Seen and Heard

by Brian Steel

In the daily bombardment from the print and screen media, readers and listeners are faced with a vast collection of reported items (often arranged in a hierarchy chosen by editors, from the more prominent and longer items to others of varying lengths and visibility). Our eyes and ears, while mainly following the main path of the prominent news and op-ed items, may occasionally pause, for a variety of reasons, on specific minor points or on the shorter pieces of ballast, which also abound in today’s magazines, jumbo-sized newspapers and radio and TV programmes, as well as in the Internet universe.

From time to time, some of these serendipitous media items which have caught my attention will be shared on this blog along with other fleetingly ‘arresting’ points from books read.

*[I regret the repeated appearance of the sinister-looking emoticon which replaces the typed number 8. It seems to be a fault in the Word Press system and is therefore beyond my control.]

1. In 2002 a dramatic short news item described a “strangelet”: “the size of a blood cell, weighs about a tonne and flies through outer space at up to 1.5 million kmh [km/h]. Scientists believe that in 1993 two strangelets hit the earth, causing earthquakes. The first landed in October, entering near Antarctica and exiting south of India 27 seconds later. In the following month another hit the Pacific Ocean and left via Antarctica 19 seconds later. A Strangelet Anxiety Support Group has already been established in California for all those concerned about when, and where, the next strangelet will strike. […]”

(The Age, Melbourne, Australia, 19 May 2002)

Contemporary scientists are more circumspect in describing strangelets and the two claims above do not appear to have prospered. Here is a part of Michael Anissimov’s description:

Though the existence of strangelets has not yet been proven conclusively, there exist observed stars too dense to be conventional neutron stars yet too sparse to be black holes (i.e., they possess volume). Also, strangelets have been blamed for unexplained seismic events. If a small strangelet penetrated the Earth at relativistic speeds, it would indeed perturb ordinary matter, though to exactly what degree has not yet been established in a consensus among the physics community. Similar to the neutrino before its detection in 1956, the strangelet remains a theoretical construct until we develop instruments fine enough to either verify or disprove their existence.” (

2. A 3.6 metre 27 kilogram pet Burmese python had to undergo surgery in Ketchum, Idaho, after swallowing an electric blanket, complete with cord and control box. The operation took two hours (and a 46 centimetre incision) but the prognosis was reported as good. The owner, who had thoughtfully provided the python with the electric blanket, explained that the blanket must have become tangled up in his pet’s rabbit dinner. The pair had been together for 16 years. (The Age, Melbourne, Australia, 21 July 2006, from Associated Press)

3. A driver in Australia’s remote northern Outback was fined $750 for using a seatbelt to buckle up his ‘slab’ [24 small bottles] of beer but omitting to fasten a belt on his 5-year-old son who was sitting beside the slab. (The Australian, 14 May 2008)

4. In a prominent article on a train crash in China, Rowan Callick offers these statistics: “About 8000 people die every year in rail accidents in China, compared with about 75,000 on the roads.” (The Australian, 29 April 2008)

At first sight, these figures are horrendous, almost beyond belief. If, however, a quick ‘ready reckoner’ comparison with other countries is made, the figures, though still horrendous, appear to be ‘normal’. Closer attention reveals that the raw figures do not tell the whole story.

If we assume that China has approximately 1 billion 200 million inhabitants (1,200,000,000), and that the present European Union has about half a billion (with UK and France claiming c. 60 million apiece – each one twentieth of the Chinese population), then China has approximately two and a half times times the population of the European Union. According to rough statistics for recent years, the overall European rate of road deaths per million inhabitants seems to be 120. By comparison, China’s toll, as quoted above, works out at 62 road fatalities for each million inhabitants. However, the true present picture as well as the outlook for future years are skewed by the following facts:

– individual European countries have from between 55 fatalities per million inhabitants (UK) and 88 (France) to over 100 (the new Baltic members, and others)

– the EU is conducting a vigorous campaign to bring down the fatalities by 50% before 2010 (i.e. from 38,600 in 2006 to 25,000)

– present Chinese statistics are based on a much lower percentage of car owners than in the EU, and that percentage will continue to increase rapidly in the current Chinese boom economy, inevitably bringing a much higher road toll in China.

5. TIME Magazine currently offers its busy weekly readers a few pages of news snippets, sound bites and (extraordinary) statistics. In its issue for 12 May 2008, having given a 64% statistic for U.S. teenagers who use informal text-message slang in their schoolwork, TIME informs us that the odds of being killed by a shark are 1 in 280 million, apparently on the simple mathematical basis that an average of only six people are killed by shark attacks. (But this seems unduly alarming for TIME subscribers in landlocked countries like Switzerland or Bolivia, or perhaps even Icelanders. A more sobering statistic on the same page is the following one: Humans kill 26 million sharks each year.) (TIME Magazine, 12 May 2008)

6. A Japanese researcher has invented a machine to measure laughter. His finding, using his new laughter unit of an “aH”, is that children’s laughter is twice as free as that of (uptight) adults, who “tend to calculate whether it’s appropriate to laugh”. (The Australian, 25 February 2008)
(It is a great pity that “Ha” was not available as the name of this unit of laughter, due to its prior use as an abbreviation for ‘hectare’.)

7. A sign of the times:

Only nine men were ordained as [Catholic] priests in Ireland last year.

(Paul Johnson, The Spectator, 29 March 2008)

8. From books read:

Advice to the military from The Oriental Interpreter and Treasury of East India Knowledge, by J.H. Stocqueler, Esq., London, C. Cox, [c. 1850]: “Hints to persons proceeding to India”

Necessary Equipments for Infantry and Cavalry Cadets and Assistant-Surgeons , by Ship.

[Please imagine 2 columns below!]

Forty-eight pairs cotton socks . One leather dressing-case.

Twelve pairs woollen socks. Six toothbrushes, good.

Sixty shirts. Two hair-brushes.

Twenty-four Thresher’s gauze waistcoats. Two nail-brushes.

Eighteen pairs calico drawers. Two combs.

Two pairs flannel drawers. Two large sponges.

Forty-eight pocket handkerchiefs. Bag, with needles, buttons, &c.

… [That is 30% of the first list. Then comes:]

Military Clothing, &c., for a Cavalry Cadet.

Blue cloth frock coat. Set of undress belts, viz.—pouch belt, waist belt, sabretasche, &c.

Undress jacket. Barrel sash; (if for Bengal: a gold girdle)

Undress chaco. Pair plated scales.

Foraging cap, silver band. Four military stocks.

Cavalry sword. Cavalry cloak.

Sword knot.

Leather sword knot.

PS: Strong candidate for the least tasteful Australian book title for the first half of 2008: “I Peed on Fellini” (written by an Australian film critic).

Note: The following article is well worth a wider audience: Rod Liddle, ‘I have worked out how we can win the Eurovision Song Contest next year’, The Spectator, 28 May 2008

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