20 Questions

Posted in: Comment, New Publications

I've bought a "vegan nail brush" from a "leading British lifestyle brand" made with "pure cactus bristle" – Agave sisalana – from Mexico with a FSC birch base.  The alternative was plastic so I took the plunge.  It's very nice.  But, given that I cannot eat it, is it hardly vegan.  As the packaging (fully recyclable) says it was made in China, those bristles have travelled a long way to get to me.  Maybe I should have bought a British plastic one instead.  Questions, Questions, ... .

Writing this about the brush took my mind back to the BBC's Twenty Questions which I listened to on the radio in my youth.  I remember that each mystery word or phrase was given an animal / vegetable / mineral / abstract label and then the panel, supposedly working together, has 20 attempts (by asking questions) to identify it.  The one who knows the answer responds with yes / no answers until the object is identified or the questions run out.  I recall – or think I do – taking part in a game at my primary school where I did spectacularly badly.  I read that Lord Palmerston invented the game.

NatureScot, Scotland’s nature agency, with the ok from a Green government minister had done a deal with private finance out of the public and parliamentary gaze for landscape scale restoration of native woodland.  This will, according to a press release, "create new jobs and support rural communities across all parts of Scotland”.  It could be worth up to £2bn we're told.  But to whom is not clear  And is this just tree planting?  No one knows.  Audit Scotland, a budget watchdog, noted this in its recent annual report on the Scottish government: "In the absence of defined, measurable targets, it is difficult for the reader to assess whether [or not] the national outcomes are being achieved".  I read that quite a lot of Scottish tax-payers think that they know the answer to that question.

Sir Keir Starmer has outlined 5 missions for the Labour Party.  The fifth mission, with a focus on education, seeks to ‘break down the barriers to opportunity at every stage, for every child, by reforming the childcare and education systems, raising standards everywhere, and preparing young people for work and life”.  I know that many people and organisations are investing a lot of hope in the idea that this will include a greater focus than now on climate / environmental / sustainability / global / etc / education.  So far, apart from warm words over coffee 'n' croissants with the greener elements of Labour politics, there is little to say that will be the case.  I'll begin to think it might happen when Bridget Phillipson, Labour's shadow education lead, starts criticising the government's many failures to do much about all this.  The nearest I've come across to her even getting close to the question is this, but it just looks like a constituency visit where there was an opportunity for pictures with children.

The best article I have read this week was a book review by Alexander Masters in the Spectator.  The book – On the Origin of Time: my journey with Stephen Hawking into the big bang – is by Thomas Herzog.  It is, according to Masters, "wonderful" and has a section on 20 questions, but not the BBC kind.  In this game, invented by John Wheeler, the identity of the object "emerges".  This is what Masters wrote about Wheeler:

"He was shy, conventional, soft-spoken and looked like Richard Nixon’s honest brother. But even the famously eccentric Richard Feynman thought ‘this guy sounds crazy. He has always sounded crazy’.  Crazy Wheeler’s game is the same as 20 Questions, with a twist. In Wheeler’s version, one person asks everyone else in the room ... questions to try to work out the word ... – only they have not agreed on a word. They answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’ as they please, at random if they like. The only condition is that each answer must be compatible with all the previous ones. The game will produce a word, but it will be forced into existence by whimsy. This is the nearest you can come to knowing what it feels like to be inside quantum theory. The questions are experiments; the yes/no answers observations; the narrowing down on the unknown word, the collapse of the fantastical ‘I’m a bit of everything’ quantum wave into the cold fact of reality. Wheeler’s twist takes the game out of the Victorian parlour and plunges it back 90 billion years, into the inferno of post-Big Bang inflation, when the quantum state wave function of the universe first froze into the laws of physics."

Can't wait for my birthday.

Posted in: Comment, New Publications


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