Commonplace Book

A Commonplace book is a scrapbook of notes, sayings, thoughts, anything you want to keep, really. I have been keeping a Commonplace book since the early 1980s: I add entries that particularly intrigued me on average of a few times a year. Since starting my website in the early 1990s, I've had a place to put quotes from books , random factoids , etc. But there are some things that don't fit anywhere logically except in The Book. So this is my electronic version of the paper original (I confess that some of the entries don't intrigue me now as much as they did at the time; but that's life).

There are several entries just labelled "book title". Charles and I like making up book plots, particularly on long car journeys. It's easier to make up and discuss the plot than it is to actually write it, of course, and we haven't got as far as that. But we have three plots still on the go that sometimes cause additional entries in The Book. Our first foray was " If Only the Stars Could Talk ", a murder mystery set in an observatory, with a geography loosely based on the Royal Greenwich Observatory in Herstmonceux, but relocated to Cambridge, to disguise this fact. (That the RGO subsequently relocated to Cambridge in 1990 is mere coincidence; that it was eventually closed in 1998 is an outrage .) Around the same time came " Ninety Minutes ", a Dr Who plot based on a microscopic black hole escaping from CERN, and needing to be captured before it ate the Earth. A key plot device was that it had swallowed a magnetic monopole, which was messing with predictions about its orbit through the earth. The plot required Adric's mathematical capabilities, which shows how long ago we started (Adric was a companion from 1980-82). More recently (!) we've also been plotting " Cold Sproing ", a techno-thriller about one of the curled up space-time dimensions starting to uncurl when a low enough temperature is reached, causing spreading devastation around an Oxford cryogenics lab. But, as I say, nothing actually written (yet?)

So, on to The Book (note: I have moved book quotations to my relevant book review page, which is why some otherwise unreviewed books have quotations appearing). Earlier entries are less well documented, as I often noted just the quote, not the source. Later ones: well, I've learned better. Blue san serif = external stuff; brown Garamond = Charles and me riffing.

It lands on caterpillars
and eats them from inside.
To make sure that the meat's fresh
it keeps the thing alive

-- The Mark Steel Lecture, BBC4, 4 February 2009
Extra verse suggested for "All Things Bright And Beautiful"
(in the tradition of Monty Python's " All Things Dull and Ugly "

The things that are always 20 years away:

The first AI will be in a fusion-powered robot body, running on a quantum computer, building a device to detect gravitational waves.

-- January 2009

"... the first two letters of the name of Christ, the X and the P, ..."

-- Michelle Brown, British Library
"The Celts", C4, 18 February 2006
on The Book of Kells (pointing to the Chi and the Rho)

"Philosophy is to science as pornography is to sex: it's cheaper and easier"

-- Steve Jones
"John Wyndham", BBC4, December 2005

"You can parallel world situations with science fiction."

-- Christopher Eccleston, Teletext p132:4/5, 2 April 2004
on his new Dr Who role
I first parsed this with a more interesting verb: "You can parallel-world situations with science fiction."

"I love climbing roses."

-- "Gardeners' World", BBC2, 15 December 2002

AHD: "How much does it wobble?"
RE: "It doesn't wobble. That's not the verb we use. It moves about four and a half metres."

-- Adam Hart-Davies and Roger Evans, Humber Bridge
"Science Shack", BBC2, 7 December 2001

"If, in a hundred years' time, archaeologists dug up the Berlin Wall, would that be evidence for the existence of James Bond?"

-- John Romer, "Great Excavations", C4, 27 April 2000
on archaeological evidence for Jesus' existence

"Fifty miles an hour. That's the speed of time. And of the earth's rotation. Coming down the Thames to Vauxhall."

-- excited BBC commentator, 11:12pm, 31 December 1999

"When people get millennial madness, they get 'semiotically aroused'."

-- "Apocalypse When?", C4, 3 January 1999
approximate quotation

The Deccan Flows started just before the Yucatan meteorite 65m years ago. The dinosaurs, worried by the Deccan Flows, tried to plug them with an asteroid --- but missed!

-- thoughts while watching "Earth Story", 22 November 1998
So okay, they were ~10-100 kyr earlier, but there's wiggle room...

"The pessimist knows it is" --- The Principle of Least Action meets the Many Worlds Interpretation --- all the universes close to us are worse --- this is the best of all possible worlds!

-- 20 July 1998

"My parents had no children."

-- adopted child
"Torres Islanders", Horizon, BBC2, 27 February 1998

Mobile phone companies' aerials on church spires? Whatever next? Stands the church clock at 10 to three. And is that mast AT&T?

-- Alan Millard, letter to the Times
as quoted on Ceefax p146, 22 January 1998

"The Freedom of Information document should have been kept under wraps"

-- statement after leak to the BBC, 9 December 1997

"It was a target rich environment."

-- Flt Lt Dave Morgan, Sea Harrier pilot
"Decisive Weapons -- Harrier", BBC2, 20 October 1997
on the 10:1 odds against them in the Falkland's War

"It's now almost dawn on Mars."

-- BBC News, 6 July 1997
reporting on the Mars Pathfinder Sojourner rover

"removed from the fan-base"

-- "O-Zone", BBC2, 27 May 1997
the Internet allows pop groups not to be "..."

Henrietta Lacks is the source of a cancer cell line that drove ~30-40 years of molecular biology research --- a potential "turning point" for an alternate history story?

-- 1997

"Astrologers: aggressive frauds who talk crystal balls."

-- Jonathan Meades, "Even Further Abroad", BBC2, 5 March 1997

Integrate TV programmes and Web pages, to allow questions like "what else have they been in", "order the CD", etc

-- 29 November 1996

"The Autistic Proof Engine"

-- 21 November 1996
book title idea, suggested after watching an Oliver Sacks TV programme on autism

Build a new stone circle, aligned on significant X-ray sources.

-- September 1996

"Although talk of life on Mars is exciting, what they've found is actually dead"

-- Newsnight, BBC2, 6 August 1996
... and not on Mars!
on reports of a Martian fossil in a meteorite

"Obviously there's a lot more Mars up there on Mars than there is here on Earth"

-- ibid

"It's not a lie. But sometimes you've got to tell the truth as it should be, not the truth as it is."

-- Campbell. "Takin' Over the Asylum", BBC2, 3 August 1996 (repeat)

"I want to have a large pond --- about five acres of water."

-- Larry Ellison, "Triumph of the Nerds", C4, 28 April 1996

"The only problem with Microsoft is they just have no taste. They have absolutely no taste, and what that means is --- I don't mean that in a small way, I mean that in a big way, in the sense that [pause] they don't think of original ideas, and they don't bring much culture into their product. And you say "why is that important?" Well, proportionally spaced fonts come from typesetting and beautiful books. That's where one gets the idea. If it weren't for the Mac, they would never have that in their products. And so I guess I am saddened , not by Microsoft's success... I have no problem with their success. They've earned their success. For the most part. I have a problem with the fact that they just make really third-rate products."

-- Steve Jobs, ibid

"Cold Sproing"

-- 16 April 1996
book title idea, for story about a new dimension uncurling at low temperatures

"In vivo veritas. In vitro ... maybe."

-- Aids Research, "Horizon", BBC, 4 December 1995

"Mud thrown is ground lost."

-- Teletext letters page, 23 November 1995

"Reality Breakpoint"

-- 28 October 1995

If the Japanese had invented the Difference Engine, there would be "Compact Difference Engines" in everything!

-- 11 May 1995

"The summit of Mount Everest is marine limestone."

-- John McPhee, Basin and Range
as quoted by Stephen Jay Gould , on his radio item "Deep Time and Ceaseless Motion", 5 April 1995

"Scry and Telescope"

-- title for a Wizard's magazine?

"Just the FAQs, ma'am"

-- 22 February 1995

The reason the JFK assassination is so complicated: many time travellers were there, trying to alter history.

-- 1995

"I am a photographer of the microcosmos."

-- Dr Akira Tonomura, Royal Institution Christmas Lecture, Friday, BBC, December 1994

"How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?"
"All of them!"

-- December 1994

"They will all be left on the C++ ark."

-- 11 December 1994
of certain old-fashioned computer bods


-- title idea

It's all just a Fleishman in the Pons

-- New Scientist
on the subject of cold fusion

Katy and the Band Gaps

name for a (chemistry!) pop group ("kT and the...")

"Why so many chairs?"
"Well Andy [Warhol] collected chairs. I collect chairs. People who collect chairs have a lot of chairs."

-- Review, BBC2, 22 April 1988

"Oh, that's another of those irregular verbs, isn't it? I give confidential press briefings; you leak; he's been charged under section 2a of the Official Secrets Act"

-- Bernard Wooley, "Man Overboard", Yes Prime Minister, 1987

Colin Devis : "If you had a better command of English, you might have recognised a joke."
Anna Shoun: "If you were more sophisticated, I might share your sense of humour."

-- "A Double Life", Star Cops, BBC2, 17 August 1988

"The US government provided the shredder. I didn't buy it with my own money."

-- Col. Oliver North, "Irangate" hearings
on being queried about shredding documents

What's the moment of a couple in a field?

-- unknown

of Ted Heath:
If he saw Margaret Thatcher walking on water, he'd say "There! That proves she can't swim!"

of poll results Conservative 42%, Labour 35%, Alliance 23%:
"There's a majority against the Conservatives."
"There's an even bigger majority against Labour!"

M Thatcher: "The Good Samaritan needed money, too."

-- various General Election quotes, June 1987

The Sinclair QL, containing a Motorola 68008, with its 8 bit bus, could "chew rather more than it bit" .

-- "Micro Live", BBC

Millie Jansky

-- character name idea
(the Jansky is a unit of EM flux in radio astronomy: 10 -26 W m -2 Hz -1 )

A woman goes to court for a divorce.
Judge: "Do you have grounds?"
Woman: "About 2 acres."
Judge: "Does he beat you up?"
Woman: "No, I get up first."
Judge: "Why do you want a divorce?"
Woman: "We can't communicate!"

-- Dr Herbert Lim, MIT, "The Real World"
criticism of SDI

"The Statue of Liberty looks like a cross between Marilyn Monroe and the World Trade Center."

-- source unrecorded

"That leads me, at last, to my second preliminary remark."

-- presenter of an Open University programme

Dying bees secrete isoamyl acetate, which stimulates other bees to sting.

-- source unrecorded
this must be useful as a plot device!
• later: especially as I have discovered that it is also known as Banana oil

"I don't go round stamping on primroses, but that's not because I believe they're conscious."

-- Nicholas Humphrey, "Right to Reply", C4

"Neurosis Induced Cannibalism in Antarctic Pigs"

-- spoof book title
• 2009: however, a Web search finds that: it was a nominated for the Diagram Prize in 1984; the Telegraph obituary of Antony Rowe cites him as the author.

University: like a software house, except
the software's free
and it's usable
and it works
and if it breaks they'll quickly tell you how to fix it

-- fortune cookie program

VM users do it virtually all the time

-- car sticker

"The better the four wheel drive, the further out you are when you get stuck."

-- source unrecorded

"This idea is not dangerous, unless you are an academic biologist with an interest in the truth."

-- Richard Dawkins, on the Gaia hypothesis
(transcribed from short term memory)

"The danger ... it's not exactly distressing or disturbing, except to an academic biologist who values the truth."

-- Richard Dawkins, on the Gaia hypothesis
undated clip shown in "Beautiful Minds"
BBC4, 14 April 2010

"Do you know how many pins you can stick in the head of an angel?"

I'd rather write programs
to help me write programs
than write programs

-- cited as seen on the wall of a graduate student's office, Stanford

[It's the thought that counts]

Is chickenpox a feature? (It's a documented bug.)

"You're always wearing a picnic rug or curtains, aren't you dear?"
"Yes, and it's bloody freezing!"

-- overheard conversation in Cambridge

kopros -- Greek for turd
coprophiliac -- turd-lover

"The instructions are printed upside down in an English-like language."

-- Max "open the pod door, Hal" Phillips, PCN vol 1(20), p54

"Forbidden Transition"
"The Legend of Blue"

-- story titles

"Will my programs run on the 3081?"
"Oh good. They never ran on the 370."

When asked how long it takes a micro-gram black hole to evaporate, Mitch Begelman replied "10 -63 Hubble times".

-- 27 August 1982
during a conversation where we were exploring the "Ninety Minutes" story idea.
The best part (apart from the units!) was that he answered without pausing .

"Time moves vertically upwards."

-- heard during a seminar in 1982,
as the speaker indicated the y -axis on a graph

"Mount Tumbledown has fallen."

-- Falklands crisis, 1982
later: it wasn't referred to as a war at the time.

"Oil is thicker than blood."

-- source unrecorded
although it usually refers to the oil industry,
I like to think of it in terms of robot-human relationships

Napoleon -- who knew a thing or two about management -- is reputed to have said: 'I have room in my army for hard working intelligent officers. And I have room in my army for lazy intelligent officers -- in fact they often make the best. I even have room in my army for lazy unintelligent officers.  But I have no room in my army for hard working unintelligent officers'.