It was Marvin the manically depressed robot in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy who said: “Life. Don’t talk to me about life.” You get that a lot. “London. Don’t talk to me about London,” said one of Samuel Johnson’s friends. “Twitter. Don’t talk to me about Twitter,” said Trevor Kavanagh, political columnist on The Sun, this week.
“Tweeting is perniciously addictive,” he wrote, describing himself as “a recovering twit”, having given up three months ago. Of his online misery, he said: “I stopped reading books, had rows with complete strangers, and risked damnation every time I attempted irony.”
Ah, yes: irony. It never really works. Except as the name of a laundry service in Oldham, which, a friend tells me, has white vans with the single word “Irony” on the sides. Kavanagh would have been better advised to stick to the jokes.
That is what Twitter is for. Chris Heaton-Harris, the Conservative MP, had advance information about the honours list yesterday. “The first Jedi to be decorated by the Queen will become Obi Juan Ken OBE.”
The jokes. And the joy of knowledge. If it hadn’t been for Twitter I would not have discovered that 8068 is the least common PIN. Or, at least, it was.
Now that the BBC has included this fact in a list of 100 things we learnt this year – which I came across through what one American news agency used to call until quite recently the “micro-blogging website” – lots of people will be using it as their PIN because they’ll know how to remember it.
If it hadn’t been for Twitter I would not have known that Amazon was at one stage going to be called Relentless, which would have been an accurate description of its attempt to devour the whole of capitalism. If you type relentless.com into the internet it still redirects to the US Amazon page.
I wouldn’t have known about the pancake number. I discovered that because Simon Singh chose 22, the highest known pancake number, as his number of the year. That was for a different BBC list, also found through Twitter.
You have a stack of pancakes of different sizes and you want to put them in order, the smallest at the top and the largest at the bottom. You can stick a spatula anywhere in the stack and flip over all the pancakes above that point: what is the largest number of flips required? For a stack of two, the pancake number is one. For a stack of 19, it is 22. But no one has been able to calculate the pancake number for a stack of 20. “The only research paper that Bill Gates ever wrote was on the subject of pancake numbers,” said Singh.
I would not have known that Haribo sweets are named from the first two letters of founder Hans Riegel and Bonn, his home town. I would not have known that the English surnames Temples, Hatman, Rummage, Nithercott, Raynott, Southwark and Woodbead have died out. Now knowing that, Trevor Kavanagh, is worth a little damnation. And I would not have seen Sophie Hannah, the novelist, promising to write a thriller with characters bearing all those names.
The most delightful fact I discovered recently, though, started with that first BBC list. One of the items on it, although I don’t think this was a genuine new discovery in 2013, was that the French for walkie-talkie is talkie-walkie.
That led, through Twitter, to the information that the French slang for sofa bed is clic-clac because of the noise it makes, although the proper French is canapé-lit, which is almost as good. Someone else then told me that King Kong in Swedish is Kong King. But the best of all was the news from Heloise, a friend for life, that the Welsh for microwave is popty-ping.
And Trevor Kavanagh complains that Twitter stopped him reading books? Books? Don’t talk to me about books!