Light pollution

WHAT have we lost if we lose the night sky?

Spending this Christmas on the highly-developed coastal fringe of Tenerife, I looked up from my balcony into a sky no darker than whisky to see not a single star.

The flashing of fluorescent Christmas decorations combined with light pouring out from a series of gigantic hotels, apartment blocks and neon bar signs completely to blot out the black.

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Keys to Wisdom Keys

Keys. You may have some jingling in your pocket or handbag. Take them out. Look at them. Describe them. Collins dictionary remarks that they are metal instruments that, when rotated, open locks. But there is more to them than that.

In a recent survey, one group used the adjectives "little", "lovely","magic", and "intricate" to describe them while another chose "awkward","worn", "jagged", and "serrated".

This cleverly designed study, reported in this week's New Scientist, attempted to prove scientifically what poets have always known. Language matters. The first group of describers were Spaniards, who see keys as feminine; the second were Germans, for whom they are masculine. The words they used were identified by "gender-blind" English speakers as gender-linked.

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Tartan and home truths

Oh, the swing of the kilt and the skirl of the bagpipes! The tens of thousands who gather annually to try their strength at tossing Scottish cabers around ... in Leipzig.

A mania for "the heedrum-hodrum Celtic twilight", which is afflicting parts of northern Europe, is one of the topics to be researched at a new centre for the study of the Scottish diaspora at Edinburgh University.

But since its launch at the end of last month, the new centre, funded by a £1m donation from a Scottish financier, has been caught up in controversy. Its founder, perhaps Scotland's foremost historian, Professor Tom Devine, announced in the opening lecture that he intended to challenge the "Burns supper" school of Scottish history. As a result, he has been subject to attacks by nationalists accusing him of "unionist revisionism".

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I wouldn't put my shirt on house prices

Note: A house price crash hasn't happened yet, a gentler correction is underway, but a fall may still come.

Why have property prices doubled in five years? The government has bought the idea that it is because there are not enough homes to meet demand. This is rubbish and John Prescott's pledge to build one million homes in the south-east of England is a stupid way to try to bring down house prices.

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Heat is on as US drowns and browns

IN some parts of the US there is water, water everywhere, but in others there's hardly a drop to drink. Last week in Texas eight people and thousands of cattle drowned when 30in of rain fell in just a few days, causing flooding along the San Antonio river, which crested 30ft above normal levels. Meanwhile, in prairie states such as Wyoming, less than a
quarter of the normal expected level of rain has fallen. Farmers are making special prayer appointments with ministers as they watch their land turn  dustier by the day.

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