By Gareth Edwards

Sunday, 20 May 2012

Malcolm Gladwell and the Paramilitary Brownies

More answers from the blog that aims to provide a coherent explanation for the universe by answering an infinite number of small questions.

Robert Hudson asked How now brown cow?
This isn’t strictly speaking a question but a greeting, and it finds its origins in the Brownie Schism of 1929 that shook the Girl Guiding community to its core. The bitterness and in-fighting of that time is well-documented elsewhere and is too distressing to go into in a family blog: suffice it to say that the High Council of Brown Owls fell out over the exact wording of the Brownie Guide Law - “A Brownie Guide thinks of others before herself and does a good turn every day”. To this simple ideal Margaret “Moo” Guernsey-Smythe of the 9th Sevenoaks troop advocated adding the words “through armed force where necessary”. The amendment was rejected, and the disillusioned Guernsey-Smythe formed a splinter group, the Continuity Brownie Guides, or CBG. Spurning the pacifist Brownie title of “Brown Owl” Guernsey-Smythe styled herself Brown Cow, declaring at the first Continuity Brownie Jamboree and Bomb-Making-Workshop that “We are all Brown Cows Now!” From then on CBG troop leaders were greeted not as “Former Brown Owl” but as “Now Brown Cow”. In keeping with their strong identification with the marginalized oppression of the Native American tribes-people they often prefixed this with the Sioux greeting “How!” hence, “How! Now Brown Cow”. The CBG terrorized North East Kent for some years, brazenly carrying out heavily-armed gardening chores, bring and buy sales and sing-alongs until the outbreak of the Second World War. Eventually in 1942 Churchill had Guernsey-Smythe and 32 sten-gun wielding seven-year-olds dropped behind Japanese lines in the Malayan jungle with instructions to “give it a jolly good tidy and then hike home”. They were never heard of again.

Nance Dear Sir- 
Most emails I now receive begin with "Hey there," "Hi," or "Fantastic new offer." What happened to formal salutations?
Each age’s informality becomes the next age’s formality. Thus “How do you do” to our ears sounds achingly formal, and yet to 18th Century people more familiar with the archaic “How do ye?” it would have seemed achingly “street”. How our children’s children will be beginning their informal messages we cannot begin to imagine, but I’m confident that they will lend gravitas to their more formal correspondence with a somber and dignified “Whassup?!”, “Yo!” or an eloquent “V*I*A*G*R*A at unbelievable prices!?!” 

@clangerfan1 Why put a top step on a ladder if you are never allowed to step on it?
More than any other piece of DIY equipment ladders are dangerously mis-used in metaphors, with little thought for rudimentary symbolic safety. Comparing some of life’s cruelest challenges such as job and house-hunting with the simple act of climbing a ladder creates catastrophically unjustifiable optimism. For this reason in 1987 the European Expectation Management Committee made it a legal requirement for all actual literal ladders to mirror the limits of the things they metaphorically represent, and so an extra step was added to the top of all ladders that will always be forever beyond your attainment.

anotherartstudent asked Where can I purchase talent? And how much does it cost?
Scientific thinking is now that there is no such thing as talent. Rather, if you put in the hours anything can be achieved by anyone. Malcolm Gladwell has popularized the notion that with 10,000 hours of practice absolutely anyone can become a successful concert pianist. It’s perhaps less well-known that 3,700 hours could make you the world’s 315th best bassoon player; after just 1,438 hours practice you can expect to win the regional heat of a pie-eating contest; and after 400,000 hours practice you should actually be able to fly. It’s worth reminding readers that it is important what kind of practice you do. For example, prospective bassoonists are wasting their time practicing eating pies, and if you are leaping into the air from the top of a tall building it is unhelpful to take a piano.

That’s all for this installment but do keep the questions coming and I’m confident we’ll have the universe explained in a jiffy, and I use the word “jiffy” here in the sense “indeterminate period of time”.


  1. 1. If someone thinks you are off your trolley, is there any way to convince them otherwise?

    2. If you write a question, but then realize you are not sure you have the grammar or sentence structure correct, should you delete the question or leave your ignorance on display for all to mock?

    3. Why is it windy today?

    4. Why aren't there more hedgehogs in the world?

    5. Why do I always run out of spoons long before it's time to turn the dishwasher on?

  2. When will spats come back?

  3. What noise annoys a noisy oyster most?

  4. The answer to Life, The Universe and Everything is widely accepted by scientists and professional dog-walkers alike to be 42. However, I recently did the relevant calculation during a particularly intellectually inspiring episode of Loose Women and came up with the answer 'cribbage'. Can you confirm that this is correct?

  5. What came first: orange the fruit, or orange the colour?

  6. "Eventually in 1942 Churchill had Guernsey-Smythe and 32 sten-gun wielding seven-year-olds dropped behind Japanese lines in the Malayan jungle with instructions to “give it a jolly good tidy and then hike home”"

    That explains what happened to Jim Thompson in the Cameron Highlands :)

  7. I receive 2 or 3 calls a day inviting me to change my phone company, improve my credit, or take a cruise. I'm wondering why companies employ these callers if most people hang up. What is the ratio of "successful" calls to hang-ups?

  8. Are bagpipes really the most difficult instrument to master?

  9. Have physicists solved the question of the origin of the universe?