A Small Word

11 Jun

There is a word that seems abused by ignorance: “O”. It is unusually at once a letter and a word, much as its cousins “I” and “a”. Aside from “I” and proper nouns, it is the only word that necessarily begins with a capital letter. Notwithstanding these remarkable properties, it is increasingly displaced by the more vulgar interjection “oh”.

Now “oh” has its uses, certainly. When one is surprised or pained, it serves its common function very nicely. But there exists a vocative majesty to “O”: consider the most visceral incantation “O, god” (“o, domine”). Indeed, the ecclesiastical survival of the word is a consequence of the fact that it has been used for millennia, with the Romans addressing their peers with this interjection in classical antiquity. For who can forget Cicero’s despair: “o tempores, o mores!” And how much less spectacular it is when the orator exclaims “oh tempores” as if he had stumbled across time and was mildly surprised to find it. No, our single-lettered friend exists in our language in a special but precarious way. And we would do well to remember it.


The New South Wales Curriculum

21 Oct

Michael Stuchbery’s arguments in favour of curriculum reform are at best populist, and at worst flawed. No doubt we have a crowded and imperfect curriculum, but when one clamours to have the curriculum amended claiming it does not prepare students for the real world, one ought to at least get one’s facts right.

As a Higher School Certificate student, I can attest to the existence of misconceptions in Mr Stuchbery’s polemic. Take English, for example — despite Mr Stuchbery’s contention that students ought to study just a “few great texts” and not the swathe of texts they study now, an average HSC English student will spend hours a week for a year only three to four texts, along with a handful of texts of their own choosing studied at home. The great works of the English canon are by no means omitted. Coleridge, Keats, Orwell, Donne, Blake, Dickens, Shakespeare and Austen join Emily Dickinson, George Bernard Shaw and William Butler Yeats on the current English prescriptions as possible texts to study for the HSC. Students might also study influential Australian authors, directors and poets such as Baz Luhrman, David Malouf, and Tim Winton.

Stuchbery also seems to think that students learn only a story in history, suggesting that more historiography be taught. Every HSC Ancient History student learns about an ancient society and a historical period, each of which includes the study of “relevant historiographical issues”, as well as an ancient personality and a study of Pompeii, each of involves learning how interpretations of the historical record have developed. After a year of Ancient History, I can discuss what modern writers such as Rawson, Hoyos and Syme think of Caesar, or what Aristotle, Plutarch and Xenephon wrote about Sparta in antiquity. A shortage of historiography is a product of Mr Stuchbery’s imagination, not a flawed syllabus.

Mr Stuchbery’s suggestion that students be obliged to learn mathematics shows an understanding of what is taught far removed from reality. I am a perfectly capable student and the twelve years of maths preceding Year 12 no doubt provided me with all the mathematical skills I will ever need. Given that I do not intend to pursue a career that involves calculus, conics, or polynomials, studying mathematics in Year 12 would be hours of study wasted on student who neither needs nor wants such knowledge. In suggesting that each HSC student be compelled to study Life Skills Mathematics, Mr Stuchbery is seeking to compel students to study a course intended to provide post-compulsory schooling opportunities to students with intellectual disabilities. One does not need to explain how that is a poor appropriation of the course’s purpose.

It is fortunate how ineffectual years of political bickering over what is taught in schools has been, and how far it is removed from reality. However well-constructed the arguments from each side of the debate might be — whether objective, factual, traditional education or contemporary, progressive education is being championed — one is always impressed at how little characterisations of the curriculum represent reality.


15 Mar

The card game Tysiacha (Тысяча), meaning “one thousand”, is a popular three-player game in Russia and Eastern Europe that combines complex card play strategy with a unique scoring system. Play with a twenty-four-card deck containing only nines up to aces, with the following card values:

Nine: 0 points; Ten: 10 points; Jack: 2 points; Queen: 3 points; King: 4 points; Ace: 11 points

Marriages: ♠ = 40; ♣ = 60; ♦ = 80; ♥ = 100

Each hand, deal seven cards to the three players and place three in the centre in a prikup (Прикуп). A player with a hand worth fewer than fourteen points may elect to order the cards to be shuffled and redealt. The player to the dealer’s left bids 100 automatically. Bidding continues clockwise and bids must be incremented by at least five points if one chooses not to pass. Nobody may bid more points than it is possible for them to make even if it is presumed that they will win every trick and convert every marriage they have in their hand. If a player passes, he must pass for the rest of that round of bidding; if two players in a row pass, the winner of the bidding becomes the declarer.

The declarer may pick up the talon. He reveals the talon to the other players if the winning bid was higher than 100 and then he passes one card face-down from his hand to each of his opponents. If he so desires, the declarer may then choose to increase his bid to any higher multiple of 5. He leads to the first trick, and the winner of the previous trick leads to the next trick. A player must follow suit if able; otherwise, he must play a trump card (see below) or, if he has no trump cards, he may play any card. The card order in determining the winner is A-10-K-Q-J-9. Cards that are not of the suit led cannot win a trick (unless they have been made trump)

If a player has won the previous trick — meaning that this cannot be done on the first trick — he may announce that he has the queen and king of a single suit and he is then awarded the appropriate number of points (consult the marriages point guide above). In order to do this he must lead either the queen or king to the next trick. A player must have the relevant cards in his hand when he makes the announcement; if he has lost them over the course of the hand, he has lost the chance to announce the marriage. Once this has happened, the suit the marriage was declared in becomes the trump suit. A hand may well be completed without any trump suit existing, or it may progress through all four as they are replaced by new marriage announcements. A player unable to follow suit must ruff (play a trump card) if he is able to do so, and trump cards will always beat non-trump cards in determining the winner of a trick.

Apart from marriages, player score points by winning tricks. For the players who were not the declarer, their score is calculated by adding the points found in all the tricks they won using the scoring list above to the marriages they scored, then rounding it off to the nearest five. For the declarer, the same method is used however the number of points he may earn is limited by his bid. If he fails to make his bid, his score is reduced by the value of his bid, no matter how close he came to making it.

If a player has a score between 880 and 1000, a box is drawn round his last score and he is said to be on the barrel. Whilst on the barrel, a player scores no points unless he wins a hand’s bidding with a bid of at least 120 points and makes it, in which case he wins. It is impossible for him to earn any points when he is not declarer or when he is declarer with a bid lower than 120. If he has not achieved this within three hands his score is reduced to 760 and he is no longer on the barrel. If a second player reaches the barrel while one is already on it, the first player’s score is reduced to 760 points and he leaves the barrel. If multiple players reach the barrel in the same hand, all players on the barrel are knocked off and their score is made 760. If a player exceeds 1000 points by skipping scores of 880 or more (such as by earning 200 points while on 800), he can win without being on the barrel.


13 Mar

The perfect cupcake recipe is an elusive creature. We might watch it from time to time, but never could we catch it. These cupcakes a relative – third cousin, once removed.

Simple Cupcakes

200g unsalted butter at room temperature

1 cup caster sugar

Up to 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

3 eggs

2 ½ cups self-raising flour

½ cup milk

Heat the oven to 180°C or 160°C for a fan-forced oven (355°F / 320°F). Line a muffin pan with paper cases. Cream together the butter, sugar and vanilla in a mixing bowl until light and yellow. Add the eggs one by one, combining them completely. The mixture will take on a mushy, curdled appearance at this point. Add half of the milk and sift in half of the flour then stir them with the mixture. Do the same with the rest of the milk and flour. Spoon the batter into the muffin pan and bake for around fifteen minutes or until golden; the length of time required to cook the muffins will depend on their size. Leave them for a couple of minutes before removing them and allow them to cool before adding icing.

For the icing, combine icing sugar with a little butter and a small amount of milk or hot water. Flavouring, food colouring, vanilla, cocoa solids and similar substances can all be added. Alternatively, combine butter with as much brown sugar as does not quite stop the mixture from separating into pieces then add instant coffee or cocoa. This will produce an illiquid topping that does not set. This recipe takes about half an hour to make and makes at least 24 small- or medium-sized cupcakes.


15 Feb

Play with 2 to 6 players and a 52-card deck. To begin the first phase, place one card aside, face down, then deal three cards to each player. The suit order is A-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10-J-Q-K. Throughout the entire first phase, a player must immediately draw a card after removing one from his hand so that he always holds three cards. The winner of the last trick (or the loser of the last game in the case of the first trick) leads, after which each player plays a single card going clockwise. Any card may be played. At any time during a trick, or immediately afterwards, a player may slough a card of equal rank to a card that has been played to that trick (that is, put the card on the table, aside from the other cards). A sloughed card is not played in the sense that other cards are played; they count for nothing except that they are given to the player who wins the trick. Under no circumstances may a player slough a card of equal rank to the highest card played in a trick until he has played his card in that trick. The player who played the highest-ranked card (ignore suits) collects all the cards played and sloughed in that trick, places them into his collection of cards he has won, and begins the next trick. If two or more players tie for the highest card, they have a private trick, where only they play cards (although any player may slough to such a trick). A tie here leads to further private tricks between the tied players, until a final winner takes all the cards from the original tricks and all private tricks. When there are no cards left in the deck, the last trick is underway (if this occurs after the last card to a trick is played or during post-trick sloughing, begin a final trick; otherwise, finish the current trick). No sloughing may be done in this trick until after it has finished, and naturally no cards can be drawn either. Any cards remaining in players’ hands are added to their stack of collected cards.

Turn over the abandoned card to determine trumps. Each player’s set of accumulated cards becomes their hand. The suit order now changes for the second phase, so that aces are high rather than low and trump cards are higher than all else. Whoever took the last trick starts. Play moves clockwise, with each player either playing a card or a set of two or more consecutive cards of the same suit higher than the last. A set of 5-6-7 of spades will beat the 4 of spades, but will be bested by the 8 of spades which will, in turn, be beaten by the 2 of the trump suit. Only trump cards or cards of the suit led may be played to a trick in the second phase. If a player is unwilling or unable to beat the last card played, he must pick it up and play passes to the next person. A run of consecutive cards count as one card here, even if two runs that are placed together into one longer run were placed there by two different players. The next player will only have to beat the second-highest card, as the highest was already taken by the last player and is no longer on the table. This could theoretically continue for the rest of the game, with cards being placed down and taken into player’s hands. More typically, however, a trick in the second phase will end in one of two ways. If there are no cards left on the table as they were all taken by players, the player to the left of the last player to pick up cards starts the next trick. If the number of cards on the table is equal to the number of players who hadn’t run out of cards in their hand at the beginning of the trick, the trick ends, the cards discarded, and the last player to play a card starts the next trick. In the latter case, runs of cards do count as single cards, however two side-by-side runs played by two different players count as two distinct cards, even though they wouldn’t for the purposes of picking up cards (so if one player plays 5-6 and the next 7-8-9, they count as two cards in order to determine whether the trick has ended but a player who cannot or will not beat the 9 will need to pick up the cards from 5 to 9).

A player with no remaining cards takes no further part in the game. The last player to have cards in his hand is the loser and, by implication, a goat. The other players remark: “du luktar som en get” (Swedish for “you smell like a dirty goat”) and the goat is obliged to make the appropriate goat sounds in meek and ineffectual protest.


8 Jan

Andy Mangold released a daring numeral set entitled Pompadour on his website in November last year. The typeface struck me as an exciting example of creative and thoughtful design. It was well-received and has been covered in Smashing magazine, Designers go to Heaven and I Love Typography (one of my favourite blogs).

A number of people asked for a TrueType or OpenType version of this creation as Mangold only released an .eps file. Due to the wonders of the Creative Commons License, here are those versions. I have also added a full stop (period) for writing numbers with a decimal component.


Pompadour (TrueType, 7.6 KB)

Pompadour (OpenType, 12.9 KB)

Pompadour (Encapsulated PostScript, 1204.7 KB)

Creative Commons License

Full stop added to an original work by Andy Mangold. Pompadour Numeral Set by Andy Mangold is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

When you preview the font in a desktop publishing or image manipulation program that depicts typefaces with the name of each typeface set in itself, the name of Pompadour will appear to be nine dots. This is because each upper- and lower-case letter is a full stop, as not to commit the crime of including letters in a numeral set.

A Letter

8 Jan

It has been a long time indeed since I wrote a letter.

From time to time, I receive mail. Typically, it consists of bank statements, advertising, or propaganda from the Church of Scientology, who have sent me fortnightly correspondence upon attaining my address. Sometimes, if I am lucky, I receive a card.

I was fortunate enough to receive a thoughtful letter a few weeks ago. It was not composed by a computer program, nor laden with effulgent images imploring me to buy something. It was two pages long. My subsequent reply was set in 12-point Hoefler Text and the address in American Typewriter.

I stuck on a pre-Euro Dutch stamp because it was far more aesthetically appealing than the floral garbage Australia Post sells. That meant I would need to deliver it myself, but it was worth it.

The use of a seal made it all the more authentic (although I did burn the first letter with which I tried this).

A letter published in Friday’s Sydney Morning Herald: “What’s Australia Post?”