29 June, 2003: Another miscellany

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I've been away for a while and haven't written anything here. So here are a few `memes and schemes' which have come up in conversation:

Penguin mating rituals

This came up in the pub, roughly like this:

It's difficult to distinguish male from female penguins. Even penguins find this hard. So, when a male penguin wishes to find a mate, he obtains a pebble like a penguin egg, and gives it to a candidate female penguin, to see whether `she' steps forward to keep it warm. If she doesn't, then she's probably a he (or not interested) and our hero looks for another target.

Supposedly this was investigated by a zoologist who hung around a penguin colony photographing penguins and making notes. Towards the end of the day he noticed that he was standing in an enormous pile of pebbles....

This is partly true. Only Adelie penguins -- named for the wife of explorer Dumont d'Urville -- do this, and it's only partly so that the male can figure out the gender of his intended.

There's a useful account at the -- frankly, weird -- Museum of Conceptual Art:

Next, offer your prospective female a well-chosen pebble, preferably a shiny, multi-faceted one costing a wing and a flipper. If she accepts this as a token of your affection, the match is on. (If not, you may have picked an unready female or even another male, a common mistake.)

Actual biologists write in a more sober fashion:

The giving of pebbles to the female by the male is part of the nesting courtship.

And Hollywood will turn anything into a motion picture, The Pebble and the Penguin -- not one of its finest:

Plot summary: A lovable but introverted penguin named Hubie plans to present his betrothal pebble to the bird of his dreams.

User comments: Would it surprise you that my ears and eyes almost bled from watching and listening to this awful movie? ....

No news on the researcher finding himself ankle-deep in gravel, though.

Jaffa Cakes

Another (sub)urban legend: Jaffa Cakes are cakes, as the name suggests and contrary to the claims of HM Customs and Excise, who argued that they were biscuits. This was not an exercise in pedantry but an attempt to levy VAT on them: cakes are `food' and zero rated, while biscuits are `luxury items', and attract 17.5% tax. (Note that the McVities Jaffa Cake web site calls them `biscuits' anyway....)

The matter was settled with this test: a cake starts off soft and goes hard when it is stale, but a biscuit starts off hard and goes soft when stale. Jaffa Cakes harden when stale.

I can't find a proper report of the case, but it's consistently described on the web and I'm happy that the above is right. For instance, from reader correspondence at silicon.com,

The matter was settled over ten years ago by a VAT tribunal in a very expensive case. McVities argued that they were indeed cakes (and hence zero-rated for VAT), while HM Customs and Excise argued that they were biscuits and hence subject to 17.5 per cent VAT. McVities won the case, primarily because biscuits are hard when fresh and soft when stale whereas cakes are soft when fresh and hard when stale; Jaffa Cakes, of course, fall into the latter category. I have a recollection that McVities also baked a cake-sized Jaffa Cake for the tribunal chairman to support their legal arguments. God, I should get out more...

Or, from the South China Morning Post,

Chocolate biscuits are defined as luxury items, so liable to the tax, while cakes are basic foodstuffs and zero-rated. McVities argued that a Jaffa Cake is just that.

The famous case ended up centring on how Jaffa Cakes aged. The firm argued that a biscuit was hard when fresh and soft when stale. Jaffa Cakes, in contrast, went from soft to hard. The company won.

Or, from solicitors Clifton Ingram,

The `when is a cake not a cake?' riddle was solved some years ago and related to Jaffa Cakes. A Jaffa Cake was found to be a cake, not a biscuit, and therefore outside the confectionery exception.

And, irrelevantly... there I was thinking that `Suburban Legends' would make a great name for a band -- and it turns out, it already is! You can listen to their music at MP3.com. If I try to review music, you'll all laugh. (Maybe you do anyway.) So listen to it yourselves. You'll need to `register' to download the MP3s.

Submerged floating tunnels

James was talking about the idea of building a fixed link across a fjord or other waterway using a sealed tube hanging in the water. It turns out that this idea is real, though nobody has actually built one yet.

The game is: build a floating tube, string it across the body of water you wish to cross, then sink it, leaving it suspended underwater. Designs either have positive buoyancy and are anchored to the sea bed, or have negative buoyancy and are hung from floats -- a bit like a suspension bridge. A further suggestion -- not yet feasible -- uses a neutrally buoyant tunnel with no supports or anchors except at the ends. A workshop was held last year in Seattle to discuss the concept; there are some useful diagrams on their web pages, as well as some information on various proposals.

(I don't know how you would choose the support method to use. Presumably hanging it from floats creates a problem with wave loads during storms, but I don't know how serious that is.)

Why on earth would anybody build one? They're cheaper than bored tunnels, and unlike floating pontoon bridges, ships can easily pass them (since the tube can lie far below the surface). But... a brief discussion from a page about building a fixed link to Vancouver Island from the Canadian mainland identifies some problems:

A submerged floating tunnel would also be very expensive. The estimated cost would be two to three times more than a floating bridge. The technology is currently unproven. No submerged floating tunnels exist in the world today.

A submerged floating tunnel to Vancouver Island would require large gravity anchors, which would be complicated given the deep, soft soil on the ocean bed in this area. It would provide better passage for large vessels, but safety is a critical concern. A submerged floating tunnel would be vulnerable to marine accidents and earthquake damage. A tunnel break would be catastrophic and could result in the loss of many lives. For these reasons, the existing technologies for this type of submerged floating tunnel do not make this option feasible at this time.

The Norwegians seem to like these things, with a company called the Norwegian Submerged Floating Tunnel Company AS, involved in designing SFT fjord crossings. Sadly their website is pretty content-free.

There's also a report on structural aspects of SFT design which has a good general description of the idea: (but too few pictures)

Floating submerged tunnels has never been built in full scale, as opposed to surface floating bridges. In Norway the fjord Høgsfjord between Lauvvik and Oanes has been proposed crossed by means of a ca. 1400 meter long submerged tunnel, thus possibly making it the first structure in the world of this kind. Traffic prognosis predict about 2500 vehicles passing the bridge daily, placing it as an important regional transport vein in the south-west coast of Norway.

This Høgsfjord project is deliberately used as a pilot project for skills upgrading on the field, providing ``know how'' on strait crossings with this kind of long slender floating structures. Dealing with global dynamic analysis of floating submerged tunnels, the present report is a part of this picture. As such, it follow research effort on the area from the last couple of decades. Earlier though, the emphasis has often been put on surface floating bridges, in Norway leading to the building of the Salhus bridge (now officially named Nordhordlands-brua) early in this decade. The floating submerged tunnel concept are a quite similar concept concerning the interaction with the surrounding sea, but there are differences to be aware of. Since the concept has not been built before, thorough investigation of loads and effects should be effectuated taking special conditions for the particular Høgsfjord site into account.

The Høgsfjord project has been going for a while, but nothing has yet been built.

An `Orwell Test' for pubs

In 1946, George Orwell wrote an essay for the Evening Standard entitled `The Moon Under Water'. It describes Orwell's ideal pub; but

... the discerning and disillusioned reader will probably have guessed already. There is no such place as the Moon Under Water.

Of course, there are now numerous pubs by that name, all great plastic drinking barns run by J D Wetherspoon. For their sins, they acknowledge his inspiration, ignoring the ghastly hash they've made of it.

(Funnier is this review of the Leicester Square Moon Under Water, by somebody apparently unaware of the Orwell connection, which starts,

Why is it that central London's JD Wetherspoon pubs are infatuated with the moon? Lycanthropy, perhaps? ... There are two Moon Under Waters within puking distance of each other, a Lord Moon of the Mall, and a Moon and Sixpence.

and goes on to say,

... It's a voyeur's dream in this pub, as the disproportionate amount of overt cameras echoes Orwell's 1984....

... Well, I laughed. At this point I should also point out that the plural of Moon Under Water is Moons Under Water, as any fule kno.)

Anyway, returning to the point, since the Wetherspoons `Moons' are travesties of Orwell's ideal, it would be a nice idea to give awards to real pubs which resemble his ideal. His `Moon'

(I've left out others, mostly anachronistic, and I don't agree with some of the above -- I don't care that much about decor, for instance, and mugs-with-handles are a bit old-fogey.)

So, would it be worth reviewing pubs according to these criteria? I don't know. There are lots of pub review sites, but -- cf. the one I quote above -- their biases may mean that they're useless for actually choosing pubs, so maybe there's a niche here that's worth exploring.

The Still Small Voice Of Reason

A way to enhance news programmes on the radio. The Still Small Voice appears, using the magic of stereo, to one side of the presenters and interviewees, and occasionally mentions important points which have somehow been forgotten in the cut-and-thrust of debate. So,

When the programme... The Still Small Voice...
says that elderly people who are burgled are at a greater risk of dying than those who have not, calmly and firmly says, ``selection effect.''
discusses a `polypill' which is supposed to cut heart disease by 80%, whispers ``risk homeostasis.''
has David Blunkett on, bangs its head against the table in between screaming, ``shut the fuck up you fascist fuck.''

I don't think this would catch on with the BBC, though somebody suggested that a `guerilla broadcaster' could add it to unwilling radio stations using the magic of (a) a big transmitter, and (b) the linearity of Maxwell's equations. Hmm....

Copyright (c) 2003 Chris Lightfoot; available under a Creative Commons License.