Tech

The walrus that has taken over a gin distillery’s boat

Josie Ford

Flipping out

There are two fish in a tank and one says to the other: “How do you drive this thing?” The oldest ones are the… oldest, and in all honesty we’re only tangentially reminded of this one by the latest twist in the saga of Wally the walrus.

Wally was first seen off the coast of Ireland in March, with marine biologists speculating that he had fallen asleep on an iceberg that became untethered from its Arctic moorings. In flagrant breach of travel restrictions, he has since been spotted off Wales, Cornwall in the UK and France, and set a record for the most southerly walrus by popping up near Bilbao in northern Spain. Nice work if you can get it.

Not that the peripatetic pinniped has always been welcome. His stop in the Isles of Scilly off Cornwall in July coincided with a spate of pleasure boats sunk as Wally tried to climb aboard. To that we can only say, if you will make them white and shiny what do you expect.

An effort to scare Wally off using polar bear scent and growls now appears to have worked, as he reappeared in County Cork, Ireland, lounging on a motorboat belonging to a gin distillery. Heart-warming stuff, and we hope he is taking advantage of the facilities. Now, how do you drive this thing?

To the nth degree

Possibly too much in the right place is Harry Parkes from London. He relates recently picking up a passenger at the city’s Heathrow Airport. This traveller had booked a coronavirus test at a centre whose website supplied GPS coordinates accurate to 16 decimal places in longitude and 14 in latitude. “To my calculations, the location of the testing centre is given to within the size of an atom,” he says.

Whether the super-accurate coordinates made the test centre easy to find, or its minuscule dimensions made it rather more complicated, he doesn’t say. But we agree it would be a fine thing if we could guarantee the tests themselves were that accurate.

What are the odds

Several readers write in following last week’s revelation that the Canadian government’s weather service has a statistical hole, in so much as it doesn’t allow a probability of precipitation between 40 and 59 per cent.

Paul Vann from Devon, UK, points out that BBC weather forecasts seem only to have wind speeds in single figures and in the 10s, 20s, 40s and 50s of mph, but not in the 30s. Our experience of the gusty Devon coast in winter suggests this hole doesn’t exist in reality, so we would welcome counter-testimony on the forecast front.

Ken Lee from Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire, UK, meanwhile, recalls listening to the morning weather forecast when visiting the US city of Philadelphia in the 1980s. “When we heard, ‘Probability of precipitation: 100 per cent’, we assumed they meant, ‘It is raining’,” he writes.

Likewise, we interpret the delicious formulation used on the BBC’s much-loved shipping forecast, “precipitation within sight” as “it is raining, but over there”.

We are also reminded of the ongoing conflict between advocates of two rival approaches to probability – the frequentist and the Bayesian – about the sense or nonsense of probabilities that express not pure randomness, but individual ignorance about what’s going on.

If the probability of rain is 50 per cent and it turns out to be actually raining, what is the probability that it is raining?

To the max

Approaching numbers from an entirely different angle, and enriching us culturally in the process, is Gerben Wierda from Heerlen in the Netherlands. When looking for an office chair, he recently came across one with the specification “Belastbaar tot minimaal 110 kg”, which translates to it carrying a maximum weight to a minimum of 110 kilograms.

Our logic module having just overheated, we’re unable quite to work out whether that means it carries only weights above 110 kilograms, no weight at all, or something else entirely. Caveat emptor, as they say, or at least they did in the Netherlands a while back.

Looking backwards

Hilary Johnston regrets that in our recent determination to see the world from different perspectives (17 July and 31 July), we didn’t mention the age of our correspondent who tried to clean the chocolate off the seat of his trousers in front of a mirror.

“As an octogenarian, I would suggest an interesting experiment for those with as many wrinkles as I have. With your back to a full-length mirror, bend down and look at yourself through your legs,” he writes – to which we would add, please, only if you can. By reversing the normal skin-stretching effects of gravity, you may not recognise yourself, he promises.

In a similar vein, John Evans recommends the experiment of lying on your back in an open space such as a field or beach, tilting your head backwards and moving it from side to side to see an Earth that’s not flat, or even expectedly convex, but resolutely concave.

Definitely one for the conspiracy theorists. Thank you, John, too, for your self-effacing addendum: “I had a letter in the NS years ago, around late October/early November 1984, but might be worth a mention again”. Twice in four decades? Now that’s demanding.

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