Friday, February 19, 2016

More fun with the smell-checker

One of my favourite comic writers - "the soles of whose shoes I am unworthy to lick" (to quote Eric Idle) - was Paul Jennings. Some of his best pieces were published as a collection called The Jenguin Pennings. If you have ever read any of these you might have noticed a certain similarity to the infinitely more humble offerings of your's truly. 

There's no secret about it; Paul Jennings is a great insulation. 

All of which reminds me of one of my favourite Jennings pieces. As is customary he starts with something quite innocuous before letting his comic imagination get to work. In this case he was learning to touch type and, in particular, typing the standard test phrase: "the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog". Forbidden to look at the keys, he inevitably made mistakes and then went on the analyse them for hidden, subconscious significance.  

Of course, the spell-checker gives the whole enterprise a turbot boat - or should I say a turbo boost - and so I decided to give it a try.  

Using Hamlet's famous soliloquy as the test piece, I typed it out as fast as I could with the spell-checker turned up to 11.

Here's what emerged: 

To be or not ego end; that is the quiet son  

And you see how, right from the word go, we're into some pretty deep stuff. That 'ego end' for example. What more profound way to talk about death?

Whether it is an oblige in the mind to suffer the Swiss and arrows of outrageous rotund 

This is more undoubtedly more difficult. 'An oblige in the mind' has something primitive about it - there are hints here of a subconscious compulsion, but quite what the Swiss have to do with it is unclear.  

Or to take absinthe and sea-dog trailers and by opening end them.  

Stranger and stranger. Despite the fact that a sea-dog trailer is exactly the sort of thing you might expect to come across after a dose of absinthe, it is utterly incomprehensible why you should want to open them and how that's going to help anything. 

This was clearly going to demand some serious analysis; I decided to try something simpler: 

Humpy dimply dat one a wall 
Humphrys dedumpty had agreed to a fall
All the kinda horse and all the makings men 
Couldn't pry Humply together again 

… which I am sure you will agree can confidently hold its own against the original.  

As to what it means exactly - I will leave you to decide.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

What is Life? 1

So, in response to the invitation that concluded my last blog as to which topic should be the 'first up' out of:

1. Buy-to-let
2. Identity theft
3. Bitcoin
4. What is Life?

I can now announce the result, namely that 100% of respondents opted for topic no.4

Readers: You say respondents. How many were there exactly ?

Three as it happens; but it doesn’t matter. What is Life? it is.

Of course, by life, we could be talking about any number of things.  I mean, there's life in the abstract poetic sense:
What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as  …..
Readers: Yeah, yeah — that's the one we want.

… then there’s the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Version ….

Readers: That one will do too. Whatever. Just get on with it.

But I’m not thinking of either of these.  No, I'm talking about life in the biological sense — what you see when you look at other people, dogs, trees, spiders, worms, flies. slugs and slime ... that sort of life.

Readers: Heaven preserve us.

And so the question is .... what is it exactly. What is life ?

(Some people, sensing an imminent plunge into something resembling a school chemistry lesson, might choose to get off at this point. If you are one of them then please don’t feel badly about it; it’s not like I’ll ever know. Just try to leave quietly without upsetting the others.)

I have been interested in this topic for a number of years. It would be reasonable to ask why.

Readers: Maybe — but do we really have to ? 

I could talk about the books I have read, about theories and scientific disciplines but that would be to miss the essential thing, which is  more to do with the sense of wonder we experience when we stand back and contemplate the mysterious world that surrounds us. And so it was in my case, initially through literature and film — and in particular, Stanislaw Lem’s book, Solaris and the later film adaptation by Andrei Tarkovsky — that I first caught a glimpse of the world seen as a stranger or innocent might see it.

In Lem’s story, the planet Solaris is so unfathomably complex that entire institutes are established, dedicated to the study of the bizarre and incomprehensible processes and structures observed on its surface. The consensus view is that the planet is effectively a single, sentient organism and, though this was some years before James Lovelock’s Gaia, it didn’t take a huge leap of the imagination to see that Solaris might easily be taken to stand for our own planet. In the film version Tarkovsky takes this a step further, in making it clear how those who have experienced the planet firsthand are irrevocably changed by the experience — being left with the sense that things formerly seen as ordinary or commonplace have taken on a quality of profound mystery.

Then sometime later, I was watching a wildlife documentary in which a flock of white birds, filmed from above, was flying over an empty  landscape and I found myself thinking how Earth is a planet on which the basic building blocks of matter have mysteriously become alive to the extent that pieces can actually detach themselves from the surface and engage in all sorts of complex behaviours. In truth, Earth itself is a living planet - not just a planet with life on it, but a planet that is itself alive; seemingly unique among the other planets in the solar system; and, for all we know, in the entire universe.

In attempting to explain life, scientists — at least until recently — have had little to offer beyond the idea that, given sufficient time, the generation of a mind-boggling number of random combinations of molecules will eventually result in the accidental creation of one or more exquisite biological mechanisms, capable of self-organisation and replication.

Meanwhile, to people of faith, it is all down to the hand of God — it being utterly inconceivable that the rich tapestry of life could have come about by means of a mere lottery, however many rolls of the balls are allowed.

I find both of these views — which could respectively be labeled creationist and mechanistic — completely unsatisfactory, inasmuch as they regard the material world as oddly limited in its capacity to give rise to new forms and structures. In both scenarios, the laws of physics and chemistry are allowed to explain certain natural combinations: molecules, crystals — even amino acids (the building blocks of proteins) but it is as if, beyond a certain level of complexity, further structural elaboration is assumed to be implausible and something else has to be brought into play: either God or Dawkins’ blind watchmaker.

There is another alternative however: namely that it is in the nature of basic matter to assemble itself, first as simple and later more complex molecules, all the way up to the astounding nano-machines found in even the simplest cells and that this process entails a rich interplay of structure and environment — subject, all the while, to a number of simple rules. This is discussed in a recent book by Nick Lane: The Vital Question. As I have only a rudimentary understanding of chemistry, I have found the book fairly hard going and am still only around halfway through reading it, but it is inspiring to see the author explain how the fundamental processes found in the simplest bacterial forms of life might have come about almost inevitably, given the right environment.

Readers: so that’s what you spend your time thinking about … 

Well not all my time exactly, but yes - and for no other reason than that I find this stuff seriously fascinating. And what’s more, it raises all sorts of interesting questions — for example:

Evolution would appear to account for the ‘endless forms’ in which life manifests itself, but the underlying mechanisms governing replication, respiration etc are virtually identical in all living species - even the most primitive. How did such mechanisms themselves evolve and why are there virtually no traces of alternative designs ?

Readers: Why indeed ?

And is life on earth unique or does it exist elsewhere in the universe?

Readers: Yes — that’s a good one and what’s the answer do you think ?

Ah - we might have to leave that till next time.

Readers: What? There’s more ? 

Lots. We’ve barely scratched the surface

Monday, January 04, 2016

New Year's resolutions

I don’t normally do these — resolutions that is — but this year one just sort of popped up, namely:

Get on with it 

It has the attraction of being fairly non-specific, while simultaneously addressing my main problem, namely a tendency to engage in wool gathering — which the dictionary defines as indulgence in aimless thought or dreamy imagining.

Anyway, while my New Year’s resolution has broad scope (being applicable to everything, from tidying the cellar to being more sociable), for you dear readers, the fruit will be dished up on these very pages. I have a number of topics waiting in the wings, including:


Identity theft


What is Life?

… as well as a selection of lighthearted extracts from Horsley’s Over the Wall magazine.

If you have a particular preference as to which of these delicacies you would like to sample first, please let me know.

In the meantime, here’s wishing you a very happy (and productive) New Year

Sunday, October 04, 2015

Rugby, Geoff Parling and pressure

When it comes to rugby (and most other games for that matter) I’m a bit of a fair-weather fan. Years can go by without even the merest glimmer of interest on my part. But come the World Cup and all the razzamatazz that accompanies it and you’ll find me glued to the television. 
In advance of this year’s competition I even went online and brushed up on the rules, on the grounds that, along with the general spectacle: stadia, crowds, extravagant TV ads etc., it wouldn’t harm to understand a little of what was taking place on the pitch.
And there was an unexpected bonus when It came to the game itself — namely the TMO (or television match official) which, as you will no doubt be aware, is consulted at those moments in the game when the tangled mass of bodies reaches a density that is simply too bewildering for the referee to figure out. So what at first is a horrifying, wince-inducing, collision of massive, muscular bodies is transformed, through a series of slow-motion replays, into a graceful, balletic tumble in which arms, legs and torsos are gently interwoven and hands grapple desperately for the ball.
And though it was heartbreaking to watch England defeated by Australia last night, it was a short pre-match interview with England forward, Geoff Parling that spurred me to write this piece. The interviewer was asking Parling how he managed to cope with the pressure in advance of one of the biggest matches of his career. This is what he said:
“Pressure for me doesn’t apply to rugby in general; pressure for me is someone struggling to put food on the table for his family. In rugby, it’s expectation.”
Call me an old sentimentalist, but I liked that. 

Sunday, August 16, 2015

2020 vision

I am finding the Labour leadership contest absolutely fascinating
You get a sense that the three sensible, moderate and realistic candidates are in a state of shock. Until a few weeks ago they were under the impression they understood how to do politics — it being essentially a matter of selling the electorate a well-formulated and attractively packaged product. And yet they now suddenly find themselves eclipsed by someone who looks like a geography teacher — for goodness sake.
The bit they really don’t seem to get is that, in reality, it’s not so much about Jeremy Corbyn as it is about an energy that is beginning to well up amongst ordinary people, a sense that things might be organised differently — not only more fairly, but more imaginatively and effectively. But, above all, it is the fact that people are talking to one another again that is most exciting. I have seen it and it’s real. It’s as if we have been in a deep enchanted sleep and now we are waking up — and not a moment too soon.
We have been duped, taken for idiots and sold the outlandish story that the processes involved in the concentration of monetary wealth are entirely natural and capable of delivering general wellbeing all round -- were it not for our sentimental attachment to older, less effective ways of doing things.
Except, this is not actually the story we have been sold. Though it might be an accurate summary of what is meant by neoliberalism it is a draught that is still too bitter to be taken straight.
Instead, we have the simpler story that says the country is like a household: if you spend too much you get into debt and debt leads to problems. So the most important thing is we have to stop spending and learn to live according to our means — austerity in other words. Much though we might be attached to the NHS, mutual societies, free education and the BBC, they are all simply too expensive.
This is a narrative that has been adopted, to a greater or lesser extent, by both main parties. To be fair, the Labour version has placed greater stress on the need to mitigate austerity’s harmful side effects, but the underlying premise has not been seriously questioned — at least not until recently, when we begin to see the terrible cost that this narrow ideology is exacting from a growing portion of the population. Children growing up in ugly and unsanitary homes; young people leaving university laden with debts; those starting young families unable to find anywhere to live; the elderly left to fade away in under-resourced care facilities
It needn’t be like this. With energy and imagination we can create something better.
In the last few days I have heard two of the three sensible, moderate and realistic leadership candidates say:
“I love the Party too much to see it … blah blah blah”
Maybe that is the problem: they have come to love the party so much that they have overlooked the fact that their job is to represent the rest of us.
Their line is that Corbyn will take us all back to the 1980s when the party — though not necessary everyone else — had a particularly hard time.
I remember the 1980s: we’re not going back there anyway; we’re going forward — to 2020.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Andrew's Liver Salts

To: GlaxoSmithKline
      Consumer Healthcare

Re: Original Andrew's Salts

Though I am only an occasional user of this product, I find it effective and always try to keep some to hand. All the same, the packaging of your product is without doubt one of the most extreme cases of bad design I have ever come across. 

I am talking about the plastic, oval bottle with the blue spoon attached to the lid. 

I am taking the time to write about this because I am genuinely fascinated by the process that led to such a design being dreamed up, approved and put into production. It's not simply a matter of not being good, it's more a case of taking bad design to new heights. In short, the person who designed this packaging is clearly something of an evil genius. 

Let's start at the top: 

Firstly there's that spoon that you have to snap off to use. It's too short for a start. As soon as the level of the contents is down to around 80% they can no longer be reached by the spoon – which is probably a good thing, as it is stored in an exposed position on the top of the lid and liable to get dirty. What's more, the way the lid opens makes it almost inevitable that you will place the tip of your finger in the bowl of the spoon just prior to using it – not a good idea. 

No, snap the spoon off and throw it away. It's worse than useless. To get at the contents you will need a very special kind of spoon. A teaspoon is too short. A desertspoon would be long enough but is too wide to use in the very awkwardly shaped container. No – you will need to get yourself one of those long-handled, teaspoon-sized spoons used in ice-cream parlours. You should keep one where you will be able to find it easily, in the middle of the night, when suffering from indigestion. 

The lid is not easy to use either. On the face of it, it looks OK. There's a little depression in the end and a projecting tab for the thumb – but I always find myself trying a couple of other ways first. It's a problem that starts with that spoon. The lid moulding presents two or three distinct profiles that each looks like it might the edge of the lid, together with intriguing tabs to try with your thumbnail.  

It is difficult to believe that such a simple piece of packaging can be so rich in surprises. For example, I was astounded to read on the label on the back of the container:  

See inside label for how to open and dosage instructions

Am I to take this to mean that there is a second label, inside the container that gives you instructions on how to open it ?

However, on the lower corner of the first label there is a triangular yellow tab bearing this amazing statement: 

Peel here but do not remove

On carefully peeling back the corner of the label I discovered there is a second, hidden label underneath containing, amongst other things, advice on opening the container and correct use of the spoon. This must be the mysterious inside label referred to earlier. 

All the same, as the advice is not to remove the outer label, I carefully lower it back in place. 

In this age of technological marvels, of incomprehensible machines and processes, of expert design and professionalism, it's encouraging to come across something so bad as to be almost brilliant. It restores my faith in the imperfection of human nature. 

Somewhere, in your organisation there is an exceptional individual, capable of the most bizarre and dysfunctional feats of design. If you are aware of any other examples of his (or her) work, I would be most interested to know of them. 


William Wormwood

... a week or two later I received a reply

Dear Mr Wormwood, 

Thank you for your letter regarding your disappointment with the pack design of our Andrew's Salts. We are proud of our reputation for high quality and are sorry that we have not met your expectations on this occasion. As we are continually assessing our products with regard to packaging etc. we are grateful that you have gone to the trouble of letting us know your views. 

Yours sincerely, 

[illegible squiggle

Breaking news: 

I note, on visiting my local pharmacy that the packaging remains essentially unchanged but that they have dispensed with the removable spoon. I like to think it was my allusions to the risk of bacterial contamination that prompted them to action. 

All the same, I would have loved to known more of that designer; I can't help fantasising that he or she was responsible the Dyson DC21:

The Centre Ground

I find myself irritated and depressed by all this talk about The Centre Ground in politics and in particular by the idea that it is only parties of the centre ground that have any hope of forming governments.

It’s not that I consider the Centre Ground to be a meaningless term - on the contrary it is very real, having something of the feel of a boxing ring in which a succession of centre left and centre right opponents slug it out to the point where one is declared the winner. The problem is: the boxing ring has been staked out for us by others, as a place where we can play out the game of electoral politics as an essentially safe sport. Meanwhile the machinery or power rolls on — to the spectacular benefit of a few, but with increasingly terrible consequences for the poor, underpaid, homeless and disabled.

We really must try to imagine something better; it’s not that difficult.

The refreshing thing is that there are more and more people — both young and old — who are asking, quite reasonably, why things at a national level can’t be ordered at least as well as (say) the Glastonbury Festival.

Of course, there will be people inclined to dismiss this as idle fantasy. After all, isn’t the Centre Ground defined by what the majority of people believe and desire? Yes maybe — but beliefs can be shaped and desires can be nurtured. It hardly takes a conspiracy theorist to see that News International, for example, devotes considerable resources to ensuring that elections produce governments that will be sympathetic to its aims. Thus people who question the established order are portrayed as infantile, easily-manipulated and naive — in contrast to the realistic, responsible and mature individuals who decide, on balance, that things are fine as they are.

Writing about the French Revolution, Wordsworth declared “bliss it was in that dawn to be alive” but he was a young poet and inclined to get carried away with himself. Once the heads started falling into baskets he came to his senses.

So — the advice goes —  by all means feel free to dream and have ideals, but when it comes to changing things it’s probably best to leave well alone. Of course the argument doesn’t carry too much weight with someone on minimum wage working in a call centre or a single mother wondering how to give her children a decent start in life.  

Despite what we are told by the dried-up old mandarins of the political establishment, I believe that things are on the move — and it fills me with hope and optimism. And if it is true that elections are only won on the centre ground, then it is high time we set about shifting it.

So I have registered as a Labour Party supporter and I will vote for Jeremy Corbyn. I believe him to be a decent man, putting forward sensible, moderate policies. I am astonished by the number of people who appear to agree with me.

It goes without saying that a Corbyn victory will provoke a firestorm of abuse from the neo-liberal establishment and large sections of the press — that much we can be sure of.

Monday, July 27, 2015

A note on pronunciation

It may seem a trivial matter to most readers but - make no mistake - the discomfort caused by the regular mis-pronunciation of my identifier has at times driven me to contemplate a wholesale rebranding.
It is my own fault of course. As the word Omnivorist is not (yet) in the Oxford English Dictionary, it is unreasonable to expect people to know the correct pronunciation. However, lest there be any doubt, allow me to explain:
Omnivorist is not pronounced (as some would have it) with the stress on the third syllable, as in omnivore with an ist added on the end - Omnivorist. Pronounced that way, it sounds utterly flat and disappointing - like a long drawn out yawn.
No - the correct pronunciation stresses the second syllable, as in omnivorous - with entirely different connotations: like the snapping shut of a trap or a set of jaws.
I trust that might clarify the matter.

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Scottish weather (again)

Well this is a bit of a first - composing a blog in a public library. I'm in Portree on Skye and came in to the library partly to shelter from the ceaseless rain but mainly to book a train back home.

I've been 4 days walking the Skye trail: day 1 (sunny), day 2 (high wind and rain), day 3 (high wind and rain), day 4 (rain). The thing that struck me was the complete absence of shelter, even in the little villages I have passed through. It reminded me of a Ray Bradbury science fiction story about explorers on a planet where it rains continuously. They are desparately trying to find their way to a dome that they know of - a shelter that will offer them some respite only to arrive to find it smashed and streaming with water.

You'd think, wouldn't you, given the importance of tourism to the economy of the Scottish Highlands, that the odd little wayside shelter would be an inspired addition to the landscape. I found myself imagining what they would be like. They'd be circular in plan with a conical roof and generous overhangs and a central table and benches all around and - most important of all - there would need to be a whole semicircular section of wall mounted on rollers that you could slide round according to which way the gale happened to be blowing.

All the same, mustn't give the wrong impression; I've had a great time. Scotland reminds you that the traditional distinction between good and bad weather is a vulgar oversimplification and that there are numerous other 'weathers' of dazzling complexity and sophistication. Like for example the burst of sun sparkling off rain-soaked heather while in the distance, out to sea, a dark cloud trails veils of rain. Or the view of trees brilliantly illuminated against a backdrop of black sky. And the rainbows! Not just complete arches, but doubles and triples. And not rooted in some distant valley but promising a crock of gold right at your very feet!

Well - got to go; I have a bus to catch. I have a change of plan for the next few days. I'm booked into a hostel in the north of the island from where I plan to do some day walks without the burden of the whole backpack (tents, food and all).

Three nights in a tent that seemed as if it was being shaken to pieces by a giant puppy is enough - for now.

Thursday, February 05, 2015

The Joy of Estimation

One of the tragedies of growing older is that just as one’s wisdom and insight expands and unfolds like some exquisite water lily then the willingness of other people to pay any attention to what you’re going on about takes a serious plunge. This leads to an increased use of the phrase ‘if I had my way’ to preface every suggestion. Sad really, but there it is.
Anyway, if I had my way, children would be taught the art of estimation from an early age. Not only is it fun but it promotes deep insight and, more importantly, develops a sense of proportion. A simple example might be something like: “Imagine each year as a 1cm mark on a ruler. Now cut a piece of string that matches your age; if you are 10 years old then it will be about as long as a pen. Now imagine a piece of string that matches the amount of time since the last dinosaur was alive (not counting our feathered friends). How long would it be? Would it stretch to the bottom of the garden, to the next town or from here to London? You’re allowed to know that it is 66 million years since the dinosaurs disappeared so it’s simply a matter of getting a feel for how long a 66 million centimeter piece of string would be. The answer is 660 kilometers or about the same as traveling from London to Paris and back. That’s quite a long way - or a long time ago.
Of course that’s a fairly easy one.
Slightly more difficult is to work out roughly how many grains of sand there are on all the beaches of the world and whether this is more or less than the number of stars in the universe. I can recommend this as an alternative to counting sheep when trying to fall asleep.
Let me take you through it: 
(arithmophobics are excused if they choose get off at this stop).
Let’s start with the easy bit — the number of stars in the universe. Our galaxy (the Milky Way) is said to consist of about 100 billion stars. That’s 1 followed by 11 zeros or 1011. The number of galaxies in the universe is about the same - 1011 so if we assume that our galaxy is about average that makes the total number of stars 1022 or ten thousand billion billion (as Brian Cox would put it). The point is not so much the number — it’s fairly meaningless — the point is to compare this number with the number of grains of sand on the beaches of the world and to find out how different the two numbers are.
The grain of sand calculation is a bit more difficult so let’s warm up by working out the number of pebbles on Chesil beach. Chesil beach is a magnificent shingle bank 29 km long, 200 metres wide and 45 metres high. If you haven’t been there, I can recommend (I believe the correct term is heartily recommend) a visit. You really have to sit on it to get a feel for just how many pebbles there are there.
So if we think of Chesil beach as a 29km long shoe box it’s easy to work out it’s volume - about 26 million cubic metres or, allowing for the fact that it isn’t square but is a sort of rounded hump, about half that - say 10 million cubic meters. That’s one of the tricks about estimating, by the way; as long as the number of noughts is about right you can be a bit free with the 6s and 7s.
Now the pebbles on Chesil beach are interesting because the natural action of the waves and currents have graded them so that at one end the pebbles are all about the size of frozen peas while at the other end they’re the size of tennis balls. This leads to the tale that local fishermen, landing somewhere along the beach on moonless nights were able to tell where they were from the size of the pebbles. So let’s choose an average sized pebble — say the size of a grape — and work out how many there are in a cubic metre. Thinking of each pebble as about 1cm in diameter and box-shaped rather than round gives the answer - about a million per cubic metre. And so the total number of pebbles in Chesil Beach is (very roughly) 1013 or 10 thousand billion. That’s about 100 times more than the number of stars in the Milky Way - which is disappointing as I was hoping that the two numbers would be about the same.
When it comes to working out the number of grains of sand on all the beaches of the world, we come up against what is known as the coastline paradox or the fact that measuring the length of a coastline will give different answers depending on the length of your tape measure. Not to be daunted, Wikipedia quotes the CIA’s World Factbook in giving the total length of the world’s coastline as 1,162,306 km. (or roughly 1 billion metres) so let’s take this to be the right figure. If we assume that this length consists of around 10% beach (as opposed to rocky cliffs, mangrove swamps and so on) then the total volume of sand — assuming an average beach is about 2 metres deep and 50 metres wide to the water’s edge — is around 1010 cubic metres.
Sand grains are smaller than pebbles - let’s say about 1mm diameter so there are 109 (or 1 billion) in a cubic metre. So the total number of grains of sand on all the beaches of the world is about 1019 or about a thousand times fewer than the number of stars in the universe (give or take a few).
In all of this, there’s one number that stretches the imagination more then any other — 1011 — the number of galaxies that are thought to exist in the universe — about the same as the number of pebbles in a 300 metre section of Chesil beach. When you consider that each galaxy is made up of thousands of millions of stars, it is a monstrous number that makes a mockery of the imagination.
Maybe I’ll go back to counting sheep.