Ninety Degrees

Too hot for me!  Even in Fahrenheit (fatally so in Celsius – or Kelvin, though for a rather different reason) as I’m generally not keen on high ambient temperatures: 75 is pretty much my preferred limit.  I prefer the cold to be honest: you can always add clothing to cope, whereas there is only so much you can take off in the warm (even if you are willing to risk both frightening the horses and arrest).  However, I was actually thinking of angles (π/2 radians, if you prefer) rather than temperature.

The right angle is our friend when dealing with triangles and trigonometry (at least in Euclidean geometry) and allows us to use the more practical portion of Pythagoras’ legacy.  It is often preferred in construction, certainly it makes wallpaper hanging and furniture selection easier, though its use has been somewhat eschewed by Trinity House.  However, there is one area of construction in which I feel it has been over-used to detrimental effect.

Back in the mid-80s, there was a short lived TV series from the stables of Glen A Larson called ‘Automan’.  The eponymous hero was, effectively, a character from a video game and his car obeyed the rules of video games of that era (this was long before the vast majority of the Laws of Physics were implemented in the gaming arena).  This enabled to make instantaneous right angle turns and it could also be merely un-drawn rather than parked, which is perhaps an even more useful facility.  However, this was science fiction (well, fiction certainly) and no wheeled vehicle (unless it has all-wheel steering) can make an (even near) instantaneous right angle turn: the wheelbase prevents it.

I must assume that this fact will come as a shock to the designers of cycle paths in Cambridgeshire, who appear to believe that the bicycle is able to make incredibly tight right angle turns with ease.  Or such is my thesis given the frequency with which such layouts are imposed upon the unfortunate cyclist.  I will admit that my own attempts at turning a bicycle are perhaps not the finest, but I think even those struck more frequently with the ept stick (a stick whose blows I have managed to largely avoid: which must be irony) must struggle with many of these corners.  In most cases, the local topography does not require such tight turns – and in one very local example, three right angles have been created within a few feet where none at all were needed (in fact, the right-angle free solution would have saved a fair chunk of tarmacadam).  Has the county surveyor’s office been infiltrated by fundamentalist followers of Pythagoras?

Whilst I am on my high horse (remember, “never surrender height once gained”) let me shift another peeve about cycle path design from where it current lies: atop my chest.  Many cycle routes hereabouts require the cyclists to cross the flow of traffic far more often than seems necessary.  If I return home from the next village using the cycle paths provided, I have to cross the main road FOUR times, whereas if I follow the main road I never have to cross the flow of traffic.  This makes for an interesting risk assessment exercise for the cyclist: is it safer to remain on the busy road or to travel on traffic-free paths but have to cross the busy road multiple times?  (Answers on a postcard: please show your working.)  This desire to make bicycles cross roads seems a popular choice: even on brand new roads where there is sufficient space allocated for cycling to allow them never to need to cross the flow of traffic, the design still insists upon it.

As a cynic, I suspect a broader policy motive is at play.  It is well established that regular cycling increases life expectancy – and this country is already facing a soi-disant pensions time bomb.  I like to imagine it as spherical, grey (black seems inappropriate) and with the word BOMB printed on the side in large unfriendly white letters.  By repeatedly forcing cyclists to cross busy roads, I assume the powers-that-be are hoping to lose a few to “natural wastage” and so counteract the boost to the number of future pensioners which would otherwise arise (it may also provides some cheap traffic calming).  If true, this would suggest a degree of joined-up-thinking all too rare in the governing classes – so perhaps it could be better explained by the usual combination of stupidity and incompetence…

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Could it work here?

I have just discovered that the human brain is a truly astonishing organ, and I was already fairly impressed with its capabilities (lest you fear I have finally surrendered to rampant egomania, I speak in general rather than holding my own cerebrum up as any sort of exemplar).  Researchers at the University of Glasgow have discovered how we avoid drifting off when listening to the truly boring.  This is a topic in which I have some interest given the number of very long meetings at which I have acted as secretary over the years.  The coping strategies I used on such occasions are covered in an earlier post, but, as you will be aware, the reporting of a few anecdotes does not satisfy the demands of the scientific method.

The folks in Glasgow used fMRI for their study (a facility I lacked back in my days as a technical secretary) to “scan” the brains of 18 people (a modest sample, perhaps, but still better than hearsay evidence from a single source with a questionable grasp on sanity).  They discovered that when presented with a boring speaker, the brain creates its own more exciting internal monologue.  It would seem that we really do make our own fun.

Sadly, the study did not cover the written (or typed) word, though one of the authors did note that directly quoted speech is more vivid than indirection quotation.  So, it is unclear whether the readership of GofaDM will be augmenting their enjoyment in an analogous way.  I would suggest that, from a certain point of view (to quote Obi-Wan Kenobi), this whole blog could be considered directly quoted speech, which helps explain my inability to write (or indeed utter) convincing dialogue – a fact which has rather limited my career as a scriptwriter or playwright.  If you are truly providing your own entertainment during the all-too-frequent longueurs in these ramblings, it would certainly take some of the pressure off the author.

A curious message?

Yesterday I cycled passed the site of a “soon-to-open” pet superstore.  I noticed that Pets at Home use the strap-line “where pets come first”: which struck me as a rather curious piece of sexual etiquette for a retailer to be espousing.  Talking of “spousing”, this is perilously close to animal husbandry and its even more taboo (and almost never mentioned) cousin, animal wifery.

I am aware that the participants at Crufts are commonly referred to as “man’s best friend”, but this friendship should remain (like the five regular solids) platonic.  A cube or octahedron may seem like your bestest chum, but they are never going to take the relationship to the next level.  I presume regular polyhedra are afraid of commitment…

Sweet essay

It is now six weeks since I threw caution to the wind and attempted to challenge the wisdom of proverbs: could a middle-aged dog be taught to re-use his limited range of tricks in a somewhat new arena?

My chosen instrument was the Open University course hight AA100: The Arts Past and Present.   This is proving to be both great fun and suitably thought provoking: whilst I read quite widely for pleasure, doing so for a specific purpose does seem to augment the experience.  I think I may be tapping into the same phenomenon that leads to betting on a poker hand – personally, I’m waiting for bridge to take off as an internet craze.

Next week I have my fourth tutorial (which being in Cambridge should probably be called a supervision): well, technically it will be my second (if I make it) as I missed tutorial 3 as it clashed with a recital by the Endellion String Quartet (and you will recall, missed tutorial 1 due to incompetence involving a calendar): luckily, attendance does not count towards my final grade!

After Cleopatra and Dr Faustus have come Paul Cézanne, Michael Faraday and Josef Stalin: I am still firmly in the Reputations strand.  But it’s not all fun: today, I had to listen to two songs from the 1980s by Madonna to analyse the vocal performance and musical context.  Let’s just say her diphthongs were rather unimpressive and I haven’t been inspired to explore more of her ouevre – despite an exhortation from the OU to check out some of her videos.  However, it’s not all reading and listening to 80s pop: oh no, there have been two DVDs and an audio CD of a recent BBC Radio 3 production of Marlowe’s most famous work to enjoy as well.  The modern OU provides a truly multimedia experience – though, as a chap of some vintage, I do keenly feel the lack of the TV broadcasts in the dead of night: where are the beards and dodgy 70s fashions?

Despite its modernity, the course does still retain the rather old-fashioned idea that students should do some work and that this should be marked.  A couple of weeks ago, I had to submit my first assignment – comprised of two essays: one on screen representations of Cleopatra and the other looking at how Faustus is characterised by Marlowe in the language of the first half of his final soliloquy.  This is the first formal writing on the arts and humanities I’ve done in 30 years (unless you count this blog – and I suggest you probably shouldn’t) – and had the added challenge that each essay was limited to 500 words (including quotes and references).  As you might imagine, the word limit did rather increase the challenge presented by this particular assignment – still, I completed it and submitted it on time.  I had thought of making my essays available through GofaDM, but this is against the rules (apparently, it could facilitate plagiarism: which does make me wonder if any of this blog is being used as the basis for a student’s homework somewhere?).  Yesterday came the feedback and the marks.  Actually, I did really rather well: yes, this post exists wholly for me to boast about my essay prowess!  I was also unexpectedly impressed by the feedback.  For a start, there are a few conventions about writing in this subject area which I should now be able to follow (blogging and writing for business don’t fully equip one for everything) – though I am disappointed to have to lose the word “ditzy” (I’ll leave you to guess in which of the essays it was used).  The other thing which became clear to me – which was probably already obvious to you, dear reader – is that I have no real idea how to use paragraphs, and this lack is only made more obvious when constrained by a word limit.  I think his could be the first benefit that my the GofaDM audience receive from my return to academe – let’s face it, there’s been no obvious sign of the word count falling in these posts.

Still, given my early success and apparent ability to acquire new skills (or at least re-purpose old ones) I’m starting to think where next for my second studenthood? (it’s like a second childhood – though earlier and not requiring me to have graduated from my first childhood).  Should I aim to have a BA in an actual art, to complement my existing BA in Mathematics?

Allergy

Also known (to the more medically inclined) as Type I Hypersensitivity is a disorder of the immune system.  I have some allergies myself – some known, others more mysterious.  For example, I know that I have an adverse reaction to chrysanthemums after they’ve been sitting in the vase for a day or so – but this is fairly easy to manage.  I also seem to be allergic to something airborne here in the countryside of South Cambs, or so I deduce given that my symptoms tend to be worse when its windy and non-existent when I visit major conurbations (oddly, there is no estate agent inspired show called ‘Escape to the City’ or ‘Escape from the country’).  It’s not hayfever – that would be far too normal for yours truly- as I am afflicted at quite different times of year.  I think fungi may be involved: their spores may be taking revenge for the sheer number of mushrooms I have consumed over the years.

Some allergies have gained greater public awareness than others and I think nuts may be in the gold medal position.  This rather puzzles me as I believe the most serious culprit is the peanut, which isn’t a nut at all but a legume.  Packets and tins of peas and pulses – close relatives of the peanut – are not marked with dire warnings to protect the sensitive, whereas a packet of largely unrelated hazelnuts warns me (in a rather unnecessary way) that it contains nuts.  So too does a packet of walnuts, but it is being economical with the truth: a walnut, like the almond, brazil and pecan, is not a nut.

Those with an adverse reaction to gluten or cow’s milk can also expect to find warnings to protect them from inadvertently consuming their nemesis.  However, I know people who cannot touch celery and coriander (OK, touching might be alright, but eating is definitely undesirable) and they are, as yet, are offered no such protection, having to rely instead on their own eternal vigilance.  Such are the vagaries of life I suppose.

A few days ago, I was eating in a vegetarian restaurant and discovered a new, and rather alarming series of warnings on the menu.  As well as tagging those dishes that were bland enough to satisfy vegans and others that may be afflicted by a rather loose definition of nuts, it showed those dishes that were “nightshade free”.  Worryingly, given the famously deadly nature of nightshade (as I child, I used it to demonstrate the common fallacy that the natural was automatically good for you), only two dishes were actually nightshade-free – though worry not, dear reader, I survived despite not selecting either of these “safer” dishes for my supper.

Further research suggests that some poor unfortunates may be unable to eat from the family Solanaceae (of which nightshade is but one member, in the branch named for Atropos, the Fate who cuts short the thread of life) which denies them spuds, tomatoes, the aubergine and physalis: to name but a few.  I think if I was unable to consume such a wide spectrum of staples (and the Chinese gooseberry), I might begin to wonder if I wasn’t cut out to be a vegetarian.  Still, I have reason to believe that perseverance may be a virtue (though perhaps not one of the seven deadly virtues) – so good luck to them!

Conquering Antarctica

For the avoidance of doubt, I am not intending to tackle my mid-life crisis by trekking solo to the South Pole.  Strikes me as way too much like hard work (and rather chilly for a chap who dislikes wearing jumpers) and I’m not a big fan of sliding, I prefer a certain minimum value of friction between myself and the deck.

For the last two or three weeks, WordPress has been reporting the home location (or, at least current location) of visitors to GofaDM.  To my considerable surprise, I have already covered six of the earth’s seven continents: I only lack a visitor from Antarctica.  I will admit that some of the continents have been infrequent visitors – and may well have arrived in my clutches by mistake, but a page view is a page view (as you see, I have no fear of tautology).

So, I now found myself wondering what I can do to appeal to an Antarctic audience.  Suspecting that your average penguin or seal is not terribly web-savvy, I feel my best chance is to target the itinerant human population.  I’m not entirely sure what might bring in the most southerly audience on earth: memories of the north, perhaps?

I can remember a joke from childhood which might strike a chord with the residents of McMurdo station.

Q: What animal would you most like to be if you were stationed at the South Pole?

A: A little otter!

I never said it was good: just mildly relevant…

St Patrick’s Day

Yesterday was, of course, St Patrick’s Day.  The weather here in South Cambs very kindly helped us feel properly Irish by being really rather wet: this drought is becoming so severe, I’m thinking of laying in a stock of gopher wood!  I haven’t started collecting animals yet, but it has crossed my mind.  I have also found myself wondering why Noah failed to collect any plants for his voyage: what was he planning to feed his herbivorous passengers when the flood water subsided?

Anyway, back to St Patrick.  Despite his associations with the Emerald Isle, the lad actually hailed from Wales (then again, as we know, almost anyone can play for Ireland).  As a result, I’m sure he was thrilled (as was I, given my ancestry) that the Welsh won the Grand Slam on his special day.  I must admit that I had no idea that Contract Bridge was so big in the Principality; do they use Blackwood, I wonder?

St Patrick is probably most famous, other than as an excuse for a drink or several, for banishing the snakes from Ireland.  However, I fear modern scholarship would hand the credit for this particular feat to the consequences of the most recent series of ice ages – though I fear beatifying the Younger Dryas might be theologically tricky (I have yet to have any success with an animated mouse).  Nonetheless, I do quite fancy the idea of raising a glass of something alcoholic – on the rocks obviously – to celebrate everything the Younger Dryas has done for us!

I did nothing particularly Irish to mark the day myself, though my lunchtime Spanish omelette did have a somewhat viridian hue given its significant spinach content (and as an added bonus, it also include a potato).  For the purposes of blogging, I must try and do better next year…