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20 December 2014 Last updated at 16:57

What are the chances of snow at Christmas?

Festive graph showing snow on Christmas Day

Are you still dreaming of a white Christmas, asks Anthony Reuben.

If so, you probably don't want to know this nugget from Mark Wilson, a meteorologist at the Met Office: "There's a higher chance of getting snow over Easter in the UK than there is at Christmas."

He says that between 1981 and 2010 there were an average of 3.9 days with sleet or snow falling in the UK in December, compared with 4.2 days in March.

Now I'm not 100% sure I believe this because presumably snow is more likely to fall at the end of December when Christmas is and at the beginning of March, which would generally miss Easter, but that's what the Met Office says. The point is that snow is pretty unlikely at either festival.

Oh dear. Then again, I last wrote about how unusual snow is at Christmas in the UK five years ago in 2009, and that article was published two days before the snowiest Christmas since records began, which was beaten a year later by an even snowier one.

But recent blips aside, snow at Christmas is unusual. January and February are usually colder months than December. The Met Office has reliable figures showing what proportion of weather stations reported either snow falling on Christmas Day or snow lying at 09:00 on Christmas Day going back to 1959.

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White Christmas is a bit like the Grand National - it's a good bet for your once-a-year punter”

End Quote Jessica Bridge, Bookmaker

In 31 of those 57 years, fewer than 1% of weather stations reported lying snow, while in a further 10 years fewer than 5% of stations did so.

In only three years - 1981, 2009 and 2010 - were more than half of stations reporting snow lying.

But if you think of a white Christmas as being one when there is snow falling, 25 of those years would have seen no snowfall anywhere in the country, while only 1993 and 2004 saw more than 50% of stations report snowfall.

And I'm afraid it's looking pretty unlikely again this year. I got a forecast from the Met Office on Friday morning, which is six days in advance, so still a bit sketchy.

They currently reckon that the country is going to be a bit colder than average but with plenty of sunshine. Most of the snow will be above 200m (650ft) and in northern parts of the UK.

Mark Wilson says he thinks that even without much snow, cold, crisp, sunny weather is more suitable for Christmas than the "horrible, cloudy, mild" weather we've had on 25 December for the past few years.

What do we mean by a White Christmas and how likely is it to happen? Sarah Keith-Lucas explains.

If you're thinking about having a flutter on snow there are plenty of bookmakers that will take your bet.

The bet will be on a specific city and the bookmaker will select a specific location in the city, which is usually an airport. Why an airport? Well they tend to have observers and weather stations there, and you'd hope they're paying close attention to what the weather is like.

They'd have to be paying close attention, because the bookies have to pay out if a single flake of snow falls in that location during the day.

"White Christmas is a bit like the Grand National - it's a good bet for your once-a-year punter," says Jessica Bridge from Ladbrokes.

"Odds are shorter than perhaps they should be because lots of people bet on it for romantic reasons."

On Friday morning, the shortest odds from Ladbrokes were for Aberdeen at 7/4, followed by Glasgow and Edinburgh at 2/1.

You will find different odds at other bookmakers - the longest odds I could find for UK snow were 8/1 being offered for Penzance by William Hill.

"With the odds quite short, you're not going to pay for Christmas with it," Bridge says.

Clarks Village at Street closed by snow before Christmas 2010

So if Christmas snow is so unlikely, why do we all imagine we spent our childhoods throwing snowballs at each other and building snowmen on Christmas Day?

Well, five years ago I put it down to the "Little Ice Age", a period of global cooling that ran between about 1550 and 1850, which had a great influence on classic literature and traditional Christmas card designs.

But since then we've had two extraordinarily snowy Christmases. The snow in the run-up to Christmas 2010 was so severe it had a proper effect on the economy (as opposed to the made-up effects that you see in the headlines every time a few flakes of snow fall in London).

The Office for National Statistics said that it had knocked half a percentage point off economic growth for the quarter, which is a lot of lost growth.

That was because shopping centres had been forced to close the weekend before Christmas and people had cancelled Christmas parties.

So while you will see lot of shops, restaurants and bars with fake snow in their windows, they might secretly be pleased that we're unlikely to see much of the real stuff in the next week.

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10 things we didn't know last week

Clowns

1. The US National Security Agency used to have a Clown Club for staff members.

Find out more (Slashgear)

2. There is a deep sea snail named after Joe Strummer.

Find out more (The Guardian)

3. Main characters are more likely to die in children's cartoons than in films for adults.

Find out more (BMJ)

4. The origins of Monopoly go back decades earlier than previously thought to the Landlord's Game, patented in 1904 by the feminist Lizzie Magie. It had a square board with nine rectangular spaces on each side between corners labelled "Go to Jail" and "Public Park".

Find out more (Smithsonian)

5. There is more water locked deep within the Earth's crust than previously thought - at about 11 million cubic kilometres it's more than all the world's rivers, swamps and lakes put together.

Find out more

6. The Star Wars character Han Solo was partly based on Francis Ford Coppola.

Find out more (New Yorker)

7. The late Liberal Party leader Jeremy Thorpe had a long-running fantasy about marrying Princess Margaret.

Find out more (Daily Telegraph)

8. Christingle started in Germany in 1747 but didn't reach the UK until 1968.

Find out more

9. The three escapees whose story was told in the movie Escape From Alcatraz (and who were never found) could have survived if they set off after midnight but before 01:00.

Find out more

10. Arctic ground squirrels hasten the release of greenhouse gases.

Find out more

Seen a thing? Tell the Magazine on Twitter using the hashtag #thingIdidntknowlastweek

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Weekendish: The best of the week's reads

Dementia patient sitting on bench

A collection of some of the best reads from the BBC News website this week.

The word "anecdotage" - a joke used by Disraeli and others to describe a time in life when one tells stories so much "it's a sign to retire from the world" - dates back nearly two centuries. Telling the same stories over and over again is nothing new, but with increased awareness of the development of dementia, it's seen by many as a key warning sign of things going wrong in the brain. This week broadcaster Joan Bakewell had an intensely honest and moving conversation with her friends, the actors Timothy West and Prunella Scales, who are married, about Pru's advancing dementia. West describes his wife at a party asking someone three times how their mother was, only to be told each time that their mother has died. Scales, horrified, says: "Oh, I don't do that do I? Surely not. Oh how dreadful." Reader Alastair Somerville tweeted that anecdotes should be valued as a way of maintaining social involvement. "Anecdote is a defence mechanism," he said. Conversely, Neil Primrose said: "It was when my old mum STOPPED telling the same story over & over that we realised she had dementia."

My friend Pru and her memories

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Body modification

Woman post-surgery

In Seoul, adverts extol the virtues of cosmetic surgery to an extent which surprised our correspondent Stephen Evans. "On the train and in the street, you're told you can 'bring your face to life'," he writes. "'Facial contouring' is on offer - 'breast surgery', 'anti-ageing', 'eyeplasty', 'body contouring'. There is 'square jaw reduction' (mainly, the adverts imply, for men). Or transforming your face 'from saggy and loose to elastic and dimensional', targeted mostly at women. One acquaintance of mine complains that her chin becomes painful when it rains. And then it emerges that she went into the surgery for a nose job but got persuaded - or persuaded herself - that it was her chin that really needed its contours changing. The result: a more shapely chin that is also a more painful chin. Despite that, she is now intent on breast enlargement." But it was the eyelid surgery - aimed at making people look less "Asian" which exercised many readers. "Beauty is due to differences," tweeted Christine Taylor. "Please do not get double-eyelid surgery."

Victims of a craze for cosmetic surgery

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Strangely normal

Bakdash ice cream parlour, October 2014

The rise of the internet and online shopping has made times hard for shopkeepers, and shops in many cities around the world are boarded up. Not so in Damascus, wrote Diana Darke, when she returned to the city to reclaim a house from squatters. Turns out life wasn't so bad there. The food markets were overflowing, with bananas from Somalia, saffron from Iran and walnuts from Afghanistan. "To judge from the carpets of cigarette butts on the pavements, smoking rates, always high, are higher than ever. In the main thoroughfare of Souq al-Hamidiya all the usual clothes and flamboyant underwear outlets are still thronging with customers - not a single boarded shop front - quite a contrast to the average British High Street." She adds, though: "Sporadically, in the days as well as the nights, shelling is disturbingly loud."

The strange normality of life in the middle of Syria's war

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Rouble trouble

Berlin Wall - 1989

The difficulties hitting the Russian economy, including the tumbling value of the rouble, have led to an unusually large interest in the subject from readers of the BBC News website. Economist Jeffrey Sachs takes a longer view on the situation by comparing it to 1919 and 1989. As an adviser to Poland after the fall of Communism, he had to make some big requests. He writes: "My wish, it seemed on some days, was the White House's command. One morning, in September 1989, I appealed to the US Government for $1bn for Poland's currency stabilisation. By evening, the White House confirmed the money. No kidding, an eight-hour turnaround time from request to result." But, he writes, the behaviour of victors has deeper implications than might be appreciated. However analyst Ben Judah argues that President Putin has nobody to blame but himself for Russia's woes. "Russia's 2015 spending plans had assumed that oil would remain over $100. The country can only balance its budget with the oil price around that mark. The Kremlin may soon no longer have the cash to buy Russians' enthusiastic patriotism with television extravaganzas like the Sochi Olympics (price tag $50bn), or the sudden invasion and annexation of Crimea ($75bn, according to one estimate)," he writes.

How much was 1989 like 1919?

Is Putin to blame for the plunging rouble?

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Nativity story

Children in many schools will this week have been staging nativity plays or carol concerts. Yet for parents and teachers of children who have severe and complex needs, the challenge is a particular one - how to stage events which will engage and entrance children of differing needs. Kate Monaghan's film shows how one school has done it.

Unexpected nativity

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Here are some things we've enjoyed this week from elsewhere around the web:

D'oh, Meh, and the role of the Simpsons in language (Oxford Dictionaries blog)

The year of outrage (Slate)

The story of AOL's running man icon (The Atlantic)

What would happen if children weren't taught handwriting? (Guardian)

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Go Figure: The week in numbers

Look back at the week in numbers with our Go Figure images, which are posted daily on social media.

umbrella statistic

Monday: Can the umbrella be improved?

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ancient US grain kamut statistic

Tuesday: Why do Americans love ancient grains?

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Prelude vessel is 488m long

Wednesday: The largest vessel the world has ever seen

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cost of Interview film Sony

Thursday: The Interview: Sony shelves worldwide release

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booze calculator

Friday: Booze calculator: What's your drinking nationality?

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Find #BBCGoFigure on Twitter and on Facebook


Christingle: The Christmas tradition that only got going in the 1960s

Christingle What some participants say the parts of the Christingle symbolise

Many churches and schools celebrate Christmas with a candle in an orange. But where does this curious tradition come from, asks Clare Spencer.

Every year from mid-November to as late as February, many British children stick sweets on cocktail sticks, stick them in an orange, put a candle on top and gather together.

This is Christingle.

The roots of the practice lie with John de Watteville in Germany and an attempt to get children to think about Jesus. He started the tradition in 1747 in his Moravian Church congregation. At the time it was just a candle with a red ribbon given to each child. It didn't involve the orange. Or jelly tots on cocktail sticks.

But it wasn't made popular in the UK until 1968 when John Pensom, described in his Church Times obituary as "Mr Christingle", used it as a fundraising event for the Children's Society charity. Children would bring purses with money and receive an orange pierced with a candle in return. In 1972, the Times noted the increasing popularity of the services.

It's unclear where the orange part of the object came from. It has echoes of the scented pomander, which can be an orange studded with cloves.

Christingle service Some schools have a Christingle service on the last day of term

Over 40 years later, the charity estimates more than 5,000 Christingle events were held last year to fundraise for them. But the idea has spread further than just this charity. In Northern Ireland it has been used as a way to get the different denominations together.

In fundraising terms, the Christingle is getting more popular. The money raised went up from £1m to £1.2m least year, says Children's Society's director of church and community participation Nigel Varndell.

The newest variation involves changing the candle to a glowstick. It's been prompted by the concern among some organisers that children should not be carrying lit candles. The Daily Telegraph reported back in 2006 that Chelmsford Cathedral had gone the way of the glowstick after a particularly crammed service made them worry that children's hair could catch fire.

Candle or glowstick, it does attract bemusement.

On Christian website Ship of Fools, one commenter remembered their first encounter with a Christingle. It was "absolutely bizarre and utterly unlike any Christmas tradition I'd ever heard of". Even a Christian education website, Assembly Line, admits it looks like "a rather strange creation".

girl with candle

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Caption Challenge: Light costume

Man in light costume

Winning entries in the Caption Challenge.

The competition is now closed.

Thanks to all who entered. The prize of a small amount of kudos to the following:

6: Andy Reed:

World's worst hide and seek costume revealed.

5. Martin Donnelly:

"The man in the shop assured Felipe it was anatomically correct, Lord Sugar."

4. Paul Austin:

All lit up with no place to glow.

3. Tony Auffret:

Darth Vader's Christmas onesie was not enough to fool the Jedi Knight.

2. Stephen Rodgers:

Neonderthal Man.

1. Judgement Dave:

The seventeen ninjas (left of picture) can't believe their colleague made such a basic error.

This week…Subscribe to the BBC News Magazine's email newsletter to get articles sent to your inbox.


The legal confusion over perpendicular parking

Smart car parked perpendicular A Smart car parked in Italy

A Smart car owner has won a year-long battle over a £50 parking ticket given because she parked at a right angle to the kerb. But what is the law, asks Chris Stokel-Walker.

Vanessa Price has managed to get a £50 parking fine levied against her by Gloucestershire County Council overturned by an adjudicator, who said she did not break any road regulations by parking her Smart car at 90 degrees to the kerb.

Price was given the ticket because the front of her car peeked out from the parking bay lines in Stroud, Gloucestershire. It was overturned because the rule that drivers must park within markings does not apply in limited waiting spaces on highways.

Smart cars have been on sale in the UK since 2000, and are immediately recognisable for their small size. Though Smart's current marketing material suggests drivers parallel park into tight spots, some owners take advantage of the size of the Smart car, which at 2.69m is only slightly longer than the average car is wide, to park perpendicular to the kerb.

Price even suggested in her defence against the parking fine that the Smart website illustrates how to park perpendicularly to the kerb. The company's Facebook group has occasionally highlighted such practices. But is this parking legal?

No one is sure.

Two solicitors specialising in parking law could not say whether perpendicular, rather than parallel, parking in a Smart car could fall foul of the law.

The Local Government Association directed inquiries to the British Parking Association (BPA), a trade body that is, according to its website, a "recognised authority on parking".

"As far as we are aware, we have not come across this particular issue before," a spokesperson said. But vehicles have to follow general parking laws, regardless of the type of vehicle, and the size of the space they're pulling in to.

"There is no law that specifies the size of a parking bay, but there are guidelines. Roads can be different widths so parking needs to be managed appropriately. The BPA works with government to ensure parking and traffic signs are reviewed as necessary and reflect the changing needs of society."

The BPA's guide for drivers, Know Your Parking Rights, covers many thorny issues but does not cover parking perpendicularly in a Smart car. And until Smart car-specific legislation is drawn up, it seems drivers are safer erring on the side of caution, and parallel, rather than perpendicularly, parking their cars.

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A surprisingly recent Buckingham Palace tradition

Christmas display at Buckingam Palace

Each December a Christmas tree appears beneath the famous royal balcony in the forecourt of Buckingham Palace. But unlike the famous Trafalgar Square tree it's a fairly modern tradition, writes Joe Kent, of Radio 4's Saturday Live programme.

It may all have begun with a letter to the Queen from an unhappy commuter in 1996. Graphic designer Robin Ollington, now 85, was walking to Victoria station on his way home. "I passed through Trafalgar Square where the spirit of Christmas was very much in evidence where people sang carols around the beautifully lit tree."

The festive mood continued down the Mall until he reached Buckingham Palace. "A gloomy mass. What a contrast. Gas lamps, silent sentries, and the odd window dimly lit. Not a sign of Christmas." So he wrote to the Queen and her private secretary suggesting that perhaps a well-lit tree in the forecourt would add a little Christmas cheer.

Three days later a reply arrived thanking him for his letter. "I have shown your letter to the Queen, and your suggestion has been most carefully noted," it informed him.

Expecting to hear nothing more, and slightly sceptical of the letter's claims, Robin thought nothing more. "I write lots of letters and rarely get the courtesy of a reply. I was just so pleased to have got such a friendly response."

Buckingham Palace, taken by Cesar Gonzalez Palomo

But then another letter from the Palace arrived. "I just thought I would let you know that, were you to drive past Buckingham Palace after dark, or indeed in the daytime, you would see the front decorated with a welcoming Christmas Tree - all due to your very sensible suggestion," the letter read, according to Robin.

"It's incredible to think about it now. It was a complete surprise. People think I'm making it up but I've still got the letters to prove it."

It's not Robin's only brush with royalty. His graphic design work included stamp designs for both Guernsey and Gibraltar - which require royal approval before they can go into production. In 1998 he worked on a series of stamps celebrating the history of the Christmas tree and its introduction to Britain by Prince Albert.

Robin is yet to see this year's Christmas tree but hopes to do so soon.

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Will the floods in California end the drought?

A woman makes her way through floodwaters in Healdsburg, California

As freak storms continue to pummel California, could the heavy rainfall help ease the state's three-year crippling drought?

Experts say it is unlikely a few days of intense rainfall will make a significant impact on extremely low ground water and reservoir levels. "When we see floods, landslides and a lot of rain all at once, it gives the impression we're not in drought anymore," says climatologist Brian Fuchs at the National Drought Mitigation centre. "But drought is a slow onset type of disaster and it has a slow recovery time," he says.

Over the past three years, scant rains have meant that California has missed out on a full year's worth of precipitation. Most of the state has been categorised as having extreme or exceptional drought conditions, with some areas the driest they have been for hundreds of years.

Low water level in the Shasta reservoir, northern California The water level in the Shasta reservoir has dramatically receded over the past three years

California's four main reservoirs in the north of the state have seen their levels depleted significantly. "This storm has been somewhat helpful, but even a storm of this magnitude is only getting us a fraction there," says Mitch Russo, Chief of River Forecasting in the Californian Department of Water Resources.

Russo says although the storm has brought a 3% rise in water levels in the the Shasta reservoir, California's largest, it is still only half-full considering the time of year.

The Answer

  • California is experiencing its worst drought since the 1970s
  • The drought took three years to develop
  • Continuous winter rainfall is needed to raise water levels

Experts say ground and reservoir levels are likely to show an improvement in the next few days as run-off water trickles down through the dry landscape. But, they say, despite predictions of a rainy winter, California would need to see extremely wet weather to put an end to the drought.

"We are just at the beginning of the wet season," says Russo. "We would need to maintain this pace of rainfall for the entire season for the situation to get us out of drought and that is not likely to happen."

Reporting by Joanna Jolly

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The Jews of Arabia

A Jew in Aden

The Jews may have originated in the Middle East but they were long ago scattered far and wide - to the Gulf, among other places. Few now remain, except in Iran. But a century ago, writes Matthew Teller, there was even a proposal to found a Jewish state at an oasis near Bahrain.

In 1859 Griffith Jenkins, a senior British naval officer in the Gulf, wrote to a subordinate named Hiskal.

Hiskal - or Yehezkel - ben Yosef was a minor official representing British interests in Muscat. And, like his predecessor in the post in the 1840s (a man named Reuben), he was Jewish.

Jews had been living in Muscat since at least 1625. In 1673, according to one traveller, a synagogue was being built, implying permanence. British officer James Wellsted also noted the existence of a Jewish community on a visit in the 1830s.

Jenkins's letter talks obliquely about the Imam (a Muslim ruler who held sway in Oman's interior) and the arrival of a man from Persia. He ends by asking Hiskal to explain the matter in private - and then, remarkably, had his letter translated into Hebrew.

Letter in Hebrew

British Library curator Daniel Lowe, who unearthed the letter recently, is flummoxed. With Arabic in daily use, and Hiskal doubtless able to read English, why would Jenkins communicate in Hebrew?

Lowe guesses that he may have been using Hebrew as a secret code, to be understood by Hiskal but not by messengers - and, perhaps crucially, not by the Imam and the "man from Persia".

Round the Bend

Map of the Gulf

A series of tales from the days when Britain ruled India and the Gulf, told with documents newly digitised by the British Library

But if this remains a mystery, it's well-known that Jews once lived all across Arabia.

The Koran records Jewish tribes in and around Medina in the 7th Century, and the medieval traveller Benjamin of Tudela, who passed through in about 1170, describes sizeable Jewish populations throughout modern-day Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, as well as on both shores of the Gulf - at Kish (Iran) and Qatif (Saudi Arabia).

Baghdad had been home to Jews since the 6th Century BC. Around the time of WW1, officials estimated the city's Jews to number between 55,000 and 80,000, in a total population of 200,000 - a proportion equal to or greater than that in centres of European Jewry such as Warsaw or Berlin.

Today, fewer than 10 individuals remain.

For a combination of reasons including economic migration, political pressure and outright persecution - notably after the State of Israel was declared in 1948 - almost all the Jewish communities of the Gulf countries dwindled to nothing in the 20th Century.

Two survive. In Iran perhaps 25,000 Jews remain, while Bahrain has a tiny Jewish minority, comprising only a few families - though they wield significant power. Until last year, Bahrain's ambassador to the US was a Jewish woman, Houda Nonoo.

Neither community, though, has had an easy time. Racist attacks were being recorded by the British in Iran in 1905 and in Bahrain in 1929.

Meanwhile, British diplomat John Gordon Lorimer hints at tensions caused by Jewish businessmen in Kuwait, who distilled "spirituous liquors" and thus enabled local Muslims to break religious laws.

Record of Jews distilling liquor in Kuwait

In 1917 an outlandish plan was floated to use Bahrain as the bridgehead from which to establish a "Jewish State of Eastern Arabia" in the desert nearby, but it came to nothing. Just weeks afterwards British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour gave his support to the idea of establishing a "national home for the Jewish people" in Palestine.

Ya Shayile El Gerre, featuring the Jewish Iraqi singer Sett Salima Pasha

Today, the cultural legacy of Jewish Arabia survives most tangibly in music. This evocative song, Ya Shayile El Gerre - recorded in the 1930s on 78rpm shellac disc - features the Jewish Iraqi singer Sett Salima Pasha, accompanied almost certainly here by the Jewish Kuwaiti musicians Daoud Al-Kuwaiti (oud) and his brother Saleh (violin).

Round the Bend is a series of tales from the days when Britain ruled India and the Gulf, told with documents newly digitised by the British Library. You can explore the archive yourself.

British Library curator Daniel Lowe contributed original research for this article.

Selected documents:

Photograph of an Aden Jew, photographer unknown (1870s)

Jews in the Persian Gulf region, by John Gordon Lorimer (1908)

"Throughout the Muslim countries, these unhappy people [the Jews] have been subjected to persecution." George Curzon, MP (1892)

British diplomatic note mentioning the Jewish shopkeepers of Bahrain (1927)

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10 things we didn't know last week

Tom Hanks

1. In 2009 the US Agency for International Development tried to recruit an underground rapper to overthrow the Cuban regime.

Find out more (Washington Post)

2. Tom Hanks checks into hotels using the name of Scottish music hall singer Harry Lauder as an alias.

Find out more (Guardian)

3. Scallops caught in Brittany are shipped to China for cleaning before being transported back to France to be sold in ready meals.

Find out more (The Local)

4. Over 88% of individual winners at the Darwin Awards are men.

Find out more (BMJ)

5. Antarctic sea urchins aren't too bothered by climate change.

Find out more (British Antarctic Survey)

6. The pope believes that animals go to heaven.

Find out more (New York Times)

7. At one point in the 1980s Raleigh accounted for 75% of the UK bike market.

Find out more (Financial Times)

8. Halle Berry and Adele both say they have given online dating a go.

Find out more

9. Few Germans have heard of the Christmas truce of World War One.

Find out more

10. Jose Mourinho enjoys cage swimming with sharks.

Find out more (South China Morning Post)

Seen a thing? Tell the Magazine on Twitter using the hashtag #thingIdidntknowlastweek

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Weekendish: The best of the week's reads

Bovril advert

A collection of some of the best reads from the BBC News website this week.

"Save the lives of our men by sending them the anti-live barbed-wire glove." World War One provided great marketing opportunities for companies keen to sell everything from food and fashion to fountain pens. And they often resorted to making emotional appeals in their bid to get the British public to buy their products. Many appealed to a sense of patriotism. Sunlight Soap, for example, was described as "typically British". "Tommy welcomes it in Trenches" because he was "the cleanest fighter in the world" - "chivalrous" and "gallant" being part of the intended double-meaning. But how many of these items really were must-haves for the trenches, asks Simon Armstrong. Were the "Super-Men" really crying out for Waterman's "Super-Pen"?

How firms cashed in on WW1

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Prisoner at Guantanamo Bay

What is torture? That depends on who you ask. The UN defines it as "deliberately inflicting severe physical or mental pain or suffering" for reasons such as obtaining information or punishment. But countries rarely accept that their own interrogation techniques, however harsh, cross that line. After 9/11, US officials argued that waterboarding, "rectal feeding", and sleep deprivation didn't amount to torture - but when the world found out about them, the country's reputation suffered. The UK experienced exactly the same when its infamous "five techniques" including hooding and sensory deprivation were revealed in the 1970s.

Why it's so rare to hear an apology for torture

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Maria Gentlewhispering video

Do you get a tingly feeling in your scalp if you're intrigued or fascinated by something? Bit like goose bumps, but not quite. It seems there are lots of people who do - so many, in fact, that there are tens of thousands of videos dedicated to creating this, apparently pleasant, sensation. It has a name - Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR) - and these are the types of activities that feature in the videos: polished fingernails tapping on a plastic surface, plastic packaging being scrunched, people being given massages, performers whispering to camera. Nick Higham tracked down some of the stars of these videos and learnt more about the condition that he's had since he was a child.

The videos which make their viewers tingle

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Sculpture

Here's a story that is truly cosmic. Wet (he was named after a hummingbird) is the artist for the Palikur tribe, who live in the Amazon. The tribal elder makes sculptures about the stars - helping to keep the myths that have been passed down the generations alive. "Every star has a story," says Wet in a short BBC film. Stories, he says, that were discovered by shaman. Wet says he didn't know he was an artist until the "white man" told him he was. Check out his sculptures - and his amazing feather head-dress.

The 'star man' from the Amazon

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Phevos the tiger

Phevos the tiger began life in a travelling circus. He might have ended it in a zoo in a small town in central Greece if it wasn't for the intervention of David Barnes, a former RSPCA inspector. This is the second time Barnes has helped the tiger to a better life - the first was to rescue him from the circus. The latest victim of cuts, the Greek zoo no longer has money to care for Phevos properly. The 260kg animal with a bone-crushing bite and paws the size of dinner plates is about to start a new life in California. But how easy is to transport a tiger halfway around the world? Rubbing his head and whispering to him helps.

The tiger who flew halfway across the world

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Here are some things we've enjoyed this week from elsewhere around the web:

Sperm Donor, Life Partner - Atlantic

After 12/13/14, What Are the Next Fun Dates for Math Lovers? - Smithsonian Magazine

Weather Man - The New Yorker

From Africa to Kent: Following in the footsteps of migrants - New Statesman

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Go Figure: The week in numbers

Look back at the week in numbers with our Go Figure images, which are posted daily on social media.

Video-game pioneer Ralph Baer dies

Monday: Video-game pioneer Ralph Baer dies

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Halving of malaria deaths 'tremendous achievement'

Tuesday: Halving of malaria deaths "tremendous achievement"

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CIA interrogation report: The 20 key findings

Wednesday: CIA interrogation report: The 20 key findings

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Jihadism: Tracking a month of deadly attacks

Thursday: Jihadism: Tracking a month of deadly attacks

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The tiger who flew halfway across the world for a better life

Friday: The tiger who flew halfway across the world for a better life

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Find #BBCGoFigure on Twitter and on Facebook


Caption Challenge: Pig of a journey

Three peasants wearing the costumes of Tang's Monk, Sun Wukong and Sand Monk (charactors of 'Journey to the West') are promoting 'black pig' (which symbolize one of the four charactors of 'Journey to the West' pigsy)

Winning entries in the Caption Challenge.

The competition is now closed.

This week three peasants wearing the costumes of Tang's Monk, Sun Wukong and Sand Monk, characters in Journey to the West, walk with a black pig.

Thanks to all who entered. The prize of a small amount of kudos to the following:

6. SkarloeyLine:

Following yonder sty.

5. Candace Sleeman:

"He's hardly a flight risk."

4. David Kempton:

Walkie Porky.

3. Big Greg:

Low-budget nativity unveils casting for three wise men and the donkey.

2. Adrian Bayling:

"So, why is she wearing a silk purse, and what happened to her left ear?"

1. Adrian Wade:

Pulled, Pork.

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Why did Charles Dickens have a personal postbox?

Dickens in his study at Gad's Hill Place

In the 19th Century, when the postal service was in its infancy, Charles Dickens lobbied for his own personal letterbox, writes Kathryn Westcott.

It's Christmas 1869 and Charles Dickens, prolific letter writer, is hurriedly finishing off a correspondence. "The postman is waiting at the gate to tramp through the snow to Rochester and is unlawfully drinking a glass of gin while I write this," Dickens reveals to his friend Charles Kent.

The postman was a familiar sight at Dickens's Georgian home, Gad's Hill Place in Higham, Kent. A postbox, installed by the postal service at the author's request, was one of the earliest wall-boxes to be introduced in Britain, following the introduction of the pillar box across the nation by fellow writer Anthony Trollope in 1852.

Dickens had personally lobbied for that postbox in 1859. Perhaps acting on a tip-off by friend and writer Edmund Yates, who worked in the Postmaster General's office, he replies to a correspondence from Yates stating:

"I think that no one seeing the place can well doubt that my house at Gad's Hill is the place for the letter-box. The wall is accessible by all sorts and conditions of men, on the bold high road, and the house altogether is the great landmark of the whole neighbourhood. Captain Goldsmith's house is up a lane considerably off the high road; but he has a garden wall abutting on the road itself..."

Postbag and newly painted box Personal postbag and the recommissioned postbox (Images: Guildhall Museum, Rochester and Royal Mail)

The letter was uncovered by Dickens enthusiast Jennifer Ide, a tour guide at Gad's Hill Place. Ide came across the decommissioned box a few years ago. She, along with the Charles Dickens Centre (Gad's Hill) Charitable Trust and the Letter Box Study Group, recently asked the Royal Mail to put it back into service. On the 10 December, it was recommissioned.

According to Ide, when Dickens moved to Gad's Hill, the closest place to send a letter was the village of Higham just over a mile away. "It was not an easy road - the return journey would have involved a very steep hill," says Ide. She says Dickens was often seen posting letters in Rochester, which was further away, probably because he had missed the morning Higham post. In Rochester, in 1866, the final dispatch would be 23:00, to arrive in London the next morning.

Over 14,000 letters written by Dickens are recorded in the Oxford Pilgrim Edition of his correspondence between 1820 and his death in June 1870.

"Dickens was a brilliant letter writer," says Claire Tomalin, author and Dickens biographer. "His letters were almost like a performance. They gave a vivid sense of what he was like and what he had been up to." But she says that in his later years, he was more circumspect about what he revealed in them - and they were generally shorter than previous letters. "There was a fear that his letters might be used to create some kind of biography," she says.

Dickens letters Letters dispatched from Gad's Hill (Images courtesy of Guildhall Museum, Rochester)

By the time he moved to Gad's Hill, Dickens had left his wife and had embarked on a secret affair with a young actress. A letter outlining the reasons for the separation somehow found its way into the British and American newspapers.

Like many Victorians, Dickens burned letters. In 1860, he held a huge bonfire at Gad's Hill, consigning to the flames "the accumulated letters and papers of 20 years". According to an eyewitnesses, the author said he wanted his own letters to be treated in the same way.

Dickens died at Gad's Hill in the evening of 9 June 1870. According to reports, he had written letters that day. Perhaps the postman waiting outside became one of the first people outside the immediate family to learn of the death of the great man of letters.

Letters quoted with permission of Mark Dickens.

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When did 'die-ins' become a form of protest?

Man lies on the street while police watch

In the wake of the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, die-ins are being staged across America. But how did die-ins become a form of a protest?

While much of the unrest involved chanting, marching, and in some cases, destruction of property, the die-ins are a vital component of the latest round of protests. On 22 October, students from San Francisco State University Black and Brown Liberation Coalition chanted "black and brown lives matter" and "hands up, don't shoot" on their way to Malcolm X Plaza.

"Then, we will start falling down 'dead' to the ground in rounds," they were instructed on social media. "Our bodies will act as physical reminders of how many black and brown lives are taken from us each day by unnecessary police force."

The Answer

  • Die-ins were common in the 1980s during the Aids crisis
  • They have also happened in London over road safety
  • Their aim is to create a meaningful visual image

Many protesters lay down for four and a half minutes to represent the four and a half hours Michael Brown's body lay in the street after he was shot. In several locations, including Apple's flagship store in New York City, hundreds lay in the way of traffic and shoppers.

"I remember lying on the ground for four and a half minutes, being completely silent, everyone else around doing the same, with six helicopters flying overhead," says Grace Cooper, a 19-year-old student who participated in a die-in last week in Boston. "That silence gave you a chance to think about why you're doing it."

Die-ins did not start in this wave of protests. Last year, more than 1,000 cyclists staged a die-in in London to call for road safety. The year before, protesters in that same city held a die-in to protest about Olympic sponsor Dow Chemicals.

Man participates in a die-in Protestors staged a "die-in" in New York when the UK royals were at a basketball game.

Robert Widell, associate professor of history at University of Rhode Island, remembers die-ins happening as far back as the 1980s, during the Aids epidemic. "What we've seen historically is that specific forms of protests draw attention to the kind of thing that's happening," says Prof Widell.

He says wade-ins, in which black people waded into the water of whites-only beaches, along with sit-ins and teach-ins, were popular when public spaces were segregated by Jim Crow laws. The idea is to create an image that makes an impression. "This kind of publicity forces the country to deal with the violence that faces African-Americans," Widell says.

Reporting by Micah Luxen

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George Boole and the AND OR NOT gates

George Boole George AND Boole

Mathematician George Boole died 150 years ago. Boolean logic, the system he invented, is still used in modern computer programming, writes Chris Stokel-Walker.

Boole walked two miles to the lecture hall where he was due to give a lecture to students in 1864. But it was raining, and he became ill, dying of pleural effusion - liquid around the lungs - on 8 December 1864. He was 49.

In the last 17 years of his life he had established the concept of algebraic logic in mathematics, and simplified the world down to basic statements with either a yes or no answer, for which he used binary arithmetic. "The respective interpretations of the symbols 0 and 1 in the system of logic are Nothing and Universe," he said. It was a concept he first introduced in 1847, and expanded on in 1854. But even now, 150 years after his death, it's used in computer programs.

"Almost every other line of a computer program has a Boolean statement in it," says Michael Dunn of Gospelware, an iOS and Android developer. "It's not something you think about; it's such an integral part of programming."

Boole used the concept of gates, or questions, probing an individual statement - the answer of which is a Boolean yes or no. The most basic three gates are AND, OR or NOT statements. It's possible to deploy Boolean logic using algebra. Statement A ("Today is Monday") is true. Statement B ("It's currently sunny") is also true. Using AND, OR or NOT gates, you can create more complicated statements explaining both the date and weather.

Boolean logic is all around us, in the code behind the games we play, the apps we use, and the software we work with on a day-to-day basis. The basic level of commands given to computers - the building blocks of how these things work - are based on Boole's logic. "You can't get away from the term Boolean if you're a programmer today," Dunn notes.

It's also under the hood of our search engines. When you search for "Miley Cyrus" there's an implied Boolean use of the AND command to combine the two words. In the early days of search, the AND, OR and NOT commands were commonly used to winnow down search results. Today advances in search technology mean many searches can be carried out using more natural language. But Google still allows its users to type in OR (to single out Wimbledon winners from specific years, for example), or to use a minus sign to signify NOT (to remove all mentions of trainers from a search for the ancient goddess of victory, Nike).

Boole himself had a notion of the impact his logic could have. He told a friend in 1851 that Boolean logic could be "the most valuable if not the only valuable contribution that I have made or am likely to make to science and the thing by which I would desire if at all to be remembered hereafter".

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Those big numbers keep on coming

Psy dancing to Gangnam Style

When I warned last month that we would soon report our first quintillion I didn't expect it to happen so soon, writes Anthony Reuben.

But last week, we used what I believe to be the BBC News website's biggest number: 9,223,372,036,854,775,808, that's 9.2 quintillion.

That is the number of times that YouTube users could watch Psy's Gangnam Style (or any other video) without causing problems for its updated counter software.

Coincidentally, it is also the number of times I feel like I have been forced to listen to it due to my children's enthusiasm for the song since it was released in 2012.

The previous limit for views was 2,147,483,647, a little over two billion, which the video has now passed.

For the record (and because a colleague asked me to work it out last week) it would take more than 17,000 years to watch the four minute 12 second video up to the old limit, and 74 trillion years to watch it to the new limit - so I think YouTube is unlikely to have to worry about this problem again for a while.

My warning about quintillions came in a piece that mentioned the story in which the website used its first quadrillion.

The issue was that while we can use tn as an abbreviation for trillion, we cannot use qn for quadrillion because then what would we use for quintillion?

Thanks to @DevineCaesar who suggested on Twitter that we should go with qdn for quadrillion and qtn for quintillion and also to @RichardFPenn who said that if we were talking about vast amounts of money it was time to start using units such as megapounds, gigapounds and terapounds.

Now, how long will it be before we report our first sextillion, which is one with 21 zeros after it?

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Weekendish: The best of the week's reads

Searching for wrecks off Vietnam

A collection of some of the best reads from the BBC News website this week.

The coast of central Vietnam is typhoon territory - it's also unusually rich in shipwrecks. And where there are wrecks, there's most likely treasure. In these waters, the treasure in question is antique Chinese ceramics. For more than 2,000 years, merchants journeyed through these waters en route to the spice islands - the Moluccas, east of Borneo - and from there to China. From the 10th Century onwards they would return with some of the finest ceramics available at the time. But not all of it would make it back - 1,000 wrecks are estimated to lie at the bottom of the sea. In 1991, shortly after the communist country opened up to the outside world, a 17th Century vessel was commercially excavated - 48,000 pieces of ceramic were retrieved, a hoard fetching £4.7m ($7.3m). There is believed to be much, much more down there. But how much should be excavated? How far should Vietnam collaborate with commercial treasure hunters? How much should be documented by archaeologists and then returned to its watery grave? And how to stop the tourist trade in antiques snatched from the deep by free-diving fishermen?

The Wreck Detectives

464 gray line
The sins of my brother
Luz Maria Escobar 2013

The Colombian drugs trafficker Pablo Escobar was once the seventh richest man on the planet, controlling 80% of the global cocaine trade. He and his Medellin cartel were also responsible for thousands of murders - a fact his sister says she only gradually became aware of. In fact, Luz Maria Escobar says she had to look the word "mafia" up in the dictionary when Pablo actually told her what he did for a living. She now visits the graves of Escobar's victims, and leaves notes, begging their forgiveness. But it's not always welcome. One victim's relative says: "I think it's a good thing after all the damage her brother caused. But if one of those notes appeared on my brother's grave, I'd probably throw it in the bin, because just an apology isn't enough. It's a question of justice."

Atoning for the sins of a brother

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Funny flotsam

Friederike Wegert with the Tjipetir block found at Borkum

For the past few years, 100-year-old rubber-like blocks from Indonesia have been mysteriously appearing on beaches in the UK and northern Europe. The Titanic was suggested as one of the possible sources - but as Mario Cacciottolo discovered in his article on Monday, it now appears that they may have washed up from a Japanese liner, the Mayazaki Maru, which was sunk by a German submarine near the Isles of Scilly in 1917. It's the second time Mario has written about flotsam for the Magazine, the first being his piece about Lego pieces washing up on the Cornish coast. No doubt he'll soon be combing beaches in search of material for his next piece...

The mystery of the Tjipetir blocks

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Dictators' dinners

Hitler eating at a picnic

Hitler and Gaddafi both suffered from flatulence, and Mussolini once became "dangerously" constipated during World War Two. Perhaps it was these digestive quirks that accounted for some of their unusual eating preferences, as recorded in a new book. From odd table manners to strange food choices, the proclivities of the worst tyrants of the 20th Century are revealed, as authors Victoria Clark and Melissa Scott recount some extraordinary tales from the world's most despotic dining tables.

What do dictators like to eat?

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The other Cromwell

Elizabeth Cromwell (1598-1665), Her Highness the Protectoress by Robert Walker

The sitter is a lady, dressed in a dark, formal gown. She stares out at the artist with an impenetrable expression. Around her throat, a cluster of pearls proclaims her as a person of substantial means. But who is the mysterious 17th Century model? In her day, she inspired in one of England's most controversial leaders an apparently lifelong devotion, yet her critics derided her simple ways, and felt she was out of place in her elevated role. Now, Elizabeth Cromwell is barely remembered - overshadowed in popular culture by her husband Oliver. So what was the real story of the woman whom Oliver Cromwell described as "dearer to [him] than any creature"?

The mystery of Oliver Cromwell's 'queen'

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Ashes to ashes

One of the US Winter Olympic team scattering CJ in Sochi One of the US Winter Olympic team offered to scatter CJ at the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi

CJ's ashes have been scattered literally all over the world - 100 countries, and have even been taken into space. The former member of the US Air Force who loved to travel and loved adventure died on 14 April 2010, when he was 20 years old. His ashes had been sitting on his mother Hallie Twomey's mantelpiece until last November when she was moved to give him a magnificent send off. She turned to social media and asked if anyone would be willing to scatter a small amount of her son's ashes in a place of their choosing. In the past year Hallie has been overwhelmed with takers. CJ's ashes have been scattered in Machu Picchu, Peru, on a tea plantation in Tamil Nadu, India, on sand dunes near Swakopmund in Namibia. They have been skydiving and scattered from a hot air balloon over Cappadocia, Turkey. Small packets are sent to participants, who are asked to take a picture and say a few words. "I ask them to let CJ know that we loved him," says Hallie. "And the thing I need people to do most for me is to tell CJ I'm sorry. Because I am - I feel I let my son down." But there is only a finite amount of ashes and Hallie has to be selective about where they go.

The man whose ashes are scattered in more than 100 countries

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The serial sleuth
Serial website screengrab

If you haven't heard of Serial yet, you've been missing a treat. For the uninitiated, the podcast crime series follows the harrowing true story of an investigation into the murder of high-school student Hae Min Lee in Baltimore County in 1999. Her 17-year-old ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed was sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison. The case against him was largely based on the story of one witness, Adnan's friend Jay, who testified that he helped to bury Hae's body. Adnan has always maintained he had nothing to do with the murder. Did Adnan really commit the murder? In Serial, journalist and presenter Sarah Koenig re-investigates the case. But, as BBC Trending discovered, the series has inspired fans to start their own investigations, and to share these and their own hunches on social media sites, such as reddit.

Serial: Amateur sleuths trying to solve murder

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Here are some things we've enjoyed this week from elsewhere around the web:

A day in the life of a bookie - Harry Vale

The new spectator sport: writing in a wrestling mask - PRI

Teaching Essay Writing in Pyongyang - Slate

Why China is now banning puns - Quartz

Aliens in the Valley - the complete history of Reddit - Mashable

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The diplomat’s portable handbook (wheelbarrow required)

John Gordon Lorimer

If knowledge is power, then the British government's secret gazetteer of the Gulf, known simply as "Lorimer" after its author, epitomises the scale of imperial ambition. Intended to be a portable handbook, it was anything but, writes Matthew Teller.

It's one of the 20th Century's most unusual books.

Commissioned in 1903 as a six-month project to produce a "convenient and portable handbook" for British diplomats, John Gordon Lorimer's Gazetteer of the Persian Gulf, Oman and Central Arabia covered 5,000 pages when it finally emerged 12 years later, in six giant volumes.

Lorimer, born in Glasgow, served as a colonial administrator in India before his transfer to Baghdad and then the Gulf. He took five years over the first volume, an obsessively detailed listing of towns and villages that records everything from topography to demography.

To stop such a wealth of specialist knowledge falling into the wrong hands, it was immediately classified "secret", circulated only among British officials.

"The general appearance of Doha is unattractive; the lanes are narrow and irregular, the houses dingy and small," wrote Lorimer about the Qatari capital - now a city of wealth and ambition, but then, to his eyes, a semi-abandoned village.

Doha in the Gazetteer

"There are no trees. The people are unhealthy in appearance - a circumstance which is attributed to their assiduity in pearl diving, which places a severe strain on the human constitution."

Dubai, Lorimer reports, had a population of about 10,000 (today, more than two million). Steamers from India docked once a fortnight, but aside from pearls, the only local exports were shells and dried fish.

Meanwhile in Abu Dhabi Lorimer saw "no cultivation except a little of dates, [and] no trade worthy of mention outside the town. Camels abound."

Abu Dhabi in the Gazetteer

Lorimer planned the gazetteer's second volume as a comprehensive survey of Gulf history. He was working on it, alongside his diplomatic duties in Bushire (now Bushehr in Iran), when he lost his life.

Round the Bend

A series of tales from the days when Britain ruled India and the Gulf, told with documents newly digitised by the British Library

The Times of India reported that on Sunday 8 February 1914, while cleaning his pistol, Lorimer "pulled the trigger and discharged a last cartridge which had been overlooked in the magazine". He died from a single gunshot wound to the stomach and was buried next day with full honours. He was just 43. A letter in the following week's Spectator described him as "one of the keenest of intellects, with a mind like a Damascus blade".

Lorimer's historical volume, completed by a colleague, was published in five parts in 1915 - and, like its companion, marked "secret" for decades. It was only after declassification in 1955 that Lorimer could be credited for his work. His 5,000-page "handbook" has been central to the study of the Gulf ever since.

The British Library is now publishing the entire Gazetteer online. Earlier this year it invited the Lorimer family and BBC Scotland to observe the digitisation process.

Pauline McLean reports on the project to put JG Lorimer's archive online

Lorimer's greatest achievement was to gather a vast body of knowledge into one place. But it wasn't all facts and figures. Moments of drama emerge as in this episode off the coast of Abu Dhabi: "On the night of 31 August 1873, a slave swam off to the [British ship] May Frere from a fleet of 73 pearl boats in the vicinity. The slave received protection, with the result that all the pearl boats weighed [anchor], lest their slaves should desert and be freed."

Up until then, fugitive slaves seeking safety on board a British vessel might have been handed back to their owners. But after this incident it became Admiralty policy not to return escapees to slavery under any circumstances.

Gulf cities composite Dubai, Doha and Abu Dhabi

Lorimer then wryly records another bid for freedom.

"On 25 November 1899, on the occasion of a visit to Qatar, a slave belonging to a relative of the [ruling] sheikh waded off in the dark to the Residency launch and succeeded in getting on board. He was accordingly liberated."

The sheikh's response is unknown.

British Library curator Daniel Lowe contributed original research for this article. Click here to read his essay on Lorimer's legacy.

Click below to see relevant documents in the archive:

The fugitive slave, and the resulting change in British policy

Lorimer's description of Dubai

Image of Doha, 1903

Round the Bend is a series of tales from the days when Britain ruled India and the Gulf, told with documents newly digitised by the British Library. You can explore the archive yourself.

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10 things we didn't know last week

Dalai Lama

1. There is one female beer inspector in the UK (and 39 men).

Find out more (Financial Times)

2. The Dalai Lama carries round "little treasures" in a bag - they are in fact Werther's Originals.

Find out more (the Times)

3. When a person's age ends with a nine they are more likely to seek extramarital affairs, sign up for their first marathon, and run marathons faster than when they were slightly older or slightly younger.

Find out more (Guardian)

4. Eels can use their electric discharges to remotely control the fish they hunt.

Find out more

5. A commercial jumbo jet is a more equal place to be than America if you compare space provision on a plane with income distribution.

Find out more (Economist)

6. In England, heavy drinking during pregnancy is not a crime against the unborn child.

Find out more

7. Waxworms - the larvae of wax moths - can break down plastic.

Find out more (Smithsonian)

8. One of the males in the royal lineage was probably cuckolded between the reign of Richard III and the 5th Duke of Beaufort.

Find out more

9. It's quicker - by about three hours - to read the Hobbit than watch Peter Jackson's movie trilogy.

Find out more

10. IS fighters in Syria have a weakness for Red Bull and Pringles.

Find out more (Financial Times)

Seen a thing? Tell the Magazine on Twitter using the hashtag #thingIdidntknowlastweek

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Go Figure: The week in numbers

Look back at the week in numbers with our Go Figure images, which are posted daily on social media.

World Aids Day: Overcoming fear of taking ARVs

Monday: World Aids Day: Overcoming fear of taking ARVs

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 The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies world premiere

Tuesday: The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies world premiere

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World on course for warmest year

Wednesday: World on course for warmest year

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 Gangnam Style music video 'broke' YouTube view limit

Thursday: Gangnam Style music video 'broke' YouTube view limit

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US chimpanzee Tommy 'has no human rights' - court

Friday: US chimpanzee Tommy 'has no human rights' - court

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Find #BBCGoFigure on Twitter and on Facebook


Why was Psy nearly too much for YouTube?

South Korean rapper Psy performs "Gangnam Style" during the opening ceremony for the 17th Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea, Friday, Sept. 19, 2014.

Psy's Gangnam Style video has been watched so many times that YouTube's counter could not cope and the company had to upgrade its system. Why did this happen?

The catchy Korean pop video catapulted the artist Psy and his signature dance moves to fame in 2012 and two years later, Gangnam Style is still the video most watched on YouTube.

At the time of writing, it has had 2,155,653,764 views - which is actually a bit of a problem, as YouTube's view counter could not count beyond 2,147,483,647.

"We never thought a video would be watched in numbers greater than a 32-bit integer (=2,147,483,647 views) but that was before we met Psy," says YouTube in a statement.

The phrase "32-bit integer" is significant because it refers to how big a number a computer's memory can store.

Computers work in binary code - a system of zeros and ones. Every number we use has to be turned into a series of binary digits or "bits" so that a computer can understand it.

It can help to think of 32 bits as a row of 32 boxes. The boxes can have either a one or a zero in them and every box corresponds to a different number, each of which is double the number for the previous box.

For example, the first box corresponds to the number one, the second to the number two, the third to the number four, the fourth to the number eight and so on.

Screenshot of Psy's video on YouTube

The computer adds up boxes with ones and ignores those with zeroes. The longer the row of boxes, the bigger the number the computer can record.

Most computers use 32 binary digits because this is easy to process and covers most common numbers.

The Answer

  • Too many video hits
  • YouTube's old counter used 32 binary digits
  • The company had to upgrade it to 64 bits

"It's the same as though you had four spaces to write down your number in and you need a fifth space to put the next one in," says Steven Bagley, a computer scientist from the University of Nottingham.

"It is the same as far as a computer is concerned. It needed that extra bit to store that number."

YouTube had not thought it was possible for a video to get more hits than could be stored in a 32-bit number. But the Gangnam Style video crept closer and closer to the limit.

If it had crossed it then, like an odometer clocking the miles on a car, the counter would simply have gone back to the beginning.

This would not necessarily have even been zero as some 32-bit integers are used to count negative numbers. The next number it showed could have been several million below zero.

YouTube averted this by upgrading to a 64-bit integer and because computers are programmed to count up by the power of two, the new limit is 9,223,372,036,854,775,808, or more than nine quintillion.

They don't think even Gangnam style could break that one.

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How do you stop people coughing during a classical concert?

Girl coughing

A world-renowned violinist has berated the parents of a child who coughed during a concert. How do you keep a tickly throat at bay, and does it matter, asks Chris Stokel-Walker.

South Korean violinist Kyung-Wha Chung has hit the headlines at her London comeback concert for suggesting that the parents of a coughing child could "maybe bring her back when she's older".

An academic paper published last year found that people cough in concerts twice as much as they do elsewhere. Jonathan Bloxham, a conductor and artistic director of the Northern Chords chamber music festival, has a theory. "We as animals do tend to mimic those around us," he says. "When one person coughs around us there can be a chain reaction."

His hunch may be correct. "Even if you speak about coughing, you feel like a cough," explains Professor Ron Eccles of the Common Cold Centre at Cardiff University. "There is a big psychological component to the voluntary cough."

Large congregations of people - 2,500 were in attendance at Chung's performance at the Royal Festival Hall - can experience a domino effect. And it can be noisy.

The answer

  • Ask the audience before the concert to keep quiet
  • Offer cough drops
  • Or don't worry about it

The decibel level of a violin ranges from 84 to 103, which is not much louder than the average cough, measured at 70 to 90 decibels by Eccles's team in a 1998 study. Stifling your outburst may reduce noise levels, but it won't stop your neighbour from copying you.

Chung's response was an overreaction, believes Bloxham. "I don't think we're fulfilling our duty to the music if we allow such a banal thing as coughing to affect our performance," he says. "The whole point of music is to transport people away from the everyday."

Yet coughing is not the only way to interrupt a performance. Mobile phones left on can provide electronic accompaniments to classical instruments. In south-east Asia, a major growth area for classical music, some artists report that audiences chat among themselves or move around the concert hall.

Bloxham is sanguine about such interruptions: "Classical music has had and still does have this rap for being a bit precious and constricting for audiences. I think that attitude is not healthy."

Eccles has a simple solution to a mid-concert cough: "The best treatment is to suck a lozenge when in the theatre. Menthol and peppermint work particularly well at inhibiting coughs." But he has a secret: anything sweet works. Clinical trials show that 85% of a cough drop's efficacy is down to the placebo effect.

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra heads off the problem by offering audience members cough drops before a performance. That might be a tip the Royal Festival Hall could pick up.

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Caption Challenge: Goosing around

Alix Ross playing Pricilla The Goose

Winning entries in the Caption Challenge.

The competition is now closed.

This week Priscilla The Goose waits to enter the auditorium during a performance of Mother Goose at Hackney Empire in London.

Thanks to all who entered. The prize of a small amount of kudos to the following:

6. Lin Vegas:

"Break an egg darling."

5. Cindy Accidentally:

"Of course you'll get applause - they won't say boo to a goose."

4. Douglas Mitchell:

"...and to think I turned down Pinter at Guildford Rep..."

3. Richard Lawton:

The panto producer had misunderstood the theatre management's demand: "We don't want a turkey like last year."

2. Brian Saxby:

"There isn't a great demand for Keith Harris impersonators but I like to keep my hand in."

1. Francis O'Shaughnessy:

"What you doing at Christmas?"

"Four hours in a moderate oven. Yourself?"

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What is replacing Google's annoying ReCaptcha test?

Robot at computer

Online security checks asking users to type in random hard-to-read words are being replaced with a simple box to tick next to the words "I am not a robot". Why, asks Justin Parkinson.

It frustrates visitors to hundreds of thousands of websites. A computer presents users with a fuzzily written or confusingly presented word or two to type in.

Captcha, standing for Completely Automated Public Turing test to Tell Computers and Humans Apart, is designed to prevent automated spamming of sites by setting this test, which people find easier than machines.

Google's ReCaptcha system introduces hard-to-read text from newspapers, books and other old sources such as maps. It presents two words - one the computer recognises and one that it doesn't. That second word would have been scanned but rendered illegible and, so, the repeated deciphering of it by different users, who agree on what it is likely to be, would eventually enable that word to be reincorporated into the digitised archive it came from.

Captcha

A survey in 2012 suggested humans found more than 90% of Captcha tests difficult. But computers have got better at them and can now solve an estimated 99.8% of them, Google says.

So it has altered the system. No Captcha ReCaptcha, being rolled out from Thursday, simply asks desktop computer users to tick a box saying "I'm not a robot". The actual tick is not important, but the human behaviour involved - such as the imprecise movement of the mouse before and after clicking and the time taken to solve the problem - is. Computers find these hard to replicate.

"The sheer complication of the human arm and hand and the way they direct a mouse makes it difficult to predict," says Tom Cheesewright, founder of the technology consultancy Book of the Future.

The answer

  • Users are asked to tick a box saying they're human
  • The system will tell if this is true by mouse movement and other clues
  • Mobile and tablet users will have to complete an image match-up test

For mobile phones and tablets the tick-box test does not work on its own because there is no mouse. So users will be presented with an image and asked which of nine others is its closest match. Google says its new checks make sites safer from automated infiltration than before.

But not using text-recognition ReCaptcha means an end to the easily achieved mass-digitisation of archives. "The most important thing is user experience," says Cheesewright. "The digitisation was a nice way of meeting two needs in one but the core need is security."

However, No Captcha ReCaptcha presents other options for gathering data. "Using machines to identify similar objects in complex photos remains a unsolved challenge in computer science," says Peter Price, director at PPM Production, which specialises in TV programmes on technology. "It's a challenge that millions of mobile users will now unwittingly help Google to crack."

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Why are blood donors asked their sexual history?

Vial of blood held by gloved hand

The US Food and Drug Administration is considering lifting a ban on blood donations by men who have had sex with other men - even just once - since 1977. The blood is tested so what is the point of asking donors questions about their sexual history?

The ban was put in place as response to the spread of HIV and Aids in the gay community. But advances in testing and a better understanding of the disease mean the US is being urged to follow other countries, such as the UK, and allow gay men to donate blood as long if they have refrained from sex with another man for one year.

The 12-month deferral period is because it takes on average two to four weeks to pick up an HIV infection when testing blood and a couple of months to detect Hepatitis B. So the questions about a donor's sexual history filter out potential infections - although they inevitably mean people with healthy blood are not allowed to donate.

The Answer

  • Men who have sex with men are more likely to have HIV
  • Blood is tested but it takes time to detect new infections
  • By asking questions, potential infections are filtered out

Although campaigners say they are enthusiastic about lifting the ban, they argue it does not go far enough. "Our goal is to eliminate sexual orientation from the deferral process and instead base the decision on an individual risk assessment," says Ryan James Yesak, founder of the US National Gay Blood Drive.

He says male or female donors should instead be asked if they have had receptive anal intercourse in the last year. But Dr Steven Kleinman, senior medical adviser to the American Association of Blood Banks, says who you have sex with is a better risk indicator than what you're doing with that person.

And in the US, he says, men who have sex with men make up the group in which HIV prevalence is highest. "Maybe the tool we use is crude - it's not a fine scalpel but more of a sledgehammer. But if we use a fine scalpel, we might miss some people."

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Blood donation around the world:
  • UK (excluding Northern Ireland), Japan and Australia have a one-year ban on men who have had sex with another man
  • Canada has a five-year ban
  • no ban in Italy, Mexico, Poland, Portugal, Russia and Spain, but some of those countries have tougher screening questions
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Reporting by Joanna Jolly

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The art of a good Christmas card photo

Tony and Cherie Blair's Christmas card

"Menacingly odd", "fabulously awkward", "terrifying" and plain "creepy" - just some of the reactions to the Christmas card sent this year by Tony and Cherie Blair, notes Ben Milne.

It's set up to look like a domestic scene of an elder statesman and his devoted wife. But there's no getting around it - the former prime minister looks perturbed, even angry, according to dozens of tweeters. His teeth are bared and his eyes appear to be downright fierce, they suggest. "Perhaps the oddest thing about Tony Blair's threatening Christmas card is that this must have been the BEST photo..." tweets one observer. "The strange thing about Tony Blair's Christmas card is how the teeth seem to follow you round the room." "Be afraid. Be very afraid," write others.

The Blairs have a difficult past when it comes to Christmas cards. While in Downing Street, they were regularly castigated for including pictures of their young children (2001), or choosing pictures in which Cherie looked good and her children looked uncomfortable (2003), or pictures which excluded their children but looked like something out of a Boden catalogue (2004).

Etiquette writer Simon Fanshawe thinks that people are being unfair: "If you're trying to appeal to a whole range of people, it's a personal message from you - so you put your face on there. The choice is between that or a snowman. The man's a former PM - he's a major world figure, so putting himself on the card doesn't seem odd."

In fact, self-portraits have decorated Christmas cards from the beginning of their existence. The first card was commissioned by Sir Henry Cole in 1843, and featured an illustration of himself and his family, wine-glasses in hand. In the 21st Century, it's easier than ever to produce a bespoke greeting (although the Kardashian family took this to an extreme last year, with a card of themselves which cost a reputed $250,000 to produce).

Jo Bryant, an etiquette tutor with Debrett's says, "Photographic Christmas cards are usual amongst those with a significant public profile, and are a tradition of the royal family" although she adds that "enclosing general round-robin newsletters, or photographs of the family and pets, is not traditionally British and can seem excessive".

Fanshawe agrees and says he objects more to "those dreadful letters from people about how well their children are doing, with messages like, 'We were so lucky to fly first class'."

Other politicians play it safer than the Blairs. Nick Clegg has a preference for drawings by his children - something political commentator Kevin Maguire approves of. "What's wrong with a kids drawing of baby Jesus in a manger? You look at [the Blairs' card] and you think, 'Steady, what's going on here?' It might be hard to get it right, but it's easy to get it wrong."

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Can you 'steal' from fellow shoppers?

People fighting over a large TV in a box in an Asda store Shops including Asda in Wembley promoted "Black Friday" bargains last week

"Black Friday" sales saw shoppers fighting over goods in supermarkets. But is it legal to take items from another shopper before they reach the checkout, asks Alex Morrison.

The short answer is, probably. At least, it's probably not a crime to take an item out of someone's trolley as long as the taker does not use force or threats.

The question hinges on who owns the property before it's paid for. Under the Theft Act, which applies in England and Wales, a person must take something "belonging to another with the intention of permanently depriving the other of it" to commit theft. Similar legislation applies in Scotland, and in Northern Ireland.

If the supermarket owns an item - and the taker plans to pay on their way out - they haven't deprived the owner by snatching it. On that basis this is not theft - bad manners maybe, but not a crime.

The Answer

  • Not illegal if supermarket still owns items
  • Could be a crime if items "belong" to other shopper
  • Illegal to use threats or force

But is the supermarket the owner? The law says property "shall be regarded as belonging to any person having possession or control of it, or having in it any proprietary right or interest".

Surely a shopper has "possession or control" of items in their trolley - and can therefore be a victim of theft? Not so, says one police officer.

"There's no theft in this situation because the shopper doesn't have a 'proprietary right' over the item," he says. "To put it simply, the supermarket is still the owner."

Criminal law solicitor Richard Atkinson echoed that, saying ownership would "only transfer to the purchaser on completion of the transaction". In a theoretical example, he said a 15-year-old who picked up alcohol in a shop would leave "with a flea in his ear, never having been the owner of that bottle of cider".

But Adam Jackson, a lecturer at Northumbria Law School, said it could be argued that both the shop and the customer temporarily owned an item once it was picked up off a shelf. He said prosecution could then be possible if it could be proved that a person snatching an item had acted dishonestly, though it was unlikely in practice.

Several people were arrested during Friday's shopping scrums, and the police officer pointed out that laws relating to threats and violence still apply - so shoppers can be arrested for "all manner of public order offences... and beyond that to actual assaults".

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Is lots of vinyl being sold?

Graph showing shipments of vinyl records 1964 to 2013

Much has been made of the fact that more than a million vinyl albums have been sold this year, but is that a lot, asks Anthony Reuben.

Everybody's becoming familiar with a particular story about how people buy their music. CDs killed vinyl. CDs were in turn at least partly killed by downloads. But then vinyl made a stirring recovery.

I heard a guest on BBC Radio 4 talk about how some people were buying vinyl as a form of art, with no intention of playing it. Clearly there are also lots of people who buy and play vinyl because they prefer it. But do the latest figures really herald a return to peak vinyl?

This year is the first time that more than a million vinyl albums have been sold since 1996. This was based on Official Charts data released by the British Phonographic Industry (BPI), going back to 1994, which was when they started keeping count.

There was nothing particularly wrong with the figures, except that 1994 is quite a bad year to start looking at vinyl, as the graph above shows.

Now, there are caveats with these figures, which are for shipments not for sales. So if albums were sent by record labels to shops but not sold then they would still appear in these figures.

Also, they are figures for vinyl units, so a double album such as the Beatles White Album would count as two units.

But while these figures slightly inflate the number of vinyl albums sold, they make it clear that 1996 was not by any stretch of the imagination peak vinyl.

Compare vinyl shipments in 1975 and 2013. Well, in 1975, the era of Abba and the Eagles, 45 times more vinyl was shipped.

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Weekendish: The best of the week's reads

Mauro Prosperi in the desert

A collection of some of the best reads from the BBC News website this week.

Mauro Prosperi was bewitched by the desert, but he got more than he bargained for when he took part in a race across the Sahara 20 years ago. When the former Olympic pentathlete was running in the 250km (155-mile) Marathon des Sables he was caught in a sandstorm and couldn't find his way back to the course. Prosperi was lost in the desert for 10 days and had to cook with his urine and drink bat blood to survive - in less than two weeks he lost 35lb (16kg) and it took him two years to fully recover. Surprisingly, he hasn't been able to get the desert out of his system: "Desert fever does exist, and it's a disease that I've absolutely caught. I'm drawn back to the desert every year to greet it, to experience it," he says.

Here he tells his amazing story of survival.

How I drank urine and bat blood to survive

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Preacher mystery
Aimee Semple McPherson

She was glamorous and beautiful - a "spell-binding speaker", whose elaborate stage performances in 1920s America drew a large and enraptured fanbase. But Aimee Semple McPherson was not a Hollywood actress - she was an evangelical preacher who used extravagant theatrical techniques to teach the gospel. And yet one dramatic event of her life remains unexplained - where did she disappear to in May 1926, and was the reason she gave for her mysterious absence really credible?

The mysterious disappearance of a celebrity preacher

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A brick too far
Star wars scene in Lego

When some people think of childhood imagination, they think Lego. But now some critics say the toy has become less creative, with too many specialised pieces and instruction manuals. It used to be a simple set of a few blocks which relied on you to conjure a design. But now there are around 3,000 different pieces - a Lego croissant being a recent addition. Many argue that sets with detailed instructions, first introduced in 1964, are preventing the "creative destruction" of making something from scratch to your own specifications. But some say the masses of new pieces inspire further invention.

Has the imagination disappeared from Lego?

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Foreign fields
Tanzania

If asked to name key locations from World War One, the usual battle-weary answers of the Somme, Ypres and Passchendaele are often given. The BBC's Deborah Basckin looks at some of the lesser-known places which played a significant role in the war. Togo in West Africa is where, arguably, some of the first shots were fired, Germany attempted to get Mexico to join the war on its side and Malta earned the nickname the Nurse of the Mediterranean for treating more than 100,000 casualties. What part did Tanzania (pictured) and other locations play?

Six unexpected WW1 battlegrounds

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Intrigue in Persia
Alexandre Romieu

"Romieu has the reputation of being a man of talents… and of being a great proficient in the science of intrigue."

So reads a letter sent in 1805 by a British ambassador to a colleague stationed in Baghdad. The mysterious individual who had so piqued the interest of British government officials was Antoine-Alexandre Romieu - a French adventurer and emissary, who had been sent by Napoleon himself to secure an alliance with the Shah of Persia. As Romieu headed east, the British became more and more anxious. It was a time of international conflict - a Napoleonic war was raging. How were they to deal with the threat of a potentially dangerous alliance?

Monsieur Romieu - a 'man of talents'

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Here are some things we've enjoyed this week from elsewhere around the web:

Ebola and the Aid Industrial Complex - Ebola Diaries

To anyone struggling with addiction, just hang on - Pete Doherty, Independent

The man who made Tetris - Vice

The game whose eerie allure will never be put to rest - Telegraph

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The singing sailor of Oman

Salim Rashid Suri

Teenagers were dreaming of fame and fortune as a musician long before the advent of downloads, CDs or even vinyl. The Singing Sailor of Oman is one young man whose dream came true, writes Matthew Teller, as his fusion of Arabic and Indian musical styles became a hit - on shellac - in the 1930s.

Music has followed trade routes to and fro across the Indian Ocean for centuries, but the birth of the recording industry hugely accelerated the process of cultural exchange. The story of Salim Rashid Suri illustrates how the gramophone helped bring different musical worlds together.

While still in his teens, in the 1920s, this restless soul began to roam, working on trading ships that plied from his home town of Sur, an old Omani slaving port, along the Gulf to Bahrain, Kuwait and Iraq - and further afield, to East Africa, Yemen and India.

Round the Bend

A series of tales from the days when Britain ruled India and the Gulf, told with documents newly digitised by the British Library

On board he would have heard unfamiliar accents and stories, and doubtless joined in with the rhythmic sea shanties that helped pass a long voyage.

He quickly found a talent for song, starting with maidan - an Omani form of sung poetry - then picking up more complex sowt (Arabic for "voice") from early gramophone recordings made in Baghdad by popular singer Abdullatif al-Kuwaiti.

But his desire to pursue a musical career, his skill on the oud (lute) and his growing fame as The Singing Sailor enraged Salim Rashid's conservative-minded family. His brother even threatened him with a gun.

So, in the late 1920s or early 1930s, he left Oman to settle in Bombay. There he worked as a trade broker - and deepened his musical reputation.

One of his most famous recordings, Bi Allah faasaalooha, dates from this period. It is notable for mixing the Arabic oud with strong Bombay influence in the clarinet - adopted from British military bands - and tabla drum.

Bi Allah Faasaalooha

Once established in his new home, Salim Rashid recorded a unique form of Indian-influenced sowt, adding "Suri" to his name, to highlight his Arab origins in Sur.

His discs sold predictably well among Bombay's Arabs, but his canny insertion of lyrics in Urdu also appealed to the much larger Indian market, guaranteeing commercial success.

Suri and his Indian wife left Bombay in the late 1940s for Bahrain, where he set up his own record label and recorded with dozens of musicians, including his teenage inspiration, Abdullatif al-Kuwaiti.

He died in the town of his birth, Sur, in 1979, a cultural ambassador for Oman, enjoying regular TV appearances and a solid-gold reputation as a leading exponent of the Sowt al-Khaleej ("Voice of the Gulf") genre.

Here are five more tracks newly digitised from original shellac discs that exemplify the diversity of Gulf musical styles in the recording industry's earliest days. The restrictions of the 10-inch, 78rpm format - which could only hold around three minutes of music - means that songs often ended abruptly, to continue on the other side of the disc.

Jala Bel Kas

Jala Bel Kas, (Abdullatif Al-Kuwaiti)

One of Salim Rashid Suri's musical idols, Abdullatif al-Kuwaiti recorded for the German Odeon label in 1928 and 1929 in Baghdad and Cairo, including this stately example of sowt, which also features the brothers Daoud and Saleh al-Kuwaiti (no relation to Abdullatif) on the oud and mirwas hand-drum respectively.

Al-Jawqa Al-Iraqi Ya Yousef Al-Hasan

Al-Jawqa Al-Iraqi Ya Yousef Al-Hasan (Muhammad Al-Qubanchi)

A gloriously poised example of Iraqi maqam - a melodic improvisation on traditional Arabic musical scales - recorded in 1932 and showcasing al-Qubanchi's resonant vibrato croon.

Youahidouni La Khanani

Youahidouni la khanani (Sett Salima Pasha)

Iraq's most famous singer in the mid-20th Century, Salima Murad - who took the honorific prefix Sett ("Lady") and suffix Pasha (a Turkish title of respect) - here performs in the Iraqi pesta style, a short vocal piece sung after a maqam improvisation. She is accompanied by violin, hand-drum and either qanun (plucked zither) or santur (hammered dulcimer).

Ma Ba Shirka Budi

Ma Ba Shirka Budi (Khamis Makaddeit)

A strikingly evocative example of leywa, an African musical genre heard in towns all round the Indian Ocean, most likely originating from the slave trade. This track, recorded in Bahrain in the 1950s, features ululation and the distinctive whine of the double-reeded surnay, similar to an oboe, over a loping 6/8 drum beat.

Siqani Asal

Siqani Asal (Sanad bin Ahmad)

This very unusual a cappella maritime work song, recorded in Bahrain, features Sanad bin Ahmad, a nahham or traditional singer employed on a pearl-diving ship. Bin Ahmad's voice rises urgently above a grinding, buzzing drone, produced by a chorus of sailors growling in their throats.

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Find out more

  • Ethnomusicologist and British Library curator Rolf Killius contributed original research for this article - click here for his extended essay on Salim Rashid Suri, with links to more songs
  • The Qatar Digital Library's Soundcloud page features an extensive archive of early recordings taken from 78rpm shellac discs
  • The Qatar Digital Library YouTube channel has contemporary performances of traditional music genres, including sowt
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Round the Bend is a series of tales from the days when Britain ruled India and the Gulf, told with documents newly digitised by the British Library. You can explore the archive yourself.

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10 things we didn't know last week

Tray of beer being carried

1. There is a brown bear living at the Chernobyl site.

Find out more

2. Beer is less likely to slosh than coffee, and Guinness is easiest of all to transport.

Find out more (Daily Telegraph)

3. A copy of Shakespeare's First Folio - one of only 230 to still exist - lay unrecognised for 200 years in a library at Saint-Omer in northern France.

Find out more (Guardian)

4. Joni Mitchell stopped a biopic of her life, starring Taylor Swift, from being made.

Find out more (Rolling Stone)

5. Vegan mushroom gravy is an unusually popular Thanksgiving search term in the US state of Oregon.

Find out more (New York Times)

6. Dogs turn their heads to left or right depending on whether they are listening for verbal content or intonation.

Find out more (the Times)

7. Sir John Gielgud wrote the script for a gay porn film.

Find out more (Guardian)

8. Cat appears on traditional Christmas menus in some areas of Switzerland.

Find out more

9. People in positions of power are more likely to have higher pitched voices.

Find out more (Daily Mail)

10. Hillary Clinton's backstage demands include diet ginger ale, crudites, hummus and sliced fruit.

Find out more (New York Post)

Seen a thing? Tell the Magazine on Twitter using the hashtag #thingIdidntknowlastweek

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Go Figure: The week in numbers

Look back at the week in numbers with our Go Figure images, which are posted daily on social media.

GoFigRussia

Monday: Oil price slide and sanctions 'cost Russia $140bn'

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GoFiglion

Tuesday: Wizard of Oz and Casablanca memorabilia fetches millions at auction

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GoFigTsingtao

Wednesday: The unlikely battlegrounds on which World War One were fought

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GoFigebola

Thursday: How world's worst Ebola outbreak began with one boy's death

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GoFigblackfriday

Friday: Shocking scenes as Britain catches US 'Black Friday' fever

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Find #BBCGoFigure on Twitter and on Facebook


How easy is it to push a plane?

Passengers pushing plane

The story of passengers pushing a frozen Siberian plane soon went viral. But was it really possible, asks Tom de Castella.

"Siberians are so tough that for them pushing a frozen plane along a runway is a piece of cake," the Russian daily newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda reported. The 30 tonne UTair Tupolev 134 refused to move, reportedly because the wrong grease had been applied, leaving the brake pads frozen in the minus 52C temperature.

Some of the passengers sprang into action, allegedly pushing the plane backwards until its wheels were able to turn and a tow truck could take over.

A passenger was quoted as saying that they had been asked to help, and had pushed it "about 5m, maybe more". But the local authorities have cast doubt on the story.

The Answer

  • In theory it should be like pushing a car
  • But the amount of force that can be applied when pushing a wing above one's head is greatly reduced

"Naturally, the plane was moved by the truck, because people physically could not do it," the West Siberian transport prosecutor's aide Oksana Gorbunova said. "It looks like a joke."

In theory it's not very hard to push a plane, says Dr John Andrews, visiting fellow in physics at the University of Bristol. A one-tonne car can be pushed by three people. The same principle should apply to a 30-tonne plane. You would need about 90 people or, as in this case, about 50 strong men, Andrews suggests. "You are just trying to overcome the rolling resistance of the tyres."

That may be true in theory. But in practice, it is very hard to find anywhere on a plane to push, says Chris Shepherd, teacher support manager at the Institute of Physics. The wings are not a good place to push as they are too high to get much force behind, he says.

And in the case of the Siberian plane, there was an additional problem in that the wheels were stuck with frozen grease. Here you have to overcome not only the rolling resistance but the frictional resistance of the ball bearings due to the fact the grease had solidified, Andrews says.

Passengers pushing plane

In terms of freeing up the wheels, Andrews says pushing the wings could help. Because there was a large distance between the wings and the wheels it gave the people pushing greater leverage. "It's the principle of the spanner - the longer the spanner the less force you have to apply in order to shift the nut," Andrews says. Once the wheels unlocked, the friction would have melted the grease. Then the tow truck took over. So the passengers' version is feasible, he says.

But for Shepherd, it remains very unlikely that there's any explanation that allows for the people making a significant contribution to moving the plane. He thinks the spanner analogy is not relevant here as the whole plane was not rotating - it was moving laterally. In the Siberian case, he says it seems likely that the plane moved because of the tow truck. Many planes can also use reverse thrust.

Getting the passengers out and therefore lightening the plane would have helped. And they may have applied some force, but it would have been marginal, Shepherd argues. "One of the guys is pushing with one hand. They're not really putting their backs into it."

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Quiz: How much do you know about migration?

Passport control at airport

How much do you know about immigration to, and emigration from the UK?

New figures from the Office of National Statistics have been published, showing that net migration to the UK - the number of people coming in, subtracted by the number leaving - rose to 260,000 in the year to June. But what else did we learn from today's figures? Take this quiz to find out.

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Caption Challenge: Fiery demon

Man in outfit with horns

Winning entries in the Caption Challenge.

The competition is now closed.

This week it's a man dressed in a traditional Perchten costume and mask performing during a festival in the western Austrian village of Huben.

Thanks to all who entered. The prize of a small amount of kudos to the following:

6. Lesley Gilchrist: "Gas lighters three for a pound."

5. Paul Cadley: "I'm smoking more but enjoying it less."

4. Mark S: "I've always served my scallops burnt and I always will - I don't care what Gordon Ramsay says."

3. David Mullen: Alice Cooper's mother is in town for an overnight stay.

2. Alan John Boyer: "...and this is how I remove unwanted hair."

1. Robert Barker: Lady Gaga's design for the 2016 Olympic torchbearer outfit unveiled.

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Why Nick Drake is not the patron saint of the miserable

Nick Drake

Nick Drake, the singer-songwriter who died 40 years ago, was not recognised in his lifetime. But his melancholy legend does his music a disservice, argues Alan Connor

"It may surprise you to hear that during the last few weeks, I've been extraordinarily happy with life and I haven't a clue why. It seems that Cambridge can in fact do rather nice things to one if one lets it, and I'm not sure that I did let it before."

So began a letter Nick Drake sent home from university in the late 1960s. It might also surprise anyone who has heard the Nick Drake legend.

In that legend, Drake is the consummate image of the troubled troubadour. He avoided interviews and wouldn't release singles. He found live performances unbearable because of audience chatter. Most of all, he overdosed aged 26 leaving behind just three albums.

Not for nothing is the abiding image of Drake a photograph included in the Five Leaves Left LP - a solitary figure frozen as passers by pass him by in a blur. Too beautiful, they often say of him, for this world.

Nick Drake portrait

Knowing the legend, it is almost impossible to listen to Drake's music for the first time without hearing it as the melancholy expression of a tortured soul. Almost impossible, but not quite.

Drake was undoubtedly given to introspection and later afflicted with depression. His story had other chapters, of popularity and happiness. He was the captain of various games at school, and head boy of his first house at Marlborough.

Pleasingly, he also turned down Chris de Burgh when the younger boy asked to join Drake's schoolboy rock group The Perfumed Gardeners.

When he began recording solo as a Cambridge undergraduate, his aim was certainly not to be an unrecognised downbeat outsider. "He had this feeling that he'd got something to say to the people of his own generation," his mother remembered. "He felt he could make them happier."

His first album, the pastoral Five Leaves Left, correspondingly begins with the lines: "Time has told me you're a rare, rare find / A troubled cure for a troubled mind".

The second, Bryter Layter, is purposefully upbeat and the last, Pink Moon, ends: "So look, see the sights, the endless summer nights / And go play the game that you learned from the morning". This is music of comfort, not of despair - rebirth, not death.

Neither are Drake's most popular songs ones of anguish. Those most frequently played in bars, cafes and restaurants are Northern Sky, One of these Things First and Pink Moon - the one used in a 1999 ad for the Volkswagen Cabriolet.

For the anniversary of Drake's death, his sister Gabrielle has compiled a book which she hopes will "get the story straight". She feels that the received wisdom about his life is full of "trite answers - that he came from a stuffy, upper-middle-class background, nobody understood him".

She is not alone in wanting to remember a Nick Drake whose life and music are not defined by misery. Robert Kirby met Drake when they both auditioned for the Cambridge Footlights and went on to write the arrangements for many of his songs. "Nick seems to have become the patron saint of the depressed," he told a fan site.

"The danger is that when fans take on this intensely personal relationship, they can want to be the only ones to own the experience... Apart from his last year I can assure you that he did have many crazy, happy spells."

Without those happy spells, Drake's music could not have provided the succour that so many find - which, in turn, has provided comfort to his family.

"A lot of young people find his music such a help," Gabrielle said in a 2000 documentary. "And that, I think, would have pleased him so very, very much."

Nick Drake

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How can a baby survive in a storm drain?

Drain where the baby was found

A newborn baby is receiving treatment after surviving for up to five days in a drain in Sydney, Australia. How is that possible, asks Justin Parkinson.

The baby boy, who was found 2.5m (8ft) down a stormwater drain by the side of a road after passing cyclists heard him crying, is being treated for dehydration and malnutrition.

Dr Simon Newell, vice-president of UK's Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, describes the reports that he is alive after remaining there alone for up to five days as "absolutely amazing".

He says newborn babies are designed to survive a few days without much in the way of nutrients, as they adapt to the initial difficulties of breastfeeding. They have reserves of fluids and body sugars to keep them going during this period. This means babies do not need many extra fluids for the first four days or so of life in normal conditions.

The Answer

  • Babies have reserves of fluids and sugars to help them survive their first days
  • Temperatures underground are stable and the baby was protected from direct sun
  • There was no rain so the drain was dry

But it is unlikely the boy could have survived as long as five days in abnormal conditions, such as a drain, without access to any water or nutrients, according to Newell. He suggests the information about when the baby was left in the drain could be inaccurate.

Sydney has been experiencing daytime high temperatures of up to about 40C during the past week and, crucially, overnight lows have not gone below about 18C. Dry conditions mean little or no water was likely to have flowed through the drain. The naturally stabilising effect that being underground has on temperature, and the protection from direct sun, may have provided good survival conditions.

"I doubt the child would have lasted this long in the UK," says Newell, "particularly at this time of year, when temperatures are so much lower."

If the baby was indeed underground for five days he was probably found in the nick of time, as bodily functions would normally be expected to break down before this stage.

His condition is described as a serious but stable and he is likely to be receiving intravenous fluids and possibly oxygen at Sydney's Westmead Children's Hospital.

The fact that he was crying loudly when discovered is a good sign, according to Newell. "I would be quietly optimistic that a healthy child can come out of this, without being damaged in some way," he says. "It takes a lot of effort for a baby to cry and it means there is a good chance. Babies are tougher than they're given credit for."

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Have any prices fallen faster than singles?

Bob Geldof and Midge Ure in 1984

Bob Geldof says that the price of a single has fallen 72% in the past 30 years. But has anything else fallen by more over that period, asks Anthony Reuben.

Speaking on the Today programme about the launch of Band Aid 30, he said that in 1984 the single had cost £3.50 but that today you could download the new one for 99p. "We literally have to sell three times as many," Geldof said.

Bob Geldof speaks to Today's Sarah Montague: 'We literally have to sell three times as many as in 1984'

(Actually, photographic evidence from the time rather suggests the 7" version of the single might have been available for something like £1.35 and the 12" version for £2.49.)

Adjusting for inflation, £3.50 in 1984 money would be worth about £9 in today's money, while £1.35 would be about £3.50 in today's money.

But it's not all bad news, because Band Aid is not having to pay to produce the physical single, iTunes is not charging for hosting and the government is not taxing the sales, so the charity will receive the whole 99p.

The product people are buying is different to the one they were buying in 1984, even though it is still essentially the purchase of one song.

That is the way that measuring inflation works. It is based on a basket of goods that is supposed to represent the sorts of things that people are buying. If people stop buying one thing and instead buy another, then the basket of goods will change.

Vinyl singles dropped out of the basket in 1991. Music downloads entered the basket in 2005. Presumably in-between they had CD singles.

It got me wondering if any other items had fallen in price by more over the period.

The only thing in the basket that seems to have gone down by anything like that much is audio-visual equipment - that's things like televisions, DVD players, computers, cameras and, indeed, the hi-fi equipment to play the now cheaper songs.

Overall, that sort of equipment that would have cost you £1,000 in 1987 can now be bought for about £78.

Again, it's not about comparing the same products - a posh hi-fi from the 1980s may now be replaced in the basket by a docking station for an MP3 player.

And the sort of computing power that would have cost thousands of pounds in the 1980s can now be found on the cheapest of smartphones.

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Monsieur Romieu - a 'man of talents'

Alexandre Romieu

At a time of international conflict two centuries ago, did Britain assassinate an enemy agent while the world was looking the other way? Matthew Teller delves into a story of intrigue and possible skulduggery in Persia.

September 1805. Britain and France are at war. Napoleon is massing an army at Boulogne, ready to invade England. Nelson harries the French fleet in the Mediterranean.

Amid the tension, a letter lands on the desk of William Bruce, Britain's Resident in Bushire, on the Persian Gulf.

"There is a French officer of the name of Romieu, whose destination is suspected to be the East," it warns.

"Romieu has the reputation of being a man of talents, of having a considerable sum of money at his disposal, and of being a great proficient in the science of intrigue."

Letter from Alexander Stratton 14 June 1805 Middle of top line: The Sieur Romieu has the reputation of being a man of talents...

The letter, written by Alexander Stratton, British ambassador in Constantinople, had been forwarded to Bruce by Harford Jones, a British official in Baghdad.

It was dated 14 June, three months earlier. In the same delivery, Jones had included another despatch dated 25 July - Romieu had been spotted in Aleppo changing money into gold, with the intention of making his way to Persia.

Round the Bend

Map of the Gulf

A series of tales from the days when Britain ruled India and the Gulf, told with documents newly digitised by the British Library

Bruce acted fast. The next day he wrote to his subordinate in Muscat, alerting him to Romieu's presence, and sent word to ports all along the Gulf to keep watch.

Who was Romieu? What was he up to?

Antoine-Alexandre Romieu was an adventurer. He had been an army officer and then a junior diplomat in Corfu - and in 1804, aged 40, he had returned to Paris to seek a more challenging role, writes David Vinson of Montpellier University.

He obviously made an impression. Napoleon told his foreign minister, Talleyrand, to send Romieu to Persia, to "learn its situation and its strength", and added: "I want to make an alliance with the Shah."

Napoleon was not only fighting Britain. He was also facing the Russians and the Austrians, and his invasion of Egypt had caused a rift with Ottoman Turkey. Persia would have been a useful ally - a bulwark against Russian power, and a bridgehead from which to attack British interests in India.

Romieu arrived in Constantinople on 20 May, setting off alarm bells among the British - and a tide of diplomatic correspondence, including the letters to Bruce.

But by the time the letters reached Bruce on 27 September it was already too late.

Romieu had arrived in Tehran two days previously, having successfully evaded an assassin, hired - the French alleged - by Britain's consul in Aleppo. Britain rejected the accusation, and a diplomatic row ensued.

Meanwhile on 30 September, Romieu was granted an audience with the Shah, Fat'h Ali, who received the idea of forming an alliance against Russia favourably.

Shah Fat'h Ali

But then Romieu suddenly took sick. After "constantly vomiting for three days and suffering from shivers and great heat," he died, writes historian Iradj Amini.

Almost immediately, rumours began to circulate that he had been poisoned.

The French accused the British ambassador. Britain denied involvement. Fat'h Ali buried Romieu with the case unresolved.

Less than 10 days later, the British fleet under Nelson defeated the French and Spanish at Trafalgar.

France and Persia signed their alliance on 4 May 1807, but it came to nothing - within weeks, Napoleon had joined with Russia to attack Britain closer to home.

Nineteenth-century French travellers reported visiting Romieu's domed mausoleum in Tehran. But the reports peter out. Today, nobody is sure where the "man of talents" lies.

British Library curator Martin Woodward contributed original research for this article. Click here to see the originals of documents referred to above:

Copy of letter from Alexander Stratton to Harford Jones, 14 June 1805. Penultimate line: "…a French officer of the name of Romieu…"

Copy of letter from Alexander Stratton to Harford Jones, 14 June 1805. First paragraph: "…a man of talents…"

Copy of letter from Harford Jones to William Bruce, 9 September 1805. Top: "There is now but little doubt that the Sieur [Monsieur] Romieu has struck off for Persia…" Middle: "His person is of the middling size…"

Round the Bend is a series of tales from the days when Britain ruled India and the Gulf, told with documents newly digitised by the British Library. You can explore the archive yourself.

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Weekendish: The best of the week's reads

Layered manikin - in 16th Century medical book by Andreas Vesalius

A collection of some of the best reads from the BBC News website this week.

Andreas Vesalius - what a guy. Medical man, ambitious and a wonderful self-publicist. Vesalius, who was born in Flanders in 1514, came from a family of doctors. At an early age, he had his eye on the prize - to become the personal physician to the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. There was a small problem, though. His father was regarded as illegitimate, which blighted Vesalius junior's career prospects. Undeterred, he created the ultimate CV - two gorgeous books on the workings of the human body, with images created using woodblock techniques. One was dedicated and presented to the emperor himself. Employment in the imperial service soon followed. You can see the beauty of the books yourself and discover why they caused a stir in this photo film by Paul Kerley.

The self-publicist whose medical text books caused a stir

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Trying to get arrested in North Korea

Matthew Miller

Now here's another man who seemed intent on causing a stir. American tourist Matthew Miller travelled to North Korea in April - apparently on holiday. Once there, he seems to have gone to extraordinary lengths to get himself arrested and imprisoned - even though the North Korean authorities tried to put him on the first plane out of the country. What could possibly have been his motive? When questioned by one interviewer he replied that he "just wanted to have a face-to-face with North Koreans to answer my personal questions" - and he seems to have thought it would be easier to do this behind bars. As the interviewer put it, he was a "curious tourist".

Trying to get jailed in North Korea

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The fascination with Charles Manson

Recent picture of Manson A recent photo of Charles Manson, now aged 80

Murderous cult leader Charles Manson continues to fascinate more than 40 years after he committed his crimes. This week it was reported that Manson, who's spent more than half of his 80 years in jail, has been granted a licence to marry a 26-year-old woman. In the late 60s and early 70s, he incited several of his followers to carry out a murder spree in Los Angeles. For many at the time, the Manson murders were the point at which the hippie dream of free love came to a sudden end. As one interviewee told the Magazine: "Manson took on all those signs - LSD, music, free love, communal lifestyles - and reframed them as tools for apocalyptic mass murder. Totally bizarre, totally evil, and very, very seductive."

What explains the continuing fascination with Charles Manson?

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The great Victorian beard craze

From left: Wilkie Collins, Charles Darwin, William Holman Hunt Wilkie Collins, Charles Darwin and William Holman Hunt

The beard has long been part of Charles Manson's look. But it's nothing compared with these fellas pictured here. It all began during the Crimean war. The winters were so harsh that the erstwhile clean-shaven British army relaxed its rules about facial hair, and soldiers were allowed to grow beards to keep their faces warm. When they returned from the conflict, the beard had acquired a savour of heroism and civilians were quick to mimic the fashion. Soon it was barely possible to see a beard-free male face in Victorian Britain. But the choice to abandon razors wasn't purely a matter of appearance - shaving in those days could be a risky business, with a simple nick on the chin having been known to kill.

The great Victorian beard craze

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Free food at work

Vending machine at Facebook

"Will work for food" was always the cry of the desperate would-be employee. But some companies actually do provide meals as well as money, as Justin Parkinson and Luke Jones reported in their article on the latest trends in workplace perks. Big tech is leading the way, - Google, Facebook and Apple provide food and drink for their workers (although as one commentator said, the ultimate aim of such a policy is to keep the employee in the office). We also heard from a British advertising firm, which transforms its office into a cocktail bar, come Friday afternoon. This is an idea which goes down especially well with Magazine readers on Facebook, although Leah Powell rues, "I am my own boss... and I never serve myself cocktails at 4:30 on Friday. Other readers' expectations are very much lower: "Where I work they give us free toilet paper," writes one.

Does free food make for a happier office?

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Knitted aliens and a cat

Clanger and Bagpuss

Did the Soup Dragon give the Clangers free green soup? For many people of a certain age, the sound of a Swanee whistle is enough to transport them to the small moon-like planet that was home to the pink-knitted aliens. And those forty-somethings will be overjoyed to learn that the critters are to be resurrected in a new TV series. But what about that floppy, tough old cat Bagpuss, who came from the same animation stable? "We're pretty definite that we don't want anyone to remake Bagpuss," says animator Peter Firmin. But why? And what about the mice on the mouse-organ? "We will find it/ We will bind it/ We will stick it with glue, glue, glue." Oh yes we will.

What's the future for Bagpuss?

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Here are some things we've enjoyed this week from elsewhere around the web:

The interview everyone is talking about: Jaden and Willow Smith on Prana Energy, Time and Why School is Overrated - The New York Times Style Magazine

This is what I learned when I stopped drinking for a week - Buzzfeed

The world's tiniest countries and the eccentrics who rule them - Wired

This is why kids in London do better in school - Quartz

I walked around London, knocked on strangers' doors and asked if I could stay the night - Vice

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10 things we didn't know last week

Angelina Jolie

1. LA inmates have to pass a "gay-dar" test to stay in the safest wing.

Find out more (LA Weekly)

2. Seals like to have sex with penguins.

Find out more

3. Men are twice as likely to drown as women.

Find out more (The Journal)

4. A 10 second kiss transfers 80 million bacteria.

Find out more

5. The world's largest billboard is in Saudi Arabia and is 250m long.

Find out more

6. Angelina Jolie can do a Derby accent.

Find out more (i100)

7. Manchester has the largest proportion of single people in the UK.

Find out more (Metro)

8. A sign language name can be recorded on your birth certificate.

Find out more (Daily Mail)

9. A rescue dog can be mayor of San Francisco.

Find out more (LA Times)

10. Norway's new passport was designed by competition.

Find out more (The Guardian)

Seen a thing? Tell the Magazine on Twitter using the hashtag #thingIdidntknowlastweek

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Go Figure: The week in numbers

Look back at the week in numbers with our Go Figure images, which are posted daily on social media.

GoFigKiss

Monday: A single 10-second kiss can transfer as many as 80 million bacteria, according to Dutch scientists

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GoFigLava2

Tuesday: Watch: Icelandic lava field big enough to cover Manhattan

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GoFiglunar

Wednesday: New Moon mission to be "crowdfunded" by offering rewards for public donations

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GoFigsnow

Thursday: New York state paralysed by "historic" levels of snowfall

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GoFigUkraine

Friday: A year on from Ukraine's "Revolution of Honour" the country remains in turmoil

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Find #BBCGoFigure on Twitter and on Facebook


Is it OK to leave objects on the Moon?

US flag on Moon

A British-led group wants to fund a Moon mission with public donations. Contributors to the Lunar Mission One project will have their photos, text and videos buried beneath the moon's surface. But is it legal - or acceptable - to drop stuff on the Moon and just leave it there, asks Mike Wendling.

The key international treaty that governs the Moon has nothing to say about littering, says New York-based lawyer Timothy Nelson. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty does require explorers to avoid "harmful contamination" of the Moon and other celestial objects. But it also bans territorial claims in space, and as a result there is no central authority which enforces laws - against littering or anything else - on the lunar surface.

The Moon is already strewn with rubbish - exploration has left its surface dotted with everything from abandoned modules to golf balls to an empty vomit bag from Apollo 11.

The Answer

  • The Outer Space Treaty bans "harmful contamination" of the moon
  • But it says nothing specific about rubbish - and anyway there's nobody to enforce any rule against littering
  • Ethically it's debatable whether we should alter the lunar environment

Nasa keeps a list of all human detritus on the Moon. And in fact America's space agency tries to protect the lunar remains of the Apollo missions, citing their "historical and scientific value".

Few space law cases have ever been tested, Nelson says, but it could be argued that leaving traces of missions is allowed under the Outer Space Treaty's dedication to keep space open to peaceful exploration.

"The idea of a time capsule is not really all that different," he says.

So it may be legal - but is it ethically right to clutter the Moon with debris?

"Our knowledge of the effects of landing, drilling, and burying a time capsule are largely unknown and perhaps unknowable," warns Margaret McLean of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University in California.

The idea of environmentalism might seem odd applied to the vastness of space. But some ethicists argue Earthbound principles still apply.

McLean says projects like Lunar Mission One should follow certain ethical guidelines - for instance valuing the Moon for its own sake, not as storage space, and protecting its natural state.

"I applaud the goals of creating enthusiasm and joy in space exploration and the inspiring of the next generation of space scientists," she says, "but likely environmental damage and lunar litter is too high a price to pay."

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Caption Challenge: Surfing Santa

Surfing santa

Winning entries in the Caption Challenge.

The competition is now closed.

This week it's a surfer dressed in red.

Thanks to all who entered. The prize of a small amount of kudos to the following:

6. Lelystad:

"Venice Christmas market was known as eBaywatch."

5. Brian Nisbet:

"Rudolph? Rudolph? Rudolph?!?"

4. Ken McGuirk:

"Rudolf confirms constructive dismissal case will go ahead as evidence mounts against Santa."

3. Dr James Muir:

"With only five weeks to go to Christmas, the Elves were having some concerns about Santa's work ethic..."

2. Ben Gardner:

"Keanu denies that 'Christmas Point Break' is just another seasonal cash in."

1. Ciaran Malkin:

"Hawaii 5-ho-ho-ho."

PDF download Full rules can be seen here[16KB]

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