Monday, 24 January 2011

Folly laid bare

I'm in a dark place. Storm clouds have rolled in to block out the sunlight, leaving the world tinged in that sickly yellow light that precedes a thunderstorm. Gulls circle overhead, and beneath me the waters swirl in a vortex that threatens to suck me deep into the maelstrom, where I would surely drown.

Suddenly, my folly laid bare, I realise the ocean despises me and will not tolerate me to stay in its demesne. The strong might be allowed to swim its waters, but the weak and ill are fools to believe the sea to be as supportive as it appears. You might paddle in the shallow bay awhile, rising with the gentle swell, but tarry too long and the sea will test you, falter and the riptide is merciless.

I had been so sad and lonely on the beach, watching my friends swimming back and forth, slowly recovering from the grievous injury that had washed me ashore. Fear and longing held me immobile for the longest time.

'Come in, you can do it,' urged the swimmers. So I dove into the water, but surfaced quickly, shocked by the strength sapping cold. Gasping for air, water found my lungs. Spluttering and coughing, I realised too late how weak and unprepared I was. With a feeling of foreboding, I was drawn further from shore by the gruff exhortations of the other swimmers. 'Come on, catch up, you've fallen behind.'

I've lost sight of the others now. Irked at my slowness they left me to fend for myself. I'm alone in the sea, with the storm crackling above, and the current dragging me down.

There are three choices before me: try to catch up with the other swimmers; let the ocean drag me to my doom; or somehow find a way back to shore.

I don't know what to do, but whilst I weigh my options beneath the jaundiced storm clouds the sea, gleaming golden, sucks the life from me.

Sunday, 23 January 2011

Bunk and twaddle

With my scientific background and logical mind I'm practically duty bound to denounce horoscopes as so much bunk and twaddle. Indeed, I have no problem doing so. Horoscopes epitomise the Barnum Effect. Here a few Scorpio horoscopes I’ve pulled together from the internet, covering the week and month ahead:
Think about how hard you have worked. How much effort you have invested. Has it all paid off? Of course not. Nothing we ever do is 100 per cent successful. It's the same with the money we spend. Not every penny can be parted with wisely, no matter how frugal we try to be. We either accept this or we drive ourselves insane in an effort to achieve unattainable perfection. Now, think of an aspiration that you are all but ready to give up on; a campaign that you have lost faith in. Put more energy into your great dream this week, it won't all work out... but some of it will.
You are inclined to be aggressive and hot-tempered now, particularly when your will is blocked. Your pushiness or competitive attitude is likely to create antagonism, hostility, and further resistance to your efforts. It is best to work alone rather than try to cooperate or coordinate your efforts with anyone at this time. Also, you are impatient and tend to behave in an impulsive, irritable way which makes you more prone to accidents during this period.
You find it harder to get a handle on that idea -- or that one person -- you need to understand. It's a sign that you need to back off for now, as deeper wisdom takes lots more time.

It all sounds pretty specific, but the themes are very generic really. Anyone reading these horoscopes will see some element that resonates with an aspect of their current situation.

What I struggle to dismiss is the personality profiling associated with my own star sign, Scorpio, as it seems to fit me perfectly. My inner scientist writhes in shame to admit this. What hard science could give credible reason why personality traits are determined by the position of the sun in relation to the stars at the moment of birth?

Perhaps it could be more easily argued that the temperature, season, light levels during the last few months of gestation and the first few months after birth might have an effect on personality. The cycle of the seasons seem, on human timescales, as regular and predictable as the motion of the solar system. I've used this seasonal rationalisation as the crutch that supports my vague affinity for Scorpio traits.

There was a headline last week that the wobble in the earth’s rotation (precession) means that the dates when the sun processes in front of the various constellations has changed from when the zodiac was first defined thousands of years ago. Here I am thinking I’m a Scorpio, but apparently I am in fact a Virgo.

Astrologers say this “revelation” is hardly news, and see it as a dig by astronomers at the art of astrology. Our western tradition, called tropical astrology, ignores the shift in the earth’s axis of rotation, since it is based on the configuration of the solar system relative to the Sun, not the remote constellations. The Hindu astrology tradition, sidereal astrology, bases its ideas on the configuration of the earth relative to the sun, the solar system and the constellations, and therefore does incorporate the effects of precession.

In any event, it seems a perfect opportunity to test the Barnum Effect. If I assume that I am a Virgo, will I find things in the personality ascribed to Virgoans that resonate with me? To test this I pulled the following together from

Tropical Zodiac Dates
October 24 to November 22
August 23 to September 23
Sidereal Zodiac Dates
November 23 to November 29
September 16 to October 30
Traditional Traits
Determined and forceful
Modest and shy

Emotional and intuitive
Meticulous and reliable

Powerful and passionate
Practical and diligent

Exciting and magnetic
Intelligent and analytical
On the dark side....
Jealous and resentful
Fussy and a worrier

Compulsive and obsessive
Overcritical and harsh

Secretive and obstinate
Perfectionist and conservative
Health foods

Hidden causes

Being involved

Work that is meaningful

Being persuasive
Being given only surface data
Hazards to health

Taken advantage of
Anything sordid

Demeaning jobs
Sloppy workers

Shallow relationships

Flattery and flattering
Being uncertain
Dark Red to Maroon
Green and Dark Brown

The bits highlighted in orange are the pieces that seem to fit. I would say this is a pretty inconclusive result, which only goes to prove the Barnum Effect is indeed in operation.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Poor motherless son

In the red corner we have the Union movement, an old bruiser whose glory days are decades in the past, needing a big win to stave off extinction. The unions come from the cage fighting school of boxing. No rules and the last man standing wins.

In the blue corner we have the Conservative government, using the dire economic situation to green light all the swingeing cuts to public services they've ever dreamt of. The government prefers to play by the Queensbury rules of boxing. As far as the authorities were concerned Arthur Scargill rather ruined the sport when he just didn't have the decency to know when to stay down, and changed the law to cramp the style of any future Scargill wannabes.

The days of general strikes and mass pickets may be legally curtailed, but the unions are beginning to realise they can pick strike dates that, just by chance, coincide with action by their sister organisations in other industries. Socialist politics are typically republican in outlook, it being difficult to reconcile the theory that all folks are born equal against the inherited privileges of the monarchy. What better choice then, than to target the upcoming royal wedding with multi-industry strikes?

The unions are banking on overwhelming public support against the cuts, but what they seem blind to is the fondness that the average working classes have towards the royals, especially the poor motherless son of the late sainted Lady Diana. They may well find the public are rather looking forward to their street parties, and will take a dim view of any union action that threatens to spoil the fairy tale wedding.

Friday, 7 January 2011

Out came the knives

Perhaps it was post-christmas shopping deprivation, or a need to spend a little on myself before the cost-of-living and tax increases suck my wallet dry, but whatever impelled me I had a wee buying frenzy on Amazon the other day.

Normally I'm extremely adverse to buying gadgets for the kitchen, as they typically end up gathering dust after the novelty wears off. Bread and ice cream makers, electric carving knives and pepper mills, fondue sets and chocolate fountains. Lets be honest, who doesn't have a little herd of white elephants looking sad and unloved at the back of a cupboard?

I started off innocently enough, looking for a handheld vacuum to do my stairs. Having picked one with dozens of glowing reviews I added it to my basket. This is where it all went horribly wrong. Amazon showed me one of those "People who bought this, also bought...." lists. Before I knew it I'd added two other items that I didn't know I needed to my order.

A big Amazon parcel arrived today containing all three gadgets.

The handheld vacuum needed constructing, which I did, but it also needs charging, so I have twelve hours of anticipation ahead of me before I can give it a whirl.

I also bought a citrus juicer, but that needs to wait until I buy some oranges before it can be tested out. I'll be off to Costco to stock up just as soon as I can. Why did I suddenly decide I needed a citrus juicer? I'm not entirely sure, but it might have had something to do with the delicious freshly squeezed orange juice I'd had with my breakfast in the canteen.

The third item is a knife sharpener, but not just any old knife sharpener, this one is billed as the "World's Best Knife Sharpener." How could I resist? I have five top quality Global knives that have all become as blunt as I am in the five years I've owned them, perhaps helped along the way by my inept attempts to give them an edge.

I was a bit disappointed to discover the new sharpener wasn't in any way electronic, and pretty similar in operation to the useless sharpener I already own. However I resolved to give it a fair trial. Out came the knives. First I tried running the knives lightly over a dried apricot to test their edge. A ripe tomato would have been better, but sometimes you just have to improvise when the cupboards are bare. This confirmed that my chopsticks have more of an edge than my knives.

I operated the lever on the sharpener that fastens it to the worktop via the miracle of suction, and followed the instructions to pull the knife lightly from base to tip through the sharpener a few times. I then tested said knife on the aforementioned dried apricot. Low and behold, a clean slice. Two of my knives needed a lot more than a couple of runs through the sharpener, but before long all my Global knives were once again dangerously sharp.

So I give to you the perfectly named "AnySharp - The World's Best Knife Sharpener"

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Smell the internet

The doorbell just rang, which is unusual as I don't generally have casual callers at this time in the evening, so I raced down the stairs to answer the door. When I opened it I was faced with a young woman and a girl in Woodland Trust tabards. They both waved their arms and chimed "Hello!" immediately followed with the woman chirping "Aw, don't you look cute with your hair in a little bob!"

"Would you mind not patronising me on my own doorstep and tell me why you're calling?" I responded. You can tell I wasn't best pleased. I'm never happy to be called to the door by chuggers, but I'm damned if I'll be insulted by cold callers. It might have been a suitable greeting if a toddler had opened the door, but it's just a teeny weeny bit inappropriate for anyone over the age of five.

She seemed non-plussed by my directness, and launched into the usual chugger routine of asking questions that demand a "yes" response, so that when the moment comes to ask you to sign up you're supposed to automatically say "yes!" Perhaps I'm easily insulted, but frankly who would be pleased with the assumption that you're of limited mental capacity and easy prey to these naff sales techniques?

"You've heard of the Woodland Trust?" she asked.

Beginning to feel the winter cold, I replied "I've no wish to talk about the Woodland Trust on my doorstep, goodbye!" and shut the door.

Opening the door to an unexpected caller on a cold dark winter night would give anyone elderly, ill or living alone pause for thought. Do they seriously expect people to stand there freezing while they rattle through their ten minute sales patter? What planet are these folks on?

To all cold callers - wake up and smell the internet. I don't buy or donate on my doorstep, if I'm inclined to do either then I do it online. You're obsolete. You're a menace to society. Stop knocking at my door. You are the weakest link. Goodbye!

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Portents and omens

Astronomy was scuppered by meteorology today as clouds obscured last night's Quadrantid meteor shower and this morning's partial solar eclipse. To add insult to injury I didn't feel the 3.6 magnitude earthquake which hit Yorkshire yesterday.

We've had an uncanny number of portents and omens in the last month. In addition to meteors, solar eclipse and earthquake, we had an eclipse of the moon on the winter solstice which has not occurred in nigh on 500 years. On New Years Eve 3000 blackbirds fell dead from the sky in Arkansas, while 125 miles away 100,000 drum fish washed up dead. The end of days?

Today we're intellectually curious about these events, but in less enlightened days we would have been disturbed, fearful even, and looking around for a suitable sacrifice to appease the obviously angry Gods.

I might be hard pressed to pick just one person if someone had to be ritually slayed. We have so many figures we love to hate who would do nicely. Politicians are always firm favourites, and there are endless unlovable celebs. How would one choose?

We'd have to hold one of those "Top One Hundred" TV programs, detailing the lives and sins of the nation's hate figures, where obscure comics and commentators talk to camera about the candidates, interspersed with amusing archive footage.

This would need to be followed by a "I'm a Sinner, Sacrifice Me!" Reality TV series, where each week the public vote out the least obnoxious of the candidates, until only the most loathsome one remains. The "Top Gear" team could be tasked with designing the actual sacrifice, bringing to bear their inventive destructive skills which have been honed on poor innocent caravans for years.

Of course the whole scheme might seriously cheese off the Gods - who knows - maybe it was Reality TV dross that angered them in the first place. Still if mankind is to be wiped out, at least everyone would be able to die smiling, happy in the knowledge that the ultimate reality TV show was actually entertaining.

Saturday, 1 January 2011

Orange constellations

Last night, as the clock struck midnight, revellers all across Leeds set off fireworks. After the fireworks faded, the sky gradually filled with Flying Chinese Lanterns, which drifted south east across the city, forming orange constellations of hopes and dreams in the clear night sky.