A Medley of Street Performers in London

One of my favorite things to stumble upon is street performers, of all types.

Singers, musicians, jugglers, break dancers, magicians; you name it; I want to see it.

It’s been wonderful seeing a large number of street performers in our first week in London, and I thought I’d post short clips of their performances, or in a couple of cases, just a photo.

The photo of the juggler above was taken on the South Bank, right in front of the Tate Modern. A little bit of the old and a little bit of the new…

Right past the juggler we ran across this guy with a typewriter, who would type an original poem for you on the spot:

Here’s a singing pizza chef at Harrod’s:

Next we came across a busker on the South Bank, with St. Paul’s Cathedral visible across the river:

A woman singing Ave Maria at Covent Garden:

An original song at Trafalgar Square:

Alleluia at Piccadilly:

An Elvis wannabe near the West End:

That’s most of the performances I’ve seen, but some I just missed out on (a group of breakdancers right near Chinatown, and some performers I was in too much of a rush to film, like those in the Underground). Perhaps I’ll make a separate post of just those performances taking place in the subway.

Anyway, enjoy the performances. I’ve always admired the courage that doing something like this must entail; putting yourself out there in the public, with just you and your skill set.

I love it…

Here are a couple older posts I’ve written about street performers: post 1  post 2



A Wonderful Walking Tour of London

Today we were fortunate to be able to join the students on a walking tour of London.

Highlights of the three hour tour included Westminster Abbey, the Houses of Parliament, the Horse Guards Parade, Trafalgar Square, Covent Garden, St. Paul’s Cathedral, and the Millennium Bridge.

But even better than seeing these iconic landmarks were the stories the tour guide told along the way. Lots of facts, lots of history, and lots of fascinating tidbits (e.g., David Livingstone’s heart is buried in Africa, but his body is buried at Westminster; George Washington never wanted to touch English soil again, so when a statue of him was sent to London, so was some Virginia dirt that the statue could be placed on; why Shakespeare’s Theater was on the other side of the Thames, away from London).

The tour ended with lunch at a pub, complete with fish and chips, and pints of beer.

After lunch my wife, son, and I decided to then check out two of London’s biggest bookstores, Foyle’s and Waterstone’s. Getting to those stores included walking through London’s West End, home of many of its theaters.

By the time we had finished the second bookstore, we were ready to hop on the tube and head back to our flat. As soon as I walked in our front door, I checked my phone – we had walked about 16,000 steps, or about 7 miles. (I then went for a short stroll after dinner, got lost, and added almost 6,000 more steps.)

It was a great day, and we realized how useful having a tour guide can be for learning a lot about a city in a relatively short time period. Left to our own devices, if we had tried to visit all of the sites we covered today it would have likely taken us several days.

We’ve only been here a week, and we’ve loved every day. And there’s still so much to explore.

London is calling!



The World’s First Practical Joke?

Much of what we know about classical humour comes from a Roman joke book containing 265 gags known as the Philogelos – translated as Laughter Lover, according to historian Mary Beard, who presents BBC history programmes.

Here are a couple of examples:

  • A chatty barber asks his customer how he would like his hair cut. The customer replies tersely: ‘In silence.’
  • A patient complains to a doctor about feeling dizzy half an hour after waking up.  The doctor replies: ‘Get up half an hour later.

But what was not known until recently is that the Romans may have also been quite the practical jokers.

A bowl with a sculpture inside it was found in Vinkovci, eastern Croatia, back in 2012 but its use was initially not known until it was examined by Dr. Hobbs, curator of Roman Britain at the British Museum. Hobbs believes it could have been owned by Roman emperors.

The sculpture on top of the bowl is Tantalus, a Green mythological figure who was made to stand in a pool of water beneath a fruit tree. He could not reach the fruit and the water always receded before he was able to take a drink which led to his eternal punishment.

The discovery may have appeared to have been a simple bowl to drink from, but the sculpture leads onto a pipe that causes the liquid to drain from the bottom when the bowl is filled to a certain height.

The result: an unsuspecting dinner party guest soaked in wine, while everyone around the table laughs at the guest’s misfortune.

The Tantalus cup sounds like a dribble glass, but that prank simply has holes hidden in a design on the side so that the liquid leaks when the cup is tipped. The Tantalus cup has a much more elegant design based on the physics of a siphon and can be traced to the Greek mathematician Pythagoras.

Pythagoras’s invention was better known as the Greedy cup after its true purpose – to keep drinkers from imbibing too much.

Dr. Hobbs is working on a model of the Tantalus bowl, which is on display at a museum in Zagreb, so that he can test the siphoning theory.

If Hobbs is doing his testing at the British Museum, perhaps I can be an “unsuspecting” volunteer; I’m in town for the next couple of months and I’ve got a change of clothes if the siphon works.

And speaking of Roman humour, I came across this one-liner today, thanks to Paul Seaburn.

A Roman walks into a bar, holds up two fingers and says, “Five beers, please.”



There’s Amazon Prime, and Then There’s Mersenne Prime

Estimates are that there are 85 million Amazon Prime members.

Now some people may find such a number interesting, certainly Jeff Bezos would, as would all those who hold Amazon stock (which many people do, if not outright, then through a mutual fund).

Now there are other people who may find Mersenne Primes much more interesting, myself included.

Here’s an explanation of a Mersenne Prime from Wikipedia:

In mathematics, a Mersenne prime is a prime number that is one less than a power of two. That is, it is a prime number of the form Mn = 2n − 1 for some integer n. They are named after Marin Mersenne, a French Minim friar, who studied them in the early 17th century. (A prime number is a number that is divisible only by the number 1 and itself).

Prime numbers are important, especially when it comes to cryptography, internet security, and the future of computing.

So you may wonder, why am I writing about Mersenne Primes?

This past week, a FedEx employee from Germantown, Tenn., made a massive discovery — and it wasn’t in any packages. John Pace found the largest prime number known to humankind.

Pace, a volunteer for the Great Internet Mersenne Prime Search (GIMPS) for over 14 years, discovered the 50th known Mersenne prime, 277,232,917-1 on December 26, 2017. The prime number is calculated by multiplying together 77,232,917 twos, and then subtracting one. It weighs in at 23,249,425 digits, becoming the largest prime number known to mankind. It bests the previous record prime, also discovered by GIMPS, by 910,807 digits.

Just how big is a 23,249,425 digit number? According to the GIMPS web site, big enough to fill an entire shelf of books totalling 9,000 pages. If every second you were to write five digits to an inch then 54 days later you’d have a number stretching over 73 miles (118 km) — almost 3 miles (5 km) longer than the previous record prime.

One of the things I like about this discovery is that Pace has become part of  Mersenne Prime history, one that can be traced all of the way back to 500 BC, to the time of the ancient Greek mathematicians.

I am also fairly certain that people will be working on discovering new Mersenne Primes long after Amazon Prime ceases to exist.

By the way, anyone can participate in the GIMPS project; all you need is a computer, an internet connection, the free software at
www.mersenne.org/download/, and a lot of patience.

Go Math!


Teaching the Elderly How to Fall

A couple of years ago I wrote about how prevalent a fear of falling is among the elderly, since the consequences of a fall can be devastating.

Data shows that about 40 percent of those aged 65 and older fall at least once a year; one in 40 of them ends up in the hospital, after which only half are still alive a year later. Put another way, out of 200 people over the age of 65, 80 of those individuals will fall at least once per year. Out of those 80, 2 of them will be hospitalized, and only one of them will still be alive a year later.

In my post, I offered some suggestions as to how to improve one’s balance in order to become more confident and less fearful of falling. But a recent New York Times article tells about a great program in the Netherlands that teaches the elderly not only how to improve their balance, but the proper way to fall if they do.

Using names like the “Belgian sidewalk,” a wooden contraption designed to simulate loose tiles; “sloping slope,” a ramp angled at an ankle-unfriendly 45 degrees; and others like “the slalom” and “the pirouette, the program converts a gymnasium into an obstacle course clinically devised to teach the elderly how to navigate treacherous ground.

Here’s a video showing the class in action:

The course meets twice a week. On Tuesdays, the students build confidence by walking and re-walking the obstacle course. Thursdays are reserved for the actual falls.

In order to learn, the students start by approaching the mats slowly, lowering themselves down at first. Over the weeks, they learn to fall.

Here’s a video of part of the falling technique:

Hundreds of similar courses are taught by registered by physio- and occupational therapists across the Netherlands. Virtually unheard-of just a decade ago, the courses are now common enough that the government rates them. Certain forms of Dutch health insurance even cover part of the costs.

There is also a very important social aspect; seeing one another helplessly sprawled across the gym mats gave way to giggling and plenty of dry comments, knowing jokes, general ribbing and hilarity.

This sounds like a great program; I am not aware of any in the U.S., but if there are currently not any, I am sure there will be after reading the New York Times story, and that is a good thing.

What Kind of Man Would Wear Socks in Bed?

That was the response of Dylan Jones, editor of GQ magazine, when he was asked if he wears socks in bed.

Uh-oh. Guilty as charged, at least on occasion.

I did not know it was such a fashion faux-pas to wear socks to bed, but if the editor of GQ magazine is ridiculing such behavior, then there must be something wrong with it.

It’s rare that I keep my socks on when I go to bed, but if I am having trouble staying warm, donning a pair of socks seems to help tremendously.

And there’s actually some evidence to support this, from the National Sleep Foundation:

Warm feet may help you sleep. Normal or not, wearing socks may be smart if you’re having trouble falling asleep. There may be something to the old advice that warming your feet can speed up your trip to dreamland. … Socks in bed may not be sexy, but then again, neither are cold feet!

I’ve also gone to bed wearing a hoodie and long johns; what can I say, I don’t like to be cold. I wonder what Jones would think of such an outfit.

Maybe if I wore a pair of Burberry argyle socks, Jones might give me a pass.

But like with my regular clothing choices, I really have no desire to be a fashion trend setter.

My major clothing goals are comfort, warmth, and low cost.

That’s why I won’t be attending London Fashion Week Men, which started today.

I probably wouldn’t get past security with my hoodie on anyway.

The Most Beloved/Popular Novels for Each Country in the World

A reddit user, backforward24, took the first stab at compiling the most beloved/popular novels for every country in the world, creating a world map that features the cover of each book on top of each country. He crowdsourced it through reddit because, as he noted, “I’m struggling to find great books for over 150 locations! The criteria a book needs to meet is that it must be high resolution, and preferably written by an author of that country, about that country.”

The map, shown here (you can click on it to enlarge it), is a bit hard to read for many of the countries, but someone, through reddit, was kind enough to create an alphabetical list, by country of each of the books.

Of course, the first thing I did was to take a look at what book was chosen for the U.S., and I was quite pleased to see To Kill a Mockingbird, certainly one of my top five novels of all time (as well as being one of my favorite movies).

I then assumed that I probably had not  heard of, let alone read any other books on the map, but as it turned out there were a few.

  • United Kingdom – Great Expectations (finished)
  • Spain – Don Quixote (finished)
  • Afghanistan – Kite Runner (finished)
  • France – The Count of Monte Cristo
  • Ireland – Ulysses (started, did not finish)
  • Russia – War and Peace (started, did no finish)
  • Greece – Iliad (started, did not finish)
  • Italy – The Divine Comedy (heard of, never read)
  • Colombia – One Hundred Years of Solitude (heard of, never read)
  • Botswana – The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency
  • Canada – Anne of Green Gables
  • France (some discrepancy in the lists) – Les Miserables (never read, but saw the play)

One of the things I found interesting about the choice of books is that while it is rare for me to not finish a book, three such books are on this list. I may have to give those books a second chance.

And in addition to those books, it looks like I have a lot of good reading to pick from, books that will not only entertain me, but inform me as well.

Sounds like the perfect book.

Happy National Trivia Day! (and sharing my bewildering lack of knowledge)

Apparently January 4 is National Trivia Day.

In honor of such a momentous occasion, the web site Mental Floss compiled 60 amazing pieces of trivia, and I thought I would share a dozen of my favorites from that list. I also added one item to the end of the list – something that I should have known, but as you will see, I was completely clueless about.

  • Mr. Rogers always mentioned out loud that he was feeding his fish because a young blind viewer once asked him to do so. She wanted to know the fish were OK.
  • In 1897, Indiana state legislators tried to pass a bill that would have legally redefined the value of pi as 3.2 (what would have happened to all of those memory challenges reciting pi to 100 places?)
  • Reed Hastings has said that he was inspired to start Netflix after a $40 late fee on a VHS copy of Apollo 13 (and to think that another person’s reaction might have been to burn the building down).
  • the average cumulus could weighs roughly 1.1 million pounds (I would have guessed less than 5 pounds!)
  • Guinness estimates that 93,000 liters of beer are lost in facial hair each year in the UK alone (I wonder what kind of reaction I would get if I announced such a fact in one of the British pubs I’ll be sure to be visiting.)
  • The mobile phone throwing world championships are held in Finland. A recent winner said he prepared for the event by “mainly drinking beer.”
  • A new born blue whale gains about 200 pounds a day during its first year.
  • There are 293 ways to make change for a U.S. dollar.
  • The boiling point of water at the top of Mt. Everest is 162 degrees, 50 below the boiling point at sea level.
  • Humans are the only animals that blush (how well I know this…)
  • Nobel Prize winner Niels Bohr was given a perpetual supply of beer piped into his house.
  • There was a third Apple founder. Ronald Wayne sold his 10% stake for $800 in 1976. (If he owned 10% of Apple today, he’d be worth close to $80 billion).

And now for showing off my amazing lack of knowledge.

Now that we are in London, I thought it would be helpful to know a few things about the city. One of the first things I thought would be useful would be knowing the population of the city.

I knew that London is a major city, but I thought its population was on the relatively small side, certainly well below the population of New York City. I estimated it population to be between 500,000 and 1,000,000 people,

I decided to look it up on my phone, and London’s population is 8.8 million people!

And New York City’s is 8.5 million people.

London is not only not a small city, its got more people than NYC!

I’m just glad I did not share my ignorance with any Londoner.

I wonder how many of them are aware of this piece of trivia.

Perhaps I can take a survey at a local pub, at the same time I’m telling them that they are wasting beer in their beards.

London Calling!

We’re sitting at JFK airport, three hours before our flight to London. While David Kanigan would have a field day in such a situation, given his gift of observation and the beautiful way he describes his travel adventures, I’ll take the easy way out and just post this video of The Clash singing their classic song, London Calling.

(Plus, I’m typing this post with just one finger using my iPhone).

London calling at the top of the dial
And after all this, won’t you give me a smile?



Getting Ready While Getting Old

The time has finally arrived.

Tomorrow, my wife, our youngest son, and I depart for a three month trip to London where I will be teaching as part of a Villanova study abroad program.

We are quite excited about the opportunity, and we’ve spent a good deal of time getting ready for it.

But it seems like the prep required for such a trip now is much different than if I had done this 20 years ago, when I was only 40 years old.

In just the past month, I have had appointments with the following doctors:

  • cardiologist
  • urologist
  • opthamologist
  • dermatologist
  • otolaryngologist
  • dentist
  • optometrist

These were all just routine check-ups, but it was nice to get a clean bill of health from all of them before our trip. There was also a trip to the ER (via ambulance) in the middle of all of those doctors’ visits, but that had a positive outcome as well.

The doctors have all assured me that there are doctors and hospitals in London should something go wrong, but I’m hoping I won’t have to find out.

So with all of those doctor visits out of the way, I can now start thinking about the fun parts of the trip.

Like where we will eat our first meal, where we will buy groceries, what museums to visit, what plays to see, what towns to visit, and of course, what material to cover in my class.

So tomorrow will be my last blog written while in the good ole’ USA; future posts will be coming to you from across the pond.

By the way, there was also a visit to the veterinarian this past weekend, but that was for our dog, not me. Nellie got a clean bill of health as well.