Fun Moments #2: Car twins

My car is a Suzuki Alto. Suzukis aren’t exactly rare on British roads, but they are one of the lesser spotted makes, so you do notice when you see another Suzuki. Yesterday as I was driving home from work, I saw one coming the other way: same model as mine, same colour, and the same license plate with one letter different! UK number plates are Two-Letters-Two-Numbers-Three-Letters, so on the car I saw only one letter of the three letter group was different to mine. An almost identical twin! An amazing coincidence, and definitely a fun moment.

The even funnier thing is that the exact same thing happened to me with my previous car.

Have you ever seen the Autism Quotient test? It asks you 50 questions, and your score basically tells you whether you are more of a ‘systemiser’ or ‘empathiser’, and (I’m simplifying here) a high systemising score correlates with a high probability that you are autistic. The test has been criticised, and you can see one problem right away – ‘systemising’ and ‘empathising’ are not mutually exclusive. But anyway, I don’t really want to talk about this test or the problem with it, I only mentioned it because one of the questions is ‘Do you notice license number plates?’ To which my answer is ‘yes, all the time’ (which I’m sure got me a lot of systemising points when I took the test). Not only do I notice the number plates, I also notice the makes and models of the cars I see around me. Does that mean I have a special interest in cars, that I have an encyclopedic knowledge of cars and can identify hundreds of models at a glance? No. I often have to look what is written on the car. But the point is, I do look. I’m not especially interested in cars at all, but still I look and notice. I think it’s more a “wanting to know” attitude. It’s the same with birds, when I see one, I want to know what it is. My mother always says that ‘nice bird’ is enough for her, but it’s not for me. I do have an interest in birds which I don’t have in cars, but even with the cars it’s more of an automatic noticing. I think I couldn’t ignore the incoming information even if I wanted to.

It is actually not easy to spot a twin of my car. After all I have said above, it is possible that it wasn’t exactly the same car. The Suzuki Alto and the Suzuki Swift are practically indistinguishable for me from the front. There are other cars which look almost the same as mine: Volkswagen, Citroen, Toyota, they all make cars which look almost the same as mine. Quite often I think ‘oh, there’s one like mine’, only to discover that it’s not.

Number plates are interesting. I only know how German ones and UK ones ‘work’, and they are quite different. On UK number plates, you can see when a car was first registered – basically, how old a car is. The two numbers on my car are 62, that means it was first registered in the second half of 2012. If it had been registered in the first half, the numbers would have been 12. My old car had 04, that means first half of 2004. The UK issues two numberplate series per year.

I am told that there is some code in the letters which tells you where a car was first registered as well, but if you are haven’t got that specialised knowledge, it’s in no way obvious. Once a car in the UK has its registration number, it keeps that number, even if it changes owner and moves up and down the country.

Contrast that with the German system. On German number plates, you can see where a car is registered. So if you live in Munich, your car registration starts with M. If you live in Kiel, it will be KI. Not every town and village gets its own location code, in rural areas only the district gets one. So if you are in Munich and you spot a car with KI, you know that they are a long way from home.

Except, not anymore necessarily. It used to be that when a car changed hands, the new owner would have to re-register it where they lived, with a new registration number. Or, if the owner moves, say from Kiel to Munich, they would have to re-register the car with a new number, changing from KI to M. But not anymore. Very recently the regulations in Germany have changed, so that owners don’t have to change the registration even if their residence changes. I find this quite annoying, because you used to be able to tell where a car is from, but now that certainty has been removed. And the fun. People are driving round under false flags! Also, if you can tell by the number plate that someone is obviously a stranger, you might cut the driver some slack, if e.g. they drive slowly or end up in the wrong lane. But since you can’t know anymore if someone is a stranger, what will happen to the slack-cutting?

Which brings me to one of my inventions: the T plate.

If you live in the UK, you will know L plates. If you don’t, let me enlighten you: L signifies ‘learner driver’, and you have to stick one of those big red Ls onto your car if it’s driven by someone who is just learning to drive and hasn’t got their license yet. There are also P plates, for ‘probationary driver’, i.e. someone who just got their license, which is only given to you on probation for the first 2 years. P plates are not compulsory.

Now, I passed my test in 1992, but I’m an anxious driver at the best of times, and even more anxious and uncertain when I drive in unknown locations. I might well drive infuriatingly slowly, turn suddenly or end up in the wrong lane. Of course, UK number plates being what they are, nobody can tell whether I’m a stranger or a local. This is where my T plate would come in: T is for ‘tourist’, and it would signal to the other drivers that I’m a stranger, and hopefully they would cut me some slack, too. If they’re nice.


Reading Stephen Hawking

This was in the paper a couple of weeks ago (in John Crace’s column in the Guardian, to be precise):

“On the day Stephen Hawking died, YouGov conducted a poll into how many people had read his book A Brief History of Time. Eighty-five per cent said they had never owned a copy, while only 4% responded that they had bought the book and read it from cover to cover. I count myself in an even smaller group than that. Not only did I read every word, I also bought and read his two subsequent books, The Universe in a Nutshell and A Briefer History of Time.”

I wonder about that poll and what questions they asked. As I remember, A Brief History of Time was famously one of those widely bought, never read books. So if 85% of respondents never even bought one, I wonder how many bought one but didn’t read it. I also wonder if YouGov accounted for the fact that not owning a copy does not equate to not reading the book. I count myself in what is probably quite a small group as well: I borrowed the book from the library and read it cover to cover. (You can only keep books for 3 weeks, so I had to renew it once.)

Did I understand what I read? Yes and no. While I was reading the book, I did find it (or most of it) not too difficult to comprehend. However, after I had finished the book, I didn’t remember much of what I’d read. I would have been hard pressed to explain any of it to anyone.  So if that is the measure of understanding something, I have clearly failed.

The same thing happens with pretty much every book I read on a similar subject. I have read, and enjoyed, Richard Feynman’s Lectures on Physics, Brian Greene’s The Fabric of the Cosmos (probably my favourite cosmology book), a book on the search for the Higgs Boson, a biography of Paul Dirac etc. etc. I have read about Einstein’s various theories on relativity, and I still can’t remember which is  which or what it is all about. When I read it again, I nod along – of course, of course – and it all makes perfect sense to me. When I put the book away, the comprehension immediately evaporates.

I think, though, that I am helped in my understanding (such as it is) of these matters by my vivid imagination and the propensity to think in pictures. Many things you read about – speed of light, the event horizon on a black hole, the I-don’t-know-how-many dimensions in string theory, quantum entanglement, the whole space-time thing – does not intuitively make sense. It goes against our day-to-day experience. But for me it’s easy – I just imagine it. Those tiny dimensions, space time curvature, I can see it in my mind’s eye. And indeed why not? When I read Harry Potter, I can imagine magic. So why should I not imagine a lift that moves with the speed of light? I can even imagine Schrödinger’s cat if I put my mind to it.

Of course, being able to imagine it is not the same as really understanding it, but I think it is closer to understanding than just saying “that doesn’t make any sense”.

My only hope now is that by reading about these things, cosmology, physics etc., over and over, twenty times, thirty times, something will eventually stick!

It’s My Day!

This morning I heard on the radio that it’s World Sparrow Day! So here’s a happy day to me and all of my fellow sparrows.

There is a lot of talk about the decline of house sparrows in particular in the UK. A quick search on the web showed me that since the 1970s sparrow numbers in rural England have nearly halved while in towns and cities they have declined by 60% (according to the RSPB). I also learned that the reasons for the decline are not completely understood, although changes in farming methods are being cited as one factor.

Perhaps, on a smaller scale, it is also changes in the way people arrange their gardens. Sparrows like to sit in groups in bushes and hedges, where they hop among the branches and make a lot of noise. Years ago I lived in part of a large terraced house, part of which had been partitioned off as a separate flat, so my “front door” was actually the back door. To get to the street I had walk behind a few other houses and then round the corner house. This corner house had a large hedge round its front garden in which sparrows liked to congregate. Then one day the hedge was removed and replaced with a wooden fence. No more roosting space for the sparrows. Fortunately in this case they only had to move into the hedge across the road. But this seems to be a wider trend I have observed. People are replacing their hedges and shrubberies with fences, and those are no good for sparrows. Only recently the owner of the house where I often park my car had a row of trees chopped down. I don’t know what is going up in place of them, but I’m guessing it’s not going to be other trees. So perhaps those kinds of changes to people’s gardens have an effect, too.

Why have I chosen the name “Little Sparrow” on WordPress? It’s not even my favourite bird! Well, it’s derived from a childhood nickname, which translates as “little sparrow”. I was looking for something that wasn’t linked to my real name, but which I could in some way identify with. Also, there is this amazingly beautiful Dolly Parton song:


And just to round things off, here are some nice pictures of sparrows for you:


Happy World Sparrow Day, and here’s hoping for a brighter future for sparrows!

Up The Women!

It’s International Women’s Day, and while I’ve never made a big deal out of this, I felt that I wanted to mark this in some way on my blog.

How much of a woman I really am is, well, difficult to say. Outwardly I’m a woman, and everybody sees me as one, and I don’t have any problems with that. Inwardly it’s more 50/50, like I’m halfway between a man and a woman, or you could say that I feel myself to be equal parts male and female. So what do I make of a day like today? Well, all the talk is of rights for women, opportunities for women and equality between men and women. I’m all for that. Of course, you don’t have to be a woman to be all for that. I do feel something like solidarity with other women, although I’m not big on that whole sisterhood thing.

Everybody is influenced by their upbringing to a certain extent, and I certainly am. I was a child in the seventies, a time when gender divisions, at least where kids were concerned, were not nearly as pronounced in public life as they are now. No strict division between pink and blue. When I look at my kindergarten photos, it’s pretty much t-shirts and dungarees all round. Of course people thought in binaries, but I do get the impression that the binary is more pronounced these days than it was then.

Add to that the family influences and the way I was brought up by my parents. I was never told that something was “not for girls” or “not ladylike”. I wasn’t really a tomboy either. I loved my dolls, I loved books, but I also played outside, rode my bike etc. I was always a bit cautious when it came to physical stuff, but not because I was a girl. It was just the way I was.

I like to say that growing up I got the best of both worlds. I had two good friends in kindergarten and primary school. One was a girly girl, and we played with dolls and Barbies. The other was a science-nerdy boy, and we did nerdy stuff together, like trying to catch a wasp to observe its behaviour, and taking apart a radio.

There is much talk about the lack of role models for girls. There are not enough girls in books and on TV, they say. There isn’t enough of a diversity of roles for girls as presented in the media. Girls don’t see themselves, and that is a problem.

I agree, it is a problem, but for me the problem is abstract, because it was never a problem for me. I never felt that I needed to “see myself”. Or rather, I could see myself in anyone I wanted. I immersed myself in books growing up, and I readily identified with boys and men. I never even gave it a second thought. I didn’t have to “make do” with male rolemodels for lack of female ones, it never felt like second best. There was never any disconnect for me, never any discord, neither logically nor emotionally. In my fantasy worlds (and I spent most of my time living in fantasy worlds) I would most likely be a man. It never felt strange. I never felt like I was missing something. It just never occurred to me.

Again, I was probably helped by the way I was brought up. My parents must have been aware who and what I pretended to be, and they never told me that I can’t, or I mustn’t. They let me be.

I sometimes wonder how many other females are out there for whom it was the same thing. Surely I can’t have been alone in this?

This is just my personal experience, however. I only report this to tell a story, not to generalise from the personal. Just because I didn’t feel the lack of female role models does not mean that the lack isn’t there. I fully acknowledge it, and the importance of increasing the visibility of women and girls. It’s just that for me, as one individual, it wasn’t a problem. As a female(ish) person, I do like to hear about successes and achievements of women, and to have women to respect and admire. This is important, and I agree that this is something the world needs to work on.

And today, as a grown-up (sort of) woman? Well, as for being a man in a fantasy world, I am one as I speak…

Happy International Women’s Day everyone, man, woman, both or neither.

Spring is coming

“What?” I hear you say. “How can you say that Spring is coming when we are having the coldest week for years, Britain is shivering in the grip of the Beast from the East, snowflakes are dancing outside the window and temperatures barely creep above freezing during the day?”

Yes, yes, but hear me out.

First of all, I said “Spring is coming”, not “Spring is here”. But I really do mean that I have detected the first whisperings of a change in the season. To my mind, we have come out of Winter mode and gone into Spring mode.

For me, it’s all in the quality of the light. I first noticed it on Friday. The sun was shining, but it was not a Winter sun, it was a Spring sun. In Winter, the light is sharp, clear, crystalline, with a silver edge to it. In Spring, it changes to something softer, a mellow golden glow, and that’s what I was seeing on Friday. I went out on Saturday and Sunday as well, as the weather was nice, and I saw the same thing. I made a test. I looked at the light and I thought: can I image that it’s, say, Christmas Day? New Year’s Eve? No, I couldn’t. The light was all wrong for that. It was a Spring sun, most definitely.


Above: your quintessential English landscape, complete with village church – the Vale of the White Horse on Sunday, bathed in the golden glow of the afternoon sun

The same thing happens in Autumn. During the Summer, the sunlight is bright, powerful. When Autumn comes, it becomes softer, more hazy, more golden – like in Spring. It doesn’t switch to full-on Autumn immediately, of course, but it signals the very beginning, the moment that Summer proper changes into Indian Summer. And it is a bit like a switch being flipped. One day you go out, and it’s changed. The atmosphere is different, looks different, smells different. One season has ended, and the next season has begun.

And that’s what happened on Friday, I’m sure of it. So when you look at the snow showers and shiver in the icy temperatures, take heart: Spring is coming. There’s no stopping it now.


Not long before these will bloom!

A Music Quiz

A CD has turned up in our office – probably been hanging around for a while for no good reason, still wrapped in its cellophane wrapper, doesn’t belong to anyone in particular, and my boss has just asked if I want it.

The title is “The Royal Wedding William & Kate Classical Wedding Music”, and the title list on the back reveals a grab-bag of popular classical music pieces (not necessarily wedding-related). The listing gives no composers’ names and is a bit peculiar in its wording, so I have been setting myself a challenge: can I figure out the composers and in some cases what piece of music is meant?

Here goes:


Okay, that’s an easy one, from Richard Wagner’s opera. Next.


That’s Mendelssohn.


Vivaldi of course. They give the name of the conductor and the orchestra, but not the soloist. Curious.


A surprising switch to German, but all the easier for me. BWV stands for “Bach Werke Verzeichnis”, the catalogue of works by Johann Sebastian Bach.


Okay, I’m stumped here. I don’t know ST.U.B.C. and there are so many composers who have written guitar concertos, I can’t even begin to guess.

Later: Oh, I know: ST.U.B.C. stands for “Streicher und Basso continuo”! It’s Vivaldi’s concerto for Guitar and Strings in D mojor.


More Bach goodness.


Could be one of several, but is usually Jeremiah Clarke. And we have now switched back to English.


Okay, I don’t know what happened here. A concerto grosso and the Hallelujah Chorus are two different things, and can’t be from the same work. The Messiah is by Georg Friedrich (or George Frederick, if you like) Handel. The concerto grosso – who knows? Could be the same composer. Could be someone else.


More Handel.


Popular classical music only knows one canon, and that’s by Pachelbel.


Yet more Handel.


And we have a composer’s name! Although they might have stretched to his full name: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Just Amadeus is a bit over-familiar, don’t you think?


Another piece by Handel, although he didn’t have ‘The Madness of King George’ in mind when he wrote it.

So, how did I do? Let’s remove the wrapper and see what can be discovered within…

Ah. Here they give the composers’ names, albeit in very small faint print and last names only. The Trumpet Voluntary is by Purcell. And the Canon is indeed Pachelbel’s.

Now I shall give the CD a spin and see what happens.

[Pause while I listen to the CD]

Well, that was interesting. Most of the pieces were what I expected them to be. The Hallelujah Chorus was just that, I don’t know how that mysterious Concerto grosso crept in. The Trumpet Voluntary was by Jeremiah Clarke. I know the piece, and besides I have it on a different CD with much more trustworthy sleeve notes.

The weirdest thing was the Canon by Pachelbel, with turned out to be the Farandole from Bizet’s L’Arlesienne suite. Neither Canon nor Pachelbel anywhere in sight.

What all this has to do with the royal wedding is beyond me, but hey, at least you can’t fault the music!

Fun Moments #1

What is a Fun Moment? It’s just a moment of something funny, something nice, something mildly amusing or satisfying, something that adds a bit of sparkle to my otherwise dreary life. It’s to me what funny cat videos or sneezing pandas are to other people. A little thing that briefly raises a smile for me. So here is the first one I want to tell you about.

Kumho Tire Co. was hitherto only known to me as a participant in a famous court case. Why famous? Because it contributed to the codification of the Daubert Standard, which is basically the standard of what counts as expert evidence in a court of law (I’m talking US law here). The name Daubert Standard comes from a court case as well, Daubert v. Merell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc. Daubert was preceded by the Federal Rule of Evidence 702 which stated:

“If scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will assist the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue, a witness qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education, may testify thereto in the form of an opinion or otherwise.”

Despite this there was confusion whether this rule superseded an earlier standard of expert evidence, the Frye Standard. The Supreme Court’s judgement in the Daubert v. Merell Dow case partially clarified the issue, at least were “scientific” knowledge was concerned, but failed to say anything about “technical” and “specialized” knowledge. The significance of Kumho Tire Co. v. Carmichael (526 U.S. 137 (1999)*) lies in the fact than in its judgement the Supreme Court here confirmed that technical and specialized knowledge should be held to the same standard as scientific knowledge, and FRE 702 was amended accordingly.

(This was a very brief, vague and no doubt somewhat inaccurate summary of the issue, with my information taken from Criminal Profiling (Fourth Edition) by Brent Turvey. Why that book? Because that’s what I’ve got to hand.)

Anyway, Kumho Tire Co. was only known to me via this court case, and in my mind existed only really on paper. I never thought about it as an actual company. Then a few days ago I was driving behind one of those big 4x4s, the kind that parents in this country use to ferry their kids to private school. It had the spare tyre (BE spelling!) mounted at the back, and as I stopped behind that car I could read the manufacturer’s name on the rubber: KUMHO! It was just so funny in that moment to realise that this company actually exists and makes things which you can encounter in the real world. It made a sudden leap from the abstract to the concrete, and that had me so amused and satisfied for at least 5 minutes and stuck in my memory for long enough that it seemed worth to tell you all about it.


* This cypher tells you that you can read about this case in volume 526 of the Supreme Court Reporter on page 137. You see, my year as a barcoding and book-shelving minion at the Bodleian Law Library was not wasted!