Archive for the ‘History’ Category

How Google search creates Fake News

January 15, 2021

Fake News is created just as much by excluding selected news as by inventing stories. Cancelling news also creates fake news.

Google’s “experiment” in Australia has been exposed recently. However, this is not the first such “experiment” and it won’t be the last. But exclusion is a tool used widely by every news outlet to try and control the narrative (and it is noticeable that every outlet does try to control the narrative). There is no news outlet anymore that does not have its own agenda which does not engage in excluding what is unpalatable. All social media platforms have self-serving agendas. They all indulge in “exclusion” as a tool. Sometimes it is simply to create a false (favourable) picture to increase revenues from advertising. Sometimes it is to be politically correct and avoid legal, political or social sanction. It is the same phenomenon which drives the “cancel culture”. We are all familiar with paid advertising always getting preference in Google searches. But Googles’s search algorithms are secret and supposedly untouched by human hand, but they are always changing. They know very well that few go beyond the second page of search results. The algorithms are constantly being tweaked. And in every tweak there is some new exclusion and some new Fake News.

Perceived reality has little to do with “facts” and is entirely about the current narrative. History has become (has always been) a servant of the current narrative. Google Search is primarily a tool for the creation of advertising revenue. The search is always biased in the algorithm. The perceived objectivity of the search is secondary to the revenue objective. Fake News has become a major part of the output of Mainstream Media and exclusion is just another tool for the creation of a false narrative.

Mathematics started in prehistory with counting and the study of shapes

January 8, 2021
Compass box

Mathematics today is classified into more than 40 different areas by journals for publication. I probably heard about the 3 R’s (Reading, Riting and Rithmetic) first at primary school level. At high school, which was 60 years ago, mathematics consisted of arithmetic, geometry, algebra, trigonometry, statistics and logic – in that order. I remember my first class where trigonometry was introduced as a “marriage of algebra and geometry”. Calculus was touched on as advanced algebra. Some numerical methods were taught as a part of statistics. If I take my own progression, it starts with arithmetic, moves on to geometry, algebra and trigonometry and only then to calculus and statistics, symbolic logic and computer science. It was a big deal when, at 10, I got my first “compass box” for geometry, and another big deal, at 13, with my first copy of trigonometric tables. At university in the 70s, Pure Mathematics was distinguished from Applied Engineering Mathematics and from Computing. In my worldview, Mathematics and Physics Departments were where the specialist, esoteric mysteries of such things as topology, number theory, quantum algebra, non-Euclidean geometry and combinatorics could be studied.

I don’t doubt that many animals can distinguish between more and less. It is sometimes claimed that some primates have the ability to count up to about 3. Perhaps they do, but except for in the studies reporting such abilities, they never actually do count. No animals apply counting, They don’t exhibit any explicit understanding of geometrical shapes or structures, though birds, bees, ants and gorillas seem to apply some structural principles, intuitively, when building their nests. Humans, as a species, are unique in not only imagining but also in applying mathematics. We couldn’t count when we left the trees. We had no tools then and we built no shelters. So how did it all begin?

Sometimes Arithmetic, Geometry and Algebra are considered the three core areas of mathematics. But I would contend that it must all start with counting and with shapes – which later developed into Arithmetic and Geometry. Algebra and its abstractions came much later. Counting and the study of shapes must lie at the heart of how prehistoric humans first came to mathematics. But I would also contend that counting and observing the relationship between shapes would have started separately and independently. They both require a certain level of cognition but they differ in that the study of shapes is based on observations of physical surroundings while counting requires invention of concepts in the abstract plane. They may have been contemporaneous but they must, I think, have originated separately.

No circle of standing stones would have been possible without some arithmetic (rather than merely counting) and some geometry. No pyramid, however simple, was ever built without both. No weight was dragged or rolled up an inclined plane without some understanding of both shapes and numbers. No water channel that was ever dug did not involve some arithmetic and some geometry. Already by the time of Sumer and Babylon, and certainly by the time of the Egyptians and the Harappans, the practical application of arithmetic and geometry and even trigonometry in trade, surveying, town planning, time-keeping and building were well established. The sophisticated management of water that we can now glimpse in the ancient civilizations needed both arithmetic and geometry. There is not much recorded history that is available before the Greeks. Arithmetic and Geometry were well established by the time we come to the Greeks who even conducted a vigorous discourse about the nobility (or divinity) of the one versus the other. Pythagoras is not happy with arithmetic since numbers cannot give him – exactly – the hypotenuse of a right triangle of sides of equal length (√2). Which he can so easily draw. Numbers could not exactly reflect all that he could achieve with a straight edge and a compass. The circle could not be squared. The circumference was irrational. The irrationality of the numbers needed to reflect geometrical shapes was, for the purists, vulgar and an abomination. But the application of geometry and arithmetic were common long, long before the Greeks. There is a great distance before counting becomes arithmetic and the study of shapes becomes geometry but the roots of mathematics lie there. That takes us back to well before the Neolithic (c. 12,000 years ago).

That geometry derives from the study of shapes and the patterns and relationships between shapes, given some threshold level of cognition, seems both obvious and inevitable. Shapes are real and ubiquitous. They can be seen in all aspects of the natural world and can be mimicked and constructed. The arc of the sun curving across the sky creates a shape. Shadows create shapes. Light creates straight lines as the elevation of the sun creates angles. Shapes can be observed. And constructed. A taut string to give a straight line and the calm surface of a pond to give a level plane. A string and a weight to give the vertical. A liquid level to give the horizontal. Sticks and shadows. A human turning around to observe the surroundings created a circle. Strings and compasses. Cave paintings from c. 30,000 years ago contain regular shapes. Circles and triangles and squares. Humans started not only observing, but also applying, the relationships between shapes a very long time ago.

Numbers are more mystical. They don’t exist in the physical world. But counting the days from new moon to new moon for a lunar month, or the days in a year, were also known at least 30,000 years ago. Ancient tally sticks to count to 29 testify to that. It would seem that the origins of arithmetic (and numbers) lie in our ancient prehistory and probably more than 50,000 years ago. Counting, the use of specific sounds as the representation of abstract numbers, and number systems are made possible only by first having a concept of identity which allows the definition of one. Dealing with identity and the nature of existence take us before and beyond the realms of philosophy or even theology and are in the metaphysical world. The metaphysics of existence remain mystical and mysterious and beyond human cognition, as much today as in prehistoric times. Nevertheless, it is the cognitive capability of having the concept of a unique identity which enables the concept of one. That one day is distinguishable from the next. That one person, one fruit, one animal or one thing is uniquely different to another. That unique things, similar or dissimilar, can be grouped to create a new identity. That one grouping (us) is distinguishable from another group (them). Numbers are not physically observable. They are all abstract concepts. Linguistically they are sometimes bad nouns and sometimes bad adjectives. The concept of one does not, by itself, lead automatically to a number system. That needs in addition a logic system and invention (a creation of something new which presupposes a certain cognitive capacity). It is by definition, and not by logic or reason or inevitability, that two is defined as one more than the identity represented by one, and three is defined as one more than two, and so on. Note that without the concept of identity and the uniqueness of things setting a constraint, a three does not have to be separated from a two by the same separation as from two to one. The inherent logic is not itself invented but emerges from the concept of identity and uniqueness. That 1 + 1 = 2 is a definition not a discovery. It assumes that addition is possible. It is also significant that nothingness is a much wider (and more mysterious and mystical) concept than the number zero. Zero derives, not from nothingness, but from the assumption of subtraction and then of being defined as one less than one. That in turn generalises to zero being any thing less than itself. Negative numbers emerge by extending that definition. The properties of zero are conferred by convention and by definition. Numbers and number systems are thus a matter of “invention by definition”, but constrained by the inherent logic which emerges from the concept of identity. The patterns and relationships between numbers have been the heady stuff of number theory and a matter of great wonder when they are discovered, but they are all consequent to the existence of the one, the invention of numerals and the subsequent definition that 1 + 1 = 2. Number theory exists only because the numbers are defined as they are. Whereas the concept of identity provides the basis for one and all integers, a further cognitive step is needed to imagine that the one is not indivisible and then to consider the infinite parts of one.

Mere counting is sometimes disparaged, but it is, of course, the most rudimentary form of a rigorous arithmetic with its commutative, associative and distributive laws.

Laws of arithmetic

The cognitive step of getting to count in the first place is a huge leap compared to the almost inevitable evolution of counting into numbers and then into an arithmetic with rigorous laws. We will never know when our ancestors began to count but it seems to me – in comparison with primates of today – that it must have come after a cognitive threshold had been achieved. Quite possibly with the control of fire and after the brain size of the species had undergone a step change. That takes us back to the time of homo erectus and perhaps around a million years ago.

Nearly all animals have shape recognition to some extent. Some primates can even recognise patterns in similar shapes. It is plausible that recognition of patterns and relationships between shapes only took off when our human ancestors began construction either of tools or of rudimentary dwellings. The earliest tools (after the use of clubs) were probably cutting edges and these are first seen around 1.8 million years ago. The simplest constructed shelters would have been lean-to structures of some kind. Construction of both tools and shelters lend themselves naturally to the observation of many geometrical shapes; rectangles, polygons, cones, triangles, similar triangles and the rules of proportion between similar shapes. Arches may also have first emerged with the earliest shelters. More sophisticated tools and very simple dwellings take us back to around 400,000 years ago and certainly to a time before anatomically modern humans had appeared (c. 200,000 years ago). Both rudimentary counting and a sense of shapes would have been present by then. It would have been much later that circles and properties of circles were observed and discovered. (Our earliest evidence of a wheel goes back some 8,000 years and is the application of a much older mathematics). Possibly the interest in the circle came after a greater interest in time keeping had emerged. Perhaps from the first “astronomical” observations of sunrise and sunset and the motion of the moon and the seasons. Certainly our ancestors were well-versed with circles and spheres and their intersections and relationships by the time they became potters (earlier than c. 30,000 years ago). 

I suspect it was the blossoming of trade – rather than the growth of astronomy – which probably helped take counting to number systems and arithmetic. The combination of counting and shapes starts, I think, with the invention of tools and the construction of dwellings. By the time we come to the Neolithic and settlements and agriculture and fortified settlements, arithmetic and geometry and applied mathematics is an established reality. Counting could have started around a million years ago. The study of shapes may have started even earlier. But if we take the origin of “mathematics” to be when counting ability was first combined with a sense of shapes, then we certainly have to step back to at least 50,000 years ago.

The accidental story of two times five and base ten

November 23, 2020

Humans have used many different bases for number systems but the use of base 10 is overwhelmingly dominant. There are instances of the use of base 5, base 6, base 20 and even base 27. In spite of many attempts to replace it by base 10, base 60 has fended off all rationalist suggestions and remnants remain entrenched for our current mapping of time and space. For time periods, base 60 is used exclusively for hours, minutes and seconds but base 10 for subdivisions of the second. Similarly for spatial coordinates, degrees, minutes and seconds of arc are still used but subdivisions of the second use base 10. (Some of the other bases that appear in language are listed at the end of this post).

In terms of mathematics there is no great inherent advantage in the use of one particular number base or another. The utility of a particular choice is a trade off first between size and practicality. The size of the base determines how many unique number symbols are needed (binary needs 2, decimal needs 10 and hexagesimal 16). There are many proponents of the advantages of 2, 3, 8, 12 or 16 being used as our primary number base. Certainly base 12 is the most “fraction friendly”. But all our mathematics  could, in reality, be performed in any number base.

At first glance the reasons for the use of base 10 seems blindingly obvious and looking for origins seems trivial. Our use of base 10 comes simply – and inevitably – from two hands times five digits. In recent times other bases (binary – base 2- and hexadecimal – base 16 – for example) are used more extensively with computers, but base 10 (with some base 60) still predominates in human-human interactions (except when Sheldon is showing off). The use of base 10 predates the use of base 60 which has existed for at least 5,000 years.

It is ubiquitous now but (2 x 5) is not a consequence of design. It derives from a chain of at least three crucial, evolutionary accidents which gave us

  1. four limbs, and
  2. five digits on each limb, and finally
  3. human bipedalism which reserved two limbs for locomotion and left our hands free.

The subsequent evolutionary accidents which led to increased brain size would still have been necessary for the discovery of counting and the invention of number systems. But if, instead of two, we had evolved three limbs free from the responsibilities of locomotion, with three digits on each limb, we might well have had base 9 at the foundations of counting and a nonary number system. The benefits of a place value system and the use of nonecimals would still apply.

It is more difficult to imagine what might have happened if limbs were not symmetrical or the number of digits on each limb were different. No human society has not been predominantly (c. 85%) right-handed. But left-handedness has never been a sufficient handicap to have been eliminated by evolution. Almost certainly right-handedness comes from the asymmetrical functions established in the left and right-brains. The distinction between the functions of the two sides of the brain goes back perhaps 500 million years and long before limbs and tetrapods. By the time limbs evolved, the brain functions giving our predilection for right-handedness must already have been established. So, it is possible to imagine evolution having led to, say, 6 digits on right fore-limbs and 5 digits on left fore-limbs.

I wonder what a natural base of 11 or 13 would have done to the development of counting and number systems?

Why four limbs?

All land vertebrates (mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians) derive from tetrapods which have two sets of paired limbs. Even snakes evolved from four-limbed lizards. 

Tetrapods evolved from a group of animals known as the Tetrapodomorpha which, in turn, evolved from ancient sarcopterygians around 390 million years ago in the middle Devonian period; their forms were transitional between lobe-finned fishes and the four-limbed tetrapods. The first tetrapods (from a traditional, apomorphy-based perspective) appeared by the late Devonian, 367.5 million years ago. Wikipedia

It would seem that – by trial and error – a land-based creature, fortuitously possessing two pairs of limbs, just happened to be the one which survived and become the ancestor of all tetrapods. The evolutionary advantage of having 4 limbs (two pairs)  – rather than one or three or five pairs – is not at all clear. Insects have evolved three pairs while arachnids have four pairs. Myriapoda are multi-segmented creatures which have a pair of limbs per segment. They can vary from having five segments (10 legs) to about 400 segments (800 legs). The genes that determine the number of limbs determine many other features also and why two pairs would be particularly advantageous is not understood.  It could well be that the two pairs of limbs were incidental and merely followed other survival characteristics. The best bet currently is that

“You could say that the reason we have four limbs is because we have a belly,”

All of us backboned animals — at least the ones who also have jaws — have four fins or limbs, one pair in front and one pair behind. These have been modified dramatically in the course of evolution, into a marvelous variety of fins, legs, arms, flippers, and wings. But how did our earliest ancestors settle into such a consistent arrangement of two pairs of appendages? — Because we have a belly.

According to our hypothesis, the influence of the developing gut suppresses limb initiation along the midgut region and the ventral body wall owing to an “endodermal predominance.” From an evolutionary perspective, the lack of gut regionalization in agnathans reflects the ancestral absence of these conditions, and the elaboration of the gut together with the concomitant changes to the LMD in the gnathostomes could have led to the origin of paired fins.

The critical evolutionary accident then is that the intrepid sea creature which first colonised the land, some 390 million years ago, and gave rise to all tetrapods was one with a developing belly and therefore just happened to have two pairs of appendages.

The tail, however, is an asymmetrical appendage which may also once have been a pair (one on top of the other) but is now generally a solitary appendage. But it is controlled by a different gene-set to those which specify limbs. In mammals it has disappeared for some and performs stability functions for others. In some primates it has functions close to that of a fifth limb. But in no case has a tail ever evolved digits.

Why five digits on each limb?

When our ancestor left the oceans and became the origin of all tetrapods, four limbs had appeared but the number of digits on each limb had not then been decided. It took another 50 million years before a split distinguished amphibians from mammals, birds and reptiles. The timeline is thought to be:

  • 390 million years ago – tetrapod ancestor leaves the oceans
  • 360 million years ago – tetrapods with 6,7 and 8 digits per limb
  • 340 million years ago – amphibians go their separate way
  • 320 million years ago – reptiles slither away on a path giving dinosaurs and birds
  • 280 million years ago – the first mammals appear


The condition of having no more than five fingers or toes …. probably evolved before the evolutionary divergence of amphibians (frogs, toads, salamanders and caecilians) and amniotes (birds, mammals, and reptiles in the loosest sense of the term). This event dates to approximately 340 million years ago in the Lower Carboniferous Period. Prior to this split, there is evidence of tetrapods from about 360 million years ago having limbs bearing arrays of six, seven and eight digits. Reduction from these polydactylous patterns to the more familiar arrangements of five or fewer digits accompanied the evolution of sophisticated wrist and ankle joints–both in terms of the number of bones present and the complex articulations among the constituent parts.

By the time we reach the mammals, five digits per limb has become the norm though many mammals then follow paths for the reduction of the number of effective digits in play. Moles and pandas evolve an extra sort-of adjunct digit from their wrists but do not (or cannot) create an additional digit.

…….. Is there really any good evidence that five, rather than, say, four or six, digits was biomechanically preferable for the common ancestor of modern tetrapods? The answer has to be “No,” in part because a whole range of tetrapods have reduced their numbers of digits further still. In addition, we lack any six-digit examples to investigate. This leads to the second part of the answer, which is to note that although digit numbers can be reduced, they very rarely increase. In a general sense this trait reflects the developmental-evolutionary rule that it is easier to lose something than it is to regain it. Even so, given the immensity of evolutionary time and the extraordinary variety of vertebrate bodies, the striking absence of truly six-digit limbs in today’s fauna highlights some sort of constraint. Moles’ paws and pandas’ thumbs are classic instances in which strangely re-modeled wrist bones serve as sixth digits and represent rather baroque solutions to the apparently straightforward task of growing an extra finger.

Five digits is apparently the result of evolutionary trial and error, but as with all things genetic, the selection process was probably selecting for something other than the number of digits. 

Science Focus

All land vertebrates today are descended from a common ancestor that had four legs, with five toes on each foot. This arrangement is known as the pentadactyl limb. Some species have subsequently fused these fingers into hooves or lost them altogether, but every mammal, bird, reptile and amphibian traces its family tree back to a pentadactyl ancestor that lived around 340 million years ago. Before, there were animals with six, seven and even eight toes on each foot, but they all went extinct at the end of the Devonian period, 360 million years ago. These other creatures were more aquatic than the pentadactyl animals. Evidence in the fossil record suggests that their ribs weren’t strong enough to support their lungs out of water and their shoulder and hip joints didn’t allow them to walk effectively on land. 

Five digits on our limbs are an evolutionary happenstance. There is nothing special that we can identify with being five. It could just as well have been six or seven or eight. That the number of digits on each limb are not unequal is also an evolutionary happenstance predating the tetrapods. It is more efficient genetically, when multiple limbs are needed, to duplicate the pattern (with some variations for mirror symmetry and for differences between paired sets). When each limb is to carry many digits it is more efficient to follow a base pattern and keep the necessary genetic variations to a minimum. 

By 280 million years ago, four limbs with five digits on each limb had become the base pattern for all land-based creatures and the stage was set for base 20. And then came bipedalism.

Why bipedalism?

Bipedalism is not uncommon among land creatures and even birds. Some dinosaurs exhibited bipedalism. Along the human ancestral line, bipedalism first shows up around 7 million years ago (Sahelanthropus). It may then have disappeared for a while and then appeared again around 4 million years ago in a more resilient form (Australopithecus) which has continued through till us. What actually drove us from the trees to bipedalism is a matter of many theories and much conjecture. Whatever the reasons the large brain evolved only in bipedal hominins who had a straightened spine, and who had maintained two limbs for locomotion while freeing up the other two for many other activities. The advantages of being able to carry things and throw things and shape things are considered the drivers for this development. And these two free limbs became the counting limbs.

It seems unlikely that a large brain could have developed in a creature which did not have some limbs freed from the tasks of locomotion. Locomotion itself and the preference for symmetry would have eliminated a three-limbed creature with just one free limb.

Two limbs for counting, rather than 3 of 4 or 4 of 4, is also happenstance. But it may be less accidental than the 4 limbs to begin with and the 5 digits on each limb. An accidental four limbs reduced inevitably to two counting limbs. Together with an accidental five digits they gave us base 10.

Other bases

1. Oksapmin, base-27 body part counting

The Oksapmin people of New Guinea have a base-27 counting system. The words for numbers are the words for the 27 body parts they use for counting, starting at the thumb of one hand, going up to the nose, then down the other side of the body to the pinky of the other hand …… . ‘One’ is tip^na (thumb), 6 is dopa (wrist), 12 is nata (ear), 16 is tan-nata (ear on the other side), all the way to 27, or tan-h^th^ta (pinky on the other side).

2. Tzotzil, base-20 body part counting

Tzotzil, a Mayan language spoken in Mexico, has a vigesimal, or base-20, counting system. ….. For numbers above 20, you refer to the digits of the next full man (vinik). ..

3. Yoruba, base-20 with subtraction

Yoruba, a Niger-Congo language spoken in West Africa, also has a base-20 system, but it is complicated by the fact that for each 10 numbers you advance, you add for the digits 1-4 and subtract for the digits 5-9. Fourteen (??rinlá) is 10+4 while 17 (eétàdílógún) is 20-3. So, combining base-20 and subtraction means 77 is …. (20×4)-3.

4. Traditional Welsh, base-20 with a pivot at 15

Though modern Welsh uses base-10 numbers, the traditional system was base-20, with the added twist of using 15 as a reference point. Once you advance by 15 (pymtheg) you add units to that number. So 16 is un ar bymtheg (one on 15), 36 is un ar bymtheg ar hugain (one on 15 on 20), and so on.

5. Alamblak, numbers built from 1, 2, 5, and 20

In Alamblak, a language of Papua New Guinea, there are only words for 1, 2, 5, and 20, and all other numbers are built out of those. So 14 is (5×2)+2+2, or tir hosfi hosfihosf, and 59 is (20×2)+(5x(2+1))+(2+2) or yima hosfi tir hosfirpati hosfihosf.

6. Ndom, base-6

Ndom, another language of Papua New Guinea, has a base-6, or senary number system. It has basic words for 6, 18, and 36 (mer, tondor, nif) and other numbers are built with reference to those. The number 25 is tondor abo mer abo sas (18+6+1), and 90 is nif thef abo tondor ((36×2)+18).

7. Huli, base-15

The Papua New Guinea language Huli uses a base-15, or pentadecimal system. Numbers which are multiples of 15 are simple words. Where the English word for 225 is quite long, the Huli word is ngui ngui, or 15 15. However 80 in Huli is ngui dau, ngui waragane-gonaga duria ((15×5)+the 5th member of the 6th 15).

8. Bukiyip, base-3 and base-4 together

In Bukiyip, another Papua New Guinea language also known as Mountain Arapesh, there are two counting systems, and which one you use depends on what you are counting. Coconuts, days, and fish are counted in base-3. Betel nuts, bananas, and shields are counted in base-4. The word anauwip means 6 in the base-3 system and 24 in the base-4 system!

9. Supyire, numbers built from 1, 5, 10, 20, 80, and 400

Supyire, a Niger-Congo language spoken in Mali has basic number words for 1, 5, 10, 20, 80 and 400, and builds the rest of the numbers from those. The word for 600 is kàmpwòò ná ?kwuu shuuní ná bééshùùnnì, or 400+(80×2)+(20×2)

10. Danish, forms some multiples of ten with fractions

Danish counting looks pretty familiar until you get to 50, and then things get weird with fractions. The number 50 is halvtreds, a shortening of halv tred sinds tyve (“half third times 20” or 2½x20). The number 70 is 3½x20, and 90 is 4½x20.

11. French, mix of base-10 and base-20

French uses base-10 counting until 70, at which point it transitions to a mixture with base-20. The number 70 is soixante-dix (60+10), 80 is quatre-vingts (4×20), and 90 is quatre-vingts-dix ((4×20)+10).

12. Nimbia, base-12

Even though, as the dozenalists claim, 12 is the best base mathematically, there are relatively few base-12 systems found in the world’s languages. In Nimbia, a dialect of the Gwandara language of Nigeria, multiples of 12 are the basic number words around which everything else is built. The number 29 is gume bi ni biyar ((12×2)+5), and 95 is gume bo’o ni kwada ((12×7)+11).

Flavouring the seasoning gave us the oldest profession

November 20, 2020

Once upon a time, a designated chef at an ancient hominin hearth demanded compensation for his culinary art and started the oldest profession. Cooking predates the oldest cave paintings and may well be the oldest human art form.

Preserving is unambiguous but salting is a word that is rarely used anymore. The distinction in language between seasoning and flavouring is not so much ambiguous as wishful thinking. Theoretically, seasoning is considered the use of additives which allegedly enhance existing flavours, whereas flavouring adds different flavours. In practice this is a nonsense distinction. We have our five or possibly seven basic taste receptors (sweet, sour, bitter, salty, umami and maybe pungency and a fatty richness) and our olfactory receptors which can distinguish a myriad smells.

Five basic tastes – sweet, sour, bitter, salty and umami (savory) are universally recognized, although some cultures also include pungency and oleogustus (“fattiness”). The number of food smells is unbounded; a food’s flavor, therefore, can be easily altered by changing its smell while keeping its taste similar.

Any particular flavour we perceive in our brains is then due to a particular combination of activated taste and smell receptors together. With a change in sufficient activated taste or smell receptors our brains recognize a change in flavour. Generally seasoning involves salt (always) and sometimes some pepper and acidic matter (lime, vinegar, ….). Flavouring is considered predominantly to be through the use of herbs and spices. However, the difference between seasoned and unseasoned is a difference of perceived flavour in our brains. No self-respecting chef will ever admit that seasoning is merely a sub-set of flavouring, but even chefs must be allowed their self aggrandizement.  It is entirely false that proper seasoning cannot be tasted. A lack of salt is perceived when there is a lack of an expected activation of salt receptors. Adding salt always changes the combination of activated receptors and is always a change of flavour. Cook books generally perpetuate the misconceptions.

Canadian Baker 

Many ingredients are used to enhance the taste of foods. These ingredients can be used to provide both seasoning and flavouring.

  • Seasoning means to bring out or intensify the natural flavour of the food without changing it. Seasonings are usually added near the end of the cooking period. The most common seasonings are salt, pepper, and acids (such as lemon juice). When seasonings are used properly, they cannot be tasted; their job is to heighten the flavours of the original ingredients.
  • Flavouring refers to something that changes or modifies the original flavour of the food. Flavouring can be used to contrast a taste such as adding liqueur to a dessert where both the added flavour and the original flavour are perceptible. Or flavourings can be used to create a unique flavour in which it is difficult to discern what the separate flavourings are. 

Seasoning is always about changing perceived flavour and is a particular sub-set of flavouring. The story that seasoning originates with food preservation through the use of salt, whereas the use of herbs and spices for flavouring derives from when hunter-gatherers wrapped food in aromatic leaves for transport is plausible but little more than speculation.  Salt is inorganic and is not considered a spice but is the major ingredient for seasoning as opposed to flavouring. Herbs and spices are always organic and plant-based. (The proposed use of crushed insects as flavouring can safely be ignored. The use of cochineal insects – E120 – to give a carmine food colouring is not relevant.) Yet the manner we use small quantities of salt with foods is much too similar to the manner we use small quantities of herbs and spices not to have been the role-model and the precursor for the culinary use of herbs and spices.

Though this history is as presented by a purveyor of spices, it is both informative and credible.

History of Spices 

Abundant anecdotal information documents the historical use of herbs and spices for their health benefits. Early documentation suggests that hunters and gatherers wrapped meat in the leaves of bushes, accidentally discovering that this process enhanced the taste of the meat, as did certain nuts, seeds, berries, and bark. Over the years, spices and herbs were used for medicinal purposes. Spices and herbs were also used as a way to mask unpleasant tastes and odors of food, and later, to keep food fresh. Ancient civilizations did not distinguish between those spices and herbs used for flavoring from those used for medicinal purposes. When leaves, seeds, roots, or gums had a pleasant taste or agreeable odor, it became in demand and gradually became a norm for that culture as a condiment.

Our taste receptors did not evolve for the purposes of culinary pleasure. Bitterness detection is clearly a defense mechanism. Most animals reject bitter foods as a defense against toxins and poisons. All animals need salt. Mammal brains are designed to prevent a debilitating lack of sodium and have evolved the detection of saltiness as a tool. A craving for salty food has been shown to emerge spontaneously (and not as learned behaviour) with sodium deficiency. This has been shown to apply to many animals including sheep, elephants, moose, and primates who seek out salty food when suffering sodium deficiency. It is very likely that the capability to detect sweetness has also evolved as a way of urgently seeking energy rich foods. Exactly how or why it became important to detect sourness or umaminess is in the realm of speculationVegetarian food contains less salt than meat or fish. Our primate ancestors were mainly vegetarian and, like primates today, would have resorted to eating pith and rotting wood to counter sodium deficiencies. 

Hunger for salt

When multicellular organisms evolved and crawled up the beaches to dry land, they had to take the seawater with them in the blood and other body fluids. The mineral content of human blood plasma today is still much like that of the seas of the Precambrian era in which life arose. …..  And the ancestors of man for at least 25 million of the last 30 million years were almost certainly vegetarians, and therefore got little salt in their diets because most plants store little salt. To compensate for the scarcity of a substance vital to life, the brains of our ancestors and those of other mammals developed powerful strategies for getting and keeping salt. Inborn, Not Learned.

….. sudden improvement after one copious salt meal may also help explain the ritual acts of cannibalism once practiced by tribes in the Amazon jungles, the highland regions of New Guinea and elsewhere. Sometimes the body of a fallen foe was eaten in a final act of triumph and to absorb magically the strength of the defeated enemy. In other cultures, bones or other parts of a departed relative were eaten as a final act of devotion and also to gain back the strength of the dead person.

There are those who suggest that human use of salt as seasoning (as opposed to for preservation) only took off in the Neolithic after the advent of agriculture and our diet became more vegetarian. I don’t find this theory entirely plausible. Before hominins and bipedalism (c. 4 million years ago) our ancestors were primarily vegetarian. Meat eating became more prevalent once bipedalism led to a more actively predatory life-style as hunter gatherers. With more meat, diet now included larger amounts of salt and detection of saltiness was needed less for survival and could be diverted to culinary aesthetics. The control of fire appears around 2 million years ago and coincides roughly with a shift to eating cooked meats and the rapid (in evolutionary terms) increase of hominin brain size. I can well imagine a hominin individual – perhaps even a Neanderthal – designated as the chef for the day and being berated for lack of seasoning with the grilled mammoth steak.

In my story, the use of salt with cooked food as seasoning and to enhance flavour must go back – perhaps a million years – to our hunter-gatherer forbears who had shifted to a meat-rich diet.  It is thus my contention that it is this shift to cooked meat which released our flavour receptors from survival tasks and enabled them to be diverted to culinary aesthetics. Even the use of herbs and spices comes well before the Neolithic agricultural revolution (around 12,000 years ago). Herbs and spices being organic do not survive long and are very rare in the archaeological record. However, pots from about 25,000 years ago containing residues of cumin and coriander have been found. The theory that hunter-gatherers packaged meats for travel in large leaves and added – by trial and error – other plant-based preservatives or flavourings, is not implausible. The medicinal use of herbs and spices must also have been discovered around this time. In any event, even the first use of herbs and spices purely for flavouring must go back at least 50,000 years. Though diet must have included more vegetarian food after the advent of agriculture, the culinary arts of seasoning and flavouring had already been well established before the Neolithic. By the time we come to the ancient civilizations of 7 – 8,000 years ago, more than 100 herbs and spices were known and regularly used.

Whether first for food-wrapping or for medicinal use or for use as preservatives, the use of salt and herbs and spices entirely and specifically to make food taste better marks the beginning of the culinary art. No doubt there were many cases of trial and accident and failures and error. The failed attempts did not make it to the stories of spices though some are now probably included in the history of poisons. There is a case to be made for the culinary profession to be considered the oldest in the world.

image univ of minnesota

Why humans chose the 7-day week

November 17, 2020

It was another Sunday but, being retired and in these Corona-times, the days of the week are merging into each other and are difficult to tell apart. My thoughts turned, again, to when and how and why the seven-day week was invented. While the primary purpose of the “week” today is to define a recurring separation between days of rest and days of labour, the week is also used to organise many other recurring human activities. It occurs to me that the reasons for inventing an artificial, recurring period of a few days, shorter than a month, must be based on

  1. the occurrence of periodic and repetitive human activity within a society, and
  2. the need to organise and plan such activity

Both these requirements precede, I think, the choice of 5 or 10 or 6 or 7 days as the length of the period. The need to have a period shorter than a month must come before the choice of length of period. The most important function of the period is now to identify periodic days of “rest” from days of labour. It seems that even in prehistory, in predominantly agricultural communities, this separation of days of rest from days of labour was important. In the past, rest-days were often also days of regular and organised worship. Social traditions built up around these periods (meeting family and friends and congregations of society members). Working practices during industrialisation adapted to weekly cycles. Organised sport today depends existentially upon the regular, repeating days of “leisure”. If the length of this period, as a sub-period of the lunar cycle, were to be chosen today we would be faced with the same limited choices that humans faced perhaps 12,000 years ago. The practical choice lies only between 2, 3, 4, 5 or 6 sub-periods of the month, giving respectively weeks of 14/15, 10, 7, 6 or 5 days. (The Romans, for a while, used an 8-day week, but such a week is out of step with months, seasons and years. An 8-day week has nothing to recommend it). The days within each period needed to be identified separately so that tasks could be allocated to specific days. It is probably just the difficulty of remembering 14 or 15 specific weekdays which eliminated the choice of half-monthly weeks. It would have been entirely logical to choose 10 days in a week (and would have had the added advantage of very easily naming the days after numbers). A 5-day week would also have had a natural logic. In fact, 5-day and 10-day weeks have been attempted at various times but have not caught on. For some reason(s) the 7-day week has been the most resilient and now its global domination is unchallenged. But the compelling reasons for choosing seven day periods are lost in the mists of history.

A quick search revealed that I had written about this 7 years ago:

Another Sunday, another week — but why?

There are no discernible periodicities that we have been able to find outside ourselves which take 7 days. There are no periodicities within ourselves either that are 7 days or multiples of 7 days.  There are no celestial or astronomical cycles in tune with 7 days. There are no movements of the sun or the moon or the stars that give rise to a 7-day period. There are no weather or climate phenomena that repeat with a 7-day period. There are no human behavioural patterns that dance to a 7-day tune. There are no living things that have a 7-day life cycle. (There is a branch of pseudoscience which claims that living cells may be associated with a weekly or a half-weekly cycle – a circaseptan or a circasemiseptan rythm – but this is still in the realms of fantasy).

It would seem logical that our ancestors must have first noted the daily cycle long before they were even recognisable as human.  As humans they probably then noted the lunar cycle of about 29 days and the yearly cycle of about 365 days. Our distant ancestors would also have noted that the period of the yearly cycle was a little more than 12 lunar cycles. By about 35,000 years ago we have evidence that the lunar cycle was known and was being tracked. This evidence is in the form of a tally stick with 29 marks – the Lebombo bone.

The invention of the seven-day week can best be dated to be at least 5,000 years ago to the time of the Babylonians. It was certainly long before the Old Testament came to be written to fit with the 7-day week which had already been invented and established. The story goes that

the seven-day week was actually invented by the Assyrians, or by Sargon I (King of Akkad at around 2350 B.C.), passed on to the Babylonians, who then passed it on to the Jews during their captivity in Babylon around 600 B.C.  The ancient Romans used the eight-day week, but after the adoption of the Julian calendar in the time of Agustus, the seven-day week came into use in the Roman world. For a while, both the seven and eight day weeks coexisted in the Roman world, but by the time Constantine decided to Christianize the Roman world (around A.D. 321) the eight-day weekly cycle had fallen out of use in favor of the more popular seven-day week.

The idea that the 7-days originates from a division of the lunar cycle into 4 seems improbable. The lunar cycle (synodic period) is 29.5305882 days long. Three weeks of 10 days each or five 6 day weeks would fit better. That the annual cycle of 365.2425 days comes to dominate is not so surprising. Our calendar months are now attuned to the annual cycle and have no direct connection to the lunar cycle. But it is our 7 – day weeks which remain fixed. We adjust the length of our months and have exactly 365 days for each of our  normal years. We then add an extra day every 4 years  but omit 3 such extra days in every 400 years to cover the error. We make our adjustments by adding a day to the month of February for the identified leap years but we do not mess with the 7 days of the week.

It is far more likely that the 7 days comes from the seven celestial objects visible to the naked eye from earth and probably known to man some 5,000 to 10,000 years ago. They were familiar with the Sun, the Moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus, and Saturn by then. Naturally each was a god in his own heaven and had to have a day dedicated just to him/her/it. The same 7 celestial objects are used for the days of the week not only in the Greek/Roman Western tradition, but also in Indian astrology. The Chinese /East Asian tradition uses the Sun, Moon, Fire, Water, Wood, Gold and Earth to name the seven days of the week. But this must have come after the 7 day week had already been established elsewhere. (For example, to name up to 10 days they could just have chosen to add days named for the Air, Beasts, Birds ….). Some languages use a numbering system and some use a mixture of all of the above. Rationalists and philosophers and dreamers have tried to shift to 5 and 6, and 8 and 10 day weeks but none of these efforts has managed to challenge the practicality or to dislodge the dominance of the seven-day week.

And now the whole world lives and marches – socially, culturally, politically – to the inexorable beat of the 7-day week.

The seven-day week must have started earlier than 5,000 years ago. We must distinguish, I think, between the need for first having such a period and then the selection of the number of days in such a period. The invention of names must have come after the selection of the number of days. The 7-day period must already have been in use before the Sumerians and the Babylonians got around to naming the days.

The need for such a period must have come in the Neolithic (c. 12,000 years ago) and after the advent of settlements with substantial populations (cities). Human hunter-gatherers (and even their forebears) would have followed the annual cycles and the seasons and would have been subject to the vagaries of weather. The availability of moonlight and the lunar cycle would have been important and well observed and was something well known by 50,000 years ago. But hunter-gatherers with their semi-nomadic life style lived in small groups of perhaps 30 or 40 and conceivably up to a hundred people. There would have been no great need for such groups to invent a sub-period of a season or a lunar cycle. The numbers would not have been large enough to warrant the invention of a “week” to help organise repetitive tasks. 

The Neolithic brought population density and specialisation. Carpenters and masons and spinners and weavers performed their specialities for many different projects simultaneously. The need to combine different specialist functions towards a goal was the new model of cooperation. Houses had to be built using a variety of specialists. Their labour needed to be planned and coordinated. I can imagine that the need to be able to plan work from different sources for the same day became critical. To be able to tell everyone to do something on a Thursday needed the Thursday to be invented. 

It seems obvious that increasing population density and specialisation generates the need for defining a “week”. But it does not answer the question of why 7 days? I can only speculate that human physiology comes into play. Physiology and nutrition of the time must have determined that labouring for 9 days of 10 was too much for the human frame and that resting one day in 5 was considered too idle. (Of course, nowadays with 2 rest days in 7 there is far more leisure time than with 1 in 5). I speculate also that the choice of an odd number of days (7) rather than six days comes from a need to define a mid-week day. I suspect the priests of that time had to have their say and therefore the day of rest was hijacked for worship and support of their temples. They probably could not overrule the economic necessities of the time and take over any of the other six days of labour. They still had a go, though, by naming some of the other days after their gods.

Perhaps the choice of 7 days was the first example of implementation of workers’ demands.

Histories are always about justifying something in the present

November 8, 2020

Hardly a day goes by where I do not consider the origin of something. On some days I may ponder the origin of hundreds of things. It could be just curiosity or it could be to justify some current action or to decide upon some future action. Sometimes it is the etymology of a word or it could be the origins of an idea. It could be the story of what happened yesterday or something about my father or a thought about the origins of time. I know that when I seek the history of a place or a thing or a person, that what I get is just a story. In every case the story inevitably carries the biases of the story-teller. However, most stories are constrained by “evidence” though the point of the story may well lie in the narrative (inevitably biased) connecting the points of evidence.

The same evidence can generate as many stories as there are story-tellers. Often the narrative between sparse evidence forms the bulk of the story. When the past is being called upon to justify current or future actions, histories are invented and reinvented by playing with the narrative which lies between the evidence. Of course, the narrative cannot contain what is contradicted by the evidence. Human memory is always perception and perception itself is imperfect and varies. I know that the story I tell of some event in my own history changes with time. Thus the “history” I tell of all that lies between the “recorded facts” of my own existence is a variable and is a function of the “now”. It is experience and knowledge of the world and the people around us which provides the credibility for the stories which lie between the evidence. But bias plays its role here as well. A desired story-line is always more credible than one which is not.

A historian looks for the events which, incontrovertibly, took place. The further back events lie in the past the less evidence survives. But histories are never merely a tabulation of events with evidence (though even what constitutes incontrovertible evidence is not without controversy). The more there is evidence the more constrained is the inter-connecting narrative. But historians make their reputations on the stories they tell. Their histories are always a combination of evidenced events and the narrative connecting them. Historian bias is inevitable.

I have been writing a story – hardly a history – about my father’s early life and through the Second World War. For a period covering some 20 years I have documented evidence for about 30 separate events – dates when certain events occurred. The date he graduated, the date he joined up, the date he was promoted or the date he arrived somewhere. The documented events are, like all documented events, just events. If not this set of events then it would have been some other similar set of events. If not these particular dates then some other set of dates. The events are always silent about what his mood was or what he had for breakfast on the day of the event. They provide a fixed frame but the overwhelming bulk of my story is speculation about why and how he went from one event to the next. The story fits my understanding of how he was much later in his life. My story about his motivations and his behaviour are entirely speculation but always fit my central story-line. The documented events are just the bones on which to hang the flesh of my story. My story is not determined by the events. It is determined elsewhere but has to conform to the events.

Go back a little under 1,000 years and consider Genghis Khan. We have documentary evidence about the date he died but even his date of birth is speculation. Current histories vary according to whether the historian desires to describe a hero or a villain. Both can be hung upon the framework provided by the few documented events available. Go back another 1,000 years and even with the large (relatively) amount of evidence available about the Roman Empire, the range of speculation possible can justify the politics of any contemporary viewpoint.

And so it is with all histories. We claim that histories help us to understand the past and that this, in turn, helps us to choose our future actions. I am not so sure. The power of a history lies in the credibility of the narrative connecting the certain events. As with the story about my father, a history is not a narrative determined by the events. The narrative is determined by other imperatives but must conform to the events. I begin to think that we write (and rewrite) our histories, always in the present, and with our present understandings, to justify where we are or the choices we want to make. They are always a justification of something in the present.

History is a variable

September 30, 2020

Why do so many spend so much time in rewriting history?

Because, of course, history is not the immutable past but only ever a story. And rewriting and retelling stories to suit our current purposes is what we do.

Present misery is compensated for by wallowing in stories of past glories. Present failures are blamed on stories of past oppression. Present incompetence is attributed to stories of past suffering. Present stupidity is excused by stories of past undernourishment. Present duplicity is defended by stories of past exploitation. Present criminality is justified by stories of past deprivation. Present depravity is condoned by stories of past repression.


Oxford Medieval Mysteries by Ann Swinfen

September 2, 2020

I only discovered the Oxford Medieval Mysteries by Ann Swinfen sometime last year. There are six books and I devoured the series. I found the mystery tales centered around a Medieval book seller wonderfully evocative. Of course what they evoke is only a picture of what it might have been like after the Black Death. The six books comprising the Oxford Medieval Mysteries, are set in the fourteenth century and recount the tales of bookseller (and book producer) Nicholas Elyot in the days before printing. He is a young widower with two small children, and is faced by murder and dastardly deeds in the troubled world around Oxford University traumatized by the Black Death. I found the detailed picture of everyday life very well researched and remarkably convincing. Ann Swinfen was a mathematician, a historian and an author. Perhaps it was that combination which makes her tales so believable.

I was eagerly looking forward  to there being a seventh in the series but have just found out that Ann Swinfen died 2 years ago. 

A strange sense of disappointment and of great loss.

Dr. Ann Swinfen (b. 1937 – d. 2018) 

Ann Swinfen spent her childhood partly in England and partly on the east coast of America. She was educated at Somerville College, Oxford, where she read Classics and Mathematics and married a fellow undergraduate, the historian David Swinfen. While bringing up their five children and studying for a postgraduate MSc in Mathematics and a BA and PhD in English Literature, she had a variety of jobs, including university lecturer, translator, freelance journalist and software designer. She served for nine years on the governing council of the Open University and for five years worked as a manager and editor in the technical author division of an international computer company, but gave up her full-time job to concentrate on her writing, while continuing part-time university teaching in English Literature. In 1995 she founded Dundee Book Events, a voluntary organisation promoting books and authors to the general public, which ran for fifteen years. ….. 

Her blog now seems to have been discontinued but from the parts that I have seen, her research into medieval life seems meticulous. This is an extract from a post she wrote just a month before she died.

Medieval Books

Until Nicholas Elyot, bookseller in fourteenth century Oxford, walked into my life, I had no more than a hazy knowledge of medieval books. The general impression I had gained, like most other people (I would guess), was that medieval books were limited in number, restricted as to contents, and confined to religious institutions and a very few royal and aristocratic houses.

Part of the problem lies in the terminology. ‘Medieval’ is a loosely defined term at the best of times, equivalent to ‘pertaining to the Middle Ages’, which can be extended to cover all the centuries from the end of the Roman Empire to the dawn of early modern Europe, another imprecise date. However, for our purposes, let us take it as beginning in England with the Norman Conquest and petering out in the Tudor period. As the new technology of printing was introduced toward the end of this period, in the late fifteenth century, I am interested in looking at medieval books before printing, the kind of books Nicholas sold and, increasingly, produced. 

It is clear from the sheer numbers of exquisite medieval books which still survive in libraries, museums, and private collections that this is but the proverbial tip of the iceberg. If we take into account the destruction wreaked by time, mice, damp, insects, and the savage attacks by zealots like Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell in England and Savonarola in Italy, the original number of medieval books must have been much, much greater than those which survive. The number was not so limited after all. Accustomed as we are to modern printing, it is difficult for us to grasp that every one of these books was handwritten, but a monastic scribe or a secular scrivener, working day after day, could produce a remarkable amount of work. 

The content of medieval books covered a very wide range. In the first place, we can easily divide them into two main groups – those intended as practical and business records and those intended for scholarly or leisure reading. The former group includes all those manorial records which are full of fascinating details about the buying and selling of land, rents, the employment of servants, crops, game, household expenses (three yards of silk for a christening gown, twenty hogsheads of canary wine…) and the like. It also includes the chartularies of the monastic houses which may cover similar details but more particularly the gifts of benefactors and the rights and privileges of the institution. The surviving records of government run to thousands and thousands. As time passed and the merchant class expanded and grew rich, their businesses required detailed record keeping as well. Many of these are not ‘books’ as we would recognise them, for they were more conveniently kept as scrolls, so that additional pieces could be sewn on as required. …….. 

I am trying to retrieve more of her posts but that will have to wait for another day.


Mark Pillai

August 11, 2020

He would have been 109 today.

He was the first Allied officer (the first of only five) to escape from being a Japanese prisoner-of-war and successfully return to India. He left Singapore on 7th May 1942 and managed to reach India on 26th August 1942.

Mark Pillai 11.08.1911 – 07.06.1988


First Allied officer to escape from Japanese POW camp after fall of Singapore in 1942

I wrote this 3 years ago.


75 years since the bombs ended the war with Japan

August 9, 2020

It is 75 years since the nuclear bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the war with Japan ended in 1945.

There are many among the politically correct and the sanctimonious who are busy trying to revise history and like to fantasize that Japan may have surrendered without the bombs being used. Emperor Hirohito was totally opposed to surrender before the bombs and was reluctant after the first bomb. He was persuaded only after the second. Even that was opposed by the military who tried, but failed, in an attempted coup to avoid surrendering. Without the use of the bombs the earliest Japanese surrender would have been in spring 1947, and that too only after the destruction of their 1946 rice harvest. Without a rice famine in 1946 the Japanese “fight to the last” attitude could have prolonged the war till 1948.

The politically incorrect reality is that the use of the bombs did bring the war to an end. The expression of superior force is still the only effective way of ending armed conflicts.


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