If we can land a man on the moon…

27 February 2011

…we should be able to invent a plaster (Band-Aid) that fits neatly over the end of a finger.

Let’s face it: you’re most likely going to need a plaster when you cut the tip of your finger. In my case, I was a little careless sharpening a kitchen knife.


Wound technology: #fail

Just look at that pathetic little plaster. It’s not covering the cut very well. Though I am a great believer in getting air to a wound. When you’re making curry on a Sunday night, you don’t really want spices getting into an open wound.

Nope. Plasters are useless for one of the most common cuts. Get those NASA boffins on to the job. Heck, if they can invent Tang, they can invent a decent plaster.

Shiny – part 2

24 February 2011

A short personal history and view of technology: slide rules to scientific calculators

charade #36 answer

Slide rule - the tool that conquered space

If you’re old enough to remember the 1966 World Cup, then you would probably have been taught how to use a slide rule.

Before the advent of affordable electronic calculators, students were expected to use slide rules for so-called scientific functions – geometric and trigonometric calculations. There were also printed tables available for these functions – sine, cosine, tangents etc. But, slide rules were considered an essential tool.

There is a brilliant scene in the film Apollo 13 when the NASA scientists and engineers are told that the stricken spacecraft is heading back to earth at the wrong angle. They have to calculate the thruster burns required to adjust the craft’s trajectory, making sure that it re-entered the earth’s atmosphere at the correct angle so it didn’t bounce off into outer space or hit it to face on and burn up. Having heard the problem, they all pull out their slide rules and start calculating: matching numbers on one of the scales on the stationery rule, lining that up to a number on one of the scales on the sliding rule that fitted into grooves between the non-moveable rule, then using the plastic slider to read the answer on another scale. Or something like that…

That was the reality in 1970.

My brother, four years ahead at school, was a dab hand with the slide rule and used it all the way into university. I followed suit, but by my late teens calculators with higher functions were coming on the market.

At the time, Texas Instruments was the world leader in calculators producing neat hand held devices with black, grey and yellow buttons. TI may not have been the first to incorporate scientific functions – I think Hewlett Packard may have been – but TI quickly became recognised as the best. And, I seem to recall you paid a lot of money for one of their higher end machines – $400 or more. They also began to produce calculators that performed logic and statistical functions.


Hewlett Packard HP-35 - one of the early scientific calculators: miles better than mine

Of course, when it came time for my dad to shell out for a calculator to help me at university, he opted to buy a cheaper, inferior model – Sharp, I think. It had nowhere near half the functions of a TI, even though I probably wouldn’t even understand how to use the TI now. It came in a vile brown vinyl case. Where TI equalled modernity, my Sharp looked like a Ford Edsel, outdated before it hit the market. Good old dad, trying to meet my craving by choosing what he thought was best and falling a bit short.

A few years earlier in 1975, I had spent $150 of money hard earned gardening for a neighbour in 95 degrees and 95% humidity on a Commodore desktop calculator. It was probably about the size on an iPad. Not only could it do addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, but it had a memory function too!

It was a ridiculous purchase for a 17 year old. I should have spent it at Korvettes or Sam Goody on a dozen or so LPs.

So be it. Now I had the tool to calculate baseball batting averages to my heart’s content. I could even spell out “ShELLOIL”.

Not for the last time, I had overpaid for technology.

Photos from Flickr: charade #36 answer by Andrew Fogg; HP-35 by Daniel Sancho, both used under Creative Commons licences.

Shiny – part 1

23 February 2011

A short personal history and view of technology: the analogue years

Adding machine

Adding machine

Disposable technology: it’s taken for granted. An ad for an iPhone4 last night prompted my wife to say, “wasn’t it all iPhone3’s recently?”

Most of us, I guess, will buy at least one gadget this year, probably two or three. And, we’ll probably dispose of a couple too.

That’s wrong, on so many levels.

I am not, let’s be clear, a Luddite. I embrace technology. I’ve always craved gadgets and marvelled at the progress that’s been made in electronics in my lifetime.

In 1975, I bought a state-of-the-art Commodore desk calculator (pocket calculators were still just around the corner) for $150 (about £100 at the time). My crappy Nokia second generation phone probably has more processing power than the Apollo 11 command module and lander put together.

The advances are mind-blowing. But, equally, the consumerisation of technology has its downsides.

I’ll save the polemic for another post. For now, here’s a short personal history of my gadgets and cravings. I’m sticking to what could loosely be called input-output devices. That ignores TVs, but includes audio recording/playback machines.

Growing up in the 60s, my life pre-dates the digital era. It was all analogue as I ran around in short trousers, grazing my knees, worshipping Jimmy Greaves and Peter Parfitt.

One of my many fascinations was sports statistics and records. Until a clearout in a recent downsizing, I had a large collection of old sports annuals which I used to pour over with a passion. Numbers: 200,000 spectators at the 1950 World Cup “final”; Dixie Dean’s 60 goal season; Bradman’s 99.94 test average.

I loved the numbers and as soon as I could do multiplication and long division I was hooked on calculating cricket averages. This extended to baseball stats when, aged 8, my family across the pond.

But before that great move, we spent a week in Cornwall tagging on to one of my dad’s business trips. His company built electronic measuring instruments. The trip to Cornwall was in part to test the devices underground in disused tin mines.

One of his advisers was a mathematics professor from Imperial College, London. The professor brought with him a mechanical calculator, something which, obviously, none of us had ever seen as these beasts were usually confined to banks, insurance companies or universities. It was about the size of a typewriter and – boyhood exaggeration – weighed a tonne.

To be honest, I can’t remember exactly how it worked. I think you pushed keys like you would on a cash register – selecting digits, tens, hundreds, thousands etc from different columns. There were also buttons to press for the different mathematical functions. It probably looked a bit like this.

Anyway, I do remember that, at the tender age of 6, I was in love with this machine though I had no idea what it was used for. Nevertheless, I was allowed a couple of goes by the kind professor. Whilst operating it unsupervised, I also successfully jammed the machine. That put an end to my association with the mechanical calculator.

Magic - Brain Calculator (as opposed to your normal brain calculator)

Magic - Brain calculator c. 1969: hours of fun

A few years later and several thousand miles away, I obtained a “Magic Brain” calculator from our local 5-and10 cent store. This was an ingenuous and cheap device that made addition and subtraction a snip.

Using the metal stylus you selected the numbers, pulling down the plastic notched strips: again tens, hundreds etc separately. Repeating the operation for each additional number gave you the sum in the display at the top.

Carrying over involved a little extra work. Adding five to six, the stylus would be prevented from reaching the bottom of the column. So, instead pulled the strip up, then rotated the stylus over to add one to the next column.

It worked in the opposite for subtraction. Multiplication required adding the same number a certain number of times, so time consuming. You could achieve division in the opposite manner, but it couldn’t handle leftovers.

This little machine gave me hours of enjoyment, but it was useless to help calculate Ron Swoboda‘s batting average. I would have to wait for circuit boards and LEDs to achieve that, or get better with long division in my head.

Mathematical prowess aside, I was also developing into a literary genius thanks to my John Bull printing set.

The three of us kids had great fun producing our own family newspapers with the hard Indian rubber letters which you typeset into plastic holders. The ink pad – a cheap bit of sponge – always went dry and most of the ink wound up on my fingers anyway.

Printed programmes always made those big Subbeteo matches special.

My sister was the first to get a proper grown up typewriter. Not fair! I craved one even more than I’d craved the John Bull set.

I had to wait until I was in university before I got my hands on a typewriter though I don’t remember typing many assignments on it. It got used almost exclusively typing job application letters and CVs. Yes, I typed every single CV individually by hand. Any mistake and the CV went in the bin.

We found that typewriter in my parent’s loft during the clear out when we had to sell their house about 6 or 7 years ago. It still worked a treat and I’m sure it found a good home through a charity shop.

For my first few years of working in the civil service, manual typewriters ruled. A lot of my internal correspondence was still hand written though as strictly speaking we weren’t allowed a typewriter in our office. Everything had to go to a large typing pool. Towards the end of the manual era, much of our typing work was done by redundant coal miners in Durham.

By then, the late 80s, most secretaries (not yet called PAs) had electronic typewriters. Soon we’d have the first word processors. But, that’s a different post.

Photos from Flickr: adding machine by bcostin; Magic Brain calculator by get directly down. Both use under Creative Commons licenses.

Labelled: Mogwai, Bristol, 19 January 2011 review

21 February 2011

Mogwai - "Killing All the Flies"

Arbitrary labels rarely do justice to music or artists. Take Mogwai, who I saw in Bristol Saturday night.

Going for nearly 15 years, seven studio albums and a sheaf of singles, EPs and movie scores, Mogwai’s mostly instrumental music usually gets shoved in the “post rock” pigeon hole.

What on earth is post rock? At first, the term, believed to have been coined by music journalist Simon Reynolds, described rock music that didn’t conform to normal song structures, used non-standard instrumental ensembles and eschewed lyrics.

Whilst that could apply to Mogwai’s offerings, post rock hardly describes a musical style or movement.

As much as anything, the post rock term came to represent a musical ghetto, insult even. As far back as 1999 I recall Tortoise, the quintessential post rock super group, being derided as bringing back prog rock.

Mogwai themselves were usually associated with the phrase soft-loud formula to describe their songs.

Mogwai - "Helicon 1"

Mogwai - "Helicon 1"

Whilst true that the group focussed heavily on noise, especially in their earlier work, on being very quiet and very noisy in the same song (see “Helicon 1″, “Mogwai Fear Satan”, “Xmas Steps”), this was more than a formula.

Mogwai have always been interested in the dynamics of sound, but there’s more to it than that. Through those seven albums they’ve explored song structures, instrumentation, arrangements, vocals (in Welsh and with vocoders!), beats, lyricism and, in those quiet sections, subtlety you’ll rarely hear from a rock/pop band. (See, for example, the excellent “Punk Rock”, a gentle ballad set against a monologue from Iggy “Swiftcover” Pop.)

Far from a collection of soft-loud sonic bombs, their latest album “Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will” is a mixed collection, including straight up proper rock tunes.

Mogwai have endured and outlasted the post rock era, if ever there was one. Their music has inspired a small number of bands ploughing the instrumental rock avenue though I’d like to think they’ve also inspired indie bands (another terrible label) that sing, such as the Twilight Sad, Saturday’s support act.

Mogwai have been part of a very productive Scottish scene since the mid-90s and as owners of a record label and general cheerleaders have helped others get the hearing they’ve deserved.

I like to think of Mogwai’s influences (admitted or otherwise):

  • heavy metal without the motorcycle leathers, bad hair, misogyny, occult references
  • punk without the self-destruction
  • prog rock without noodling, solos, bad hair, new age nonsense, impenetrable lyrics
  • a healthy disregard for Brit pop, except its tunefulness
  • the humour (where it exists) and self-regard of rap

Add to that, they have a dry, sometime sideways Glaswegian humour as reflected in song and album titles – “George Square Thatcher Death Party” from the latest album and first studio effort “Mogwai Young Team”, named after ubiquitous Glaswegian gang inspired graffiti: that is, [insert gang name] Young Team.

So what about Saturday? This was, I think, my seventh Mogwai gig, the first since the superb 2006 Royal Albert Hall concert. My first was back at the old Black Cat club in Washington DC in 1999.

The one great thing about live music is that you get a different dynamic every night. This was not one of the best nights for that. I’m not sure exactly why, but a very drunk and loud audience didn’t help.

Mogwai have never had huge stage presence. There’s no big egos on show. Guitarist Stuart Braithwaite is the undoubted leader, but I always get the impression that this is a bunch of friends who have common musical interests and more or less get on very well.

The music will usually do the talking and on some numbers – the opening “White Noise” for example – that worked, but sometimes that lack of stage presence detracts. And, that was the case on Saturday.

I enjoy the new album. There’s plenty of quality songs, even if it’s not classic post rock. ;-)


15 February 2011


How big is my society?

14 February 2011

I have no issue with a “big society“: people empowered to better their local community.

I’m part of what I believe to be a big society project – our local community shop – filling a hole where the market has failed and where the state should not enter.

On the other hand, my colleagues and I could easily be seen as a loud minority. We’re middle class, reasonably well educated, some of us relative newcomers and with (too much) time to donate. We are fighting for scarce social sector funding and we’ve got the know-how to grab our share.

Whilst I have little doubt that what I’ve set out to achieve is for the benefit of the whole community, I’m an unelected, anti-democratic zealot.

On our small scale, this democratic inconvenience is probably not too much of an issue. But, on a bigger scale, if a self-appointed, largely unaccountable minority manages a large project with significant public or third sector funding, is that right?

Through the ether

12 February 2011

Shortwave memories

There’s little that can touch the thrills my brother and I shared listening to football commentary on shortwave radio.

Growing up in the US in the late 60s/early 70s, the radio was our only football source.

Soccer’s takeover of the US collapsed for a first time in red ink in 1968. The TV companies, initially curious at this odd sport played by men with strange names and haircuts, figured your average Joe in Omaha didn’t get it. The plug was pulled on the flow of cash though the fledgling North American Soccer League, the rump of two (yes, two) competing pro leagues, limped along.

Our local team, the New York Cosmos, were reduced to playing before a couple of thousand on Hofstra University’s skin abrading astroturf pitch. It had a bigger camber than a motorway and was barely regulation width.

That aside, we relied on a small transistor radio that could just about bring in the BBC World Service on a Saturday morning and the odd Wednesday afternoon for big European matches.

Paddy Feeney, I think, introduced the sport programme. We got the last half hour of the BBC’s featured Saturday match. The World Service stretched to full coverage of the FA Cup.

That’s me pretending to be listening to Spurs beating Chelsea in the 1967 cup final. I believe we managed to miss the match due to misjudging the time difference and poor reception.

One of my abiding shortwave memories is David Fairclough’s crucial goal for Liverpool against St Etienne in the 1977 European Cup. We could barely hear the commentary through the static, but knew instinctively that Fairclough had saved the match.

By 1977, of course, soccer had exploded on to US TV screens again. Pele, Beckenbauer, Best transformed the game. In addition to Cosmos Sarker, we got “Football Made in Germany”, “Star Soccer” from ATV Midlands as well as a hotch potch of Latin American games. Violent clashes between  England and Argentina and a similar kick-fest when Scotland visited Buenos Aires’ “chocolate box” stand out in the memory.

But, we continued to crank up the shortwave, try and tune out the static as Clough’s Forest chopped through the First Division.


10 February 2011

This is not going to turn into a football blog. Let me just get this off my chest.

I may be from Hertfordshire, but I’m N17.

My dad was Tottenham born and bred. I was brought up in the era of Jimmy Greaves, Cliff Jones, Dave Mackay, Maurice Norman and (Sir) Bill Nicholson. Most of the 70s was spent supporting from 3500 miles away, shortwave radio stuck to ear on Saturday mornings.

Later on, every other Saturday in the 80s, I stood on the Shelf at White Hart Lane (which isn’t on White Hart Lane).

Hoddle, Waddle, Archibald, Perryman and Crooks; the ’84 UEFA cup final; Burkinshaw; the nearly season (’84-’85); frantic dashes to Liverpool Street station after weeknight matches.

I’m not the supporter I was. In the 90s I more or less gave up on the Premier League – the money and Murdoch – and followed non-league football. But, the lure of the cockerel badge remains strong and the current side has all the hallmarks of some of those classic sides.

Spurs' cockerel

Nephew Ali with the Spurs' cockerel. Another generation of Bill Nick's Blue and White Army

That out the way, I have to admit I’m not impressed with the club’s manoeuvres and machinations in the Olympic stadium saga.

Unlike a certain other football club, Tottenham’s roots are north London: N17. Like any other Premier League club, Spurs has a wide-flung fan base. You’d hear plenty of  Scandinavian voices when walking to the Lane in the 80s. But, take the club out of N17 and it becomes another MK Dons.

On the other hand, increasingly White Hart Lane hampers the club’s development. You can’t get a ticket. There’s a huge season ticket waiting list. And, even back in 1980 getting to the ground was a nightmare; not to mention travelling back on public transport after a match.

The Northumberland Development Plan whilst delivering a first class 21st century stadium always looked like fudged compromise. Haringay council, Transport for London and other partners have never appeared totally convinced by the project.

Tottenham High Road both benefits and suffers from the position of the ground. Like most Victorian football grounds, it’s wedged into an odd plot, surrounded by houses, a typical ugly inner London shopping street and light industrial units.

Transport? Horrid overground service to Liverpool Street from the inadequate White Hart Lane station. Underground from Seven Sisters, about 15-45 minutes by bus or walk (usually accompanied by running battles when Man U came to town in the 80s). Car parking? Try parking in Edmonton or Hackney.

So. I’m torn.

The Olympic option presents an opportunity to develop a ground for the next century with excellent transport links, helping drive the post-Olympic legacy (ahem, I’ll blog about that and the bogus economics of stadium developments another time).

Yet, it tramples on Leyton Orient‘s territory. It rips the club from the community. It’s all about money, not the fans.

It’s not N17.

Desiree in da haus

9 February 2011

11 02 09_potatoes_0002
And so, it’s potato time again.

Not being a horticulturist, I couldn’t tell you if they are seeds or not. What I do know is that although you can grow potatoes from regular potatoes you buy in the shops, it’s recommend to stick to a specially cultivated “seed potato”.

11 02 09_potatoes_0003

These, as you can see, are Scottish certified Desiree. Boring, I know, but this is the fourth year of growing this variety.

It’s generally a good cropper.  The tubers are fleshy but not floury with a good red skin. In my experience, I’ve never peeled them. You can boil or bake with the skins on and I’m sure we’ve had them fried too.

The only possible downside is that as a main crop potato, my Desiree tend to succumb to slugs and eelworms if the weather gets too damp around June or July. So, in the last two years, I’ve tended to lift a bit early before the potatoes reach maximum size.

Around here, growers will tell you that we suffer from blight. Now, I’ve learnt that what might look like blight is in fact, the tops of the potatoes dying off naturally.

My advice is to cut of the tops as they die and get manky and mushy. Leave the tubers in for when you’re ready to lift. You will have to deal with slugs, so don’t leave them too long.

I had a good think about using nematodes to control slugs this year. These are slug parasites which kill off the beasties without harming your crop or poisoning your soil or other wildlife. But, nematodes are expensive and unless you get the timing and mixture right, they are not the best control.

My potatoes are now chitting. The clock is ticking. I’ve got about 5 weeks to dig my plot.

Farewell old friend

8 February 2011
purple shirt

Old purple

First worn nine years ago at my wedding, this purple shirt became a bit of a favourite.

For many years its collar hasn’t seen a tie. Following the lead of the new CEO, we had a smart casual dress code in my last job. Then I gave up wearing a suit and tie within weeks of moving down to Devon. (Hey, I’ve seen shorts at meetings down here!)

It’s stood up well for so many years. But, even I noticed that the shirt was getting a bit tired, one look at the collar and cuffs this morning made me decide today was the last wearing.

So, off to the recycling centre with you dear friend.


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