Thursday, 10 November 2011

When This Old Hat Was New

According to our Records Department, this is the 500th post on this blog since October 2008. How about that? Where does the time go?

Of the many mysteries that surround us, the destination of time, and the reasons behind our precious but really rather miserly share of it, are probably the greatest. Personally, I favour the theory that, shortly after the Big Bang, some kind of collateralized loan obligation scam was perpetrated, and large quantities of time shares ended up hidden under a rock, resulting in the subsequent uneven distribution, devaluation and short supply of time. I can't recall whether this is my theory or Terry Pratchett's, however.

Anyway, thinking about time passing, it struck me the other day that a hypothetical very, very old man, who had been sitting on the same bench every day since the year 1011, would have heard our language change from Anglo-Saxon through Middle English to whatever it is we're speaking now (Post-Modern English?). The change would be even more imperceptible than trying to see the hour hand move on an analogue clock, but real all the same. One day, he's going to a church which is little more than a wattle and daub hut, and intoning the Lord's Prayer as "Fæder ure þu þe eart on heofonum", then, in the blink of a geological eye, various stone structures have been erected on the same site, and the few people who are still going to church are now thinking that "Our Father, which art in heaven" sounds incomprehensibly old-fashioned. Old English, innit?

You don't have to be 1000 years old to experience this, though. Listen to any archived radio programme and the voices are as dated (and dateable) as the graphical style of vintage adverts. When I was a child in the 1950s/60s, broadcasters were still required to affect the clipped accents of the 1930s as the price of entry into the BBC. So-called "received pronunciation" was a clear and non-negotiable marker of class and aspiration. "End nigh, the knee-ooze!" No longer, thank goodness. But I'm really not sure if that continuity guy with the preposterously fruity Caribbean baritone who is all over Radio 4 these days counts as progress.

A thousand years ago, of course, the Vikings were busily carrying out an aggressively proactive programme of linguistic mash-up on these shores. I've been watching a lot of Scandinavian thrillers on TV in the last year, and it has started to bring on a curious sensation, like the awakening of semi-dormant, atavistic elements in my linguistic brain. It reminds you how much Northern Europe is a veritable plasticine ball of languages smeared one into another. After a bit, you feel you almost, but not quite, know how to speak Danish or Swedish. But, if I watch one more series of The Killing or Wallander perhaps my immersion treatment will be complete, and I'll be shouting "Va fan?!" (roughly = "WTF") with the best of them.

I found a nice little anecdote about the cumulative effects of time when reading a piece on "Methuselah trusts" in Lapham's Quarterly (hey, I get around). The idea is that a modest amount of money placed in a "1000-year trust" and invested at compound interest could, if actually brought to maturity, trash the world economy (though I think we now have better ways to do the job on a far shorter timescale). It's rather like that proposition that if you were able to fold a piece of paper in half 42 times, you'd find that it reaches the moon. The Methuselah trust would eventually require a payout that would far exceed anyone's ability to pay it.

Apparently Benjamin Franklin started one of these mad investments in 1790, in his will. Here's the quote from the Lapham's Quarterly article:
A few years before Franklin drafted his will, philosopher Richard Price rhapsodized in a sober treatise on the national debt, “One penny, put out at our Savior’s birth to 5 percent compound interest, would, in the present year 1781, have increased to a greater sum than would be contained in two hundred millions of earths, all solid gold. But, if put out to simple interest, it would, in the same time, have amounted to no more than seven shillings and sixpence.”
Hmm, maybe. Show your working, please. That's surely the 18th century equivalent of Hunter S. Thompson-esque "gonzo journalism" -- too much coffee and snuff, probably. Can anyone out there do the maths?

That mention of 7s 6d reminds me of the now long-ago pre-decimal days in Britain. I had forgotten the strangeness of doing mental "money" arithmetic when there were twelve pennies to the shilling, and twenty shillings to the pound (not to mention one pound and one shilling to the guinea). It makes me wonder whether the only reason our children are still learning the eleven and twelve times tables is because, once upon a time, we had an insane system of coinage. Do other countries make their kids learn multiplication tables up to "times twelve", or do they stop at a rational ten?

But enough ramblings about time. Happy 500th post to you all.

Addendum 14/11/2011:

As hoped, nay expected, my old friend Andy S., a.k.a. Science Man, has come up with the goods:

1d invested for 1780 years at 5% would yield 1 x 1.05^1780 = 5.2 x 10^37 d

Price of gold was fixed by Isaac Newton in 1717 at £4 8s 9d per Troy ounce (it stayed this way for about 200 years)

1 Troy ounce = 31.03g

Therefore price of gold = 4x240 + 8x12 + 9 d/Troy ounce = 1065 d/Troy Ounce

1065d/31.103g = 34.32d/g = 34,320d/kg

Therefore 5.2 x 10^37d could buy (5.2 x 10^37)/(34320) kg of gold = 1.52 x 10^33 kg

The Mass of the Earth is about 5.978 x 10^24 kg (OU Science Data Book 1978)

Therefore 1.52 x 10^33 represents (1.52 x10^33)/(5.978 x 10^24) Earth Masses = 2.54 x 10^8 Earth Masses

i.e. about 250 million Earth Masses (at 1780 Gold Prices)

How about that? Thanks, Science Man! Seems it wasn't the snuff talking, after all.


Martin said...

Happy 500th, Mike. Hope you've decided to continue donning the hat into the future.

The voice of Neil Nunes is a novelty for some and not so for others, it seems.

Mike C. said...

Cheers, Martin. Is that his name? He drives me mad. I have nothing against any accent as such (apart from 1940s RP and "post-Blair politician"), but he sounds like a particularly stuffy Jamaican butler.


struan said...

Grattis på födelsedagen Mike.

Fan vad gubbigt du är!

My wife's first word of Swedish was 'snutjävel'. From 'Beck', which strangely enough doesn't seem to have made it into the Anglo Saxon world yet - it's probably the most popular and enduring series here.

I think there was an episode of Red Dwarf where our hero learns he is a multi-bulti-billionaire because of the £0.02 he left in his bank account before entering cryogenic suspension. Unfortunately he is also wanted for crimes against humanity because the small lump of cheese he left in his fridge has mutated and taken over half the globe.

Mike C. said...


Tack för det!

I have my old friend Science Man working on the golden planet equation right now. Being an irreligious type, he at first mistook "our saviour" for Oliver Cromwell, and hence camed up with a rather low price per planet...


doonster said...

Bf's maths are easy really: 0.01 * 1.05 raised to 1781 power.
Total: $5,471 with 33 further zeros (roughly).

As for the language: having studied Dutch & Norwegian, it's amazing how well I can understand (variously) written and/or spoken German, Swedish, Danish. A whole continuum of grammar and vocabulary mashed together.

And thanks for keeping up the blogginf effort.

Mike C. said...

Thanks, Doonster, but I'm still waiting for the price of gold in 1781, the supposed weight of the earth in 1781, and how many golden planets we could actually have bought, presumably at a discount rate... (not to mention the location and name of the shop selling them).


Tony_C said...

Hey, Happy Blogday, Mike.

Have you seen that film, Pathfinder, about two peoples, in Lapland I think: one a fair-haired, settled agricultural community. the other a rapacious, predatory people with dark hair and blue eyes who descend on the first? Anyway, the interesting thing is, the one people speaks modern Lapp, printed as English sub-titles, and the other, Old Lapp, rendered into English in Gothic script below. Extraordinary.

[Checkword: onisder - probably early Norse for something.]

Mike C. said...

Thanks, TC -- I haven't seen it, but having looked it up on Wikipedia I certainly will. Sounds amazing (unlike the Hollywood version which comes up first -- what is the matter with those people? Make up some new stories, guys!).

Reminds me of those Asterix books where the Goths' speech bubbles are in, um, Gothic type.