Mnemonic poetry and Guy Fawkes night

By Charles Sutton on November 5, 2014

I walked home past several people setting off sparklers and fireworks in the meadows. In Edinburgh celebrations of Guy Fawkes night are not elaborate, but you can smell the gunpowder.

A good thing, because otherwise I can never remember what night it is. The traditional rhyme

     Remember, remember, the fifth of November

is about the worst possible mnemonic that I could think of. It fits the meter just as well to say

     Remember, remember, the FOURTH of November

but you aren’t meant to remember that one. Personally I prefer

     Remember, remember, the ninth of November,

because that happens also to be my birthday.

Much more sensible to base the rhyme on the part that’s easiest to confuse. Instead, how about:

Let the memory survive       That the king was still alive           On November five.

Now you won’t forget.

Business Cards and Me

By Charles Sutton on November 1, 2014

Just before I went to my first conference, I thought, “Hey, I guess I should be professional now!” and printed out business cards on the best card stock that I could find at Staples. Apparently, of the hundreds of people who attended NIPS that year, I was the only one who had done this. I handed out one card, received none, and assumed that everyone must just Google each other after the conference.

From an objective standpoint, from the perspective of maximizing the efficiency of scholarly communication, this is of course ridiculous. The only explanation that I can imagine is reverse snobbery, the same reason we would never wear a suit and tie to work. But at the time, I didn’t worry about this. I just did what everyone else did.

I’m eleven years older now, and my memory is much worse. At the last conference I attended, I thought, “Hey, wouldn’t it be great if next time, I could go home with a list of every new person that I met, perhaps on a durable but unobtrusive slip of paper?” I do worry about people giving me funny looks, but I can’t very well pretend to myself that I am creative and iconoclastic if I always do what my friends do.

So if I meet you at NIPS this year, do not be surprised if you receive an unobtrusive slip of paper from me. I hope that you enjoy the word cloud on the back.

A Threat to the British Monarchy

By Charles Sutton on August 16, 2014

I’d like to talk frankly about a real threat to the British monarchy.

First, monarchs like to emphasize continuity and tradition by reusing names from previous monarchs. This is understandable as, in a constitutional monarchy, continuity and tradition are the monarchy’s main assets. Perhaps for this reason, a British king hasn’t taken on a previously unused name since George I in 1714.

However, this bumps up against a contradictory historical tendency, namely that British monarchs have had what might be described as a rich and varied history. British kings aren’t eager to remind people of their more colourful predecessors. Many names are therefore out of bounds.

The result is that the British monarchy is rapidly running out of names in the male line. For example:

  • Henry — It is difficult to imagine the king who would want to be Henry IX, and even more difficult to imagine the woman who would want to marry him.

  • Richard — Who wants to be the successor of the King in the Car Park? And there was the business with the Princes in the Tower.

  • Edward — Although the abdication of Edward VIII might be viewed more romantically by modern eyes, the Nazi sympathies, not so much.

  • John — The Magna Carta was written to protect people from him.

  • James is right out.

Once you factor in this history, there are very few names left. Charles is still OK. Charles II granted the charter of the Royal Society; perhaps a future Charles III could also take an interest in science. William and George are unimpeachable. Albert is a possibility, although the famous Albert was only a consort, making the name a bit of a risk: the last prospective King Albert decided at the crucial moment to become a George instead.

This is shaping into a crisis. One can imagine a time, in the coming centuries, when the only choices left to British kings are Charles, George, and Cnut.

Tags: britain, history

Principal Component Model of Coffee Shops

By Charles Sutton on July 20, 2014

I spend a lot of time in coffee shops. I’m writing in Amsterdam, so let me clarify that I do mean coffee. I like coffee shops because: a) I like coffee, b) I find them relaxing, and c) and it is a way to be around people without the awkwardness of being obligated to talk to them.

It’s very important to choose coffee shops wisely. Before I go on vacation, I always do careful research about where the best coffee shops are (again: for coffee). But “best” is complicated. You need to think about what aspects of the coffee shop experience are most important for your trip:

A) Quality of the coffee. The presence of single estate beans or fancy hipster brewing methods is a good sign, but it doesn’t matter what equipment they have if they don’t know how to use it.

B) Ambiance. How easy is it to relax? Or to concentrate? There’s one place I used to go to often — closed now — awful coffee, but near me, and really cool decor.

C) Quality of food. Pastries only? Sandwiches? Hot food? How good?

D) Location, location, location.

E) Work friendly or people friendly? Some cafés you go to with a laptop, some you go with a group of friends. A book is usually always OK. Interestingly a tablet feels more to me like a book in terms of social acceptability than a laptop but maybe I’m biased.

I know one cafe where 24/7 there was always a row of six people staring at laptop screens. Nothing wrong with that, as long as you’re bringing a laptop too.

F) Attractiveness of clientele. I never go to cafés specifically to pick people up, but it’s always nice to be around people who seem interesting.

G) Staff. This is complicated because while nice banter will always make me smile, I am also happy to be left alone.

Happy to hear if there are important criteria that I am leaving out.

Tags: coffee, hobbies

A Suggestion for Scotland

By Charles Sutton on February 28, 2014

This will be a big year for the United Kingdom. In September, Scotland will hold a referendum to decide whether to remain in the UK or to become an independent country. For several years, support for independence has remained steady at around 33%, but some polls have shown that support for independence may be increasing. For my American friends, I personally think that this op-ed is a good primer.

As a foreigner, I cannot vote in the referendum, and rightly so. But I would like to humbly propose a third option for Scotland, just as a suggestion. A middle ground between the risks of complete independence, and the current reality of being yoked to Westminster.

I suggest that come September, Scotland should secede from the United Kingdom and join the United States as the 51st state.

This would be welcomed all throughout the US, I guarantee it. Americans love Scotland. We really, really love Scotland, even if we can’t find it on a map. There are more people of Scottish ancestry in America than there are in Scotland. We have Scottish festivals all over the country, with kilts, bagpipes, Highland dance — the whole works, except only for haggis (which is actually illegal to import) and Irn Bru (that stuff’s minging). My point is, Americans really, really like Scotland. Maybe the EU would dither about accepting an independent Scotland, but the US would accept Scotland in a New York minute.

Polls show that Scots are concerned about their economic future. Joining the US would be great for Scotland’s economy. By joining into a single trading area with the United States, it would be easier for American tourists to come to Scotland, and for Scottish haggis to come to the US (I love that stuff). Also, you need to consider the film industry. We spent $70 million making a movie about the last time Scotland won independence. Don’t think we won’t do it again. We put a Scot into outer space. Heck, we even made up a Scottish smurf! The fact is, over the past 50 years, Hollywood has done more for Scotland than London has. Join with us, and we can do more, together.

Now, some might argue that my suggestion is impractical. After all, Scotland is a long way from the US. (Americans: you might need a map for this part.)  But with modern telecommunications, there’s no reason this should be an issue. In fact, Washington, DC, is actually 1000 miles closer to Edinburgh than it is to Honolulu.

I can understand that some Scots might be concerned about this proposal. After all, Washington DC has been pretty dysfunctional lately. Some might ask: Are these really the people you want to join your political future with? First, it’s important to point out that the US Congress makes up only 0.000017% of the population. Most Americans are more sensible. Second, and most important, this is why we need your help. It’s true that there are a lot of perfectly nice people in the US whose political views are batshit crazy. But it’s also true that the country is deeply divided. The crazy people are really only about 49.8% of the population. Even though Scotland’s population is small, in a politically polarised country, it’s enough to tip the balance. Think about it: The US State of Scotland would probably receive 9 electoral votes. The US presidential election of 2000 was decided by only 5. Just think about the good that Scotland could have done for the entire world.

Clearly, this is one of the most difficult and important political issues in Scotland’s history. Honest people of good intentions will come to different opinions. But I hope that I’ve convinced you that this third option is one that’s worthy of serious consideration.