Friday, 19 December 2008

I mean, how likely is that?

What with Christmas coming up, and trying to get bedrooms and bathrooms finished for the daughters, there has not been much time for blogging. So here is a pretty silly post.

This goes back to my undergraduate days (how nice to know I wasn't wasting my time, or those scraps of intelligence assigned to me).

It concerns two sentences that say the same thing, but both using completely different words. They are also both alliterative. Which prompts my "How likely is that?". Can anyone come up with two others??

Excuse the language; faint hearted readers may wish to look away.

"Fucked by the filthy finger of fate"
"Doodled by the dirty digit of destiny"

And you can look back now.

Two other snippets concern graffiti in the toilets at University College London. Someone wrote this:

"Being an anarchist means you can spel any way you like".
A day or two later someone, rather wittily in my opinion, added:
"OK, let's start with anarchshit then".

The other bit of graffiti that I thought was pretty good was a scribble above the toilet roll holder, with a sign pointing down. "Sociology degrees - please help yourself".

Well, I was a psychology postgraduate, so I was clearly prejudiced.

Anyway, have a really good break and a happy Christmas or whatever else you would like to celebrate.

Friday, 5 December 2008

Hawks and Doves

This post is written with the previous post, on crime and punishment, in mind. There were many interesting comments which ranged from "and eye for an eye" through to education of the criminals, and then the need to understand bad behaviour with a view to preventing it in the first place.

This got me thinking. As a preamble, let me pose a question; one that exercises me from time to time. It is this: "Why do the wicked prosper?"

OK, maybe that's put a bit baldly, but in more general terms, why, when most of us are good and cooperative, do some people take advantage, hoodwink, steal, assault? Why do we find that a consistent fraction of the population are psychopathic; the real "undead" who walk among us?

[Psychopaths should not be confused with psychotics. The latter are insane, while the former lack any conscience and have a profound lack of empathy. They use other people for their own ends, and are the ones who can torture and kill without qualm. They constitute 1% or 2% of the population, and good at masking what they are.]

And to answer my own question, could it be that (just as virtue does) wickedness brings its own rewards?

Let's fast forward to Hawks and Doves, a simulation first devised by the biologist John Maynard-Smith in 1973, and which is based on Game Theory. Simple though the rules are, I think it has something to tell us about social conflict.

Though the simulation is called Hawks and Doves, you can't tell from looking at the participants what they are - just as in real life a thief or a psychopath looks like you or me. The name derives from their aggressive or non-aggressive behaviour.

How does it work. Well imagine a population of Doves. Maybe a bit like the 12 disciples, but multiplied up a bit. Every now and then two of these Doves will compete over a resource, but since they won't fight the chances of either winning is 50:50, and they never have to bear the cost of injury.

Now add to this mix a mutation. We have our first Hawk, someone who is quite prepared to fight over a resource. What happens? Well, sad but true, it's a bit of a no-brainer; the bugger wins all the time, since no Dove will actually fight. Plus he never bears the cost of injury. So he is very successful.

Now what, in biological terms, does this mean? It means that he reproduces like crazy and pretty soon we see a lot more Hawks in the population. That doesn't mean they take over the world though.

As the proportion of Hawks increases so the probability of a Hawk meeting a Hawk becomes greater and greater. Now there will be a fight. Sure, each Hawk in a Hawk-Hawk conflict will win half the time on average, just as a Dove does in a Dove-Dove conflict. However the Hawk now has a cost that no Dove has: injury.

So there you have it, all the elements for a simulation (there is one other element, posturing, which carries a cost too, but it doesn't add much to this discussion).

- the reward value of the resource
- the cost of injury
- the proportion of Hawks and Doves and how this evolves

The mathematics behind the simulation is not complicated and for given costs and rewards, which you can manipulate, the population will stabilise at a given proportion of Hawks and Doves.

What I find thought provoking about the simulation is that wickedness does not need an explanation. Or rather, the explanation is that bad behaviour exists, not because baddies are ignorant or poorly educated, but because being bad is actually quite a successful strategy. In fact, the thing that holds the proportion of baddies down is simply the cost of injury (which you could treat symbolically as a fine or time in the stocks or behind bars).

But you always find baddies. Every time the simulation is run, the outcome is the same. Turning the other cheek, is, alas, not a philosophical gesture to a baddie, it is just an injury-free reward.

Are the rules too simple to apply to real life? Perhaps. Which is not to say that there are no lessons to be learnt. And complex behaviour can spring from very simple rules as John Horton Conway showed with his now famous Game of Life.

The following may or may not be true, but they follow from the above:

- badness is not an aberration; it exists because it is a viable strategy
- like the poor, it will always be with us
- but you can lessen its incidence by increasing the cost of injury or its symbolic equivalence

Sunday, 30 November 2008

Crime and punishment

I don't have much sympathy for Islamic Sharia law, but a recent case has me thinking again.

The setting is Iran, and it concerns a young woman who had spurned the approaches of a man. His response was to throw acid in her face which has left her disfigured and blind. You can read about it here.

Under the Sharia code of qias or equivalence the victim can ask that the guilty party be punished in a like manner. The court accepted her plea and the man has been sentenced to be blinded by acid, though I don't believe that the punishment has yet been carried out.

This seems barbaric, but then so was the attack, and it is far too common in the middle east and asia. The acid is usually battery acid, and thus very easy to get hold of, and it is not the sort of attack you can carry out without premeditation.

These are the kinds of injury that commonly occur. The photograph is of a different woman, injured by her husband after they were divorced.

Other recent attacks have been on schoolgirls in Afghanistan, whose only crime is that they want to go to school.

In the West we would argue that violence is an inappropriate response to violence, or that such punishment reduces the state to the level of the criminal. But should we be liberal and intellectual about such crimes? These men are absolute bastards. Is there an argument for an eye for an eye?

Saturday, 15 November 2008

Warning! Falling pounds. Hard hats must be worn

For anyone who lives in the UK or who still has pounds (me, alas), the money markets have an interesting message right now. The pound is shite. Gordon and his friends are busy screwing it, big time. Well, no surprise there. When you force the tax payer to become a shareholder in failing businesses, and buy up dodgy assets in the process of recapitalising careless banks, then something's gotta give. And it is the currency.

Now you may have a poor image of the forex market. But you have to respect its lack of sentiment. If you start printing money, and generally piss on the economy, the speculators (and the serious dealers too) will dump your currency like last night's bad curry. You don't have to like the markets to recognise they are always right. Seriously.

OK, so let's cut to the chase. This is what the pound looks like against the dollar. Down means the pound is falling relative to the dollar.

Those brave enough might like to click for a larger view.

Now on the face of it, this is quite a strange outcome. I mean, what with the USA being the home of subprime and all that, why is it our currency that's f*cked and not theirs? Well, right now folks want out of equities and pretty well every other damned thing, and want to hold cash. And the cash they want to hold is the good old greenback. So its price is high.

But hold on. That's not the whole story, and not enough of an excuse for Gordon. Look at how the pound is doing against the euro. Up, in this case, means the euro is doing well and the pound is doing badly.

And as you can see, the pound is pants against the euro.

When your government tells you they are doing what it takes, be afraid. Be very afraid.

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Fairies at work

Two wonderful "fairy rings" of mushrooms have appeared in our meadow. Here is a picture of one of them, with oval added by me to illustrate the regularity of the growth.

While they are a natural feature of mushroom growth, there is still uncertainty about exactly how they come about.

They bring with them a rich tapestry folk-lore. From Wiki:

A great deal of folklore surrounds fairy rings. Their names in European languages often allude to supernatural origins; they are known as ronds de sorciers ("sorcerers' rings") in France, and hexenringe ("witches' rings") in German. In German tradition, fairy rings were thought to mark the site of witches' dancing on Walpurgis Night, and Dutch superstition claimed that the circles show where the Devil set his milk churn.

In the Tyrol, folklore attributed fairy rings to the fiery tales of flying dragons; once a dragon had created such a circle, nothing but toadstools could grow there for seven years. European superstitions routinely warned against entering a fairy ring. French tradition reported that fairy rings were guarded by giant bug-eyed toads that cursed those who violated the circles. In other parts of Europe, entering a fairy ring would result in the loss of an eye.

Scandinavian and Celtic traditions claimed that fairy rings are the result of elves or fairies dancing. Such ideas dated to at least the mediƦval period; The Middle English term elferingewort ("elf-ring"), meaning "a ring of daisies caused by elves' dancing" dates to the 12th century. In his History of the Goths (1628), Olaus Magnus makes this connection, saying that fairy rings are burned into the ground by the dancing of elves.]

British folklorist Thomas Keightley noted that in Scandinavia in the early 20th century, beliefs persisted that fairy cirlces (elfdans) arose from the dancing of elves. Keightley warned that while entering an elfdans might allow the interloper to see the elves—although this was not guaranteed—it would also put the intruder in thrall to their illusions.

Anyway, I have taken my life into my hands and entered the ring and harvested a goodly few mushrooms.

My family and friends regard me as slightly reckless because I do eat wild fungi, but actually I go for those that are easy to identify with a low probability of confusion. These are Field Blewits; very good to eat. They have a lilac-hued foot which is a pretty good clue.

I picked a small fraction of what is out there, but filled most of this bucket. These are for drying and storing so we can use them during the winter.

I often think about our ancestors at times like these. Things that are fun for us - roasting chestnuts, harvesting walnuts, drying mushrooms, even making wine - were probably a matter of considerable importance for them for survival.

After all, a whole winter to get through and no supermarket a few kilometers away.

Thursday, 30 October 2008

Windowsill Toad

Windowsill Toad. Sounds like it could be a popgroup, or a fairly secure password. But she is actually a toad (well, I don't know, but I feel she is a she):

Windowsill Toad gets her name from the following. Of an evening she climbs up about six of these steps to get to our kitchen window. There the light streams out and attracts insects. And she catches the insects.

She's big, but small compared to the steps. And toads don't jump. They do an exaggerated four legged crawl, Gollum-like.

I sometimes wonder if she is daunted by her task, which feels about as tough as salmon leaping upstream. If she is, she never shows it. You may feel a bit skeptical, but I kid you not, she is a character.

(If you haven't already done so, click the pic and you will be rewarded with a better view of her kindly face).

Sunday, 26 October 2008

Afraid of the free market? Err ... why?

Afraid of the free market? Personally, I'm afraid of the opposite.

I could leave it at that, but I think the concept of the free market is under a lot of pressure right now, pressure that may be undeserved. And maybe a bad time is a good time to scrutinise this.

And wow, is this a bad time. The world order is in an uncomfortable state ... I for one have considered that my money would actually be better off under the mattress.

You may have seen the posts of various bloggers who are concerned too, and who have picked different facets from the chaos (the greed/need contrast crops up more than once):

like this one from janelle where she highlights the case of a Belgian banker walking out of a disaster with millions of euros in his back pocket
or this one from family affairs who describes how the employees of the failed Lehman Brothers are nevertheless going to get their bonuses paid by Nomura
or this from bush mummy in which her friend Gav, surviving a cancer operation, hits out at inequity: "when I run the world we will swap nurses' and bankers' salaries over..."

You will have seen more of the same. No one, I suspect, has trouble identifying with their sentiments.

But when we look at the financial turmoil of the world right now are we really seeing the results of greed, unbridled capitalism and the failings of free markets?

I'm not so sure. And I (brave, stupid or both) intend to try and make my case here.

Let's take the case of senior executives leaving failing enterprises with fat severance cheques, lovely index-linked pensions and the like.

What are we seeing? We are seeing civil contracts being honoured. When they were hired, the shareholders represented by the boards were so keen to have these individuals that they gave them very attractive contracts, including severance terms should those contracts be prematurely terminated.

While that might stick in the craw, the fact is the world would be a whole lot worse off if people could, at their whim, fail to honour contracts. This would affect us all - buying and selling houses, making an insurance claim, replacing something under guarantee ...

If the other party could just say, "Sorry things have changed and I now have a poor opinion of you, so I'm not going to pay up" then we would really be in the shit.

Are they greedy? Well, maybe, but that's another matter. Keep the money, give it to charity, that's up to the executives concerned. But honouring contracts is central to civilised life.

How about swapping the salaries of bankers and nurses?

Well, that's an interesting idea and one that has already been tried (I'll come to that). The new state would not last long. Why? Because you would have the worst paid bankers in the world and the best paid nurses in the world. The bankers would go and do other things (the resulting shortage would have their salaries bid up in no time) while the nursing profession would be flooded by incomers (the resulting oversupply would have their salaries crash in no time).

I said it had been tried.

Time Out is a what's on magazine established by Tony Elliot in 1968, originally as a London Guide. In a fit of egalitarianism everyone was originally paid exactly the same wage. He said (it was his words I borrowed, above) "We had the worst paid journalists in London and the best paid cleaners". The journalists could not wait to leave, while the premises were besieged by frantic wannabe cleaners. It did not last long.

The only alternative is to have the state legislate that your salary shall be X while you, yes you over there, your salary shall be Y.

Thanks, but no thanks. Not a world I want. (It too has already been tried).

The fact is that in a free market people are paid what they are worth, no more and no less. No legislation is needed; it is automatically regulated by supply and demand. Bankers are paid outrageously precisely because (a) not many people have their skills and (b) not many people would like the demanding life style.

But, hey, there's no closed shop. If you want a banker's salary, don't bitch about it, go for it. And see if you like it.

One of my daughters is in the City. She's crammed all her life - GCSEs, slogging to get the A levels results that allowed her to be selected for Cambridge, four years at Cambridge slogging her guts out to get the first she needed to have a chance of getting a training contract by the right kind of corporate law firm, two more years at law college, another training year in the firm (she's at that stage now), nights and weekends mean nothing - the firm gets first call on those hours ... and then, in a year or two, yes, she will be on a six-figure salary. You want all that? Really? I don't.

Result - very little supply, unmet demand, huge salary. It's not rocket science.

Or you can be a nurse. A lot of people want to do it. A lot of people can do it. Therefore it does not pay very well.

So it's not unfairness, or greed, or altruism, or someone manipulating something. Nurses may be saints and bankers may be wankers. But there are, apparently, more saints than wankers. QED.

What about the free market and its failings?

Problem is, markets are seldom free. Consider oil and its yo yo pricing that has been a pain for all of us. The exact opposite to a free market. OPEC is a cartel, sets prices and production quotas and then polices its members to make sure they stick to it.

Another, exact opposite to a free market example: agricultural production, and the obscenity of groaning surpluses in one part of the world and starvation in another. Western governments guarantee prices so there is no market feedback to the producer. In a free market, a grain surplus would lead to falling prices which would have two positive effects - poor countries would benefit from the falling price and farmers would switch to other outputs so that the surplus would self-correct. We hit poor countries again by imposing quotas and otherwise making it difficult for them to sell to us (even though you and I may want their products).

Banks. The exact opposite to a free market. Heavily regulated, unable to set their own interest rates (base rates are set by central banks/governaments), operate on a fractional reserve system which has been passed into law by our governments - which means they actually can't pay us if there is a run on a bank; even in good times!

Don't get me wrong. Many banks have behaved like arses and exposed themselves to enormous risk.

So do we punish them by allowing them to fail?

Nope. We guarantee deposits and nationalise them to recapitalise them and punish our tax-payers twice. First, by making citizens shareholders (whether they will or whether they won't) of some pretty dodgy enterprises. Second by hitting the value of their savings by printing money to make up the loss of liquidity.

And by the way, where did all this risk arise? Well in the UK trillions are being lost in the housing market. The banks lend money against assets (land and buildings). When people default, the banks have found that they can no longer cover themselves because the asset value has fallen. This is why sub-prime is such a panic. The shortfall is huuuuuuge.

But the housing market has been, yep, the exact opposite to a free market. For years various governments pushed people into house ownership by giving them tax breaks on mortgages, but no tax breaks on rent payments. Then they choked off the supply of land by zoning restrictions. So on the one hand they stimulated demand and on the other hand they restricted supply, leading to decades of house price inflation. And everyone felt rich. Yippee.

Yes. I respect the self-correction of the free market, its flexibility, its responsiveness and the way it aligns the needs of buyers and sellers. There really is nothing like a free market. And what we see around us is nothing like a free market.

OK. That's my rant. I've put my tin hat on. Tell me where I'm wrong.

Monday, 20 October 2008

And the award goes on to ...

The lovely pouting Karen has bestowed an award on me. She is naughty, but I like her. She is also very funny, so as I plough my way through the 31 questions, I shall have to pretend that I have not read hers (or could that be her's; she's a librarian you know, and could be awarding, or deducting, points).

Oh, and I need to remind you that these are to be one-word answers:


1. Where is your cell phone? Wozzat?
2. Where is your significant other? Onmyback
3. Your hair color? Grecian
4. Your mother? Dead
5. Your father? Deader
6. Your favorite thing? Whoa!
7. Your dream last night? Freudian
8. Your dream/goal? Breathing
9. The room you're in? Roomy
10. Your hobby? Snapping
11. Your fear? Fear
12. Where do you want to be in 6 years? Here
13. Where were you last night? Abed
14. What you're not? Senile
15. One of your wish-list items? Nurse
16. Where you grew up? Calcutta
17. The last thing you did? Drink
18. What are you wearing? Stuff
19. Your TV? Wavy
20. Your pets? Hairy
21. Your computer? Digital
22. Your mood? Moody
23. Missing someone? Everyone
24. Your car? Carboniferous
25. Something you're not wearing? Contipad
26. Favorite store? BricoDepot
27. Your summer? ish
28. Love someone? Aaaah
29. Your favorite color? Blue
30. When is the last time you laughed? Today
31. Last time you cried? Sob

And since I frightened myself and everyone else with the exponential thingy, I'm not passing this on to anyone else, but you know who you are and I love you all.

Sunday, 19 October 2008

Pressing the grapes, French style

It's the time of year when the vine harvest happens. Naturally the French have a special word for this type of harvest, different from others, and it is "vendange".

We have a small vineyard. In a good year it produces maybe 800-1000 litres of wine. In a bad year, perhaps 250-400. This is not a great issue as it is not commercial and only for our own use. So far I have failed to average a litre a day so there is always a surplus. Which is a handy local currency for returning favours etc.

This has been an awful year. But with an interesting consequence, which I will get to.

This is the raw material; one of our vines on harvest day.

These are some neighbours helping to bring it in. Some we give wine to; others are already wine growers and we reciprocate by helping them harvest in turn.

This is a tombereau, or at least that's how it sounds when they say it. It belongs to a neighbour and I get the loan of it on harvest day. Not only does it hold the grapes you chuck in, but it also has an archimedes screw at the bottom. That means you can pump and slurry the grapes at the same time, and straight into a large barrel called a tonneau, where the primary fermentation takes place.

This is the tonneau (1000 litres capacity), with my bro in law Donald helping after the previous harvest.

Now it happens that this convenience comes at a small price, in that you can't get the last few litres out - the screw won't push them up the pipe and into the tonneau without more stuff behind to help with the pushing as it were.

With the harvest being so poor this year (very late frost and some poor hungry beasts having a bloody good autumn munch) I decided not to use the tombereau.

How, my wife enquired, would we crush the grapes then?

The way our forebears used to, naturally. By treading on them. And I did. Stripped down to my undies, up a small ladder, into the tonneau, and started treading. I have to leave a plastic chair in there so I can get out again!

Now I know the question you are asking. Did I wash my feet? Come on, give me a break, of course I didn't. (They never did in the old days, did they?)

Well the good news is the primary fermentation is coming on just fine. Every two or three days I pop into the tonneau and do my treading. Funny, no one else seems inclined. At the end I emerge, slightly light headed, and with very purple feet.

This evening I sampled my first glass. Still a bit sweet, so more fermenting time needed, but it tastes delicious. Strange, though, I have a feeling that there may not be a stampede for this vintage.

Which is fine by me.

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Falling in love

I have been inspired to write on this topic after reading a post by mud who is feeling a bit forlorn about the whole bizz.

The post attracted a bunch of comments, as you might expect. And quite a few of them were along the lines of "it just happens, and sometimes when you least expect it". That is endorsed by no less than Helen Fielding, author of Bridget Jones' Diary, which was, perhaps, a tad autobiograhical. I read an article by Fielding describing her long wait for the right man, whom she did eventually find, and thinking to herself afterwards "why was I so anxious?"

Anyway, that had me reflecting on love and thinking about how effing useless psychology is when it comes to these important things. We probably learn more from the language around love. For example we have

- "falling in love" which is suggestive of its involuntary and random nature (as when we fall over an obstacle)
- "love struck" much the same
- "love is blind" which is probably a reference to 'blind eye' but in effect says it is hard to predict
- "love sick" which captures its rather overwhelming visceral effects

The first three support the view that love "just happens", can't be hurried along, and can't be engineered.

So what, and perhaps more important, why is love?

We already like to have sex, a handy side effect of which is reproduction, so love doesn't seem to be a necessary condition for anything. But it's here. How come? Well it's a biological truism that we fall in love because those people who did, in the geological past, had better breeding success than those that did not.

Which is interesting.

Perhaps it has to do with what Desmond Morris called "pair bonding". Pair bonding keeps the breeding couple together for all those years it takes to get offspring from infancy to independence. Falling in love initiates the bond, which is then supported and maintained by lashings of sex over the years. Well, quite, but it's true you know. Nothing in the animal kingdom goes in for bonking as we do.

Anyway, none of this gets me nearer to mud and love, so I'll take my chances and move on to what I think it's all about:

attraction -> approach -> reciprocity -> sex -> love (then lots more sex, but we've been there already)

Or for the more romatically inclined, reverse the last two.

First, attraction. Now this is a real mystery. I think we all know that sudden jolt when you find someone attractive; but could we define what it is? Hard for any one of us I suspect but science does provide some clues.

What makes for a beautiful woman? Apparently an "average" woman. You doubt that? Well take some female faces and crank them through a computer to get the morph average. The result is surprisingly pleasing. This photograph is one I made earlier, morphing just 10 random female faces. It's fun to do, and you can make your own average here. BTW, all this works for male faces too.

Why? Most faces are slightly asymmetrical; the more symmetrical a face is, the more attractive it is judged. Apparently symmetrical faces are advertising hordings that say "I've got good genes, choose me". And the morphing process tends to balance out asymmetries.

Another thing that has men interested is the waist-to-hip ratio. You measure your waist at the narrowest point and your hips at the widest point and get the ratio waist/hips. A ratio of 0.7 seems to be rated universally as the most attractive which is interesting because that is the best predictor of fertility. Apparently Marilyn Monroe had it as does the skinnier Kate Moss.

And so amazingly does the classic Coke bottle; I did some consumer research that showed men find it attractive. Sad buggers.

There is much else; have a look at this article on attraction.

I personally think that attraction is a must. But I have a friend who has been married for 35 years and has grown-up children. He married because their families kind of expected them to. There was really no attraction or love, I don't think.

Next, check that it is reciprocated. It may not be, but that's not the end. I've known people become attracted later, as it were, a kind of catastrophe switch from non-attraction to attraction. I think that sex itself can cause this to happen, but don't do it just because I said so.

If the attraction is mutual you are kind of home and dry. If not, it's uphill work, and in the end unrewarding.

Well, I say home and dry, but that's not quite true. The suggestion is that the more alike the two of you are in background, social standing, education, economics and even genetics, the more likely the relationship is to succeed (boring, but there you go).

Based on my own experience I would say that if it turns out your love is not reciprocated, cut and run no matter how attractive you find them. You may be unhappy now, but boy are you going to be unhappy later if you don't.

Anyway, I think this is why people say well it just comes along, you don't know when, then bam etc etc. The whole attraction thing is very statistical (symmetry and various ratios notwithstanding).

So for two people to get the hots for each other at the same time is just improbable - though completely possible. It just takes time. If you think it is happening, then go for it, and be prepared to make the running.

Postscript: This post was much harder to write than I thought. And a whole lot less useful. But it's late and I'm off to bed.

Sunday, 28 September 2008

On holiday with Stanley

So here's a strange associative chain, and it actually did happen as I describe it.

Catching up on a few of my favourite, and not so favourite blogs (yes, I do read some such, driven by a kind of perverse fascination) I reached this conclusion: some very good blogs, by my definition, have no awards, or just a few. Some of those in the other category bristle with awards. Odd.

On this basis I clearly rate my own two blogs since they have, between them, the grand sum of zero awards. On the whole I'm content since I have no great desire to be told that I cheered someone up or made them smile or have become their best mate. (Please don't ruin my day by giving me one now).

Well this reciprocal festooning with awards leads to the first, rather uncharitable, association - mutual masturbation.

Now I have led a chaste life and have never indulged in same-sex mutual masturbation (you will notice that some qualification is needed). On the other hand I did go to a boarding school and was able to observe the impact of pubescence on certain individuals. And, yes, a certain amount of masturbation did take place. If any was of the mutual variety, then I am happy to say that I did not witness it. The solitary was handled quite well however, and before you say it, the pun was unintentional. (A psychologist writes: "puns are never unintentional". To which I respond "just who the eff asked you?").

Back to the point (yes, yes, still unintentional). Rather than masturbation being furtive and embarrassing, a system seems to have evolved such that after 'lights out' those who were thus inclined would engage in masturbatory races, the winner announcing the fact to the assembly. I must stress that this was still rather chaste - no sharing of beds or anything like that, and all under cover of darkness.

Now where was I during all of this? Fortunately I was a year younger than my contemporaries, the consequence of asynchronous educational systems in India and South Africa, and I was not early off the pubescent blocks. Thus I was able to lie in the darkness wondering quite what all the fuss was about.

Which association brings me to my friend Stanley Maloney. Stanley was not intellectually gifted, so he was a year older than most of us, and thus two years older than me. However what God had taken with one hand he had given with the other; Stanley was exceptionally well endowed, the lot topped with enviable quantities of pubic hair. It will not surprise you to learn that he was a frequent winner in those nocturnal races.

Stanley was a good chap to be friends with. He was very strong, and had a quick temper, and for some reason chose to be my protector. He wore a ring which took the form of a skull with two prominent ruby eyes. He told us that it was useful in fist fights. No one rushed to find out if this was true.

So to holiday. Stanley asked if I would like to spend the summer holiday with him. Well, yes, delighted. He lived on the South Coast, a wonderful stretch of South African coastline south of Durban, in a village called Amanzimtoti. My grandmother, who was in charge of me when I was not at school, agreed, and I was sent packing with a fiver.

If someone asked me to describe the holiday in one word, the word would be "formative". The list goes something like this:

- learnt to smoke (unlearnt it as soon as I left, mind)
- had my first french kiss. Boy was that a surprise. My first thought was to say "excuse me, but somehow your tongue has slipped and become lodged in my mouth", but her enthusiasm robbed me of the power of speech. Up to then my model for kissing was provided by Hollywood movies, where the hero and heroine would press their faces together and lips were definitely tightly sealed
- went to my first revivalist meeting, in a big tent. After a Church of England upbringing, this was, if you will pardon the expression, a revelation
- discovered that you could lick the sides of railway trucks transporting molasses and get a sweet taste for free
- was offered a shag in a small tent. It would have been my first - well, for God's sake, I was only 12. She was even younger than I was, poor soul. I fled
- bobbed about in the ocean on a tractor inner tube, in an area notorious for rip tides and shark attacks
- set out folding wooden chairs in the local movie house so we could watch the film for free. I can remember it still, called "Dive, dive, dive", about submarine warfare
- made lots of money, or it felt like it, by collecting discarded bottles and returning them for the deposit money
- taken by Stanley to the ring shop so I too could buy a skull with red eyes

One of my uncles arrived mid-way through the holiday to check up on me (he lived in Durban, so not a long drive). Years later he described his alarm and consternation at the circumstances in which he found me, and the total lack of supervision of our activities. Turns out I was staying with dysfunctional and impoverished white trash.

Ah, the innocence of youth. If the circumstances of the Maloney family were unfortunate, then I was unaware of it. On the contrary, I remember the holiday as blissful, at a time when a little bliss went a long way.

So Stanley, wherever you are, you did cheer me up and you did make me smile, and this is for you.

Sunday, 21 September 2008

The lottery of life - you're a winner

Here is something that I find really strange. Probably the strangest thing I can imagine. See what you think, and if I've got my logic wrong, let me know.

When I was a child I assumed that the three of us (my two sisters and me) were inevitably the children that my parents were going to have. I am the youngest. I often wished I was in fact the oldest. But I always thought it would be "me" whatever the birth order. It just felt inevitable; my parents would have a boy, and the boy would be me.

Of course I now know that isn't the case. If, in my family, a son had been the first born, he would have been the result of a completely different sperm and egg union, and therefore a completely different person complete with his own ego, self awareness and so on.

In fact if "my" particular egg cell and "my" particular sperm cell had not got together, I would never have existed. This I am taking as a given. I base it on evidence such as each of my sisters, each of whom is the result of a different egg and sperm cell, is clearly a person in their own right, and I have no access to their awareness or identity, or vice versa. Had my parents copulated an hour earlier or later even on the same occasion, a different brother or sister would have resulted (bar the absolutely cosmic coincidence of the same sperm cell winning the race anyway).

We get to some startling (at least startling to me) conclusions. Given an egg cell and 300 million sperm cells are present at each act of successful union, any one of 300 million completely different people could have resulted. Each of whom would have had their own ego and awareness.

But wait.

A woman releases something like 400 eggs during her lifetime. A man releases something like 20 thousand million (yup, twenty billion) sperm cells during his life time. So a couple, between them, represent the potential for 8 trillion different people or about as many stars as you would find in 80 galaxies. Every one of whom would have had their own mannerisms, own eye colour, own laugh, own consciousness and own identity, if only "their" union had taken place and therefore they had been born. Of course, the same 8 trillion : 1 are the odds against you or me being born.

So we are extraordinarily lucky, and unbelievably improbable winners in the lottery of life.

But it gets much spookier. If you followed and accept the logic so far, then the same odds applied to your parents. If either of them had not won that lottery too, you wouldn't be here either. Or if they had been born, but teamed up with different significant others, which is actually highly probable, then you wouldn't be here either. Remember, it is a specific pair of cells that gave rise to you; any other pairing doesn't count.

And the logic goes back and back - grandparents, great grandparents and so on.

And so on? Just exactly where do you call a halt? It seems to me that if two rather hairy primate ancestors had not had a quicky 5 million years ago I wouldn't be here either.

Why stop there? I may be able to convince myself that if the DNA in a dividing bacterium a billion years ago had arranged the split differently, I wouldn't be blogging now.

And my last question - where exactly are my poor, unrealised, less lucky, 8 trillion siblings? Who never existed before, had one brief chance of existence and lost, and will never exist in the future.

Sunday, 14 September 2008

Peeking beneath the Diary skirts

I am often asked: why the Diaries and where does the inspiration come from?

Well, to be more accurate, I am never asked, but I thought I'd attempt some kind of answer all the same.

My overarching ambition is to make sense of the universe. I know I won't, but the speculation is fun.

I think there are three big questions.

(1) Why is there anything at all? I don't think existence is inevitable, so why is it all here? And where did it come from? My own guess is that just as +1 and -1 add to nothing, so our universe has its negative mirror image which came into counterexistence just as ours did, so as to balance the books. And I suspect will both collapse back to zero together.

(2) Why is there consciousness? It is weird and not inevitable either, and not necessary for complicated life. For example, I don't really think that wasps are conscious, but they have pretty complicated lives. Nor is it confined to humans as anyone who has made eye contact with an animal will understand.

(3) Is there a God? I can answer this one at once. Of course not, at least not the God of the bible. If we can think it up, then it almost certainly does not exist. Haldane was right. The universe is not stranger than we know, it's stranger than we can know. Ergo, any God we can conceive of is plainly wrong.

I guess this is where the Diaries come from. What kind of entity might run the universe?

Well, problem the first is one that it is not of the universe. He (we'll stay with the masculine thingy) may have created the universe and everything in it, but (by all accounts) did not create himself at the same time. So he was "somewhere else" at the time the universe came into being. And when I say, came into being, I'm taking space and time too, not just matter. Now if he's not of this universe, that is, outside our spatial dimensions, and outside of our time, he's going to have a lot of problems interacting with it.

Let's get this straight; we're talking physics here. When the Red Sea parts, there's an awful lot of pressure on water molecules trying to establish their level again. If they don't then there is a counter force. Not a cosmic "Don't you dare, 'cos I say so". No, it takes the expenditure of energy, in this universe, to hold water back.

Then there's the whole problem of the consequences of intervention. I mean, you can pray that plate tectonics go on hold for a while, so you and your family don't get drowned in a tsunami. But think about the buckling of the Earth's mantle that happens elsewhere as a result, and the innocents who get killed there, so you do not.

No, there's not a sodding thing that God can do that won't have horrendous counterconsequences.

Which means that prayer must go unanswered (which, I suspect, is pretty well the experience of all of us).

Note that none of this is a disproof of God. He may well exist. I don't think so, but I'm not anti-religious. My father-in-law is a clergyman, so there. In fact, if you are determined to believe in an all-powerful entity you can't be proved wrong. The world and universe could easily have been created in the last millisecond, and we with all our memories with it (and the fossil record too etc etc).

But my goodness, why would anyone bother? And that is a good question. So we could praise Him? I think He should get a life.

The thing that always puzzles me is why people think that God is good. We might jolly well hope so, but where is the evidence? Take nature. I'm afraid the "All things bright and beautiful ..." model just doesn't hold water. The Victorian view of "Nature red in tooth and claw" has it about right. Fact is, it's pretty horrid. There is not a prey animal that dies of old age. Sooner or later it gets torn apart. There is not a predator that doesn't die of injury or starvation in it's turn.

Creationism? Intelligent design? Give me a break. For every intelligently designed butterfly there is an intelligently designed tape worm.

It is the appearance of design and order that has folk thinking about designers and, well, benign and wise fathers. Alas most people don't grasp how, with enough time, very improbable things can not only happen, but become inevitable.

Remember that thing about monkeys, typewriters, and the complete works of Shakespeare? Well, I've done the calculation. If we treat upper and lower case letters as different, we have 52 of those, plus some punctuation, let's call it 60 things for convenience.

OK, so how unlikely is it, selecting letters and punctuation at random, to come up with the four characters "The ". Well, the number is 60 raised to the power 4, which is just a whisker under 13 million to one or about the same as winning the UK National Lottery. Extend this to a five letter word plus space like "Hello " and the odds become 46 billion to one. So you can see that the complete works of Shakespeare are not going to pop out of the monkey factory overnight.

But factor in infinity. Prepare for strange things. For given infinity, not only has the complete works of Shakespeare actually been generated this way, it has been generated, wait for it, an infinite number of times.

As I understand it the universe is not actually infinite, but who knows? However, it has been around for a long time, and will be around for a long time yet. And that means that strange things can happen. For example, the dinosaurs vanished about 65 million years ago. If you had been around since then (not a long time in Earth terms) and bought a lottery ticket a week, as a lot of folk do, you would have won the lottery about 200 times by now.

Of course evolution is not random, though I'll skip the logic for that now. However, it is fed by small random mutations. That is where the argument about odds and time becomes important.

Anyway, after enough rambling to bore even me, my conclusions are these:

- We may have been created by God, but the chances are he is "hands off" and has to be.
- He is not hugely preoccupied by the thought of being praised by a bunch of naked apes who do, actually, not look at all like him.
- He is not hugely preoccupied by sin or virtue.
- Having created the universe and the laws that drive it, he just kind of lets it go, and maybe has a look now and then when bored out of his skull.
- He is more than a little paranoid, and often wonders about where the f*ck he comes from and wonders how many layers of deity exist above him and in what kind of infinite regress.

I'll leave you with this, which I think is fun, and should put us in our place:

From William Goodhart's play Generation:

The Soul of Man,
Despite his pride,
Is rather odd,
A toy balloon
Blown up by God,
Or, strictly speaking,
The air inside,
And that is leaking.

Monday, 8 September 2008


I once had a book called "Food for Free". It is somewhere in our boxes, and I hope it will surface again one day. It lists things you can find and eat such as watercress, mushrooms and nuts. For free. An idea that I find attractive to this day.

You have to be careful though. For example you can get liver fluke from watercress if the stream flows through fields where sheep graze. And mushrooms scare a lot of people, for very good reasons. Some of them are absolutely lethal.

Here in France you can, in principle, take a fungus to your local pharmacy, and they will identify it for you and tell you if it is safe to eat. In principle. The last time I tried this the pharmacist turned to the only other customer in the shop and asked "Qu'en pensez-vous?" (What do you think?). Slightly defeated the purpose I decided, made my excuses and left.

That doesn't mean that I don't find and eat wild mushrooms. It just means that (a) I consult one (or more) of my four mushroom books and (b) I tend to go for things that are unmistakable.

Which leads me on to supper.

I was walking through the local woods when I found a beefsteak fungus. It is a bracket fungus and it looks like this:

It is called a beefsteak fungus because it looks remarkably like meat. When you cut it it even bleeds a bit. All this is rather disconcerting for a vegetarian, but anyway. I took one third of the fungus, thinking that I would in this manner not piss the fungus god too much, but on my way home I realised that, since the fungus is a parasite on the tree, I had probably displeased the tree god as well. Oh dear.

The photograph above is one I found on Google Images because I hadn't taken my camera with me. However the following is of the actual fungus and you can see (have a click) just how like meat it is.

That's a proper dinner plate, so you can see these things are big. I sliced it up ready to fry:

And fried it:


You will remember I like to go for fungi that are unmistakable? Well the clincher for beefsteak fungus is that it has a slight taste of lemon on the finish. Taste that, and you are home and dry.

In passing, another fungus that comes into the 'unmistakable' category is the unfortunately named "Trompette de la Mort" or Trumpet of Death. It is brown/grey/black and trumpet-shaped, so you can see the point. Still, I often feel that the poor thing could do with a better agent, since it too is delicious. Photo when Autumn arrives.

Sunday, 31 August 2008

The story of my life in six words

Somewhere in blogoland I came across the idea of writing your life story in just six words. I've done a Google to see where it may have come from, and in the process came across the following:

In the 1920s, Ernest Hemingway bet ten dollars that he could write a complete story in just six words. He wrote: "For Sale: baby shoes, never worn." He won the bet.

I find this a very interesting exercise because it forces one to concentrate on the absolute nub of what your life seems to be/have been. I'm sorry to say that so far my six words only conujour up sadness. Self pity, or the reflection of childhood?

Anyway, if you will bear with some shameless (and therapeutic) self indulgence, here are three attempts.

"Tossed aside, but found a way."

"Conceived and deceived. Still no answers."

"Bad parents. Mad children. Stupid really."

I'd be very interested to read what you might come up with; and a few cheerful ones would be just great!

Added later:

I have been inspired by dot to be more positive. He is right. As I indicated in my response to his comment, my life is good, and I am happy. The past is the past. He challenged me to try my life story in six positive words, so here they are:

"Started badly; who cares? Finishing well".

Thursday, 28 August 2008

Why did the chickens climb the stairs?

No, not a joke or a riddle. A genuine question.

We have six new chicks, who have been with us from 3 weeks old. They are the replacements for several of our adult chickens who, for all sorts of reasons including hideous bad luck, have died. Some of you will have read about Blue Foot. Her demise was followed, not long after, by her friend Giselle who suffered from health complications too.

The newcomers are getting towards full size, but are still babies really, you can tell that from their tiny little serrated combs. They often seem to behave like one composite creature, perhaps the result of imprinting on each other?

They are surprisingly dear and entertaining.

Anyway, here are the stairs. There are 32 of them, in three flights, and I would have thought that each step would present a bit of a challenge.

Here is the view down the stairs, so we are talking "high" here. And trust me, chickens do not fly.

And here are the six babies who have twice now decided, for reasons I cannot fathom, that up the stairs they will go and then have a preen and a rest.

You've got to ask yourself "Who the heck had this strange idea?" and you also have to ask "And why did anyone listen to you?"

Friday, 22 August 2008

Small rhinoceros, tough hide.

Cupidon was having a love-in with some small creature. Alas what he loves and what small creatures love are two different things.

At least this time our visitor came well defended and was none the worse for a few minutes of molestation. He / she was so shiny - I kept looking at the images close up to spot my reflection. I'm sure it must be there somewhere. (BTW this is worth clicking for a closer look - it's beautiful).

Anyway, having put up with the cat, and put up with being photographed, said rhino was set free and ambled off in no particular hurry.

An entirely different matter - I went outside the other night and pleasant surprise, there was a near full eclipse of the moon. My camera would be no use, but I tried using my wife's Cannon S5IS on full zoom, hand held, to see what I could get. It produced the following. OK, not great, but stunning given a hand-held exposure at night. That image stabilisation really does work.

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

Men, women and the hyperintelligent

In a recent post I singled out some hyper-intelligent people. The common theme was their ability to take something we might all have encountered but then done something remarkable with it.

People. Well men actually, as mouse pointed out to me.

This had me thinking. Did my selection reveal an unwitting prejudice against women? Not as unlikely as you might think.

To give you a "for instance" read the following passage and reach your conclusions:

A father and his teenage son are out in the family car. There is an accident. The father, who was driving, is killed outright. The boy is badly injured, with broken ribs and a collapsed lung. He is in danger of dying. An ambulance reaches the scene and the boy is rushed to the A&E at the nearest hospital. Without delay he is prepared for surgery and wheeled into theatre. When the boy is placed on the operating table the surgeon, who was briefed and waiting, gasps and says "I can't operate on that boy, he is my son!"

What is going on? To find out, read the first comment following this post.

Anyway, back to the post in question. Mouse commented as follows:

"a lovely tribute to a great collection of clever guys...operative word is guys! although you did omit one of my favorite smart BOYS, operative word boys...leonardo!!

some women I would honor in such a list may include hildegard of bingen (who I have posted about on the mouse), marie curie, rachel carson, hypatia, and perhaps hannah arendt, maria montessori... just to name a few."

Well, I took this seriously and reflected. There are several possibilities, but the two stark ones are (a) I am actually prejudiced against women (b) I'm not, and the selection simply indicated that there are more smart men to choose from than women.

Professionally, I know that there are no significant differences in intelligence between men and women, though they differ in these two ways. Men have better spatial skills and women have better verbal skills.

But hyperintelligence? I wasn't convinced by the women in mouse's list. Granted, they are all hugely influential, but I thought might come into the Thomas Edison category of 'Genius is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration'. The ones I know about, viz., Marie Curie, Rachel Carson and Maria Montessori seem to me to belong in that category. Their contributions reflect dedication, insight, persistence and hard work. But I don't see the kind of divine spark here that I see in say Newton or Einstein.

But reflecting further, I really don't see that in most men either - not in a Lord Kelvin say, or a Pauling, or even a Watson or Crick.

OK I thought, well maybe there are some incredibly bright men, and some incredibly bright women, and then a third category, the hyperintelligent, who just happen to have penises.

I think there may be something in this. For example, idiot savants are those people, who appear to be subnormal, who can do remarkable things, cognitively speaking. For example, they can tell you the day of the week corresponding to a random date you give them, or can learn a telephone directory by rote. And they are four to six times more likely to be male than female.

A famous contemporary savant is Stephen Wiltshire who couldn't talk and at the age of three was diagnosed as an autistic. He could draw, though, and thanks to those who recognised his talent and encouraged him, he slowly developed and finally, by the age of nine, learned to speak.

His particular talent is architectural drawing. He can look at a cityscape and then draw it. I don't mean an artist's impression. I mean draw it in detail, down to the number of windows in a office block. And without needing to look again.

He once drew the whole of central London after a helicopter trip above it. He did the same thing after a helicopter ride over Rome. His detailed drawing showed, inter alia, the exact number of columns in the Colosseum - not an easy thing to do, as this photograph shows.

Hyperintelligent people are not necessarily better than you and me in all sorts of ways. In fact, in terms of selective advantage and reproductive success, you are far better off with good social skills than an IQ of 145.

But they do seem to have these blinding insights into life, the universe and everything, that are denied to the rest of us, be we male or female.

[Postscript: baino, in a comment, reminded me about expectation effects, something I had meant to touch on here. For most of history, including modern times, women have not been expected to perform. We know from experimental evidence that this dampens aspiration and affects attainment.]

Friday, 1 August 2008

Who's been sleeping in my bed?

Well Cupidon has, and here is the evidence - look at the size of the creature. His kitten days are well and truly over.

Thus far he has been unable to crack the mosquito net, but today he suceeded. Oh joy, oh rapture. It lends a certain currency to "Sleep tight, hope the fleas don't bite in the night."

I feel I should apologise for the sordid state of the unmade bed, but that would just draw your attention to it, so I won't (don't click for a larger view!!).

Monday, 28 July 2008

Clever? I'll give you clever!

I wonder what the average IQ of the blogging community is? It's above the population mean and I'd guestimate it in the region of IQ 115-120. I base this on two observations. First the quality of the writing, though variable, is generally good, in some cases exceptional (you know who you are, I won't embarrass you). Second, to blog at all you have to master a computer, a keyboard, access the internet and get to grips with the actual mechanics of blogging.

So we're a clever community (cough). But some people are really clever. I'm going to give you a few examples of people so clever they make foxes look stupid. And there is a particular quality to their cleverness that I admire; it's that sort of "pulling a rabbit out of a hat" thing. I hope you'll see what I mean.

First off the blocks is Carl Friedrich Gauss (1777 – 1855). When he was in elementary school aged 10 the teacher, probably wanting a bit of peace and quiet, set the class a problem. Take all the whole numbers from 1 to 100 and add them up (i.e. 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + 5 and so on up to 100). Since this involved 99 separate additions, he should have been able to count on 20 to 30 minutes of peace, but Gauss raised his hand almost immediately and said that the answer was 5,050.

It is the simplicity of his method that reflects his genius. He realised that the 100 numbers could be arranged in 50 pairs as follows: 1 and 100, 2 and 99, 3 and 98, 4 and 97 all the way down to 50 and 51. Since each of the pairs adds up to 101, then the answer will be 50 times that, viz., 5050. Now that's clever.

And how about Isaac Newton (1643 – 1727)? He was probably one of the cleverest people who has lived.

I mean, how many of us can do the calculus? Quite. Now imagine inventing the calculus just so you can get on with the problems that interest you. Well, that's what he did. And it's the breadth of his contributions that bowls me over - the law of gravity and the explication of planetary motion, mechanics, optics and as we have seen mathematics, including the "Principia Mathematica", his most important work.

I used to live in Cambridge, and it would give me goose bumps to walk around Trinity College, knowing I could reach out and touch him, but for a few hundred years.

I think what makes him really clever was how he dealt with apparently simple things (a bit like Gauss). For example we've all seen rainbows, or witnessed the colours scattered by a chandelier. But Newton did the experiments to show that all the colours were in white light. And he did it so simply.

He just closed the curtains in his room in Cambridge, allowed a chink of light through, split that into colours with a prism, arranged a second prism to collect the light again, and recombined it back into white light. Any one of us could have done that ... but it took a genius to actually do it, and realise the significance of what he was doing.

Next in my list of reasons to be amazed: We've all grown up with the idea that Earth is in the solar system, that it and the other planets revolve around the sun and so on. We also know there was a time when people didn't and thought everything revolved around the Earth instead - which, be honest, is the way it actually looks.

Galileo Galilei (1564 - 1642), a towering genius, also used something simple to change the way we viewed the world and the solar system. He made observations of Venus using a very modest telescope and saw that it had phases, and specifically could appear as a crescent (just as the moon does when it is 'sunward' of us).

Now here's the clever bit. He was smart enough to understand that this could only happen if Venus was orbiting the Sun, and if the orbit of Venus was inside the Earth's. At a stroke he realised that Copernicus and his doctrine of heleocentrism was right.

Alas, the Inquisition forced him to recant this view, and he spent the last years of his life under house arrest.

Have a look at this amazing daytime image, which is undoctored - but you'll have to click to get a larger view to see the necessary detail. It shows Venus and the Moon in the same phase, and just before the moon overtook Venus in the sky and obscured it.

Charles Darwin (1809 – 1882) must get a mention. In him we see, once again, the propensity for the genius to look a little more deeply at exactly the same things you or I are seeing. We see that life is diverse; he sees that diversity resulting from natural selection. It's strange that this was so revolutionary, and caused so much controversy and anguish. After all, we have known for centuries that you can artificially select for different characteristics - look at dog breeding for example.

I've saved for last the most spooky example of genius, Albert Einstein (1879 – 1955). He tried to get a teaching post after he graduated and failed. He finally ended up working in the Berne (Switzerland) Patent Office where he was passed over for promotion and didn't even get a permanent post until 1903 when he was 24.

In 1905, while still at the patent office, he published four very important papers, including one on special relativity and one on mass - energy equivalence, the famous E = mc2 equation (that's c squared BTW, but can't type it)..

This is what happens during a nuclear explosion; such an explosion was not to be seen for a further 40 years. The same conversion of mass to energy is going on in the sun, and makes our lives possible. It will keep going for billions of years.

So my question is how does a humble patent clerk, who has no research grant, no access to laboratories or equipment, and no means to do experiments, arrive at something so earth shattering and actually be right? All at the age of 26? Is that mind boggling or what?

PS: To understand just how dramatic this mass / energy equivalence is, be aware that in the Hiroshima explosion, the mass being converted into energy was the equivalent of a paper clip.

PPS: Newton, who, let's face it, was right about lots of things, said that the world, and I quote "would not end before 2060". If you are young enough, be afraid, be very afraid.

Friday, 25 July 2008

Lost and found

Seven or eight hundred years ago, someone lost this rather handsome silver coin. Today I found it. The reason I found it has something to do with why I have had less time of late to visit my favourite blogs. I am into drains. Not literally, that would be hideous. But by necessity.

We are doing up this magnificent wreck. It was the equerry (hope that's spelt correctly, anyway, stable block) for the long-gone chateau that used to stand just a few meters away. You need superlatives to describe this building.

- It is very old, 12th century
- Very big, 35 meters by 11 meters by 10 meters high, and that's just the vaulted bit, there's another 190 square meters on the side
- And very lovely

But as I have discovered with restoration, you pay by the square meter (wonder why it took me so long to understand that?). Thus there is an interesting inverse relationship between the health of the building and the health of our bank balance.

Before and after (well, in progress)

I have had to learn quite a lot along the way. And two of the things I have had to learn are plumbing and drainage. This is thanks to my English so-called plumber who is an arse. Yes, Derek, you. I know more about drainage after an afternoon with Google than you ever will.

When we use English tradespeople it is not because of language or nationality issues. It's just so hard to get hold of French artisans, who are generally very good.

Anyway, back to drains. We are having a septic system installed. I'm not attempting this bit myself; it's too big and too regulated. We had this monster 24 ton digger on site to dig three very big holes - one for the septic tank, one for the soak away, and one for a rain water storage tank I'm installing.

I went along the soil pile beside one of the trenches with my metal detector, getting lots of junk signals when 'ping'. It only took a minute's scrabbling to find the coin. I love these old finds. I'm not a detectorist as such. I'm only interested in unearthing some of the history of the property, and it's the intrinsic value that appeals.

Anyway, hope to be done in another year's time - you can laugh at my optimism; I know I will.