Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Back to the Future

There is a beach in Argyll which is the first I ever knew. I knew it as a toddler, babbling with incoherent thoughts, and I revisited it every year until I bade it a conscious farewell when was eighteen. Each of those years was, if not a flash, then a smudge of light in space and time. Revisiting it again now is as close as I may come to time travel.

Of course the beach is spinning at five hundred miles per hour relative to the Earth's core, orbiting the sun at sixty-seven thousand, orbiting the centre of the galaxy at four hundred and ninety thousand and hurtling outwards towards the Great Attractor at over two million miles per hour, so it cannot be said to be static. But to all appearances the same smooth, familiar boulders emerge from the same sands, washed by the same sea and surrounded by bladderwrack and thrift from the same DNA. They have not aged as I have aged, and relatively they have remained motionless as I have travelled in time and space, and then returned.

It is an odd feeling standing there, as those distant cones of light from the past still spread everlastingly outwards, carrying images of a growing child playing in the sand, decaying fragments of home movies, while I stand simultaneously in the present and the past like Marty McFly, haunted by the echoes of voices and laughter and the Zeitgeist of those onion-layered other times.

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Investing for the Future

It is traditional, when a child is born, to lay down a case or two of good claret for their wedding. I couldn't afford that, so thought I'd do better by anticipating the market. Amongst other inspired and prescient investments I reasoned that, with women's rights and increasing political correctness, the tacky sort of risque pottery one saw in seaside shops - boob-shaped jugs and mugs with wobbling breasts, you know the sort of thing - would become a thing of the past. Unfortunately they haven't. I mention this to explain, when I one day shuffle off this mortal coil, the box of pornographic pottery my heirs will find in the attic.

Friday, 16 October 2015

Alan Turing (and how he might have helped with my homework)

I am re-reading Andrew Hodges' book 'Alan Turing: The Enigma'.

In 1974 I was working with another planning student, developing a practical trial of a computer model called the Decision Optimising Technique (DOT). We were mentored by the model's creator, a PhD post-graduate student named Stan Openshaw. According to Wikipedia, he, like Turing, was a believer in human-competitive machine intelligence (and I gather became something of a world-class authority on the subject). There had been considerable work on the modelling of systems behaviour but, beyond critical path and cost benefit analysis, decision-making had fallen behind. Our work aimed to take forward the AIDA model (Analysis of Interconnected Decision Areas), which had a number of flaws - in particular its incremental nature and reliance on over-arching value judgements.

The Newcastle computer occupied an entire basement two floors underground. It featured ranks of steel cabinets with memory provided by spinning magnetic drums. Access was via remote keyboard terminals, in our case using stacks of punched cards which were fed into the machine on batch at night.

Even though this leviathan IBM computer could be linked with its siblings at Edinburgh and Imperial College in London to increase processing capacity, we found that all but the smallest real-world problems were too complex for the runs to be completed. While my colleague wrestled with the serious maths and machine coding, I found more and more of my energy being devoted to devising ways of limiting and reformatting problems to reduce the scale of calculation the computer was being required to address. Initial attempts to use 'IF' statements or positively/negatively link decisions by use of 'bars' (as in the AIDA model) were not enough, and amongst other tricks we hit on the idea of assigning token numerical values to individual decisions, allowing us to use constraint equations as a substitute.

It is fascinating to learn that Turing was struggling with exactly the same problems when he was trying to break the Enigma code on his 'Colossus' at Bletchley Park, and after the war when he was developing his 'Automatic Computing Engine' (ACE...arguably the first electronically-stored-program computer). Like us, much of his time was spent devising ways to reduce the iterations of the machine, and he too realised by giving instructions bogus numerical values he could use equations as a substitute for 'IF' statements. I suppose similar problems spawn similar solutions, but I wish we had known about his work then.

It is odd to realise that we were working only twenty years or so later; that the computer we were using, with its punched cards and steel racks, was ACE's direct successor; and that the bog standard PC I am writing this on would probably be capable of running DOT in minutes, not hours or days.

Saturday, 11 July 2015

Social Suicide

My Guilty Secret

There is a groundswell of public opinion against fox hunting in the UK, and public opinion should rule, unless it is punishingly irrational. That's democracy. And yet...

Don't get me wrong; I have never hunted and I don't much care for the people that hunt. I mean, I've met and liked or loved many of them off the hunting field. My mother hunted in the 30s. My uncle was a Master of Foxhounds, as was my sister-in-law, and I dated the daughter of an MFH in Cornwall and once tried to stop her 'hollering' to alert a hunt to a fox when we were following on foot (it got away). But there is an arrogance and a supercilious and latterly arriviste disport of wealth and/or superiority amongst them in the field that is not endearing. Nor do I care for making a sport out of hunting or killing any animals.

But I start from the other end. I like foxes (at least up to a point; if you keep any form of livestock that they prey on, that love affair can quickly fade). I would not want to see them wiped out – it is a thrill to spot a fox in the wild, and they are a magnificent native species. But without natural predators (we eliminated the big cats, wolves and eagles which once took them) there seems to be a need for population control – and certainly present post-ban law permits unlimited culling with knobs on (I can only remember my parents having one row, and that was when my father gave the local farmer permission to shoot foxes on our land, and my mother, the hunting one, objected. The permission was withdrawn).

Since fox hunting was banned in the UK, the main forms of control have been trapping, snaring and shooting. All are legal. There is ample evidence that poisoning and gassing still occur too, and I know of at least two friends' pet dogs that died from eating poisoned eggs and meat left on moor and woodland. All these methods are indiscriminate, and can result in terrible suffering and wounded animals. Hunting had one or two irreplaceable advantages, and they were important ones. It provided a selective cull, closest to natural selection, at no cost to the consumer or the public purse; and it almost always resulted in a clean and relatively swift kill or a clear escape, unlike trapping, snaring or shooting.

No hunt ever aimed to eradicate foxes; without a healthy fox population, there would be no hunt. Hunting was a form of control – and respected for that, in that local farmers experiencing a particular problem with foxes would call the hunt in. By its nature, hunting tended to cull the sick and the weak and the stupid, as natural selection would. The fox population remained fleet and wily and cunning. There is no conceivable or publicly affordable alternative mechanism for culling in that selective way.

So I swallowed my prejudice against the hunters, and put my respect for the fox first. That was over thirty years ago. Since then I have renounced Christianity and a host of other irrational prejudices but nothing, even public opinion, has yet managed to convince me to reject hunting.

I have read that when he left office Tony Blair regretted the hunting ban more than any other action in his time as Prime Minister – including the Iraq War – claiming that he had failed to understand the issue. My recollection is that the Burns Report commissioned by his government did not find hunting with hounds any more cruel than alternative methods of control – although possibly less effective, in that it was not particularly good at reducing fox populations. The government had promised to act by the Inquiry's advice. There is no question that, when the Inquiry came up with the 'wrong' answer, its advice was ignored and, as the Guardian said at the time, the vote for a ban was offered as a carrot to bring Labour MPs on board for the Iraq War. This was not good government (“a very nasty piece of political work indeed and what it says about the Labour party is truly horrible” - The Guardian, 14 Feb 2005). There are compelling parallels here with the current government's rejection of scientific advice on the ineffectiveness of badger culling, purely to win the votes of the farming lobby.

Mine is not a popular stance, and it is probably massively unwise to stick my head above the parapet at all. I am solely concerned by the way foxes are culled, and the implications for a valuable species. And I strive to remain moved by reason, not heart. I am open to fact and sound argument, not preconception (credit me at least for not raising the arguments about rural employment, or landscape conservation, or national heritage, and all that guff). I hope my friends will respect my motive, even if they do not agree.

I am open-minded and ready, even eager, to be converted. You would have to persuade me firstly, that fox populations do not need to be controlled – and that is do-able (although I am mindful of the time a few years back when the National Trust took on the Farne Islands and halted the annual seal cull; within a few years the seal population had exploded and they were dying unspeakably of disease until the cull was resumed) and secondly; that the, to my mind crueller and more indiscriminate methods of control, will be outlawed. In return, I ask you who oppose hunting, to search your souls and consider whether opposing hunting is enough. Because if you stop at that, you are by default supporting shooting, snaring and trapping, and the indescribable and ecologically pointless cruelties of those. And you're almost certainly doing the fox no favours either.

Monday, 27 April 2015

Curse of the Witching Tree

This atmospheric British film punches well above its budget. Underlying tension is built through parallel themes of threat and impending loss, in a delicate overlay of past and present. The action benefits from the freshness of the cast, confident camera work and a well-balanced soundtrack. One senses that Director and Producer James Crow is so steeped in the genre that invoking the sinister is second nature. 'Curse of the Witching Tree' is that rare beast which has both mainstream appeal and the makings of a cult classic.

Released in the UK on 18 May and in the US on 19 May.

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Thursday, 10 July 2014

French Polish

I wrote a reminder note for myself last night, for something I'd just run out of, which amused me this morning. It says, 'French Polish'.

French polish is lovely, not only for the deep shine it gives to wood – a french polish finish (this phrase gives me particular joy) is second to none – but because it is so rewarding to use, providing a quick-drying lacquer which is compatible with traditional furniture polish. It has now largely been replaced by varnish made from nitrocellulose (the stuff that gun cotton is made from, which has six times the explosive power of gunpowder) which is not. Compatible with traditional polish, that is.

Shellac is exotic stuff, made from a resin secreted on branches by female lac bugs. It is harvested from trees in India and Thailand. India still produces around 18,000 metric tons of it a year, which is remarkable when one learns that up to 300,000 insects are required to produce each kilogram.

Shellac was used for dyeing, to secure the windings in electric motors, provide the blue and green colour in fireworks, and stick the rubber reservoirs to fountain pens. It is still used in the manufacture of such diverse things as top hats, hair spray, lipstick, and ballet shoes, and as a glazing agent on pills, fruit and chocolate-coated raisins.

It also has thermoplastic qualities; before the advent of vinyl thousands of tons – more than half the annual production - were used to make 78 rpm records. Many of these records involved another well known French Polish product, Frédéric Chopin, more of whom later.