Sunday, 25 December 2011

Staying home for Christmas

The word "home" has two meanings around this time of year.  To illustrate this, consider the two following conversations:

Person A: "We're going away for Christmas, what are you up to?"
Person B: "Nice.  We're staying at home this year"

Person A: "Are you going home for Christmas this year?"
Person B: "Yes, travelling up Christmas Eve and back the week after"

For me - "home" always has the first meaning.  Home for me is the place I live, not the place I used to live.  I guess maybe it's a sign of age that the place where I grew up no longer is no longer synonymous with "home" in my mind.

Forgive me if I seem rather grumpy, but Christmas seems to do that to me.  I don't know why, but as December progresses, I feel my grumpiness levels creeping up.  I very nearly had strong words with a woman who stepped in front of me when I was buying houmous in Waitrose a couple of days ago (*)

The frantic pace of the shopping is in stark contrast to the laid back attitude of Christmas Day drivers.  Driving through East London this morning was like being stuck in the slowest queue at the post office.  Lots of those boxy-shaped Citroen thingies pootling down the road at 20mph with a queue of frustrated normal drivers behind getting slowly worked into a frenzy to the soundtrack of Slade and The Pogues on Radio 2.

I don't really do the "Christmas" thing.  I observe the custom of sending cards, but we've negotiated a "no presents" deal with most people, and my lack of belief in God rules out any religious observance at this time of year.  So for me, Christmas is just a few extra days off work, and a chance to get some DIY done around the flat.

So that's Christmas for me this year - a mixture of apathy and mild frustration.  But never mind, New Year is coming, and that's bound to cheer me up.

(*) Although this sounds like a "Middle Class Nightmare" cliche - this is absolutely true!

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Free thinking

Although it may not entirely seem like it, when I write a blog post I usually have a good idea of where it's going before I start to write it.   Usually I've seen something, or read something, and it's made me go "oooh" (maybe even out loud) and so I write some words.  Not tonight.

It's been an age since I last wrote in here, and so I've been thinking for a few days that I should write something but I just couldn't think of anything worth writing about.  I could think of a few small things, but no common thread to link them other than "things which I've thought in the past few days" and that's tenuous at best.

But the way I see, a rambling and rather haphazard blog entry is better than no blog entry at all and so I'm going to start writing, and let's see where this goes.  Your guess is as good as mine...

I was coming home on the tube last night after a run and dinner with a couple of friends.  It wasn't the world's most pleasant tube journey - mostly thanks to the guy opposite me who was holding his head in his hands whilst drunkenly swaying and also doing other things which drunken people do which I shalln't mention this early on in case it puts you off reading further.  It's not what you need when you're coming home late at night full of spaghetti.

But that wasn't the only weird thing on the journey.  At Westminster, there was a huge BA advert.  The thrust of the advert was that BA have trained staff on every flight should a baby be born during the flight.  Like all advertising by a large company, there will have been some research behind this to indicate that making this point was going to target somebody and get BA more business.  But who?  Are there gaggles of third trimester women who are just begging for an airline to be able to safely carry them in case the excitement of a hot towel send them into labour?  Or is a general statement that BA are a caring airline?  Is the appeal to the other passengers who want reassurance that should a woman next to them go into labour on the flight, they won't suddenly be expected to hold hot towels and catch the baby?

On another tube journey home - the night before, in fact - two of us rushed into the carriage and aimed for a bank of three seats.  Only when we got there did we see that the middle seat had a half-eaten McDonalds meal on it.  So we took the two outside seats and merrily played with our phones all the way home.  However, everybody that got on the train  bolted for the middle seat, seeing it free, then saw the litter and went and sulkily stood by the doors.  As they did so, they quite often cast glances at one or both of us, as if we were the ones who'd scattered half of a Happy Meal across the seat.  I wish I had a sign which said "no, I didn't make that mess"

The reason we were on the train home was because we'd been up to Wembley Arena to see Roxette.  Yes they are still around.  And yes they are still cool.

Because of a slight cock-up by yours truly, we had to meet outside the venue rather than meeting in our seats as we'd planned.  We had planned to meet inside because not only was it Roxette night, it was also the night of an England vs. Sweden football match at the Stadium next door.  Roxette are Swedish, btw - that will be useful in a second.

So there was I, standing outside Wembley Arena watching the crowd file past.  I invented a game.  It was called "Roxette or football". And it went like this.  For every Swedish person I saw approaching - there were lots of them - I had to guess whether they looked like they were going to Roxette or the football.  Usually those with scarves were going to the football and those with flags were going to the concert.  Usually the women were going to the concert and the groups of blokes were going to the football.  But not exclusively.  It kept me entertained for ten minutes or so in defiance of the autumn chills, at least.

Winter is really creeping up this year.  No sudden frosts to announce its arrival, but an advent of chilly nights and cold breezes are beginning to herald the majestic arrival of our hibernal captor for the next six months.  It seems like only yesterday that I was wearing sunglasses to run of a Sunday morning, and now I have to endure the pain of a cold first few miles whilst my body begins to warm up against the cold.  Brrr.

Autumn, of course, also brings the wearing of poppies.  I don't wear a poppy.  Not through any deep political stance, but simply because I never wear emblems or symbols to show support of causes.  I don't wear a red ribbon for world AIDS day, I don't wear a poppy and I don't wear a red nose for comic relief.  It doesn't mean that I don't support any of those causes, but if I decide to make a donation to the cause, I don't tend to take a badge or emblem and wear it in return.  Around November 11th, I had quite a few strangers frowning at my bare lapel.  I guess they thought I was either a pacifist (I'm not) and radical anti-war demonstrator (I'm not) or a foreigner (not that either).  The looks I had from some people, you would've thought I was wearing a swastika on my lapel! (I wasn't)

Of course, strangers have so long to stare at my lapels thanks to the vagueries of the lifts at work.  There are five lifts, of which three serve the floor I work on.  You'd think that would be sufficient, but it can sometimes take over ten minutes to make the journey up to the fifteenth floor.  If it weren't for the fact that I'm in constant pain, I'd walk up the stairs and I wear it'd be quicker.

The reason I'm in constant pain, btw, is nothing medial. It's simply that I'm doing rather a lot of exercise at the moment.  I'm getting fitter (and leaner, too!) which is good, of course.  But I never realised that being fit meant being in constant pain.  Every day I suffer the stiff muscles and aches in whatever bit of me I was punishing two days earlier.  Mondays are usually my day off from exercise, leading to Wednesday being my pain-free day.  Wednesdays are the days when I go for a fast-ish run.  Of course, the lack of aches and pain make me think "this is wonderful, I can run SO fast" and so I run fast.  And then that hits me of a Friday.  just in time for my end-of-week session with the PT at the gym.  Nice.

The other artefact of all this sport is that the increased playing of badminton has given me a markedly larger right forearm than left forearm.  With that thought ringing in your ears, and with no further comment, I shall stop waffling now.  Goodnight.

Sunday, 25 September 2011

A garden in September

A while ago, I wrote a post about how we'd created a roof garden here in Wapping, London.  That was almost a year ago now, and so I thought it time to write a little more about what's been happening in the garden this year and what I've been up to in the garden over the past few weeks.

Generally, this time of year is quite dull in the garden.  The tasks at hand are dead-heading and tidying and all the showy summer blooms are coming to an end.  We still have a few roses and fuschias putting in a last flash of colour, but the whole thing is starting to fade to green as autumn creeps on.

A few things, such as the mixed tub of cornus and abelia above, as coming into their own at this time of year though.  The last few abelia flowers go wonderfully against the mixed foliage.  As autumn fades, the cornus leaves will fall, leaving the bright red stems which will see through the winter until growth starts again in the spring.

Fuschias haven't proved a huge success for us over the years.  We planted this one a few  years ago, and prompted by its success we decided to stock out an entire border with various fuschias.  The first year was a wonderful riot of colour, but every year we have lost a few more plants and this year, it's rather disappointing.  They are in a sheltered spot, and so shouldn't suffer from winter winds too badly, but I guess we just struck lucky with this one, which is continuing to grow and flower well in quite an open spot.

One success story this year has been our pampas grasses.  For five years, we've had one in each garden and despite lots and lots of healthy leaves, they refused to put up any fluffy plumes.  
Finally, this year, both varieties sprung into action and we have plumes galore.   As you can see, the two different varieties have very different shaped plumes.  The one on the left is has upright conical plumes, whilst the one on the right has feather-duster-like plumes of dark beige.

Another plant which has come to life after a few disappointing years is our grapevine.  This started out in a tiny pot on our balcony in the previous flat, and when we moved, we gave it a little more space.  After a few years of half-hearted attempts at fruit, we have at least a dozen decent-sized bunches this year.  Late last year, we added a second, purple-leaved, grapevine to the garden.  It's not established enough to be fruiting yet, but given a few years, it should hopefully catch up with this one.

This year,  we planted runner beans for the second year in a row.  I took beans from last year's plants and pushed them into the ground around the garden.  As well as growing up formal beanpoles we grew them up trees, and as you can see on the right, up some buddleia.  Formalists would scream at the sight of it, but I actually like the red and white flowers from the beans scattered around the garden.  A few of the beans have already dried to a brown-y colour on the plants and I've collected the hard beans to keep in a paper bag over the winter and do the same again next year.

We had a few olives this year.  In the same way we won't be opening a vineyard, we won't be selling our own olive oil an time soon, but it's still nice to see the tree producing a little bit of fruit.  We got the olive tree from Columbia Road market when we first moved into the flat and it's grown from something of a sapling into a proper tree.  It'll be a few more years before it's woody and gnarled, but it seems to be doing quite well up on the roof here...

 Now is the time of year when some plants start to put on the buds which will give the show next year.  Garrya Elliptica (silk tassel plant) has got a covering of proto-tassels this year.  Each one of these inch-long buds will turn into a foot-long tassel of seed heads next spring.  This plant has proved quite slow-growing but worth the wait.

Leycesteria is a rather forgotten plant.  Despite being popularised in England in Victorian times, it's only in the last year or two it's come back into fashion.  As you can see on the right, at this time of year, you get wonderful dark crimson berries.  We've planted a small group of these plants overhanging one side of the pond and they have so far done very well.  They grow in a similar manner to buddleia, with new growth from the ground every spring if pruned hard.

I've always have a soft spot for Nandina Domestica (left).  We had three growing in small tubs for a few years, but as they grew pot-bound we transferred them into a long trough with a few ground-cover plants between.  Originally we were providing them with winter protection from frost, but this loses the flowers and berries from view over winter when they are at their most spectacular.  Last year we left them uncovered as an experiment and so far, so good.  They are flowering pretty well this year, which bodes well for a profusion of red berries around Christmas time.

 The largest and bravest job I've tackled this year in the garden has been to sort out the planting in the pond.  As you can see on the left, at the start of the year there was a clump of irises growing right in the middle, with little room for fish or plants to thrive.  Under the water was an even worse story, with much of the volume of the pond taken up as a mass of roots

One day, when I was feeling particularly brave, I took all of the irises out of the pond and divided the clumps.  Keeping just very healthy tubers I created new clumps.  Those plastic baskets you buy for ponds are very expensive, so instead I bought some black washing-up bowls and made holes in them.  I secured the tubers into the bowls with soft wire and sank them to the sides of the pond.  Not only has this created some space in the middle for the fish, but we've also added a bit more planting in the middle to give a nicer overall look to the pond.

It's not only the new plants which have added to the pond.  We have had this water lily for a few years, but previously it's done no more than throw up a tiny leaf every other year. But as soon as it was given a little more space in clear water, it has thrown up lots of leaves (as you can see above) and also produce its first ever flower.

 But maybe the greatest - and most unlikely - success story of our garden this year has been a very prolific agapanthus which has produced more seedlings than we know what to do with.  Every year, our agapanthus put on a great display.  Once the huge flowers have faded, you are left with seedheads like the ones to the right .  The largest agapanthus we have is one called "Enigma" which produces very large blue and white flowers.

Last year, we left the seed head over winter as an experiment.  It was around eight inches across and hanging above a patch of stony gravel.  In spring we removed the seedhead and thought nothing of it, but then as the year went on, we noticed lots of little seedlings appearing.  Very small at first, we pulled them up and they had very impressive root systems.

Each seedling started off a couple of inches across like the one shown to the left, but within the year, maybe of them have grown to have leaves eight inches long.  We have purchased a few unusual varieties to punctuate the border, but we have largely stocked a new agapanthus border purely with seedlings from the one plant.  The seedlings to the left are still growing in September 2011, and they probably won't be the last.

We have literally run out of space for these, and still have around 20 of various sizes potted up ready for a good home.  So this is a serious request - if you'd like a seedling then please drop me an email and you're more than welcome to come and take some!

So, September may be a dull time for gardening, but the garden itself still has plenty to offer, even if the summer colour is fading a bit...

Friday, 2 September 2011


This week, we've been hanging around in London. I believe the modern word for it is a "Staycation". The idea is that you treat your home town like a holiday destination - get up at a sensible time in the morning, spend a full day wandering around museums and tourist attractions and then head home in the evening.

Of course, London is the ideal place to do this - there are more museums than you could visit in a month, let alone a few days.

So, we wrote out a list of all the museums we'd never been to and thought looked interesting and groupd them together into similar areas of town so we could get around a group in a day. By Wednesday (when we finished the staycation and headed out of town for a couple of days) I did feel a little museum'd out; I had grown tired of looking at things in glass cases with little display labels - but it was good tired. The kind of tired you feel after a long but satisfying day - the kind of full you feel after a delicious but huge meal.

I'd never really thought about museums before in the abstract sense - I always concentrated on the artefacts rather than the idea of a museum itself. Over this past week, I've been to more museums in a short space of time than I ever have before, and it's led me to realise what I like and don't like in a museum.

Curating an exhibition is a skill. Exactly the same group of artefacts can be arranged into something magical or something incredibly dull. The little white label by an object can conjure up the object in use with a few carefully chosen sentences, or a paragraph of waffle can sap away all interest in even the most exciting of artefacts.

For me, a museum is about telling a story. It's about joining the dots to lead you on a journey from things you know into things you didn't know. It's about putting the items in the collection into context and using them to tell a story and paint a picture and then allowing that picture to grow in the mind of the visitor.

The Imperial War Museum is a masterclass in how to curate exhibitions. Every gallery tells a story and gives you the facts to form pictures in your mind. Even in the Holocaust gallery, the story is told factually and without providing the emotional commentary which any lesser museum may have done. The gallery was so much more interesting - and powerful - because of this.

This contrasts with the slavery exhibits at the Museum of Docklands which labours the emotional point throughout. I don't need a museum label to tell me that a torture instrument for slaves is "horrific" and I don't need a picture of "happy black people" to make the point that salvery has been abolished and that's a good thing.

The rest of the Docklands Museum was pretty good though. I guess the local interest for me (there was even a picture of home in one of the displays!) made it all the more interesting, but even so, London's history as a port is something not really covered elsewhere.

Sometimes a museum can suffer from one or two standout pieces in the collection taking the attention away from everything else. Even the greatest of museums can suffer from this - witness the number of people who go to the Louvre only to stare blankly at the Mona Lisa for five minutes and then leave. The Courtauld collection at Somerset house has something of the same feel about it. There isn't anything of the renown of the Mona Lisa in the collection, but it's hard to escape the feeling that everyone is just heading for the Van Gogh at the end and rushing past the other works. Of course, you don't have to get caught up in that, but it can generate momentum which is hard to resist. A good curator can overcome that problem, juxtaposition of famous works in amongst less-famous but similar and comparable works can actually enhance the enjoyment of the famous piece - maybe putting it next to contemporaneous works could make you realise how the quality of the work has made that piece as famous as it is, for instance.

Of course, sometimes it's unavoidable. Just like there are some albums out there with 11 dull tracks and one belter. Sometimes you just have to skip past the bad tracks and find yourself only ever listening to the same one track.

The Hunterian museum doesn't really suffer from the "standout pieces" problem. In a relatively small space, the layout is fantastic. Hundreds and hundreds of superficially similar glass jars line the shelves, and make the place fascinating and inviting to anyone with a scientific mind. The layout is such that even after you've already looked at several hundred little glass jars, you are drawn to look at the next one. It's not for the squeamish, but it again sticks to the emotionally factual presentation which pricks ones interest rather than alienates by making the subject matter somehow taboo. Sure, a preserved foetus isn't a pleasant object in its own right - but without such objects, medical science wouldn't be where it is today.

But despite my quibbles with some museums (and they are quibbles, we didn't visit a single bad museum this week) I realised that I love museums. I love learning new things, and revisiting what I already know about other things. I love to have my knowledge challenged and even visiting a museum exhibition on a subject I know well can be fascinating as it fills some of the gaps in my knowledge and helps me to draw lines between things I didn't previously know were connected.

Many museums in the UK are free these days. That is, they are free to enter - they are far from free to run. So I would urge you to do as I do. If you've learned something, or enjoyed the collection then make a generous donation on the way out. It's a small price to pay to keep these great places alive and open.

Friday, 26 August 2011

A week off. And I mean REALLY off

I am off work next week. In fact, slightly more than that. I am officially unemployed.

Well, given I'm being strict in what I say, I should say - I am officially under contract with my old employer until next Wednesday but have a couple of days holiday booked. Then the contract with my new employer kicks in a week on Monday.

A week off between two jobs is the ultimate in relaxation. With the old job behind you, there's no stress about what will be waiting in the inbox when you return. With the new job not yet started, there's only the excitement of a new job and no stress yet.

Last time I tried this, a year-and-a-bit ago, fate intervened and my Dad died at the start of the week and I spent the week organising his funeral (and other paperwork) then made a dash to London at the end of the week and drove back to London just 36 hours before starting work in the new job.

But this next week I intend to relax completely. Of course there are people and places I'm going to miss from the old place. And there are questions and a sense of excitement about starting at the new place. But for now, I'm going to forget about all of that.

So this next week I'm going to unwind, relax and enjoy myself. Expect lots of care-free tweets for the next week or so...

Saturday, 20 August 2011

Bats in the cemetery

This evening we went up to Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park for one of their bat walks.

The park itself was, until 1966, one of London's big cemeteries to rival Highgate and Brompton. But with no burials since the mid sixties, and years of greenery growing over the gravestones, the park is now the archetypal cemetery typical of any 80s goth music video.

I must admit, until today, I didn't even really know the park existed - let alone just how interesting it is.

This evening, after reading about it on the park's Facebook page we decided to go along for one of the organised bat walks.

I have to say, it has been one of the most fun evenings I've spent in London. The cemetery takes on quite a spooky feeling after dark - if I believed in mad things like ghosts, then it'd probably be a fairly scary place to be. As it is, it feels like walking through the set of a horror B-movie. And that's without the bats.

After a short talk from Ken (the ever-enthusiastic bat-lover) and getting to find out lots of facts about bats, it was off into the cemetery as night fell to point our bat detectors at the trees and listen for the wet slapping noise which means there's a bat.

Bats use echolocation at frequencies way above what we can hear, so Ken handed out lots of bat detectors for us to point around the place. A bat detector is a little device which reproduces sounds at a much lower frequency. The echolocation of bats sounds like someone clapping their hands quickly with wet hands. Really.

We hadn't even left the clearing by the visitor centre before our bat detectors started slapping. Then a characterist black shadow flew past.

We headed into the cemetery and although the place wasn't teeming with bats, everyone got to see at least one bat - and with a group of fun, chatty people - the atmosphere was fun and convivial - and occasionally interrupted by the slapping noise from a detector. I got a great view of a pipistrelle swooping across a clearing at the back of the cemetery.

So - I'd highly recommend that if you're the kind of person who thinks snooping around an old cemetery in the dark looking for bats is fun (who doesn't?), then I highly recommend getting yourself up to Tower Hamlets one summer weekend and spending an evening with Ken.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Homeward Bound

Over the past year and a bit, my job has taken me to and from Manchester on a regular basis. I've grown rather used to the sight of Euston station at 7am and standing around waiting for the shops and the lounge to open so I can grab a cup of coffee to rid me of my slumber before falling onto the train and shaking myself to life before I get to Stockport and need to give directions to the cab driver.

I've spent time in Manchester before. A previous job used to bring me to Birchwood, taking a taxi from Warrington Bank Quay, on many an occassion. This time, it's been a cab picking me up from Stockport and taking me over to Ashton Under Lyne. But it feels the same.

In both cases, I would repeatedly switch between staying at a hotel close to the office, and a hotel in the centre of town. I'd stay close to the office, and then be sitting in the hotel thinking to myself "this is boring" and so next time I'd get myself booked into a hotel in the centre of Manchester. A week or so later, I'd be sitting in that hotel in the centre of Manchester thinking to myself "I'm still just sitting in my hotel room, why on earth don't I stay closer to the office?". So next time I'd stay closer to the office again, and think "this is boring" - you get the drift...

Staying in a city centre on your own is, in some respects, more lonely than staying in a hotel just outside a city on your own. At least in the latter case you can blame your boring evening on the location rather than looking out the window at an exciting city centre of which you don't feel part.

The life of business travel sounds exotic. The places I've been with my career over the year sound exciting and conjure up images of wonderful sights and interesting foods. Beijing. Tokyo. Stockholm. Ronneby(!). But in reality, they are all pretty much the same when you just go from the airport to the hotel and back again with just a few hours in the office to distract you from the humdrum.

Of course, going back to these places as a tourist adds a whole new aspect, but when you're travelling on business, it's all the same no matter where you are in the world.

I'm not a natural traveller. I like places which feel homely - and the most homely place of all is home. I enjoy restful places where I can relax and feel comfortable, but there's still a part of me which feels even more relaxed when I'm back home. No matter how exciting the views, or how fantastic the company in a far-flung location, I can always feel the desire to go home tugging at me and pulling me back towards London.

London is home for me nowadays. It's not where I was born, and it may not be where I grow old and die, but for now it's certainly home. It's never made sense to say "going home" when I return to visit my childhood back on The Wirral, as that really doesn't feel like home anymore. Since my Dad died last year, the house where I grew up is no longer somewhere I can go, and so whilst there are places and people from my childhood, the last remaining reason for me to call it "home" has disappeared.

When my Dad was ill, I spent a lot of time up there, but still I felt the tug back to London. It was hard to leave him and come home, but home was the only place I could relax and take in what was happening. It meant a lot of time spent on the train to and from Euston, but at least I got to spend time at home.

For me, home is a special place. I can go there and shut the door and the world is outside. I love to see things, and I love to visit places. But most of all I love coming home. And fortunately, I'm about an hour away now and heading back down to Euston...

Monday, 15 August 2011

A step too far...

This morning, I was in the First Class Lounge at Euston station ("ooo, get me!" etc) and popped to the bathroom before my train was due to leave.

I opened the door, and the gents was dark. So, I thought, maybe it's one of those "motion detector" arrangements where the lights come on in response to somebody jiggling about in front of a little magic eye. So I gingerly stepped into the gents and flung my arms around trying to get the lights to come on. I didn't want to move so far away from the door that it would close behind me, as I wasn't sure I'd be able to find it again in the dark. Still nothing.

So I wandered around to the front desk, and asked if they could switch the lights on. I was told to walk in there, and the lights would magically come on. In fact, the guy from the front desk came around with me and walked boldly in. He had to walk in at least 10ft away from the door before the lights came on - did they really expect anyone visiting the loo would close the door behind them and walk 10ft into a blacked out room before the lights came on?

I'm generally not a fan of things which do something automatically. Taps which turn themselves on, urinals which flush themselves as soon as you walk away, lights which turn on when you enter the room, doors which open as you approach them. I understand the convenience argument and indeed the hygeine argument for some applications, but I intensely dislike the social akwardness which can arise when you presume something is automatic, but it does nothing as you approach.

If you are walking towards an automatic door, there's always that moment of doubt that it's not going to open and you'll end up walking face first into the glass. Worse still are the automatic escalators - rare in the UK but quite common in Sweden - which appear to be static steps but suddenly start moving as you step onto them. One can't stand still on the escalator though, as if they didn't start moving, you would be left standing on the top step of a static staircase - which would just be silly.

When approaching a set of automatic revolving doors, there is the question of speed. Obviously they take some time to get up to speed, but once you've stepped close enough to get them started, your are close enough to the doors that you are somewhat committed to stepping into them. As you step in, they revolve slowly, but even in the half revolution until you step out again, the speed can pick up significantly, meaning you have to speed up to keep in time.

But places where automatic doors would be useful, they never seem to be fitted. Train doors for instance. When faced with a door button with two hands full of luggage, it would be rather nice if the doors automatically opened if someone was standing by them when the train stops. Similarly, the doors between carriages on trains - when carrying a couple of cups of coffee from the shop, finding an elbow or nose spare to press the button with can be tricky. Though these doors are even worse; they don't even have movement detectors to stop them shutting, so if you happen to be standing halfway through in a queue to get off the train, they will continue to poke you in the side and spring open again rather than stay open until you've moved.

But the worst, for me anyway, is the idea that there are automatic things in the toilets. I am very British about all things lavatorial, and the idea that there are magic eyes watching me and making things happen when I move makes me feel somewhat self-conscious and as though I'm being watched. It's bad enough when it's only the taps, but toilets which flush themselves as soon as they know I'm walking away is just a step too far for me...

Monday, 1 August 2011

Why I'm not running the marathon

If you follow me on Twitter, then you’re probably familiar with my frequent tweets about running. I was never much of a runner until recently, but in the past year or so, it wouldn’t be much of an exaggeration to say that I’ve become addicted to running.

I aim to do a 20 mile+ run every Sunday, and try to squeeze in a couple of gentle 10km jogs during the week, too.

Almost every time I write something on Twitter after one of my long Sunday runs at least one person will ask if I’m training for a marathon – and if not, why I don’t consider doing one. The answer to the first question is a simple “no”; the answer to the second is a little more complex.

A few years ago, I did consider entering the London Marathon for charity. I told family and friends I was going to enter and then never did. At the time, I think a lack of self-belief that I could ever run that distance was a large factor – but looming equally large over my decision not to enter was the knowledge that people would be watching me run, texting me afterwards to ask how I did, and asking me what my time was. In short – I’d be setting myself up to be judged on how I did in the marathon, and that was enough for me to abandon the plan to run it.

These days, running the marathon distance would be possible. I regularly run 20 miles around the parks and towpaths of East London and occasionally stretch that to a 40km run if I’m feeling particularly energetic or if the mood takes me on a given day. I’d never say running that distance is easy and even though I’ve done it many times, running 20 miles is still a both a physical and mental challenge; that’s not to deny it gets easier then more I do it, though – I just don’t think it will ever be “easy”.

But still, even though I know I could do the distance, the thought of the London Marathon fills me with dread. So if it’s not the distance, what is it? Well the part which fills me with dread is the part which people who’ve run the race tell you will act as an encouragement – it’s the spectacle of the event and the crowds lining the route. Let me explain – or at least try to.

I’ve always had an uneasy relationship with sport, and a general distaste for anything which involves being watched by other people. I’m sure a psychologist would have plenty to say about incidents in my childhood which may precipitate such things, but let’s just take those as a given for now. Sport in general was always difficult for me. Never a coordinated child, I excelled at all things academic throughout school, but was never the sporty type. I still can’t kick a ball in a straight line or throw a tennis ball with anything other than wild inaccuracy.

Objectively, I’ve never been fat. I’ve carried a few extra pounds at various points in my life, but I’ve never gone above a 34 inch waist. But still, I’ve never been happy with my size and so a few years ago decided that exercise was the solution. My first choice of sport was badminton. I had played a few times socially, but decided to start taking it seriously and played regularly. It was great fun, but in the end I realised I was taking it too seriously and wasn’t really enjoying it anymore, and so my playing fizzled and I’ve not played for a few months now.

Around the same time I started running. Initially I was just running a very short 2km route from home, around Wapping and back home again. It was hard work, but eventually I got to running it without stopping and that felt like an achievement. I got up as far as running 10km around a different loop, and ran that distance regularly. Then one day I decided to try going a bit further until I ran around the loop three times for my first 30k run, earlier this year.

But running around the same loop three times is very boring, and so eventually I decided to try a new route. I walked the route first, as familiarity with the route was important to my self-confidence in running it. Eventually the regular Sunday morning run grew in length until it reached 20 miles – from Wapping up the Lee Valley Navigation and back with a little detour around Victoria Park on the way.
When I’m out running, I get myself into a little world of my own. I put on an mp3 player and turn the volume up loud enough for me to be lost in the music – but not so loud as to drown out the world around me. I focus just on the path ahead, and don’t look sideways as I’m running – quite literally. My route is chosen so that there are as few people around as possible. Most of the other people on the route are cyclists who appear and disappear quickly or other runners as absorbed in their own world as I.

Even if there are people idly sitting by the side of the canal watching everyone as they wander past, if I think they are watching me, I start to feel tense and lose my stride. My usual response is to speed up to be past them as quickly as possible. I know that they aren’t really watching me, but even the feeling that they may be is enough to make me self-conscious and speed past them.

So imagine that feeling multiplied by however many thousand people watch the London Marathon from the sidelines as the runners go past. Whereas many people would see this as an encouragement, to me it would just increase the sense of competition and weaken my confidence in finishing the race with a respectable time.

I could run a marathon if I had an invisibility suit. If nobody could see me do it and I couldn’t hear the crowd at the sidelines. I would wear blinkers and stare straight ahead. I would put on my mp3 player (yes, you are allowed to wear them during a marathon...) and ignore the crowd. I wouldn’t have my name on my shirt for people to shout, and would probably wear sunglasses so that people couldn’t see my eyes. I would aim for a time of between 4 and 4 and a half hours so as to be amongst many other runners who would surround me and hide me from the crowd. And most importantly, I wouldn’t tell anyone I was doing it – that way, nobody would expect to see me and nobody would be looking for me. I would just be another anonymous runner amongst the thousands slowly making my way around 26 miles in the April sunshine.

So there you have it. I’m not going to do a marathon. I’ll happily run the distance and I’m sure I’ll run 26 miles more than once this summer during my Sunday outings – but I’m not going to enter an organised marathon in the foreseeable future.

And when I do eventually enter one, I shalln’t be telling anyone about it before, during or afterwards.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

What a week to live in Wapping

It's not every day that you walk out of Waitrose to see a red Range Rover sweep past you and get back home, switch on the news and find out that an embattled Rupert Murdoch was in the car.

I'm no lover of other people's pain. And I'm no lovers of blood sports. But to watch the underdogs of the Guardian and the Indy slowly ripping the jugular out of News International like two enraged and tenacious pitbulls does put a smile on my face.

There is no doubt in my mind that Rebekah Brooks should resign because either she was party to illegal hacking or she should resign through incompetence if she didn't know what was going on. Either way, she certainly shouldn't still in be her job right now.

It would be too easy to sit back and celebrate the demise of the News Of The World. It's certainly true that a world without that horrid rag is a better world than one with it; but there are still other horrors lurking in the British press.

An easy way to see which papers have been involved in illegal hacking is to look at how they have covered it this week. The Guardian and the Indy are going in for the kill. They are so confident that there is nothing lurking in their closets to be discovered by the Met investigation that they have nothing to fear. It took a couple of days before the FT joined in on the act; showing some confidence that they haven't hacked the phones of any murdered schoolgirls.

But look at the coverage in the Daily Mail, The Express, The Daily Star. Even the Daily Mirror has only bring itself to dance on the grave of News International and has not condemned the hacking. It almost makes you wonder whether they are scared that if they shout too loudly, their closet door will creak open and then who knows what will fall out.

As I say, I don't take pleasure in other people's displeasure - but if the Murdochs and the horrible Brooks woman are going down then it would be a mighty shame if the despicable Paul Dacre wasn't also burnt on the same pyre...

Saturday, 2 July 2011

Why I don't like politics anymore

Over the past few years - and in the past year especially - politics has taken a turn into a direction which leaves me feeling cold.

It's got nothing to do with the particular policy, but it's to do with the quality of the debates and discussions which have been happening.

Whichever party had won the election last year, there would be difficult decisions to make and steering the economy back into growth is not an easy thing to do. So now, more than ever, we could do with some clarify of explanation behind the decisions being made, and more importantly to have the alternative options presented in the form of a reasonable argument rather than partisan ranting.

Take the AV referendum for instance. Both sides of the discussion resorted to rhetoric and soundbites to make their case, rather than presenting a logical argument about why they did (or didn't) believe AV to be a fairer system than first past the post. I would much rather hear an eloquent speech from someone with whom I hearily disagree than a rant from anyone - whether I agree with them or not.

We were told to vote "no to AV" because "The Lib Dems want AV, and we don't like them" or to vote "Yes to AV" to "annoy the Tories". Well no. I'm afraid I won't vote for or against something simply because of who the result will upset - I will vote yes or no for something based on whether I think it's the right thing to do, or not.

Even worse has been the quality of the debate surrounding the cuts being introduced by the government. At the moment, the only opposition to the cuts seems to be vocalised by saying "we don't like cuts". There are very few (thankfully some) voices in the crowd talking about the alternative to the cuts. Very few people talk about how savings could be made elsewhere, or engage in the discussion about how quickly the deficit should be paid back and whether the cuts could be introduced more slowly. Instead, it's finger-pointing and ranting about job losses. The people making incoherent cases are actually doing more to harm the cause than help it.

There are plenty of meaty, interesting and (most crucially) important debates which need to be had at the moment. There should be a sensible and open debate about the strategy to deal with the budget deficit. There should be a rational discussion about whether public sector pension reform is necessary, and if so, how it should be fairly introduced. Instead we have politicians, journalists and other commentators shouting at each other like children in the playground.

The shame is that most - if not all - of the people doing the shouting are actually quite intelligent and would be perfectly capable of putting together a structured and eloquent explanation of why they are supporting or opposing something. But instead, the only way they can secure votes is to come up with childish insults and petty point-scoring soundbites which fit into the space of a tabloid headline.

Of course, the other place where this petty approach to discussion proliferates is on Twitter. I tried a few times to engage in sensible discussion on there, but people who really should know better are all too often tempted to slip into point-scoring and bluntly refusing to engage in what I would describe as an adult conversation.

And that's why - a month or two ago - I un-followed everyone political on Twitter. I used to follow MPs, party members and councillors. I used to follow people of all political parties, whether or not I agree with what they have to say. But eventually it all got too much for me. It felt like I was listening to children in the playground rather than sensible adults.

Politics should be interesting. Democracy is an interesting and deep philosophical concept. But the problem with politics is that it's packed full of politicians fighting for votes rather than leaders fighting for what's right. And that really is a shame.

Thursday, 30 June 2011

Childhood Memories Revisited

I remember, as a child, walking up the steps of the Laxey Wheel and thinking "that is a big waterwheel". That was around 25 years ago and just this week I was back at the Laxey Wheel for the first time since. No less fascinating this time around; the sense of childlike wonder at the size of the wheel still intact, but now joined by a sense of the beauty of the 100m long rod, moved by the wheel which in turn moves a rocker, which in turn lifts a rod inside a shaft up and down which was used to pump water out of the mine.

We were due to visit the Isle of Man a year ago exactly, but circumstances conspired to mean that holiday was cancelled at the last minute. So this year, to allow some time to reflect on last year and to relax, we did the same holiday we had planned. It wasn't quite the same holiday - last year we had planned to come over by plane, and stay in Central Douglas with a hire car. This time, we drove from London up to Liverpool (via a few family visits) and took the car ferry across, staying outside Douglas at a hotel with a car park.

The Isle of Man has changed. Even with only my childhood memories to rely on, the place is quieter. There are fewer tourists and there is no bustle of a seaside resort around Douglas which I remember from when I was a kid. With the advent of a financial services industry attracted by zero rate corporation tax and high-earners attracted by the low income tax, it's become a services-led economy.

That said, there's still a few tourists in the Isle Of Man. It's wearing the decline in the tourist trade well - there's no sense of self-pity and whlst nowhere is bustling, there are still a few cars in the car park at every tourist site, so you never feel as though you're on your own.

In my previous visits, I'd always visited with family who didn't drive, and so we were limited by what public transport could offer to/from Douglas on a day-trip. So this trip was the first time I'd ventured to places only accessible by car. When I say "accessible by car" I mean that in its loosest sense; I'm glad we brought the 4x4 with us.

I had expected the scenery to be stunning, and I wasn't disappointed. But I was only expecting the mountain scenery; I wasn't so much expecting the coastline to be so interesting. How can a coastline be interesting, you may say. Thanks to the help of a friend who lives on the Isle of Man, we occassionally headed past the end of the made road and along a bumpy track to a little-known carpark with a geological wonder sat at the end of it.

Along the sealine there was a rocky outcrop made of limestone. Nothing unusual in that. Except this was folded. Across the beach you could easily see how the alternating strata of limestone and mudstone had folded and buckled.

In amongst the grey limestone was a lot of black basalt. Forced up through fissures in the limestone many years ago it protruded from the cracks in the limestone like geological Polyfilla bulging at the surface.

And that's without mentioning the limestone cobbles along the beach filled with fossils...

At Niarbyl, a white line down the cliff face marks the last visible remnant of an Ocean. The Isle of Man is (along with the rest of the British Isles) formed as two tectonic plates push together. The southern half of the Isle of Man, England and Wales used to lie across the Iapetus Ocean from Scotland and the nothern half of the Isle of Man. As the plates moved together, the ocean shrank and at Niarbyl is the only place where the boundary between the two plates is visible above the surface.

The climb up Snaefell is worth it for the view. We went up twice in a day - once by tram when it was literally freezing and enveloped by cloud then walked up from the carpark in the evening when the cloud was thinner and the view was stunningly beautiful.

When arriving into Douglas, there is a strange "toy town" look as you approach the harbour. The appearance is that of a glimpse into the future of Portmeirion. Portmeirion is the village which grew up and became the town of Douglas. Of course, behind the Prom there's an M&S and even a Tesco now - progress can only be halted so far.

The population of the Isle of Man is around 80,000 people. To put that in perspective - you could fit all of them into a large football stadium. You don't need to look at the government figures to see the demographic split either - just a few days looking around the Island will do that for you. There is nobody in their twenties. There are kids, teenagers and families with kids - but all of the young, single adults have taken the boat and haven't come back (yet). It's no real surprise. With the lack of a full university on the island, the only chance for a tertiary education lies a boat-ride away, and few seem to return home straight after university - the bungee cord appears to snap them back either when they are ready to have kids or to retire.

But what a place to retire to. It's impossible to be stressed, or rush when on holiday in the Isle of Man, and that feeling would be a great one to have when retired. I'm sure that when you have an office job in the Isle of Man, the stress is the same as an office job anywhere else, but if you didn't have the daily grind, nothing would be more relaxing that a ten minute drive into the mountains and a breath of fresh air and views across the Irish Sea to England in one direction and Ireland in the other.

Having said that - apparently there is one thing to get stressed over on the Isle of Man. Word of warning - if you a presenter of a popular motoring show on the BBC and have a home in the Isle of Man - don't block off a popular footpath or you'll find that the locals can get very stressed indeed...

Monday, 27 June 2011

It's not difficult!

Sometimes in life, you see people struggling with things which are easy. I don't mean that you should judge someone harshly for failing to grasp the quickest way to solve a differential equation or not being able to name a Mozart symphony from the first few notes - I mean things which are really not difficult and which form part of every day life.

For instance, there are times in our lives when we are faced with finding a particular seat. On a plane, in the theatre or even on a boat (which is where I am as I write this, as it happens). Usually, you're faced with a ticket which may "23 A" or "Row X, seat 76" on it. If it's really complicated then maybe it will say "STALLS ROW A SEAT 2". But in any of these cases, it's not difficult to find your seat.

Though I often wonder, when sitting in the theatre waiting for the show to start or sitting in my seat on a plane waiting for others to board, whether I have some super-human ability which is rare and which all of the other people trying to find their seats somehow lack. You see people wandering up and down in the aisle of the theatre, looking at their ticket, looking at the seats and looking back at their ticket again. They see the words "Row A" and are bemused by this most mystic and unfamiliar rune. What could it possibly mean? They seem to have a puzzled look on their face as if faced with an impenetrable riddle which they must solve in order to find their seat.

This is a mild source of both bemusement and amusement when it happens before the show starts. I'm usually sitting there staring at a big red curtain clockwatching, so watching the stupid people fail to understand what "ROW V SEAT 19" could possibly mean makes me chuckle. But when it happens just after the show starts, then it makes my blood boil. The most important, scene-setting, part of a show can come just after the curtain goes up. Many any important line is lost in the distraction which is someone being shown how to read a simple grid reference by someone shining around a bright torch in a dark theatre.

On a plane, the only annoyance is when someone has dithered so long about their seat that you've just settled down in your aisle seat, only to have to stand up and disarrange yourself and your things to let them slide past into the window seat. That's not the most annoying thing on planes though.

I tend to get onto the plane early. I do that so I can get my bag into an overhead locker about my seat. And then the arrogant latecomers arrange. These are not the people who sheepishly stroll onto the plane knowing that they have held other people up. These are the men (sorry, no intention to be sexist, but it's always been men) in suits (again, only my experience) who are still talking on their phone, and who stroll onto the plane once everyone else is seated. They are usually carrying cases so large they are only borderline qualifiers for cabin baggage and then they try to get them into the locker.

It's at this point that they seem to think that everything already up there is much less important than their own case. They slide other bags around, even sometimes take them down and move them to other parts of the plane, just so that their own overstuffed case can sit as close as possible to their seat. After all, they couldn't possibly waste a second of their valuable time going to get their bag back from slightly further down the cabin when the plane lands...

But it's not just finding seats which isn't difficult. Why is it that some people think that by pulling a funny face and breathing in a bit, it's possible to walk through them. You notice it when getting off the tube, when getting out of a lift, even when coming out of the toilet in a bar. If you are waiting to go into a door - whatever kind of door - and there are already people behind the door, then generally those people will need to get out before you can get in. So maybe the worst place to stand is directly in front of that door. When getting on the tube, it's just common sense to stand out of the way, but I've noticed something a little more odd when getting out of a lift; the people standing on the outside of the lift usually feel quite affronted that anyone else should be in their lift. You can see the look on their face. A single look which says "I have pressed the button, and so this is MY lift now. What on earth are you doing already in it?" And then, if you're anything like me, you shuffle out with the apologetic gait possible as if to acknowledge that yes - it is their lift now, and I'm terribly sorry for standing in it.

Of course, the other thing which isn't difficult is walking down one flight of stairs rather than taking the lift down to the ground floor from the first. But please. Don't get me started...

Friday, 10 June 2011

Writing in Tippex

Yesterday, I wrote a length about pigeonholes and cats. But did I get carried away? Much as I hate to presume that you've read that post - I don't think this is going to make much sense if you haven't...

I'm not the kind of person who lets a blog post fester and evolve before posting; I'm the kind of person who will write a blog post and stick it up immediately. Publish and be damned.

Having read back yesterday's post, I wrote the following:

"Of course, given so many years, the genes of Henry IV will have spread themselves wide throughout the population and so many of us will be distantly related to him. But the only way to prove that would be to take DNA samples."

I got lost in my own words when writing this and there are two distinct problems with that short assertion.

The first is to suggest that DNA samples would prove relationship to Henry IV. I must put my hand up here and admit that I slipped between the idea of mathematic proof and the common meaning of the word without flagging it up. What I meant of course, was that DNA testing would show that it was either very likely or very unlikely that we were related to Henry IV.

DNA testing is an exact science but that shouldn't be taken to mean that the results are definitite in the pure mathematical sense. Say Henry IV had a particular set of mutations in his DNA which also showed up my DNA. Then the overwhelmingly likely reason is that I am descended from him and this mutations have come to me that. Much less likely - but not impossible - is that exactly the same set of mutations has arisen by chance in a completely separate line and I am not related to Henry IV.

The second problem with my assertion is that I said the "only way to prove..." when talking about DNA testing. There is no way to prove in the mathematical sense that I (or anyone else) is related to Henry IV. (That's an argument for another day, although I can make it rigorous, I promise) there is another way which doesn't involve DNA testing, and gives about as much certain and it's very simple.

Evolution tells us that humans evolved from an ape-like ancestor. At some point in the past there must have been a common ancestor from which all humans are descended. Every human is descended from that ancestor, including Henry IV and so we are all related to Henry IV.

So - I hear you not asking - why isn't that rigorous. The chances of evolution happening twice are very slim. Very slim indeed. But they are not zero. So it's theoretically possible that life began twice, completely indedependently, and in both cases, animals identical to humans evolved and Henry IV is one of those lines and I'm in the other.

At this point, please don't mistake me for some kind of nutter. I'm not. Obviously evolution of humans hasn't happened in parallel twice on earth. But the point is that the chances of it happening are not zero, and so we can't say in the mathematical sense that we have proved it didn't happen - even if we have shown beyond reasonable doubt that it didn't. But note that there isn't a pigeonhole - abstract or otherwise - in sight.

One footnote here is to note that we can easily show - beyond reasonable doubt - that we are all related to Henry IV but not that we are descended from him directly.

And that's why I like to write things in Tippex - they correct themselves...

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Putting the cat amongst the pigeonholes

The pigeonhole principle is such an obvious statement that few people realise that it's actually useful. However, a few people (who should know better, given who they are) actually get a bit too overly excited and try to use the pigeonhole principle to demonstrate the truth of things which simply aren't true.

Before getting into the pigeonhole principle itself, it may be interesting to muse first on the nature of truth. Mathematical truth is a strong concept. Things are not "true" in mathematics simply because we can't find couter-examples - things are only "true" in the mathematical sense when we can show via a structured and logical argument that there can be no possible exceptions to the rule.

Of particular interest here is the difference between an events which has a probability of 1 and an event which has a probability of "very nearly 1". In every day life, the two things are considered the same. "99%" sure is pretty much a synonym for "I'm sure"; mathematics however is not so forgiving.

Take a pack of cards. Shuffle the cards. Throw them up in the air. Pick them up of the floor and put the back back together. Common sense tells us that the cards won't be in order. Mathematics tells us simply that it's "very unlikely" that they'd be in order - but it's certainly not impossible.

The pigeonhole principle deals with certainty, not probability. The pigeonhole principle is mathematically strong - it tells us what is true - not just what is very likely to be true. The principle is very simple. Simply put it says that if you have more objects than you have boxes, and you put the objects into the boxes then at least one of the boxes will contain more than one object. It doesn't tell us how many boxes contain more than one object, nor does it tell us how many objects are in each box - it tells us only that at least one, unspecified, box will contain more than one object. Simple. But useful.

The birthday paradox will provide an interesting diversion here. The birthday paradox is a well known result - though not actually a paradox. If you take a random group of people, then you only need 23 people before there's a better than 50% chance that two people share a birthday. This number is lower than most people imagine, and I guess that's why it's sometimes called a paradox. Anyway, in order to see how the pigeonhole principle comes into play, we need to look at the birthday paradox the other way on.

Rather than looking at how many people we need in order to give us a certain chance of a birthday match, let's fix the number of people and look at how likely it is they share a birthday. For the purposes of this, I'm going to take it as read that there are 366 possible birthdays (we need to include 29th February, as it is a birthday for some people...)

If we have two people, then the probability that they share a birthday is 1/366. The more people we add to the group, the higher the chance that they share a birthday. As we've said before, once you get to 23 people you have a better than 50/50 chance of two people sharing a birthday. As you get towards 100 people you are really very very likely to have two people sharing a birthday. But you're still not certain that two people with. Right up until you've got 366 people you can't be certain that two people share a birthday. The chance that no two people in a group that size share a birthday is really very small indeed, but it could happen.

However, once you get to 367 people, the pigeonhole principle rears its head and removes the need for complicated calculations. If you must, imagine 366 boxes with a different date written on each. Take your 367 people and tell them to go and sit in the box with their birthday written on it. You could imagine a situation where 366 people are each sitting in their box but you still have one person left over. They have to go somewhere, and which ever box they sit in has two people - and there are our two people who share a birthday. At this point, we can be absolutely sure that two people in the group share a birthday. Of course, this is obvious - but I'm made the description so rigorous so that I can attempt to explain why two ways in which the pigeonhole principle are regularly applied are not so rigorous.

Let's start with one of Stephen Fry's favourite anecdotes. Everyone has two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents and so on. It doesn't take many generations before we have an enormous number of ancestors. The common argument says that this number of ancestors is great than the population of England at the time at the time of Henry IV, and therefore Henry IV must be an ancestor of everyone who has English blood stretching back that far.

It's a great thought. But it's not true.

Once the number of ancestors is greater than the population, we do have a problem - and the pigeonhole principle can help us solve the problem - but the conclusion is the wrong one. The pigeonhole principle applied to this situation tells us that once we go back far enough, at least two the positions in our family tree must be occupied by the same person. This sounds alarming, but it isn't so. One person may have had children who both married, had offspring and so on for many generations until at some point someone from one family marries someone from the other. The bride and groom in this situation will share an ancestor, but it may be so many generations ago that it's well outside of living memory and doesn't present any problems.

This is interesting, but doesn't show that we are all descended from Henry IV. It just shows that at the time of Henry IV, at least two of the ancestral lines in our family tree must converge into a single ancestor. And it won't be the same common ancestor for everyone - and that common ancestor is very unlikely to be Henry IV.

Of course, given so many years, the genes of Henry IV will have spread themselves wide throughout the population and so many of us will be distantly related to him. But the only way to prove that would be to take DNA samples.

It's not just the lovely Mr Fry who gets carried away with the pigeonhole principle though. Marcus Chown once abused the principle to get to an interesting result.

The Marcus Chown case is a little more complicated, and requires a little extension of the pigeonhole principle to the infinite. We can state the infinite case as follows. If we have a finite number of boxes, and an infinite number of objects then when we put the objects into the boxes, at least one of the boxes will have an infinite number of objects in it.

At this point, I know I'm talking nonsense about infinite objects and putting all of them into some boxes, but bear with me. The objects and boxes are both abstract here, but we can look at a real world example.

There are a infinite number of integers. (I'm going to take that as read). Imagine writing them down in full - one, two, three, four, five, etc.

There are 100 tiles in a Scrabble set. Those 100 letter tiles can be used to spell some numbers. But they can only be used to spell a finite number of numbers. It's quite a lot, but it's definitely finite. If that's obvious, then let's take it as read - if it's not obvious then just consider that there are only a finite number of ways of arranging 100 tiles and only some of those will spell out numbers.

So what does that tell us. Well it tells us that if we have two imaginary boxes, one which contains all the numbers you can spell out with a Scrabble Set and the other box contains the ones you can't. The first box contains a finite number of numbers, and so the second must contain an infinite number of numbers.

So, we've shown that there are an infinite number of numbers which you can't spell using the letters from a Scrabble set. I think that's quite cool even if you're bored to death by now.

So where's this going, I hear you ask. Well Marcus Chown used a similar argument when talking on stage a few years ago.

The first part is going to have to be taken as read, even though it's actually quite counter-intuitive. So - the assertion is that there are only a finite number of possible histories for the Universe. The second assertion is that there are an infinite number of Universes. Go with me here...

Marcus Chown took those things, and said that because there are an infitinite number of Universes and a finite number of possible histories, each history must happen an infinite number of times.

Not true I'm afraid. The pigeonhole principle tells us only that at least one of those histories must exist an infinite number of times - not all of them. And it's very unlikely that the particular history corresponding to our Universe exists an infinite number of times.

The result Marcus Chown was presenting is quite possibly true, but the logic he used to get to it was, I'm afraid, fallacious.

We have strayed dangerously close to quantum physics here, and then as we know - nothing becomes certain. And according to quantum physics, if we put a cat in a pigeonhole it's only decoherence which allows us to be pretty sure it's still going to be there when we go to collect it later.

Hmm. Cats. Quantum Physics. There must be a thought experiment there somewhere, if only I could think of one... ;-)

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

A guinea pig couldn't become a dentist

This morning, I was at the dentist. Whilst in the chair, with my mouth numb, and one woman scraping at my teeth whilst another held a small hoover in my mouth I had some time to think. And I started to think about mirrors. Today I had a filling in one of my upper right molars. In order to see what she was doing, the dentist had to hold one of those little mirrors on a stick in my mouth and looking in that to see where she was poking.
We tend to take looking in mirrors for granted. Doing up a tie or buttoning up a shirt in a mirror is normal(*). If we have a bit of food around our mouth and look in the mirror, it's obvious what we need to do with our hands to achieve what we want, taking into account that we're looking at a reflection. But not all animals can do that.
There've been several experiments over the years which attempt to ascertain whether certain animals realise that seeing something in a mirror puts everything the other way around. The experiment, in its simplest form, runs like this. Put an animal in front of a mirror and blicker its view somehow so that the animal can only see in the mirror. Then place some food to one side of the animal or the other. Then remove the mirror and the blinkers and see whether the animal moves in the right direction to find the food. The experiment has been done on quite a few animals, and surprisingly few go straight to the food after seeing its location in the mirror. Apes (including people) have no trouble at all.
Elephants can do it it. As can dolphins (**) and pigs. But not cats, dogs or guinea pigs. It's not entirely obvious to me why these animals would've evolved this ability. Why would it convey any advantage for an animal to be able to just direction in a mirror.
The only mirrors to occur naturally are still pools of water, and by their nature they tend to occur flat on the ground. So anything looking into the pool will simply see a reflected view of itself and the sky and maybe a few trees. I guess it may be useful to be able to see any birds swooping down above which may want to prey on you, but I don't see this applying to elephants or gorillas. So the only animals in which I could see the evolutionary advantage of mirror awareness would be a small animal, preyed upon by birds, which spends a lot of time looking down into pools of water. Shrews, rats, that kind of thing. Except rodents can't do it.
Maybe Darwin was wrong after all (***)

So you see, a guinea pig couldn't be a dentist. At least not a dentist which did fillings in upper molars. However, an elephant would be fine.

(*) Human faces are generally not exactly symmetrical, and so what we see in a mirror is actually the reflection of how we actually look. That's why you never quite look the same in a mirror as you do in photographs.

(**) I have no idea how this experiment was conducted - in practical terms - on a dolphin. I presume with an underwater mirror...

(***) I am being sarcastic. Just in case anyone thought I was serious.

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Rounded corners

I stay in a lot of hotels. Well, more specifically, I stay in the same few hotels quite often. It's an artefact of my job, and I don't mind it as much as sometimes I may protest.

Until recently, whenever business brought me to Manchester, I would stay in the Palace Hotel in the centre of Manchester. It's a lovely, big imposing hotel with an enormous lobby which gives a great impression.

My first stay at The Palace was great. The time before last I was in a room which had a great view of the trains going in and out of Oxford Road station. So great a view, that I could see which newspaper the commuters were reading as they went past on the morning trains. And freight trains can be noisy things...

My last stay at The Palace wasn't particularly nice. A fire alarm going off just after I'd got into bed, and then a horrible bout of food poisoning overnight didn't give me confidence in the hotel restaurant, so I decided not to stay there again.

So I'm staying in a different hotel this time. It's quite nice. Not easy to get to without a car, but I don't mind a bit of a walk. It's attached to a Starbucks, a fitness centre, a pub and a restaurant. This means the reception was full of people milling around - not a great welcome. And then I found out that the restaurant is fully-booked, Starbucks is in the process of closing, and room service has a two hour wait with the first order taken at 7pm. So basically, I can't get any food tonight.

But besides that, maybe the thing which has caught my attention the most is the stupid design of the bedside table in this hotel. Look at this picture...

The bed is the white bit in the lower left of the picture. Of course, the lack of corner means that I'm not going to bang my head in the night. It also means that everything so far which I've put onto the table has slowly (or quickly) slipped off the curved bit and ended up on the floor underneath the bed. And yes, the table on the other side of the bed is the same.


Monday, 28 March 2011

Science. Again.

About a year ago, almost to the day, I wrote an entry saying how much I loved Brian Cox's book. A year later I return to the subject of science. Well I say "science" - but what I'm actually writing about today are the articles which appear in The Metro and pretend to be science.

Every Friday, The Metro has a science column. It's a double-page affair with lots of graphics and lots of snappy little paragraphs talking about science. All good. Except for the fact that it's mostly gibberish.

I love science, and I love popular science. It's possible (but admittedly hard) to take the complexity out of science but maintain both the interest and the integrity of the writing. The Metro certainly manages to remove the complexity, but also seems to disregard any respect for scientific truth in the process.

Almost every Friday I feel the need to take a red pen to the science articles and correct them, but I've got better things to do with my life (*).

Unfortunately, this obsession for pseudo-scientific twaddle seems to be creeping its way insidiously throughout the rest of the paper. No longer is it confined to Fridays and no longer to the science-y bit.

Only the other day, I was idly meandering my way through the pages whilst on my way to work and I came across an article on brown dwarves. Contained in the article was the sentence "brown dwarves are a cross between a planet and a star". No, they are not.

Today, there was an article on page 24 (**) about Darwin's theory of evolution. The article was short - far too short to give the subject matter any sort of justice - but was utter rubbish. But rubbish presented in such a way as to make it seem credible scientific commentary. The assertion of the article was that scientists had found evidence which may throw doubt onto Darwin's theory of evolution. The logic in the article ran along the following lines...

1. Darwin's theory says that the "fittest survive"

2. In a particular place, bacteria had been found which were less suited to the environment than some other bacteria in the same environment

3. That means that some bacteria which weren't "the fittest" had survived

4. Therefore Darwin was wrong

I'm not going to do into details about how and why that's utterly wrong, but the problem is that people who don't fully understand evolution will read it, and think that there's been some marvellous discovery which shatters the fundamental tenets of evolutionary theory.

So just to be clear. There hasn't been any such discovery, and if there were, I'm sure you'd hear about it from some place other than a one paragraph article on page 24 of The Metro...

Phew. I managed to get through a whole blog post about journalism without mentioning the Daily Mail (***)

* Actually that's not true. I simply don't usually have a red pen to hand when reading The Metro

** Yes, on page 24. Go and look it up if you want.

*** I mentioned it once, but I think I got away with it.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011


Recently, I've not taken as many flights as I did in previous jobs. It means that when I do take a plane anywhere, it's less routine and I actually think about it more.

There was a time - when I was flying back and forth to Stockholm on a stupidly regular basis - that I could literally have found my way through the appropriate terminal buildings at both ends blindfolded had I been so challenged.

I noticed today that I'm really quite a grumpy traveller. Sitting next to me on the plane was a woman who had put her handbag into the overhead locker, and another passenger managed to knock her bag out and onto the floor and she smiled and said "that's OK, don't worry about it". Had it been my handbag, I would've been furious. Metaphorically speaking, of course - given that I don't tend to travel with a handbag.

Today I chose a seat in the emergency exit aisle. It means that in the event of an emergency, you have to remove the door and "be able to follow instructions given in English". It also means you get extra leg room. The flipside of that is that you're sitting next to a part of the fuselage which you know is - by definition - removable. It reminds me of sitting next to the door in a helicopter and desperately trying to avoid leaning on the door at all, despite the fact that it's locked firmly shut - on the approach this evening I would look out the window, but avoid leaning just in case - it is a door, after all.

I'm always torn on the "hand baggage" vs. "checked in bags" decision too. There's something attractive about giving your bag to someone at one end, and not having to cart a heavy bag around the shops at the terminal and not struggle onto the plane with it. It's nice sometimes to just walk onto the plane with a paperback and your ticket and grab your bag at the other end. Of course, the price for this is the time you have to stand waiting at the other end. Unless you're flying Ryanair of course, in which case the price is a few extra euros on the ticket price.

Besides the rush to get your bags in, I've never understood the rush onto the plane as soon as boarding starts, either. The time at which the plane leaves is dictated by the slowest passenger to board, not the quickest. In truth, it's usually not even dictated by that, but by air traffic control. And yet, as soon as the "Please Wait" sign changes to "Boarding" there's a stampede towards the desks as though there's a substantial cash prize for being the first to get your boarding pass scanned by the people at the desks.

And then at the other end, there's another stampede to be the first to get up out of your seat and grab your bag. And those brave souls who stand up before the seatbelt sign has gone off do it quietly and slowly as though by being very quiet nobody will notice that you've taken your sealbelt off and stood up.

I often say that if you bumped into me at an airport, you could tell instantly by my demeanour whether I'm travelling for pleasure or business. Can you tell by my grumping above that I'm travelling for business at the moment? :-)