Not just a Sudanese River

Well, Egypt always receives any plaudits related to the Nile, I felt it was time to redress the balance a little.  Yes, as you will have realised, this post is all about denial.

Some of you may have read a story in the news stating that surveys have recorded “brainless fish” – here is but one example of this scurrilous piece of journalism.  I would like to make absolutely clear that this story in no way relates to me.  I’ve never even been to Orkney – though if anyone’s offering I could readily be persuaded.  I’m sure Up Helly Aa would be a lot more fun than anything we Sassenachs are offered in early January (though, on a personal level,  my own weekend is looking rather good – even without a (known) Viking component).

Talking of the weekend, how long have people been using the acronym NYE?  I don’t recall seeing it before and so have spent most of the week wondering what was going on in New Amsterdam (as was) beginning with “E”.  On reflection, I suppose it makes some sense, in many ways the end of 2011 is indeed NYE (on the reasonable assumption that it is pronounced to rhyme with lye or bye).

Moppsikon Floppsikon

After a day spent wrestling with a model, I am now putting my feet up in front of the idiot box.  For the avoidance of doubt, I have not been grappling Graeco-Roman style with Kate Moss (or any of her ilk): my struggles have been of an intellectual nature and the model was a mathematical, computer one representing the power markets of Europe.  Still, when asked what I do for a living, I do tend to reply “modelling” and only volunteer further details if my interlocutor seems to require them.

As I type, Sir David Attenborough is giving me the highlights of the Frozen Planet series.  I now know that I have rather more in common with month-old wolf cubs than might have been supposed: apparently we are both always thinking about our next meal (though, again as a matter of clarification, Sir David only mentioned this fact in relation to the lupines – my own habits have yet to make it onto a blockbusting natural history spectacular, but watch this space…)

He started with the “controversial” scene of new-born polar bear cubs (are slightly older juvenile polar bears known as scouts?) and their mother.  This was exclusively revealed (by the BBC on the Frozen Planet website) to have been filmed at a zoo in the Netherlands – which I must admit I had always assumed to be the case (well, I’d assumed it was filmed in such an environment, I had not been able to deduce the Dutch location – there were no clogs or windmills in shot): a fact that had no bearing whatsoever on anything said by the father of BBC2.

This led me to muse on the plight of the polar bear.  As a lapsed mathematician, I did wonder whether a change of co-ordinates would help.  Surely, the cartesian bear could more easily weather our warming climate?

Yes, I have to admit that the last paragraph provides the whole basis (orthonormal, obviously) for this post.  If any readers found their mathematical knowledge was insufficient to understand just how side-splittingly funny this gag was, I do know a maths tutor able to offer tuition at very reasonable rates…

I feel the Beeb missed a trick with the scheduling of Frozen Planet.  Watching it does make one feel rather chilly, and has surely led to the central heating being turned up across the country – with a consequent rise in greenhouse gas emissions, to the detriment of Ursus maritimus.  What we need in winter is wildlife from the tropics – save the Poles for high summer (October as I remember) or efficient plumbing.

The title I hear you cry, where the devil does that fit in?  Perhaps I am impugning my audience, but I needed a link to bears – and the title is the description given by a Ware pensioner to his bear and personal transport (not specified as being polar or otherwise) in a nonsense rhyme by Edward Lear.  This second recent GofaDM reference to the work of the great Mr Lear is only fitting as 2012 is the bicentenary of his birth (the 21st child of his exhausted parents!).   In his honour, GofaDM will make nonsense its theme for the coming year, and as Santa (or his local representatives) brought me a Rhyming Dictionary this Christmas, you should prepare yourselves (mentally and/or physically) for some nonsense verse.

Street art

Our roads and footpaths are covered in white and yellow lines (sometimes in pairs), numbers, words and pictograms.  Many people seem to view these additions to the tarmac (or concrete) as graffiti, or some other form of street art, which is best ignored.  Now, I’m no fan of graffiti as most of it seems to be the human analogue of dogs urinating to make territorial claims, whilst being rather more visually intrusive.  I tried watching “Exit through the Gift Shop” but found it so boring I gave up well before even reaching the halfway point.  However, I do feel the street artists who decorate our roads in an (apparently) official capacity may have something useful (even important) to say.  Certainly, there does seem some support for this point of view in the Highway Code, even if their works do not command the sort of prices that Banksy seems to achieve.

As a cyclist, I tend to find myself operating towards the inside edge of most roads – and so it is the art here which most affects me.  Usually, this is some combination of solid white or yellow lines, with the occasional pictogram of a bicycle or bus to illustrate a lane dedicated to the illustrated vehicle.  My belief is that all of these strongly hint at an attempt to interdict parking of motor vehicles for some or all of the day.  However, I think most people take the view that these are in fact designed to specify special parking areas set aside for VIPs.  By keeping the great unwashed and their vehicles at bay, a VIP can always be sure of a parking space close to their destination.  Well, I say VIPs: I suspect that the users are VIPs only in their own minds, so perhaps SIPs (Self Important Persons) would be a more accurate description.  I’m sure that the traffic jams that seem to occur around these VIP parking zones when they are in use must be mere coincidence.  If parking wasn’t appropriate, I’m sure the authorities would have done something to indicate this fact…

Surveying seraphim

I passed a chap in a hi-viz jacket earlier today, who was using a device mounted on a tripod to make some sort of measurement.  I believe the device was a theodolite – and this made me think about what it was he might have been measuring.

I am no classicist, but I’m pretty sure that English words beginning with the letters T-H-E-O come to us from the Greek theos, meaning god.  Sadly, my limited Greek does not reveal the meaning of the “-dolite” portion of the word, but presume this must relate to surveying in some way.

As a result, I was forced to assume that the man was surveying the heavens.  I’m not sure what aspect of a god or gods he was trying to measure: how does one measure omniscience in any case?  And why try this at the start of the guided busway?  Whilst sharing a prefix with many of the powers traditionally linked to the divine, I don’t think that the omnibus is commonly associated with the Lord; and while he is reported as saying “I am the way” (by some journo by the name of John),  I really don’t think this was in reference to a slightly faster, traffic-free route between Cambridge Station and the Trumpington Park and Ride (if it was, then snaps to Cambridge City Council for gaining some very early and widely distributed advertising).

Despite these niggles, it was good to see some practical theology in action.

Strange weather

As I may have mentioned before, I am no stranger to the Stevenson screen (invented by the father of Robert Louis Stevenson, apparently) having been a stalwart of the Weather Club when at secondary modern school back in the late 1970s.  Having the keys to the “screen” made me a very desirable chap, I can tell you – not just any lad of 12 could offer a look at his wet-and-dry bulb.

After a few years of cycling around South Cambs, I have realised my understanding of the weather is not quite as great as I might have imagined.  I used to think that fog and strong wind were mortally enemies – wherever there was fog, strong wind would be absent and vice versa.  Either I was wrong, or they have had a major rapprochement since 1979, but I can assure you that strong wind and fog can now often be seen out and about together.  I’m not sure how this works – you’d think a stiff breeze would disperse the fog – but it is nice to see ancient enemies burying the hatchet.

Today, I encountered another new weather phenomenon.  Before departing Fish Towers, I checked the forecast (dry) and the rainfall radar (not a shower within 100 miles of Sawston) and so was slightly surprised by the continuous and insistent rainfall that was my companion as I headed into Cambridge for a little last-minute Christmas shopping.  It would seem that the boffins at Qinetiq (or one of our other, somewhat euphemistically named, defence companies) have succeeded in developing stealth rain!  Yes, finally the dream of rain that is totally invisible to radar is a reality – though, the real breakthrough will be invisible fog (ideal for airports!).  No longer will the UK need recourse to fire- or cluster-bombing of civilian populations in order to undermine enemy morale.  No, in future the mere threat of being able to ruin fêtes and barbecues without warning should quickly bring Her Majesty’s foes to their knees and/or senses;  and how pleasing that we are finally able to use one of this country’s greatest strengths, and bring drizzle to bear in the field of conflict.

Still, bad weather is not without the odd delight.  Last week, while almost freezing rain was being hurled at me with stinging force by a fierce crosswind, I did have the pleasure of seeing a rainbow.  Not just seeing one, but for the first time ever I could actually see the end of the rainbow and where exactly it touched the ground: in a hedge less than 100 yards from me.  No sign of a diminutive Irish chappie with (or without) a pot of gold though.  Maybe all those TV offers to buy your gold through the post had proven too much of a temptation?  Or have the leprechauns all been recalled as part of the attempt to bail-out the flagging economy back home?

Snow laughing matter

On Friday morning I found myself riding through the snow, but whilst my vehicle was open it lacked a horse (relying on one Fish-power) and was a bicycle rather than a sleigh.  It did possess a bell, but not one I’ve ever really thought of as jingling.

The snow was very wet, and followed on from heavy rain (which was even wetter), and so did not lay.  Nonetheless, a friend, who manages a small retail emporium, did report a surge in sales of sledges, shovels and hats with ear-flaps (very important if you want your ears to take-off and land successfully).

Last night I was at a carol concert in Lewes, and as a member of the audience was required to “join-in” a rendition of Jingle Bells (among other festive numbers).  As is common, we sang only a subset of the verses which were handed down to us by James Lord Pierpoint (uncle to J P Morgan, but Lord in name only), who wrote the song back in 1857 to celebrate Thanksgiving.  Even these more popular verses (and their associated refrains) sound rather sinister to the innocent listener, referring as they do to laughing while singing a “slaying song”.  The generally omitted verses seem to refer to the attempted se- (and ab-) duction of one Fanny Bright, which appears to end in a crash.  Certainly, our “hero” and Ms Bright are described as upsot – thought whether this refers to a state of advanced inebriation or is merely a rather fanciful past participle of the verb “to upset”, I know not.  Our hero is then sighted after the crash by a fellow sleigher, who laughs but fails to stop.  No further reference is made to Ms Bright, but frankly I fear the worst as in the final verse we are inveigled to “go it while you’re young, take the girls tonight”.  Even if we ignore the marginal grammar, the message is truly chilling.

Sadly, Jingle Bells is far from the only “Christmas” song with disturbing lyrics.  The singers of We Wish You A Merry Christmas are openly threatening if they do not get some “figgy pudding” – which sounds like a euphemism to me.  Hark the Herald Angels Sing contains the line “veiled in flesh the Godhead see” which is pure filth, and would surely require an 18 certificate?

But, I have saved the worst for last.  How the traditional English translation of Adeste Fideles is allowed, I will never know; Relax by Frankie Goes to Hollywood was banned by the BBC for far less.  Whilst I can understand the need to bring the faithful to climax if the Christian faith is to continue, is it really appropriate to sing so lustily about it when children are present?

Best Before

I’ve never been a big fan of the “Best Before Date” which has appeared on comestibles, lo these many years.  My first objection is purely grammatical: the date divides the totality of time into only two parts and so it is incorrect to use the superlative (which would require time to be divided into at least as many parts as Gaul).  So, I would have one fewer objection to a “Better Before Date”.

For many products, the humble banana springs to mind, different consumers will take a different view as to when they are better.  I prefer a banana when its skin still has a slight viridian hue, whereas others would spurn such a fruit (OK, technically a herb – but you try seasoning a casserole with one) until its naturally casing had turned almost to ebony.  Even the “Better Before Date” is unable to take account of such differing tastes, and fails to make clear what aspects of “goodness” were being evaluated to select the date.

I have always largely ignored the Best Before Date, and have preferred to rely on my skill and judgement to identify whether an item is still edible.  As a result, I am still using sesame oil that was best before 1998 – though still seem perfectly flavoursome.  Last week I used some breadcrumbs that had been languishing at the back of the cupboard (in fact, several cupboards) for some time and had apparently peaked in January 2001.  They made a perfectly effective component of my cauliflower and kale cheese, and I seem to have lived to tell the tale (and fully plan to repeat the experience).

I have also for years, cheerfully cut the mould from food and eaten the apparently mould-free part.  However, after watching “After Life: The Strange Science of Decay” on BBC4, I may curtail these activities in future.  Apparently, the mould we see (much like the mushrooms that make up so much of my diet) is only the fruiting body of the fungus, while its hyphae extend much deeper into the bread (or cheese or whatever) and may be manufacturing a wide range of deadly toxins.  Circumspection is very much the better part of valour, to paraphrase Falstaff.

Still, at least the “Best Before” date is better than the “Display Until” date.  I have yet to feel the need to bring home a packet of raspberries (or anything else) and place it on display to astonish or amaze visitors or passers-by.  Still, even I would have to admit that it could be handy to include one on Christmas decorations (for those who are unsure when to take them down).  They could probably use a “Do Not Display Until” date as well.

I do like the idea of an Eat-Me Date as an alternative, but mostly in the context of the dried fruit which becomes inexplicably popular at this time of year.  I don’t remember the fruit of the Phoenix dactylifera featuring in the Nativity story – though it is native to the Middle East and I suppose I did major on St Luke’s gospel, so maybe one of the other lads covered the dried fruit aspect of the Christmas story.

Signs

As a professional prognosticator I am always on the look-out for omens, signs and portents.  Often I will cut a squash in half and study its seeds for clues as to the future’s unfolding (yes, I know augury more commonly uses the viscera of the animal kingdom, but as a (mostly) vegetarian I have had to improvise).

I can tell you that Christmas is almost upon us as I was able to acquire my Christmas double issue of the Mortician’s Gazette at the weekend.  In a tradition almost as old a Christmas itself, the price is that little bit more than double the price of its normal weekly edition and we will no doubt find that half this new higher price will pertain after the festive season.  I presume this is on the assumption that either (a) we will have consumed so much alcohol or (b) the standard of mathematics in this country is so low that no-one will notice.

But it is about the proliferation of signs of a less mystical kind that I wish to write.  On my journey into Cambridge I have to use a short stretch of new road on the Addenbrooke’s site between one cycle path and the guided busway.  A new piece of signage seems to be added to this road every day – by the Spring, I fear the road will be in permanent darkness such is their growing density.  As well as the almost totally ignored speed limit signage, we have rather contradictory signs as to where cyclists are allowed to ride – I think at least one is in the wrong place (or someone in the Highways department is a fan of Epimenides and is letting his love of paradox affect his work).

We now have two signs from APCOA welcoming us to their World of Parking.  As theme parks go, this doesn’t sound like an obvious winner – even World of Leather seems a better offering.  In addition to the welcome, the signs contain a stack of small print which no motorist could safely read, even on the off-chance that they were obeying the speed limit.  I think what they are trying to say is that if you have stopped moving for more than 30 seconds and have not offered APCOA a couple of limbs or your first-born, then you are in big trouble.

Today’s new sign was to give the road a name – it is now called Francis Crick Avenue.  Since the road is basically straight with a bend to the right at one end, I can’t help but feel this is a waste of a good name.  Mr Crick, as co-discoverer of DNA, needs a road with a far more helical course to bear his moniker – I would want to see at least one helix and preferably two (or we could have it intertwining with a James Watson Road).  As it stands, the road barely justifies Uri Geller Avenue as a label.

Still, whilst the road is awash with signage, at least it has a nice level surface.  Most of the roads on the hospital site are in an appalling state, several seem to be subducting under the hospital and also produce a rather unpleasant sulphurous odour – which makes two signs of tectonic activity.   (But don’t worry, I’m not expecting an imminent eruption – and, if the worst happens, Cambridge could do with some new hills!).

I have mused that the poor road maintenance might be a deliberate ploy to acquire new business – certainly, an unwary cyclist could easily been thrown from his steed and require the services of the nearby A&E department.  The ambulance service could also expect to offer a very swift pick-up and delivery – which should help them meet their performance targets.  Then again, perhaps I shouldn’t be giving our stressed NHS managers any ideas they haven’t thought of themselves..

In search of depth

This blog has often been criticised for its relentless focus on the trivial and superficial (OK, given the current emphasis on transparency, I will admit that this is not the case at all, it is merely a rhetorical device to introduce this latest twaddle – but bear with me, it might get better) and so I have felt it incumbent on me to go in search of a little depth.

In the course of this hunt, I have now seen three films projected in 3D (which I think makes 9D) – two of these within the last week.  This projection uses the miracle of plane-polarised light and so, to obtain the 3D-effect, one has to wear a pair of glasses with orthogonally-polarised lenses over one’s normal ‘seeing’ glasses.  At the cinema, one is seated amid the encircling gloom (to quote from my old headmaster’s favourite hymn, which we always used to perform appallingly badly to his great distress.  For some reason, this particular hymn, “Lead kindly light,” has always brought the Wild West and cowboys sitting around a campfire to my mind – though it was apparently written whilst becalmed in the Straits of Bonifacio, which lie between France and Italy, by an Englishman) and so my six-eyed shame is thankfully shrouded from all, bar any cats, owls or snipers (though only the first two are mentioned by Lear as having eloped in a pea green boat) who happen to be in the auditorium.

Ah, I seem to have mistaken excessive use of parentheses for depth – if only WordPress offered footnotes and a bibliography life would be so much easier.

6D of these films were animated while the remaining 3D used real people and props moving around in at least partially real sets (the animations obviously relied on wholly imaginary sets – very much sets found on the y-axis of an Argand diagram).  The depth effect seems to work much better, or at least be less confusing and/or irritating in the animated features than when applied to the “real” world.  I’m not sure if this is because the 3D effect is in some way subtly wrong, and this is more apparent when viewing a simulacrum of the real world or, if the relative simplicity of the images from animation are easier for the brain to interpret.

Mostly, I find that I am unaware of the 3D-effect, though in rapid real-life action sections I find it very hard to process the visual information and everything becomes very confused (well, I say everything – but really I mean me).  Occasionally it works really well, but at other times it reminds me of the black and white, stereoscopic photos my grandparents took many, many years ago with the image broken into a series of vertical planes at various apparent distances into the screen.

On the whole, I fear 3D offers little more than novelty in its current form.  For a start, it is pretty rare event that I find myself unable to decide which objects are nearer or farther from the viewer, even when watching a merely two-dimensional moving image.  The human brain is remarkably cunning at deriving depth from a host of little clues – indeed, in a number of famous optical illusions it over-rides the depth information provided by stereoscopic vision.

Still (or should that be Movie), the studios seem to love 3D, despite disapproval from far better critics than I, and hugely over-use it.  In the early days of wordprocessing and printing, people would use as many fonts as possible on a single page.  When colour screens first became common, web pages would be a confused riot of colour and movement.  Now with 3D, there is an obsession with using depth – if a screen has three lines of text then they must all lie in a different vertical plane.  If 3D is here to stay, one can only hope they can move beyond this foolishness and calm down a little.

The three films (Toy Story 3, Hugo and Arthur Christmas) are all well worth a watch: in any D, though I think they may be quite hard to follow in 1D (certainly, you would see a decidedly linear narrative).  Joyously, Arthur Christmas seemed to have product placement from The Co-operative Food – the only film in which I have seen this and it was the only plug I spotted (other than a brief glimpse of Shaun the Sheep).  Good old Aardman!   I presume the film was partially funded from their divi – and rather hope the premiere was held in Rochdale in honour of the Pioneers!

I may not have found much depth, but just feel those allusions!

Slider?

I was never a huge fan of the nineties sci-fi show, Sliders.  For those who missed this particular series, it involved the protagonists “sliding” from one parallel universe to the next by means of wormholes, generated by a handheld device.  The world visited tended to hold some element of sociological interest: well, I suppose visiting a world which differed from this one only in the colour of my front door would be quite hard to convert into an hour (or, this being the US, a smidge over 40 minutes) of riveting television.  However, the result did tend towards a sci-fi field-trip from Thinking Allowed, with John Rhys Davis (who later went on to still greater success playing a dwarf, despite what might have been considered the insurmountable impediment of his height) playing the part of Laurie Taylor.

Although the only wormholes in the vicinity of Fish Towers have been made by worms, principally members of the Oligochaeta, I am beginning to wonder if I have inadvertently passed into a parallel earth.

I read in the news that workers in the UK work the third longest hours in Europe (obviously, I’m bringing down the average somewhat – perhaps with greater application on my part, we might have gained the silver).  Not so shocking, but wait until I tell you by whom we were trounced: Greece!  No, that’s not a typo – the Greeks work longer hours than do my fellow Brits.  I’m sure the Greek economy had collapsed last time I looked.  How to explain this apparent contradiction?  Is it that Greeks do work very long hours, but it is only a very small proportion of the populace that work at all?  Or are they just spending long hours at their desks to avoid having to go outside?  For, if there is anywhere in the world where agoraphobia is likely to be a problem it must be Greece, where there lies an ancient agora around almost every corner.  Or, have a slid (slided? slidden?) into an alternative time line?

But this is not the only strand of evidence I have glimpsed in today’s news.  I’m sure at the beginning of the week, I lived in a world where the excesses of the financial services sector – and in particular the City, as it is known – had plunged the world into financial meltdown.  In this world, I’ll call it E1, our hospitals, schools, libraries, the Arts and their employees where bearing the brunt of attempts to fix the mess.  However, in the world of today, I’ll call it E2, our government has decided that the one promise it must keep is to protect the financial services sector from any form of restraint.  Surely, there were more important promises to keep – and, indeed, to fight for?  Was the world economy in E2 destroyed by rogue teachers and librarians?  If so, I’m worried about the new robot librarian at Sawston library – if that goes rogue we could be in trouble that goes beyond the merely financial…

Has the Coalition decided that the economy has bottomed out, so our rogue financiers can only improve matters if left to their own devices?  If so, I fear their understanding of statistics and probability is even poorer than I had imagined (and I can, and did, imagine pretty poor).  Or, perhaps they have confused their financial backers with the people who vote for them – which may not prove to be such a good idea in the longer term as financial institutions cannot vote in the UK (yet).  Still, if Flanders and Swann have not steered me wrong, I believe the late General De Gaulle will be thrilled by the UK being pushed a little further out of Europe – though, as with financial instituions, dead French military figures are (currently) unable to vote in the UK.

No, I think I need to have a stern talk with my worms and see if they can show me the way back to my own world.  E2 is too strange for me: Cambridge Heath is just not Cambridge, despite the nominative congruence.