31 August 2012

Smoking Flour!

I spotted this in Waitrose a couple of weeks ago.

Smoky Flour

What I can't conceive is how you actually smoke flour without burning it. And why you would want to!

Weird!

A Special Day

Today is special. It is a red letter day. Well ... no ... actually it's a blue moon! So anything could happen — allegedly.

The mostly used definition of a blue moon is where there are two full moons in a calendar month. But that it appears is a more modern definition, the older one being applied where there were four full moons in a season. Various older belief systems give each of the three normal full moons in a season a name. Where there are four full moons the third of the four is called a blue moon so that the last may keep it's "correct" name and rightful place in the season.

Which might suggest to you that blue moons aren't that rare. And you'd be right. They occur every 2-3 years (actually 7 times in the moon's 19-year Metonic cycle), because of the mismatch between the 28 day lunar cycle and months of 30 or 31 days in our solar calendar.


Curiously it seems no-one really knows why it is called a blue moon, but it almost certainly isn't because the moon suddenly becomes Smurf-coloured for the day. Smurf-coloured moons can happen but only as a result of significant atmospheric pollution, like the eruption of Krakatoa in 1883.

One theory for the name is that "blue" in this context is derived from the Old English word belewe meaning "betray" which was used to describe "false" moons entering the calendar. Well I suppose that's possible, but given that the earliest known English reference dates from only 1524 it is perhaps unlikely.

Well, anyway, enjoy the last day of summer. In London it is bright and sunny but Autumnally cool, which is actually rather nice in what in the UK has been the wettest summer for 100 years. And if the sky is clear this evening go and bathe in the light of the blue moon! Sadly you'll have to provide your own Blue Moon Cocktail.

You can find more on Blue Moons at:
Wikipedia : Blue Moon
Wikipedia : Full Moon Names
Wikipedia : Metonic Cycle
Jodrell Bank : Night Sky in August
And in various news stories, eg. here

30 August 2012

Time for a cartoon ...

I suspect everyone who is owned by a cat will identify with this from Simon's Cat:

Buggered Britain 13

Another instalment in my occasional series documenting some of the underbelly of Britain. Britain which we wouldn't like visitors to see and which we wish wasn't there. The trash, abused, decaying, destitute and otherwise buggered parts of our environment. Those parts which symbolise the current economic malaise; parts which, were the country flourishing, wouldn't be there, would be better cared for, or made less inconvenient.

This garage area is at the back of one of the houses near us and opens onto the main road. Here it is just before last Christmas.

Buggered Britain 13a

And this is the same area around Easter time.

Buggered Britain 13b

Now I know I'm not the tidiest and most organised person in the world, but at least the rubbish at the bottom of my garden isn't visible to the whole world.

29 August 2012

Brazilians

No, not waxing, not even lyrical waxing! Nor another of Brizil's other exports: parrots. Although "poly" certainly come into it ...

Apparently a Public Notary in Brazil has agreed a civil union between a man and two women, which could (my guess) be the first officially endorsed polyamory relationship in the world.

The BBC News site, amongst others, ran the story yesterday.

Apparently the Public Notary, who goes by the wonderful name of Claudia do Nascimento Domingues, says that there is nothing in law to prevent this union and that the threesome should be entitled to family rights.

Needless to say the (mostly American) Christian press are having a field day.

More power to Senhora Domingues for breaking the mould, say I. We need more lateral thinking like this.

Gallery : Movies

Well I thought I was going to pass on Tara's Gallery this week as the theme is Movies. And as we all know I don't do movies. But then I remembered I had this ...

Jaws!
Caught in the Act

It was actually part of the fish counter display in our local supermarket a few weeks ago.

28 August 2012

Silly Fools Day

Yeah, I know it's the silly season. Everyone is on holiday and the media is being run by caretaker journos who don't know one end of a biro from the other. But really, you'd think it was All Fool's Day!

In the last couple of days we've had not one but two, yes, two, patently stupid stories blown up out of all proportion.

Today there appeared this superb notice at Farringdon Station on the London Underground.


Yes, it got seriously reported this morning. Until it became apparent to even the least intelligent that it was a most excellent hoax. So how do we know it's a hoax? Do all ladies wear trousers and socks? Does no-one wear shorts? A real H&S concern would have covered these, wouldn't it; and probably closed the station? Whoever perpetrated it should be really pleased for they did an excellent job of conning the unwary.

I just hope that if the perpetrator was a London Underground employee his (or her) bosses see the funny side of the prank: they certainly should do.

But that was just an amusing diversion compared with my second case: a lion on the loose in Essex.

Now look, good burghers of Essex, we know you have the reputation for not being the sharpest knives around, but ... A lion? In St Osyth? Really!?!?!?

I'm quite prepared to believe that there's the odd puma, even leopard, jaguar or lynx, prowling around the English countryside. But lions and tigers — oh my, no! They are just too large, and too hungry, to hide for long.

Yeah precisely, it didn't hide. There were newspaper photos. Yes they were all of a male lion. And what was reported? A lioness. Yes, those photos are known to be fakes, made up by the press, for the press because they had nothing else to go on.

Mind you, we can't really blame you Essex girlies for taking it all seriously, when the local plod's reaction is totally OTT. As usual Heresy Corner does the demolition job. The Essex Constabulary were found wanting in the intelligence stakes.

Still I suppose it's more fun than the pranks of assorted government ministers, City bankers and press barons. Oh, hang on. Isn't that where we came in?

So if anyone can genuinely find, with 30 days, killer mice within 5 miles of St Osyth or an unclaimed lioness on the loose at Farringdon Station, I'll eat my hat — as long as it's a chocolate hat, that is!

Five Questions, Series 2

Following up on my earlier thread where I posed five quite difficult questions, I've found some more in a similar vein.

As before they are five apparently simple looking questions but which turn out to be quite hard when you actually have to answer them. That's because they aren't designed just so you get to know a bit more about me. They're intended to make us think — yes that's you and me — about who we are and what we believe. So I'm hoping some of you will join in and answer them too. Either in the comments here or on your own blog — in the latter case just leave a link in the comments so I can read yours too.

OK so here are the Five Questions, Series 2:
  1. What happened at the beginning of the universe?
  2. If you had to diagnosis yourself with any mental illness which would it be?
  3. If you could offer a newborn child only one piece of advice, what would it be?
  4. What are your top 5 personal values?
  5. What places would you have pierced on your body and which parts would you never have pierced?
Again, like series one, I think they're going to be deceptively tricky. I certainly don't know in advance how I'm going to answer them all, though I have a few clues.

Anyway I'll answer them one at a time over the coming weeks. The first in a couple of days.

Oh, and if anyone has any more good questions, then please send them to me, I'd like to do this two or three times a year. Just to keep us all on our mental toes.

Watch this space!

27 August 2012

What You May have Missed — Science Edition

Here's a science-y edition of our occasional collections of links to articles you may have missed. They're mostly not deep science, so they shouldn't tax the brains of you arty types! In no particular order ...

It can't be so people can make pathetic jokes about their intelligence, so just why is it that so many women go blonde? Ah, of course, it's all to make Miley Cyrus look so much sexier! 😉

An English major turned science writer is amongst those defending the teaching of algebra in school. It's part of our cultural heritage.

Does your cat pester for food? If so it might need a psychologist. It would be beastly to deny the creature such a pleasure.

Oooo-eeerrr missus! Insect sting fetishes?! I don't think so, thanks.

So is (human) virgin birth a reality? Despite lots of looking it seems the answer is still probably not. Some interesting stories though.

Here are two aspects, both from Scientific American, of some recent work on consciouslness. First of all the question of whether self-awareness requires a complex brain. And secondly, scientists are suggesting that octopi are conscious, by which they seem to mean they're able to think.

And finally one for the medievalists out there ... A guy called Rob Colautti has created an evolutionary history of dragons. Definitely gets my vote for cool link of the week!

26 August 2012

Reasons to be Grateful: 41

Experiment, week 41.

What a strange week. Apart from going to Norfolk to visit my aged mother on Monday it has been a fairly uneventful week, so I'm not quite sure why it's been quite so strange.

But anyway the experiment continues ... so here are five things which have made me happy or for which I'm grateful this week.

  1. Shipdham. On the way back from visiting my mother we detoured via the Norfolk village of Shipdham with its rather interesting church. As I wrote about it here, I'll say no more now.

  2. Feeling Human. Somewhere around Thursday I suddenly came to the realisation that I was beginning to feel human, almost normal, rather than my usual morose, grumpy and depressive self. I have no clue where it came from, or why. It was a most strange feeling. It hasn't entirely gone away, but it isn't entirely here now either. I'd be quite happy if it came back, though.

  3. Plums. It's the season for decent English plums. I love good plums and especially Victorias. On Monday we bought some large plums in Roy's (again see here) of a variety called Jubilee. They looked and tasted like large Victorias. On Friday we bought some actual Victorias in Waitrose. Both were excellent, although to be honest the Jubilee were maybe the better if only for being more succulent.

    Click the images for larger views on Flickr
    Hollyhock Hollyhock
  4. Hollyhocks. Also on Monday there were some wonderful hollyhocks in the village of Bawburgh where we had lunch. I've noticed this glorious show before, many growing not in the gardens but on the verges. The photos above are just a couple of a whole range of colours from pure white to deep maroon.

    Hot Lemon Chillies

  5. Home-Grown Chillies. As I have for the last several years I'm growing my own chillies again on the study windowsill. Up to now I've always grown 3 or 4 different varieties. The large Scotch Bonnet type never seem to do well for me — I have just a couple of fruit ripening — they probably need it consistently hotter and brighter. But I have a tiny purple-turning-red variety called "Explosive Ember" which is prolific. They are hot and I usually dry them for winter use. But my favourite is "Hot Lemon" (the ones in the photo above are from my 2010 crop). They are 2-3 inches long and when ripe a bright lemon yellow. They too are hot with, when fresh, a delightful succulent, almost citrus-y taste as well. They go well in salads, and they look just stunning. Today I picked the second flush — only seven fruit, but there are already at least as many more to come and the plants are still flowering. It's a travesty not to eat these fresh, but next year I might succumb and plant only these — they are that good.

Nudity Stupidity

So we have two, rather different, men in the news this week for appearing nude. Prince Harry for playing strip pool at a party and Stephen Gough, the Naked Rambler, incarcerated again in Scotland for walking nude down the street. Neither has done anything overtly illegal (Gough is convicted of breach of the peace, although frankly from what I've read I don't see how) but both are being punished. Both might reasonably stand accused of stupidity, given what they know; but stupidity alone isn't illegal.


Uneasy bedfellows?!

Heresy Corner has a scathing summation of the issues. On Prince Harry:
And if a 28 year old man takes his clothes off in the company of other consenting adults, who cares?

It's only a naked body. We've all got one of those. If you're a distinguished actor you may well have displayed it to all the world in the name of art. This is the 21st century.
And, more tellingly, on Stephen Gough:
Gough has spent most of the past six years in prison since making the mistake of bringing his naked frame north of the border, where a Presbyterian horror of the body lingers despite repeated SNP claims that Scotland is a mature, progressive democracy ready for full independence.
[...]
Gough's case is simple: "there is nothing about me as a human being that is indecent or alarming or offensive." He poses no danger to society. He has never physically attacked anyone or interfered with property, nor has he used insulting language: his "crime" is to upset the sensibilities of prudes, of whom there are obviously a large number in Scotland.
[...]
Is nudity "indecent"? Only if you assume, as Anglo-Saxon prudes tend to do, that nudity implies sex. There are other reasons for being naked that have little to do with sex — taking part in a game of strip-billiards, for example.
[...]
It's hard to escape the view that Gough's real crime is not so much outraging public decency as refusing to conform. Keeping him upholds the majesty of the law which Gough's defiance challenges, at a cost to the taxpayer of hundreds of thousands of pounds.
[I would also take issue with the assertion that sex is indecent. Like nudity, sex and sexuality have to be normalised not criminalised and/or marginalised. But let's leave that aside for now.]

At least there appears to be a tiny amount of common sense appearing in all this. Prince Harry is apparently likely to be punished only by being given a dressing down (pun intended) by his commanding officer (though GOK what it has to do with his CO) and made to donate some of his salary to charity. Meanwhile the Kirkcaldy Sheriff has ordered Gough to undergo psychiatric tests, which might give him a way out of the corner he and Scottish "justice" have painted him into.

Nevertheless, frankly, both cases are ridiculous. We need to come to terms with the fact that nudity is a normal part of the human condition. Get over it! Our princling has done nothing most of us wouldn't have done; his only crime is his parentage. Gouch is agreed by all to be harmless but eccentric. The former should just be ignored. The latter allowed to go on his way and also ignored.

What is perhaps more important is to ask why people appear so outraged by these cases. I suspect it goes back to what I was writing about yesterday: most people need some outside influence to give them their moral code because they are unable (or unwilling) to think it through for themselves. Once that happens these people are prey to ridiculous, even dangerous, influences: anything from the abhorrence of nudity, through male dominance, to terrorism.

But it isn't just the traditional religions that are now occupying this morality defining territory. The tabloid media (papers, TV, radio) have become the new religion — the definers of morals — and thus the definers of what people think. Too many people still adhere to the "if it's in the paper, it must be true" and pause to think no further.

Well it's time to grow up and start thinking. Time to rise up against the Mrs Grundys of this world.

If it harm none, do as you will.

25 August 2012

On Atheism and Science

Yesterday I came across two blog posts about atheism, both of which deal with science in different ways. And they got me thinking — or at least starting to think — about the relationship between religion (or lack of it) and science.

Before I go into my thoughts let's have a look at what, for me, were some of the salient points from the two articles, both of which are worth reading in their entirety.

The first is a post is Atheism Evolves by Maggie Mayhem (yes, the sex positive activist and sex educator):
[I]t’s ridiculous to believe that all life on earth exists to serve humans. I am appalled when I hear this by both the religious and the irreligious.
[...]
The bible does not teach me how my hand works. It doesn’t teach me about how the human hand came to be. It doesn’t teach me why a human hand is physically advantageous for certain tasks nor does it tell me anything about how a human hand was selected for over time.
[...]
Many preachers have been great philosophers, social revolutionaries, and leaders. However ... activism and education does not have to include a literal belief in the supernatural to be effective and empowering.
[...]
There is no one to save us from ourselves but ourselves ... No one has the divine right to exploit their fellow humans.
[...]
However, atheism and skepticism are movements that have been primarily driven by people with immense privilege because it has taken that much privilege not to be destroyed by others for saying something so counter to what we’ve been taught for as long as we’ve been humans.
[...]
A silly belief does not displace my own. Laws, exclusionary practices, and violent retaliation does displace people.
[...]
Tokenism only serves the privileged, it does not broaden the viewpoints and perspectives. It does not help us better understand ourselves and our world when white men get to decide which marginalized people get to speak. Nothing is accomplished with tokenism.
[...]
Ideas are not physical spaces: you cannot run out of room. One of the greatest things about them is the way they intermingle and breed and create unimaginable combinations.
(Emphasis in the original)

Before we go on, just think for a moment about those comments on privilege and on ideas.

... ... ...

Powerful aren't they?!

OK, so now for the second article, Why Science Can’t Replace Religion by Keith Kloor on the scientific Discover Blogs.
[O]ur brains and bodies contain an awful lot of spiritual wiring ... you can’t simply dismiss the psychological and cultural importance of religion. For much of our history, religion has deeply influenced all aspects of life, from how we cope with death and random disaster to what moral codes we abide by. That science should (or could) eliminate all this with a rationalist cleansing of civilization, as a vocal group of orthodox atheists have suggested, is highly improbable.
[...]
[S]ome people, no matter their background, are prone to experience a more spiritual, as opposed to rational, connection to the universe ... certain needs unique to the human condition cannot be satisfied by science alone. Scientists who prefer a strictly rationalist lens have a hard time accepting this.
[...]
Absolutism is one of the uglier traits of religion that still pervades too many corners of the Earth today, breeding intolerance and normalizing abhorrent actions. But a response that indicts all religion as a stain on humanity is equally absolutist.
More rather powerful arguments, which strident atheists like Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers would do well to heed.

And it was reading this second article hot on the heels of the first which got me thinking. Actually thinking about this muddled interface between science and religion and the way the two so often seem to be unable to coexist.

What I realised was that there seem to be two strands to all religious belief, and these do seem to be to encompass all religions, not just Christianity. The two strands of belief are:
(a) how and why the world (universe) came into being, and
(b) the importance and imposition of a moral code.
Some believers seem to me to need to embrace one or other strand; some, although I surmise down at the deepest level a minority, clearly need both.

And it is in these two strands that the conflict with science arises because in fact these two strands have different roots, viz.
(a) has a root in science (of some form), whereas
(b) has its root in thought and intellect (philosophy, if you prefer).

Now I need religion for neither strand: science does indeed satisfy (to the extent satisfaction is possible by any means) the first and I have the intellect to be able to handle the latter myself.

The problem is that many people conflate and muddle the two strands and hence become completely, though unknowingly, confused. For science — whatever it's underlying belief: creationist or evolutionist — cannot ipso facto produce morals; it is merely explanatory. And equally philosophy alone cannot produce technical explanations; observation and experiment (ie. science) are also required.

Consequently it is not unreasonable that some scientists need a spiritual dimension/belief to give them a moral/cultural grounding. Equally it is reasonable that (some) theologians and philosophers need science to help them make sense of the universe.

Lucky is the man who can derive both strands from a single belief system, whether that is a religion or science. OK, I happen to believe that the religious viewpoint is erroneous, but then I am lucky enough to be able to derive both strands without religion. Not everyone is so lucky, and perhaps we should be more sympathetic to that. Is it moral of us to deny a "crippled man" a crutch, whether physical or mental?

Now I'm conscious that this is likely not a fully enough developed train of thought, being as it was scribbled down in five minutes at 11pm last night. But the fact that there are these two, seemingly unrecognised, strands does (at least for me) explain some of the confusion about how some scientists can need religion (spirituality if you prefer) and how the religious/spiritual may need science.

Anyone want to expand on this?

22 August 2012

Of Flowers, Sheep and Churches

Last Monday we spent the day in Norfolk. The main purpose was to visit my mother, but we also managed to fit in an hour or so of being tourists.

As normal we left home about 7.30am and we had a really clear run up to Norwich. By the time we arrived the sun was burning off the overnight cloud and the day was working up to be another scorcher.

Having spent a quick 20 minutes with mother, really just to see what if any bits of shopping she needed, we scooted off to Bowthorpe: take some stuff to the good charity shop there and a quick wander round Roy's, the local supermarket.

I've written about Roy's before. They started as boat chandlers in Wroxham, on the Broads. As I recall about 40 years ago they bought the Wroxham Post Office and General Store and expanded to become Roy's of Wroxham. They now have a small chain of supermarkets serving the local communities; they are still family owned. Their philosophy is to stock the basics and whatever they can get cheap — everything is cheap — and if it's local so much the better. True to their origins they sell everything from frozen food to paint, insect spray to shoes. Apart from the staples you can never be sure that if you buy something there today they'll have it next week. It is a cross between Lidl, a pound shop and a market stall — they don't describe themselves as "the world's largest village store" for nothing! The downside is that their fruit, salad and meat isn't always top quality, but there are definite bargains (like our favourite packs of bacon pieces) if you shop carefully.

After Roy's it was off for pub lunch at the excellent King's Head at Bawburgh. We were early and by now it was hot, so it was cold soft drinks all round. It was even too hot for fish and chips or beef suet pudding! So we all settled for the most excellent Ploughman's Lunch: craft cheese, home-cured smoked ham, home-made pork pie, granary bread, tomato, pickled onion and home-made piccalilli. It was good, wholesome and tasty; none of your plastic packet food here. It was so good we none of us wanted a pudding!

Click the images for larger views on Flickr
Hollyhock Hollyhock

I stopped in Bawburgh to photograph a few of the magnificent hollyhocks growing outside some of the cottages. Then on the way back to see mother for the afternoon we stopped and gathered some flowers for her to paint and a small bundle of stray corn: we found wheat, naturalised oats and naturalised barley in the field margins.

Bouquet

The time saved early in the day allowed us to leave mother slightly early and take advantage of the good weather with a diversion on the way home. Much as we like the section of the A11 from Norwich, by way of Thetford and Eleveden, to Mildenhall it is nice to see something different. So we followed the A47 round to Dereham, then the A1075 through Watton, rejoining the A11 near Thetford.

This was a deliberate ploy to go through the lovely village of Shipdham — literally "settlement of the sheep", which tells you where its wealth came from — where we stopped for an ice cream and a look at the church.

Shipdham Church, Norfolk

All Saints, Shipdham is a rather interesting church. It clearly has Norman origins and lots of later developments, finally having been "tidied up" by the Victorians. On top of the originally 13th century tower there is a two-tier, 17th century cupola of wood covered with lead. There is a nave (totally Victorianised) and a north aisle which still has it's early roof beams. Strangely the church has two fonts: it's own 14th century one and a Norman font rescued from Ovington which they now use in preference to their own. It is a small delight.

Shipdham Church, Norfolk Flint & Brick

Shipdham is also interesting because it was clearly quite prosperous in medieval, Tudor and Stuart times. Hence the surprisingly imposing church with a neat walled, picture-book churchyard. The village also had its own brickworks for several hundred years up until around 1820. So as well as the ubiquitous Norfolk flint there are still a number of examples of the local small, pale red bricks as can be seen in the church wall above.

If you're going that way, Shipdham is definitely worth a quick stop.

Gallery : Sky

This week over at Tara's Gallery we're being asked for photographs of sky.

Now there are boring, dull, flat grey skies and boring, wall-to-wall clear blue skies. But just about anything else is interesting: clouds, stars, the moon, sunset, sunrise, rainbows ... the list is almost endless.

So here is a small selection of mine from across the years.

Click the images for larger versions on Flickr
Trees, Dusk
Trees at dusk, taken one late winter evening as I left work

Sunrise 17 January, version 1
January sunrise seen through the birch tree in our garden

Armco Sundown
"Armco Sundown", sunset on the A11 in Norfolk taken from the passenger seat
of the car one late February

Sky & Corn 3
This could be almost anywhere in England on a hot summer's day; it's actually in Norfolk, again taken from the passenger seat of the car

Word : Heterodox

Heterodox

1. Not in accordance with established doctrines or opinions, or those generally recognized as right or 'orthodox'.

2. Holding opinions not in accord with some acknowledged standard.

3. An opinion not in accord with that which is generally accepted as true or correct.

20 August 2012

Quotes

Another selection of recently encountered quotes which have amused on enlightened me.

Human Being: A creature that cuts trees to make paper and then writes "save the trees on the same paper".
[Thoughts of Angel]

The most important lessons I gleaned [...] had to do with learning to fail: getting my ass kicked and getting back up, again and again and again, until I mastered a given skill. Why wasn’t I willing to do the same for math?
[Jennifer Ouellette; Make Us Do the Math]

Learning to buckle down and do unpleasant things that don’t come easily to us prepares us for life.
[Jennifer Ouellette; Make Us Do the Math]

Only authoritarian and reactionary politicians benefit from a population for whom abstractions have no meaning. Such a population will be satisfied by sound bites and flag waving and will be placated by bread and circuses while their economy is subverted and their democracy implodes.
[Nick Warner quoted in Jennifer Ouellette; Make Us Do the Math]

Typos are very important to all written form. It gives the reader something to look for so they aren’t distracted by the total lack of content in your writing.
[Randy K Milholland]

Of course I talk to myself ... sometimes I need expert advice!
[Thoughts of Angel]

Much of the social history of the Western world over the past three decades has involved replacing what worked with what sounded good.
[Thomas Sowell, Is Reality Optional?, 1993]

The last is sadly truer than many would credit.

19 August 2012

Reasons to be Grateful: 40

Experiment, week 40.

Apologies for the hiatus in postings this week, somehow I've managed to be busy, busy, busy. There are a few things happening over the next 2-3 days, but hopefully things can then get back to normal.

Anyway we're now two-thirds of the way through my experiment. This is week 40 of 60 and so far things are looking fairly positive.

In fact this week has been so busy I'm actually struggling a bit for things out of the ordinary to write about, however here are five things which have made me happy or for which I'm grateful this week.

Sorry Sue, It's a foodie theme again!
  1. Meeting Katy. On Monday Noreen and I met up with our friend Katy and her three children who were having a break in London. While it was a social meeting we also agreed to go and see the Shakespeare exhibition at the British Museum. Meeting Katy is always a pleasure especially as we usually eat cake and lunch! And the Shakespeare was also a pleasure, especially as it's aim is to show things about the times in which the plays were written and put some of the great speeches into their contemporary social context. The exhibition is definitely recommended. You can find Katy's write-up of the exhibition here.

  2. Ciao Bella. Having done the exhibition, had coffee and cake, and let the children run around in Corams Fields for an hour or so, we wandered off for lunch. Katy had spotted a good-looking Italian restaurant, Ciao Bella, next to the Lamb pub in Lamb's Conduit Street. Despite (or maybe because of) being inhabited by what appeared to be a couple of small groups of Mafiosi, it was excellent. Although we had just a quick, simple and late lunch the food was substantial and good. Definitely one to be added to the list of useful London eateries. Again, you can find Katy's write-up here.

  3. Doughnut. On Wednesday we spent a depressing chunk of the day in a consultation meeting about changes to our local hospitals. Depressing because of what my father would have called the "poverty of mind" of most of the people there; people who cannot (or will not) understand what is being proposed but oppose it anyway. Afterwards Noreen and I had to fortify ourselves with doughnuts and a cold drink. I'm not a huge fan of the doughnut, if only because they don't do much for the waistline, but this one went down a real treat after a long, and very hot, ordeal.

  4. Swifts. I like having swifts flying around and I always look forward to their arrival in late-April/early-May from Africa and wish they wouldn't fly away again so soon at the end of July. But amazingly we still have at least one swift still around; I've seen it on each of the last three evenings. This is unusually late (although not unheard of) and especially late for me to see a swift in London.

  5. Pub Meet. Yesterday I hosted the quarterly lunchtime Anthony Powell Society Pub Meet in London. I always enjoy what are informal chats between friends over a beer or two and pub lunch. We never know who will turn up and yesterday we had three people come along totally unexpectedly and enliven the conversations. These conversations cover almost anything but sooner or later always return to some Powellian theme or aspect of life. For a wonder yesterday I managed to get through over three hours in the pub without a drop of alcohol, or sugary drink — just to compensate for Wednesday's doughnut!

15 August 2012

Gallery : Emotion

This week over at Tara's Gallery we're being asked to come up with photographs showing emotion. That's not the easiest of challenges, nevertheless here are three I've culled from the archives.

Click the images for bigger views on Flickr
Texting Blonde Ladette 2
This young lady, taken at London Zoo in June 2008, spent quite a long time concentrating hard on the text messages on her phone. Watching the people at the Zoo was as good as seeing the animals!

Concentration
Here are my former colleagues Steve and Peter concentrating hard on something on Peter's laptop. Taken in the office way back in February 2008.

Sexual Anticipation
This young lady was clearly on her way for a lunchtime liaison with her lover on the slopes below Sacré Cœur in Paris (way back in June 2007). Lip smacking is a reflex reaction in response to sexual interest and anticipation.

14 August 2012

Time for Some Cartoons ...

... what have amused me recently.







13 August 2012

Quotes ...

Another in our occasional series of quotes encountered recently which interested or amused us ...

Northland College Principal John Tapene has offered the following words from a judge who regularly deals with youth:
'Always we hear the cry from teenagers "What can we do, where can we go?"
'My answer is this: Go home, mow the lawn, wash the windows, learn to cook, build a raft, get a job, visit the sick, study your lessons, and after you've finished, read a book. Your town does not owe you recreational facilities and your parents do not owe you fun.
'The world does not owe you a living, you owe the world something. You owe it your time, energy and talent so that no one will be at war, in sickness and lonely again. In other words, grow up, stop being a cry baby, get out of your dream world and develop a backbone not a wishbone. Start behaving like a responsible person. You are important, you are needed. It's too late to sit around and wait for somebody to do something someday. Someday is now and that somebody is you!'

[Source unknown]

To pretend, I actually do the thing: I have therefore only pretended to pretend.
[Jacques Derrida]

Faith is believing something you know ain't true.
[Mark Twain]

It is well enough that people of the nation do not understand our banking and monetary system, for if they did, I believe there would be a revolution before tomorrow morning.
[Henry Ford]

Education is a progressive discovery of our own ignorance.
[Will Durant]

Programming today is a race between software engineers striving to build bigger and better idiot-proof programs, and the Universe trying to produce bigger and better idiots. So far, the Universe is winning.
[Rick Cook]

12 August 2012

Reasons to be Grateful: 39

Experiment, week 39. Well here we are again. Another week has gone round. Where did it go to? And so it's time to document the five things which have made me happy or for which I'm grateful this week.
  1. Ultra-Sound Scan. On Monday I had to go to Hammersmith Hospital for an ultra-sound scan, because I have a lump where I shouldn't have one (and where only 50% of us can have one). I went early in case I got stuck in all the extra traffic due to these wretched Olympic Games. I had a 10.40 appointment; I left home at 08.20 and was home again by 10.20 having stopped for a leisurely coffee after the scan. The scan was of course quick, simple and painless — and no it didn't bother me in the least. Even better I got the all clear. If everything the NHS did was as good and efficient as this we'd have nothing to bitch about.

  2. Retsina & Mousaka. On Wednesday, early in the evening, I had a meeting at West Ealing. As one of our favourite restaurants, Retisna & Mousaka, is close by, and so are our friends Sue & Ziggy, we took the opportunity of grabbing our them and their two boys for a social evening. I wouldn't normally do this mid-week but as it's the school holidays there's no harm the boys being a bit later to bed than usual. Needless to say there was plenty of very enjoyable food, drink and chat.

    Ely Cathedral West Front
    Click the image for larger views on Flickr

  3. Ely Cathedral. Fortunately we weren't too late home on Wednesday evening as we were up at crack of something on Thursday for a day trip around some of the Cambridgeshire villages where my g-g-grandmother and her ancestors originated. One of them is Soham, which is a nice, quiet, small country town a few miles south of Ely. So of course, as we had the time, we had to go into Ely and spend an hour or so in the cathedral. I think Ely is one of my favourite cathedrals. The octagonal lantern tower is just such an amazing structure, built entirely of wood. It is visible across the fens for miles around, the more so as the cathedral stands on a slight hill (once an island in the marshes). Overall the villages weren't amazing interesting, but the fenland is lovely and Ely is just a delight.

  4. Nutty-Seedy Bread. I've probably written about this before, but once or twice a week Noreen makes bread with seeds in. Usually a mix of pumpkin seed and pine nuts. So much nicer then plain, even if it is relatively expensive!

    Oak Bush Cricket
    Click the image for larger views on Flickr

  5. Oak Bush Cricket. Last evening I spotted an Oak Bush Cricket in the bathroom. We usually get the odd one in the house at this time of year. They're 2-3cm long, bright green with yellow legs. Yes they live mostly on oak trees and they fly quite, jump and walk quite smartly backwards as well as forwards. I didn't manage to photograph this one as it stayed out of range on the ceiling, but you can see from the photo above (which I took two years ago) that they are absolutely amazing tiny pieces of engineering. Stunning!

Anthony Powell's London Calendar 2013

The latest Anthony Powell Society publication is now available. All the photographs were specially taken by me.


Details on the AP News Weblog.

08 August 2012

Gallery : Sport

This week's theme for Tina's Gallery is Sport.

Surprisingly, given my interest in, and playing of, cricket, hockey and squash in my youth I don't have a lot of sporty photos. Well not having kids and having had to watch them play football/rugby means I haven't had that excuse.

So here are a couple from the archives, neither of which was take by me, but I'm in both.

University of York Cricket Club Tour, July 1971
Click the image for a larger view on Flickr


This is University of York Cricket Club Tour, July 1971. This group photo was taken at Sidney Sussex College sports ground, Cambridge. As I recall we played there, at the Ley's School, HMS Ganges (near Ipswich) and at Felixstowe. GOK what I was doing on the tour as I was the worst cricketer of the squad by a distance. I can't remember many of the names now (although they are all on the original), but I'm third from the right in the back row, with glasses and an urgent need of a haircut.

And this second one is a couple of years earlier in summer 1969.

Cheshunt Grammar School 1st XI 1969
Click the image for a larger view on Flickr


This is my school (Cheshunt Grammar School) 1st XI vs Cheshunt Cricket Club, at Cheshunt Cricket Club. I think this was taken by the photographer of the local paper and there is an original copy in my files. Thanks to several contacts I've now managed to put names to everyone whose face is visible. I'm the guy in the white cap looking at the ground. The man at the rear in front of the white trellis is Roger Clark who was our games master — and a damn fine cricketer too.

Even if I was a crap cricketer (I was never really more than club 3rd XI standard) they were happy days and I greatly enjoyed both playing and umpiring. I do miss that, but I don't miss the agro which came into club cricket in the 80s as a result of everyone having to play in some league or other — that's when I got out.

07 August 2012

Did You Miss ... ?

Another in our irregular collections of links to interesting or amusing items you may have missed.

It is still amazing how little we know about the natural world. With the advent of very miniaturised electronics and batteries scientists are now able to track bird migrations in detail. And there are surprises, like this cuckoo going the wrong way round Africa.


Meanwhile back on dry land in our rivers there's an increasing suggestion that bringing back beavers would reduce flooding. There are pilot releases already in place, and the beavers are doing well enough to breed regularly.


And talk of beavers reminds me of the recent story that some medieval underwear has been unearthed in an Austrian castle. There's a second, follow-up, report here. It'll be interesting to see if the dating evidence actually holds up.


But then the medieval male obviously needed the underwear to hold their padding as it seems erectile dysfunction was as common then as now.

Coming back to earth with another bump, this church in Fulham is in desperate need of funds to repair its 15th century clock tower — which featured i the film The Omen — and keep the bells ringing.

Which brings us nicely to a couple of London items ...

Mapping various aspects of London seems to be all the rage at the moment with the recent availability of Londoners' life expectancy plotted on the tube map and a map of the capital's most frequent surnames (use the slider to find the first to fifteenth most common names) by area. There are lots more interesting London maps at mappinglondon.co.uk


Finally, it seems that London could well soon get a new model of black cab. If the fuel efficiency and emissions figures hold up I'm guessing it'll pretty quickly displace the iconic TX4 taxicab.

06 August 2012

Quotes about Cats

Good quotes seem to be slow arriving at the moment. Maybe they're like London buses and there will the three along in 5 minutes time. Meanwhile I thought we'd have a few quotes about my favourite animal: the Cat.

Who can believe that there is no soul behind those luminous eyes.
Theophile Gautier

There are people who reshape the world by force or argument, but the cat just lies there, dozing, and the word quietly reshapes itself to suit his comfort and convenience.
Allen & Ivy Dodd



I have studied many philosophers and many cats. The wisdom of cats is infinitely superior.
Hippolyte Taine

I love cats because I enjoy my home; and little by little, they become its visible soul.
Jean Cocteau

No amount of time can erase the memory of a good cat, and no amount of masking tape
can ever totally remove his fur from your couch.

Leo Dworken

Cats' hearing apparatus is built to allow the human voice to easily go in one ear
and out the other.

Stephen Baker

Cats are mysterious kind of folk. There is more passing in their minds than we are aware of.
Sir Walter Scott

The cat is a dilettante in fur.
Theophile Gautier

05 August 2012

Reasons to be Grateful: 38

Experiment, week 38. So here we go, another week completed in the continuing experiment documenting five things which have made me happy or for which I'm grateful this week. We'll soon be two-thirds of the way through the experiment.

  1. Willem Van De Velde and ...
  2. The Wallace Collection this week produced the first two of selections. More on both here.

  3. Queen's Head and Artichoke, Albany Street, London NW1
  4. Queen's Head & Artichoke. After we'd been to the Wallace Collection, Noreen and I pottered off (in a taxi) to the Artichoke for lunch. We had a selection of their tapas: Prawn & Scallop Skewers, Whitebait, Chorizo and Lentils, Cannellini Bean Salad and Patatas Bravas. This is an excellent gastro pub in Albany Street, NW1, very close to Great Portland Street and Regent's Park tube stations. I can't believe I've not written about it before as we use it both for ourselves and for some Anthony Powell Society functions (it is close to Powell's former Chester Gate home). The menu is always interesting: a good selection of starters, main courses and puddings and on the other side a whole range of tapas; you can mix and match anyhow you like as long as you don't want standard pub food. The food, beer, wine and service are always good and friendly; the manager is a characterful Frenchman (certainly Francophone with a wonderful Inspector Clouseau accent). They are always willing to try to accommodate allergies: we have one friend who is vegetarian and allergic to dairy, and they were quite happy to quickly adapt a risotto for her. And it isn't expensive, especially for central London. The only downside is that if it's full the main bar can be a bit noisy, but if you're eating there is always the upstairs restaurant area. I have to thank our friend Jeff Manley for finding it on one of his transatlantic trips to London! Everyone we've taken there has liked it.

  5. Waitrose Chorizo Sausages. These were one of last week's finds as they were on offer. Eaten cold between bread for lunch. Mmmmm!

  6. Strawberry & Gooseberry Crumble. Friday's trip to the supermarket found lots of fresh strawberries and gooseberries leaping into our trolley. They were destined for a favourite crumble: gooseberry and strawberry — yes, it really does work! I cooked the fruit a bit first, with just a tablespoon of sugar and a small slug of apricot brandy. This was then topped with crumble and given a 10 minute burst in our combi oven. What an excellent way to start Sunday morning: a bowl of G&S Crumble** and Custard.
** G&S Crumble. An interesting addition to the Savoy Cabbage operas.

A Rich Seam

The "Feedback" column in the latest edition of New Scientist (dated 4 August) mines a rich seam of amusements.

First there is an item reporting some mathematical work in pointless topology, which is what most of us thought about higher mathematics anyway.

There is an item reporting a conference call for papers as specifying All papers and presentations must be incomprehensible English, as would be expected at a technical conference.

And there's a product description for a solar light which is ideal for areas where conversational electrical supply is not available.

This is followed by an amusing reference to the Large Hadron Kaleidoscope.



Finally I have to give you this piece in full as a masterpiece of lateral thinking:

Talk about units in Feedback reminds Tony Emerson of a story from "the 1950s or 60s" about "a scientist working in one of the atomic establishments". This person got fed up with directives to use different systems of units — those based on the centimetre, gram and second; those semi-officially based on the metre, kilogram and second; and the very official units of the International Standards Organization. So they reported pressures in stones per acre.

The stone is a traditional English measure of the weight of people or grain — 14 pounds or 6.35 kg — and an acre, a unit of area, is 4047 square metres. As Tony says, stones per acre would be "the original agricultural unit" of crop yield. Its application to atomic research doesn't bear thinking about.


Inspired!

04 August 2012

Quote : Harlots

Every harlot was a virgin once.

[William Blake, Innocence]

Word : Blackamoor

Time for another interesting and fun word, so I give you:

Blackamoor

1. A black-skinned African, an Ethiopian, a Negro; any very dark-skinned person.

and thus by association ...

2. A devil.
3. Black-skinned, quite black.

The OED gives the earliest written citation as 1547. The word was used for several centuries without the deprecatory or pejorative connotations we may infer given that it often referred to slaves or servants; it merely served as being descriptive. While, like piccaninny, the word itself has fallen out of use, largely due to it's perceived pejorative inferences, one can still find a significant number of public houses in the UK with the similarly inspired appellation The Black Boy(s).

03 August 2012

Reforming the NHS

Now that's better! These are the sort of initiatives that the NHS needs to become efficient and save money.

I maintain that the NHS already has shed-loads of money to do everything it needs to, and which we, the patients, need it to. But it also has shed-loads of waste — and in that I include a superfluity of managers and bean-counters — plus far too much political interference.

Initiatives like those in the linked article are sorely needed, and are in my opinion (one part of) the way forward. But they should not have to be coming from above or from the National Audit Office. They should be coming from the "workers" (for want of a better word to cover clinicians, nurses, admin staff, cleaners, etc.) at the grass-roots level, who need to be empowered to do things; to make decisions; and make changes like this without fear.



However empowerment like this needs some radical paradigm shifts, and it is a two way process. The managers have to allow the workers to be empowered; inded the managers have to encourage it by trusting people! Equally the workers need to embrace that empowerment and make it work while also trusting the management. And the barriers around all the vested interests and private hegemonies (in which I include the trade unions) have to be broken down.

There also has to be a paradigm shift in attitudes. I see too many NHS staff (mostly on the admin side) who appear not to give a toss about either their jobs or the people they serve: they are inefficient, unhelpful, rude and lackadaisical; too many appear, frankly, not to be up to the job but there because the Job Centre has told them to be. Others are interested in doing the bare minimum to survive the week and draw their pay, and bugger anyone else.

Certainly not all NHS staff are like this — it would be hugely unfair of me to suggest they are. Very many are excellent, dedicated and caring, but so often hamstrung by the rest.

These poor attitudes have to change or they will sink the organisation even further. And the waste is something we now cannot afford, if we ever could. This change can be done; I've seen it done in a multi-national company where the company's very survival was on the line; we changed or we got out. It wasn't easy, or comfortable, and it will take a bit of time. But a determined CEO with a vision and some balls can do it.

It has to start at the top with a vision clearly explained and ruthlessly chased down. But it has to be embraced by everyone from the top to the bottom. And those who don't want (or can't) change have to be moved aside and if necessary replaced by people who can and will change: either by retraining those whose jobs are no longer needed or by some very selective hiring. (This is not an exercise in job/people cutting unless absolutely necessary.)

It will also need some very long, hard and critical looks at expenditure, waste and job requirements. Everyone has to take responsibility for reducing waste and being flexible; "we've always done it that way" is no good any more. Management have to set clear, workable, cross-organisation policies and enforce them.

There will have to be properly specified and managed IT efficiency projects. They will be big projects, needing a range of top class IT industry professionals who have to be listened to and trusted. They have to be properly funded, and the money will have to be released by the efficiency savings they generate along the way.

Do all this and it can be made to work. It will take time: probably at least 5 years and maybe 10. But you will end up with an efficient and effective organisation which fulfils all it needs to, at a reduced cost.

Yes, it will be uncomfortable and difficult for many, if not most. I know; I've been through it; I didn't think I could change, but I did. So yes, it does work and people will change. If you want proof, ask anyone who worked for IBM throughout the 1990s. Ask Lou Gerstner, the CEO who made it happen and saved the IBM Corporation from self-immolation.

Yes, that means the NHS needs a top flight CEO. One with a vision and a lot of balls. One who will not be bullied or cowed by the politicians, the unions or the vested interests within. One who will run the organisation as a company; a company where every employee is a shareholder whose job and whose end-of-year dividend is on the line. And a company where every patient is treated as a valued customer who can (and will) take their business elsewhere.

Can it happen? Yes, it can, but it will need something else too: politicians with the vision to allow it to happen and who can invest in some long-term thinking, rather than short-term expediency. But isn't that what we pay our politicians for?