Where are all the heroes and heroines?

[I’m posting this early as I will not be able to post tomorrow or Monday as per my schedule]


Embed from Getty Images

The Cricket World Cup continues and now we have only the final match left. New Zealand versus Australia. The success of the New Zealand team and the reaction to their semi final win led me to think about heroes.

The saying goes that every one likes a winner, and since the New Zealand team has exceeded many peoples’ expectations, the local media are ecstatic. Most ordinary New Zealanders who would not normally be interested in cricket have been tuning their radios and TV to the match commentary or streaming the matches from the Internet.  Indeed it would be fair to say that the whole country is behind the team.


Embed from Getty Images

Interestingly, the New Zealand commentators, who covered the semi final and who were jumping for joy when New Zealand won, were almost as quick to sympathise with the losing South African team. This empathy was probably because it was an amazing game with a breath taking finale, played all the way through in good spirit, and the South African team who so nearly won it called truly be called gallant in defeat.

The match could have gone either way up until the very end, and I think this helped the New Zealand team and the New Zealand public to commiserate with the South Africans. It so nearly was the New Zealand team on the losing end of the match. It was an amazing end, with grown men hugging and grown men crying.


Embed from Getty Images

Being a small country New Zealand doesn’t often have sporting heroes or heroines, but it does happen. New Zealand players have gone to Australia the UK, Japan, France and even the US to play their sport, be it soccer, basketball, rugby union or rugby league. New Zealand doesn’t have the funds to pay professional sports persons that these other countries do.

Somehow or other this doesn’t seem to affect the quality of the sports stars in the local sporting arenas. In fact returning players often find it a little difficult to get back into the top level teams on their return from an overseas period of their career.


Embed from Getty Images

In New Zealand the public has a curious attitude to top sports persons. If a New Zealander were to meet one of his or her sports idols, he or she would probably as likely offer to buy him or her a drink as ask him or her for an autograph.

New Zealanders expect sports stars to be approachable, and in many cases they are. Because it is a small country, a sizeable number of the fans will have gone to school with them, or lived next door to them, or perhaps worked with them when they were starting out, before they became professional sports persons.


Embed from Getty Images

New Zealanders tends to excel in what could be called minor sports. This is probably partially because in the larger countries, the ones in which the sport arose or where it has become very popular the best athletes are attracted to the major sports. When a New Zealander or New Zealand team do succeed in major sports it is front page news ‘back home’.

Even when it is a minor sport (such as Greco-Rona wrestling or lawn bowls) if a New Zealander does well they become well known, at least in New Zealand. New Zealanders realise this full well and wryly comment that something is “world famous in New Zealand“.

English: L & P bottle model in Paeroa, showing...
English: L & P bottle model in Paeroa, showing the label design as used from the 1970s to the 1990s Deutsch: L&P Modellflasche in Paeroa mit dem Label, dass von 1970gern bis 1990gern verwendet wurde. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So we have the likes of Stephen Adams doing well in American basketball, and the average New Zealand man in the street knows that he plays for Oklahoma City Thunder, and the average New Zealand sports buff could probably tell you what his scores were.

Heroes and heroines have been around since people started to form towns and cities and to write down their histories. Back in the times that the Greeks and Romans held sway in Europe, it is likely that total population of the Earth would have been measured in millions rather than the billions that live on the Earth today. Towns and cities of the time would probably have appear small to modern eyes – Rome is believed to have peaked at around one million people at its peak in the second century of the Common Era.

Roman Infantry Edit
Roman Infantry Edit (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Since the populations were so small compared to today it is likely that the heroes and heroines of the time were known personally to a large part of the population. Since the population was so small the six degrees of separation of the modern world are likely to be reduced to three or four. Admittedly the lines of communication would likely be way slower in the ancient world but Julius Caesar was likely be a friend of a friend of a friend of every person in the world at that time.

English: Map of the Roman Republic in 40 BC af...
English: Map of the Roman Republic in 40 BC after the recent conquests of Julius Caesar. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Given the small population of the time, heroic events would be quickly well known and the heroes and heroines would become household names. Since this would happen mostly by word of mouth, the Chinese Whispers effect would be strong. Intentional and unintentional misunderstandings would mount up and would inflate the story, so that instead of the hero overcoming three others, one at a time, he instead reputedly takes on a dozen all at once.

When you read of Julius Caesar and his legions, I at least get the image of vast armies, but a legion was between 5,000 and 1,500 men. Caesar conquered Gaul with only a few legions, say 10,000 men probably which doesn’t seem very many, but there was little real opposition in numerical terms.

The initials SPQR stood for Senātus Populusque...
The initials SPQR stood for Senātus Populusque Rōmānus (“The Senate and the People of Rome”). They were emblazoned on the banners of Roman legions. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s not as if there were a strong national structure to oppose him, as the tribal structure common in those days might extend to a city or two, or a region and Julius Caesar was able to exploit regional rivalries to take control of the region. He of course had to contend with heroes popping up, like Vercingetorix who unified the previous divided Gauls.

Heroes and heroines have only one fate – they win at first (which makes them heroes or heroines), but eventually they lose and then they usually die. Vercingetorix eventually lost to Julius Caesar at the battle of Alesia, and Julius Caesar cemented his hold over Gaul.

English: Monument of Vercingétorix in Alesia (...
English: Monument of Vercingétorix in Alesia (Alise-Sainte-Reine) Deutsch: Denkmal des Vercingétorix in Alesia (Alise-Sainte-Reine) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Even Julius Caesar, eventually, lost both his empire and his life, at the hands of his former friends, who briefly became heroes themselves, before quickly losing their lives too.

While modern day sporting heroes and heroines don’t actually die, they eventually suffer defeat and become radio or TV commentators, which may be a worse fate. So I hope that the New Zealand cricket team wins the Cricket World Cup tomorrow, but if they can’t manage it, they have put on an amazing show in getting this far.


Embed from Getty Images

Cricket – bat and ball game

Many young British Pakistanis play cricket for...
Many young British Pakistanis play cricket for recreation (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

That’s how Wikipedia describes cricket – as a bat and ball game. Since the Cricket World Cup is currently being staged in Australia and New Zealand, I thought that I would choose cricket as the topic for the week.

The roots of cricket are in England, though it so happens that the mother country of cricket has been eliminated from the Cricket World Cup (CWC). Cricket has spread to a number of other countries as a result of colonial and other influences and 14 teams have been taking part in the 2015 CWC.

List of ICC cricket member nations. Orange mar...
List of ICC cricket member nations. Orange marked countries are test teams, yellow are associate and purple are affiliate member nations. (Note: Certain island nations may not be shown.) For those who may not be able to make out the colours: Shade used for Australia is orange Shade used for United States is yellow Shade used for Mexico is purple (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Cricket playing nations are either full members of the International Cricket Council or associate or affiliate members. The CWC contestants are the 10 full members and 4 other members who are required to qualify for the tournament. The ‘minnows’ as the associates and affiliates are often referred to rarely trouble the full members in matches, but upsets are not unknown.

Of the bat and ball games, cricket is of the class where a batsman defends a target from a ball thrown (“pitched” or “bowled”) by a player from the other team. Points (referred to as runs) are scored by running from one end of the pitch to the other, or by hitting the ball out of bounds.

Sri Lankan bowler Muttiah Muralitharan, the hi...
Sri Lankan bowler Muttiah Muralitharan, the highest wicket taker in both Test and ODI forms of cricket bowls to Adam Gilchrist. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Cricket is similar to baseball and softball and the informal game of rounders in the sense that the members of the batting team take turns ‘at bat’. The target area is a physical target in cricket (“stumps” and “bails”) but is a virtual box in baseball and softball. There is no specific target in rounders, where the ball just has to be hittable by the batter.

Cricket has two “targets” or wickets, and I can’t think of any other bat and ball sport that has two wickets or the equivalent. The wickets are one chain apart in the old Imperial measures, and the person who delivers the ball to the batsman throws or bowls the ball from one wicket to the other. The game switches around after every 6 balls, with a second bowler bowling at the batsman at the other end of the pitch. This is termed an “over” as the supervising official, the umpire, calls “Over” when six balls have be bowled.

English: Wicket, the stumps being hit by a ball
English: Wicket, the stumps being hit by a ball (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In informal or backyard cricket it is common to have just one wicket and a single pole (or stump) for the bowler to deliver the ball from. Other rules are ignored or modified as appropriate from the much smaller space available. In recent years, there has been a move to formalise at least some games of backyard or beach cricket and to institute competitions in the formalised code. These are still considered “fun” games though.

There are variants of cricket played in some Pacific Islands, The rules of these variants are also informal, team sizes are variable, and the bat often resembles a war weapon. Teams can contain both men and women and people of all ages. The Wikipedia article mentions that there have been attempts to formalize the rules of this variant of the sport.


Embed from Getty Images

The original format of the formal game of cricket is multi-day, multi-innings. Even the Island form of the game runs to several days, but that may be related more to the social nature of island cricket than anything else. As in any formal game the equipment and the uniform is closely specified and in particular the uniform is white – known as “cricket whites”.

The multi-day format is unusual in sports and arises from the fact that each team has eleven players and each may have to have their time at bat twice in a game. Shorter forms are often played at a semi-formal or provincial level, many being completed in one innings in one day. Cricket is not a quick game in terms of time taken, as each batsman may face upwards of one hundred balls. The semi-formal “village green” cricket is a leisurely affair, in spite of the fact that the ball may be bowled at speeds of up to 150kph.

A family playing cricket on the Village Green
A family playing cricket on the Village Green (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A new form of cricket has developed where the number of overs or sets of six balls is restricted to 50 for each team. The uniforms are not restricted to white and some other minor changes have been made to the rules. These changes have led to a more exciting, quicker form of the game and the matches are over in one day. This is the form that is being played for the Cricket World Cup.

There is an even shorter version of the game called Twenty20, which is a fast paced version with only 20 overs per side. Both the 20 over and (slightly less so) 50 over versions of the game result in fast scoring and more excitement than the standard version of the game as teams, both fielders and batsman take a  more highly charged attitude.

Turner slides to prevent a boundary during a T...
Turner slides to prevent a boundary during a Twenty20 Cup match against Gloucestershire. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The sport is professional at the top level, and the top players are treated as celebrities. Since the sport is international these days players get to play in many countries. In particular many overseas players play in the Indian Premier League, a very rich Twenty20 competition based, as the name implies, in the Indian sub-continent.

The stance of a batsman in cricket is side on, with the bat grounded before the bowler start his delivery and raised backwards in preparation for the stroke. Consequently there are left hand and right batsmen (and bowlers). Since the game has been around there are unique terms for various matters to do with the game.

Collins's batting stance
Collins’s batting stance (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For example, the field positions have traditional names which might seem whimsical. “Silly Mid On” is one of them. It certainly is “silly” as it is close to the batsman in the natural line of a stroke on the on or leg side. The position is intended for a close in catch and is obviously dangerous as the ball is hard, much like a baseball. Some Silly Mid On fielders wear protective helmets and other gear.

One field position that I had not heard of until recently is “Cow Corner”. A fielder at Cow Corner is in much the same line from the bat as Silly Mid On, but much further away, almost on the edge of the field (the “boundary”). The name seemly relates to the rustic roots of the game where the field was indeed a field or paddock that had to be cleared of livestock before a game could commence.


Embed from Getty Images

Of course, the cattle would most likely have left deposits behind them which could trouble the fielders during the game.


Embed from Getty Images

 

 

 

Discworld

Terry Pratchett, Park Branch Library, San Fran...
Terry Pratchett, Park Branch Library, San Francisco, on tour promoting the 34th Discworld novel, “Thud!”, in a book signing organized by Booksmith. This was before the 1 1/2 hour chat – Pratchett arrived early and, with grudging efficiency, settled down to sign some books beforehand to get some of that out of the way. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There’s an apocryphal story of an eminent lecturer (some say Bertrand Russell) giving a lecture on astronomy, describing how the earth orbits the sun, the sun orbits the centre of the Home Galaxy, the Milky Way, when someone objects and states that the earth is a flat surface, balanced on the back or a turtle.

The lecturer questions what it is that the turtle is standing on, and the objector states that the turtle is standing on the back of another turtle. The lecturer asks what the second turtle is standing and gets the answer “It’s turtles all the way down“.


Embed from Getty Images

It’s always struck me that the objector’s argument is paralleled by the lecturer’s own argument. The moon orbits the earth, the earth orbits the sun, the sun orbits the Home Galaxy, the Home Galaxy orbits the Local Cluster of galaxies. It’s orbits all the way down.

Of course the lecturer’s world view is a lot more sensible than the objector’s world view, wouldn’t you say? Well a confirmed sceptic would be dubious about both claims, but the man in the street assuming he wasn’t by chance a turtle believer would probably side with the lecturer.

Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories
Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s worth remembering that the current view of the universe as espoused by the lecturer is fairly recent in historical terms. Sir Isaac Newton and his near contemporaries (both in Britain and elsewhere) cemented the physical view of the world as the paramount paradigm. Again it’s worth noting that Sir Isaac and co did not completely ditch the mystical view of the world. He was very interested in alchemy for example, though this could be considered to be a rational belief at a time when the field of chemistry was still relatively immature.

Sir Terry Pratchett took the turtle theory and ran with it in the Discworld series of books. What would life be like on a world shaped like a disc, carried by four elephants, on the back of a gigantic turtle? This is the basic premise of Pratchett’s books, which I enjoy immensely.

P Elephant
P Elephant (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Obviously, sort of, such a world cannot be ruled by the laws of physics, so it is ruled by the laws of magic, which seem parallel the physical laws in some ways. Pratchett’s Discworld clockwork is run by magic, not by physics. Indeed one of the characters muses on the magical laws and wonder whether or not there might be “another way”.

Threading the Discworld books and the Discworld universe are certain key characters, the first of whom is the failed wizard and professional coward Rincewind, from the first Discworld book “The Colour of Magic”. Rincewind’s quest for a quiet life is forever dashed by circumstances which often result in Rincewind escaping from some life-threatening situation or other by the skin of his teeth.

Rincewind as illustrated by Paul Kidby in The ...
Rincewind as illustrated by Paul Kidby in The Art of Discworld. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Rincewind’s case is watched over by Death, who describes himself as an “anthropomorphical manifestion” and who looks after a room full of “life-timers”, huge hour glasses containing the sands of a person’s existence. When the sand runs out, Death appears to the person and with a sweep of his scythe cuts the person’s lifeline. What happens then varies, but usually the person or soul travels over a dark plain.

Rincewind’s lifetimer apparently looks as though it was constructed by a glass blower with a bad case of the hiccoughs, and Death has ceased to wonder when Rincewind will die, but merely retains a “professional interest” in Rincewind’s exploits.

Death (Discworld)
Death (Discworld) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One thousand words cannot do justice to the inventiveness of Pratchett’s Diskworld. It is peopled by trolls, dwarves, werewolves, vampires, heroes (professionals of course), wizards, witches, talking dogs, a smell with its own personality, druids, priests, gods and godesses and many many other characters.

Over the series of books the geography of the Diskworld as are some of its physical (or maybe that should be “magical”) properties. The geography is centred socially in the twin city of Ankh-Morpork, and physically by the Hub Mountains (home of the Ice Giants and “Dunmanifestin”, the home of the rather down market major gods of Diskworld).

The Discworld gods as they appear in The Last ...
The Discworld gods as they appear in The Last Hero , illustrated by Paul Kidby (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sir Terry Pratchett’s Diskworld is, as can be seen from the above to be a complex one, interleaving and referencing many well-known myths and legends which Pratchett weaves into enthralling parodies of the originals.

For example, the heroes that Rincewind and others encounter are mostly bumptious self righteous individuals who seem to possess very little in the way of intellect. They win because they are heroes and heroes always win in the end, not because they are shrewd campaigners.


Embed from Getty Images

An exception to this model of hero is Cohen the Barbarian and the Silver Horde. These ancient heroes are shrewd and survive because they have decades of experience in not dying. The overcome a bunch of martial arts experts by using there experience by not being there when the martial arts experts makes a move.

Pratchett references all sort of myths, legends and stories and often delves deep into the roots of the myth. He traces the roots of the “Father Christmas” myth in the book “Hogfather” back to one bloody version of the possible roots of the myth.

Folk tale depiction of Father Christmas riding...
Folk tale depiction of Father Christmas riding on a goat. Perhaps an evolved version of the Swedish Tomte. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

His coven of witches who appear in several books harken back to Shakespeare’s three witches in Macbeth and also to other witch myths, such as (supposed) pagan myth of the Maiden, the Mother, and the Crone. Shakespeare of course, like Pratchett is tapping into earlier myths.

The adoption of the alternate reality scenario allows Pratchett to tap into all these myths and legends and to mix and match them with similar myths and legends and put them up against present day society. There is for example the Last Continent of XXXX, obviously a reference to current day Australia, the social problems of immigration, typified by the Dwarves who are mild mannered at home, but who turn into drinking, carousing menaces singing about gold when they immigrate to Ankh-Morpork.


Embed from Getty Images

Pratchett’s strength were to be able to draw on all these myths and legends and to build engaging stories around them. Even if you don’t know the legend, you can enjoy the characters and the story, and recognise the parallels with the real world.

You can enjoy the stories of the three witches turning the tables on card sharks who try to take advantage of three little old ladies, for example. Or the invention of surfing by the Burser of the Unseen University when the faculty find themselves offshore of the Last Continent (aka XXXX). Or sympathise with Death when he becomes disenchanted with his role as an “anthropomorphic manifestation” and takes a holiday.

Mustrum Ridcully as he appears in Unseen Unive...
Mustrum Ridcully as he appears in Unseen University Diary 1998 , illustrated by Paul Kidby (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

You do all this while enjoying the marvellous stories. RIP Sir Terry Pratchett. You will be sorely missed.

Time waits for no man

English: Text: "You can't stop time... bu...
English: Text: “You can’t stop time… but you can turn it back one hour at 2 a.m. Oct. 28 when daylight-saving time ends and standard time begins.” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s approaching the equinox, that time of the year when the day and the night are of almost equal length. It’s the vernal or spring equinox here in the Southern Hemisphere, and the autumnal equinox in the Northern Hemisphere. For a number of reasons, the day and night are not of exactly equal length, and alternative definition is the time when the plane of the earth’s equator passes through the centre of the sun.

At around this time of the year many countries adjust their clocks to take advantage of the increasing daylight in the evening. Most countries who do this change their clocks forward in spring and back in the autumn, hence the mnemonic “spring forward, fall back”.

English: Winter,Spring,Summer,Fall? Such a glo...
English: Winter,Spring,Summer,Fall? Such a glorious Xmas day in Royston Vasey, it’s hard to tell which season it really is. Merry Christmas, one and all! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The reasons for the usage of “Daylight Saving Time” are debatable. The original intent was to align working day more accurately with the daylight hours while leaving more daylight time at the end of the day. Without Daylight Saving Time, people rose in the morning after an hour of usable daylight had occurred. It was during the two World Wars that “Daylight Saving Time” was first practised extensively in many countries.

Nowadays we are accustomed to “Daylight Saving Time”, and naturally there are dissenters who believe that it is unnecessary or counter productive. A farmer may point out that his cows don’t practise “Daylight Saving Time” and so the changes in the clocks are of no benefit to him, and can even cause him inconvenience.

An illustration of the end of Daylight Saving ...
An illustration of the end of Daylight Saving Time. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Daylight Saving Time” is around one hundred years old, so it is a fairly recent invention. Indeed the synchronisation of clocks, even in a single country, is a recent phenomenon. Now we have clocks synchronised globally.

Computers have clocks. Indeed the very functioning of a computer requires a very accurate clock, so it should be no surprise that we take advantage of this requisite to extend computer clock usage outside of the computer itself.

"Saving Daylight^ "Set the clock ahe...
“Saving Daylight^ “Set the clock ahead one hour and win the war” uncle sam, your enemies have been up and are at… – NARA – 512689 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the early days of computers, the clocks were not synchronised between computers. In fact that synchronisation had to wait for the development of networked computers. The people who used these isolated computers had to set the clocks manually, which was acceptable when computers were rare, but became a chore when computer usage started to climb and more desk had computers on them.

In a computer there are two sorts of clocks, a hardware clock and a software clock. The hardware clock is the fundamental clock in a computer system and it ticks thousands of times per second. If you’ve ever browsed the specs of a computer system you will likely have noticed the clock specification, the (these days) gigahertz rating. This is closely related to the clock speed, and the number of operations that the computer can perform in one second.

The original computers had speeds rated in kilohertz, so today’s computers are of the order of one thousand million time as fast as the old klunkers.

The software clock is related to the hardware and takes the clock information and translates it into a human usable date and time. It can’t do that without reference to the outside world as the hardware clock consists merely of a stream of “ticks” and doesn’t understand the concept of seconds, hours, days, months and days of the week. There is no weekend in the hardware clock’s world.


Embed from Getty Images

The reference to the outside world in the early days of computing meant the operator typing in the time, and the software clock relating that to a tick of the hardware clock. From then on the software clock just counts ticks and works out the human usable date and time from that.

As computers started to be networked together, a problem arose. Computer A’s and computer B’s clocks will have been set by a human to as close as the human can manage, but they may be several seconds apart, a lifetime in computer terms. This can cause issues like money appearing in bank accounts before the money disappears from the sending account when the transaction is automated. All transactions are automated these days.

English: NTP client/server paradigm descriptio...
English: NTP client/server paradigm description Français : description du paradigme client/serveur NTP (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At the same time as computers got networked, some far seeing people decided to set up a network of atomic clocks. These clocks are much more accurate than computers hardware clocks which can “drift”, because not all computer clocks tick at exactly the same rate. As a service this service is provided on the Internet and this has almost universally been adopted.

Your computer will contact a local time source, which contacts a less local time source, and so on until one of the top tier time sources is connected. Thus they all synchronise with the top tier time source. All the top tier sources synchronise with each other so eventually all computer clocks are synchronised.

English: In 1934 the first testcard "Tuni...
English: In 1934 the first testcard “Tuning Signals” was broadcast by BBC 1, the earliest being a simple line and circle broadcast using Baird’s 30 line system, and used to synchronise the mechanical scanning system. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A computer synchronises with its time source by basically sending a packet of data to its time source and the time source replies. The computer compares the times and repeats the process a few times to get an average, and then, since the packet has to go out and back, halves the average and estimates the time at the time source as the time sources knows it. Then it sets the hardware clock to match. It continually does this, constantly updating its clock as necessary, which gives a very accurate value for the local time.

One might question the necessity of this accuracy. Isn’t it being a bit pointless to set clocks with such nit-picking accuracy? In a news story which I can’t now track down, a financial organisation lost millions, maybe billions of dollars because they did not handle a “leap second” accurately. Automatic stock market trading programs made thousands of trades in the few milliseconds that the company was out of sync with the rest of the world. But to you or I, doing our “online banking”, it won’t matter.

English: clock brutally adjusted when a leap s...
English: clock brutally adjusted when a leap second is inserted Français : illustration d’une horloge qui est ajustée brutalement lors de l’insertion d’une seconde intercalaire (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s worth remembering that the world-wide time system is pretty new. In these days we are accustomed to be able to contact someone on the other side of the world and to know what the time is with the contactee. But this is new.

It used to be the case that the local time was a sort of local consensus and did not rely on clocks. Then when clocks became more common the local reference time source was the clock in the spire of the church. Time was still local as the church clocks were not synchronised.

English: Clock on the roof of Our Lady of Dorm...
English: Clock on the roof of Our Lady of Dormition Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarchal Cathedral, Damascus, Syria Français : Horloge sur le toit de l’église du Patriarcat grec catholique à Damas, Syrie (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As time keeping became more important, the local time zone might expand to cover  a time or a city. Clocks could be synchronised in a small area by use of travelling clocks or watches, and really accurate clocks and watches enabled the explorers from Europe to travel the world.

The advent of long distance travel (by the railways) and of telephonic communications resulted in the need for consistent time information across countries and across continents. However, standard time was only legislated in the United States in 1918, and this subsequently spread to the parts of the rest of the world that were not using Greenwich Mean Time.

A plate indicating the Greenwich meridian in S...
A plate indicating the Greenwich meridian in Stidia, Algeria. Photo taken in July 2005 by François Noël. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

 

10 fingers and 10 toes

[Ooops! Late again.]

The seed pod of milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)
The seed pod of milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Most living things come from seeds or eggs. A fertilized egg or seeds has all the information in it to generate the organism that springs from it. All the organs of the organism are implicit in the egg or seed, but minor details, like freckles or fingerprints are not encoded in the egg.

The environment and chance play a part in the final shape of an organism. A seed may fall in a good environment or it may fall in a less favourable environment and the shape of the organism can be totally different in the two environments, to the extent that an unwary botanist may categorise them as two different species.

English: An icon depicting the Sower. In Sts. ...
English: An icon depicting the Sower. In Sts. Konstantine and Helen Orthodox Church, Cluj, Romania. Español: Ícono representando la parábola del sembrador, en la Iglesia Ortodoxa de Helen, en Cluj (Rumania) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This property of plants was used by the writer of the Christian gospel in the Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13:3-23). Interestingly this comes just before the part where the Gospel writer expounds on Jesus’ reasons for teaching in parables.

Some plants and animals change significantly as they mature. Lancewood is so different as a mature plant from its juvenile form. The juvenile leaves are narrow and spiky while the mature leaves are broader and softer, and while there are competing theories as to why this is, my favourite theory is that the juvenile plants had to discourage browsing by animals, and in particular the extinct bird called the Moa. Since the Moa is extinct this theory cannot be tested!

English: Giant Haast's eagle attacking New Zea...
English: Giant Haast’s eagle attacking New Zealand moa Français : Aigle géant de Haast attaquant des Moas de Nouvelle-Zélande ; l’extinction des moas suite à leur chasse (surprédation) par l’homme a entrainé la disparition de cette espèces d’aigle. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Japanese horticulturists have used this feature of organisms to fit themselves to the environment to create miniature trees in a pot. Basically the tree is grown in a small container which obviously can’t maintain a full sized tree and as a result a perfectly formed miniature tree can be formed with care, sometimes over long periods of time.

It would seem obvious that you can’t produce bonzai human beings, but in fact this can be done. Whenever a drought or famine hits a country the children who grow up there are small and underdeveloped (as well as having other deficiency problems.

Medical X-rays. Broadening of epiphysis with e...
Medical X-rays. Broadening of epiphysis with erlenmayer flask deformity. Commonly seen in rickets. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When researching this topic I came across an article on the Internet which discusses this topic, and the authors state in part:

Therefore, by coding for proteins, genes determine two important facets of biological structure and function. However, genes cannot dictate the structure of an organism by themselves. The other crucial component in the formula is the environment.

This overstates the role of the environment a little, I feel, as in most cases the organism’s structure is determined in the most part in its genes, so that it looks much like any other member of the species. It is only when the environment is unfavourable (as in the case of the bonzai trees) that the gene expression leads to significantly differently formed individual. Droughts and poor soils will also leads to significantly differently formed individuals, but those are deficiency effects.

Early succession on poor, sandy soil at Øer, D...
Early succession on poor, sandy soil at Øer, Djursland, Denmark. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is more clearly true in the case of organisms like humans. Unless the environment in which a human grows up is very extreme, there is actually little difference between individuals, and those differences, race, eye colour, hair colour and things like the tendency to myopia are almost certainly genetic.

So I am arguing that genes result in the major characteristics of any organism, except in certain rare cases. Somewhere in the human genome the number of fingers and toes are coded for, and only rare individuals with genetic variations have more or less digits. We don’t all speak the same language, but that is not a genetic trait, though the ability to learn and speak a language may be genetic.

English: Conversion of a DICOM-format X-ray fr...
English: Conversion of a DICOM-format X-ray from a patient of User:Drgnu23, a ten year old male. This is the patient’s left hand, posterior-anterior projection. Identifying tags and such have been stripped. The image is his, released under the GFDL. The image was subsequently altered by user:Grendelkhan, user: Raul654, and user:Solipsist. Français : Radiographie de la main gauche (projection postérieure-antérieure) d’un jeune patient (10 ans) de Drgnu23 présentant une polydactylie. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Genes are interesting things. As mentioned in the article, genes can code for structural proteins or for enzymes which affect the chemical reactions in the cell. I suspect that the line between the two is pretty blurred as building the structure of the cell is after all a chemical reaction.

Of course, not only must a cell’s genetic mechanism build and maintain its own organisation, but a cell is part of a tissue, and in, for example, the liver, a cell must maintain itself as a liver cell. Similarly for cells in other organs.


Embed from Getty Images

It appears that, as the genetic material is identical across the whole organism, that there must be some way for a cell to “know” that it should develop as liver cell and not as a brain cell. This is done by switching genes on and off, but I don’t understand how this happens in multi-cellular organisms. It seems that there are environmental influences within the organism and within the tissues that determine this.

It’s likely that these environmental influences are based on something like chemical gradients. Otherwise, when a bone is created there would be no way of telling the process of bone creation when to stop. It is evident that it is an approximate influence because fruit flies have different numbers of eye cells between left and right eyes (about 1000). If it were an accurate influence then the number of eye cells would be the same in both eyes.


Embed from Getty Images

Apparently scientists do not know exactly how it work either. In this web page, “10 Questions Still Baffling Scientists“, the claim is made that not even the experts know. Of course these Internet lists of things may or may not be accurate, but it is an interesting link.

Of course fractal generation programs can be used to generate pretty good imitations of the structures of trees, and changing a few parameters fed to the fractal generation programs can change the shape of the “tree” from a bushy structure to an extended poplar type structure.

[Fractal]
[Fractal] (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Some similar mechanism might be involved here. Fractal programs are simple, can produce a wide range of shapes. The trouble with fractals is that there is usually no way to stop the shape generation, so any stopping mechanism is probably not part of any possible fractal method for generating. Some other method for stopping the growth of an organ once it is the right size and shape most likely exists.

From the link above it is possible that this mechanism is not yet known, but it does appear that organ growth and shape is encoded in the genes, and is effected by switching genes on and off. Some fractal type mechanism might be involved.

English: Apprentice. Man and boy making shoes.
English: Apprentice. Man and boy making shoes. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)