Friday, 31 December 2010

True lasting legacy

Christmas has come and gone like a hurricane: weeks of worry and preparation, the pantry stocked to the brim with provisions, then the day itself passes in a whirlwind, leaving the house strewn with detritus in its wake. Now the storm has passed it is time to look back at 2010.

In 2010 I learnt to crochet, use a soldering iron, hang doors, rewire light fittings, operate a sewing machine, and propagate succulents. And there’s more. I know there is. I’m sure there is.

I managed to return to work, finally judged fit by the company doctor. Throughout the year I’ve seen various consultants with diverse maladies, though thankfully nothing has required major medical intervention.

The general election inspired me to paint, an odd muse perhaps, but my target was the basement not a canvas. I listened to the journalists covering the election results as I covered the walls with paint. Whatever indignities this coalition of convenience may inflict, I suspect my three freshly painted basement rooms will be their true lasting legacy.

I spent many hours outdoors: mowing, planting and pruning. The garden supplied a harvest of black and redcurrants to supplement the potatoes, carrots and onions I grew. A bumper crop of apples was allowed to fall and provide sustenance for insects and birds.

A tree surgeon worked his magic to bring more light into the garden, a chimney sweep swept the chimneys, and a roofer fixed my leaky roof. The central heating system needed TLC on several occasions, usually coinciding with arctic weather.

The neighbours got planning permission for a bizarre extension, but to my great relief they seem in no hurry to build it.

My holidays this year have been taken in sunny Leeds, with the exception of a trip to Stratford-upon-Avon in the spring with my friend Claire, and to Amsterdam in the autumn with my brother. I’m glad I stayed close to home - it has been a bad year for vacationers: Eyjafjallajökull closed down airspace, strikes grounded planes and snow closed airports.

As years go 2010 followed the usual conventions in time honoured fashion with days getting longer then shorter, warmer then colder, et cetera then so forth, yada yada yada. It's funny how each and every year we are surprised by the turning of the seasons. You'd think after the first dozen years we'd get the hang of it.

From an icy beginning to an icy end, farewell 2010.

Thursday, 30 December 2010

The whole truth

My dilapidated home has acquired a replacement fire surround for the living room. The current incumbent is neither original to the house nor overly imbued with charm. I’ve been trawling Ebay for a replacement for some months, and happily bagged a bargain just before Christmas.

I brushed up on my “white van man” driving skills yesterday with a 230 mile round trip via Coventry to collect the fire surround. The most difficult thing to get used to in a van is having no rear view mirror. It feels like the whole rear of the van is one big blind spot. Suddenly the wing mirrors become all important, every lane change a leap of faith that these mirrors show the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

Now I have this beautiful old edwardian oak fire surround my plans for renovating the front room are brewing.

Wednesday, 29 December 2010


Walking the dogs twice a day, rain or shine.
Sunday mornings teaching dog obedience classes.
Club secretary, then chairman.
Aerobics at the gym.
Evening classes learning Greek.
From non-swimmer to qualified lifeguard via classes at the pool.
Straight talking.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Crank the orrery on

The eclipsed moon hangs ghostly pink in the sky, strange and seemingly transported from the cover of an old science fiction book to hang above our heads.

On the opposite horizon, glorious dawn colours announce the approaching sun. It is these orange and red sunbeams that light the setting moon, our atmosphere bending the longer red wavelengths round the earth.

Orbital mechanics crank the orrery on to its next position, and we whiz along.

Sun risen, moon set.

Shortest day begun.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Until I shed my coat

I’ve been out in my Fiesta sleigh today, delivering presents, just like Santa will in a few days. Afterwards I called in to see the folks, enjoyed a laugh, a bowl of homemade chicken soup and a slice of lemon drizzle cake. 

Driving home after dark through freezing fog, I wondered whether all would be white come the morning. Will the fog crystalize in the night? Will I wake to an ice sculpted world?

Arriving home the house felt warm until I shed my coat, and then the chill was apparent. The radiators cold, the boiler dark and silent. Despite desperate resuscitation attempts, I fear the boiler’s life has fled. 

All doors and curtains are closed against the cold. It's 14.5°C in the house, I can see the mercury falling. 

Jack Frost may get his claws inside my home before this night is out.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Accelerate back to earth

Our concept of reality is determined by our senses. Through our eyes we perceive that the universe consists of objects that we can interact with, confirmed by our sense of touch registering pressure when we make contact with another object.

We have a construct of time because the input from our senses varies, and we can recollect the differences. As each combination of sensory input is never repeated precisely we determine that, as objects can move in relation to one another, so too does time “travel”, though only it would seem in one direction, and not in the same three dimensions we register physical objects moving in.

We recognise that there other forces at work based on observing how objects move in relation to one another. We deduce gravity as a force that attracts objects to one another. An object forced up and away from the planet will gradually slow in its ascent, and then accelerate back to earth.

We observe that some objects have a gravity like effect on a limited subset of other objects, and depending on alignment of the two objects, the vector of the force varies. One such effect we label magnetism.

We have the idea of light because in its presence our eyes can detect objects, but in its absence, while we see nothing, touch confirms the objects continue to persist in the darkness. Our eyes perceive of colour and brightness so we determine there are many variations of “light” and its strength fades with distance. We realise light is only emitted by some of the things we see, and bounces off other objects, being altered in colour and direction depending on what it hits.

We feel variations in pressure even when nothing appears to register with our eyes. From this our consciousness determines that our eyes do not register everything. For instance we can’t see air with our eyes, though we can feel it ebb and flow around us as in the shape of breezes and wind. Our ears register movement of air created by the vibrations of objects around us.

Our recollection of sensory input gives us the ability to gather data on the world about us, and we have an ability to develop theories to explain the myriad of interactions, and therefore predict future states.

In essence our mental model of the universe is shaped by the senses we have available to us, and confirmed by our ability to successfully predict changes.

But what if our senses do not register everything? There would, of course, be gaps and inconsistences in our mental predictive model.

With aids constructed to help us measure interactions with great accuracy and the use of a system we created called mathematics, we do find flaws in our concepts. Light sometimes behaves in a similar way to a wave on water, yet in other circumstances its interaction can better be described by considering it to be an object or particle. The fields of astrophysics, quantum physics, and particle physics are all rife with contradictions and effects we cannot explain adequately.

How else might our theories have evolved if we had different senses than sight, hearing, touch, smell, taste?

Saturday, 27 November 2010

My arse

I used the last of my vacation allowance to take this week off, but it hasn't been what you might call a successful holiday.

There have been too many weekends where I've been required to work, which has left me tired and run down.

I had a cold nine weeks ago, but the cough is still with me. At times my chest is so tight I can't speak, while at other times I feel I'm drowning. I've been told its time to get that checked out - find out if I'm becoming asthmatic, have allergies, a chest or sinus infection, or something altogether worse. A sore has developed between my buttocks, which makes standing up, sitting down and walking all ghastly painful. I'm on antibiotics for that, but to be truthful it seems it is the painkillers that are having the biggest effect.

To cap it all, I'm due to see my consultant on Monday for the results of all the cancer follow-up tests I had last week.

All of this has left me a bit fed up.

Meanwhile the big bad world outside my window has gone white. The snow arrived in Leeds last night, laying an inch within an hour. Leeds Council is replacing all the orange sodium vapour street lamps, putting in new lamp posts which have white Philips CosmoPolis bulbs. The streets around here have all been done. It was suddenly apparent to me when I looked out at midnight that the night time orange glow I grew up with is gone. With the white light from the new street lamps reflecting off snow and clouds it simply wasn't dark outside last night.

It is unclear what the weather has in store over the next couple of days, but I'm hoping the Leeds/London trains will be running ok on Monday. I really want to get my test results. Having said that, the nice people of the RMT and TSSA unions have decided to press ahead with their planned strikes, so there'll be no tube service in London on Monday. With my chest, and my arse, and this weather, I really am not looking forward to the walk from Kings Cross to Harley Street, and then over to St Pauls.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

The spirit of panic buying

It has been a very trying afternoon, being prodded, poked, and scanned by the medical community. My appointments were scattered at various addresses around Harley Street. I lived in Marylebone for several years, so visits there are always tinged with a slew of memories - some good, some not so bright.

I'm released from diagnostic purgatory at 5pm, and a little wound up I decide to walk and wend my way back to Cannon Street. I head down Marylebone Lane, taking a wander around Daunts the Bookshop. Here the books the store chooses to stock are picked entirely by their covers - and truthfully each is an artfully crafted design statement. Books for the fashion conscious, although who knows if they’re necessarily a good read?

On to St. Christopher’s Place, a little alley full of boutiques. Overhead the Christmas lights create an illuminated ceiling. Every shop front is awash with garish Christmas decorations temptingly arranged around whatever goods the store is selling. Look, say these displays, this could be the perfect present for Aunt Flo, full in the knowledge folks are beginning to get a little rattled by the proximity of Christmas and the necessity to buy something, anything, for everyone on the Christmas list.

Out onto Oxford Street, where half the pavement is dug up, and shoppers squeeze past. The Oxford Street lights are lit, three dimensional umbrellas and parcels delicately traced out in light, floating between the buildings. They are a vast improvement on the Harry Potter themed decorations from a few years ago. Witchcraft versus the most celebrated Christian festival? Deliciously ironic.

Crossing over I head down South Molton Street. This street will be lit with crossing arches, which are in place but not yet illuminated. Singers fill the air with religious carols, quite at odds with the secular interpretations of the festive season on display in the commercial establishments all around. There are people handing out what looks to be a newspaper. I'm about to reach out and take one when I hear 'Gift ideas, full of gift ideas.' Er, perhaps not. I'm not filled with the spirit of panic buying just yet. The shops are posh, minimalist, and staffed with precious types who ooze supercilious attitude, unless of course you waltz in all blinged up in this seasons high fashion, then suddenly they're fawning. There is no temptation to browse here.

At the bottom I turn left then right onto New Bond Street. A sign states the road will be closed next week for the turning on of the Christmas lights, which, it would appear, have not yet been erected. The upmarket boutiques I've passed on the preceding streets are quite ordinary compared with the top design houses and galleries that make their home here. My entire wardrobe probably costs less than the sole of a solitary Jimmy Choo shoe. The chip on my shoulder becomes heavier as I take in the shops dedicated to conspicuous consumption. I'm mollified a little when I notice that almost without exception all these stores are completely empty except for the staff, who look bored, and in some cases a little anxious.

I pass Opera Gallery, and am stopped in my tracks by a fabulous oil abstract, all waves and swirls of colour. I'm tempted to go in and ask 'How much is that daub in the window?' but I doubt they'd appreciate the humour, and I've no wish to sell my house to buy a painting. Next to it is a giant gorilla sculpted from coat hangers, its dangling family jewels keep grabbing my attention.

The road segues into Bond Street proper, famous for Tiffany and De Beers. Christmas decorations here are subtle, carefully chosen not to outshine the diamonds. Each store has a burly chap standing at the door, and you can take it for granted that these doors don't open unless they decide to let you in. Diamonds they would have you believe are a seriously expensive business. In reality, apart from a few specific industrial applications, diamonds are entirely useless. Their only value stems from the carefully constructed myth that you have to have a diamond ring to become engaged to be married, the bigger the better. The mythical pricing of diamonds can only be maintained as long as there is no second hand market for the rocks. After all - it is true what they say - diamonds are forever. They don't rot, degrade, or go off, so the De Beers of the world can only stay in business if there is a demand for newly mined diamonds. Have you ever tried to sell a diamond?

Passing De Beers I find myself on Piccadilly, and crossing over I find myself gazing at the window displays of Fortnum and Mason. Here is truly a Christmas treat. Festive displays like those of yesteryear. No products for sale in these windows, just artistry. Each window contains a three dimensional model of a well known painting from the National Gallery. Landscapes, still lifes, street scenes. People stop and point. I hear a faint jingle jingle of Christmas past.

I wander down Princes Arcade, and turn onto Jermyn Street, the Savile Row of Shirtmakers. The worst of mercantile hell is behind me now, and as I turn onto Waterloo Place the streets become more formal. I soon reach The Mall. Looking right, I wonder whether the Queen is in Buckingham Palace, and how she feels about the forthcoming nuptials of her grandson, given past experiences. Frankly I couldn't give a monkeys, but no doubt the media will whip themselves into a frenzy in the mistaken belief we want to hear every last little detail.

I cross the Mall, and start down Horse Guards Road, turning left I cross the parade ground. As my footfalls disturb the gravel, the pungent odour of horse piss wafts up. Going through the arch onto Whitehall I eyeball the Horse Guard on sentry duty with some sympathy, having had to remain completely motionless myself for an extended period earlier in the day. I'm pleased to see him sway ever so slightly back and forth. Human after all.

Turning right onto Whitehall, I'm now in the heart of central government territory. A popular point on the tourist trail, but singularly un-touristy. There are no ice cream vans, or tourist stalls here. Police officers patrol in force, arms nonchalantly folded over their semi-automatic rifles. I'm careful to appear the casual by passer that I am. Don't take too much interest in the police patrols, or gaze around taking in the placement of the CCTV cameras. Just walk quietly, heck even think quietly. I'm sure the spooks at MI5 take an interest in anyone who lingers too long hereabouts. As I pass the end of Downing street, I see the spooks have their work cut out tonight. A queue of guests wait for admission to an event being held at No 10, all upstanding members of the Asian community, here for dinner with the PM. One man in military uniform has his jacket in his hands, as his friend helps him re-pin his medals so they line up perfectly.

Spotting the London Eye, I reorient myself, and crossing Whitehall I cut through Richmond Terrace to get to The Embankment. This section of the Thames is always a glorious sight at night. Now I'm in a somewhat less sensitive area, I'm tempted to touch my ear and whisper into my lapel "Sparrowhawk to Kestrel, target acquired, repeat, we have the mole in sight, over."

Having walked two miles, it is here that I decide to listen to my weary feet and catch a bus to cover the last two miles to Cannon Street. It must have been contagious all that paranoia floating on the air in the high security zone I'd just traversed. Gazing round the bus I notice it has 5 CCTV cameras. I realise it would be an easy task for some MI5 operative to correlate the CCTV image of me boarding with the oyster card I'd swiped, thus identifying me from the details registered in Transport for London's database. I was rather glad then that I'd kept my sparrowhawk fancies unvocalised. Who'd want to end up in some dingy windowless basement in Thames House, trying to explain the concept of a "joke" to a humourless spook?

A blink reveals

A heavy frost makes every surface glitter under the sodium street lights. As the sun's warm tangerine glow invades the inky sky, silhouetted trees are revealed in winter nakedness. Their three dimensional fractal structure becomes apparent as we move and they seem to turn.

An apple tree stripped of all its leaves still bears its fruit, dangling golden globes, a natural rendition of our Christmas trees artifice.

The early birds take wing, flocks of crows rising from their rookeries. Below lights appear as households rise from slumber, shower, and break their night fast.

The sky is now baby blue, tinged pink at the horizon. The sun's appearance immanent. Frost lays thickly white on roofs and fields. Every scene begs a photographer to brace the icy dawn and capture the image in sepia tones.

The clouds at the horizon herald the rising of the sun, illuminated by its glow. Soon now it will bathe us in its rays, casting shadows where its light does not reach. The cloud colour intensifies, brilliant oranges, dramatic reds, a horizon on fire. After the long slow build-up the sun is suddenly there, its shape only visible when a blink reveals its lingering imprint on the retina.

A mist rises, then falls heavier as rain. The sun breaks through the fog, its colour leached to an icy white.

Winter's day is here.

No particular reason

I was woken at 4am by the radiator, whistling like a kettle. Despite being on the frost setting the radiator was red hot. No amount of twiddling the dial would get it to shut up or shut off. The heat was stifling so I opened the blind and window to let in some cool air.

Starlight flooded in along with the draft of cold air. The sky was incredibly clear, a myriad of stars were visible, uncommon in light polluted London. Staring down at me was the constellation of Orion.

I learnt to read at a young age due to my mum’s efforts with flash cards. She was an avid reader, and when relaxing could often be found deep a book. She would take me to the library with her, but despite this I didn't read much. At home I'd read comics, and in the library I'd look at the Asterix books. Basically reading was an effort, and I was far too lazy.

Perhaps it was the influence of Dr Who and Blake’s 7, but I was about 11 years old when I talked to mum about maybe reading some science fiction. She told me of a book she'd read and enjoyed when she was younger which I might like: Starman Jones, a novel about a boy who wants to go to the stars, by Robert A. Heinlein. Within a year I was reading voraciously, a habit I've never been able to shake.

It must have been around then that I'd looked at the night sky, and decided that one day I would travel to the middle star of Orion’s belt. It was picked for no particular reason except it was easy to find in the winter night sky. Alnilam is a blue-white supergiant. Within the next million years it may turn into a red supergiant and explode as a supernova.

Visiting Alnilam is still on the to do list, and while unlikely to be achieved given our slow progression into space, when I see Orion I always remember my childish pledge.

Monday, 15 November 2010

The wrod as a wlohe

I stumbled upon the following text the other day whilst reading a BBC "Have Your Say" discussion on the topic "What is the best way to teach child literacy?":

Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn't mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.

The idea was interesting enough that I was curious to track down the alleged research. Trawling the internet, I realised this text has been doing the rounds for years. Eventually my Googling paid dividends (unlike Google shares) and I discovered the concept was derived from a PhD thesis by Graham Rawlinson.

I found several examples of scrabbled text which I was able to read without trouble. Curiously it became easier to read the more I accelerated my reading speed, presumably because I was relying more on word shape.

Crucial to word shape are ascenders and descenders - the letters which poke above or below the median: b d f g h j k l p q t y. An easy test of this is to put a big thick line through some words and see whether you can make anything of the result:

Scrabbled text may reveal that once we are proficient readers we rely on shapes of words, but it probably doesn't help in teaching children to read. In any event, if you’re interested in generating your own scrabbled text try this link.

I do read a lot of books for pleasure, but I don't often consciously employ speed reading for fiction, unless I’m driven to it by excessive Tolkien-like descriptions that span pages and drag out the narrative. I’m not fond of reading technical material, so this is when I employ my own home grown method of speed reading.

When I speed read I don't start at the top and scan left to right down the page. Instead I'll glance at paragraphs to see if they contain interesting words. Often I'll read backwards from an interesting word, or scan up the page. It's my own home brew technique, rather than something I've learnt from "how to speed read" guides. I'm left handed, and I wonder whether this why I reverse polarity: right to left, bottom to top. Perhaps I should have been born Chinese?

Meanwhile the whole topic has reminded me of something that really horrified me during the last US and UK elections. It seems it has become fashionable to analyse politician's speeches by counting the number of times words get repeated.

I suppose the “Word Cloud” concept originally gained popularity in blogland. This is the Wordle generated from The Barnum Effect (you can click on it to see it full size):

Word Clouds are great for blogs and T-Shirts but should they be used to decide which candidate or party runs the country? I jolly well hope not.

Getting what you pay for

During the summer months gazing out of train window often inspired me to write. With the winter darkness upon us there is nothing to be seen but passing street lights and the reflections of fellow passengers. Denied my muse, instead I turn my attention to the plethora of free newspapers to fill my travelling hours.

It soon becomes apparent that, in the same way the paper is recycled for the following day's newsprint, so are the actual pieces of news. One morning's article in the Metro will appear practically word for word in the Evening Standard, and both articles will bear an uncanny resemblance to what is written in the online BBC News piece. In all likelihood the same piece of news will be served cold for breakfast the following morning.

I guess this highlights the death of traditional investigative journalism which, with more background and exclusive detail, would once have differentiated articles from one another. Like many of my generation I'm used to getting free news online, and find the idea of parting with cash for hardcopy news somewhat archaic. Perhaps there are no grounds for complaint when you're getting what you pay for.

Since distribution is free the papers are funded by advertisements, making every second page a full spread advert. My eyes to skip over adverts, deliberately out of focus. I resent their intrusive nature and the underlying premise that, given the right stimulus, I will trot obediently down to the shops to buy whatever twaddle they're selling, like one of Pavlov's dogs. No thanks. Cognitive intelligence at work here. Look elsewhere for mindless consumerist drones. As it happens I'm not alone in my response to adverts, research shows we're collectively developing Ad Blindness.

Whichever free paper I happen to be reading, I typically only get half way through before abandoning ship. After a dozen pages of news, the articles deteriorate into a hodgepodge of Z-List gossip. Pretty people, ugly lives. It certainly isn't news, and definitely isn't anything I want to sully my mind with.

Having said that, a few months ago when George Michael crashed into the Snappy Snaps store, I did roar out loud at the picture of the accident site, where some wit had inked 'WHAM' on the wall at the point of impact.

Talk about nominative determinism at work. Priceless.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Remembering the fallen

Heads bowed, quiet we stand,

Remembering the fallen.

White swans fly over.

Friday, 5 November 2010

Like a muppet

All good things seem to come flying at you at once. All Hallow's Eve is barely done and dusted and here comes Guy Fawkes Night. As it fortuitously fell on a Friday I was able to go to the Roundhay Park bonfire and firework display.

I'd usually aim to get there after the bonfire is lit and in time to get a good spot for watching the fireworks, but as it was a clement evening I got there earlier and watched the whole caboodle.

The bonfire was beautifully constructed in a beehive shape from shipping pallets. It took a while to get properly lit, but once it did - wow!

A great column of roiling black cloud climbed into the air, lit from within by flame, twisting and curling into the sky. As the heat from the flames grew more intense the black cloud dissipated, and steam started rising from the ground all around. A steam twister developed off to one side, spinning and dancing. The flames rose in great fluid curtains, climbing far higher than the pallets, in an inverted parody of a waterfall.

As the crowds chanted the countdown for the fireworks I turned my back on the bonfire and looked directly up. I'd chosen a place at the top of Soldiers Field by Hill 60, knowing that was where the fireworks were likely to be set up.

My position was so good, it felt like the whole display was being laid on just for me, with all the low altitude fireworks directly in front of me, and the biggies going off overhead.

As usual the display was brilliant. Fifteen minutes flew by while I grinned like a muppet.

Sunday, 31 October 2010


Why commemorate Frank Zappa on a pumpkin? Well why not?

For those of you who need definitive answers may I direct you to the 818-PUMPKIN hotline, and recommend you play "Invocation & Ritual Dance of the Young Pumpkin"

Saturday, 30 October 2010

Close cuts

Two more pumpkins carved, that leaves just Frank Zappa outstanding.

The Aslan pattern turned out to be quite a challenge to carve, with lots of narrow close cuts it took four hours to transfer to the pumpkin. The horror themed Janus was a much easier task.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Owl and the pussy-cat

I carved these two pumpkins yesterday for Aiden & Millisa, who have a great Halloween & Firework weekend ahead of them at Shell Island.

The Owl and the Pussy-cat are off to Shell Island
In a beautiful Purple VW Camper Van...

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Entirely arbitrary

I have been alive 1.199 billion seconds (and counting.) I recently completed my 38th orbit of the sun, and experienced my 469th full moon.

In the time since my birth our planet has racked up 35.7 billion kilometers on the odometer just circling the sun, while the sun has travelled 263.8 billion kilometers on an arc around galactic centre. I haven't been out there with a tape measure to confirm these figures you understand - it's cold out there, and there's no kind of atmosphere.

I grew up a bit confused as to exactly how many noughts a billion had. The British billion used to be a thousand times bigger than the American billion. In 1974 the UK officially downsized and our billion shrunk to the US value of a mere 1,000,000,000.

It's the story of my generation - decimalisation, metrification, globalisation and depreciation. Imperial parents versus metric kids. We learnt metric in school, and got confused at home.

I never did get my head around the old pounds, shillings and pence. Shillings were a term that mystified my generation. Sometimes I'd be told that a shilling was 12 pence, and other times I'd be told that a shilling was 5 pence. What I never grasped was that both statements were correct. A shilling was 12 old pennies, and there were 20 shillings in a pound. However under decimalisation there were only 100 new pence to the pound, rather than 240 old pennies. A shilling was 12 old pence, 12 old pence equalled 5 new pennies, therefore a shilling was 5 new pence.

We'd learn about centimeters, meters and kilometers in school, yet in the real world we were confronted with inches, feet and yards. In cookery lessons we'd measure out our ingredients in liters and grams, and then be bamboozled by recipes at home calling for pints and ounces.

You have to wonder just what drugs our forebears were on when they came up with the various measures:

16 ounces to a pound
14 pounds to a stone
160 stone to a ton

12 inches to a foot
3 foot to a yard
1760 yards to a mile

20 fluid ounces to a pint
8 pints to a gallon

12 pennies to a shilling
20 shillings to a pound

60 seconds to a minute
60 minutes to an hour
24 hours to a day
7 days to a week

Considering they had nothing to help them with calculations other than the abacus and memorised times tables, you'd think they'd have settled on something simpler. If they had picked a consistent base to use for each unit of measurement that would have been an improvement. Imagine if there were 12 pennies in a shilling, and 12 shillings in a pound. What if there were 12 inches to a foot, 12 feet in a yard, and 12 yards in a mile? Of course there’d be 12 ounces in a pound, and 12 pounds in a stone. Instead the Imperial system is entirely arbitrary and amazingly still widely used.

So I suppose what I'm trying to say is that a lot of time has passed since I was born, I've gone around in circles, and put a lot of miles on the clock, but when I was a nipper a billion really meant something, and whatever units you use to measure progress - some things never change.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Fade to blue

It's amazing what you can find to while away the hours on a dull Saturday afternoon. I've been taking inspiration from Google images to see if I could create some pumpkin patterns.

I hadn't realised just how beautiful tattoo designs are until today. I can see now why people feel the urge to get some ink. Shame they have a tendency to fade to blue and stretch as we bulge and sag.

Friday, 22 October 2010

The late great

With nine days to go before All Hallow's Eve I've started the preparation for this year's pumpkin carving fest.

Each year I buy a couple of patterns from Zombie Pumpkins who have an awesome selection.

My dad is an avid fan of the late great Frank Zappa so I'll be creating an FZ pumpkin especially for him. First I search for a suitable photograph from which I can create a likeness that can be transferred to the pumpkin. I have no particular artistic talent, so transforming a photo into a two tone pattern takes me quite a bit of time.

When I come to carve this pumpkin I'll remove the skin but leave the flesh behind, varying the depth of my cuts. When lit by candle it will create a portrait effect.

Next week I'll scour the shops looking for perfect pumpkins. It is always a tough judgement call - leaving it late enough to get fresh pumpkins, but not so late they've all sold out. Then of course I'll go hunting high and low for my carving kit which, abiding by the Law of Sod, is always in the last place I look.

I'll post my trophy pictures on the pumpkins page once my victims are selected, their flesh is flayed, and they're all carved up.

Mwah ha ha haaaa...

Lost to time

I guess that intimations of mortality strike us all at various points in our lives.

While growing up we see our future as a blank page rife with possibilities. Will we be singers, actors, artists, sportsmen, explorers? Perhaps more simple futures lie ahead of us? Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor, candlestick maker?

While at university I suddenly noticed that I was now older than the bright young things achieving fame for their sporting or artistic endeavours. The slamming of doors echoed through my head. Not that I’d had plans in any of those directions, but still it was the moment of recognition that my life would be that of a pond-skater rather than a wave-maker.

Impinging on the public eye is one way to leave a lasting impression, but in our private lives we have a myriad of effects on those around us. My imagination is rife with scenarios of raising my kids, showing them the world, giving them insights into the science and mechanics behind it, teaching them to see the complexities of human behaviour, and watching them blossom into their own independent lives with their own unique perspectives. It’s all a bit rosy tinted in my imagination – my kids are bright, sensible and likeable, and I’m a naturally great parent. Ahem.

The breakdown of my marriage pretty much put paid to these hopes, but in any event family history research has shown me that having children in itself leaves no lasting impression except on the gene pool. Only the barest scraps of knowledge about my ancestors has survived – a couple of certificates recording births and marriages, a few rare photos, and one or two possessions that have been handed down. I now know more about my family from census returns than ever survived as oral history. Where is the meat to go on the bare census bones beyond where they lived and what they did for a living? Who were they? What was their story?

Using birth and marriage records, census returns and parish records I’ve managed to reach back 11 generations, but that is but a blink in time. 100 generations separate us from the time of the Roman empire, 2000 generations ago our ancestors arrived in Europe, and our forebears left the Rift Valley in Africa 3250 generations ago.

How many millions have lived and died leaving nothing of their lives to be found. By pure chance some remains are discovered – a skeleton here, an arrowhead there, some pottery fragments, building foundations. From these we build a picture of our origins.

Daft hubris to expect our legacy will be any greater, especially when one considers the significance of our planet in the grand scheme of things. As the Monty Python team put it:

♪♫♪ "Just remember that you're standing on a planet that's evolving
And revolving at 900 miles an hour.
It's orbiting at 19 miles a second, so it's reckoned,
The sun that is the source of all our power.
Now the sun, and you and me, and all the stars that we can see,
Are moving at a million miles a day,
In the outer spiral arm, at 40,000 miles an hour,
Of a galaxy we call the Milky Way.

Our galaxy itself contains a hundred billion stars;
It's a hundred thousand light-years side to side;
It bulges in the middle sixteen thousand light-years thick,
But out by us it's just three thousand light-years wide.
We're thirty thousand light-years from Galactic Central Point,
We go 'round every two hundred million years;
And our galaxy itself is one of millions of billions
In this amazing and expanding universe.

Our universe itself keeps on expanding and expanding,
In all of the directions it can whiz;
As fast as it can go, at the speed of light, you know,
Twelve million miles a minute and that's the fastest speed there is.
So remember, when you're feeling very small and insecure,
How amazingly unlikely is your birth;
And pray that there's intelligent life somewhere out in space,
'Cause there's bugger all down here on Earth!" ♫♪♫

Nevertheless I guess I write this blog as my legacy and testament, to be lost to time when the internet passes.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Long shot

Early on in my family history research I came across a bible that belonged to my great great grandmother Mary Ann Smith (nee Storey.) According to the inscription the bible was a present to Mary, on the occasion of her 50th Birthday, sent from her nieces Violet & Maud Storey who were living in London, Ontario. The bible passed to my great grandmother Ada who recorded the dates of birth for her family at the back.

There was a pouch in the back of the bible which held a number of photographs. From the comments on the back of the photos I gather that Mary’s brother George Storey (b1844) moved to Canada, was married to Louise, with daughters Violet & Maud.

In one photo George & Louise are pictured with Violet’s two children.

The inscription on the back of this photo reads:

“Father, Mother & Violet’s two children, taken in Hamilton, Sept 1913, the only time we were all in Hamilton at once. Poor Mother looks very tired there, as she was after her journey there & dad didn’t always look that cross. The weather was against things, dull clouds all around, & a red brick house for a background. Have a better picture of Mother, more recent date.”

It is a long shot that one of George’s descendants might stumble upon this post and get in touch, but it sure would prove Pratchett’s law that “million to one chances crop up nine times out of ten.”

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Give a dog a home

I stumbled across this video posted on the IKEA Hackers blog. If you can peel your eyes off the hounds you'll notice the common theme of the props.

OK Go produced this to support the ASPCA, the American equivalent of our RSPCA:


I'd love to be able to give a dog a home, but while I'm doing the crazy Leeds/London commute I have to bide my time. Meanwhile I walk my dad's dog, and dream about the day I'll eventually be able to call the Wiccaweys Border Collie Rescue Centre.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Français Nouveau

I enjoyed learning the French language at school. Despite being handicapped by the typical English reticence against putting on an accent I managed to scrape an A at GCSE (back in the days when GCSEs were more exam oriented than module based.) My main frustration with the French language was all the gender nonsense around nouns, and the masculinisation or feminisation of their verbs depending on the object.

When I got to university I heard about a synthetic language, Esperanto, broadly based on romance language structure which was entirely regular and straightforward. Esperanto was created in the 1880’s by Dr. Ludovic Lazarus Zamenhof, who hoped the language would foster harmony between people from different countries. I heartily wish Esperanto was widely taught as a second language. If it were more broadly spoken I would have taken the time to learn it. After all, what help is French when you’re in Spain, Russia or China?

Failing that – do you think we can persuade the French to drop all the gender complications from their language? Perhaps then the French language would catapult into being the international Lingua Franca. When I searched to see if such a Français Nouveau could ever come about I found this:

L'Académie Française, the prestigious organization which regulates the French language, shocked Francophones around the world with its announcement of wide-sweeping changes to make French «plus facile et moins agaçant» (easier and less aggravating).

This project, known as La Simplification, includes the elimination of such exaspérant grammatical aspects as gender, agreement, être as an auxiliary verb (avoir will now be used for all verbs), reflexive verbs «sauf ceux qui sont réfléchis en anglais», and - most annoying of all - the subjunctive. Details about implementing these changes (for example, how French speakers will distinguish between le manche [handle] and la manche [sleeve] once gender is eliminated) are not yet available.

Académie française immortel Valéry Giscard-d'Estaing had this to say about the unexpected and far-reaching changes:

«La langue française est très jolie, et nous voulons encourager plus de gens à l'apprendre. Lors d'une séance de remue-méninges, on s'est rendu compte du fait que notre belle langue est difficile pour les Anglophones, et donc pourquoi pas éliminer les aspects les plus difficiles et agaçants ?»

"The French language is very pretty, and we want to encourage more people to learn it. During a brainstorming session, we realized that our beautiful language is difficult for English speakers, so why not eliminate the most difficult and annoying aspects?"

There will be a few pronunciation and spelling changes as well: the French R will be replaced with the Spanish R (as it is generally agreed that the English R is too weird but at least the Spanish one is interesting) and silent letters will be dropped. Most accents will be eliminated as well, except those which distinguish between words. For example, théâtre will be theatre, but dû (past participle of devoir) will keep its accent to distinguish it from du (partitive article).

In order to have time to rewrite grammar books and dictionaries, La Simplification will launch officially one year from today - on April Fool's Day! Poisson d'avril !

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Steampunk dream

A campaign to build a prototype computer first envisaged by Babbage in 1837 is gathering steam.

It is the ultimate steampunk dream - had this machine been built when Babbage designed it we would have had a computer driven Victoria era.

I've pledged to donate £10 to the project - if you'd like to see Babbage's computer constructed please pledge your support.

Sign my pledge at PledgeBank

BBC Article: Campaign builds to construct Babbage Analytical Engine