Det ville have været min mormors 100-års-fødselsdag i dag

Idith's birthday
Idith's birthday.
Min mormor ville være blevet 100 år i dag.

Idith, som jeg altid kaldte hende (som ældste barnebarn ville jeg bestemt ikke kalde hende mormor, når alle andre kaldte hende Edith eller Mor), samlede altid familien om sig på sin fødselsdag, så hvis hun stadig havde været i live, ville hun helt sikkert have insisteret på at samle hele familien om sig, og hun ville have trakteret os med jordbærkager og kokosmakroner (sikkert også med andre ting, men de to slags kager var obligatoriske).

Hendes fokus på at fejre sin fødselsdag betød, at man altid kunne være sikker på at se resten af familien mindst én gang om året, og resten af året brugte hun altid megen tid på at fortælle én, hvad de andre lavede, så det havde store konsekvenser for sammenhængskraften i familien, da hun døde i 2000 (to år, før jeg flyttede til Skotland).

Jeg håber, vi måske kan holde en lettere forsinket fødseldagsfest for Idith, når vi er i Danmark i juli i år.

(Min morfar, Otto, var et år yngre end Idith, så ham kan jeg skrive om næste år. Min fars forældre blev født i 1899 og 1900, så jeg var desværre endnu ikke begyndt at blogge, da de ville være fyldt 100.)

New URL

This blog is now more than ten years old (you can check the archives if you don’t believe me).

I recently changed its title from The Widmann Blog to Denseman on the Rattis (check The Flyting of Dumbar and Kennedie if you don’t get the reference).

I’ve also now moved it, changing its URL from blog.widmann.org.uk to widmann.scot. Given my continuing support for Scottish independence, I thought that was more appropriate.

Rullepølse for expats

My rullepølse.
My rullepølse.
One of the few Danish types of cold meat that lack any close equivalent in Scotland is rullepølse, basically rolled and pressed pork.

Here’s how you can make real Danish rullepølse yourself:

  1. Buy a large piece of pork belly (they regularly stock them in Makro).
  2. Cut off the skin and any ribs that might still be attached to it (you’ll need a very good knife for this). Trim it so that it’s perfectly rectangular and of a uniform thickness. It should now weigh about 1500g. You’ll probably end up with a lot of surplus meat and fat, but you can mince it all and use it for a medisterpølse.
  3. Make a brine by boiling 2000ml water with 200g of sugar, 300g of salt, a couple of bay leaves and 10 pepper corns. Cool it down and put your pork into in. Store this in the fridge for 48 hours.
  4. Take it out and discard the brine. Chop up one onion and a large bunch of parsley. Distribute this on the pork together with ground pepper, some ground allspice and a few sheets of gelatine. Tie it up tightly with some string.
  5. Boil it for two hours. Let it cool down a bit, and then press it overnight in a cold place between two chopping boards (I used some clamps to apply pressure, but you could also put something heavy on top.
  6. Slice and enjoy!

The megacities are doomed!

Post Apocalypse
Post Apocalypse.
At the moment, the megacities of the World (such as London, New York, Paris and Tokyo) seem to be unstoppable. They sook up more and more economic activity, and it’s getting harder and harder to have a decent career unless you live in one of them. House prices keep increasing inside them, while they might very well be falling elsewhere in their host country.

However, as a long-term investment I wouldn’t touch metropolitan property with a bargepole, because I think these great cities are going to collapse within the next few decades, and here’s why:

Young people don’t get attracted to the huge cities because life there is good – property prices are so high in them that newcomers will have to pay a fortune for a room in a shared flat with an hour-long commute.

The reason young people flock to the cities is because that’s where the jobs are (and especially because you’ll be able to find a new job within your field every three years or so, which means you won’t suddenly find yourself in a employment cul-de-sac).

As soon as somebody as somebody invents a piece of workplace collaboration software that companies are willing to use for their in-house staff, everything will change.

Suddenly you can apply for a job in London, New York or Melbourne while living in Orkney. And when you move on, your next job can be in Paris, San Francisco or Ruhrstadt while you remain in Orkney.

(This is increasingly already the case for small companies and freelancers – I’ve undertaken work for people living in Hamilton (New Zealand), Edmonton (Canada) and Birsay (Orkney) without ever going there. It’s today normally only the admin staff that have to be in the office.)

Once people’s normal place of work is their home (or a neighbourhood office if they prefer to leave home for work), companies don’t need huge offices in expensive locations. They can rent a hotel or a conference venue if they want to arrange a yearly get-together for their staff, or for having meetings with clients, and all they need is a small registered head office.

The companies will save an enormous amount of money by getting rid of their city-centre offices (more than enough to make up for a potential fall in productivity by letting people work from home), as will the staff by being able to live in much cheaper locations.

However, modern cities rely on the synergies of having a lot of people in one place. As soon as some companies and employees move out, the advantage of being in the city will decrease for the ones that remain. Why move to a city if you can get the same job without moving? Why pay for an expensive office if you can employ the same people by paying for a much cheaper piece of software instead?

Once a few people and companies start moving, prices will start falling. That will make the property investors move out, too, which will make prices fall even faster — at the moment, investing in property in central London is an easy way to make a profit if you have enough money to invest — and this will presumably continue until house prices reflect the attractiveness of living in that location – and for large parts of modern cities that’s not a lot. Of course people people will still pay good money to live in a luxurious penthouse flat overlooking the Thames or the Seine, but how attractive is it really to live in a concrete high-rise an hour away from the city centre?

So if I had a lot of money to invest, I wouldn’t touch unattractive residential areas on the outskirts of cities with a bargepole, but I’d try to snap up idyllic houses with good internet connections within a reasonable distance from a railway station and an airport.

I also think governments should be careful not to invest too much money on prestige infrastructure projects in their capitals (Crossrail and HS2 spring to mind in the UK) and instead invest in projects such as fast Internet connections in rural areas (such as what the SNP is promising in their manifesto).

Relearning how to spell

Lower case a with circumflex
Lower case a with circumflex.
The #JeSuisCirconflexe shitstorm that is currently engulfing France is a reminder of how hard it is to implement an orthographic reform. People who witnessed Denmark’s “mayonnaise war” (when the Danish language academy wanted to change the spelling of mayonnaise to majonæse) or the German spelling reform fights will not be surprised. People who’ve invested many hours in becoming good spellers in order to feel clever and superior simply don’t want any reforms that make them worse at spelling than primary school children.

This is probably the reason why systematic spelling reforms that are really easy to learn often get accepted without too much of a fight. For instance, it’s my impression that the change of “aa” to “å” in Danish in 1948 was implemented without too much pain (albeit slowly because typewriters and typesetters didn’t have access to that letter at first), and the bit of the German spelling reform that changed “ß” to “ss” after a short vowel (but not after a long one) was much less contested than the other changes (such as the change from “radfahren” to “Rad fahren”) that require more of an effort to remember.

I therefore suspect that the French would have been happier with a reform that dropped all the circumflexes rather than the one at hand that removes it in coût and paraître but keeps it in and je croîs (“I grow”). It’s simply too hard to learn the new rules for people who’ve left school already.

What does this mean for the prospects for changing the spelling of the English language? (Let’s just ignore for a moment the fact that there isn’t any language board that could instigate such a reform – it would be relatively easy for the major dictionary publishers of the English-speaking world to get together and create one if there was a demand.)

Some reforms that would seem straightforward in one part of the world are of course impossible because of pronunciation differences. For instance, many Americans use the same vowel in father and hot, but changing the spelling of the former to fother would be a disaster elsewhere. In the same way, people from southern England might want to drop the silent r’s, but of course they’re not silent in Scotland and most of America. Even changes that would be popular in most places would often face steep resistance in small areas – for instance only people from Scotland and Northern Ireland would object strongly to changing the spelling of bird and nerd to burd and nurd, but they really wouldn’t be popular here.

A reform that changed those words that go against all the normal rules – e.g., gaugegaige, debtdet, nightnite – would be eminently sensible, but the experience from other languages makes me think it would face enormous resistance, especially if the new spellings were made obligatory rather than just optional variants.

The only type of reform that would stand a chance would probably be wholesale changes of letters or letter groups, such as changing “ph” to “f(f)” or initial “x” to “z”, but to be honest changes like these wouldn’t make English significantly easier to spell, and what’s the point in that case?

A proper English spelling reform would be marvellous, but I doubt it’ll happen during my lifetime.

Hellenic Traders

The four Hellenic Traders books.
The four Hellenic Traders books.
I recently discovered Harry Turtledove’s “Hellenic Traders” series (written under the pseudonym Turteltaub).

The four books follow two cousins from Rhodes who sail around the eastern Mediterranean selling luxury goods between 310 and 307 BC. In the first book (“Over the Wine-Dark Sea”) they sail to Italy with peacocks, in the second one (“The Gryphon’s Skull”) they try to sail to Athens with the skull of a dinosaur but end up getting mixed up in the infighting amongst the Macedonian generals who took over after Alexander the Great instead, in the third one (“The Sacred Land”) they sail east, to Cyprus, Sidon and Jerusalem, and in the last one (“Owls to Athens”) they travel to Athens.

Turtledove’s style is — as usual — very repetitive. The good thing about this is that you really get Ancient Greek culture hammered in with sledgehammers (he has a Ph.D. in Byzantine history and is clearly very knowledgeable about Ancient Greece). After reading the books, you’ll never confuse opson and sitos, you’ll know exactly how much water to mix into the wine depending on the occasion, and you’ll know much more about the sexual mores of Ancient Greece than you ever wanted to know. I’m sure I’ve learnt much more from reading these books than from the obligatory high school course in Greek culture (“oldtidskundskab” in Danish). The bad thing is you get utterly fed up with the same (at first vaguely amusing) lines being repeated ad nauseam; you might have to skip these bits to stay sane unless you have the memory span of a goldfish.

The last book doesn’t feel like the last book of the series. They’re dropping hints about travelling to Alexandria (the capital of Egypt) the following summer, Menedemos’ love life is in a crisis, and according to the history books, the Siege of Rhodes happened just two years later. Did Turtledove really intend to stop after four books, or did his publisher call an end to the series?

PS: The series has been reissued as e-books under Turtledove’s name, but you’ll pay more for these than for second-hand copies of the original hardcovers (linked to above).

Being the god of kitchen plans

God
God.

I once took a very interesting postgrad course in genetic algorithms (taught by Zbigniew Michalewicz), and since then it’s been a technique I occasionally pull out of my sleeve.

For a number of years I’ve been producing kitchen plans telling all members of the family when they’ve got to cook, set the table, fill the dishwasher and tidy up the kitchen. In my experience, it’s very hard to get kids to do anything if you try to convince them on the day that’s it’s their turn, but if you put up a plan on the fridge, they’ll moan once the day you put it up and will then get on with it.

However, in a family as big as ours, making such a plan is a very difficult problem. For instance, I can’t cook on Mondays, nobody should do anything on their birthday, Marcel is only here during holidays, and nobody should do two things on the same day or the same task two days in a row, etc., etc. To make it even worse, if anybody has skipped a task the month before (or done too much), the new plan should take it into account.

For a long time, I’ve been using an old-fashioned program to generate these plans, and its complexity has grown and grown with time. At the same time, the quality has decreased because it was simply getting too hard for the computer to satisfy all the competing requirements.

I therefore decided to employ genetic algorithms.

I created a world consisting of 27 islands, each with a population of kitchen plans (initially they were all random, but consisting of the right number of tasks for each person). I then let them live their rich and satisfying lives, having sex, producing offspring (sometimes with random mutations), and as a good Darwinist I ensured only the fittest individuals survived to have kids. After 200 generations, I took the fittest plan from each island, put them all on a new island of champions and let them evolve for another 1000 generations. I then took the fittest plan of all time, put it on our fridge, and extinguished the world. Basically I was the God of kitchen plans for ten minutes.

The result is so much better than the old plans, but then this type of problem really lends itself to the genetic approach: It’s very easy to assign a fitness value to a plan (-5 points if I cook on a Monday, -2 points for a repeated task, etc.) — in fact it’s much easier than actually producing a plan — and it’s also easy to figure out how to breed plans (e.g., take all the cooking tasks from one plan and combine it with the other tasks from another one).

That’s basically the basis for successful evolution: If it’s hard to calculate the right answer, but you can rank individuals by fitness and figure out how to let the fit ones have sex, then your solution will evolve over time, and as a bonus, you will be a god for a little while.