Galileo Galilei, Siri, and escalator 3 at Piccadilly Circus

Pisa Cathedral, with the Leaning Tower in the background

The most famous building in Pisa in Italy is the Leaning Tower. The lean became obvious soon after construction began in 1173 and the builders tried to adjust for the tilt even as they built higher. Obviously that didn’t work.

Not nearly as famous as the Leaning Tower but barely any distance away, is Pisa’s cathedral. I doubt that one tourist in a hundred gives it much thought and yet it, too, has a claim to fame. It was there that Galileo Galilei discovered the secret of pendular motion.

According to legend, he was in the cathedral and he was bored. It must have been a hot day because the windows were open. He watched as one of the chandeliers was blown about by the wind.

For whatever reason, he decided to time how long it took for the chandelier to return to the vertical after each wind gust. He did this by counting with his pulse. And he discovered something odd. It didn’t matter if the chandelier was moved only a little bit, or a lot. When it swung back towards the vertical it always took the same length of time to do so.

Galileo was fascinated enough by this phenomenon that he repeated the experiment when he got home. And he got the same result. The angle through which a pendulum swings is irrelevant. The time taken is dependent only on the pendulum’s length.

According to Wikipedia, the Dutch mathematician and scientist Christiaan Huygens followed up these observations a century later. He went further than Galileo and realised that the back-and-forth of a mechanically impelled pendulum could be used as a timing device. From this insight he invented the pendulum clock.

Pendulum clocks aren’t used much anymore. They’ve been superseded in the quest for greater accuracy. To understand why, I’m going to tell my Piccadilly Circus story.

Like most people, I’ve done different jobs in my working life. One day quite a few years ago I found myself monitoring escalator number three at Piccadilly Circus Station.

I was there because one of the other escalators in the station was out of order and it was important that number three remain in service. My task was to stand near the bottom of the escalator and watch it. If it stopped, I was to get it restarted as soon as possible.

This was exactly as boring as it sounds but sometimes in life you do boring jobs. I might add that nothing went wrong with the escalator that day.

Still, as I stood there I eventually noticed that someone had stuck an Arsenal FC sticker to one of the steps. I would see it every now and then as the escalator completed another revolution.

It occurred to me that I could work out the duration of a full rotation by using the sticker as a marker. When I did this, from one sighting of the sticker to the next took something like 112.5 seconds.

But of course, my timing might have been inaccurate. I might have fractionally delayed either starting or stopping the stopwatch. I reckoned that my timing could have been off by as much as a second.

But what if I counted two rotations? Or if I let the escalator perform fully 10 rotations?

If I counted 10 rotations, my overall timing could still be wrong by one second. But I could divide this time by 10 and if the escalator had been moving at a consistent speed, my timing for a single rotation would now be accurate to 1/10 of a second. If I let it go for 100 rotations, my timing would be accurate to 1/100 of a second.

And you see the pattern? Any process that repeats with an absolutely regular pattern can be used for timekeeping. And the more repetitions, the better.

Clock-makers were well aware of this and you might think they would have preferred shorter to longer pendulums. After all, they move faster. And clockmakers would, but they had to take other factors into account. Fast-moving pendulums wear out faster.

Pendulum clocks eventually became obsolete from the 1930s onwards. Quartz crystal oscillators were developed that were capable of thousands of accurate oscillations every second.

The very best clocks nowadays are atomic clocks, which are very expensive and very rare. They use technology that I won’t pretend to understand to count the switching of caesium atoms between two different states. This happens at the rate of 9,192,631,770 times a second.

So accurate are atomic clocks that we now know that the speed of rotation of the Earth can vary slightly. They’ve also been used to test Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. Einstein predicted that time would pass more slowly for an object moving at high velocity and this was first tested in 1971 in an experiment where several atomic clocks were put in jet airliners while another remained on the ground. When the clocks were reunited the clocks showed different times, vindicating Einstein’s theory.

But what’s all this got to do with Siri, that I mentioned in the title?

Well, nothing. Except that Siri, and other products like Amazon’s Alexa, are part of the same trend towards greater accuracy. Perhaps I should explain.

Machine learning is an umbrella term for various computing techniques where data is processed to find useful information. One such technique involves the use of simulated neural networks, where linear algebra and calculus are used to try to simulate how brains process information. If that sounds unlikely it should be pointed out that this is exactly how number plate recognition systems work.

One of the holy grails of the tech industry is to produce a truly effective computerised voice recognition system. Using simulated neural networks, voice recognition software has been created that can transcribe spoken English with more than 95% accuracy. The industry goal is 99%.

The thing is, to achieve 99% will require a lot of number crunching and that in turn requires a lot of data. Just as counting more and more rotations of the escalator at Piccadilly Circus would have enabled me to give a more and more accurate rotation time, so having more and more voice data enables voice recognition systems to become ever more finely tuned.

Which is where Siri and Alexa come in. If it has ever occurred to you that Apple and Amazon have let you access their systems for an incredibly low price, it’s because they have. The big tech companies need to get voice data in huge quantities to feed and fine-tune their systems. Giving you cheap access to the systems is the most cost-effective way they’ve found of doing that.

The Melancholy Roman


El chupinazo, or what little I could see of it.

I arrived in Pamplona and scoped out the entire length of the bull run, and quickly concluded that whatever I may have thought before going there, there was no way I was going to run with the bulls. It’s one thing to watch it on tv from home. Actually being there and thinking about it focusses and sobers the mind.

That evening I asked at my hotel’s reception how I could at least watch the run in person. “You can’t,” I was told. It was too late to rent a balcony and all the good vantage points would be taken by locals in the early hours of the morning.

The receptionist recommended I instead head to Plaza de Toros, the bullring. Tickets would be on sale before 7am for people to pay €6 to sit in the stands. We could watch the action from the streets on the big screens when the run started at 8am, then see the runners and the bulls enter the bullring at the end of the run.

My hour sitting in Plaza de Toros turned out to be not very pleasant. “Bored drunks chain smoking” would be an accurate description of many of my fellow spectators. Time passed very slowly indeed.

Now, if you enter a Pamplona bull run you can’t get out. There are no exits from the course. Sure, you can quit before it starts, but once it begins you’re officially in it till the bulls are safely away, come what may.

Turns out there’s an exit clause, and I discovered it like this:

About a minute before 8am, and before the bulls were even released, a dozen supposed runners entered the bullring through the tunnel where the bulls come in. They received sarcastic cheers from the crowd.

The run itself started, and about a minute later hundreds of runners, dressed in the characteristic white and red, surged into the ring. We could still see the action on the screens. Shortly afterwards, the bulls themselves ran into the ring, crossed it and were safely secured out of sight in the pens on the other side.

And you see the exit clause? If you enter as a runner but hang out near the entrance to the bullring, you get to participate in the run in the technical sense, without actually putting yourself in any danger.

Since I was going to be in Pamplona for one more morning, didn’t want to sit in the stands of Plaza de Toros again, and couldn’t watch the run from anywhere else, entering the run while avoiding danger seemed like the best thing to do.

And it turned out that there was entertainment in the ring itself, once the run was over. The local breed of cows have horns. To entertain both the audience and the runners after the run has finished, young cows are released into the ring, one or two at a time. The tips of their horns are padded so they can’t do serious injuries but they still run about in the ring. People get knocked over and occasionally flipped in the air. It is quite the game for runners to avoid the charging animals. I watched one runner successfully attempt to somersault cleanly over one of the cows.

This spectacle was well worth seeing. I figured it would look even better if I was at ground level, just behind the wooden barrier that ran around the ring. If I came in as a runner I could be right down there, rather than up in the stands. And I wouldn’t even have to pay for an entry ticket.

The next morning I caught the same bus into Pamplona as the runners from my hotel. I told them, as I had the previous morning, that I couldn’t face running with the bulls. I then explained my sneaky plan to technically enter the run but sneak into the ring before the bulls arrived.

“That’s called the chicken run,” one of them said.

“That suits me perfectly,” I replied.

Everybody enters the run near the town hall. You are corralled into a relatively small area and you have to be there before 7:15am. Even though I was going to do the chicken run I still felt nervous. God knows how everyone else felt.

About ten minutes after we entered, police kettled everyone in. It got quite hot from so many bodies packed into such a small space. Some people smoked, but it was still better than being in Plaza de Toros. And nobody was drunk. You’re not allowed to run drunk.

Most of the balconies overlooking the small plaza were already filled with people watching. And almost everybody, runners and spectators alike, was wearing the white and red of San Fermin.

At 7:45am the police relaxed the cordon. We were now free to walk to wherever we wanted on the course.

I passed the infamous Curve of Death and into Calle Estafeta (Estafeta Street). I will never forget that walk. It’s a long, straight, narrow street lined with tall buildings, and every balcony was filled with people looking down at the runners – looking at us. They didn’t know that I wasn’t really a runner.

Every shop front in the street was barricaded. Indeed, the only thing that wasn’t barricaded was the ATM on the corner. But what doesn’t show up on tv is that all the barricades have viewing slots cut into them. At every viewing slot there were faces looking out, ready to watch the action.

I saw three men clinging to the outside of an ornate window grill, about two metres off the ground. I saw another man try to shimmy up a drainpipe, only to discover that he couldn’t get any kind of foothold at all.

There was a further police cordon up the street and we were held back for several minutes, then we were allowed to go forward again.

Between the end of Calle Estafeta and the entrance tunnel to the bullring there were a series of wooden barricades. These would be the perfect place to execute my chicken-run plan.

But the barricades curved around to the left. I stopped just past the curve and a new plan occurred to me. The bulls would probably shoot past it. More to the point, in case of danger I could drop to the ground and slide under the wooden planks, out of the way. It seemed like a good idea. So I changed my plans and decided to participate in the run after all.

There’s a great quote about planning and preparation, which is often attributed to Mike Tyson but goes back at least to Joe Louis. The quote is this:

“Everyone has a plan till they get punched in the face.”

Some of the other runners had gone past, closer to the bullring. An official on the other side of the barricades tried to tell me and two others to move further down, but we ignored him. And I remember looking across to the barricades on the other side, and seeing the line of photographers and spectators perched on a second series of barricades.

I looked at my watch, and noticed to my astonishment that it was 8 o’clock and 15 seconds. Then I heard the bang of the first rocket exploding, indicating that the gates to the corral had been opened. A few seconds later I heard a second bang indicating that the bulls were in the streets.

The bulls can do the entire run in less than two minutes, but I knew that there was no way they could do it in under about 90 seconds, so for the next minute I stood and watched as the seconds ticked away on my watch.

And then people started pushing and shoving, trying to get past and I found myself literally being pushed, forcefully, towards the bullring.

Now, one of my reasons for not wanting to take part in the bull run proper is that I’m not a very fast runner. A Spanish fighting bull can run at a top speed of 24km/h. That’s 100 metres every 15 seconds and I simply can’t run that fast. If a bull sprinted after me, in other words, I wouldn’t be able to get away.

This turned out to be completely irrelevant.

I was repeatedly pushed from behind and from the side as well, and bounced along the barricade a few times. But I couldn’t run because there was a guy in front of me, and a guy in front of him, and frankly, I was just trying my hardest not to fall over. People were jostling and shoving to get past, to get away from the bulls, wherever they were. We none of us seemed to be moving very fast at all.

What I hadn’t realised in advance is that nobody on the ground knows where the bulls are. Bulls are not as tall as most adults, so even if you look behind you, if there are people between you and the bulls you won’t see them. More to the point, you couldn’t possibly look behind you because if you did you’d trip over for sure, with all the jostling.

So we weren’t moving very fast, we knew the bulls were somewhere behind us and we couldn’t look back. If that sounds like a recipe for chaos it really was, and I’ve never known anything like it.

I stopped trying to stay close to the barricade, a space in front of me opened up, and I executed my chicken run. I ran for the tunnel. I saw one person to my right, just ahead of me, trip and fall in the tunnel itself. Normally you’d stop and help someone in a situation like that but in the running of the bulls, if you’ve ever watched the footage, that’s exactly how the pile-ups start. The only sensible thing to do was to run clear, to the left. Which is exactly what I did.

The bull ring is surrounded by a wooden barrier that I mentioned earlier. If I could get over the barrier, which is maybe 1.4m high, I would be safe. Alternatively, there are two small alcoves where bullfighters enter and leave the ring. My plan the entire time had been to use either of these options to get out of the ring proper.

It simply hadn’t occurred to me that other people would have exactly the same plan, and that hundreds of people had already raced past me and beaten me into the ring. I simply could not so much as get to the barrier.

I headed for one of the alcoves. But these are only about 50cm wide and I could not get in, because again, too many other people were trying to do the same thing.

All I could do was what other people were doing, which was standing to the side of the ring, near the barrier, hoping that when the bulls entered they wouldn’t come in our direction.

I was still there, at the side of the ring, when I saw three bulls enter. Luckily they ran straight across the ring and into the little tunnel on the other side, to the pens.

The above description probably sounds chaotic. I would probably have been willing to swear testimony, under oath, that from when I first got shoved and started to move, to when I saw the three bulls, fully five or six minutes had passed. I would have sworn it.

In actual fact, I was able to work out later with a fair degree of certainty that all that action took place in about 60 seconds.

Still standing near the barrier inside the ring, it occurred to me that I could watch what was happening in the streets outside, on the big screens. Other people around me started doing the same and I heard someone say “faltan dos” ie there were still two bulls out in the streets.

My cunning plan, to slide under the barricade to escape a bull? We watched on the screen as a guy tried it. Turns out that bulls won’t wait for you to execute your cunning plans. Last I heard, the guy had sustained injuries from the bull that, let’s just say, might interfere with his ability to become a father.

The bulls were eventually all brought in. Along with hundreds of other people, I must’ve been in the ring when they came in, yet I only saw four in total and I know for a fact that there were six.

The final injury count for the run was 14 hospitalised, 6 having been gored.

And the bulls themselves? It’s the ongoing tragedy of Pamplona, and other such events in Spain that the bulls are still killed in the afternoon bullfights. This is wrong. If human beings want to do silly things for entertainment like taking part in a bull run, or engaging in sports like boxing or cage fighting, as far as I’m concerned they’re fair game. After all, they give their consent. The bulls don’t.

The Melancholy Roman