Sunday, December 20, 2015

On his blindness

On Friday morning when I woke up, I was blind.

Not entirely blind - I still had peripheral vision.  The problem was that right at the centre of my vision - the place you are looking in other words - I had no sight at all.  So, when I got up and stood on the bathroom scales, what should have looked something like this


looked instead like this.


At first, I thought this was A Good Thing: I must have lost a useful amount of weight.  Then it struck me that I wasn't seeing a smaller number there, but no number at all.  Except, if I looked away a bit, I could tell there was actually a number there.  It was only when I looked at it that it disappeared and just turned uniform grey.

I then realised that I couldn't see whatever I looked at directly.  I must say that I was impressed by the ability of my brain to guess as what should fill the blind spot; it seemed to work out from the colours immediately surrounding the blind spot what it should tell me I was seeing, which is how I had managed to get to the bathroom scales in the first place without realising my eyesight was deficient.

I mentioned this to the Dearly Beloved (aka She Who Must Be Obeyed).  I probably shouldn't have sprung it on her because she went a bit pale.

"What are you going to do?  How can you do photography, or play badminton or bridge?  Or drive?"

I hadn't thought of that.

When she opened, we called our local optician.  She asked me about the symptoms and then said "You probably have a migraine."

That was the good and bad news.  The headache struck shortly after, with the violence of a tropical storm.

I spent the rest of the day in a darkened bedroom, groaning softly to myself.  The following morning my head was better and so was my eyesight.

Lucky me.  I can still take photographs and bridge and will be back to badminton and driving in the not too distant future.  See, life's not so bad.

Thursday, November 05, 2015

In praise of free enterprise and science

A good and extremely intelligent friend of mine posted this picture on FaceBook yesterday. The essence of my response was "Nonsense!" but I think this subject deserves a longer riposte than is feasible on FB, so here we go.

  1. Pharma does create cures

    Despite the catchy graphic, pharma does create cures and other effective treatments.  From abdominal pain to Yellow Fever, there are pharmaceutical products that can alleviate the symptoms or cure the problem.
  2. The anti-profit meme

    It's increasingly popular to follow the meme that any organisation that makes a profit is, by definition, "bad".  Typical proponents of this include Russell Brand, Owen Jones and Charlotte Church (all of whom interestingly enough are well-off or even rich and whose wealth has come about through selling things at a profit in the free market).  Free enterprise largely drives our well-being.  As Adam Smith wrote "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest." Just as the baker recognises that people want bread and strives to make better bread so that customers will buy from him rather than another baker, so pharma companies do the same.  If you still believe that the profit motive is wrong for the pharma industry, perhaps you could point out significant pharmaceutical developments coming from Russia, China, Cuba or Venezuela.  I suspect the list would be very short indeed. 
     
  3. Pharmaceutical scandals

    Does this mean the pharmaceutical industry is perfect?  No, of course not.  Organisations are run by human beings and human beings get things wrong from time to time, both by accident and deliberately.  The logical fallacy lies in taking exceptional behaviour and arguing  that this is typical: for example "Vioxx (at high dosage over a long period of time) caused heart disease; therefore Merck is evil; this is what pharma companies do; therefore pharma is evil."  But such behaviour is both unusual and also rooted out.  Pharmaceutical scandals are the exception, not the rule.
  4. (Mis-)Understanding Science and Medicine

    The same friend who posted the picture above also wrote "Fundamentally people need to be better informed," and he is absolutely right.  I've argued this for some considerable time.  As children we should be taught what makes for a logical argument and to be aware of common logical errors and also to have a more sceptical approach to science.  Newspapers (the Guardian is mostly an exception) often report science matters poorly.  This is a huge topic and is brilliantly written up in Ben Goldacre's easy to read book Bad Science.  Or you could watch his TED Talk.
  5. Big Pharma is uniquely bad

    No, it's not.  Mistakes (or wrongdoings) occur in every industry and pretty much every company of any size.  Big companies have the opportunity to make bigger mistakes.  Just ask Volkswagen.  Swissair.  Tyco.  Enron.  Lehman Brothers.  Just Google "corporate scandals".
  6. Anti-Science

    Finally, in the last few decades there has been an increasing move to assume that since science doesn't know everything, non-scientific viewpoints are equally valid.  That's nonsense, but there's someone which says this far who says this far better than I can: Dara O Brian, so have a listen in to that and I will stop.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Wither Heathrow ...

In days of yore - or possibly a little more recently - Heathrow was the busiest international airport in the world. Today Dubai is, and other European airports are catching Heathrow quickly, with Charles de Gaulle, Frankfurt, Amsterdam and Istanbul all growing faster.  Heathrow is near capacity and airport capacity has an impact on the economy.

For this reason, governments have been looking into expanding Heathrow for decades.  However, since flying in and out of Heathrow involves aircraft flying over London and surrounding towns, craven governments have been carefully not making up their minds for just as long.  (Officially they gave the job to the Airport Commission).

Here are the pros and cons, in simple language of the various options.
  1. Expand Heathrow.  Adding a runway and associated infrastructure.
  2. Expand Gatwick.  Adding a runway and associated infrastructure.
  3. Build a totally new airport in the Thames Estuary ("Boris Island")
London's morning wake up call
Though attractive in many ways,  Boris Island is probably not feasible right now so the alternatives are Gatwick or Heathrow.  If Heathrow gets the nod, Gatwick will survive probably continuing as a centre for cheap and charter flights.  If Gatwick wins, the long-term viability of Heathrow will be threatened.

So here, ladies, gentlemen, Knights of the Realm and commoners, are the reasons why the answer is Gatwick.
  • Death

    Flying remains the safest form of mass transport.  Still it is not risk-free and the most dangerous parts of a flight are take-off and landing.  Indeed, in 2008 BA Flight 38 crash landed just short of the runway at Heathrow.  Miraculously there were no fatalities; had it crashed a few seconds earlier there would have been deaths on the plane and on the ground. Sooner or later it is likely that an aircraft flying into or out of London will crash.  If it is flying into Heathrow the death toll will at least be in the hundreds with many or most of these being on the ground; if flying into Gatwick, which is largely surrounded by open countryside, the toll will be much lower.  In short, Heathrow is likely to kill more people than Gatwick.
  • Noise

    Aircraft flying around Heathrow cause noise disturbance to hundreds of thousands of people.  In the case of Heathrow adding a third runway, it's estimated that up to a million people in London would suffer from noise pollution, and that's almost certainly an underestimate. In the case of Gatwick less than a tenth of that number of people would be affected.  We're talking about people whose sleep is affected every day; schools where teaching suffers because of the noise; and the health impacts (hypertension, heart attacks and dementia among others). Some of these are covered in a recent CAA report.  In short, Heathrow is likely to kill and maim more people than Gatwick.
  • Air Pollution

    Even without Heathrow, London would be a busy city with slow-moving and polluting vehicles.  Heathrow makes this much worse.  In addition, it is on the western edge of London and with prevailing winds being from west to east its pollution spreads across the city.  In comparison, around Gatwick there are far fewer people to be affected.
So, where do we go from here?  There really is just one viable solution that's affordable, viable, safe and future proof: Gatwick.  Or what I think of as "Gatwick+".  It goes like this:
  1. Build a second runway at Gatwick.  This can be done quickly and much cheaper than Heathrow (probably about half the time and half the cost).  Build a lot of infrastructure around it: much M23 and M25 expansion.  More Gatwick Express services (rail connection to London).  More and faster Gatwick to Reading rail services to connect to the Thames Valley technical centres.
  2. Build a third runway at Gatwick.  Move almost all passenger traffic to Gatwick (some might go to Birmingham or other London airports).  Heathrow becomes a purely freight airport.
  3. Build a fourth runway at Gatwick.  Shut down Heathrow.  Bring sanity and cleaner air back to the lives of millions of Londoners.  Re-develop Heathrow as desperately-needed housing and parkland for the capital.  Much of the infrastructure (transport, utilities) needed for housing is there already.
Gatwick is the logical choice
If this strategy was adopted, the new Gatwick could probably be delivered by 2030.  The owners of Heathrow would need compensation: part of this could be giving them the right to buy into the new Gatwick; part would be the money raised by selling the land for development; part would probably need to be paid by government.  

The infrastructure needed should be delivered up front: a fast Gatwick to Reading rail link with just one or two stops taking forty minutes, for example.  Six lanes on the M23 and M25.  Get the redevelopment misery over in two years while the second runway is being built rather than ongoing bit by bit development over a decade or two.

Heathrow (while more convenient to me in Hampshire) is the worst of all solutions.  If we are smart and want to take a strategic decision we need to do away with Heathrow on a planned basis.  It's done a great job over more than fifty years but it's time to let it wither and develop a better solution.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Take more refugees and do it now

To anyone who doesn't carefully avert their eyes, the scenes from eastern Europe are harrowing.  It's not just fit young men trying to get into Europe: it's also families with young children and babies, surely only making this terrible journey because of terrifying conditions at home.

Do we really leave them to suffer and, in some cases, die?

People who have the determination, perseverance and pluck to undergo such dreadful hardships are a huge loss to their homelands.  They could, if only temporarily, prove great assets to us if we gave them the chance.

But ... but.
Refugees

But we have a shortage of houses already.  Where do they live?  But we have a struggling economy.  Can we support them?  But what if they include terrorists?  And many more buts.

Well, we do have quite a bit of accommodation in the UK.  It's not in the south, but these people aren't going to be commuting to work any time soon.  Place them where the accommodation is.

Not only that but as the government slims down, military bases (for example) are being closed.  House some refugees there: even (on a temporary basis) makeshift accommodation in a hanger or warehouse is better than being in a field in the rain.

And yes, we do have a tough economy so how can we afford them?  Well, let's take a billion pounds from the foreign aid budget and use it in the UK to build basic accommodation - even as basic as dormitories - where we need places to house these people.  Accept them on the basis that they will agree to learn to speak English and employ some more teachers to teach them; short term contracts for retired teachers, if necessary.  Many young graduates struggle to find work in the UK: offer one year contracts to young graduates to help refugees learn to live in a UK society with UK norms whether this is teaching, social work, counselling and therapy, language skills, UK history and simple things about just how the UK works because even in day-to-day terms it is far different from the middle east.  Another billion pounds going into the UK economy will help expand it, to everyone's advantage.

Give refugees a chance to contribute to the economy so they can help build it.  Offer them free flights home when conditions in their homeland permit.  Offer them the chance to work to become UK citizens if they wish.

But what of the evil people who try to get in among the mass of refugees?

Like the poor, the evil will always be with us.  There will be very few, however, among refugees.    Children aren't terrorists.  Desperate parents aren't terrorists nor likely to undermine a society which helps them escape their wretched plight.  For those few, those very few, who bite the hand that feeds them, we need quick justice: deport any convicted of serious crimes.  These will be very few however.  Imagine you had to flee your home and country with just what you could carry: would you attack a country that gave you refuge?

It's the British way to act carefully and this generally works well.  In this case we need act briskly; a contemplative approach will see many die during the winter.  20,000 refugees over five years is too little, too late: 100,000 over the next year is more like it.  We cannot take every refugee but our current approach is pitiful.  Here's how pitiful:

UK proposal: 20,000 over 5 years.
France: 24,000 over 2 years
Lebanon: 1.2 million refugees today
Germany: (proposed) 500,000 annually

Whether from the point of view of common humanity or self-interest, we should take a lot more refugees a lot sooner.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Crystal Clear

I have always wanted to go in a submarine so I did.

It was parked in Basca harbour, looking like one of the Royal Navy's nuclear subs except smaller and redder and with fewer nukes. I hope. It cost 90 krone per person for a ride, which seemed to me to be a major investment in a bit of transient joy, but what do I know? So in the blink of an eye we were 180 krone poorer but boarding this marvellous vessel.

One of its attractions was that it had glass windows below the surface.  At first all one could see was the blue sea bed. It had sand and the odd bit of detritus but otherwise was curiously uninteresting. So at least initially I would have traded the view for a few torpedoes. However after we had been underway for a few minutes and before we submerged to fifty fathoms deep (*) we found ourselves surrounded by schools of small silvery, golden and black fish. By one of those weird coincidences that make life interesting the man at the tiller had just thrown some fish food in the water. We therefore returned from our mission not having sunk anything nor having destroyed enemy cities but at least having seen some lovely fish in the bay.

After such an adventure I was exhausted. I was planning which bar we could inhabit while we discussed the excitement of our maritime quest.  Colleen suggested going for a walk and, while I was not expecting a pub crawl it did seem to be sensible to sample the delights of the various hostelries along the waterfront.  I could not understand why Colleen had packed two bottles of water in her backpack.  I must have lost concentration for twenty minutes and didn't come to my senses until we were 100 feet up a mountain, about to enter a forest.  The purveyors of food and drink were disappearing into the distance as we trod on pine needles.

We were inclined to visit the church of St Ivan but it was locked. So we continued on our adventure across field and mountain. The ground underfoot was curious; a combination of sand and pebbles which appeared utterly barren but which nonetheless supported a good amount of forestry, until the tree line was reached half way up the mountain and there was no further growth of any sort.

Some time thereafter - the memory is a blur - we returned to civilisation and after a scrub up we did, in fact, promenade along the waterfront. I saw two children lying down on the pier with their heads just over the edge. The great thing about being years old is that I no longer get embarrassed so I decided to emulate the younger generation. I didn't need to. As soon as I looked over edge of the pier it was obvious the water was astonishingly clear.

After our astonishment subsided, we walked on, taking in the free sunset provided. God had been busy with his pastel paints and it would have been rude not to appreciate the result. The submarine sat silently at its mooring. It had seen hundreds of sunsets and was no longer impressed.

(*) sadly, now I think about it, we never did submerge. Odd, that.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

No eyes

We landed in Krk. Vowels are rationed in Croatia. A hangover from The War.  Which war, I forget.

It's Rijeka airport, but it could easily be Bulawayo airport: dry, dusty and almost arid with an unblinking blue sky and a handful of small aircraft on the airport apron, ready to leap off into the sky and enjoy the romance of flight. The drone and cameras stayed at home.

So here we are, at Rijeka airport, walking across the concrete apron and I am simultaneously thinking that I want my delightful Nikon D800 camera with its superb 24-70 lens while remembering Ryanair taking all carry on bags away from their passengers because the flight was full and trying to avoid admitting to myself that the cameras and lenses and drone would probably have not survived the flight or the baggage handlers.

Damn.

Still, I have my iPhone and it has a rather good camera.

There's a ridiculously small conveyor belt for the luggage and yet it just about manages the plane's luggage. The rental car park is just a bit of scrubby open land. We set off for the south of the island and the bright sun and parched landscape take me back forty or more years to my childhood in Southern Africa and so I feel nostalgia for a place I have never visited before. An hour's drive brings us to the the bay of Baska (there really should be a little arc above the "s", like a devil's horns, but my keyboard won't cooperate).

We check in to our hotel and walk the promenade along the mile-long beach, passing couples whose children have grown up and generation-younger couples with toddlers, skipping along with stiff legs. I try skipping along with stiff legs but it's not as much fun or as easy as it was in the 1950s. It's mid-September and the families with school age children have gone home; the resorts are quieter and the weather is still warm.

Our dinner is inexpensive, delicious and served promptly while we sit looking over the peaceful bay.

I like Croatia and hope the rest of the week will be as good.

Friday, May 22, 2015

The scoop on Hadrian's Wall


  • Building started in 122AD, on the orders of Emperor Hadrian who, having visited Britain, decided he needed a way of keeping out the Scots (or Picts or whatever they may have been called at that time).
  • The bus service that travels the length of the wall is numbered AD122.
  • The walk along the wall is 84 miles long.
  • It feels longer.
  • Especially when it has hailed on you for four hours.
  • The wall was built by Roman soldiers, who clearly had to be multi skilled.
  • It had a big ditch dug on the front (north) side of it to deter invaders.
  • It had a big ditch dug on the rear (south) side of it. This ditch was there to make it harder for soldiers to run away.
  • One of these ditches was called the vallum.
  • To get an idea of the amount of effort involved in digging the vallum, think of how much effort it would take to dig an Olympic swimming pool by hand. Then multiply that by 10,000.
  • Given it was built almost 1900 years ago, it is astonishing how much remains.
  • The walk starts at Bowness on Solway and ends at Wallsend. (Yes, really).
  • However, remaining sections of visible wall actually start near Heddon-on-the-wall and finish before Walton. So if you just want to “walk the wall” you can do it in three days, not six.
  • The highest point of the wall is about 370 metres (say 1,100 ft) above sea level.
  • The high point of walking Hadrian's Wall, if you have any sense, will be a evening's stay at Oakwood Park Hotel, which is one of the top two or three places I have stayed in during my life.
  • You will probably meet more North Americans walking the wall than people from all other nations combined.
  • It feels good to be done!

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

All hail breaks loose

If you are from Southern Africa, English rain is pretty wimpy. It more or less comes down but often seems to think "It's too much trouble" and gives up half way. South African rain is more macho; the point of rain is to make you wet and it will make damn sure you are soaked within a couple of seconds  if you have the temerity to step outside in a storm.

Until recently - very recently - I thought the same was true of English hail; ice the size of pinheads would drift down aimlessly like a 15 year old contemplating his future.

Today changed all this. We set off from Chollerford towards Steel Rigg, two hamlets you have never heard of before. En route were a couple of Roman forts and a good section of Hadrian's Wall. I would like to entrance you with a magical description of what they were like but about midday it started hailing.  These were, indeed, not much more than pinhead sized bits of hail but they got bigger in size and more frequent in volume while lightning and thunder split the sky for four hours.

A school trip was seen sprinting for the bus. Birds were beaten from the skies. The path underfoot became treacherous with ice. And the blasted hail just went on and on. Every now and then the sun would break though, just to tease us, before another squall of hail would saunter along and do its stuff.  I only survived due to my Tilley Hat; I do not know how the others managed. I began to get delusional, believing I was on Scott's doomed trip to the Antarctic.

The final mile of the hike was along an ice-covered road. Some of the hail was melting and the effect of the ice-melt and the accumulated hailstones looked rather like those films you see of ice-bergs calving in summer.

Bizarrely, in the distance a two hundred foot gout of flame suddenly appeared. Where from? Who knew? Two RAF Chinooks flew around it. After a couple of minutes, as quickly as it appeared the flame was put out. Surreal? Nothing could surprise me any more.

We survived. The sun has come out.  I have just asked the owner what time supper is and he replied by giving me a menu and asking if I could find out what the six of us in the group would like to east.  Have I moved to a parallel universe?  Am I a waiter-hiker?

Tomorrow, surely, must be saner.


Monday, May 18, 2015

OOAQICI82QB4IP

“I wonder” I thought to myself “if I walk into that showroom and offer to buy an Audi whether they would let me use their toilet.”

I had walked eight blasted miles from Wallsend, which truth be told is not much of a place, through a howling gale along the Tyne valley, through a bitterly cold Sunday Market in Newcastle and had not seen sign nor sound of a public convenience. What the hell do the Geordies do? Is there some secret sign?

Geordies themselves seem like fine people. A cheery glint in their eye, a happy manner. We had spent the previous evening in Newcastle and, once you find the nice bits, it's lovely. (Clue: head away from Monument station down the hill towards the quayside.) All those beautiful bridges of various designs, some astonishing architecture on the church that made me wish I had brought my heavy DSLR camera and lenses, a delightful meal at Sabatini’s and the happy buzz of a good city.

We'd made our way back to the surprisingly good Premier Inn in North Shields, slept the sleep of the innocent (parading under false pretenses in my case) and after a FEB (full English breakfast) set off with light hearts into the teeth of a gale. The BBC said it was a light breeze but I'm pretty sure I saw a tractor and a brace of cows fly past at one point.

And then there was the call of nature, getting increasingly loud until it was bellowing in my ear and so I hopped behind a tree.

Whew.

Then things got miraculously better. There was a pretty park and a Walls ice cream van. Nom nom. Next we met Charlie from Heddon-on-the-wall who showed us a shortcut. And finally we arrived at our destination for the evening, Iron Sign Farm, to be greeted by the charming Helen who offered us an a la carte menu (in my case, smoked salmon starter and beef main course.) My boots are off and I have had a shower.

Could life be better?

Friday, May 15, 2015

Droning on ...

I have two bits of bad news for those of you thinking that one of these new drone helicopters would be a great way to spy on the neighbour who likes to sunbathe topless.
  • Drones make a racket like a swarm of bees so she's going to guess these's something going on long before you get in range and 
  • The built-in camera has such a wide angle that you'd have to get with axe range before you'd see anything and all you'd see at that point would be a brief glimpse of an axe descending before the video feed cut out.
So for those of you who'd like to use a drone for honest, above-the-board fun, here's a review of the new DJI Phantom 3 Professional.  

In the box

What's in the box is exactly what DJI says so I won't repeat it here.  

What's missing?  

To my astonishment, DJI do not ship propellor guards as standard with the Phantom 3.  This is crazy.  For many people, the DJI Phantom will be their first drone and being excited they will skip through the manual to the bit that tells you how to take off and they will get it to take off.  The next thing they will do is fly it into a tree.  Or a person.  Neither of these is good and yet those cheap and cheerful prop guards have an excellent chance of saving the Phantom when it encounters a tree (as I know from experience) and an even better chance of saving the person from having their face shredded.

Manuals are a RRPITA to read, right?  Don't care.  Read them.  They're not that long, especially if you can read without moving your lips (and if you can't you shouldn't be let loose with a drone anyway).  There's an especially useful bit about pre-takeoff checks and the order in which to do things.

Now while unpacking the Phantom 3 you will run into one of the big issues that plagues much new technology today: someone who presumably owns a shrink-wrap plastic factory has persuaded DJI that much of the Phantom, the controller and the propellors must be encased in plastic.  So instead of having fun with your new toy you ... are ... wrestling ... with ... this ... blasted ... shrink-wrap.  Why, for heaven's sake, why?  It took me somewhere between five and ten agonising minutes to get the shrink-wrap off just four propellors.  Now I need finger transplants.

So, let's assume you've upgraded the microcode, RTFMed, charged all the batteries, downloaded the pilot app to your tablet or phone and you're now ready to go.

How does it fly?

Brilliantly.  

I am sorry to follow the previous grumbles with a great gush of enthusiasm, but the Reviewers' Code of Ethics compels me to say it is a joy to fly.  I hadn't flown a drone for five months when I took the Phantom aloft and it was delightful.  It seemed a lot more stable than the Phantom 2; is this a better GPS system or was I lucky?  The first time I flew a Phantom 2 in my back garden it headed straight into a tree (and was only saved by prop-guards); the Phantom 3 took off gently and just hung there moving an inch or two in the breeze but essentially beautifully stable, almost as if tethered by an anchor.

The controls seemed a little less sensitive, too.  I could nudge the Phantom 3 this way or that to get precise positioning.  I can land it to within a couple of inches of the spot I want, which is excellent.  I've flown it up to 100 metres (330 ft) height and 500 metres away, at which stage it is a tiny but still visible spec and it flew as controlled.

The camera and gimbal

I have the Pro version of the camera: basically a 12 megapixel camera and 4k video camera.  Really, 12 mp is ample and 4k is more than that.  But what's the quality like?  I'll post a video once I've got round to editing it, but in short the quality of the video is outstanding: good colours, great resolution. You feel like you're in an IMAX theatre looking at the output.  Especially if you're viewing it on an Apple iMac, or what I call "a proper computer".



But ...

But. But. But.

I haven't yet managed to get the gimbal level.  So I end up with pictures and video where the horizon is not level (in the screen grab from video above I manually straightened it).  I have run the IMU calibration - in the annoyingly undocumented DJI pilot app - which should have fixed the problem but there's still a lean of about 2 degrees - enough to be truly irritating. If this is supposed to be the Professional version of the P3, then a level camera is a prereq.  Here's a cropped shot: I did a 360ยบ turn and the right horizon was consistently higher than the left.


Summary

I'm going to give the DJI Phantom 3 Professional 3 stars out of five.  That may seem a bit harsh but while it has these great pros:

  • excellent control
  • great value for money
  • outstanding camera
it still has these things that need fixing:
  • gimbal calibration
  • packaging
  • lack of prop guards - really these should be standard
  • no documentation for the DJI pilot App - this is truly bizarre
And the good news is that all these things are fixable.  They can even be fixed in retrospect. 

Get to it, DJI!


Friday, May 01, 2015

Is there a doctor in the House?

When our younger son, Anthony, was four years old he was diagnosed as autistic and admitted to the The Key School (the autistic school in Johannesburg.)  Then the miracle occurred; somehow, among their myriad therapies, something clicked and he began speaking - and at great length.  He slimmed down from the chubby child in the photograph to a skinny six year old as he used his mouth less for eating and more for talking.  (I should say I do not wish to offer false hope for parents of autistic children: the condition is incurable and Anthony, although exhibiting autistic tendencies, must have had some other undiscovered problem.)

After two years at the autistic school, they said they could do no more: he was speaking as well as any non-autistic six year old.  So we enrolled him in a mainstream school.  Life was back to normal.

For nine months.

After nine months in a mainstream school, we were called in one day by his class teacher.  She explained Anthony didn't fit in, but it was clear that she'd just found out about his time at the autistic school and this had coloured her views on him.  It didn't matter: we were told that he had to leave at the end of the academic year.

This change of school was one of the big factors influencing our move to England.  We came here and found a wonderful mainstream school that, knowing his history, was happy to accept Anthony.  For a term or two he was given a bit of extra coaching to help him catch up and then he was taught the same way as every other child.  He did well at primary school: he did well at high school; he made enduring friendships along the way.

Before going to university he spent a gap year helping out at nearby schools for children with special needs.  We still treasure the photograph of the presents that the schools gave him at the end of the year.

He went on to get a good degree from Bristol and make some lovely friends there.  Bristol was just 90 minutes' drive away, which we liked.  Then, to our surprise, he decided to do a Master's degree at York.  That was pleasant for us, too: a much longer drive but a beautiful city and a marvellous supervisor. We wondered what he'd do with his Masters and soon found out: he wanted to do a doctorate in autism at Reading University.  (Of course, there is no such thing as a doctorate in autism: the title of his thesis runs to a bunch of polysyllabic words incomprehensible to the layman but, trust me, it's a doctorate in autism.)

He has just about finished his doctorate, once again with great supervisor support and encouragement: there are some "i"s to be dotted and "t"s to be crossed but essentially he's there.  He plays tennis and golf and badminton and squash.

We are so fortunate and pleased with Anthony (and his brother Craig about whom I will blog on another occasion).  We're especially thankful for all the people who helped him along the way: from the staff at the autistic school, who set him mentally on his feet;  his teachers, lecturers and supervisors; the au pairs who looked after Anthony and Craig while we were at work; his many friends; and Anthony himself.

Thank you all.

[Footnote: when parents say they are fortunate or blessed in their children, they are generally telling the truth rather than being falsely modest.  Chance plays a huge role in how the next generation turns out and, of course, this powers evolution.]

Monday, April 27, 2015

Nature at its most bizarre


There are a few, rare, "Aha!" moments in life: the first time you manage to ride a bicycle, perhaps; your first bite of chocolate; the first time you took a really good photograph.

Now, if you were to say "I was petrified", meaning that you were rigid with fear you would be using a metaphor implying you were turned to stone, from the Greek work for stone, petros.

But what if you literally were turned to stone?  Then, perhaps a few hundred million years later, someone with a curious bent of mind like Wolfgang Grulke might discover you, get interested and, at the expenditure of great personal time and money, disinter you from the rock and exhibit you in a magnificent purpose-built museum.

It was seeing that museum yesterday that gave me an "Aha!" moment.  Wolfe described it as a "shed".  Well if you have a shed in your garden the size of six or seven garages, with purpose-built brick walls, beautifully plastered and lit with downlighters and filled with glass-fronted wooden cabinets then you will know exactly what Wolfgang meant.  It really was quite astonishing: at least as astonishing as the first time I found myself incredibly balanced on a bicycle as it moved along on just two wheels without me falling over.

So who is Wolfgang Grulke?

In one life, he is a retired businessman who was very successful as a "futurist" - the kind of person who spotted trends early and made a living out of showing businesses why these might be useful.

But at some stage during that business life he came across a 300 million year old fossil and became fascinated by the past.  My word, the result of this fascination is astonishing: just as spectacular as chocolate and just as hard to describe to someone who hasn't experienced it.

Here is a display that any museum director in the world would love to have.  Here are hundreds of spiral-shelled creatures, carefully extracted over the course of hundreds or thousands of hours from rock, and brilliantly displayed.  Some are small enough to fit into your hand.  A few with gracious whirls are bigger than a human being.  You can get an idea from the front cover of his book: a creature that looks like a Heath-Robinson device or, perhaps, a spectacular musical instrument.  Incidentally, I wish I had taken those photographs!

Here is the golden ratio; here is previously undiscovered beauty; here is the intersection of art and science; here is, almost, an evolutionary dead-end (but not quite: the Nautilus survives, a modern-day spiral shelled sea creature.)

All this is tucked away in a quiet road in a quiet hamlet in the West Country. I had no idea what was about to happen when Colleen and I dropped in to renew a 30 year old acquaintance: Wolfgang was my manager's manager in the 1980s.  To the extent I had thought about them at all, I had previously assumed that Ammonites were compatriots of the Etruscans and Assyrians who, if I recall correctly, developed a nasty habit of coming down like a wolf on the fold.

Instead of a quiet cup of tea and some reminiscences my mind was blown.  Wolfgang talked about some great collectors of Victorian times: church vicars who made discoveries they struggled to reconcile with their view of a 6,000 year old universe.  It seems hard to believe that any of them developed a collection quite like this.  So if you get the invitation to visit, don't turn it down.

Footnote:  Wolfgang has a delightful house and garden and I suspect that much of it is the result of the labours of his lovely wife, Terri.  The garden in particular is the realisation of what most of us imagine as an idealised "English Country Garden".  But I couldn't help but notice the fond despair in in Terri's voice as Wolfgang took us through a door in the main house along a passage an into a large room where new ammonites were taking over the snooker table.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

A personal guide to candidates in Hook's election

I'm 59: somewhat right of centre, politically; occasionally grumpy (my family might think this is a generous definition of "occasionally");  lived in Hook for 20 years; been a district councillor for 10 (2002-2012).

So, for what it's worth, here are my views on the candidates for district councillor in Hook.  In alphabetical order:-

Brian Burchfield, Conservative

Pro: He's done the job for a few years now (about 4 years I think) so he understands what being a councillor is all about.  He's Tory, which is the way most of Hook votes, and follows the party line: you get what you see on the tin.

Con:  I understand through word of mouth that he's spending a lot of time travelling on business.  Does he have have time to be a good councillor?  He's Tory, which is the way most of Hook votes, and follows the party line: but what if he has to choose between what's good for the Tories and what's good for Hook?

Ruth Hamilton, UKIP

Pro: Ruth Hamilton has lived in Hook for over 20 years: the longest residence of the candidates, I think.  As a music teacher, she has good connections around the village and knows what goes on.  UKIP has the strongest position against over-development.  She's a lovely person.

Con: It's not clear that Hook is particularly UKIP territory.  Like all bar Brian Burchfield, she does not have experience as a district councillor.

Verd Nabbs, Labour

Pro: courageous: you have to be courageous to stand for Labour in Hook!

Con:  Labour.  Largely invisible except at election time (has previously stood in Hook).

Jeffrey Smith, LibDem

Pro: Up to 2002, Hook had a LibDem councillor so there clearly is/was a good amount of LibDem support in the area.

Con: Doesn't live in Hook (comes from Fleet).  For me, that's a no-no: IMHO you must live in the place you want to represent.

Other sources of information

It's also worth reading what's written here about development around Hart and where the candidates stand and following Hook Action Against Overdevelopment on FaceBook, which I think is here.

So ... how will I vote?  I'll read the literature, think about the candidates and decide nearer the time!  Probably not Jeffrey Smith, though.

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

A tale of two resorts

A tale of two resorts

My dearly beloved daughter in law is in the yuppy phase of her career and so she is spending five weeks on assignment in Abu Dhabi. She is into this new-fangled Internet stuff and she has set us photographs of her staggeringly luxurious apartment. 

By pure chance, we are at the other end of the Arab world, in Tunisia. This country seems to be the only one which has come through the "Arab Spring" in good shape. The airport is modern and efficient: the immigration officer dealt with us in about a minute. The people are friendly, with genuine smiles. The street vendors  - so far - are not too persistent, unlike Egypt 30 months ago, where they were a real pain in the patootie.

Our hotel, the Royal Kenz, has been mostly refurbished although it has a few slightly tired bits. It's a 4 star hotel, with an old-fashioned air of elegance and quite a few touches of North African (Muslim?) architecture: mosaics, marble, curved and pointed openings and mirrors, diagonally criss-crossed wooden screens. The food is good and plentiful - thank heavens I went on diet three weeks before we set off. 

The value for money is astonishing. This morning I bought a peak for playing tennis. The price tag said 6,900. Upon enquiring I found this meant 6.9 Tunisian dinars or about £2.30. At a hotel shop. Colleen and I are off on a two day desert safari later this week. Total price for two of us, all inclusive, is £150, including all transport, meals and, well, everything.

And while Tunisia is a Muslim country, they serve alcohol without demur. You are expected to be dressed smart casual for dinner but the rest of the time, especially around the pool, people wear as little as you might expect in Southern Europe or Florida.

So while I think of my dearly beloved daughter-in-law living in modern luxury in Abu Dhabi (and doubtless working hard to deserve it), at the other end of the Arab world we are enjoying a gracious holiday that is the kind of slow-paced relaxation we love.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Short of Choice

If you were to look at me, probably the last thing you would think is "He is fit", either in the literal or colloquial sense.

But I try.  I play badminton a couple of times a week and I walk most days.  I even play tennis occasionally and as SWMBO and I are about to depart on a holiday I thought a new pair of tennis shorts might be a sound investment of a small portion of our life savings.

So I strolled into Sports Direct.  For those of you not fortunate to live in the UK, Sports Direct is a chain of warehouse-sized shops that allegedly sells sports goods.  I say allegedly because there is a vast amount of stuff there that looks more like cheap "fashion" or sports posing paraphernalia, such as onesies, dressing gowns, "pet store", accessories and jewellery.

Some people believe that Sports Direct is the employer of last resort for the gormless, but this would be wrong.  You do get very few graduates working there but if you trouble to speak to the employees, many of them are perfectly capable of constructing a coherent sentence and, indeed, showing you where in this vast cavern the item you want is.  Which is all you really want.

However ...

Having spent 20 minutes looking for tennis shorts I gave up and asked one of the staff.  She had the gleam of intelligence in her eyes but didn't know where tennis shorts were.  So she asked her manager who said they didn't have any but "we will be getting more in around Wimbledon time".

Wimbledon time?!?!?  That's four months away.  What do tennis (and badminton and squash) players do in the mean time?

So I went online, where you can buy everything.

Everything except for mid-size tennis shorts, it appears.  Even online Sports Direct seems to only have Extra Large tennis shorts.  Nor are they alone.  Amazon only stocks Tiny or XXL (add more Xs to  taste).

It's clear we have a problem.

The fatties aren't doing any exercise except for a week or so after Wimbledon and their unwanted shorts are clogging up warehouses Hither and Yon, not to mention Far and Wide.

So, come on you couch potatoes.  Even if you don't plan to use them, go and buy yourselves a pair of tennis shorts  so that retailers will find their shelves emptying and re-stock them with shorts for people like me.

Then I will get out and start doing a little about that semi-inflated spare tyre and between us we will get the economy going, in a small way.