30 January 2012

In Case You Missed ...

The irregular selection of links to things which have amused or interested me, and which will hopefully do the same for you. So in no special order we have ...

Are There Fundamental Laws of Cooking? Wired reports on research into how flavours and ingredients relate to each other and whether there are combinations of flavours with work in doublets but not in triplets.

According to meta-studies by researcher Peter Gøtzsche breast cancer screening cannot be justified and actually overall does more harm than good. Needless to say the medical profession are outraged, although they are coming to realise that the equivalent in men — prostate cancer screening — also does more harm than good.

As announced a week or so ago, here's the official press release from University of Birmingham on Alice Roberts appointment as Professor of Public Engagement in Science.

Now there's more science which overturns the accepted beliefs. Research has now shown, apparently definitively, that watching pornography doesn't cause men to commit rape. (You'll want to follow the links in this summary item for the fuller story.)

And finally for the scientific research here's a great article by Rob Dunn, author of The Wild Life of Our Bodies: Predators, Parasites, and Partners That Shape Our Evolution, which describes how research projects get started and books written all intertwined with bits about how living too clean is actually bad for you.

The Heresy Corner explodes Alain de Botton's ideas about what makes people atheists. While I don't have a lot of time for Richard Dawkins's aggressive approach I do seem to have ended up, philosophically, pretty much where he is albeit via a different route.

Following on from last week's pictures of amazing libraries here are some equally stunning pictures of tunnels.



And finally Ian Visits reports on a relatively infrequent, but very ancient London event: the Ceremony of the Constable’s Dues.

Enjoy!

29 January 2012

Reasons to be Grateful: 11

Experiment, week 11. This week's five things which have made me happy or for which I'm grateful.
  1. Hypnotherapy. I've been having hypnotherapy now for a year or 18 months in an effort to shift the problems underlying my depression and weight. It's been an interesting voyage. We haven't yet fixed the problems yet, but Chris (who has also been my osteopath for the last 25+ years) and I remain hopeful. But I'm clearly his challenge case. While I can be hypnotised I don't respond easily because my brain is so controlling and analytical it sees through whatever is being done, knows what's coming next, keeps monitoring everything and thus never allows itself to properly dissociate the conscious and subconscious. But we're making progress; techniques are being found to confuse my brain into submission; and I've discovered quite a lot of interesting stuff along the way. Besides it's an interesting experience as well as very relaxing.

  2. Haggis. Last Wednesday (25 January) was Burns' Night when, in homage to our Scots ancestry (Noreen's actual; mine a family myth never proven) we always have the traditional haggis. So many people don't like (the thought of) haggis. We love it. It is really only a variation on sausage but made from bits of sheep rather than bits of pig. OK, yes, they're offal-ly bits but then so has a lot of sausage always been. It's tasty, filling and good comfort food for the depths of winter. When I was a student in York the nearest fish and chip shop to the university campus used to do deep-fried battered haggis (small sausage-sized ones) which was brilliant with chips on a cold winter night after a few pints.

  3. Jubilate Agno. A chunk of blogging last week centred around the literature we studied at school (see here and here): thoughts prompted by Katyboo. This brought back to me Christopher Smart's Jubilate Agno which I have loved ever since we first sang Benjamin Britten's setting when in the school choir. It's quite long and, in amongst a host of strange religious themes, word- and rhyme-play etc., contains a homage to his cat Jeoffry. It was written in the 1750s/60s when Smart was confined to a mad house with religious mania.

    For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry.
    For he is the servant of the Living God, duly and daily serving him.
    For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in his way.
    For is this done by wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness.
    ...
    For in his morning orisons he loves the sun and the sun loves him.
    For he is of the tribe of Tiger.
    For the Cherub Cat is a term of the Angel Tiger.
    For he has the subtlety and hissing of a serpent, which in goodness he suppresses.
    For he will not do destruction if he is well-fed, neither will he spit without provocation.
    For he purrs in thankfulness when God tells him he's a good Cat.
    For he is an instrument for the children to learn benevolence upon.
    For every house is incomplete without him, and a blessing is lacking in the spirit.


  4. Crocuses. I noticed today that we have the first few crocuses in flower, and the cyclamen down under the fruit bushes has been out for a week or two. While it is a bit early for crocuses — so they may be very confused Autumn Crocuses — it is surely a sign that Spring is on the way.

  5. Katy. Our blogging friend Katy escaped from her tribe of urchins for a weekend's downtime in London. It was lovely to be able to give her a bed for the night and share a leisurely Saturday evening and Sunday morning of real live chat, food, wine and coffee. Katy is always delightful company!

Today Isn't the Day ...

Today I should be doing loads of stuff: catching up on what I didn't do during the wee and preparing for next week. But I'm not. I have come to the conclusion

Listography: Websites

For this week's Listography Kate is asking us to tell our five most commonly used websites — like the ones that appear at the top of our bookmark list or similar.

As I do pretty much everything I can online these days I use a huge range of sites from Google through news providers to banks. So, with the exception of this blog, here are my five:
  1. Google Reader. This is my homepage because the only way I can keep track of the range of blogs, news sites, Flickr groups etc. I want to see regularly is to subscribe via an RSS feed.

  2. Facebook. Although I'm not very active it's worth it for keeping in touch with family, friends, acquaintances, former colleagues, etc.

  3. Flickr. All my decent photographs get stored here. And because I'm interested in photography I follow quite a number of people and groups on Flickr. The problem si that there is just too much stuff here to follow properly, which is why I use Google Reader to see the stuff which is of highest interest.

  4. Anthony Powell Society. If you like this is my work site as I'm the Society's Hon. Secretary.

  5. Amazon UK. These days I shop almost exclusively online and Amazon is my first stop shop — quickly followed by eBay. If you order from Amazon through the link on the right it helps the Anthony Powell Society.
I've not looked but I'll be surprised if between all of us we don't come up with a very common set of about ten, with a few outliers. Does anyone out there really do anything much different?

26 January 2012

More School Reading

Following on from my post of earlier, talking at lunch with Noreen has helped recall a few more things I read at school.

As plays we read Pygmalion and I think Toad of Toad Hall .

The poetry selections also included Alfred Noyes' The Highwayman, Browning's How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix, Kipling's A Smuggler's Song and William Cowper's The Diverting History of John Gilpin. Doubtless Wordsworth (those bloody daffodils!), Tennyson and Christina Rossetti crept in too.

In I think the second year we had a single "reading lesson" each week with Bob Roberts who was the Deputy Head. In this we read a set book and there was some discussion of it. The books tended to be slightly lighter weight than in mainstream English lessons and I know this is where we read The Thirty-Nine Steps. This may also have included some Sherlock Holmes, but I'm not at all certain about that.

Somewhere along the way I think we must have read George Orwell's Animal Farm because I can't think I would have read it otherwise, although I do remember reading Aldous Huxley's Brave New World at my father's suggestion.

I also remember that in the third year (so age 13-14), we had a weekly reading lesson in the school library where (when we weren't being taught to use a library; boring; I'd know this for several years!) we could read anything we liked from the shelves. I tried reading War and Peace. Needless to say I didn't get very far.

There was, of course, other stuff one was exposed to via the school play, house plays and the choir. One of the pieces we regularly sang in the choir was Benjamin Britten's setting of Christopher Smart's Jubilate Agno which is something else I still love.

For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry.
...
For he is of the tribe of Tiger.
For the Cherub Cat is a term of the Angel Tiger.
...
For God has blessed him in the variety of his movements.
For, though he cannot fly, he is an excellent clamberer.
For his motions upon the face of the earth are more than any other quadruped.
For he can tread to all the measures upon the music.
For he can swim for life.
For he can creep.


In my final year the school play was The Insect Play by the Brothers Čapek. A very curious beast, but actually quite entertaining and single acts from this were also quite a favourite of the house plays. Maybe the house plays (each of the four houses put on a single act play for two nights each December; all four on the same evening) was where I came across Toad of Toad Hall.

There must have been more that is now far beyond recall. Sadly so much of it was, as Katy observed, so unutterably miserable. And she was doing school English 20-some years after me when one would have hoped things might have improved.

Wat I did Read at Skool

Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.

The very deep did rot: O Christ!
That ever this should be!
Yea, slimy things did crawl with legs
Upon the slimy sea.

About, about, in reel and rout
The death-fires danced at night;
The water, like a witch's oils,
Burnt green, and blue, and white.

My friend Katy's post the other day about what children read at school got me to thinking about what I had to read at grammar school.

Well, sort of.

It was more like what I didn't read.

Because I have always been a slow reader (am I 10% dyslexic?) I never managed to keep up with what we were (supposed to be) reading. If we were given homework of "Read the next chapter of [insert book]" which was supposed to take half an hour, it invariably took me well over an hour — sometimes two — and I still didn't get all the nuances I was supposed to. So I was always trying to finish reading chapter 3 while the class were discussing chapter 5 (which of course I'd not read).

Add to that a level of terminal boredom with just about everything we read — I just couldn't see the point of this tedium — and it's a wonder I managed to pass GCE English Literature at all! Nevertheless I was at the top of the second set for English. I wanted to go into the top set (they did more interesting stuff) but rightly (in retrospect) my teacher said I couldn't and that I would struggle there.

So what did I have to read?

I know that for 'O' level I did:
  • CS Forrester, The Gun (about which I remember less than nothing)
  • Shakespeare, Julius Caesar
  • And some collection of poetry including a load of crappy ballads (Sir Patrick Spens, et al.) which I still hate with a vengeance; Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, which I loved; Keats's The Eve of St Agnes, which I didn't understand; Masefield's Cargoes, which is delightful; and I remember not what else.
The top set for English did some of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales instead of the CS Forrester. My teacher was right; I would have struggled with this however much I wanted to do it.

Lower down the school we did most of the classics, which I hated without exception. I recall having to read:
  • Dickens: Great Expectations, Pickwick Papers and A Christmas Carol
  • Hardy: I think Far from the Madding Crowd and probably The Mayor of Casterbridge
  • Buchan: The Thirty-Nine Steps
  • Charlotte Brontë: Jane Eyre
  • Shakespeare: Macbeth, A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Merchant of Venice
  • And a continual selection of poetry mostly from Palgrave's godforsaken Golden Treasury which included delights like Hiawatha and Sorab and Rustum (yeuch!).
What else we read I have no clue. It has all been long forgotten, which is probably as well.

Looking back about the only bits I at all enjoyed were Pickwick Papers, the first half of Julius Caesar, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Cargoes.

To this day, with the exception of the above handful, I cannot read any of this stuff and haven't returned to it. School successfully destroyed all the so-called classics for me permanently. In fact I can, even now, read very little fiction or poetry; what I have read and enjoyed I have found for myself since leaving, and despite, school. I find life-writing and non-fiction much more amenable.

I'm still a very slow reader and have never properly mastered speed-reading, which can be a major handicap.

25 January 2012

Do It! ... Ooooo ... More!

This week's photography challenge over at The Gallery is for us to write our photographic resolutions for this year.

Well as most here will know already, I don't do New Year resolutions because I see then asa self-fulfilling failure.

But that doesn't mean I don't have things I want to achieve. So what are they?

We're Going Home

Basically this year I just want to get out and take more photographs, more often. And keep pushing he boundaries with what I try.

I'm not doing very well at it so far, but I have hopes that I might still achieve it. Can't do much less than I have so far this year!

Thoughts for a Dull Week in January

Even more than critical thinking or time management, what the white-collar economy requires from most workers is the ability to spend the bulk of their waking hours completing tasks of no inherent importance or interest to them, to show up every day, and to not complain overmuch about it.
[Christopher R Beha]

I’ll be more enthusiastic about encouraging thinking outside the box when there’s evidence of any thinking going on inside it.
[Terry Pratchett]

A judge said that all his experience, both as counsel and judge, had been spent sorting out the difficulties of people who, upon the recommendation of people they did not know, signed documents which they did not read, to buy goods they did not need, with money they had not got.
[Gilbert Harding, died 1960]

Experience is never limited, and it is never complete; it is an immense sensibility, a kind of huge spider-web of the finest silken threads suspended in the chamber of consciousness, and catching every air-borne particle in its tissue.
[Henry James]

Imperfection is beauty, madness is genius, and it's better to be absolutely ridiculous than absolutely boring.
[Attributed to Marilyn Monroe]

24 January 2012

In Case You Missed ...

A few links to news and interest items you may have missed. Let's do the serious stuff first.

First off, following my tirade of 10 days ago about the proposals to change the way we keep time, here are a couple of items explaining the background to our calendar systems and why leap seconds do actually matter. One is from Scientific American blogs: The End of the Time of Earth: Why Does the Leap Second Matter?. The second is from Discover Magazine bogs: Wait just a (leap) second.

I also came across this piece on the use of seismology for forensic purposes, eg. monitoring nuclear tests. Interesting that some seismometers captured the Costa Concordia hitting the rocks.

And now for something more sublime but equally mind-boggling: some pictures of amazing libraries.

Multi-tools have a geek following. But despite what we might think they aren't new and weren't invented by the Swiss Army. The first documented ones were used by the Romans and they have developed ever since. Here's a selection from the first recorded Roman example right up to last week.

And finally from the sublime to the totally, well, crazy. Protect Your Cats And Mice With Armour. How brilliant is that!

23 January 2012

Where's the Biscuit Barrel?

Kate's Listography this week poses a simple question: What are you five favourite biscuits?

Well, because of my diabetes I'm not really supposed to eat biscuits — but I do! So here are some of my all-time favourites.

Almond Biscotti. Preferably home-made, by me.

Wagon Wheels. But they have to be the original, decent size version of my childhood and not the travesty that we are palmed off with these days.

Any Wafer Biscuit. But better if covered in chocolate! Why are these always the first to disappear from any biscuit selection?

Garibaldi. Yes, those "dead fly" biscuits. I loved them as a kid, especially the slight chewiness of the fruit.

Dark Chocolate Digestives. Well actually almost anything covered in dark chocolate. Milk chocolate will do at a pinch, but dark chocolate is so superior!

Time for tea and biscuits!

I haz not Cheezburgr

There's a small piece in the February issue of Scientific American which reflects my views on the necessity of revising our agricultural policies.

I reprint it here as it is heavily based on a SciAm weblog post by David Wogan and largely quotes from an earlier weblog post by Waldo Jaquith both of which are in the public domain.
The Impracticality of a Cheeseburger

A fast-food staple reveals the pros and cons of industrialization

What does the cheeseburger say about our modern food economy? A lot, actually. Over the past several years blogger Waldo Jaquith (http://waldo.jaquith.org) set out to make a cheeseburger from scratch, to no avail.

"Further reflection revealed that it's quite impractical — nearly impossible — to make a cheeseburger from scratch," he writes. "Tomatoes are in season in the late summer. Lettuce is in season in spring and fall. Large mammals are slaughtered in early winter. The process of making such a burger would take nearly a year and would inherently involve omitting some core cheeseburger ingredients. It would be wildly expensive — requiring a trio of cows — and demand many acres of land. There's just no sense in it".

That the cheeseburger — our delicious and comforting every man food — didn't exist 100 years ago is a greasy, shiny example of all that is both right and wrong with our modern food economy. Thanks to fertilizers, genetically modified crops, concentrated farming operations and global overnight shipping, much of the world was lifted out of starvation (but not malnutrition, ironically enough) because it could finally grow sufficient quantities of food with decreasing labor inputs.

But these same advances that allow food to be grown out of season and in all corners of the globe contribute to a whole host of environmental problems, from deforestation and nitrogen loading of water sources (and the resulting dead zones) to the insane quantities of water being consumed.

The "industrialization of food," as author Paul Roberts puts it, is a relentless cycle driven by razor-thin price margins that force food processors to adopt more advanced techniques to produce even more food at lower prices. This system will only be exacerbated as food demand increases. Recently David Tilman and Jason Hill of the University of Minnesota released a study anticipating that global food demand could double by 2050. It's doubtful that our current, impractical food economy can sustain that demand.

Convince me it isn't 1st April

The following is from New Scientist of 14 January 2012, and not 1 April!
One minute with ... Isak Gerson

The spiritual leader of the world's newest religion, Kopimism, explains why he thinks copying information is holy

Tell me about this new religion, Kopimism.
It was founded about 15 months ago. We believe that information is holy and that the act of copying is holy.

Why make a religion out of file-sharing?
We see ourselves as a religious group, so a church seemed like a good way of organising ourselves.

Was it hard to become an official religion?
We have had this faith for several years and one day we thought, why not try and get it registered? It was quite difficult. The authorities were quite dogmatic with their formalities. It took us three tries and more than a year to get recognised.

What criteria do you have to meet to become an official religion?
The law states that to be a religion you have to be an organisation that practises moments of prayer or meditation in your rituals.

What are the Kopimist rituals?
We have a part of our religious practices where we worship the value of information by copying it.

You call this "kopyacting". Do you actually meet up in a building, like a church, to undertake these rituals?
We do meet up, but it doesn't have to be in a physical room. It could be on a server or a web page too.

Do certain symbols have special significance in Kopimism?
Yes. There is the "kopimi" logo, which is a K written inside a pyramid, a symbol used online to show you want to be copied. But there are also symbols that represent and encourage copying, for example, "CTRL+V" and "CTRL+C".

Why is information, and sharing it, so important to you?
Information is the building block of everything around me and everything I believe in, Copying it is a way of multiplying the value of information.

What's your stance on illegal file-sharing?
I think that the copyright laws are very problematic, and at least need to be rewritten. I would suggest getting rid of most of them.

How many church members are there?
Around 3000. To join you just have to read our values and if you agree with them, then you can register on our website, at kopimistsamfundet.se

Is there a deity associated with Kopimism?
No, there isn't.

Does Kopimism have anything to say about the afterlife?
Not really. As a religion we are not so focused on humans.

It could be a digital afterlife.
Information doesn't really have a life. I guess it can be forgotten, but as long as it is copied it won't be.

PROFILE. Isak Gerson is a philosophy student at Uppsala University, Sweden. Together with Gustav Nipe — a member of Sweden's Pirate party — and others he has founded the Church of Kopimism, which last week was recognised as a religion by the Swedish government.

22 January 2012

Families

Yesterday I ended up spending a large part of the day immersed in my family history. It all started because Noreen (who has done at least as much work on my family as her own) noticed that one of the files we had from my mother had a birth certificate in it.

We have three crates of stuff from my mother, much of which is organised as a family timeline and history in ring binders, all of which has been refiled. But we realised we hadn't been through the miscellaneous files for certificates, which I prefer to file separately. We started on the crate of miscellaneous files thinking we'd find a couple of certificates. We found a couple of dozen!

In entering all the certificate data into my family tree app I came across a death certificate for my g-g-g-grandfather, one James Gambridge (born ca.1789, died 1857) which records his occupation as "Cook on Her Majesty's Ship Victory". No this is too good to be true! He would have been about 16 at the time of the Battle of Trafalgar (in 1805). Is it possible he served under Nelson at Trafalgar?


Answer: No.

The crew (an incredible 850 officers and men) on HMS Victory at Trafalgar is well documented. And James Gambridge isn't amongst them. (Nor is there a James Cambridge, the 'G' often being mis-transcribed as a 'C'.) Now one shouldn't always believe what is given even on certificates, and this rang alarm bells.

Yet I knew James Gambridge's occupation was given as "Gunner" on his daughter Sarah Ann's (my maternal g-g-grandmother) marriage certificate (in 1848). So maybe he was an enlisted sailor. Hmmm ... more work required.

Then, talking over dinner, Noreen made an almost throw-away comment: "Of course there's also Leading Seaman Albert Edward T Hicks of Dover who on the 1901 census is shown as serving on HMS Victory at Portsmouth". What?

Now the Hickses are my father's mother's family and, yes, they come from Dover. "Oh yes", says Noreen, "he's one of yours".

Now my g-g-grandfather was a certain Jabez Hicks of Dover, sometime mariner. And we know his son James Albert (1847-1888; not in my direct line) was also a mariner. Noreen is even more fascinated by this family than I am and has established that James Albert had a son Albert Edward Thomas (b. 1875). Both James Albert and his wife died quite young and it seems that the five surviving children were parcelled out around their aunts and uncles (who were likely also their god-parents).

Young Albert Edward was sent to live with his uncle Edward Israel Hicks and on the 1891 census is at the Royal Naval School at Greenwich. So much can be established from census records etc. (Albert Edward Hicks is quite common as names go, but Albert Edward T Hicks isn't.) And hence Noreen's discovery of Albert Edward T Hicks on HMS Victory at Portsmouth on the 1901 census.

This I now start to think I don't believe.

So let's see what, if anything, the National Archives come up with. God bless this new-fangled internet thingy 'cos I can do this from home on a Saturday evening!

So after a bit of grubbing around — and much swearing at the awful slowness of the National Archives' website — lo and behold I can find a Naval service record for Albert Edward Thomas Hicks of Dover. And the document is available for download (for the cost of a pint of beer).

He joined up for 12 years on his 18th birthday in December 1893 as a ship's boy. He eventually retired from the Navy in October 1919 as a Petty Officer on HMS Lupin (almost 26 years service). He served several tours on HMS Victory (as well as, inter alia, HMS Hood (1891) and HMS Pembroke) and throughout the First World War. Absolutely amazing.

But following the same pattern I cannot find any service record for James Gambridge — and all the records are supposed to be there. One last desperate effort: let's just do a general search for him, forget about targeting naval records. Wow! And there is a James Gambridge who served in the Royal Navy and Royal Marines between 1804 and 1839. Now this doesn't quite fit as quoted ages etc. don't properly match and I don't yet have the full document (it isn't one that's online) to check it all. But yes, it may be a possible fit.

I never knew I had forebears in the Navy, let alone dreamt that they may have served on HMS Victory (albeit not at Trafalgar). And now I find I may had had two such. And both sides of the family. Wow!

Now I need to find more about my paternal grandfather's service in WWI and WWII, which isn't proving easy. I know he served as RAF barrage balloon ground crew in WWII. And in WWI he was a conscientious objector but volunteered to serve in the RAMC as a stretcher bearer at the front. How brave is that!

Reasons to be Grateful: 10

Experiment, week 10. This week's five things which have made me happy or for which I'm grateful.
  1. Sleep. I like my sleep; I always have done. But for some reason my sleep pattern seems to be easily disrupted these days with too many nights when I either can't get to sleep or, more often, when I wake up in the wee small hours and can't get back to sleep. But this week I have had several good sleeps to make up for the bad ones, and I feel so much better for it.
  2. Central Heating. Last weekend our central heating boiler decided to stop working. Although we have a warm house, boy did it cool down quickly. But we survived; indeed it took both of us back to our childhoods in unheated houses when one heated one room and were glad to snuggle down in bed and get warm. And fortunately we have a backup immersion heater (so there was always piping hot water) and a gas fire in the front room so we could heat that room and watch TV accompanied by two cats and two laptops. Anyway the boiler got fixed during the week and it's great to have an all-round warm house again — I was surprised how quickly the house did warm up too.
  3. Jake. Earlier in the week we went to see the Patron of the Anthony Powell Society. I knew his cat, Jake, had been under the weather recnetly but was gald to see he was back to his old self. Jake like attention. He also likes sitting on people. Not on their laps but draped across their chest and shoulders. I think I spent half the time we were there with this large tabby cat draped in vrious poses across my torso.
  4. Prof. Alice Roberts. As I posted on Friday I'm delighted that Alice Roberts has been appointed as Professor of Public Engagement in Science at University of Birmingham. Yes, OK, I'll admit it: I think Alice is very sexy. She is also an excellent scientist and a brilliant communicator so this is a well-deserved appointment.
  5. HMS Victory and the National Archives. I'm going to write a separate post about this, so come back later for another instalment.

20 January 2012

Pasta with Bacon & Tomato

Here's another quick, easy and almost infinitely adaptable teatime recipe. This makes a dry-ish pasta dish as there is nothing except the reduced tomatoes to make any sauce.

I remember my mother doing this in a frying pan when I was a kid and the only pasta available was quick cook macaroni.

Use suitable quantities for the number of people being fed and how hungry they are.

Preparation Time: 10 minutes
Cooking Time: 10 minutes

You will need ...
  • Pasta, preferably fresh
  • Bacon, cut into 1cm wide strips
  • Onion
  • Garlic, more or less to taste
  • Tomatoes, one or two per person, fresh but over-ripe is fine
  • Olive Oil
  • Fresh Herbs of your choice, if available
  • Black Pepper
  • Parmesan Cheese

This is what you do ...

  1. Put the pasta on to cook. When it's done drain and put it aside to keep warm. (You can cook the pasta while the tomato/bacon cook if you like but that's too much for my simple mind!)
  2. While the pasta cooks chop the onion, garlic, bacon, herbs and tomatoes.
  3. In one pan cook the tomato in a small amount of oil. You want it to start cooking down and beginning to fall apart; you don't want it very wet. If it does too quickly then just take it off the heat.
  4. In another pan sauté the onion and garlic in some oil until the onion is translucent.
  5. Then add the bacon to the onion and continue frying.
  6. When the bacon is cooked to your liking add the tomato, herbs, some pepper and the pasta.
  7. Stir it all together and cook for another few minutes to allow the flavours to mingle and ensure everything is hot through.
  8. Serve with the grated/flaked Parmesan Cheese and a robust red wine.

Notes ...
  1. Like most of my other recipes you can adapt this almost infinitely. For instance leave out the tomatoes and add mushrooms along with the bacon. Or you can use spinach instead of tomatoes.
  2. Bacon offcuts work well for this.
  3. You can substitute prawns, anchovies, smoked salmon, Parma ham or even kidney beans for the bacon. In fact I often do this without the tomato and with prawns and lemon instead of bacon.
  4. If using fish then you might want to add some lemon juice and/or zest.
  5. If you want this really dry then leave out the tomatoes.
  6. Short pasta works better as I find spaghetti and linguine are difficult to stir well into the mixture. Fusilli or macaroni work well.

Good News Day

In its own little way today is a good news day ...

First I noticed that yesterday the International Telecommunication Union have been unable to agree the change to abandon leap seconds (see my post here) and a decision has been postponed until at least 2015. Hopefully that will give some time for sense to prevail.

Then today it has been announced that the parliamentary bill to move the UK's clocks forward an hour permanently (well for a three year trial) has run out of time and is now unlikely to happen. (See my much earlier post about GMT here.)

But perhaps best of all, courtesy of Facebook and YouTube, I learn that one of my "heroes", the most excellent Dr Alice Roberts has just been appointed as Professor of Public Engagement in Science at the University of Birmingham. While this has to be a loss for the medical profession it is a brilliant appointment which is well deserved. There's nothing on the news channels yet, but I'm sure there will be. Alice joins an illustrious band of UK scientists including, inter alia, (the much hated by me) Richard Dawkins, mathematician Marcus du Sautoy and physicist Jim Al-Khalili who all hold/have held Chairs in the Public Engagement or Understanding of Science.

Time to crack open ... a mug of tea! :-)

You've Got What?!?!?!

One of my less endearing qualities is a lay-scientist's interest in emerging infectious diseases (of plants and animals). And as such I follow ProMED which disseminates reports of these things from around the world to the scientific community.

And are there some strange and amusingly named diseases out there. So I was amused, but not surprised, this morning to see a report of Wobbly Possum Disease in New Zealand. If you wrote it in a novel, or indeed a comedy script, no-one would believe it! But what would you call a disease which makes possums, well, wobbly?

Others that always amuse me for their names are Astrakhan Spotted Fever (which affects humans), Flaccid Trunk Disease (of elephants), Lime Witches' Broom Phytoplasma (affecting citrus trees) and O'nyong-nyong Fever (also affecting humans).

Yes, it's a strange world we live in!

19 January 2012

Without Glasses My Eyes are Out of Focus

Without Glasses My Eyes are Out of Focus

This was taken for Eyes, this week's theme for The Gallery.

I've decided I need something to keep me thinking about photography, and The Gallery seems a good way as it provides a weekly theme and is weblog orientated.

18 January 2012

January Sunrise

Sunrise yesterday, Tuesday 17 January, over west London as seen from our study window.

Sunrise 17 January, version 3
Click the image for a larger version

For those familiar with the Greenford area that's Horsenden Hill just peeking over the houses on the right.

Keep Calm and Drink Up

One of the many contents of my Christmas Stocking was a small book called Keep Calm and Drink Up. It is a collection of quotations and aphorisms about drink — mostly alcoholic drink, of course.

Amongst the more delightfully amusing and/or thought-provoking entries were the following.
The British have a remarkable talent for keeping calm, even when there is no crisis.
[Franklin P Jones]

It takes only one drink to get me drunk. The trouble is, I can't remember if it's the thirteenth or the fourteenth.
[George F Burns]

Rum, noun: generically, fiery liquors that produce madness in total abstainers.
[Ambrose Bierce]

I never drink water; that is the stuff that rusts pipes.
[WC Fields]

Wine is sunlight, held together by water.
[Galileo]

There can't be good living where there is not good drinking.
[Benjamin Franklin]

Milk is for babies. When you grow up you have to drink beer.
[Arnold Schwarzenegger]

The greatest invention in the history of mankind is beer ... the wheel was also a fine invention, but the wheel does not go nearly as well with pizza.
[Dave Barry]

15 January 2012

Social Nudity: Follow-up on TV Programme


Following up on my snippet alerting people to My Daughter the Teenage Nudist there's an interesting post by Alex, seen topless in Manchester in the film on that experience. Frankly I thought the attitude of the policeman involved was disgraceful and that a formal complaint would not have been out of order: he was arrogant, uncommunicative and inflexible specially considering that nothing illegal had taken (or was obviously about to take) place. Whatever his personal view may have been, at best he didn't portray the police in a good light.

More power to Alex for taking the stance she did — and indeed to everyone for taking part in what was a well balanced film with personal attitudes both pro and con social nudity being expressed. More power too to Channel 4 for making and broadcasting the programme, and to British Naturism for facilitating it.

If you missed the original programme, My Daughter the Teenage Nudist is still available on 4oD.

Reasons to be Grateful: 9

Experiment, week 9. This week's five things which have made me happy or for which I'm grateful.
  1. Birthday Wishes. It was my birthday earlier this week. I've now had 61 of them. Making a big thing of birthdays is not something that's in our family tradition. So I'm not one for getting huge bundles of birthday cards. But I was touched by how many of my friends on Facebook remembered and wished me well. Thanks, everyone!
  2. Daffodils. I'll probably say this again several times over the coming weeks, but daffodils are one of my favourite flowers (as long as they don't come in shades of pink!). And I noticed on Friday that our local supermarket had the first spring daffs in: small yellow and orange narcissi. Delightful. And a reminder that Spring can't be too far away!
  3. Frosty Mornings. The weather here in west London has been unseasonably mild all winter; more like March than January. But in the last few days it has definitely gotten colder. It was very nice to go out yesterday morning in bright, clear sunny weather following a hard frost.
  4. London Taxis. The London black cab driver generally gets a bad press — but rarely from me. I'm a Londoner and although I have a reasonable knowledge, for a layman, of what's where in central London I have to admire the London cabbie's knowledge of everything. I know they have to work hard to learn it all, but I really don't know how they ever manage it! An of course many never do manage to pass "the knowledge". I appreciate their skill every time I get in a London taxi — and that was three times yesterday!
  5. Freedom Pass. For those who don't live in London, this is the London "bus pass scheme" for geriatrics. I finally got mine a few weeks before Christmas, but it was really only yesterday that I started to appreciate what an excellent scheme it is. Not only do you get free bus travel, and (mostly) free tube travel but also much of the rail network in Greater London is also free outside peak hours. And it also covers local buses across most of the rest of the country. Brilliant!
And, for once, there's a list with no mention of food at all.

Listography: 5 Tips for Bloggers

Kate's Listography this week is for us bloggers: she asks us to write about our top five tips learned so far on our blogging journey. OK, so here are five top tips ...

1. Write about whatever grabs you. It's your blog, you can write about anything you like and in any way you like. But it will be most successful, and enjoyable, if you write about things that grab you, that interest you. Don't write about something just because you think you should. Your passion, or lack of it, will come through in your writing and that'll affect your readers interest. And writing about things that interest you will give the blog your personal stamp. It will also keep you interested and writing. If you find a niche market along the way, so well and good.

2. Write readably. Be careful with your style. What you write needs to be readable and intelligible. But the style it doesn't have to be formal; probably better if it isn't. Don't write long meandering sentences that your readers can't follow — nor long meandering posts! Don't ramble: make sure your argument is coherent, concise and developed. Style variations and surprises are useful, but don't overdo them. Like this! See!

3. Think about your audience. Who are you writing for? What message are you trying to get across? I find that as I write a blog post I'm always writing it "for" someone specific; not always the same person: a particular friend, my wife, even myself. That will help you develop and angle your story; and it gives the writing a more personal and readable edge. This, for instance, I am writing with Kate in mind: 'cos she set the challenge and I know she'll read it. At other times I will be writing for a specific friends. And there will be times when you are writing for yourself: as a way to help you develop your ideas — that's fine as long as you don't always do it and you know when you are doing it.

(Of course, if you're writing a formal entry, say a scientific article, you may need to write more formally and in the third person. That's fine if that's your niche. But it isn't for most of us.)

4. Try to think up snappy titles. There are two aspects here. The title of your blog itself and the titles of the individual posts. Your blog needs to be called something memorable and informative. "Fred's Blog" doesn't help anyone. "Blue Cats in Custard" at the very least is arresting and makes people curious. It's all about marketing.

The second aspect is something I consider I'm not very good at: snappy titles for posts. The post's title is the first thing someone will read, and if it doesn't grab them they may read no further. So the title, and the first sentence, need to grab their attention as well as providing some clues about what follows. Titles also help the search engines index you, so people will be more likely to find you. If they're amusing too then so much the better.

5. Design. Good design is paramount. If your page doesn't appeal to people they won't read it more than once. Keep it clean and uncluttered. But also try to make it some reflection of you. You don't need a designer to do this for you — just a bit of time to fiddle around with the various style combinations your blog hosting service offers. Personally I don't like loads of white space, fancy fonts or twee backgrounds. Develop a design (it may take time) and stick to it. Use one typeface you like and stick to it — except for occasional emphasis. Restrict variations in font size and weight. Avoid flashing things, pop-up boxes and adverts (especially ones you can't control): they all distract and annoy the reader. Occasional pictures in your posts help break up chunks of text and provide some context and interest. But don't overdo the pictures: more than two or three big images and they should be put somewhere like Flickr and linked (using thumbnails if necessary).

Bonus Item 1. Don't expect instant success. If you track the number of hits you get to your blog you can get an idea of whether you're going in the right direction. But don't expect thousands of hits a day to happen instantly. Unless you have a lot of luck, a large advertising budget or a major sponsor people will take time to find you. Just keep writing. Encourage people who respond to comments. And, if you're doing it right, slowly your audience will grow.

Bonus Item 2. Re-read what you've written before you post it. Check your spelling and ensure it all makes sense. Bad writing is one of the biggest turn-offs of all.

So there you are: seven top blogging tips. Hmmm ... maybe I'd better take some of them to heart myself! :-)

In Case You Missed It ...

Links to a selection of the curious and interesting items you may have missed in the last week or so.

Do You Have Free Will? How can we know?

Heroes of the Hot Zone: pen portraits of some of the guys who are trying to clean up Fukushima.

Waterstones ditches apostrophe. English must be under threat when a bookshop ignores good grammar and makes it's possessive Waterstones's which is worse!

OK, here's one for the mathematicians out there: 153 and narcissistic numbers. I want to know how they've proved what the biggest such number is.

Here are some seriously stunning 100 year old colour photographs of Russia (see right).

Difficult to work out here who is the madder: Amish men jailed over reflective triangle dispute.

Cats occasionally like all sorts of unsuitable things. Apparently some even like mushrooms.

And finally, just to prove it is worth goig to the gym ... Scientists name rare horse fly after Beyonce "in honour of its impressive golden behind".

14 January 2012

My Heritage is Under Threat

Yet again those dastardly Jonnie Foreigners want to slaughter my heritage. This time they're after destroying Greenwich Mean Time.

They're not content that our stupid government want to move us onto European time (equivalent to Summer Time) — permanently an hour adrift from real "astronomical time". Oh no!

Now the scientific community want to abandon good old GMT completely and replace it with Coordinated Universal Time (UTC)**.


But wait! Isn't UTC the same as GMT?

Well no, actually. Not as currently defined. Although it looks the same at the moment, the proposal appears to be to do away with leap seconds (of which there have been 24 in the last 40 years) which are inserted into UTC to help our electronic time keep track with the actual motion of the planet. Inserting leap seconds is a pain and a technical challenge, but not an insuperable challenge. But the proposal is in favour of apparent simplicity: to abandon leap seconds in favour of some currently undefined (and doubtless cocked up) solution in years to come when our modern atomic clocks have drifted too far from astronomical reality.

But surely GMT, when originally defined, did not have leap seconds defined? That's true. Leap seconds weren't invented until 1972, by which time GMT had been the universal time standard for almost 100 years.

So where's the problem? Why can we not return to the original GMT, without leap seconds, if that is a scientific imperative?

Ah, now, that's because GMT defines noon as the time the sun is exactly overhead at Greenwich. And in days of yore that was reset at regular intervals (daily?) so in effect GMT kept in track with every slight wobble in "astronomical time" automatically. But with atomic clocks that doesn't happen. Time progresses regularly like, well, clockwork. And without leap seconds modern "electronic clock noon" (UTC) would drift away from "astronomical noon" (GMT) and that spells disaster for things like GPS.

So let's just redefine GMT to be atomic clock time? But that would make it neither "mean time" nor "Greenwich time", so it would be a misnomer. At least with a new name it is clear that the time being measured is different.

So ... We have a working system which we are proposing to break. This is absurd. We should keep GMT (with leap seconds). It is a valuable part of our heritage. It tells people the history and science of measuring and recording time. Why are we throwing our history away so carelessly? Is nothing sacred?

** I'm sure the acronym for this should be "CUnT".

13 January 2012

More Rules for Life

Following on from my earlier posts about my guiding principles and lessons for life, I'm reminded of the 11 Rules for Life often attributed to Bill Gates. Except that they ain't by Bill Gates. They appear to have first surfaced in a 1996 piece in the San Diego Union Tribune by Charles J Sykes** and subsequently been pared down. But wherever they first appeared many people, not just youngsters! (present readers excepted, of course!) would do well to take them to heart. So, in case you missed then the first few thousand times around, here they are:

Rule 1: Life is not fair — get used to it!

Rule 2: The world doesn't care about your self-esteem. The world will expect you to accomplish something BEFORE you feel good about yourself.

Rule 3: You will NOT make $60,000 a year right out of high school. You won't be a vice-president with a car phone until you earn both.

Rule 4: If you think your teacher is tough, wait till you get a boss.

Rule 5: Flipping burgers is not beneath your dignity. Your Grandparents had a different word for burger flipping — they called it opportunity.

Rule 6: If you mess up, it's not your parents' fault, so don't whine about your mistakes, learn from them.

Rule 7: Before you were born, your parents weren't as boring as they are now. They got that way from paying your bills, cleaning your clothes and listening to you talk about how cool you thought you are. So before you save the rain forest from the parasites of your parent's generation, try delousing the closet in your own room.

Rule 8: Your school may have done away with winners and losers, but life HAS NOT. In some schools they have abolished failing grades and they'll give you as MANY TIMES as you want to get the right answer. This doesn't bear the slightest resemblance to ANYTHING in real life.

Rule 9: Life is not divided into semesters. You don't get summers off and very few employers are interested in helping you FIND YOURSELF. Do that on your own time.

Rule 10: Television is NOT real life. In real life people actually have to leave the coffee shop and go to jobs.

Rule 11: Be nice to nerds. Chances are you'll end up working for one.


In fact the original had another 3 rules (which I've only slightly edited):

Rule 12: Smoking is not cool. It makes you look moronic. Next time you're out cruising, watch an 11-year-old with a butt in his mouth. That's what you look like to anyone over 20. Ditto for purple hair and/or visible pierced body parts.

Rule 13: You are not immortal. If you think living fast, dying young and leaving a beautiful corpse is romantic, you obviously haven't seen one of your peers at room temperature lately.

Rule 14: Enjoy your youth while you can. Sure parents are a pain, school's a bother and life is depressing. But someday you'll realize how wonderful it was to be a kid. Maybe you should start now.


Hands up anyone who can honestly say they've never fallen into any of these traps.

Mmmm. Yeah. Not me either.

** Sykes appears to have subsequently published the list in his book 50 Rules Kids Won't Learn in School.

Just in Case You Missed It ...

... here's a few links to the curious and interesting that I've read in the last few days.

Scientists have now worked out why not all chillies are hot. It's easy logocal stuff; no science required.

How good is your science? Well it's got to be better than most of the British! Britain's biggest science misconceptions revealed.

Would You Get a QR Code Tattoo? Would you get any tattoo? Thoughts on why we do this.

I've always said Shaun the Sheep would be a good alternative to the lawnmower. Now someone is doing it!

Gawdelpus! Now the government wants every under 11 to have read Harry Potter! FFS why can't politicians stop meddling in things they don't understand? Oh, hang on then they'd have nothing to do. No change there then.

Finally I was going to say this could only happen in Japan, but I suspect the Americans could do it as well. It was the "maternity suite" which finally tipped me over the edge! Hopefully we British don't scrape quite so much off the bottom of the barrel.

Thoughts for the Week

A collection of recently culled thoughts on life, the universe ...

Every great advance in natural knowledge has involved the absolute rejection of authority.
[Thomas Henry Huxley, 1825-1895]

To succeed in life, you need two things: ignorance and confidence
[Thoughts of Angel]

I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work.
[Thomas Edison]

If you treat people the way they are, you make them worse. If you treat them the way they ought to be, you make them capable of becoming what they ought to be.
[Goethe]

Religion convinced the world that there's an invisible man in the sky who watches everything you do. And there's 10 things he doesn't want you to do or else you'll to to a burning place with a lake of fire until the end of eternity. But he loves you! ... And he needs money!
[George Carlin, You Are All Diseased]

In the face of all the challenges we face today, is my optimism about the future of humanity idealistic? Perhaps it is. Is it unrealistic? Certainly not. To remain indifferent to the challenges we face is indefensible. If the goal is noble, whether or not it is realized within our lifetime is largely irrelevant. What we must do therefore is to strive and persevere and never give up.
[Dalai Lama]

Don’t think, it’s bad for the government.
[Touretteshero; this is one of her tics but it is so true!]

Just Too Good Not To ...

From Annie Mole's Going Underground Blog ...

Greg and his Mohican
"Mummy why was does that man look like a chicken?"

12 January 2012

Steaming Beef Curry with Gin

Yesterday I cooked curry. For my birthday. A hot curry. I like hot curry!

If you've been following along you'll know I like my recipes easy, adaptable and forgiving. So here's my special Steaming Beef Curry with Gin. The gin and the lime give it that extra zing.

[I've already posted the method for Noreen's Very Lemony Rice separately. It makes a great accompaniment to almost any curry.]


I used:
  • Steak; diced
  • 1 large Onion; roughly chopped
  • 4 large cloves garlic; roughly chopped
  • 2 inch piece of fresh ginger; finely chopped
  • 400gm tin Chopped Tomatoes
  • half Cauliflower; in bite-size pieces
  • half jar of Patak's Vindaloo Paste
  • tablespoon ground Turmeric
  • juice & zest of 2 limes
  • half large wineglass of Gin
  • glass White Wine (or water)
  • small pinch Salt
  • Olive Oil

This what I did:
  1. Sauté the onion, garlic and ginger in some olive oil until the onion is just going translucent.
  2. Then add the diced steak and continue cooking to sear the meat all over.
  3. Slacken the curry paste with the wine (or water) and add this to the pan, stirring to ensure everything is coated in the curry mix.
  4. Add the turmeric and stir that in well.
  5. Now stir in the tomatoes and the smallest pinch of salt.
  6. Followed by the lime juice & zest and the gin; then the cauliflower.
  7. Bring to the bubble and cook for 10-15 minutes.
  8. [If you're doing Noreen's Very Lemony Rice to go with this, put the rice on when the curry has been bubbling away nicely for a couple of minutes. This should get the cauliflower just nicely cooked, but not mushy, in time with the rice.]
  9. By the time the cauliflower is done the sauce should be reducing nicely; it should be tick not watery.
  10. Serve with your choice of accompaniments.

Notes:
  1. Despite the big dose of Vindaloo paste this isn't outrageously hot. (Actually I think Patak's Vindaloo is milder than their Madras paste.) The heat of curry does seem to me to be ameliorated by the addition of lemon or lime juice. But you could use any strength of curry paste to your liking — or make your own.
  2. Use any (selection of) vegetable of your choice. I happened to have cauliflower to hand.
  3. And of course you could use any meat — or none at all! Yes, I used some steak because I think it is worth using decent meat to make a good curry especially as this doesn't get cooked to death.
  4. You can use this method for any curry you like. For an "ordinary" version just leave out the gin and lime. The only real essentials are onion, protein, curry paste (or powder) and some liquid.
Picture credit: Fastplaeo

Noreen's Very Lemony Rice

I've talked about Noreen's Lemon Rice before. We find that plain rice gets, well, plain and boring, with curry. This special lemon rice makes any curry (or indeed almost any rice dish) both look and taste special: it is very lemony and a lovely golden yellow colour.

This is doubtless not the approved way to cook rice, but it is easy and it works.


You need:
  • 50-60 gm Long-Grain Rice (Basmati for preference) per person
  • 1 large, or 2 small, Lemons
  • half teaspoon ground Turmeric
  • small pinch Salt (optional)
  • Boiling Water

This is what you do:
  1. Grate the zest from the lemon and put it aside.
  2. Now juice the lemon (not too hard, you want a bit of the flesh left) and put the juice aside as well. Keep the lemon half-shells.
  3. Put the rice in a saucepan with the lemon half-shells. Add the turmeric and a tiny pinch of salt.
  4. Add most of a kettle of boiling water, bring back to the boil, stirring a couple of times to make sure the rice isn't adhering to the bottom of the pan. Cook until the rice is done.
  5. Just as the rice is done remove the lemon pieces to a plate and scrape the flesh and juice from inside them. Discard the lemon peel.
  6. Drain the rice in a sieve and rinse with some boiling water. Shake to dry and tip it into a warmed dish.
  7. Add all the lemon (zest, juice and recovered flesh) and stir it in gently.
  8. Serve with curry.

Notes:
  1. This method produces a slightly wet, but not sticky, rice, which works fine with curry.
  2. The turmeric gives the rice a lovely bright yellow colour — but it needs the acidity of the lemon to do this. If you leave out the lemon (or in fact anything acid) but not the turmeric the rice comes out a muddy beige colour. That's all down to the chemistry of the pigments in the turmeric which are yellow in acid but red in alkaline (ie. most tap water). I think the acid also helps fix the colour to the rice grains.
  3. You can do this with lime as well, though the flavour is more subtle.
  4. Or you can cook plain rice this way — just leave out the lemon and turmeric.
Picture credit: Robyn Lee

11 January 2012


If you're interested in nudism, need your mind expanding or have kids with body image hang-ups (ie. most teenagers) this should be worth watching.

My Daughter the Teenage Nudist
Channel 4; Thursday 12 January; 10pm

Filmed in collaboration with British Naturism

Lessons for Life

Today is my birthday. It is a Feria. Almost nothing of note has happened on this day (except for me, of course!). About the only at all well known person I share my birthday with is former miner's leader Arthur Scargill. But let us not be forlorn!

I thought that this year I would celebrate my birthday by sharing with you 61 Lessons for Life (one for each of my birthdays). I stole the idea (and a few of the lessons) from here. They are a sort of a logical successor to my New Year post.

61 Lessons for Life
  1. Life isn't fair. Deal with it.
  2. When in doubt, don't.
  3. Life is too short to waste time and energy hating others.
  4. Don't take yourself so seriously. No one else does.
  5. Pay off your credit cards every month.
  6. You don't have to win every argument. Agree to disagree.
  7. Learn to love yourself.
  8. Don't worry about things you cannot change.
  9. Save for retirement starting with your first pay packet.
  10. When it comes to chocolate, resistance is futile.
  11. Make peace with your past so it doesn't screw up the present.
  12. It's OK to let others see you cry.
  13. Be open and honest in all that you do.
  14. Don't compare your life to others. You have no idea what their journey is all about.
  15. If a relationship has to be a secret, you shouldn't be in it.
  16. Don't be afraid to admit you were wrong. Be prepared to change your mind.
  17. Burn the candles, use the nice sheets, wear the fancy lingerie. Don't save it for a special occasion. Today is special.
  18. Over-prepare, then go with the flow.
  19. Be eccentric now. Don't wait for old age to wear purple.
  20. Listen.
  21. The most important sex organ is the brain.
  22. No one is in charge of your happiness except you.
  23. Frame every so-called disaster with these words: "In five years, will this matter?"
  24. Forgive everyone everything.
  25. What other people think of you is none of your business.
  26. Time heals almost everything. Give time a chance.
  27. However good or bad a situation is, it will change.
  28. Don't be afraid to admit you don't know.
  29. Be curious – about everything.
  30. Be yourself, not who you think you want to be.
  31. It's easier to get forgiveness than permission.
  32. Growing old beats the alternative - dying young.
  33. Your children get only one childhood. Make it as good as you possibly can.
  34. Think as much as possible and to the best of your ability.
  35. Don't be afraid to tell it like it is. If other people don't like it that's their problem.
  36. If we all threw our problems in a pile and saw everyone else's, we'd grab ours back.
  37. Every decision is the best you can make at the time with the information available.
  38. Get rid of anything that isn't useful, beautiful or joyful.
  39. Never forget that your enemy is also a human being.
  40. All that truly matters in the end is that you loved.
  41. Envy is a waste of time. You already have all you need.
  42. It gets better.
  43. No matter how you feel, get up, dress up and show up.
  44. Masturbation is good.
  45. Take a deep breath. It calms the mind.
  46. If you don't ask, you don't get.
  47. When you do ask, the worst they can say is "No".
  48. You can never have all the information you want to make a decision.
  49. Every coin has two sides. So does every situation.
  50. Respect other peoples' beliefs however much you disagree with them.
  51. Communicate, communicate, communicate.
  52. If it harm no-one, do as you will.
  53. Treat others as you would wish them to treat you.
  54. No regrets – just things you now know weren't the best.
  55. Only one person is responsible for your orgasms – you!
  56. "No" is an acceptable answer.
  57. Be comfortable in your body.
  58. If you need a God, fine. If you don't, that's fine too.
  59. You are entitled to believe whatever you like. You are also entitled to express your beliefs. But we aren't obliged to listen to them or agree with them.
  60. Embrace sex and nudity – they're a natural and rich part of life's pattern.
  61. Look under the bonnet of all knowledge. Remember research causes cancer in rats.
Hmmm ... now how many of those do I adhere to? Hmmm ...

10 January 2012

HS2 is Go for Liftoff

Another meaty post. Someone please find out what being put in the tea this month!?

So the government have approved the plans for HS2, the high speed rail link to be built to connect London, Birmingham and (maybe) later Manchester and Leeds. The alleged cost is said to be £33bn with a payback over a 60 year period.

Business want HS2, as do the government, the rail industry and the construction industry. So would you if it safeguarded your salary, stock options and pension, reduced unemployment and potentially increased tax take.

Most of the local communities and the environmental groups don’t want it. They believe the environmental costs are too high and the business case doesn't stack up. Even the Conservative Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, is only lukewarm. Added to which governments don’t have a good track record of managing such big projects for the public good.

The Stop HS2 campaign have said "It's a white elephant of monumental proportions and you could deliver more benefits to more people more quickly for less money by investing in the current rail infrastructure."

Friends of the Earth have made a similar comment, although as one would expect in more strident terms: "We need to revolutionise travel away from roads and planes, but pumping £32bn into high-speed travel for the wealthy few while ordinary commuters suffer is not the answer. High-speed rail has a role to play in developing a greener, faster transport system, but current plans won't do enough to cut emissions overall — ministers should prioritise spending on improving local train and bus services instead."

The Department for Transport has said that 22.5 miles of the first phase (to Birmingham) would be enclosed in tunnels or green tunnels [essentially a deep cutting with a tube put in it, over which grass, trees and soil are placed] and another 56.5 miles of cuttings would significantly reduce "visual and noise impact".
But the environmental impact will be immense. So there will be a tunnel under much of the Chilterns (and so there should be) as well as large swathes of the London section of the route (we can’t clear enough land to do otherwise). But cuttings and green tunnels do nothing for the environment. They may reduce noise and visual impact but that’s all they do. They still destroy the countryside (taking out swathes of land many times wider than the actual track) through which they are built, cutting through woods, fields, etc. and creating huge piles of spoil.

And that leaves aside the huge disruption that will be created. Disruption not just along the route itself, but to existing rail infrastructure like London's Euston Station which will have to be largely rebuilt.

Wouldn’t it be better for everyone if the government invested the money in sorting out our current rail infrastructure as FoE suggest? Forget all this franchising and get the rail industry back in public hands where it belongs; re-integrate it and invest properly in the infrastructure to get the network running efficiently and to time. If managed independently and properly by someone like Richard Branson who isn’t going to take any old nonsense from anyone, and who has a track-record of managing corporate business, then we should see increased capacity and reduced fares because the whole enterprise is more efficient and provides the service that's wanted.

I find it hard to believe that this would cost more, create fewer (local) jobs or bring fewer benefits. Network Rail believe that such investment in the existing infrastructure will cost as much as HS2 for little benefit. But they would, wouldn’t they. They need a huge corporate project to help justify their existence against a backdrop of falling rail performance.

There’s more to any society than testosterone-fuelled corporate bullies building their salaries, share options and pensions. It's time, once again, to listen to the people on the ground who are going to be most affected. But I doubt it’ll happen, if only because those against this hare-brained scheme are split into some 70 groups — they too need to be integrated if they are to be effective at overturning this nonsense.

[And before anyone accuses me of NIMBYism, it isn’t. I don’t care that the route runs just a mile from my house; the mess and disruption can’t make this bit of west London much worse than it already is. I do, however, care about the impact on Perivale Wood, a piece of ancient preserved woodland which abuts the proposed route; but that's a relatively minor consideration in the overall scheme of things.]

On the Sociobollocks of Wellbeing

OMG here comes another "deep thought" posting! GOK what they're putting in my tea this year?!

David Colquhoun at DC's Improbable Science has a reputation, along with Ben Goldacre, of exploding the myths of bad and pseudo science. In a post yesterday he's got his knife into "Wellbeing", that subject so beloved of the much reviled HR departments.

Sure we all like wellbeing. Who wouldn't. But can we sensibly measure it? Can big (or small) organisations do anything meaningful to change it? I suggest the answers are no and no. It is a wimpy way for terminally ineffective and unnecessary droids to appear to do something useful. In fact I maintain it is divisive and destructive.

Divisive in that it ultimately sets one group of people at odds with another; eg. those who want extra time off for parents against those who have to pick up the extra work; us against HR. Destructive because it wastes time and money which could be better used.

Throughout my working life I have taken part in countless wellbeing type surveys: my former employer conducted just such a survey of employees every couple of years. There was a standard core of questions, and a set which varied according to mood of the year. It was supposedly used to measure employee morale and tell senior management what we thought of company policy, management, etc.

I must have completed well over a dozen, maybe as many as 20, such surveys in the course of my employ. Although optional I always took part on the basis that that however ineffective I thought they were, if you didn't express an opinion then certainly nothing would change.

And that is exactly what happened: nothing changed. Not once in almost 35 years did I see any action result from survey feedback. Senior management were allegedly incented on increasing morale etc. (as measured by the survey). But this was never more than lip-service. Over the years morale steadily fell as HR policies became less sympathetic to the employee (pay freeze, less empowerment, emasculated pension schemes, downsizing, etc.). But neither senior management nor HR people ever suffered. Unlike the rest of us they always went on to bigger, better and more lucrative jobs.

Should this surprise us? Well no, not really. Because apart from a few headline figures (like the morale index, based on some fixed core questions) all the opinions expressed were aggregated and thus watered down into useless generalisations by the time they reached senior management. So the high-ups could then say things like "But that doesn't tell us anything", "That's meaningless" or "They [employees] don't understand". And thus our views were universally ignored, despite platitudes to the contrary.

Result: a huge waste of time and money which could be better spent moving the business forward. At best all it did was to act as a brake on some of the more oppressive ideas which might have come out of the profit-hungry upper echelons. At worst it wasted 2-3 hours per employee. In a company of 250,000+ employees worldwide that's an extra 400-500 people to develop the business.

Should it have been this way? Of course it shouldn't. But such, I fear, is the way of the organisation — large or small. It is all too easy to cover a multitude of sins in smooth management platitudes; even I can do it!

But, you say, wellbeing is important. Yes, of course it is, at a personal level. It is at the peak of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs and is surely the hallmark of a civilised society. And morale should certainly be important to any organisation.

But I would maintain that wellbeing and morale are best changed at a personal level. They're my responsibility. We don't need a "wellbeing industry" composed, as it so often is, of quackery and get-rich-quick scams. Wouldn't it be better to empower (and teach) people to look after themselves? Empowerment is, after all, one of the quickest ways to improve perceived wellbeing and morale at all levels.

I can't do justice to Colquhoun's latest article; it just contains the exposure of too much corporate HR hokum and sociobollocks. You need to go read it for yourselves. It's too good to miss!

Whither Obscenity?

In the general fallout from the Michael Peacock Obscenity Trial (if you missed the whole unedifying spectacle see, inter alia, the Guardian) the Hersey Corner highlights some important questions about obscenity and the law.

The questions raised by the trial are important, not so much in terms of jurisprudence, but in terms of developing society's, as well as our personal, views of obscenity and indeed morality.

As usual I'm going to try to condense the arguments for you. Also as usual others express the ideas better, more succinctly and with greater knowledge than I can. So in this case here are some key extracts in the words of the Heresy Corner, with a minimum of comment.
The material in question depicted acts that are legal to perform, which did not fall within the definition of "extreme pornography" contained in the more recent Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2009 but which nevertheless came within the CPS prosecuting guidelines for obscene publication [...]

[T]he majority [...] has welcomed the verdict, seeing it as another nail in the coffin of a paternalistic, judgemental and outdated piece of legislation, as a victory for free sexual expression, as a sign that the law may be at last coming to grips with a more liberal society [...] [T]he guidelines used by the police, the CPS and the British Board of Film Classification are based on the current "best guess" of what would be judged obscene by a British jury [...]

The OPA's [Obscene Publications Act 1959] true significance doesn't lie in the small number of prosecutions that are brought under it, but rather in that it sets the standard by which the police and the BBFC judge the shifting boundary of what is or is not to be considered "obscene". It is unusual [...] legislation in that it bans nothing outright but instead employs a notoriously subjective test, that of "tending to deprave and corrupt" anyone likely to see the material in question. Therein lies the law's uncertainty — and, for many, its inappropriate moralism. On the other hand, the very subjectivity of the test does make allowances for changes in society. It gives it flexibility.

[T]he CJIA [...] makes no allowances for taste [...] And unlike the OPA it targets the possessor — even an inadvertent downloader — rather than the producer or the distributor. Though apparently narrower in remit, in respect of those activities it proscribes [...] it is harsher and more regressive.

What of the concept of "obscenity" itself? Many would consider it outdated and illiberal by definition [...] [N]ow that the OPA has had the life almost squeezed out of it — between more liberal social attitudes on the one hand and the new extreme porn laws on the other — it's worth asking [...] whether something of value is being lost.

The crux of obscenity law is that it bans the depiction of acts which, in themselves, are not illegal; it declares to be depraved and corrupting activities which it nevertheless acknowledges that consulting adults might indulge in, and still remain decent members of society [...] Yet is this not also a way of saying that the needs of society and the needs of individuals might not always coincide, and that there might be a space between what must be privately allowed and what may be publicly depicted? Not everything that is socially unacceptable ought to be illegal, after all: that way lies totalitarianism. But by the same token, the fact that something is legal does not [necessarily — K] render it socially acceptable [nor necessarily suitable for depiction — K].

[T]he Obscene Publications Act sought to strike a balance between private and public rights. It recognised that citizens might lawfully get up to things that the majority of their fellows might consider depraved and corrupted while asserting that the majority also had the right to have their sensibilities protected. Most importantly, by leaving the final decision to a randomly-selected jury of ordinary citizens, it granted custodianship of the standards of decency to the people [...] rather than their being decided unilaterally by politicians and police. These are principles worth clinging on to [...]

So in short, let's not kill the idea of a test of obscenity by jury. Consenting persons have a right to indulge, in private, in pass-times which others may find distasteful or worse. The majority, while upholding that right to indulge privately, may feel that such acts shouldn't be promulgated publicly. Surely only a jury can make such a decision, reflecting the prevailing morality of the time. Which in turn leaves each of us to make our own decisions as to where the various lines (public and private) should be drawn.

And it is only by each of us developing our own ideas, whether in accord with or contrary to society's view, that society's opinions and morality can change. After all society's collective view is but the consensus (average) of our collected personal opinions.

Isn't that what democracy and free speech is all about: leaving us, the people, in control of our destiny?

09 January 2012

Colcannon à la mode d'ici

This is the traditional Irish potato, cabbage and bacon dish and served with poached egg. My version isn't authentic as all the recipes I see use creamed potato and much more potato than cabbage; I prefer roughly smashed potato and a high proportion of cabbage. But it's still hearty, easy, very forgiving and cheap.

This is what I did for a single-course main meal for two, so adjust as necessary ...

You will need:
  • 2 jacket potato-sized potatoes
  • a small green pointed cabbage; roughly chopped and cored
  • a large onion; roughly chopped
  • at least 4 decent rashers of bacon (I used two very thick rashers from a pack of offcuts); cut into 1-2cm lardons
  • as many eggs as you want
  • salt & fresh black pepper
  • butter and/or olive oil
  • half glass of white wine (or water)

This is how I did it:
  1. Wash and chop the potatoes (no I don't peel them!) and boil until well done, as you would for mash.
  2. As the potatoes come up to being done put the cabbage in a large pot on the hob with the wine; put the lid on and allow it to steam gently for a few minutes.
  3. Meanwhile drain and roughly smash the potato with a fork (don't purée or cream it; it should be chunky) with some butter, salt and pepper. Keep it warm.
  4. By now the cabbage is almost cooked and beginning to dry.
  5. Sauté the onion in a frying pan with a little butter/oil; when it is translucent add the bacon and continue to fry until the bacon is starting to crisp.
  6. While the onion/bacon cooks, take the lid off the cabbage and add a large knob of butter. Toss it well to coat the cabbage in butter and leave it on a low heat, without the lid, to dry off any remaining liquid.
  7. When the onion & bacon is done, add it to the cabbage along with the potato. Mix well together on the hob, put on the lid and keep warm. (You can probably turn out the heat, especially if using a good cast-iron pan.)
  8. Now poach your eggs by whatever method you favour. The white should be set but the yolk still runny.
  9. Serve the colcannon topped with poached egg(s) and a beverage of your choice.

Notes:
  1. My preference is for more cabbage and bacon and slightly less potato.
  2. Good smoked bacon works best. Bacon offcuts are fine.
  3. Use any type or mixture of cabbage you like, from white cabbage, through kale to sprouts; though I doubt red cabbage would work very well.
  4. You can under or over cook the cabbage to your personal taste.
  5. Add some chopped garlic to the onion, if you wish.
  6. Leftover potatoes and cabbage are fine as long as they are properly reheated.
  7. If you wish you can substitute fried eggs for poached. And of course you could use duck or goose eggs if available.
  8. Go easy on the salt as the bacon may be quite salt enough.