Festive science

The timing of my recent trip to Edinburgh was arranged to coincide with the Edinburgh Science Festival – an event I first encountered by accident in 2014 when I was visiting Auld Reekie to indulge my Passion for the Dunedin Consort and Bach.

The range of events and topics did not disappoint and I thought I’d share a few of the “useful” things I learned.

I have already mentioned the Antibiotics Apocalypse talk which as well as sowing fear of the future also explained rather nicely why relying on market forces for new antibiotics might not lead to success.  If a company comes up with a drug to treat high blood pressure (for example), the patients will take it every day for the rest of their lives.  If you discover an antibiotic, patients will take it for seven days and then stop – but it is worse than this, in order to minimise the development of resistance, a new antibiotic will be used as little as possible and only when all existing options have been exhausted.  Whilst this make a lot of sense for the future health of the nation (and world), it is not a great commercial outcome for a corporation!

At a talk about food, I learned how to prepare a wide variety of offal (though played the mostly vegetarian card to avoid eating it) and the important rules to live by when dining on road kill.  I was even offered the chance to sample some satay squirrel – having previously seen a live squirrel necropsy (the animal version of an autopsy).  This was probably the best talk of the week – against some strong competition.

At a talk on artificial intelligence, I learned the amazing fact that Szechuan pepper stimulates nerves in the skin which normally respond to vibration – so if you rub your lips (for example) with the active ingredient it produces a tingling feeling indistinguishable from vibration (apparently at a frequency of roughly 50Hz – but a great deal safer than licking the mains).  I also discovered that if you apply an external source of vibration to your arm (at the right point) you can stimulate the muscle spindles which the body uses for proprioception.  This means that you could make people believe (when blindfolded) that their arm was somewhere else and, with a little cunning, make them believe their index finger was twice as long as in reality.  This is crying out to be used in a “magic” trick by Derren Brown (or someone of that ilk).

At a talk on femmes fatales, I learned all I need to know about poisoning using arsenic and the issues that might arise (a lot of mess) and the defence to use in court (just refer to Styria where arsenic was used to improve complexion and muscle tone).  I also got to taste flavoured gin and left with a plaster cast of the end of my index finger – I’m not entirely sure how either of these related to murderous madams, but they made for a fun night out.

Finally, at a talk on potential global geological disasters – including meteor strikes, super-volcanoes, mega-tsunamis and huge earthquakes – man’s dwarfing by nature was laid bare.  One potential disaster would be for part of a mountainside in the Canary Islands to fall into the Atlantic ocean – this could produce a mega-tsunami which would take out most of the eastern seaboard of North and Central America (among other things).  In common with all the potential disasters, many have suggested the use of nuclear weapons as a possible solution to geologists: I’m sorry to report that this will make matters worse (and more radioactive!) in all cases (despite what you may have seen in the movies).  In the case of Las Palmas, some have suggested removing the mountainside in question using diggers and trucks.  Even assuming an infeasibly rapid rate of removal, this would take a minimum of 10 (and perhaps as much as 35) million years!  We may like to imagine that we can destroy the planet (or are already giving it jolly good go), but in many ways even doing our best (or worst) we are desperately ineffectual: the planet is likely to be here long after we’ve gone.  The best (or worst) we can hope for is to have a short-term (in the geological context) impact on the climate and mix of living species – perhaps enough of an effect finish ourselves off, but all pretty minor in the 4.5 billion year history of this lump of rock.

The king across the water

When I moved to Southampton a little more than twenty months ago, one of the clear advantages of my new location was its proximity to the widely-admired (if inaccurately named) New Forest.  Given that it lies little more than half-a-dozen miles away (as the crow or drone flies), I could regularly partake of its arboreal delights.  Prior to last Wednesday, the number of trips I had taken to the Forest could be counted using the fingers of one foot (a foot, I should emphasise, unaffected by radiation-based mutation).

Finally, last Wednesday as the temperature soared in a series of events we may come to look back on as The Summer™, I decided the time had come to visit the hunting grounds of William the Bastard (or Conqueror as I believe he preferred).  So, packing up a few essentials into a spotted handkerchief (OK, a messenger bag) I cycled down to the Town Quay to seek passage across Southampton Water.   There is a regular ferry that will take the traveller over to Hythe, but as I discovered, it is very much a no-frills operation.  This lack of frills extends to an almost total lack of any signage (there was in fact one sign, but someone was standing in front of it, totally obscuring it).  The potential user will also be well-advised to carry a lot of change as one’s ticket is purchased from slightly modified parking machines which do not take credit cards, notes or even the current ten pence piece.  I lacked suitable change, but luckily the ferry company will exchange your notes for small bags of change acceptable to the machines – at a very competitive 1-1 exchange rate.  Such formalities out of the way, my cycle and I boarded the MV Great Expectations and made the short crossing over to one of this country’s many Hythes.

In Hythe, the cyclist can join NCN 2 which promises to transport you to the New Forest and thence to Brockenhurst and probably beyond.  I will admit that it does do this… eventually.  The routing through Hythe and Dibden has clearly not been optimised for either speed or distance and the signage is a little thin on the ground, but patience (coupled with a little luck, an A-Z and a 1:25,000 map from the Ordnance Survey) did eventually deliver me to the edge of the New Forest.  Entering the forest proper required my bicycle to make its first ever crossing of a cattle grid – which it handled like a pro (though it was less comfy for the rider).

The first thing you notice about the New Forest is the relative scarcity of trees – or at least on this eastern edge, where gorse-covered heathland dominates the scenery.  The second thing you notice is that New Forest ponies are not rare – there are loads of them, and (in common with most motorists, some cyclists and a few pedestrians) they clearly believe that they own the road.  I am generally quite nervous cycling near horses (or ponies – though the Shetland variety might be OK) given that they are larger and heavier than me and tend to the unpredictable – but luckily, most of the ponies seemed more interested in taking on four-wheeled opponents than a middle-aged cyclist.  Otherwise, cycling around the heathland in the balmy weather was really very pleasant (the scenery is of a type more associated – by me -with a holiday then a short troll from home).  Seeking refreshment I stopped off in the village of Beaulieu and eventually used the Montagu Arms Hotel as it seemed to be the sole provider of a stand to secure my bike (though the stands may have been provide to secure a four-footed form of transport).  This was a long way from the cheapest option for tea and cake, but I felt they should be rewarded for their bike (or horse) stands and they did provide a lovely garden for the refuelling.  They were also very generous with the quantity of tea (nearly enough to refloat the MV Great Expectations) and the parkin (the only cake on offer) was excellent – also very nice facilities to purge some of the tea before continuing on my way.

I then cycled back to Hythe, using my own route through Dibden Purlieu to the ferry terminal which was substantially more efficient then NCN 2 (though did require navigation of a rather busy roundabout).  With a few minutes to kill before the ferry (actually, more than a few as the timetable seems more a suggestion than a rigid commitment) I stumbled upon an excellent greengrocer which provided me with local tomatoes and rhubarb – if only I could find one nearer to home.

All-in-all an excellent afternoon out, and probably my longest cycle ride since moving to the south coast.  My body held up rather well to the rigours, though I was reminded why – when I used to cycle such distances daily – I wore padded boxer shorts.  Still, I have no real intention to pass on my genes and the contents of my under-crackers seem to be healing nicely.  I shall have to obtain a map of the cycle routes in the Forest and try and allow less than 20 months to elapse before my next visit – perhaps next time I shall take my bike on the train and delve deeper into the Nova Foresta (as the Domesday Book would have it).

Nit one

In my day job, parting the mists of time to predict the future, it is often useful to know what is happening now (or has been happening recently).  Much data about the present and recent past does exist on-line, but it tends (either by accident or as a matter of policy) to be rather painful to extract by hand – and so a little bit of “code” to automate the process  comes in very handy.  Given that “the man” has de-staffed those with useful skills rather significantly, on the whole if you want a bit of “code” you better start writing it yourself.

I used to code, back in the day (mostly my teenage days) so have had a punt at this using both Visual Basic and at the command-line in MS-DOS.  I don’t actually know any VB, but I used Basic in the early 1980s on a TRS-80 and a BBC Micro and armed with that fading knowledge, some general views about how programming languages should work, a little macro capture, some guesswork and a bit of focused internet search I found I could write some code to scrape a website and compile the extracted data into a usable form.  This code was very far from elegant, but it was a lot quicker than extracting the data by hand.  As part of this process, I also discovered that based on file naming conventions, I could tell when the person publishing data for a major European system operator took their holidays for the last two years – it can be surprising how much data we inadvertently give away on-line!

However, this is all rather painful and I decided it would be handy if I learned a proper scripting language so that I could write more effective scrapes (among other things).  For the avoidance of doubt, I decided to do this for “fun” in my own time – well, who among us hasn’t been tempted?  My original plan was to have a look at Ruby or Python, but Southampton library seemed rather weak in these languages.  However, it did have a book on Perl which some part of my subconscious seemed to believe might be a scripting language.  So, Fate having poked me with her stick, I came home with Learning Perl – aka the Llama Book – to have a look at and see if it might serve my needs.

The good news was that my Mac has a version of Perl built-in, though it took a little fiddling to get it to actually run programmes.  In my teenage days, even the most complex text editor did just that (if you were lucky), but now even a very basic text editor (like TextEdit) insists on adding all manner of bells and whistles to your putative programmes – and Perl really doesn’t like SmartQuotes or their ilk.   Still, I am now happily using TextWrangler which outputs what you input and even colour codes my code, which does help avoid at least some common syntax errors.

I have rather fallen in love with Perl – mostly because it is just so naughty.  It is the most transgressive programming language I have ever played with, breaking all the “rules” that more square languages insist upon – though it will play slightly less fast-and-loose if you use the pragma strict (but that would just spoil the fun).  It also makes huge use of punctuation marks and other obscure characters which are dotted around your keyboard – so I am now becoming quite skilled at finding these.  As a result, it can produce very compact and powerful – if hard to understand – code and is oft used by System Administrators (and now me).  Learning it is proving great fun, partly aided by the enjoyable style of Learning Perl and its rather well chosen exercises.  I have also found myself learning about Regular Expressions which have a substantial life well beyond Perl and which may improve my future internet searching.  I think I have just about reached the stage where I can start tearing apart data files and reassembling them in a more useful form, so next week I shall be putting my learning to the test!

So enamoured am I with Perl, that I have bought my own copy of the Llama Book (and am considering the Camel Book), but last night matters rose to a whole new level.  Yes, last night (so far as I know) I had my first Perl dream – I cannot remember all the details, though I do recall a rather egregious syntax error I was making and only noticed on waking: printing the number of elements in an array rather than its contents (fool!).  So, I think it may be premature to offer my sleep-coding services to the world – but my more conscious coding should be rather better…

A smile and a stick…

According to Robert Powell will cover you for most situations in life, with only occasional need for recourse to the stick.  I fear he may have spoken these words before the development of that modern scourge, the selfie-stick (or narcissistick as I have seen it described).

As I was closing on Waverley Station on Saturday morning, I saw a very hefty smartphone being carried at the end of what I believe to have been a selfie-stick and realised that I objected to this technological development: despite my obviously rampant egomania.   Now this could just be a consequence of my age (and later this theory will be shown to have some weight) or it could be a reaction to my total inability to take a decent selfie – in any attempts I look not unlike a Christian Scientist with appendicitis (to quote the great Tom Lehrer) – but I would like to propose another reason.

As you will have come to expect, I shall not be relying on the more normal reasons to object to the selfie stick:

  1. The assumption that the captured image of any vista, monument or event can be improved by the gurning visage of the photographer filling half the frame; or
  2. the dreadful lack of consideration for others which ownership of such a stick seems to engender

but instead appeal to the joy of photography that the stick eliminates.

Despite some (half-hearted) attempts over the years, I am very far from being a great photographer – and even in these days where it could scarcely be simpler to capture an image, rarely remember to do so.  I can enjoy the work of much better photographers, but the actual process of taking a photograph offers little appeal to me.  However, there always used to be an exception – which was the rare attempts to try and include the self within the captured image.  In the good old days (with Leonard Sachs MCing), this could take one of two routes:

  1. Find a stranger and inveigle upon them to take the snap – and so encouraging social contact with your fellow humans; or
  2. Attempt to prop the camera in a somewhat stable position, set the timer and then race round in front and hope that everything has worked.

This second option was – usually – the most exciting with real tension and a risk of physical danger as the photographer attempts to get into “frame” in the few seconds available.   In the days before digital cameras, it could also be some weeks before you knew how well matters had gone.  There are a number of photos in existence, normally taken at the summit of Welsh hills or mountains, with the youthful author and his family captured in this way – and with my Dad just having made it into the frame at the last second.  It gives the shots a vibrancy and life that I doubt any selfie-stick can ever hope to replicate.

However, I can see one possible use for a (perhaps modified) selfie stick.  As presbyopia continues to ravage the accommodation in my eyes, it is going to become increasingly important to hold books further away from my face than even my pointlessly long arms can achieve and here I can see a potential use for the arm-extending capabilities of the “reading stick”.  As with the original selfie stick, the application is driven by o’erweening vanity – but does not destroy an existing pleasure or (if used responsibly) inconvenience others.  I do also wonder if both the selfie and reading sticks could double up as a very handy back-scratcher?

Cold comfort

Some readers may have been wondering about the break in service here at GofaDM, most (I suspect) will have just been enjoying the peace and quiet.  A few may have correctly guessed that my cold, once eliminated from my sinuses, did not do the decent thing and leave my body.  No, instead it chose to begin a seven day residency in my chest and throat – which has meant me spending much of the last week coughing (both day and night).  I have also had much reduced appetite – though in some ways, for a chap trying to base his diet on local fruit and veg, this is about the best possible time of year to eat rather less.

I am far from alone in suffering under a prolonged cough, based on my friends and family, I am thinking of naming 2015 the Year of the Cough (though I note that our Chinese friends went with the Goat).  Indeed, I spent last week staying in an unseasonably warm Edinburgh with friends who were both similarly afflicted.  Obviously, this rather limited my scope for sympathy – but the excellent Edinburgh Science Festival provided further restrictions on traditional responses to a nasty cold.

A common response is to seek an antibiotic prescription from your doctor – rarely useful as most colds are viral in nature and antibiotics can (at best) see off bacteria (and perhaps archaea? fungi?).  Having been to a brilliant talk entitled Antibiotic Apocalypse! I was fully aware of the risks to both patient and society of unnecessary prescribing of antibiotics.  I could have been suffering from “strep” throat, but since it seems to have largely cleared up with the benefit of time, some menthol sweets and a lot of hot drinks (many containing honey and lemon) that now seems unlikely.

It was also very hard to wallow in self-pity after going to a talk on Motor Neurone Disease (or ALS for any American readers).  This would tend to put one’s minor ailments in their place at the best of times, but the fact that I spent a good hour sitting within a few feet (at times less than three) of a chap who really was dying (and fast) really did make it impossible.  He – Gordon Aikman – is a one time national gymnast and is still barely thirty: which certainly reminds one of the capricious (and cruel) nature of Fate.  The talk was fascinating and rather affecting: we know neither what causes MND nor can do anything to prevent its progress and Stephen Hawking is certainly not a typical sufferer – half of all patients die within 14 months of diagnosis and very few live for as long as five years.  It is surprisingly common – with some 400 current sufferers in Scotland alone.  Given our extensive ignorance and the swift, debilitating progress of the disease, efforts focus on improving the (all too short) lives of patients and basic research to try and understand why neurons in the motor cortex and spine start dying.  Some of the former efforts can be quite simple: for example, arranging for patients to have a single appointment to cover everything rather than forcing them to waste their very limited remaining time visiting five different specialists.  Others are more complex, including an attempt to use modern technology to allow sufferers to keep their own voices – rather than a standardised electronic voice – which improves quality of life for both them and their friends and family.  It certainly made me think how important it is not to waste NHS money on things which benefit neither patients, medical staff nor tax-payers.  It marks the current government’s awful, bodged attempts at soi-disant reforms (which seemed cunningly designed to help none of the traditional stakeholders even had they worked) as particularly wicked – they have probably set back real attempts to improve the financial management of the NHS by decades.  It also threw into sharp focus the trivial nature of any of the election debates on the subject of the NHS.

Anyway, lacking a decent route to self-pity and unaided by antibiotics, my immune system has had to do some work and see off the invaders on its own.  It does finally seem to be gaining the upper hand and (according to at least one test) I am now restored to 75% of normal function.  As a result of my reduced depletion, blogging should be fully restored.

The illness was not a complete dead loss as it led me to discover Belvoir Fruit Farms’ Ginger Cordial – which I purchased for its medicinal properties (well, a chap can dream), but which turns out to be worryingly delicious (at least when taken hot, I have yet to try it cold).

The Completist

I am current suffering suffering through (what I hope is) the tail end of a cold – my second of 2015 (though, apparently, this still does not make for a statistically significant rate of infection).  Given the timing, I had a number of social engagements whilst the cold was closer to its peak and so did a little research to identify whether I was likely to be infectious – despite my naturally giving nature, I felt sharing my viral load with friends and family was probably de trop.

Reference to Dr Internet (largely due to my iron self-control) did not lead to any escalation of my self-diagnosis, but nor was it particularly definitive as to whether I would be playing the role of Typhoid Mary de nos jours across East Sussex.  However, NHS Direct did suggest a number of precautions I could take to reduce the risks for those I would be visiting.  Only time (and lawsuits) will tell whether these will have proved successful.

My colds tend to be follow a very standard timetable – from first detection I have a sore throat and catarrh then after 72 hours my nose will run like a tap for 12 hours. I will then start to recover, though initially will feel worse and the cold will then degenerate into a cough.  I have yet to find any cold “remedy” that does much good, though anaesthetic throat lozenges help with the sort throat and Night Nurse helps with the disturbed sleep.  NHS Direct also gave details of the typical length of an adult cold and the normal symptoms.  I tend to have all the standard symptoms and most of the uncommon ones – but this time, I managed to achieve the whole list and some extras!

In terms of the progression of a cold, I tend to follow my father – however, with this cold I also followed both my sister and mother.  On Good Friday in particular, my sinuses were clearly massively unhappy – this means that as well as my nose feeling vaguely on fire, my brain felt too big for my head and all(!) of my teeth ached constantly.  NHS Direct did rather fail to mention the toothache aspect of the typical cold – but my sister has experienced this, so I’m not the first.  For some reason, I also had issues with the movement of my eyes within their orbits – and so it was much less painful to move my head to look at something than more my eyeballs.  This is surprisingly hard to remember to do: the eyes do seem to have a mind of their own.  In addition, my eyes were horribly bloodshot (I could have been cast, make-up free, as a zombie) and became very photo-sensitive as well: the lighting in railway carriages really needs a dimmer switch.  I think this extension of symptoms to the eyes I have from my mother.  I’ve even had to give up on the Night Nurse as my body mostly ignores it, then about three hours into the night sweats to an insane degree and I awaken drenched – which apparently happens to my dad when using paracetamol as well.  If nothing else, this cold strongly suggests that I am not adopted!

Fortunately, today I am feeling somewhat better – though my overly emotional response to watching the latest re-boot of Thunderbirds may suggest that normal service is still a little ways off (or perhaps it brought a tear – or a flood thereof – to the eyes of many a middle-aged chap).

Anyway, as a result of the severity of this cold (and the completeness of its symptoms) I have been forced to live for four days as conventional wisdom would suggest much of the population lives all the time.  Basically, illness has made me into a couch potato – with little or no exercise and far more time spent sitting or lying down than is normal for me.  How do people do this?  I ache everywhere – far worse than after even the most extreme of gymnastic sessions or even a full day of art gallery viewings – and that’s after only four days.  Does one eventually adapt to being a settee tuber?  Fortunately, today matters have improved and I have travelled a modest distance on my bike and had a very gentle session at the gym – which did cause my body to receive olfactory hallucinations, but the aches are diminishing.  On the plus side, whilst my nose is now imagining smells, hanging upside from the bar has done wonders for clearing my sinuses.  Well, when was the last time you saw a bat or sloth with the sniffles?

Cars on screen

As a somewhat regular filmgoer, I often fall prey to the motor industry’s marketing messages.  Yes, we the cinema going public are apparently gagging for a new car, strong liquor and something to treat our terrible acne (mostly recently interminably promoted by a CGI goose) – which does feel less than ideal as a combination.  On the whole, the ad reel is entirely independent of the cinema or film – but I did recently discover a couple of exceptions.

  • Before the Shaun the Sheep movie (U), the ad reel was really very different, nothing to dull the pain of existence or excise my spots, but full of much brighter colours and mysterious products which I presume were aimed at much younger viewers (and left me begging for strong liquor).
  • In Scotland, an ad for the NatWest morphs into one for the Royal Bank of Scotland, losing the dulcet voice-over tones of Rebecca Front to be replaced by a someone with a Scottish accent and changing the corporate logo in the branch at the end (but nothing else).

But, I should return to the plot (such as it is) and the attempts by car makers to flog their wares.  What I have come to realise in these visual offerings is that the vehicles always have UK licence plates, but are clearly not in the UK (and frequently admit that the model shown does not even exist in the UK).  Why is it so important to maintain this flimsiest of fictions?   Would the actors’ skin tones be darkened for sunnier markets as well – or have they been lightened for cloudy Britain?

More importantly, the cars are always being driven either on entirely deserted streets or in some barren wilderness (the latter is normally true if the vehicle is a 4×4).  Clearly, we are being sold some entirely spurious idea of freedom which the automobile is supposed to deliver – and I suppose if we go back far enough in time, once did.  However, to me it looks as though motor manufacturers are in complete denial about the existence of traffic or are hoping their clients will only wish to use their cars after the recent detonation of a neutron bomb (or perhaps in the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse).  This gives all the ads a somewhat dystopian feel which seems at odds with the desire to shift product.

A few recent ads, show a “classic” car from a company’s product line and then show it driving near to its latest incarnation.  Without exception (for me at least) these make the older car look much the more attractive – but that may be down to my age.  However, the message seems to be: look how ugly our new car is, why not try and find a decent second-hand example from when our cars weren’t designed be a committee of accountants?

I think this demonstrates why (a) I am a poor target for advertising (I insist on taking home the wrong message) and (b) should never be hired to work in marketing – or perhaps I am the small boy pointing out the emperor’s nudity in this scenario?  The ads rarely look cheap (though clearly are recycled across multiple markets) so I assume someone has checked whether they actually do any good?  Still, I probably shouldn’t complain as they must be subsidising my cinema-going habit – though I must try and curb the desire to laugh (or at least splutter) at some of the more egregious examples.

In a related topic, I have noticed the frequency with which characters on both film and TV will have a conversation whilst in a moving vehicle.  The only problem with this idea is the apparent difficulty of doing this in real life on both safety and continuity grounds (I would guess) means that the world outside the vehicle is usually faked.  My issue is that it tends to be faked really badly – even on otherwise high-budget productions.  It is usually a little better at night, but would still rarely fool anyone who has ever been in a vehicle while in possession of functioning eyes.  Entire series are made leaning heavily on (often quite convincing) CGI, but somehow no-one can create a convincing backdrop for a moving car.  Given this clear difficulty, surely it would make sense to hold fewer (or no) conversations in moving cars? It is not as though (in the real world) people only talk in cars, there are lots of alternatives!  Is the “moving” of the vehicle supposed to distract us from some slightly dull (if plot critical) exposition?  Or is it just down to a failure of the teaching in film school?  Is avoiding this issue part of the allure of period drama?