Monday, 26 November 2012

The world according to Snafu - Forty and one

It has possibly come to everyone’s attention that Britain has been suffering from some unusual weather recently and since 2007, rainfall has become extremely variable, ranging from intense and unprecedented downpours to some months of drought. Since the spring of this year when a couple of dry winters had left the water suppliers in panic because they were beginning to run out, we have had intensely wet months of rain, leading to flooding all over different parts of the country. Houses, shops and businesses have been washed out and left wet and covered in stinking mud. I know from personal experience how long that smell remains after you have dried out the rest of the house. What interests me are the two figures that have come out of this, forty and one. When I was flooded out, forty years ago, the older residents all expressed huge surprise and declared to each other and the press that they had never seen the like in forty years.
Each time someone is interviewed in the recent floods, quite often, a similar declaration of surprise has been accompanied with the phrase ‘I have not seen the like in forty years!’ Obviously floods come at forty year intervals, I was flooded out forty years ago and so it seems have many others. Is this a coincidence I wonder, or real? If so, once this latest disaster has run its course, we should start thinking of a long term plan to cope with the one due in forty years from now.

The second number; ‘one’, is the reported severity of the rain. Each major flood is reported to have occurred because one month’s worth of rain has fallen in one day. Since the figure, ‘one month’s rain’ must be based on averages, and we have now heard that figure several times in the last few months, it means that the average rainfall in any given month, even if only for one day in the month when this figure is quoted, the rainfall for that month must have at least doubled. Because this phrase recently has occurred several times in one month, then the average monthly rainfall for this year must have tripled at least and maybe even quadrupled. This means that when reporters and weathermen tell us a month’s rain is about to fall, we should take to the hills or build an ark, or something, because that latest average figure must by now imply an absolutely Biblical amount of rain.

Saturday, 24 November 2012

The world according to Snafu - Larry Hagman

I was saddened to hear that the actor Larry Hagman has just died. My commiserations to his family. I remember him mostly from a TV series I watched on and off called ‘I Dream of Jeannie’, an entertaining light domestic fantasy about a man married to a female genie with magical abilities. All set in, as was then, (1960s) modern America. I understand from the constant media attention over the last thirty years, that he also starred in a soap called Dallas. The old adage about any industry is encapsulated in the old conundrum, ‘What does the Ford Motor Company make?’ Although everyone would usually answer cars, the real answer is money. It exists for no other reason and so to put this into perspective, you must never forget that the real purpose of soaps is to make money for the TV companies and they do a good job of getting lots of people to pay for many TV channels continued existence. Whilst I have nothing against soaps as such, I have never understood their appeal. Although I never watched the series, it was impossible to miss all the media interest that Dallas received but I feel somehow that soaps are a form of voyeurism, an artificial peep hole where the audience can follow these pretend people’s small doings in painful detail. If anyone followed their neighbour’s lives in such a manner from their rear window with binoculars, it really would be voyeurism. Like many media experiences, you can do things which would be unacceptable in real life via certain TV programmes and even more so in a computer game where you can steal and pillage at will in a way that would place you in jail for life in the real world. With soaps you can follow other people’s lives as if you were a fly on the wall but the big problem is when people become so fixated they find it hard to distinguish the fantasy lives from reality and start sending hate mail and proposals of marriage and even money to various characters in their favourite TV series. The one good thing that came out of the TV series ‘Dallas’, was that for residents of the city of Dallas, it took attention away from the assassination of JFK. Whereas previously, to the shame of the residents, visitors had always wanted to be taken to see the assassination site, after the success of the TV show, they wanted to visit the filming locations where the soap of the same name had been produced. This changed the public perception of Dallas from a city where a USA president had been killed, to a much more glamorous place. An interesting insight into the mind of the general population and the power of the news media.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Winter at the seaside.

Some time ago one of of the posts I follow mentioned living at the seaside in the winter in the UK, so having lived at a seaside resort many years ago, I offer you this.

All along the beach, following the winter storms a scattering of men scour the sands, heads down, intent and determined. There is treasure to be had in the sand, treasure left there by the summer hordes that occupied the beach in their tiny enclaves, territories marked out with their towels, deck chairs, blankets and wind breaks, territories to be defended against all comers. Striped canvas fortifications hammered into the soft sand with splintery wooden mallets that only saw use once a year. Those summer visitors who once came in their hordes, before foreign holidays became a sunny alternative to the vagaries of the British summer weather. They left their coins and watches, wallets and valuables behind them buried in the soft sand.

They also left behind boarded up hotels and closed amusement arcades, cleaner streets and less employment.
Those temporary residents who stayed for a day, week or maybe two at Mrs Furbelow’s Boarding House, had never seen the wild winter storms with waves that sent the pebbles off the beach through the windows of the hotels on the sea front and filled their neat front gardens with sand and plant destroying salt water, or had driven along the cliff top and had waves break over their car and run green over the windscreen.

They had never seen the strange silhouettes of the town’s plants in their winter coats. Nor were they there when the sea froze and small icebergs covered the beach, or when the victims of a capsizing washed ashore and blue and white ribbons surround parts of the beach, keeping the curious away from the grim work of recovering the sad remains. But we residents stayed on and we loved the empty beaches and the freedom of quiet streets and lonely dog walks in the winter rain as we waited for the next, oh so short, season to start again, so that we could earn enough money to see us through the next winter. And so as the days lengthened and the putrefying dead seal is finally washed off the beach, the town fills with shivering pensioners as the pre-season O A P’s fortnight begins.

The cash strapped hotels are doing their bit to cull the aging population through hyperthermia, with their cut price week at the seaside, when the heating is turned off without fail on the last day of May. And so the town slowly begins to stir ready for the hordes to come again and feed their pennies into the slot machines and pay for their half board, ‘please take your sandy shoes off at the door.’ holidays.

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Summer is long gone but just a reminder…

My post ‘August’ was about some of our days out last summer and this much delayed post is a continuation of that.

For the next day out, we went into London and took The Granddaughter to the Science Museum.
I had not been there since my two boys were children and there have been a number of changes, but it was still mostly as I recall. There are still a lot of interactive displays some of which, as one has come to expect, do not work, but a lot more were a bit more child proof and so did work OK.   One of the newest changes is the Weblab.  Here a number of interactive machines are physically present that you can use, but which can also be accessed through the Internet. 

You need a Weblab tag to get access to the system and it stores your results for future reference.  Once you get home you can show your Weblab tag to a web cam and sign on again, then you can carry on where you left off, or interact with other of the various machines in the Weblab.
You can get machines to draw faces, play music, watch various live sites through 180 degree web cams and so on, or participate in worldwide experiments with this facility.

This machine takes a picture of your face and draws it in sand

A sand picture  from a photo
 I was able to carry out a few of these interactive experiences, but in the end spent most of the time chatting with one of the staff.  This produced a certain kind of conversation that I have often experienced before.
For many people who have a fairly deep understanding in a technical or specialist field, conversations with other specialists starts off with the assumption that the other may not know as much as you.  This is not egotism but common sense.  For instance very few people understand brain surgery, so a brain surgeon talking to someone he does not know, is not going to launch into in depth clinical talk about brain cells unless he is an pretentious idiot, in which case he is unlikely to be a brain surgeon in the first place.
For those of us who have a reasonable depth of knowledge in a particular field, when conversing with someone that you do not know, the conversation starts off with ‘specialist to customer’ level of talk and slowly goes deeper and deeper as each party starts to recognise what the other really knows.  In my conversation as we chatted we each recognised a fellow geek and got deeper and deeper into pure geek until people nearby were seen to scurry away holding their ears.
We were both happy talking about computer systems and the Internet whilst the family were interacting with the Weblab.  During the course of the conversation, I was gratified to find that he had come to the same conclusion that I had come to a few years ago.   Students and computer specialists, even undergraduates, do not understand software as well as people did about twenty years ago.
This may seem at odds to what is happening in our rapidly developing world, because things are becoming smarter and smarter, but we both agreed that as technology improves and becomes easier to use, so ignorance about what is going on under the hood, so to speak, is also growing.
We had both experienced the drop in comprehension of the basics of computer programming in new recruits to the industry over the last few years and we agreed it was almost certainly because no one had home computers any more.  People now have PCs, Macs, or iPads.  You do not learn programming from these because they come ready loaded with easy to use software and so you simply learn which buttons to press.
When people had the old Sinclair Spectrums, Commodores, BBC computers and other brands of home computer available throughout the 1980s and 1990s, they had to learn how to program them before they could do anything with them.  They mostly ran a program called BASIC, a kind of programming language that was actually developed to train programmers.  Very little software was off the shelf and enthusiast magazines printed program listings which you had to type in by hand. Because of this many kids were motivated to write their own programs and many of them, including my own, laboriously taught themselves how to write games software and other programs.  As a result, school kids and young adults had learned the fundamental principles of programming long before they attended college.
Now most kids know how to play Angry Birds, socialise on line and fire off email, but writing any kind of  program, let alone a games program is the preserve of the very few.   We are obviously not alone in thinking this, because recently a new device has been released onto the market, the Raspberry Pi.  A small home computer which is intended to be programmed by the user and does not come with pre-loaded programmes, other than the utilities which allow it to be connected up and run.  It is aimed at schools and is hoped to help instil some of the kind of knowledge the previous generation had gained from their old home computers. 

After the Web lab, the family went into a demonstration and then moved on to more interactive displays.  I was not too interested in them, so I wandered into the flight section and gawped at all the ancient aircraft collected there.  I have always been interested in flying and I spent a lot of my formative years building flying models from balsa wood.  I have taken lessons on occasions so have actually flown myself in a small way, but never got around to acquiring a licence because to keep it up you have to clock up a minimum number of flight hours or it lapses.  In the years we were raising a family, I could barely afford to run a car let alone fly an aircraft, so I never got my licence.  
When I was at the peak of my model building days, I built some scale models of some of the very early designs to see how they flew.  Not all of them did fly I am sad to say, probably my fault, but vintage stuff took my interest for some time.  So anything connected with flight, particularly early flight grabs my interest and there they were, all of the ones I had made, large as life before my very eyes. 

Eventually after a long look at all the exhibits I was able to drag myself away and re-joined the family, who had all been interacting all this time and once back together we returned to the Underground to start our journey home. 
One of the features of the London Underground is that in order to get between stations and other places, you do an awful lot of walking and this tunnel connecting the Underground station and the museum is a fairly good example of this.

A couple of days later we went on a completely different trip, this time to the stately home of Tyntesfield in Somerset, just south of Bristol.

This is not an ancient building but it is quite imposing, with its own chapel standing alongside. Once owned by the Gibbs family, who made their fortune from guano, originally a Regency house stood on the site, but William Gibbs rebuilt it in the 1860s in the rather extravagant Gothic Revival style.  Bought by the National Trust in 2002, it is now open to the public. 
Tyntesfield House
The chapel
The grounds are quite extensive and the Trust provides a bus service to take people around the site.  Since one of our family cannot walk any distance, this service proved very useful. 

One of the busses on its rounds

We had one of the very few nice days of summer and were able to explore the grounds and visit the interior.   It has a lot of flower gardens which were literally buzzing with all kinds of bees busy making sure their hives had enough honey for the coming winter.

It was much hotter that day than the weather forecast had predicted and the little ice cream booth ran out of stock around three in the afternoon and we were lucky to get a much needed ice cream, finishing off the entire stock.  The lady selling ices, although apologetic to her disappointed customers, was quite pleased, she told me, because her family had said it would be a waste of time going at all that day and had recommended she took even less stock than she had.
After ices, we wended our way back to the car park and so returned back home.