviously, after the trauma of the 445 day year, their wits were totally shot. But still, makes you wonder – why didn’t somebody check what the hell was going on?  And where the heck was Sosigines?  Result was, by the time of Augustus, they were running ahead, and so for about ten years they gave the leap years a miss, to get things back under control. Then, just when it looked like life was getting back to normal, things got seriously screwed. The barbarians arrived and gate-crashed the party.

Apart from wrecking the neighbourhood, and causing huge devaluations in property prices, the Goths, Huns, Vandals and all their mates didn’t give a damn about calendars and all that stuff – so everything got all messed up again during the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. That’s why it’s called “The Dark Ages”. In the end, the Roman Catholic Church was left with the unenviable job of trying to sort the mess out.

Long story short, they got their heads around the leap year thing, but some geezer called Dionysius Exiguus promptly got a bee in his bonnet and decided that the Official Church Calendar should date events based on the supposed Incarnation of a certain Jesus Christ, founder and CEO. Well, apart from getting very confused in his calculations, Dionysius also forgot to mention a way of matching his result with any other calendar. Damned unsporting, what?

But the next decision was a real howler. The Church decided to start dating everything on a Before Christ and After Christ basis. Except – no-one realized that they needed to include a Year Zero. Suppose, with the Barbarian invasions and the other alien immigration issues, folk had lots of other things on their minds at the time. Mainly . . . about not losing their heads.

Result is, we have this weird anomaly of jumping straight from 1 B.C. to 1 C.E. (or A.D. if you prefer the Latin version, but it’s still confused.)  Which leads to the next anomaly. The further back into the past we go – the larger the B.C. number is.  Which makes calculations horribly non intuitive. The Big Bang moment is, like, circa 14 Billion B.C. – and we count down from there, to 1 B.C, and then . . . (don’t forget) skip the missing Year Zero, and then . . .  In short, it has the effect of making time stand on its head, mathematically speaking.

If you have to write programs that deal with all this sort of insanity, you need to devise whole new sets of rules for B.C. dates. It becomes so complicated, involving stuff called recursion, that computers tend to throw up their hands in horror, as their memories tank out, and they throw angry complaints about “Running Out Of Stack Space”. Which to a computer is like when your bank manager declares you totally overdrawn, and stops your account.  Ask the guys in Cyprus to explain.

But, going back to our original story, more fun was to follow. The Year Zero blooper notwithstanding, the Roman Church seemed to be managing the calendar quite nicely, (at least they didn’t need to periodically add whole whopping months to straighten things out), but they forgot to check the original calculations. One would have thought they would have learnt, by now. Just goes to prove George Santayana  was onto something when he famously coined the phrase “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  Let’s face it – if you can’t agree WHEN it happened, memory – a notoriously impish fellow at the best of times – simply loves the ensuing Amnesia. (Which is not Milk of, by the way, though the effects can be amusingly similar.)

And so, by the 16th century it was horribly apparent that the Julian System was not quite fool-proof. In fact – it had a nasty bug. So a whole new crowd of astronomers and mathematicians were gathered, and they feverishly calculated a system update, which the Pope of the time, naturally, named after Himself. Hence the Gregorian System ver.1.0, officially released on the 5th October 1582.

Problem was, people didn’t trust it. For one thing it started off by REMOVING 10 days, to get the calendar back on track with the seasons. Illogically, but perhaps understandably, less educated people felt cheated at seeming to “lose” a week and half of their lives. Then there was the religious and political rivalry. The Protestant countries weren’t having any of this Popish plot. So they refused to upgrade, and stuck with the old Julian System. The English doggedly held out till 1752, when Wednesday, 2nd of September was followed by Thursday, 14th September. Now – if that didn’t scare you – nothing will. At the time there was rioting in the streets, as people demanded “give us back our lost days.” Some poor souls committed suicide, believing the End had arrived.  Makes the Mayan Long Count Event of  December 2013 look like a teddy bear’s tea party.

As a result, matching dates to actual events for this period of 1582 to 1752 is fraught with peculiarities, as the one crowd used the Julian System, and the other crowd used the new Gregorian version. Does this matter? Well, to historians, it does, a lot. Perhaps a couple of examples will illustrate the fun:

When invited to take over the vacant Throne of England, William III set sail from the Netherlands on the 11th November – and arrived in England on the 5th of November, six days BEFORE he set out.  How was that?  An early example of time-travel? No – the Netherlands used the Gregorian Calendar, while the British, with typical bulldog determination, were still doggedly using the Julian. (As a side thought, wouldn’t you love to be able to play the horses on this system? Works for me. Surefire betting. Remember the movie “the Sting”?  There they pulled the same trick, using time zones.)

In another example, both Shakespeare and Cervantes apparently died on the same day – 23rd April, right? No way, Jose. Cervantes was already dead 10 days before the Bard laid down his quill, breathed his last, and shrugged off this mortal coil. Again, those dratted Gregorian versus Julian systems. Incidentally, Master William, in his Laste Wille & Testament, left to his wife: item – “one second best bed.”   (Betcha, if he hadn’t already popped off, Mrs Shakespeare would have happily ‘done him in’  for that little quip. Second-best, indeed! Typical playwright – just had to have the last laugh.)

But, slowly, as more and more countries adopted the Gregorian system, things started to settle down to some form of reliability.  For a time the mad English proposed their own system, which, thankfully, never took off. And, thanks to colonialization, and later Microsoft, and Windows, the Gregorian Calendar is now pretty much used all over the world, willy nilly.

Even so – some places were very late converts. The Russians only joined in the party in 1918, when they jumped straight from January 31st to February 14th – so all Russian dates before that time are out by anything up to 14 days. No wonder their novels are full of stories about such depressed people. And the Turks finally got around to it in 1927, after they chucked out the Sultan and his harem, who were holding things back. Just goes to show – frequent sex does make time – and the world  – stand still.  A positively Einsteinian thought, relatively speaking.

But I bet you didn’t notice the “gotcha” a few paragraphs back. Before September 1582 all dates (in Europe anyway), are in the Julian System, all the way back to 46 B.C.  Which makes time calculations very complicated – all those days being added in and removed does tend to muddy the waters, so to speak. Before 46 B.C.?  No-one really knows. Here and there, like distant beacons of light, are a few dates which can be corroborated by astronomical evidence. The rest . . . is guesswork. Sometimes inspired, mostly not. Which makes ancient dating, and date calculations, very complicated, and often well-nigh impossible. Bad news for historians, antiquarians, and astronomers. And for religious zealots who like to calculate the future based on ancient dates.

To illustrate briefly, here are some of the peculiarities that arise from this Calendric Comedy of Errors:

Since the time of Christ, leap years fall on years divisible by four, except if they are centuries, in which case they have to be divisible by 400, to merit a leap day. Got that? Good.

But, if we were to project the Gregorian System Backwards into time, to work with dates Before Christ – a process called proleptic (which sounds like a painful disease, don’t you agree?) –  the Leap Years fall on years divisible by five. Why?

Blame it on that genius who forgot to allow for a year Zero.  Astronomers, who bump into these problems regularly, have their own system, Astronomical Years, for B.C. dates, and their system DOES include a year zero. Again, I kid you not. When you think of it, it’s the only sensible thing to do. But it does mean that when regular historians talk of the year 46 B.C., an astronomer chap calls it -45.

Anyway, before that famous Long Year – everything was way out of whack, anyway. So – bottom line – all those old history books, jamb packed with juicy dates you had to memorize as a kid – it was all a load of . . . guesswork.

Before we terminate this Tale of Woe, (calendrically speaking, that is), I must mention that there are umpteen different calendars still in use. As if the world isn’t confused enough already.

  •  The Muslims use a lunar calendar, whereby they get to add whole months, every now and then. And they date everything from the Hejira, which wasn’t so long ago, relatively speaking. So, in their calendar, this is the year 1434-1435, and the world is fresh and young.
  • The Mayans have a system that astronomers and mathematicians ooh and aah over, ‘cause its so accurate. Just don’t try use it to predict the End of the World.
  • The Jewish people have the Hebrew Calendar, also Lunar, which goes way back into history. They reckon this is the year 5773-5774.
  • On the other hand, according to the Assyrians, this is the year 6763.
  • And I was very pleasantly surprised to discover that the Byzantine Calendar goes back even further. According to them, this is the year 7521-7522.  Which is pretty neat. Year zero is far enough back to avoid too much wrestling with negative years.  So I think we should start a Movement to Reintroduce the Byzantine Calendar.

It’ll make everything so much simpler, don’t you agree?  And Yeats would approve, absolutely.

PS: And yes, one of the tags did hint that we would offer some “dating advice.”   Here it is:   don’t.


Hunting For The Quark

In the beginning there was the atom. And it was accepted that everything was made of atoms.  Secure in this knowledge all was well in the scientific world, learned men slept soundly at night. And it was good.

Curiously, we owe our modern concept of atoms to a mostly self-educated Quaker, John Dalton, born in the Lake District, who published his New System of Chemical Philosophy in 1808.  At over 900 pages this was light reading only for those who devour encyclopedias, but one short chapter did introduce determined readers to atoms, which, Mr Dalton asserted, were:

  1. tiny beyond comprehension  
  2. irreducible
  3. virtually indestructible.  

And since one couldn’t see them, a fair number of the scientific community found it difficult to accept that they even existed at all. At least one eminent physicist committed suicide over the issue. But we digress.  Generally, learned folk were prepared to accept that atoms existed, and wait for the proof to be forthcoming.

A bit later, Thomson discovered the electron, and suddenly all was not quite so well. Evidently the “irreducible” atom was not quite so “irreducible” after all, but this was conveniently ignored by most sensible folk, who continued to enjoy their slumbers.

Einstein’s 1st paper (on Brownian motion) supplied the first bit of definite proof that atoms really existed, but he went on to much (much) bigger things (the universe), and our poor, neglected atoms had to wait for that genial, brash, loud New Zealander Ernest Rutherford, the genius who was rotten at mathematics. (Just goes to show).

Anyway, Rutherford started the craze for “atom-smashing”. A curious method of research, come to think of it – bit like a kid smashing his grandfather’s watch to find out what makes it tick. (I always feel sorry for those poor, defenseless little atoms. Some people mutter ominously that no good will come of it, and that one day the particles will have their revenge, when some over-enthusiastic atom-smasher unleashes “strange quarks” which breed uncontrollably and gobble us up.)

Well, opening Pandora’s box was nothing on what happened in the atomic world. Out popped protons and neutrons. Electrons, which we already knew about, are really mysterious – they are “everywhere at the same time”.  (Try get your brain around that one). Yes, difficult to believe, but it’s the only explanation that fits all the evidence. Truly, the universe is not only strange, it’s far stranger than we could ever imagine.  When asked how one should mentally picture the atom, Heisenberg famously said: “Don’t try”.  (Well, actually he said it in German, but you get the idea)

He also postulated the Uncertainty Principle. Which figures.  And suddenly, people were having to face the concept that the atom could be like a tiny universe. And each particle in the atom could be another universe, and so on, ad infinitum.

So, if you’re not particularly good at remembering names, (me too), get your notebook ready, and prepare to meet the strange denizens of the atomic universe: pions, antipions, muons, (and antimuons, of course) neutrinos, photons . . . not to forget the gluons. Oy, vey!

Fortunately, Murray Gell-Mann of Caltech came up with a much simpler naming method: QUARKS.  (His colleague Richard Feynman ingeniously proposed the name PARTONS, but was, sadly, over-ruled, and so we have quarks instead. By golly, we’re sorry, Ms Dolly)

And, for an ever so brief moment, all was well again, and learned men could sleep of nights. Then the existence of sub-quarks was detected (at this point, are we even slightly surprised?), and quarks had to be organized into “flavours”:  UP, DOWN, STRANGE, CHARM, TOP and BOTTOM, and assigned “colours”: Red, Green or Blue.  Bear in mind that lots of this research was happening in California during the age of Flower Power, and (probably) fueled by Cannabis and other “recreational” substances, and much will become clear(er).

So, to wrap up, we ended up with the so-called Standard Model  (a sort of Meccano set for building atoms):  six quarks, six leptons, and six bosons.  (Well, 5 actually, number 6, the famous Higgs Boson, was introduced to account for the fact that atoms have mass. So, it’s very comforting that its existence has finally been “proven” – otherwise we’d be “mass-less”.  (Not to be confused with “weight-less”).  Add to your meccano set the various “forces”: 1 x  strong nuclear force; 1 x weak nuclear force; plus 1 x electromagnetism; and you’re ready to start building atoms, which you can arrange into molecules, and heigh presto, you have matter!  (At this point. most of us turn over, and go happily back to sleep. I firmly believe in the Principle of  “Mind over Matter – if I don’t mind, it doesn’t matter).

 Unfortunately, the story doesn’t end there. The Standard Model is anything but simple, elegant, or anywhere near an “ultimate explanation”.  So physicists now talk about “superstrings”, “(mem)branes”; and M Theory; and if you thought electrons were queer, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Any book on physics tends to become quickly incomprehensible (even to the authors, one suspects); dealing with such concepts as “imaginary time”;  where things happen in 5 dimensional, 10 dimensional or 26 dimensional spaces.  One suspects that every time a new particle or force is detected, researchers just add a new dimension or two. Simpler, from the naming point of view, but infinitely harder to even try to comprehend. In this Brave New World of particle physics, if a new theory isn’t totally incomprehensible, non-intuitive, and simply outrageous (as in provoking outrage) – then it clearly doesn’t grasp the imponderables we have to deal with.

For example, the Bogdanov theory (2002) was described thus: “either a work of genius or a hoax”.  In fact, this endless search for an Ultimate Theory may be doomed to ultimate failure.  Once we get our heads round the thought that the Space-Time Continuum (a.k.a the Universe as we know it) is not the be-all and end-all (i.e. the idea that God, for example, is outside the universe, or the possibility of co-existing “parallel universes”), then anything is possible.

I often toy with the idea that Lewis Carroll was teasing us with these concepts in his stories Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. But that can keep for another time. Suffice it to say that in the Hunting of the Snark  (sooo close to quark) he alludes to a possibility that the Snark could be of a type called a “Boojum” (Boson?), which if encountered, “makes one vanish quite away”.  Just like the things they mess with at CERN. Strange quarks, indeed.

Final thought: Every atom you posses has passed through at least a few stars, and millions of other creatures. So, the statistical probability is that you have at least a couple of million of the atoms that once belonged to Shakespeare, Mozart, or any other historical figure you care to be related to.  Except Jesus Christ, according to the gospels.  But we digress.

PS: And bear in mind that HTML, the “stuff” of which the internet is made, is a by-product of the work done at CERN, where they spend enormous amounts of money and electricity chasing those poor little particles around, searching for the “ultimate truth” – for physicists, anyway.

PPS: In some strange way, everything IS connected, but just how, beats me, and everyone else, apparently. Still, it’s comforting to know that, despite the best efforts of Politicians, Religions and Hollywood,  “the truth is out there“.

Is Facebook having a MySpace moment?

Facebook goes public in May, simultaneous with the founder’s glitzy wedding. The stock hits an immediate high – and steadily declines since. Conspiracy theorists suggest that Zuckerberg timed everything to perfection – getting “other people’s money” in as the popularity wave peaked.  And making a heap of cash for himself, naturally. Other pundits take the view that Facebook’s statistics alone ensure that the company will be a force to be reckoned with for years to come. Taking a more middle road, Kathryn Cave, editor at IDG Connect, posted recently asking: “Is Facebook the New Britney Spears?” 

Personally, I would have gone for the headline:  “Is Facebook  ‘following’ Lindsay Lohan (into rehab)?”; or:  “Is Facebook ‘LIke’ Paris Hilton?”

Sure, the stats look awesome: more than 50% of Americans have Facebook profiles, and market penetration elsewhere has been equally impressive.  But there’s the crux.

Is Facebook just famous for being famous?  What is Facebook’s market?  The question I and lots of others asked way back still remains unanswered: how will Facebook effectively monetize the service it offers?   How will it cope with user backlash?  And how will it protect itself from competitors? What’s to stop some new, brash crowd from doing to Facebook what it did to MySpace?  

Maybe ‘cause I come from a manufacturing, and then a software engineering background, I want to see “real” products and services, and intellectual assets.

What unique intellectual property does Facebook have?  What real products and services does it offer? Zip Zilch.  It had an idea, but, unlike Microsoft, Apple and Google, it never created something “saleable”, or that can be protected with patents.  In fact, I reckon Facebook is extremely vulnerable, in all areas, and this is behind the 67% (to date) decline in its worth (a whopping $40 billion plus pile of cash that went walk-about)

So – why are investors bailing out?  Well, here are what I see as some of the reasons:

Facebook is free. Which in part accounts for its meteoric rise.  For millions of people, Facebook is a pretty central part of their online social activities.  But, human nature being what it is – all those millions of Facebook addicts are getting very peeved over the “advertising” issues, and how it’s becoming more invasive, and, some would say, downright misleading.  (Ever had “Likes” mysteriously appear on your profile, and you’re totally sure you had nothing to do with it?)  “Free” equates to “no commitment”, easy come, easy go.  Addiction craves change. When something new comes along . . .

And, in simple speak, how does “like” turn into actual sales?  To hell with “like” – I’d LOVE to drive a Ferrari (and, kind donor, red is not an absolute must, here); and so the list of likes goes on. But all the folk I chat with about this are totally oblivious to most of this commercial “liking” being exchanged between profiles.  Let’s prove it.  If you “Like” a photo that a Facebook friend has posted, often you get a comment back, and there’s a bit of social exchange thankfully slightly more meaningful than just clicking the blessed “Like” button. But have you EVER had or seen any meaningful response related to “Liking” a commercial product? Eventually it just has the W.T.F. syndrome. In other words – it’s blah. Yada yada. There’s no “coolness” to be gained by simply “liking” something. In fact, it’s uncool.  Possession is 10/10ths of the Law, in today’s materialistic society. Trying to build a business model around getting people to “like” things becomes like unrequited love. Sad and slightly pathetic for all concerned. 

Mr Zuckerberg evidently never thought or heard of the swinging 60s, when every sentence was saturated with the word “like” until, like, you could have entire conversations, like, just using the word like. 

Second reason: There’s no loyalty factor. Ditching MySpace was no train smash. It wasn’t painful, or even uncomfortable. We just did it. And once the flow started, there was no stopping it.

Perhaps Facebook’s situation is best illustrated by putting it up against three other I.T. giants. Google, Microsoft, and Apple.

Google made its debut with an awesome search engine. The word “Google” is now part of global language. And then Google created GMail: a free cloud based service, built “on top” we could say, of Google’s search algorithms.  And people abandoned Hotmail (and all the other look-alikes) in droves – and stayed away. Like most company executives, I’m very suspicious of cloud-based services – but GMail works for me.  I wouldn’t be without it. And it goes on innovating, and introducing services I like, and want to use. Most tellingly – it has managed to integrate advertising without peeving me off. (Which is a compliment to the Google boys, and a dig at Facebook).

Microsoft:  whoa – you say, how can we compare Facebook with Microsoft. And that’s just the point, but maybe not for the reasons that flashed through your mind. Like Microsoft, Facebook is in the software game – but Facebook has nothing to fall back on. If Windows 8 fails – life at Redmond continues. The feeling I get from the Facebook boys is nervousness – the house of cards syndrome.  Microsoft has over the years totally peeved millions of users, but, generally, its products work, and we need (and pay for) them. If this need, and connection, didn’t exist, we would all have moved to Linux and Open Office, and a life of open source nirvana. Come on, it’s true. Or, is someone going to suggest that we like paying heaps of hard earned cash into the Redmond goldmine? 

Apple: here the comparison really starts to hurt Facebook. I have NEVER had a “wow, that’s cool” moment using Facebook. In fact, the total opposite. Unlike Apple, Facebook “software” is klutzy, cumbersome, non-intuitive, ugly and a general pain in the ass. Mention Facebook and the usual response is: “Oh, Facebook just wastes too much time. I don’t go there much anymore”.  By comparison, think about Apple. A company with its roots in the I.T. industry. An innovator, often visionary. A company that delivers beautifully designed “cool” products that work, and keep their customers coming back for more. (And even have Microsoft eating their hearts out with envy)

Unfair comparisons?  Not at all. This is the real business world, a brutally tough, competitive place. Essentially it’s all about software.  Google software, Microsoft software, Apple software – and how Facebook’s software compares.  To be totally honest, speaking as a developer, I would hate to work at Facebook. Their software give me the feeling, all the time, that it’s “cobbled” together, that there’s no real vision.  Betcha the actual code would be classified under one of these two categories:  “Spagetti Junction” or “Object Hell”. (Non programmers, please excuse the techno-jargon. But you might like to Google those two phrases. Either way, I reckon it just adds to Facebook’s list of problems. 

So – are those “user” statistics all they’re cracked up to be?  Millions of people have opened Facebook profiles – but how many of them actually are daily users?  No-one is saying.  Is Facebook like a bank, where millions of people opened accounts, but never deposit any money?  Time will tell. But I don’t think the market is just acting on a whim. The insiders are in the know, and the tide is running.

A funny thing happened on GMail . . .

For millenniums people have pondered the mysteries of the universe . . .

Where did we come from? Why are we here?  What does it all mean?

Then, to add to all the confusion, every now and then life throws a curve-ball, and, to quote Harry Callahan, you’ve got to ask yourself one question:  “Do I feel lucky?”

So – every time you get on the huge crash-city, dogem derby they call the Internet super highway – DO you feel lucky

Read on . . . this could change your life: 

Fundamental Truth

Here I was, casually reading my email, racking my brains for a suitable subject. Something vaguely humorous, maybe even slightly informative. And then – in a manner of speaking – it struck me – I was sitting on it. The ideal subject. Everyone has one. And it gets far less attention (generally) than it deserves. So – on to the research stage.  Getting to the bottom of things, as they say. And here is the result:   The Fundamental Truth about Tushes.

The actual moment of inspiration came from an email: A friend from northern climes wrote about the unscheduled return of winter. Her words are classically evocative.  True 21st century verismo.  Absolutely priceless:   “Some of the tree leaves have turned to fall colors again.  Talking about color changes – my arse starts off rosey pink in the mornings; then I leave for work and by the time I get to work it’s a greyish-blue  yep – confirmed – I’m freezing my arse off here in APRIL!!!

You can immediately tell she’s true Anglo-Saxon, with South African overtones. Calls it like it is.  No wishy-washy Yankee ‘ass’ – this is a full-blooded, proudly British ‘arse’.  And a true-blue one, according to said self-description.  The sort of sentence that makes a male friend realize this is an appropriate time to ‘stare at the ceiling, and think of England’.

But I must remember to commend her for the artistic juxtaposition of autumn colours with . . . you know what. Very evocative, you must agree. From the sublime to the . . . derrière?

Anyway, a few moment’s quiet contemplation sets off a chain reaction of association . . . and raises a number of philosophical questions. Among other things – how would YOU like being the butt of every joke?  Let’s face it, it’s a bum job, being a bum. Literally.

The Human Sit-Upon, the bit that devotedly follows us around, goes by almost as many names as it has shapes and sizes. Most of them humorous, some crude, and not a few quaintly euphemistic (never mind obscure). Test yourself – how many do you recognize:

arse, ass, backside, behind, bottom, bum, buns, buttocks, butt, can, cheeks, derrière, fanny, fundament, gluteus maximus, haunches, hind end, hindquarters, jacksy, keester, keister, nates, posterior, prat, rear, rear end, rump,  seat, stern, tail, tail end, tooshie and tush.

‘Ass’ BTW is the bowdlerized American version of the good old-fashioned British  ‘arse’; while derrière  – borrowed from the French, famous for their delicate turn of phrase – seems to be currently out of fashion. Great pity – inspired some very witty wordplay where London derrière substitutes for Londonderry Air a.k.a Danny Boy.  The medical profession employs the ponderously Latin ‘gluteus maximus’ a.k.a ‘glutes’;  and your rear even has a technical name: ‘nates’. Bet you didn’t know that one.

All said and done – your posterior has nearly as many names as Eskimos have for snow. As Reader’s Digest has been saying for years – it pays to increase your word power.

Some terms are used to describe real life situations (involving both people and events) – these are fittingly called: a pain in the butt.  There’s a whole world of truth in that innocuous little phrase, as you will see later.  And, incidentally, more than one piece of ‘sublime’ poetry is titled:

“An Ode To My Butt”

(I kid you not – Google it. And while ‘sublime’ is entirely a question of taste and opinion, no-one can argue that the subject doesn’t tackle the fundamental issues. Maybe not of Life, and the Universe, but, if you can’t sit down for a cuppa, or anything else . . . well – just think about it.  Life As We Know It would cease to exist. Haute cuisine, concerts, theatre, going to the movies . . . nothing works unless you can sit down. I rest my case.)

On a more practical note, it’s an essential part of each of us, but seldom gets the recognition it deserves. Unless it’s boudaciously curved, and either very over-exposed, at the beach, or posed provocatively in some flatteringly figure-hugging, attention grabbing piece of fabric. I leave the rest to your vividly fertile imagination.  (I decided to forgo use of suitable pictures to illustrate the point, and these would distract from a serious discussion of a serious subject. Then there are the eternal, confounded copyright issues.)

But, let’s face it, even if one does have a tush that evokes the green-eyed envy of Latina lovelies and causes traffic accidents – one’s rear-end spends its entire existence exactly there – bringing up the rear. It follows us where-ever we go, willy-nilly, without comment or complaint – except for the occasional impromptu remark. After all, a bum is a bum, what can one expect?  And you can’t really say something like “typical – you can’t take it anywhere” (Though quick repartee has been known to save the situation).  Shakespeare got a lot of mileage out of quips with phrases like “thereby hangs a tale” and “wind instruments”.

And, when all else fails – blame the dog.  Possibly another reason why they are known as “man’s best friend”.  As in other things, on this score women are a breed apart – silent, but deadly.

Thinking back, I realized that the last time I really paid attention to my backside was in high school.  In those halcyon days boy’s schools featured corporal punishment. It was absolutely free, part of the culture, and believed to be very character forming.  I’m not surprised our current crop of political leaders are such a pathetic, wimpy lot – I bet you none of them has ever been sent to the head-master for six of the proverbial best.

Amazing what the prospect of pain can accomplish. An excellent way to learn the art of speedy negotiation.  And stoic, manly endurance, should the worst-case scenario ensue.

The procedure was business-like – On the command “Next!” one walked in.  On the command “Bend!” one did exactly that.  This was followed by a swish, the instant sensation of a red-hot line being burnt across one’s posterior, and, a micro-second later, the sound of a whack! One then straightened up, and attempted a dignified exit.

Pity this idiot (a callow second former), who got into a queue outside the vice principal’s office, and on hearing “Next!”, made his entrance, bearing a message from one of the teachers. On the word “bend” – he bent.  (This was no place for the slow-witted. Events moved fast).  There was a meaty sound: Thwack, thwack. Bulls eye both times. (The vice head also played cricket – a great batsman. All that off-the-field practice).

Straightening up, said pimply boy squeaked “Sir! I was asked to bring you this message. Why am I being caned?”  Vice head glanced at the said note, digested its contents, and with just the tiniest hint of an evil grin grunted: “that will teach you to wake up – and speak up. You now have a credit balance . . . . Next!!”

“Next” happened to be me. A reasonably well-known visitor. Not quite a “frequent flier,”  but certainly battle hardened.  I looked the vice-principal in the eye. The image of that shocked, outraged, pained young face lingered in our visual memories.  I assumed the required position. By now we were both laughing . . . I truly can’t remember feeling anything.

Visited the old school years later – chatted with “Sir” (now promoted to head without the vice) over tea, and we roared with laughter over that memory.  School IS a great place – to come back to. Wonderful memories.

Just goes to show:  humour is the best medicine. And also proves the “mind over matter” principle. And that we never forget moments of intense emotion. I can understand why Nitrous Oxide was once so popular, and not just for visits to the dentist.  But, we digress.

If you really want to renew your relationship with your posterior, go horseback riding. Enjoy the countryside, the fresh air, the feeling of man (or woman) and beast moving as one with nature. And – no sissy stuff. Try all the gears – trot, canter and gallop.  For best results, make it an all day event.

I guarantee – you will never take your butt for granted ever again. 

Columbus was right – the real world is NOT flat. Anything but.  Click link below to download PDF.  This could save your ass . . .