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.

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

I think I may just pinch myself. No, I'm not dreaming.

I wrote about knives recently. 'When I was a lad' we all had them, but didn't do bad things with them. That sort of smug twaddle.

There was an interesting following discussion about knife crime and based on my own experience it seems to me that owning or carrying knives is not the problem whatever the government thinks. I carry a knife with me all the time. It's invaluable.

Which leads me into a tiny digression. We had our village fête last weekend, and while I was waiting to be served some food I realised that the lady behind the counter was searching for a knife to cut the baguette with. I produced my knife which she accepted gratefully, cut up the baguette and handed it back. No shock horror at a strange man producing a knife and no shock horror of the "How do I know you haven't been slicing peanuts or kiwi fruit with that" variety.

Which leads me to digression number two. Oh dear. The last one. Anyway, I was serving behind the bar at this fête. Although our village is tiny, just a hamlet, the fête is a famous commemoration of the Resistance. It attracts a couple of thousand people every year, which is extraordinary. I was serving from 7 pm to about 1:30 am, one of six volunteers, so you can see that drink was flowing, yet I did not see one drunk / disorderly person all evening. The French, around here anyway, don't seem to drink, fight and projectile vomit the way the Brits do.

OK, back to the point. It is this quote from The Telegraph, in an article on knife crime: "The first responsibility when a child is in trouble or at risk of getting into trouble rests with the parents. We must hold parents responsible." Gordon Brown himself, no less.

So the thing that had me pinching myself was what that quote implies. Is is really the case that parents are *not* responsible for the mayhem that their children create? Good grief, when did we lose this particular plot? It explains a lot. Such as why some parents don't know where their children are or who they are with. Given that they are clearly already neglectful, their attitude might change if they were at least handed the bill for restorative justice.

I sometimes wonder if the great and the good, that is those who engineer society on our behalf, were ever boys (well, of course I accept that some of them were very pleased not to be). Boys, and especially adolescent boys, are really quite intrinsically dangerous. They need a lot of socialisation, and some of it heavy handed. They are not hugely influenced by discussions about why their behaviour is wrong (duh, is that actually news to them?) or how to meet the obligations of a contract put together by a well-meaning but criminally optimistic social worker.

"Boys will be boys". Indeed, and some of them are little shits too.

PS - I've noticed that the media tend to refer to "children in trouble" or "at risk". Be more accurate to call them "troublesome children". God, I'm in a real grump tonight.

Monday, 14 July 2008

Let's play tag - or exponential bliss

This is a post about tagging and very large numbers, and how the two come together.

Let me introduce the topic this way (you may already know it): A wise man is offered a reward for something or other by a ruler. He appears to ask a very modest amount, namely, that he be given an amount of wheat calculated as follows: one grain of wheat on the first square of a chessboard, two grains on the next, four on the next, eight on the next and so on.

It doesn't sound like a lot, but the total number of grains is one less than 2 to the power 64; a very big number. In fact it is the wheat yield of the entire earth, assuming we grew nothing but wheat, for the next 80 years. That's the nature of exponential growth.

Move on to tagging. This particular tag has you identify five blogs that you like, each of whom thus tagged must come up with another five and so on. I was tagged in this way, recently, by three utterly delightful people whose blogs I enjoy greatly: millennium housewife, ngorobobhillhouse and the times of miranda.

However I do not take this as evidence that my blog is irresistible. Rather, I think we have a slight chessboard and wheat situation developing here. If 2 to the power something is big, then 5 to the power something is even bigger. Just how big? Well have a look at this series:

The first person tags 5
Each of them tags five, so that's 5 x 5 or 25. (Actually, strictly speaking it is 25 plus the original 5, giving 30. We should accumulate as we go, but it doesn't really change the logic).
In the next it is 125 (5 x 5 x 5) ...

OK, starting from 1 again, and taking it up to 15 successive taggings we have this series:

1. 5
2. 25
3. 125
4. 625
5. 3,125
6. 15,625
7. 78,125
8. 390,625
9. 1,953,125
10. 9,765,625
11. 48,828,125
12. 244,140,625
13. 1,220,703,125
14. 6,103,515,625 (this is about the population of Earth)
15. 30,517,578,125
16. eek, my head hurts

I'm still very happy to nominate blogs that I like; but I think I'm not going to tell them they've been tagged; not enough untagged blogs left on the planet!

baino's banter
the gold puppy
not enough mud
jolly good yarn girl
working mum on the verge
little brown blog

Yes, I can count, since you ask.

PS - you can still tag me!

PPS - another fun example of exponential growth. This is physically impossible, but suppose you could fold a piece of paper in half, then in half again, and so on, for 32 times. How thick would it be? Answer - so thick that it reach the orbit of the moon. No kidding.

Thursday, 10 July 2008

Is this a good day to die?

You can tell the sort of mood I'm in; no actually I'm not depressed, just reflective. And my reflections take me down this path, wondering if I'm lucky or unlucky. I feel that the universe has had a number of attempts at ending my existence (unlucky) but I've survived them (lucky). I wonder if you have ever had similar thoughts?

Here is the chronology:

2 years: my devoted but demented mother used to rub Vicks on my chest when I was little. She sometimes gave me a little to taste (why mum?). When I was left alone with the jar, I ate the entire contents. Severity unknown, but I turned blue so that suggests thoracic or cardiac distress.

4 years: I am reminded by my daughter (see comment 2) of the following. On board ship, passage from India, I was sucking on a boiled sweet. For some reason I inhaled it and it completely blocked my trachea. So I probably had 30 seconds of consciousness ahead of me and 3 minutes to live. I remember running somewhere, anywhere, and ran slap bang into my mother's legs. In a rare display of comprehension and intelligence she grabbed me by the ankles and shook. The sweet popped out. Oh, the freedom to breathe; I remember it still. Threat level, severe.

14 years: Forgot this one, first time through. There was a cobra at the side of the path; I didn't see it and walked past. It struck out at me; its head hit the ground with an audible thud just behind my ankle. The venom is a neurotoxin, and a full dose will kill about 75% of its victims. It gave me a bit of an adrenalin high, but I always liked snakes and still do. Threat level, moderate.

18 years: was doing geological exploration. I and four others were invited down a small platinum mine. It was about 4pm. We were told to get out before 5 because some blasting was scheduled and we would be asphyxiated if we didn't. We descended in a tiny cage, three in it, and two standing on top (yes, Health and Safety was but a gleam in its mother's eye in those days). We had a poke around and got back into or onto the cage to go back up, just before 5pm. Our cage went up about a foot and stopped. Then the cable slowly unwound. I was in the cage and the unwinding meant that we were now below the tunnel level and could not open the cage door anymore. Hmmm. I looked down. The beam from my miner's helmet reflected back at me, from just a few feet down. Fuck. The mine was flooded below our level, and we were still unwinding. And we began to smell cordite. Double fuck. Then we realised why we had stopped. The mine had it's own generator, and it had shut down at 5pm, no one remembering, apparently, that we were still down there. Triple fuck. But, hooray, at 5 past, someone did remember we were down there and they re-started the generator. Threat level, severe.

18 years: Same job actually, front wheel detached from my vehicle which turned over. No seat belts in those days, several bad injuries. Threat level, moderate.

22 years: Another rollover, not driving this time, various injuries including fractured skull, broken femur, and a lost eye. But not me. Threat level, moderate.

23 years: Kidney operation to correct a narrowing of the ureter. Operated on by two arseholes. Yes, really, I kid you not. One was struck off the register for drinking on the job (almost certainly the case with me), the other later committed suicide just before his nieces blew the whistle on his pedophilia. Anyway, to cut the long hacking short, they managed to put a scalpel up through my diaphragm so my lung collapsed - but didn't notice, of course. Luckily some random doctor walking through recovery saw how blue I was and did the necessary. But I lost the kidney. Threat level, severe.

49 years: Flying incident. My flying buddy checked the fuel and declared it OK. I should have but didn't. One tank gave out, switched over, then the other went dry. It goes very quiet when you run out of fuel at 3,000 feet. The nearest airfield was withing gliding distance; so glided in and did a good landing. Threat level, moderate.

52 years: More flying. Landed on an airstrip having descended through cloud at freezing temperatures. I had picked up ice under the wings, but my pre-takeoff inspection did not show this. Now you may not know it, but tiny amounts of freezing, even frost itself, will completely change the aerodynamics of an aircraft. Started the takeoff roll, and the effing thing would not lift. Planes are not like cars. At a certain point, and I was beyond it, you have to commit to takeoff. You really can't stop in the distance anymore. So faster and faster, less and less airfield, the sheep in front of me shitting themselves more and more (as I nearly was) when I dragged the bloody thing into the air. I didn't hit any sheep, but I reckon I sheared a few. It stayed about 10 feet up and just wouldn't go higher until there was enough airspeed to shed the ice. Threat level, bloody awful.

57 years: Took the train from London to Cambridge, well it should have been Cambridge, but it didn't get further than Potters Bar. Yes, *the* Potters Bar, the rail accident that killed 7 and injured 80. I walked away. Threat level, severe.

I think that's about it. Have a good day.

Tuesday, 8 July 2008

Guess who's come to visit?

There are some insects that I really enjoy and the hummingbird hawk moth is near the top of the list. When you see them close up, they are more like an animated stuffed toy. In a classic case of parallel evolution they, like hummingbirds, can hover, or fly backward or sideways. They feed without touching down.

They do dart around though, so it's not easy to see quite how they do it. Today I thought sod it. You can't get cheaper than digital when it comes to banging off hundreds of shots. So with the sun out and hawk moths much in evidence around the lavender, I put my Canon into manual and click-click mode and banged away hoping that some images would be in focus.

Well, as luck and repetition would have it, some were, including quite a few shots of lavender without moths - well I said they were quick.

The proboscis is surprisingly long. Maybe this keeps them out of harm's way while they feed. I've got a shot of one curling it up between feeds. I hope you enjoy the images as much as I do. As per, click on an image for a larger view.

Thursday, 3 July 2008

A gathering

My niece died recently - unexpectedly but of natural causes. She had lived in a commune in the Black Mountains in France, and though she had moved out to take a job in Toulouse, she went back most weekends.

It was on one of these weekend visits that she died. Her two sons, now 17 and 20 had been in part raised in the commune, and the older still lives there. The community and the boys organised the funeral.

I don't really want to write about the funeral. Like most it had both tragic and uplifting elements. But I would like to write a bit about the community, which I found very interesting.

I knew that Jane lived in some sort of community, but that's about it. In the absence of other information, I assumed a gathering of hippie dropouts. I'm afraid I haven't seen her for years, which is a point of sadness, and so had no detailed knowledge of her circumstances.

In the event I have come away deeply impressed by a very nice group of people, and reminded that simple things can be very satisfying.

Turns out that the original group all met through Shintaido, "an avant-guarde martial art with the emphasis of self-development and life expression". One of them found the property - an abandoned school with with lots of land and surrounding woods - and they moved in. It's quite a big group now; I was told there are 40 children, most of them educated there. Though it's a closely knit community, it's not communal living. They have houses or apartments created out of the school buildings.

The exception to this was the older boys (up to about 20 years or so). They had a kind of lodge in part of the old farm house. In this they had bedrooms, a communal kitchen with a long wooden table, and even a little movie theatre complete with video projector. They had done most of the construction work themselves with adult supervision and expertise as needed. The passing on of artisan skills seems to be an explicit part of the lifestyle.

I noted bucket and mop and also a vacuum cleaner, and the place was spotless. The lads were charming and polite. In case you think I stumbled into some sort of alternative universe there was much evidence of computer games with large screens everywhere.

I travelled down with my sister (Jane's mother), and my two daughters. The community said they could put us up, but I had no clear idea about the arrangements. In the event we were accommodated in the old school building in basic, but perfectly adequate rooms. The toilet was one of those old French ones, where you have a well-founded fear of putting a foot wrong. And not the kind of place you would want to read the Sunday papers in.

We arrived fairly late, and while we had a bit of food for the journey, we did not have enough for self-catering. No problem. Some boxes of pasta were produced, and this, when cooked, sprinkled with olive oil and some grated Parmesan cheese, with a bit of lettuce and pate on the side, made for a simple, but delicious meal. And, I should add, washed down with my own rough, but very ready wine.

Later we repaired to an inglenook fireplace, where we sat and chatted, drinking ash tea (more on this later) and the local firewater. I was told what this was made from, but the memory is a shade hazy.

The next day I met a few more of the people and tried to find out what people in the community did. It seems a few commute to outside day jobs, but many seem to earn their living applying artisan skills. They like traditional ways of doing things - I really have the impression that this is a bit of a national characteristic - and what I saw was impressive.

Here, for example are two end pieces, to hold up a very thick and heavy table.

Plus some other pieces - not sure what to make of the fire-breathing angel! (Well worth a click for a larger view).

They build with wood too, and use one of those sawing pits to slice along logs. You may know the kind of thing. Someone stands on top holding one end of a long saw, the other is in the pit holding the other end. They push and pull between them. Hard work, but a good alternative to a saw mill.

Jane shared the responsibilities of a small flock of sheep with two other 'shepherdesses who live at the commune; it was clear that she was well known and liked there. Her ashes were scattered in the woods on their property, just a short walk away. All the adults attended, and her friends left touching mementos at the base of a tree, flowers mostly, but a shepherd's staff, some bread in the shape of a heart, and a soft toy. I really can't imagin anything nicer or more appropriate.


I mentioned ash tea, made from the leaves of the Ash tree. Identify it here. I haven't had this before, but we all found it delicious and refreshing. Very simple. Just gather some sprigs or small branches with ash leaves, hang with the leaves pointing downward until they are dry, then crush and use as you would tea. Probably best drunk without milk or sugar. I was told it help me live a long time. Recommended anyway.

We were also served a fermented drink made from ash leaves. Very nice indeed. I was going to post the recipe, but I find that my daughter has dissappeared to Paris with it, so that will have to wait.