Articles written by Steve Osborn (OZ) in the year 2011



OZ on MANDELBROT – I learnt only recently that one of my heroes, the mathematician Benoît Mandelbrot, had died in Massachusetts last October. Benoît was born in Warsaw in 1924 to an academic Jewish Lithuanian family who in 1936 fled to Paris as political refugees. After years of study in Tulle, Lyons and Paris, Benoît mastered in aeronautics at California in 1949 and gained a doctorate in mathematics at Paris in 1952. He married Aliette Kagan in 1955 and the couple moved to New York in 1958, where Benoît joined IBM and stayed for the next 35 years. He worked on a huge range of problems in mathematics, especially in economics, biology, fluid dynamics, information theory and astronomy. The work that brought him most fame was the theory of ‘fractals’ that was found to explain many dynamic systems, from natural growth processes to economic theories. It’s a difficult concept to explain in words. Indeed Mandelbrot once said “people would run a mile from my papers, but they could not run from my pictures.”  I’ll resist the temptation to insert a picture here, but please follow these instructions carefully. Draw a large equilateral triangle. On the middle third of each side of the triangle, draw another equilateral triangle. There are now 12 edges in the diagram. Repeat the process until the triangles become too small to draw. You now have a snowflake curve, one of the earliest fractals, discovered by von Koch in 1904. There are thousands more fractals to see on the internet. In recent years, Mandelbrot’s theories on the stock market were often misunderstood, sometimes ignored, as when he advised in 2004 that “financial risks are much underestimated.” Why is he one of my heroes? Simply because of the many happy hours I spent at work doodling fractals.  (Steve Osborn)


OZ on XMAS BOOKS – After my wife died ten months ago, and except for material about bereavement, I couldn’t read books properly because their contents were so at odds with what I was experiencing inside my head. Books were piling up beside chairs and precariously on the bedside table, sometimes crashing noisily to the floor in the middle of the night. The Christmas gift that finally broke through to me was the 2010 Booker Prize Winner Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question. I read half on Boxing Day, and the remaining half over the next few days, interrupted only by the seasonal duties of eating, drinking and sleeping.  It is a novel, at once funny and sad, concerning Jewishness in today’s Britain and the nature of friendship as seen through the eyes of three elderly men. Their various widowhoods gave me a handle to grasp and helped me to push on and complete the book. After that I tackled Letters to Monica, Anthony Thwaites’s collection of some of the 2,000 letters that the poet Philip Larkin wrote to Monica Jones, his lover and confidante for some 40 years. Although Larkin was running two other and parallel affairs during much of this time, the letters are charming and deeply moving, depicting people who were sometimes childish, sometimes awkward and bewildered, but ultimately loyal and faithful to each other, normal human beings in fact. The book should do much to combat the bad press received by Larkin after publication of his Selected Letters in 1992. Lastly, Chambers Gigglossary – a Lexicon of Laughter is a collection of humorous definitions from various sources, and is a welcome addition to my shelf of word books. So now I’m looking forward to reading all those heaps of books, and it’s partly thanks to Howard Jacobson.   


OZ on CLEPSYDRA – One of the questions in this year’s Alkham quiz was “What is a clepsydra?”  At the end of the evening Brian, the quiz-master, asked me “Do you know, only three people got clepsydra. You got it, didn’t you?”  I replied that I couldn’t remember what the team’s answer was, but I thought it was a plant of some kind. It is in fact the ancient Greek name for a water clock, from Greek ‘kleptein’ (steal) and ‘hydra’ (water), meaning ‘water thief.’ Water clocks were widespread in all the ancient civilizations, as far back as 2,000BC in Babylon, and nearly all depended on the inflow or outflow of water moving a pointer on a disc or scale to show the time. The Greeks and the Romans developed clepsydrae into highly sophisticated and accurate timepieces, with gears, escapements and automatic feedback mechanisms to enhance accuracy. Other improvements included bells, gongs and tiny figures moving in and out of doorways, rather as they did later in cuckoo clocks. Clepsydrae were used for many different purposes, from allocating counsels’ time in courts to regulating the length of clients’ visits in Greek brothels. The Alexandrian physician Herophilos even took a portable clepsydra on his house visits to measure pulse rates. The ultimate show piece for the Greek clepsydra was the octagonal Tower of the Winds, built in Athens market-place by the Greek astronomer Andronicus of Cyrrhus about 50BC. It featured a clepsydra, sundials, mechanical clocks, wind indicators, and seasonal and astrological displays. In researching this article I’ve discovered that my original guess was nearly right as Clepsydra is also an alga found in Tasmania. Furthermore it’s a geyser in Yellowstone National Park. Quiz-master beware! Although, as Brian says, “The quizmaster is always right”, sometimes adding the words “whether he is or not.”


OZ on MARGINALIA – In his book Fermat’s Last Theorem, Simon Singh describes how Pierre Fermat wrote, in the margin of an ancient text, his famous theorem, followed by the words ‘I have a marvellous proof which this margin is too narrow to contain’.  A proof eluded and inspired the mathematical world for the next 358 years until one was found in 1995 by Andrew Wiles, a shy Englishman at Princeton University, aided by computers. The story made me wonder about the history of ‘marginalia’ (singular ‘marginilium’), defined as ‘notes and commentary hand-written in the margins of texts.’  Although marginalia have been written for centuries, the first recorded use of the word ‘marginalia’ was in Blackwood’s Magazine, November 1819. Debate has raged since over whether writing marginalia is a proper thing to do to books. On the one hand, writers such as Blake, Coleridge and Darwin were inveterate marginalia-scribblers; Coleridge even had his marginalia published as a book. Studs Terkel, the American historian who died in 2008, would actually rebuke friends who didn’t write in his books, as he thought reading should always be “a raucous conversation.”  On the other hand, people were often taught that marginalia ‘spoilt’ books. I’m generally reluctant to write in books, except to correct obvious errors or to add discreet punctuation highlighting unusual insights. One exception is in my old mathematics textbooks from college days, heavily annotated in the margins to help me with steps in the logic that are not immediately understandable. The other exception is the lines, arrows and stars that adorn my choral music-scores, and are a necessary record of instructions from the conductor as to how the music should sound. Academics are now concerned over the lack of commentary in digital media, and are busy developing systems that include marginalia.


OZ ON HISTORICKENT.COM –When I first began writing this column, I would prepare stories well in advance to meet my self-imposed deadline for submission to the editor. As time went by, I found the deadline an invaluable stimulant to concentrating the mind, and recently I’ve not even thought about the story until the last minute. This month I finally came to grief, staring at a blank sheet, with concert weekend, followed immediately by a holiday, looming up in front of me, and not a clue what to write about. I’ve decided to use the space to publicise a charming and interesting website I discovered recently at  Here’s what they say about Alkham:  “The epitaph Here lieth Herbert, offspring of Simon. A man open-hearted, assured by hope of good things, fluent in words of faith is inscribed on the lid on the stone coffin of Herbert de Averenches, monk of St Radigund's Abbey at Alkham. The coffin lid is now in the church of St Anthony the Martyr, and the inscription is claimed to be the earliest to be found in any Kent church, dating as it does from the 12th century. Alkham is a pleasant little village, snuggled into the woods and Downs west of Dover, and well worth a visit just for the pleasure of finding such a delightful spot. The church was built in the early 13th century by monks of nearby St Radigund's Abbey, the remains of which brood demurely at the end of a narrow country lane leading out of the village. When the Abbey was closed by Henry VIII, most of the stone of which it was built was carted away to help build Henry's coastal defence castle at Sandgate during the invasion scare after 1538.” 


OZ on PERFECT SUMMER – At the end of April a friend and I escaped with Shaun the Westie to deepest Gloucestershire to avoid the razzmatazz of the Royal Wedding. What were we doing at 11am on 29 April ? Holding hands while watching the TV, and oohing and aahing over the wedding service, that’s what.  I suppose it’s an unstoppable atavistic instinct, perhaps on a par with the ex Poet Laureate Andrew Motion’s justification of church-going: “I like to observe the customs of my tribe.” It has combined with the two mini heat waves of the last two months to remind me of what I’ve read of the summer a century ago, when the start of a heat wave in May 1911 heralded the Coronation of George V and Mary on 22 June. That ceremony was deliberately restrained, because of memories of the extravagance of George IV’s coronation 90 years previously. It was also proud, with a greatly extended introduction to Parry’s “I was Glad”, and the repeat from Edward VII’s 1902 coronation of “Land of Hope and Glory”, the great product of Elgar’s music and A C Benson’s words.  After all, this was a country at its most powerful and confident, where even striking workers signified hope for the future. On 10 August the temperature reached 100º F, and supplies of food and milk began to suffer. In late September, the weather broke, with thunderstorms seeming to echo national unease about tensions in Europe. All this is the subject of Juliet Nicolson’s 2006 book “The Perfect Summer”, an exhilarating overview of a small but important period of time, typified by Lord Beresford’s cheery “Good morning! One day nearer the German War!” I hope that our summer, if perfect, will presage something a bit less ugly than that.


OZ on РОССИЯ – Last December a friend and I, recent widowers, depressed  and marooned by the snowfall, agreed to share a Russian cruise cabin in May, with the heady possibility of meeting a couple of mad rich widows. We booked and began preparing for the trip, the first hurdle being the Russian visa. The online application form was straightforward, but demanded information such as full details of my primary school, which was converted into flats in the 1950s. Soon it was May, time for reluctant separation from my new partner, and we departed from Heathrow. Three hours later we landed in St Petersburg, and transferred to the cruise ship, from where we explored the city, formerly known as Petrograd and Leningrad, over the next two days. Its big tourist attraction is the Hermitage Museum, housing over 3,000,000 items and estimated to take 10 years to view completely. During the next five days we sailed up many lakes, rivers and canals, including twelve locks, to Moscow, landing each day to explore a village or town. On-board activities included music, talks, and three Russian language classes, where we learnt to say ‘yellow-blue-bus’ which is the phonetic pronunciation of  the Russian for ‘I love you.’ The food was excellent, with plenty of vegetables and fish, and a moderate amount of meat. Caviar and vodka were as good as expected, and overall I neither gained nor lost a pound. All too soon we moored in Moscow for our last weekend, visiting Red Square, the Kremlin and the famous Metro. And then it was the last day, with surprising displays of emotion, laughter and tears, and exchanging of email addresses, all feeling that we’d been taken over by something akin to ‘Hostage Syndrome.’ We didn’t find any mad rich widows, just plenty of sane comfortably-off ones.


OZ on GLOW-WORMS – Experts say that glow-worms are currently enjoying their best year ever. The creatures came out of hibernation a month early, in the April heatwave, and have yet to reach their peak in some areas. They are actually beetles, found worldwide in five major families, the British one being the wingless adult female of the European firefly, Lampyris noctiluca. Because the females cannot fly, they emit a yellowy-green light to attract flying males to mate with them. After mating, the female turns off her light, lays eggs and then dies.  Because of this static lifestyle, glow-worm colonies often stay in the same place for many years. Their larvae, being toxic, also emit the green light as a warning signal to predators. References to the glow-worm, often associated with elves and fairies, are frequent in literature, the first being recorded in Bozon (1320), where he notes that the Latin ‘eruke’ is named ‘glouworm’ in English. Often the quotation refers to the coldness of the creature’s light, as in Shakespeare’s glow-worm “that begins to pale his ineffectual fire” in Hamlet, and Shenstone’s “No lover blessed the glow-worm’s pallid ray.” This column’s favourite vicar-naturalist, the Rev Gilbert White, commented in his diary on 11 June 1791 that “Male glow-worms, attracted by the light of the candles, come into the parlor.” Glow-worms can be seen over most of the British Isles, particularly in chalk or limestone areas, on disused railway lines, and in areas where small snails are found. The best time to look is during the evening in June and July. There is much information about glow-worms at the website which is home to the UK Glow Worm Survey, and is run by Robin Scagell. He will always welcome news of sightings of these strange and beautiful creatures.


OZ on ZZXJOANW – Whilst nursing my girl-friend after an operation last month I re-read a favourite book, Dmitri Borgmann’s Language on Vacation: An Olio of Orthographical Oddities, first published in 1965. In one chapter, Borgmann describes an amazing word, ZZXJOANW, thus: “This spectacular word is so versatile that it possesses not merely one, but three different meanings: (a) drum; (b) fife; (c) conclusion. The term is of Maori origin.” In this, Borgmann was simply following the words of Rupert Hughes, who first coined ZZXJOANW in his 1903 book, The Musical Guide, where it appeared as the final entry after ‘zymbel’ (German for ‘cymbal’), with the pronunciation given as ‘shaw’. In 1974 Josefa Heifetz Byrne, in Mrs Byrne’s Dictionary of Unusual, Obscure, and Preposterous Words, gave the definition as ‘Maori drum’, but rejected ‘shaw’, preferring the pronunciation ‘ziks-jo'an’.  ZZXJOANW was exposed as a hoax by Ross Eckler in 1996 in his book Making the Alphabet Dance, when he described how Philip Cohen noted the oddities of the pronunciation, meanings and spelling, especially as Maori doesn’t use J, X or Z and all Maori words end in vowels. Later, in You Say Tomato: An Amusing and Irreverent Guide to the Most Often Mispronounced Words in the English Language (2005) R W Jackson accepted the word as meaning ‘Maori drum’, commenting  on the pronunciation that “We’ll leave the pronunciation to you, although Welshmen and Poles are said to be able to do wonders with it.” Apparently Hughes intended simply to coin a word beginning with ZZ, otherwise unknown in English. With the alleged pronunciation ‘shaw’ Hughes was also having a pop at George Bernard Shaw, a fervent advocate of phonetic spelling, who once said that GHOTI spelt FISH: GH as in ‘rough’ O as in ‘women’, and TI as in ‘nation’.


My house is in total uproar. What started as the installation of a new boiler and a second fridge-freezer, for storage of autumn fruits and beer, has escalated, as these projects always do, into a major domestic revamp. The knock-on effects have cascaded into every room, including the potting-shed and garage, and the house now resembles nothing so much as a huge Freecell game. Freecell is the ever-popular computer game that comes free with the Microsoft Windows operating system and has caused major downtime in workplaces worldwide over the last decade. It is a solitaire-based game that involves moving blocks of cards onto other blocks or into spaces, subject to certain rules, and it is this activity that is so similar to moving furniture. The game is a descendant of older solitaire games such as Eight Off and Baker’s Game, the latter having originated in England in the 1920s. In 1978 Paul Alfille modified Baker’s Game and computerised it, complete with playing-card graphics, for an educational system at the University of Illinois, and this became known as Freecell when it was taken up by Microsoft in the 1990s. The original Windows version had 32,000 games, each with a unique identification number so that users could retrieve and replay games if they wished. Only one game, No 11982, has been shown to be unsolvable. The latest version features 1,000,000 games, of which 8 are unsolvable. When my late wife and I retired we played the first 32,000 games in order for half an hour after lunch each day and had reached 56,000 or so when she died. Perhaps after my house is restored to order I should solve the remainder of the 1,000,000 games. At 10 games a day it will only take 259 years. (Steve Osborn)


OZ on BIG CATS – One evening in September, driving in the dark, I turned right from the Alkham Valley Road into Cowgate Lane to take the back road to Hawkinge. On emerging from the woods, just before the first house, I saw a huge cat amble across the road and dive into the trees. It was much too big for a domestic cat, and appeared in the headlights to be black with dark chestnut markings. A friend reminded me later of Roy Dyche’s article in the November 2009 Alkham Monthly Newsletter, and indeed what I saw was almost identical with Roy’s description. Like Roy I'm not gullible over these things and the size of the cat impressed me. It seems to be the latest of a string of sightings of a ‘black panther’ in this area. Nationally, such animals have been seen for at least the last 250 years. William Cobbett, in Rural Rides, described seeing, as a child in the 1760s, a cat “that was as big as a middle-sized spaniel dog”, the reporting of which earned him a beating for telling lies. In recent years, there have been many sightings of big cats, usually black, tan or both, including a lynx that was shot near Norwich in 1991 after killing 15 sheep in two weeks. Their locations are often indicated by colourful names, as in Surry Puma, Shooters Hill Cheetah, and Sheppey Panther. There are many explanations for their existence, such as escape from captivity, descent from supposed extinct species, or the Wild Animals Act 1976, while sceptics claim that it’s simply mass hysteria or an urban myth. Having now seen a wild big cat I’m a reluctant convert and would like to discover more about them. After all, as people often tell me, “There’s something out there.”


OZ on LIVING LIVELY – I would like to use my column this month to publicise a very worthwhile and enjoyable activity that is coming to Dover after Christmas. I’ll say no more now, but simply let Living Lively speak for itself. Below is LL’s press release. (Steve Osborn)

Free Singing Sessions for People over 50 - River (Dover) - January - February 2012. Do you sing in the bath, shower or car but would never admit it? Would you like to sing but are put off by the idea of reading music and formal choirs? Are you over 50 and free on Thursday afternoons? If the answer to these questions is ‘yes’ and you are looking for fun and a challenging activity for the New Year then we have just the thing for you. Living Lively is a local not-for-profit organisation which specialises in running singing activities for people over 50. We have been given funding by Awards for All to enable us to run a 6 week project in River for people who are interested in trying singing in an enjoyable, informal and relaxed atmosphere. Sessions will take place from 14.00 - 15.30 in the foyer of River Methodist Church for 6 weeks starting on January 19th 2012 (January 19th and 26th, February 2nd, 9th, 16th and 23rd.)  We will help you learn about breathing, posture and making a good sound, and the sessions will include a wide variety of music to meet all tastes. There is no charge and refreshments are included. You can just turn up on any of the days, or if you require more information or want to book a place please call Celia on 01233 750585, or email her at We look forward to seeing you and helping you to 'Discover Your Voice'.