Odd One Out?

While you’re tucking in to your turkey tomorrow and the jokes and puzzles in your crackers are failing to impress, here’s a little riddle to share with your dinner guests:

Which is the odd-one out: gypsiesturkeysfrench fries, or the Kings of Leon?

Gypsies, a Turkey, a pan of French Fries, and the Kings of Leon
If you answer “turkey, because it’s the only one that’s a bird,” then you’re somewhat missing the point.

In order to save you from “accidentally” reading too far and spoling the answer for yourself, here’s a picture of a kitten to act as filler:

A ginger and white kitten.
Aww.

Want a hint? This is a question about geography. Specifically, it’s a question about assumptions about geography. Have another think: the kittens will wait.

A Persian cat.
Interestingly, this Persian cat could easily be another candidate for the odd-one-out.

Okay. Let’s have a look at each of the candidates, shall we? And learn a little history as we go along:

Gypsies

The Romami are an ethnic group of traditionally-nomadic people, originating from Northern India and dispersing across Europe (and further) over the last millenium and a half. They brought with them some interesting anthropological artefacts of their culture, such as aspects of the Indian caste system and languages (it’s through linguistic similarities that we’ve been best-able to trace their multi-generational travels, as written records of their movements are scarce and incomplete), coupled with traditions related to a nomadic life. These traditions include strict rules about hygiene, designed to keep a travelling population free of disease, which helped to keep them safe during the European plagues of the 13th and 14th centuries.

The migration of the Romanies
The migration of the Romanies. The arrows show that they stopped in France for some French Fries before continuing to Britain.

Unfortunately for them, when the native populations of Western European countries saw that these travellers – who already had a reputation as outsiders – seemed to be immune to the diseases that were afflicting the rest of the population, their status in society rapidly degraded, and they were considered to be witches or devil-worshippers. This animosity made people unwilling to trade with them, which forced many of them into criminal activity, which only served to isolate them further. Eventually, here in the UK, laws were passed to attempt to deport them, and these laws help us to see the origins of the term gypsy, which by then had become commonplace.

Consider, for example, the Egyptians Act 1530, which uses the word “Egyptian” to describe these people. The Middle English word for Egypian was gypcian, from which the word gypsy or gipsy was a contraction. The word “gypsy” comes from a mistaken belief by 16th Century Western Europeans that the Romani who were entering their countries had emigrated from Egypt. We’ll get back to that.

Turkeys

When Europeans began to colonise the Americas, from the 15th Century onwards, they discovered an array of new plants and animals previously unseen by European eyes, and this ultimately lead to a dramatic diversification of the diets of Europeans back home. Green beans, cocoa beans, maize (sweetcorn), chillis, marrows, pumpkins, potatoes, tomatoes, buffalo, jaguars, and vanilla pods: things that are so well-understood in Britain now that it’s hard to imagine that there was a time that they were completely alien here.

A wild turkey
Gobblegobblegobblegobble.

Still thinking that the Americas could be a part of East Asia, the explorers and colonists didn’t recognise turkeys as being a distinct species, and categorised them as being a kind of guineafowl. They soon realised that they made for pretty good eating, and started sending them back to their home countries. Many of the turkeys sent back to Central Europe arrived via Turkey, and so English-speaking countries started calling them Turkey fowl, eventually just shortened to turkey. In actual fact, most of the turkeys reaching Britain probably came directly to Britain, or possibly via France, Portugal, or Spain, and so the name “turkey” is completely ridiculous.

Fun fact: in Turkey, turkeys are called hindi, which means Indian, because many of the traders importing turkeys were Indians (the French, Polish, Russians, and Ukranians also use words that imply an Indian origin). In Hindi, they’re called peru, after the region and later country of Peru, which also isn’t where they’re from (they’re native only to North America), but the Portugese – who helped to colonise Peru also call them that. And in Scottish Gaelic, they’re called cearc frangach – “French chicken”! The turkey is a seriously georgraphically-confused bird.

French Fries

As I’m sure that everybody knows by now, “French” fries probably originated in either Belgium or in the Spanish Netherlands (now part of Belgium), although some French sources claim an earlier heritage. We don’t know how they were first invented, but the popularly-told tale of Meuse Valley fishing communities making up for not having enough fish by deep-frying pieces of potato, cut into the shape of fish, is almost certainly false: a peasant region would be extremely unlikely to have access to the large quantities of fat required to fry potatoes in this way.

Friet Museum, Bruge
They may find it hard to prove that they invented fries, but the Belgians certainly hold the claim to the world’s only museum dedicated to the food.

So why do we – with the exception of some confusingly patriotic Americans – call them French fries. It’s hard to say for certain, but based on when the food became widely-known in the anglophonic world, the most-likely explanation comes from the First World War. When British and, later, American soldier landed in Belgium, they’ll have had the opportunity to taste these (now culturally-universal) treats for the first time. At that time, though, the official language of the Belgian army (and the most-popularly spoken language amongst Belgian citizens) was French. The British and American soldiers thus came to call them “French fries”.

The Kings of Leon

For a thousand years the Kingdom of Leon represented a significant part of what would not be considered Spain and/or Portugal, founded by Christian kings who’d recaptured the Northern half of the Iberian Peninsula from the Moors during the Reconquista (short version for those whose history lessons didn’t go in this direction: what the crusades were against the Ottomans, the Reconquista was against the Moors). The Kingdom of Leon remained until its power was gradually completely absorbed into that of the Kingdom of Spain. Leon still exists as a historic administrative region in Spain, similar to the counties of the British Isles, and even has its own minority language (the majority language, Spanish, would historically have been known as Castilian – the traditional language of the neighbouring Castillian Kingdom).

The Kingdom of Leon (circa 1210)
Leon, sandwiched between the other kingdoms of the 13th century Iberian Peninsula.

The band, however, isn’t from Leon but is from Nashville, Tennessee. They’ve got nothing linking them to actual Leon, or Spain at all, as far as I can tell, except for their name – not unlike gypsies and Egypt, turkeys and Turkey, and French fries and France. The Kings of Leon, a band of brothers, took the inspiration for their name from the first name of their father and their grandfather: Leon.

The Odd One Out

The Kings of Leon are the odd one out, because while all four have names which imply that they’re from somewhere that they’re not, the inventors of the name “The Kings of Leon” were the only ones who knew that the implication was correct.

The people who first started calling gypsies “gypsies” genuinely believed that they came from Egypt. The first person to call a turkey a “Turkey fowl” really was under the impression that it was a bird that had come from, or via, Turkey. And whoever first started spreading the word about the tasty Belgian food they’d discovered while serving overseas really thought that they were a French invention. But the Kings of Leon always knew that they weren’t from Leon (and, presumably, that they weren’t kings).

And as for you? Your sex is on fire. Well, either that or it’s your turkey. You oughta go get it out of the oven if it’s the latter, or – if it’s the former – see if you can get some cream for that. And have a Merry Christmas.

Counterfeit Monkey

Earlier this year, I played Emily Short‘s new game, Counterfeit Monkey, and I’m pleased to say that it’s one of the best pieces of interactive fiction I’ve played in years. I’d highly recommend that you give it a go.

Counterfeit Monkey
Counterfeit Monkey is one of the best interactive fiction games I’ve played in years. And not just because I love puns.

What makes Counterfeit Monkey so great? Well, as you’d expect from an Emily Short game (think Bee, which I reviewed last year, Galatea, and Glass), it paints an engaging and compelling world which feels “bigger” than the fragments of it that you’re seeing: a real living environment in which you’re just another part of the story. The island of Anglophone Atlantis and the characters in it feel very real, and it’s easy to empathise with what’s going on (and the flexibility you have in your actions helps you to engage with what you’re doing). But that’s not what’s most-special about it.

A game of Counterfeit Monkey, underway.
I’m in a bar, presumably in need of a pint of apple. Apple? That’s not what I mean! Where’s my P-Remover when I need one…

What’s most-special about this remarkable game is the primary puzzle mechanic, and how expertly (not to mention seamlessly and completely) it’s been incorporated into the play experience. Over the course of the game, you’ll find yourself equipped with a number of remarkable tools that change the nature of game objects by adding, removing, changing, re-arranging or restoring their letters, or combining their names with the names of other objects: sort of a “Scrabble® set for real life”.

Brought your pet abroad? Consider linguistic realignment therapy. Even a domesticated cat can give birth to chatons. (A public service announcement by the Bureau of Orthography)
Wise words from the Bureau of Orthography.

You start the game in possession of a full-alphabet letter-remover, which lets you remove a particular letter from any word – so you can, for example, change a pine into a pin by “e-removing” it, or you can change a caper into a cape by “r-removing” it (you could go on and “c-remove” it into an ape if only your starting toolset hadn’t been factory-limited to prevent the creation of animate objects).

Dental Consonants Ltd. - what we can't do isn't worth doing. Absolutely no palatials or labials, guaranteed.
Poster for Dental Consonants Ltd. Get your consonants here!

This mechanic, coupled with a doubtless monumental amount of effort on Emily’s part, makes Counterfeit Monkey have perhaps the largest collection of potential carryable objects of any interactive fiction game ever written. Towards the end of the game, when your toolset is larger, there feels like an infinite number of possible linguistic permutations for your copious inventory… and repeatedly, I found that no matter what I thought of, the author had thought of it first and written a full and complete description of the result (and yes, I did try running almost everything I’d picked up, and several things I’d created, through the almost-useless “Ümlaut Punch”, once I’d found it).

Atlantida
Atlantida, nominal ruler of Anglophone Atlantis.

I can’t say too much more without spoiling one of the best pieces of interactive fiction I’ve ever played. If you’ve never played a text-based adventure before, and want a gentler introduction, you might like to go try something more conventional (but still great) like Photopia (very short, very gentle: my review) or Blue Lacuna (massive, reasonably gentle: my review) first. But if you’re ready for the awesome that is Counterfeit Monkey, then here’s what you need to do:

How to play Counterfeit Monkey

  1. Install a Glulx interpreter.
    I recommend Gargoyle, which provides beautiful font rendering and supports loads of formats. Note that Gargoyle’s UNDO command will not work in Counterfeit Monkey, for technical reasons (but this shouldn’t matter much so long as you SAVE at regular intervals).
    Download for Windows, for Mac, or for other systems.
  1. Download Counterfeit Monkey
    Get Counterfeit Monkey‘s “story file” and open it using your Glulx interpreter (e.g. Gargoyle).
    Download it here.

(alternatively, you can use experimental technology to play the game in your web browser: it’ll take a long time to load, though, and you’ll be missing some of the fun optional features, so I wouldn’t recommend it over the “proper” approach above)

The Nontheist Glossary

There’s a word that seems to be being gradually redefined in our collective vocabulary, I was considering recently. That word is “nontheist”. It’s a relatively new word as it is, but in its earliest uses it seems to have been an umbrella term covering a variety of different (and broadly-compatible) theological outlooks.

Here are some of them, in alphabetical order:

agnostic

“It is not possible to know whether God exists.”

Agnostics believe that it is not possible to know whether or not there are any gods. They vary in the strength of their definition of the word “know”, as well as their definition of the word “god”. Like most of these terms, they’re not mutually-exclusive: there exist agnostic atheists, for example (and, of course, there exist agnostic theists, gnostic atheists, and gnostic theists).

antitheist

“Believing in gods is a bad thing.”

Antitheists are opposed to the belief in gods in general, or to the practice of religion. Often, they will believe that the world would be better in the absence of religious faith, to some degree or another. In rarer contexts, the word can also mean an opposition to a specific deity (e.g. “I believe that in God, but I hate Him.”).

apatheist

“If the existence of God could be proven/disproven to me, it would not affect my behaviour.”

An apatheist belives that the existence or non-existence of gods is irrelevant. It is perfectly possible to define oneself as a theist, an atheist, or neither, and still be apathetic about the subject. Most of them are atheists, but not all: there are theists – even theists with a belief in a personal god – who claim that their behaviour would be no different even if you could (hypothetically) disprove the existence of that god, to them.

atheist

“There are no gods.”

As traditionally-defined, atheists deny the existence of either a specific deity, or – more-commonly – any deities at all. Within the last few hundred years, it has also come to mean somebody who rejects that there is any valid evidence for the existence of a god, a subtle difference which tends to separate absolutists from relativists. If you can’t see the difference between this and agnosticism, this blog post might help. Note also that atheism does not always imply materialism or naturalism: there exist atheists for example who believe in ghosts or in the idea of an immortal soul.

deist

“God does not interfere with the Universe.”

Deism is characterised by a belief in a ‘creator’ or ‘architect’ deity which put the universe into motion, but which does has not had any direct impact on it thereafter. Deists may or may not believe that this creator has an interest in humanity (or life at all), and may or may not feel that worship is relevant. Note that deism is nontheistic (and, by some definitions, atheistic) in that it denies the existence of a specific God – a personal God with a concern for human affairs – and so appears on this list even though it’s incompatible with many people’s idea of nontheism.

freethinker

“Science and reason are a stronger basis for decision-making than tradition and authority.”

To be precise, freethought is a philosophical rather than a theological position, but its roots lie in the religious: in the West, the term appeared in the 17th century to describe those who rejected a literalist interpretation of the Bible. It historically had a broad crossover with early pantheism, as science began to find answers (especially in the fields of astronomy and biology) which contradicted the religious orthodoxy. Nowadays, most definitions are functionally synonymous with naturalism and/or rationalism.

humanist

“Human development is furthered by reason and ethics, and rejection of superstition.”

In the secular sense (as opposed to the word’s many other meanings in other fields), humanism posits that ethical and moral behaviour, for the benefit of individual humans and for society in general, can be attained without religion or a deity. It requires that individuals assess viewpoints for themselves and not simply accept them on faith. Note that like much of this list, secular humanism is not incompatible with other viewpoints – even theism: it’s certainly possible to believe in a god but still to feel that society is always best-served by a human-centric (rather than a faith-based) model.

igtheist

“There exists no definition of God for which one can make a claim of theism or atheism.”

One of my favourite nontheistic terms, igtheism (also called ignosticism) holds that words like “god” are not cognitively meaningful and can not be argued for or against. The igtheist holds that the question of whether or not any deities exist is meaningless not because any such deities are uninterested in human affairs (like the deist) or because such a revelation would have no impact upon their life (like the apatheist) but because the terms themselves have no value. The word “god” is either ill-defined, undefinable, or represents an idea that is unfalsifiable.

materialist

“The only reality is matter and energy. All else is an illusion caused by these.”

The materialist perspective holds that the physical universe is as it appears to be: an effectively-infinite quantity of matter and energy, traveling through time. It’s incompatible with many forms of theism and spiritual beliefs, but not necessarily with some deistic and pantheistic outlooks: in many ways, it’s more of a philosophical stance than a nontheistic position. It grew out of the philosophy of physicalism, and sharply contrasts the idealist or solipsist thinking.

naturalist

“Everything can be potentially explained in terms of naturally-occurring phenomena.”

A closely-related position to that of materialism is that of naturalism. The naturalist, like the materialist, claims that there can be, by definition, no supernatural occurrences in our natural universe, and as such is similarly incompatible with many forms of theism. Its difference, depending on who you ask, tends to be described as being that naturalism does not seek to assume that there is not possibly more to the universe than we could even theoretically be capable of observing, but that does not make such things “unnatural”, much less “divine”. However, in practice, the terms naturalism and materialism are (in the area of nontheism) used interchangeably. The two are also similar to some definitions of the related term, “rationalism”.

pantheist

“The Universe and God are one and the same.”

The pantheist believes that it is impossible to distinguish between God and the University itself. This belief is nontheistic because it typically denies the possibility of a personal deity. There’s an interesting crossover between deists and pantheists: a subset of nontheists, sometimes calling themselves “pandeists”, who believe that the Universe and the divine are one and the same, having come into existence of its own accord and running according to laws of its own design. A related but even-less-common concept is panentheism, the belief that the Universe is only a part of an even-greater god.

secularist

“Human activities, and especially corporate activities, should be separated from religious teaching.”

The secularist viewpoint is that religion and spiritual thought, while not necessarily harmful (depending on the secularist), is not to be used as the basis for imposing upon humans the a particular way of life. Secularism, therefore, tends to claim that religion should be separated from politics, education, and justice. The reasons for secularism are diverse: some secularists are antitheistic and would prefer that religion was unacceptable in general; others take a libertarian approach, and feel that it is unfair for one person to impose their beliefs upon another; still others simply feel that religion is something to be “kept in the home” and not to be involved in public life.

skeptic

“Religious authority does not intrinsically imply correctness.”

Religious skeptics, as implied by their name, doubt the legitimacy of religious teaching as a mechanism to determine the truth. It’s a somewhat old-fashioned term, dating back to an era in which religious skepticism – questioning the authority of priests, for example – was in itself heretical: something which in the West is far rarer than it once was.

transtheist

“I neither accept nor reject the notion of a deity, but find a greater truth beyond both possibilities.”

The notion of transtheism, a form of post-theism, is that there exists a religious philosophy that exists both outside and beyond that of both theism and atheism. Differentiating between this and deism, or apatheism, is not always easy, but it’s a similar concept to Jain “transcendence”: the idea that there may or may not exist things which may be called “godlike”, but the ultimate state of being goes beyond this. It can be nontheistic, because it rejects the idea that a god plays a part in human lives, but is not necessarily atheistic.

However, I’ve observed that the word “nontheist” seems to be finding a new definition, quite apart from the umbrella description above.

In recent years, a number of books have been published on the subject of atheism, some of which – and especially The God Delusion – carry a significant antitheistic undertone. This has helped to inspire the idea that atheism and antitheism are the same thing (which for many atheists, and a tiny minority of antitheists, simply isn’t true), and has lead some people who might otherwise have described themselves as one or several of the terms above to instead use the word “nontheist” as a category of its own.

This “new nontheist” definition is still very much in its infancy, but I’ve heard it described as “areligious, but spiritual”, or “atheistic, but not antitheistic”.

Personally, I don’t like this kind of redefinition. It’s already hard enough to have a reasonable theological debate – having to stop and define your terms every step of the way is quite tiresome! – without people whipping your language out from underneath you right when you were standing on it. I can see how those people who are, for example, “atheistic, but not antitheistic” might want to distance themselves from the (alliterative) antitheistic atheist authors, but can’t they pick a different word?

After all: there’s plenty of terms going spare, above, to define any combination of nontheistic belief, and enough redundancy that you can form a pile of words higher than any Tower of Babel. Then… perhaps… we can talk about religion without stopping to fight over which dictionary is the true word.

The Crack

There’s a man in the house. He carries a hammer in his toolbelt and shows the crack of his bottom over the top of his worn workwear even when he’s not crawling around on the floorboards. He’s been sent to repair a few bits of Earth, our perpetually-falling-apart house, and to quote for a handful of further improvements that he’s hoping to persuade the landlord to let him install after we’ve gone.

He repairs the wobbly floorboard in my office while I try to get on with some work. The floorboard sinks considerably when it’s walked over, and feels like it might at any moment send me plummeting down into Paul‘s room. It’ll be good to have it repaired, even if this does occur only weeks before we are due to move out.

I’m listening to a Radio 4 program about disenchantment with contemporary financial establishments and cyber-trading and the recent growth of interest in gold trading as a “safety net”. A panelist says that for the first time in recorded history, the majority of gold is held by private investors, rather than by central banks. At some point, another panelist describes the expertise required by financial traders and a post-capitalist economy as being esoteric.

The builder pulls his head out from below the floorboards and speaks. “Ee-sow-terick?” he says, “I don’t even know what that means!”

“That’s subtly ironic, then!” I reply, not sure whether or not he’s being serious.

The builder makes a grunting sound that I interpret as being a derivation on the word “Huh?”

“Something esoteric is… something known only to a few; to an elite minority, perhaps,” I begin. “Like the word itself, it turns out,” I add, after a pause.

The builder grunts again; a sound that expresses his disinterest even more thoroughly than did his last utterance. He rolls the carpet back to where it belongs, and – by way of demonstration – jumps up and down. Somehow, in the last two minutes, he’s managed to repair the fragile floorboard. I didn’t even see what he was doing: one moment there was a hole in the floor, and now… everything was fine. I’d have been no less surprised if he’d produced the Nine of Spades from behind my ear. Perhaps I was merely distracted by the radio, but I’ve got no idea how he did it.

The Week of Balls

Early this week, I’ve spent quite a bit of time knee deep in the guts of Phusion Passenger (which remains one of the best deployment strategies for Rack applications, in my mind), trying to work out why a particular application I’d been working on wouldn’t deploy properly after a few upgrades and optimisations on the development server. Ultimately, I found the problem, but for a few hours there there I thought I was losing my mind.

This lunchtime, I decided to pull out all of my instant messenger logs (being out of the office, my co-workers at SmartData and I do a lot of talking via an IM system). I’d had a hunch that, so far this week, “balls” would be amongst my most-frequently typed words, chiefly uttered as yet another hypothesis about why the development server wasn’t behaving itself was blown out of the water. A few regular expressions (to strip it down to just the words I typed) and a run through a word-counter, and I had some results!

Here’s my top words of the work week so far:

Position Word(s)
1 – 18 the, to, I, a, it, that, of, in, and, on, but, have, what, is, you, just, so, for
Positions 1 through 18 contain some of the most-common conjunctions and pronouns that I use on a day-to-day basis, as well as some common verbs. Nothing surprising there. So far, so good.
19 Rails
Between the projects I’ve been involved with and those my colleagues are working on, there’s been a lot of discussion about (Ruby on) Rails around the office so far this week.
20 IPN, do
One of the projects I’ve been working on this week has used a payment gateway with an Instant Payment Notification service, so it’s not surprising that “IPN” appeared in the top 20, too…
22 was, this
24 my, know, at
27 up, don’t
Over 50% of “don’t”s were immediately followed by “know”: Monday was one of those days.
29 I’m
30 yeah, be, [name of troublesome web app]
Not unexpectedly, the name of the project that caused so much confusion earlier this week came up more than a little.
33 there, one, if
36 we, see, problem, get balls, back, all
These seven words never all appeared in a sentence together, but I sort of wish that they had. There’s the key word – balls – apparently the joint 36th most-used word by me between Monday morning and Wednesday lunchtime.

Other common words this week so-far included “jQuery“, that great JavaScript library (there was some discussion about how we can best make use of the new features provided by version 1.5), “payment” (again; a lot of talk of payment processing, this week), “means” (mostly where I was explaining the results of my investigations into the troublesome server), “tried” (a disappointing-sounding word), “error” (I saw a few of those, to be sure!), and “somehow” (not a reassuring thing to catch yourself saying).

Also pretty common this week was “boiler”, as I explained to my workmates the saga of the boiler at my house, which broke down at the weekend, leaving us with no hot water nor heating until it was repaired on Tuesday. On the upside, I did get to poke around inside the boiler while the repairman was taking it to bits, and learned all kinds of fascinating things about the way that they work. So, a silver lining, there.

Bits of our boiler: the hip bone's connected to the... leg bone.

With the boiler fixed at home, and the development server fixed at work, it finally feels like this week’s turning into the right kind of week. But for a while there, it didn’t look certain!