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

Gone by unseen

How many times have you said "it's getting dark early now isn't it?" The truth is no matter how many circuits of the sun we've completed we're still surprised every year when the days lengthen or shorten. There can be no clearer clue that we evolved in more equatorial latitudes, that and seasonal adjustment disorder (SAD) of course.

It is depressing during winter when it is dark both on the way into work and on the way home. A little daylight might be glimpsed during the day through the office windows, and a tad more caught at lunch whilst popping out to grab a sandwich, but this hardly compensates for the feeling that a whole day has gone by unseen.

Despite this I always feel a little thrill when I'm out doing some high street shopping as dusk falls in the winter. In Leeds you see the starlings coming into roost on building ledges, and exploding into flight if they're startled. I have a warm nostalgia for the times, as a child, when I accompanied my mother on Christmas Eve shopping expeditions, with the final stop being Butchers Row in the market to buy the bird for the Christmas meal. It seems a Dickensian memory now, given that shops start Christmasifying in late August, presents are bought online, and supermarkets have replaced the traditional butchers and grocers.

The end of October heralds a wee shock to the system as we fall back to Greenwich Mean Time. Each year the campaign to abandon GMT completely and switch to what is known as Single Double Summertime (SDST) grows more vocal.

Under SDST we would be GMT+2 in summer, and GMT+1 in winter. If we did this we would be in sync with all of Europe (bar Portugal).

Statistically this would cause an increase in accident casualties on winter morning commutes, but it would drastically reduce winter evening commute casualties. Additionally an eco-argument is now being brought to bear - the proponents of SDST contend that the change could "save almost 500,000 tonnes of CO2 each year" as less artificial lighting would be needed in the evenings.

The graph shows sunrise and sunset times in solid lines for Leeds throughout the year, both in our current GMT/BST and the proposed SDST. The dotted lines represent what the sunrise/sunset times would look like for both Aberdeen and London under the proposed SDST scheme. More northerly latitudes have greater extremes of daylight hours. Under SDST it would not get light until almost 10am in Aberdeen during winter.

If Greenwich Mean Time wasn't a British innovation, if some other country had put the stake in the ground declaring their longitude to be the zero point, I'm sure we would have abandoned GMT long ago.

Saturday, 9 October 2010

Thin but shiny

I was at the supermarket this afternoon picking up bacon, eggs, sausages, black pudding and mushrooms for a family breakfast I'll be cooking for my dad & brother tomorrow morning.

On my way back to the car I passed a couple loading shopping bags into their car boot. I only caught a snatch of their conversation, but I could tell they were midway through a domestic. "Why did you..." "But you said..."

It struck me that being single might suck mightily, but it does mean I miss out on an awful lot of tense, angry, and frustrated arguments. As silver linings go it's thin but shiny.

It is much easier to get on with a person as a friend than it is to get on with that same person as a partner. A friend's flaws are foibles, easily accepted, loveable even. As a partner those flaws aren't so easy to laugh off. They grate. They irritate. They become intensely unbearable.

Couples have to work together, mutually agree on a whole range of choices. Which brand of baked beans to buy, the colour of paint for the living room, whether to go and visit Aunt Flo at the weekend. Different values need to be reconciled. Washing up immediately after dinner versus plonking everything in the sink until there isn't a clean dish in the house. Toilet seat up, or toilet seat down. Chores have to be divided. Who cooks? Who cleans? Who mows the lawn? Who takes the bins out?

Inevitably conflict and resentment seep in to the relationship. The result? Squabbling and bickering. A tiff, a quarrel, a barney. A lot of stress.

I didn't realise I wasn't missing it until today.

Monday, 4 October 2010

Infiltrate the grey

I've never been as aware of the changes wrought on the weather, light and landscape by the planet's stately dance around the sun as I am now on my weekly peregrination.

This morning mist shrouds the predawn landscape. Grey silhouettes of trees punctuate the gloom. As the sky brightens pastel shades infiltrate the grey.

Early autumn is melancholy, cool and shrouded, but later the season will flare into colour as the trees flush toxins into their leaves before cutting the nutrient supply allowing them to fall. The yellows, oranges, reds and browns of dying leaves herald the festivals we celebrate to keep the bleakness of winter at bay: All Hallows Eve, Guy Fawkes Night, Christmas and New Year.

Last week I succumbed to a cold. It was inevitable given I spend seven hours a week cooped up in a carriage full of people breathing stale air. As usual I'm left with a cough which is gradually reducing my chest, back and abdominal muscles to a mass of aches. A constant tickle agitates my chest demanding to be expelled. Coughing subdues the sensation momentarily but gives no lasting relief. Talking escalates the itch, and I wheeze trying to get words out while keeping the cough in.

The train draws me south toward to the tube strike stricken capital. The busses will be mobbed like trucks delivering aid to a disaster zone. Better to walk the 3 km from Kings Cross to St Pauls than join that scrum.