Frère Jacques is wrong

Ring the bells for matins, Brother Jake! (Photo: Taven Diorio on Unsplash)

I spend a lot of time thinking about mental flotsam and jetsam*, the junk we all have lodged permanently in our brains, but that we rarely stop to actually consider. And it turns out that if you do consider it, you start to notice how arbitrary and nonsensical much of it is.

This came up recently while I was trying to help my kid learn French. I sang her Frère Jacques, which we all know:

Frère Jacques / Frère Jacques
Dormez-vous? / Dormez-vous?
Sonnez les matines! / Sonnez les matines!
Ding, dang, dong / Ding, dang, dong

Then, to help her understand what was going on, I sang her the English version:

Are you sleeping?  / Are you sleeping?
Brother John / Brother John
Morning bells are ringing! / Morning bells are ringing!
Ding, dang, dong / Ding, dang, dong

It was at this point that I realized that I’d made a huge mistake.

“Who is Brother John?” asked my kid, innocently.

Answering that question involved a long and complicated discussion about the existence of monasteries, which itself quickly turned into a discourse on religion for which I was fully unprepared in that moment.

There was a time, about four centuries ago, when Frère Jacques may have been a perfectly natural stock character for a children’s nursery rhyme. But today he is an outlandish interloper from a forgotten world.

And yet somehow he’s still here, right next to the Paw Patrol underwear and the Bluetooth-enabled white noise machine. It’s weird.

Having struggled through that little episode, I then tried to steer the conversation back to what I thought was the whole point of the exercise; learning what the French words meant in English. And there I ran into trouble again.

Have you spotted the problem? If not, I get it. I have sung this thing hundreds of times without realizing that whoever first translated it made a pretty big boo-boo.

Well, two, actually, but I’m inclined to forgive the first one. The French version of the English name “John” is just “Jean,” as in Jean Valjean. So to be perfectly accurate, “Frère Jacques” should have been translated as something more like “Brother Jake” or “Brother James.”

But that’s just stupid pedantry. Jacques sure sounds a whole lot like “Jack,” which has long been a diminutive for “John” in English, so I feel it’s pointless to argue. Besides, John comes a lot closer to rhyming with “dong” than James does.

No, the main problem is the fact that the protagonist of the story has a very different character in French than he does in English.

En français, the third line uses the imperative form sonnez. It’s a command, as in “get up and go ring those bells, Jacques!” There is a theory — probably an unprovable one — that the song originally emerged as a taunt for mocking friars of the Dominican order (known in France as Jacobins, hence Jacques) for their lifestyle, which was relatively luxurious compared with the more spartan Franciscan order.

But in English, the morning bells are already ringing. There’s no command here, just a gentle reminder of what that sound means, i.e. out of bed, sleepy-head. We never learn whose job it is to ring those bells, but clearly it’s not Brother John’s.

Here we see the contrast: John may have committed the sin of sloth, and probably has some confession to do, but that’s nothing compared to Jacques, who is not only lazy, but neglectful of his duty to the point of messing up the day’s schedule for everybody else in the abbey.

If you wanted to do a better translation, the third line in English should probably be something more like:

Ring the bells for matins! / Ring the bells for matins!

So why don’t we sing that? Well, maybe we did once. But as my experience with my kid showed, it’s tough enough having to explain who Brother John is without also needing to go into what matins are. I can’t blame the first tired parent who just sang “Morning bells are ringing” instead.

But what, I hear you asking, is your point? Are you saying that the next time we hear someone singing “Frère Jacques,” we should be quick to point out to them that #actually, they’re singing it all wrong?

Emphatically not. Sing it however you like, or don’t sing it at all. It’s just a nursery rhyme, for crying out loud.

But if you do choose to sing it, you might want to take just a moment to consider the bizarre series of coincidences by which this simple meme managed to find its way from one brain to another and survive — albeit battered, bruised and more than a little mangled — for as long as it has.

Sleepy and incompetent as he may be, Frère Jacques has weathered the centuries, including religious wars and revolutions that threatened to render him obsolete. He has travelled all over the world, even to places far separated from his original country, language and culture. His story, contained in just a few lines of doggerel, may be anachronistic, but it remains relatable, even universal. Who doesn’t want to stay in bed for just a few more minutes?

And when you start to think along these lines, you realize that almost everything is like that. Every superstition we follow, every fact that gets repeated at cocktail parties, every name or proverb or tradition has all kinds of hidden levels of meaning and mystery that we never think about, even while we continue to do our part to keep those memes alive.

Frère Jacques may be just a nursery rhyme, but it has a lot going on: linguistics, history, religion and even the mathematics of poetical meter. And I’m sure I’ve only scratched the surface.

One of the truest things I’ve ever heard came from British TV and radio producer John Lloyd:

“Everything is interesting if you look at it long enough.”

Amen to that, Brother John.

*The idiom flotsam and jetsam itself is a case in point. We’ve all heard it, and most of us have said it many times without even thinking about what it means. But it turns out that each of those words has a specific meaning, with actual legal consequences for things like salvage operations. Flotsam refers to things that float to the surface after a shipwreck, whereas jetsam is anything that was intentionally “jettisoned” or thrown overboard to lighten the load before the ship sank.

How I learned that a zebra is not a stripy horse

Photo by Ron Dauphin on Unsplash
Photo by Ron Dauphin on Unsplash
Fig. 1: A herd of definitely-not-stripy-horses at the Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya. (Photo: Ron Dauphin via Unsplash)

Quick: how many animals can you name in a minute?


OK, now think about how many of those animals have you seen, in real life, in the past year. Not many, right?

Most of us live in a world devoid of wild animals, apart from maybe a few species like squirrels or raccoons. This means that we have few opportunities to compare our mental map — the idea of an animal that we carry around in our heads — against the real thing. And that means that sometimes, those mental maps can be off to a surprising degree.

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I’m back

It is the height of blogging clichés to lead with “Welp, it’s been a while since my last post . . .”

But in this case my hiatus has lasted so long — five years, in fact — that I hope you’ll forgive me a bit of metaphorical throat-clearing.

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Poker robot knows *exactly* when to hold ’em, fold ’em

Researchers at the University of Alberta have built a robot that has 'solved' the game of heads up limit Texas hold'em poker. Photo credit: Michael Bowling
Researchers at the University of Alberta have built a robot that has ‘solved’ the game of heads up limit Texas hold’em poker. Photo credit: Michael Bowling

Last month, Stephen Hawking caused quite a stir when he mused that advances in artificial intelligence “could spell the end of the human race.” Computer scientists quickly shot back, pointing out that today’s algorithms still struggle to recognize kittens, never mind plotting our ultimate doom. Still, with programs like Deep Blue and Watson outplaying humans on a regular basis, you might be forgiven a certain uneasy sense that the machines are gaining on us. Now, researchers at the University of Alberta have built an unbeatable card shark, a computer program that has ‘solved’ the game of heads up limit Texas hold’em poker. But there’s no need to run for the cellar just yet: while the finding has important implications for online poker fans and even medical decision makers, it’s not exactly Skynet.

Michael Bowling of the U of A’s Computer Poker Research Group led the project. “Many of the decisions we have to make in day-to-day life are filled with uncertainty: we’re often missing critical information, or we don’t know what others around us are going to do,” says Bowling. For example, a doctor trying to prescribe a treatment regimen for diabetes has to deal with the fact that each patient responds differently based on their diet, medical history, level of exercise, genetics and a host of other factors. Poker can act as a kind of test bed for developing artificial intelligence that can handle the presence of uncertainty. The idea is that by analyzing past decisions and outcomes, computer programs could predict what actions are most likely to be successful in the future.

Several years ago, the team made a splash when one of their algorithms, codenamed Polaris, won several games against top international poker players (WIRED ran a neat comic book-style story, which you can read here.) In a paper published this week in Science, they go a step further. “This program plays perfectly,” says  Bowling. “Even if it told the other player exactly what it was going to do and why, the opponent still wouldn’t be able to win money over the long term.” The program — called Cepheus — has analysed every single one of the billions and billions of situations it could find itself in, and has worked out the best possible decision to make for each one. It may not win every single hand, but averaged out over time, it’s unbeatable.


Principal investigator Michael Bowling and poses in front of a screen displaying output from Cepheus. Photo credit: University of Alberta. Photo credit: John Ulan, University of Alberta
Principal investigator Michael Bowling and poses in front of a screen displaying output from Cepheus. Photo credit: University of Alberta. Photo credit: John Ulan, University of Alberta

How did it get so good? Practice, practice, practice. Over the course of about two months, Cepheus played countless games against itself, eventually racking up something on the order of 8 to 10 billion, billion hands of poker. “It’s played more hands of poker than all of humanity has ever played in history,” says Bowling. At first, it was just playing randomly, but after each round it did a bit of self-reflection, calculating how much money it could have won if it had chosen to play differently, for example, to bet instead of call at a certain point. That monetary amount — the technical term is ‘regret’ — was used to inform the strategy it would use next time. Over time, the regrets got smaller and smaller until eventually, they reached zero, or at least as close to zero as it is reasonably possible to get. At this point, the game is considered to be ‘solved.’

This is not the first time a computer has solved a human game. For example, back in 2007 Jonathan Schaeffer, Bowling’s colleague at the University of Alberta, solved checkers with a computer called Chinook. Many people speculate that one day chess could also be solved. But what Cepheus has done is fundamentally different because of the uncertainty factor. While both checkers and chess are ‘bigger’ games than poker — there are a larger number of possible situations a player can face — they are perfect information games, meaning that each previous move is laid out for all to see. Cepheus, on the other hand, doesn’t know what cards its opponent has received, and thus is the first program to have solved an ‘imperfect information’ game.

You might think that an unbeatable poker robot would be a useful thing to own; set loose on the internet, it could collect earnings while its owner slept, ensuring an early retirement. Sadly (or fortunately, depending on your point of view) that probably won’t work. First of all, Cepheus only plays a very specific type of poker: heads up limit hold ‘em, which is exclusively a two-player game. Any change to the game — say adding a third player or getting rid of the betting limit — changes the situation so much so that Cepheus’s strategy falls apart. And head up limit hold ‘em, while popular in the early 2000s, is no longer widely played online, partly due to the fact that many players simply got too good at it. After Polaris started beating human players in 2008, Bowling and his team put up a website where people could improve their skills by sparring against the machine. It’s hard to say how much impact this had, but it does seem that over the next few years, the number of strong players increased and the number of weak players dwindled. In a stalemate, both players actually lose (since the online casinos take a certain percentage) so today most people don’t play unless they truly believe they have an advantage.

Is it possible that someone could one day build a machine that could ‘solve’ a more complicated form of poker?  Perhaps, but it’s unlikely. “We’ve done work in more than two-player games, but we’re probably only at a good amateur level,” says Bowling. Part of the problem is that the sheer number of possible situations becomes unmanageably large, not to mention the exponentially higher levels of uncertainty. “Solving a game like that is such a huge question . . . it’s unclear what it would even mean to do that,” says Bowling. As for the suggestion that artificial intelligence is something to fear, Bowling is skeptical. “AI is simply a tool, and every tool we’ve had in history has had positive and negative uses,” he says. “Of course we need to use these tools in wise ways. But so much good can come from this, it would be a tragedy not to explore it.”

Want to try your luck in a game of heads up limit Texas hold’em against Cepheus? Click here to try it out.


Secrets of the naked mole rat


In addition to their other talents, naked mole rats can survive under very low oxygen, and may offer clues that could help humans survive damage from strokes. (Photo credit: Roman Klementschitz, via WikiMedia Commons)
In addition to their other talents, naked mole rats can survive under very low oxygen, and may offer clues that could help humans survive damage from strokes. (Photo credit: Roman Klementschitz, via WikiMedia Commons)

Naked mole rats — is there anything they can’t do? These wrinkly little critters live up to 30 years, more than ten times as long as other rodents their size. They are essentially immune to cancer (a fact which makes them of great interest to the medical community) and also apparently insensitive to some kinds of pain. Last, but certainly not least, they are able to survive at levels of oxygen so low that they would be fatal to other animals. This week, researchers at the University of British Columbia showed that naked mole rats do this in a way that is completely unique among mammals. The insight may one day lead to new ways to prevent or treat human conditions like stroke.

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Check email less, reduce your stress?


Are you an e-mail addict?

I know I am. Every time I pick up my phone the blinking envelope in the corner reminds me that there’s something new to deal with. And while hope springs eternal that it’s a note from an editor assigning me a juicy new story, as often as not it’s just a poorly-spelled forward from an elderly relative, making bad jokes about how life was so much better before all this gosh-darned technology. Was it really? If I stop checking my email so often, will I regain the peace and comfort of that bygone era? According to the results of an experiment published this week by researchers from the University of British Columbia, the answer might well be yes.

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A Canadian message to the stars

ARO Dish
Later this fall, Algonquin Radio Observatory in Algonquin Park will be used to send a message to two stars that appear to have earth-like planets. (Photo credit: Keith Vanderlinde, Dunlap Institute for Astronomy & Astrophysics)

If you could talk to an extraterrestrial civilization, what would you say? That’s the question being asked, in all seriousness, by a group of scientists and science enthusiasts at the University of Toronto. As part of the newly organized Toronto Science Festival (TSF) they are asking the general public to submit potential messages by e-mail, Twitter, or online video. Suggestions are already trickling in, and within a few weeks the winner will be chosen and actually broadcast into space by the Algonquin Radio Observatory, a 46-metre-wide dish perched on a lonely outcrop of the Canadian Shield in Ontario’s Algonquin Provincial Park. A publicity stunt, you say? Perhaps, but it’s also a rare chance to re-connect with an important piece of Canada’s scientific heritage, and an opportunity to do some of the Big Thinking that is always needed to drive scientific inquiry forward.

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In the skin of a . . . hadrosaur?

Image credit: Canadian Light Source

Were dinosaurs dull green and grey like today’s large reptiles, or bright and flashy like their descendants, the birds? For a long time this was considered an unanswerable question, but that may soon change due to a singularly well-preserved sample of skin from a hadrosaur — a duck-billed dinosaur from the late Cretaceous — found near Grand Prairie, Alberta last summer. That sample is currently undergoing analysis at the Canadian Light Source (CLS), a particle accelerator based in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. It turns out that the ultra-modern discipline of particle physics may be just the way to shed light — literally — on a hundred million-year-old mystery.

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The Call of Cthulhu

Cthulhu emerges from the mythical city of R’lyeh. Credit: BenduKiwi via Wikimedia Commons

Erick James spends his days investigating the contents of termite intestines, a line of work that you’d think would relegate him to obscurity. But thanks to a bit of clever marketing, James, who works in the biology lab of Patrick Keeling at the University of British Columbia, has garnered attention from countless blogs and even some major newspapers.  His latest discovery — a microscopic organism that helps its termite hosts digest their woody meals — is interesting on its own, and could have implications for industries like biofuel.  But what has attracted all the attention is the fact that James named his pet organism after a fictional monster that has become a powerful internet meme.

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