Thursday, 26 May 2011

Once More Into the Breech...

As I sit here writing, I have a cornucopia of various maladies besmirch me. Both my back and my right shoulder are complaining in somewhat strenuous terms about the punishment they both endured last night at The Alarm, the concert I was at with my friend Ian.

The concert itself was a good one, and I came out way more of an Alarm fan than I was when I went in. A good couple of hours of good music, a band who were clearly enjoying themselves on stage, and a crowd who were very much into it. It was this enthusiasm which has led to my somewhat compromised physical state this morning, for lo, I did venture into the pit. For those of you who are unaware of what a 'pit' is at a concert, it's an area, usually at the front, near the crush barrier where the assembled throng jump about, heave back and forth, and generally have a good time.

I wrote on FB a couple of days ago that I'd seen a Hassidic Jewish moshpit on a documentary and thought I'd seen it all. Well, until last night that was true, for last night I had the dubious pleasure of being heavily involved in what must have been the most middle-aged mosh pit I've ever seen. The dearth of hair was matched only by the fecundity of beer-bellies and t-shirts stretched near to the point of no return over those same corpulent torsos. It was a sign that this particular pit was of a certain vintage when the primary action of many in between songs was to pause of breath (not me, nor Ian I hasten to add. Well, not as bad as the rest. Ok, as some) and then furiously clean the lenses of their glasses in preparation for the next song (ok, that was me).

At one point the band's drummer launched into a little drum solo, at least that is what it sounded like, although there is an even chance that the drummer was augmented by the clicking of rheumatic joints and the frenzied wheezing of those who remembered the band from their first tour some 30 years ago. When you look around a pit and figure out that you are probably at the younger end of the age spectrum, you to tend to stop and think!

The demographic of the gig as a whole was skewed toward people of what could euphemistically called 'a certain age', and there were some fairly dubious sartorial decisions in evidence. Such as the fairly rotund gentleman (yes, I know, pots and kettles – the way I look at it, I am a gentleman who has a certain physical gravitas, shall we say, thus allowing me to speak with the wisdom of experience in matters such as girth) sporting a decidedly 'Brian May' hairdo, and a sleeveless t-shirt. Had he not looked like he was approaching 50 from the wrong side, and not had the beer-belly, which he had clearly nurtured lovingly for an extended period, and had his sleeveless t-shirt exposed guns, rather than whatever the male equivalent of bingo-wings is, he may have just been able to pull it off. Sadly for him, one is left with the feeling that a very different definition of 'pulling it off' will undoubtedly form a large part of his free time. Yes, I know, pots and kettles again.

Ultimately though, as well as the gig itself being way more enjoyable than I was anticipating, it actually made me feel fairly positive, having looked around at others who were also having a great time. Music, as I have written before, is a powerful thing. That a band of 50-somethings, with a lead singer/guitarist who has battled cancer and won, can still run about on stage for the best part of 2 hours, can still motivate a decidedly mature audience into jumping about like they were teenagers again, and can still leave several hundred people leave the venue with big smiles on their faces, that's impressive.

I'll stop short of saying it reaffirms your faith in the human race, but it certainly makes you look at things in a slightly different way, at least for a while. Take the guy I described in the previous stanza, he didn't care what anyone else thought, and nor should he, he was out to see a band he liked, and have a good time. The same could be said for all the other fashion disasters we saw, and indeed, could be said for myself and Ian, we were, of course, the epitome of style and elegance (even if we did both wind up wearing checked shirts – actually, there probably hasn't been as many checked shirts gathered together since Courtney Love got Kurt's laundry back). We went, we saw, we had a great time, did we stop to contemplate what anyone else was thinking about us? Not even for a second. It does the soul good to experience events like last night. Good music, decent (if overpriced) beer, good friends, and lots of laughs.

A large part of the success of this gig, at least for me anyway, was the band themselves, quite obviously having a blast. The drummer did not stop laughing and smiling all night, and that alone made the gig so much better. Here's a bunch of guys getting paid to do something they clearly love, something that they'd do for free, and that sort of positivity can't help but be infectious. Too many bands stand up on the stage, looking all serious and earnest, and some of my favourite bands are guilty of just that, but The Alarm reminded me of something important, which will be the now legendary 'Springer Moment' for this entry. Life, as they say, is short (although there is a certain irony in that statement as, after all, life by it's very nature is the longest thing we will ever do!), and there's a big bad world out there. Enjoy what you can, go see the bands you like, and regardless of your age, waistline, lack of hair (or a hairstyle which hasn't changed much since 1982), and caring not a jot what others think, don't be afraid to get in the pit and, to use another hackneyed cliché, dance like no one is looking. You may be sore the next day, but it will be totally worth it.

Until next time...

Monday, 23 May 2011

"America... F**k Yeah..."

Team America - World Police rocks.

Don't worry, this blog isn't about Team America, it is. however, about America.  Mostly.  And some other countries. I know what you are thinking, "oh, here we go, a bloody Briton (note: I'm British, not English :) ) bitching about America."  Not at all, quite the opposite - I am a huge fan of America.  It's my favourite place on earth, and if I thought for a second I could get a Green Card, I'd be off like a shot.  Sure, America has problems, but name me a country which doesn't.

So, what the hell am I on about. Well, this blog was inspired by a comment a news anchor made on the show I was watching. His son was graduating from West Point, and he was, naturally, proud of his son, and then he said
"If you get the chance, go to one of these graduations, it will make you feel good about America, and the future of this country"
It made me think - here was a guy, obviously proud of his son,  but equally proud of his country.  So what, you say, and to a point, it's a fair comment, but it got me thinking. In Britain, we aren't a vocal about nationalistic pride, actually, most of the time, quite the opposite. There is this bizarre view in the UK that displaying national pride is somehow a bad thing, that displaying either the Union Flag, or the flag of one of the component countries of the Union is racist. Why? Why, in the British psyche, is national pride inexorably linked with racism?  Why is it that those who wish to fly the Union Flag, the Flag of St George, the Welsh Flag, the Saltire etc etc, are labelled undesirable. There have even been cases in England where local councils have banned the flying of the Flag of St George on private property for fear that it may offend people who are not of natural-born English Caucasian stock. The issue doesn't seem to be quite as bad in Scotland, but look around - how many houses fly a Saltire (or a Lion Rampant).  Compare that with the US.  The first few trips I made to the USA, I was constantly amazed at how many houses, just ordinary houses occupied by ordinary people, proudly flew the Stars and Stripes.

This has been an issue which has lodged itself in my mind for several years now, and it has generally made me think of a couple of specific questions:

  1. When does patriotism become jingoism
  2. How many people (outwith the US) confuse the two
I will admit, the first couple of trips I made to the US made me feel a bit uncomfortable - I wasn't used to being around people who embraced their nationality, their country, the way Americans do. I was guilty of thinking it was arrogance, that they were, by default, belittling my country, in their celebration of their own. As I got to know some Americans I realised that wasn't the case. The vast majority of Americans I have met love their country,and there is nothing at all wrong with that, but what often seems to get lost is the fact that they also appreciate other countries.  Some more than others, Scotland and Ireland seem to be universally revered in the US, on the East Coast Italy is highly regarded too, other countries, not so much (and this isn't exclusive to the US, I've experienced this an many countries).

So why, then, does the US have such a bad rap.  A lot of it, undoubtedly is a fallout from American foreign policy, but I think a fair amount of it is people who think in the way I used to, but who haven't had the chance to really get to know any Americans (heck, in my case I even lived with one for almost 2 years!) and do confuse American national pride with jingoism. To return to an earlier point, in the UK I would put a hefty amount of money on the cause of that being the fact that to a Briton, obvious displays of national pride are alien to us.

So, what's the point of this treatise. Well, I guess, like so many of my blogs, there really isn't one. So, I will end with this - the world is a place full of wonder.  There are so many different cultures, creeds, races, which give us the diversity we should all celebrate.  Just because someone is happy to express their love for their own country, it doesn't automatically follow that their celebration of their nation is a condemnation of any other. There is nothing wrong with national pride, so long as that pride doesn't stray into a denigration of others.

Enjoy your country and it's culture, and embrace the diversity of others. There you go!

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Is there anybody out there...

Hi.  It's been a while. Sorry about that, I've not really  had anything worth saying for a while (like that's ever stopped me before!).  But, here I am!  I'm sitting watching 'Through the Wormhole, with Morgan Freeman' on Discovery (you are reading this in Morgan Freeman's voice now, aren't you. That's ok, I'm trying it in his voice, so it's all good), and it's talking about the possibility of sentient life elsewhere in the universe.   Unsurprisingly, it's widely believed amongst astrophysicists that it's a nailed on certainty that there is life elsewhere in the universe. In 1960 an astrophysicist named Frank Drake came up with an equation designed to estimate the number of extraterrestrial civilisations which may be out there.

The formula he designed is:

Now, I'm not going to lie, that means absolutely nothing to me.  Fortunately... Wikipedia to the rescue!

R* = the average rate of star  formation per year in our galaxy
fp = the fraction of those stars that have planets
ne = the average number of planets that can potentially support life per star that has planets
f = the fraction of the above that actually go on to develop life at some point
fi = the fraction of the above that actually go on to develop intelligent life
fc = the fraction of civilizations that develop a technology that releases detectable signs of their existence into space
L = the length of time for which such civilizations release detectable signals into space

So, are we any the wiser? I'm certainly not! So, I'll summarise the summary I read - even at it's most conservative, the Drake Equation hypothesises that there are tens of thousands of civilisations in our own galaxy - if you applied it to the universe at large, well, the number could be so large as to be essentially meaningless (sadly, a bit like my waistline!).

I've had an interest in space for as long as I can remember.  I had a little telescope that I would pack up, take it into the forest behind where I stayed (it was a more innocent time back then!), because there was a hill in the forest which was clear of trees at the top, so when it was a clear night, not too cold, I'd wrap up and go an stargaze for a while. Good times.

I don't believe in a lot of things - I don't believe in ghosts, telekinesis, religion, the flying spaghetti monster, that aliens have visited earth, but I do believe there is intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. I also believe that telepathy is theoretically possible (if you think about it - brain activity is essentially electrical, therefore it's a reasonable assumption that thought is like an electrical signal, or a radio signal, with each of us having our own unique 'frequency' - there's a good chance that some people either share 'frequencies' or can adjust theirs, but that's a topic for another time!).  So, back to the ET thing...

You will note that whilst I said I believe in the probability of intelligent life in the universe, I don't believe they have visited Earth. There is just nothing out there to support that argument. There is no clear evidence of any kind of visitation, there are no planets within hundreds of light years which are even vaguely close to being considered potential candidates for life, and given that light speed is apparently an immutable limiter of the universe, it's going to take our ET neighbours hundreds, if not thousands of years to make the trip.  Are they really going to come all this way just to shove a probe up the backside of 'Cletus from Kentucky' (or Shug fae Ballingry)?  I find it very unlikely. I also find it unlikely that we are going to  have any visitors any time soon, if ever.

There is, however, a school of thought that the seeds of life on Earth were, themselves, extraterrestrial in origin. The theory is called 'panspermia' and it suggests that the primordial organic substances were brought to Earth on one, or many, of the meteorites which peppered the incipient Earth.  It sounds far fetched, but there appears to be evidence to support the theory - meteorites have been found to have organic substances in their core. For example, the Murchison meteorite, discovered in Australia in 1969 was found to contain both common and uncommon amino acids (which, convention dictates I must now call 'the building blocks of life'), whilst in 2009 an amino acid glycene was found in a comet by a probe.

So, next time you are out looking at the stars, stop for a second, look up, and wave - you never know who might see it - in a few thousand years time!

Friday, 13 May 2011

What the Future Holds...

In 1875 when Max Planck was deciding which path to take, his choices were apparently, mathematics and physics. He was counselled against physics as the belief at the time was that all the major discoveries had been made, and that the life of a physicist would be one of refining and defining the discoveries credited to others. Fortunately, Planck decided that physics was for him, and of course became famous himself for the development of Quantum Theory (which, interestingly Planck himself came to doubt, he was of the opinion that wave mechanics would render quantum mechanics as obsolete - actually, it did the opposite).

As a species, mankind has, after a bit of a slow start, made massive advances in technology, science, medicine, my generation can experience wonders which weren't even considered in my parents generation. I have no doubt that the generations which follow me will be able to say the same.

One such example is the medium by which you   are reading this - the IT age. My mother has never so much as touched a computer in her life. I offered to give her my old one when I upgraded, then remembered that mother and technology don't mix. Until she finally got rid of it (last year), I had to change the time on her VCR twice a year. I bought her a DVD player which I think has been used twice. Both times by me, when I was staying the night there.  I was only able to persuade her that CDs were an improvement on tapes when I bought her a CD player for her birthday about 5 years ago (and then I got a phone call from her the next day saying it was broken - not only had she put the CD in upside down, she didn't press it onto the spindle).  I'm not having a go at mother, far from it, but she is a prime example of the technology gulf which broaches each generation. I dare say when my mum was younger, she would have had to have persuaded her mother (my granny) about the new-fangled long playing records, and the 'moving pictures'.  Ok, I'm exaggerating a little, but not as much as you'd think!

Every time I think about technological development I keep asking myself the same (rhetorical) question - why now?  Why was the silicon chip invented when it was? Why not in 1873, or 1606?  Why did we have to wait so long to have an electricity grid, especially when there had been a fundamental understanding of electricity for a long time before. Why did it take until 1872 for Nicklaus Otto to invent the 4-stroke internal combustion engine?  There had been engines of sorts for decades before then, so why hadn't that leap been made before? And, most importantly, why did the world have to wait until Sir Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web in 1989 to get 'the internet' and of course, internet porn (just kidding... what? why are you looking at me like that?  Don't judge me!!! I get lonely!).

These thoughts are always followed by "I wonder what will be next". What marvels of technology will the next generation get to experience. Will there come a time where teleportation becomes a reality?  Will we find real wormholes which will let us explore deep space? Will the Buffalo Sabres ever win the Stanley Cup? Ok, we are getting too much into fantasy here now!

When I start to ponder questions such as these it is with a sense of wonder tinged with sadness. I consider myself to be lucky to have witnessed and occasionally experienced some phenomenal developments in technology, my family and I have benefited from advances in medicine, we have an understanding of the world, the universe and our place in it, which has  been lost to all but the most recent few generations. The ingenuity of the human mind never ceases to inspire awe and wonder. So, what about the sadness.  Well, the sadness comes from the realisation that the brevity of human life will stop me from seeing the excitement which  will accompany the future.  One day we may work out how to teleport (as an aside, were I to have a superpower, that would be mine), one day travel through interstellar space may be as routine as catching a flight today.

It's when I think of things like these that I wish I could believe in reincarnation, that I could convince myself that I may get to experience these wonders, even if I'm not aware of it. Sadly, the rational side of me stops that. I just don't have that faith, and I never will. I can't change that, yet I sometimes feel slight pangs of jealousy directed at those who do have that faith.

The Chinese had a curse - may you live in interesting times. The true curse is, surely, may you live in times of stagnation, of no development, of no new wonders to explore. I am glad I live in interesting times. I'm just sad I won't be around long enough to see more.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Just when you thought it was safe...

I'm vaguely aware that I've not written anything for a while. So, here I am. I've not been avoiding writing, I've just not had the inspiration, or, to put it another way, I've had nothing to write about. I know what you are thinking... 'no change from usual then!'

I can see tonight's blog being even more rambling than usual.  I wanted to write something tonight to undertake a little experiment - as I think everyone who reads this knows, I've been having a bit of a tough time of it recently, feeling down etc, but the past few days I've felt a fair bit better, with any trips into the darkest recesses of my mind being of the more fleeting variety. So, I wanted to write something so that a few days from now, I could go back and compare this with what I wrote when I was in my bad place and see if there are any stylistic differences.  I doubt there will be, but hey, nothing wrong with trying!

So, what to write about. Actually, I had a thought earlier - there are 4 seasons.  That's not enough, so I wish to introduce a 5th season.  Joining winter, spring, summer and autumn (or fall for our colonial cousins - interesting point to note: autumn in the UK was once called fall, at roughly the same time as many people as could were leaving these shores for the new world.  Autumn was used too, but fall was more prevalent, for some reason fall stuck in the US whilst autumn won that linguistic battle in the UK) will be season number 5 - Scotland.

You see, in Scotland we have weather which appears to be at best, extratemporal, at worst... well, I don't even know what! Never mind four seasons in 1 day, Scotland can have 4 seasons in 1 hour.  Sometimes as many as 3 or 4 of the seasons happening concurrently.  Today was a case in point - the sun was shining in a most summerly fashion, we had spring downpours and winterly winds. No wonder the topic of the weather is a constant point of discussion for Britons.   So, when would the season of Scotland start? Well, that would be on Jan 1st. And it would end, of course, December 31st. Scotland is the only place I know where you would need to pack sunscreen, a towel and a cagoule for a trip to the shops.  Or to go and get a deep fried Mars bad. No, I'm not joking, I wish I was (and yes, I've tried one, it was foul!).

Scottish cuisine is often slated, and more often than not, rightly so. I mean when you think about it, our national dish is essentially the bits of animal which are normally thrown out, cooked in it's own stomach (and despite that, is damn tasty!).  Most Glaswegians idea of a salad is the cold chips (or fries, if you prefer) left over from the night before. However, there are a lot of Scottish dishes which are pretty good. I say 'a lot', some. Ok, a couple. Cullen Skink, when done well, is good, I mean I don't like it, but I'm told it's good, whilst chicken tikka masala is pretty awesome.  I know what you are thinking, but according to the legend, chicken tikka masala was born in Glasgow, when a discerning diner at an Indian restaurant asked the chef to take back his dry chicken tikka and "fling some gravy on it, pal". The chef concocted a sauce of various spices and a tomato base, and tikka masala was born.  Of course, that could all be bollocks, but it's a good story nonetheless!

It's been a long time since I had a proper tikka masala, or korma for that matter. Damn, dieting sucks!

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

The things I know I didn't know...

I've been struggling to think of something to blog about for a couple of days, I thought about this or that, but ultimately always wound up thinking "yeah, I'd get to the end of the first paragraph and then be done", so I was racking my brains trying to think of something substantive, and then, whilst watching a documentary about the Liquid Bomb Plot, I realised that I had absolutely no idea how explosives worked. I know what they do, I know they go bang and in the wrong place it can be fairly terminal, but I didn't know why they went bang - why is nitroglycerine so explosive but rubber, for example, not. I had no idea. I figured it was something to do with chemistry (I was right, and I quote from Wikipedia:

An explosion is a type of spontaneous chemical reaction (once initiated) that is driven by both a large negative enthalpy change (great release of heat) and a large positive entropy change (great quantities of gases are released) in going from reactants to products, thereby constituting a very thermodynamically favorable process in addition to one that propagates very rapidly. Thus, explosives are substances that contain a large amount of energy stored in chemical bonds. The energetic stability of the gaseous products and, hence, their generation comes from the formation of strongly bonded species like carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, and (di)nitrogen, which contain strong double and triple bonds having bond strengths of nearly 1,000 kJ/mole. Consequently, most commercial explosives are organic compounds containing -NO2, -ONO2 and -NHNO2 groups that when detonated release gases like the aforementioned ones (e.g., nitroglycerin, TNT, HMX, PETN, nitrocellulose).

That almost makes sense to me! It made me think, however, what else don't I know, that I probably should (I should point out at this point that I'm not actually interested in explosives themselves, purely what made them 'bang', so of anyone in SIS or it's equivalent is reading this thinking 'Hmmm' I'm not interested in making bombs!!).

I should probably have a better understanding of how pickups in guitars work (I know it's something to do with magnetic resonance in an induction coil. I think anyway!), I'd like to have a better understanding of fluid dynamics (just because I think 'fluid dynamicist' would be a cool job title), I really wish I had a better understanding of the human mind, particularly as it applies to women, but then I don't think anyone really understands them!

One of the particular 'joys' of being me is the way in which my mind can flit from one thing to another, totally unconnected in any way other than that my warped mind can find some sort of tenuous connection. I can be thinking about something, let's say... ocelots. For anyone who doesn't know, an ocelot is a wildcat.  I happened to be reading the Wikipedia article on ocelots, when that made me want to read Dilbert comics. As I was reading Dilbert, I wondered who the world's richest man was (turns out it's a Mexican called Carlos Slim - I know, I was as surprised as anyone, he's apparently worth $74 Billion. I wouldn't mind a loan of his credit card for a couple of days!).  That in turn made me wonder how much the Pope got paid.  It turns out, the Pope doesn't get paid anything (although he can apparently keep the royalties from books, although in practice Popes tend to divest themselves of that income to. and use it for charitable purposes).  So there you go, from ocelots to the Pope in 4 easy moves.

The whole fractured though process is constantly going on in my head. I'm writing this, but thinking "I remembered reading years ago that a dog's habit of going round in circles before lying down somewhere is thought to be some sort of genetic code, hard-wired into them from the days of old when wild dogs would lie down in rushes, going in circles to flatten some of the rushes into a comfy bed". Why am I thinking that? I have no idea. I'm also straying very far off topic, which is something else I do all the time.

When I was on the BT project at work, I usually did 3 of the training modules for gradbay.  I enjoyed doing them, those who know me will know that I quite liked doing a presentation here and there, or a training group. Had I just started at the beginning, and went through to the end (which I was more than capable of, after all, I wrote the modules!) then even with questions, I could probably have done them in 45 mins to 1 hour each. But no, as I was explaining something, it would trigger something in my head, so I would segue off on a tangent for a while, before working my way back on track (for example, talking about ESPN usually prompted me to tell the story of my accidentally farting in the face of a small child at a baseball game).  If I was able to complete a session in under 90 minutes, I thought I was doing well!

Why have I typed all this out. Well, I guess what I hoped initially was to have an interesting article about some topics which interest me, but that I didn't know a lot about. It turned out to be a trip into how my mind works. Well, for a certain definition of 'works'!

I will leave you with this, tonight's 'Springer Moment'. Don't be afraid to admit you don't know something. I do it all the time - accepting that there will be things you don't know isn't a weakness, it's an opportunity. Not knowing something doesn't mean you have failed.  Not taking the opportunity to learn, however, that could be quite different!

Until next time...

Monday, 2 May 2011

If the Eye is a Window to the Soul...

I've not posted for a couple of days, no real reason, just not really had much to say. I toyed with some kind of vaguely political article, following the death of Osama Bin Laden, but that's not really what this blog's all about. I might say something at some point, but only when I have something coherent to say!

So, tonight, what shall my monologue concern itself with. I was thinking about art and photography earlier, so that will do! As pretty much everyone who knows me is aware, I am a fairly keen amateur photographer. I have liked taking pictures since I was a kid, and it's no co-incidence that I've hated having my picture taken again, since I was a kid! I have no doubts that the two are interlinked! I figured out early on that if I was holding the camera, then I was safe from having it pointed at me.

That aside, I took up photography as my way to express my 'visual' side - I can't draw, not at all, my dad was the artistic one in the family and he declined to share those genes with me, so if I want to make a picture, I have to use a camera - even I can press a button!! When I am in the right mood, I enjoy grabbing my camera, going somewhere and seeing what I can find to take a picture of. At the moment, I'm hugely into painting with light, I've always liked taking landscape shots, and I am not adverse to having the odd pretty lady stand in front of my lens!

Whilst I can't draw or paint, I do like art, well, some art. I'm a huge fan of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (one of my favourite paintings, Henry Wallis' "Death of Chatterton" is in the Pre-Raphaelite style Click here to see it) and like a lot of people, find the surrealist movement fascinating, with Dali, of course, being right up there.  I don't, however, have any fondness for 'modern art'.  I remember being at the Allbright-Knox Gallery of Modern Art in Buffalo a few years ago, getting more and more indignant as I wandered around - most of the exhibits looked like they could have come from a, Ikea display.  There was an entire corridor decorated with canvasses, about 12"x12", white, save a diagonal band of colour.  Is that really art?  My rule of thumb is "if I can do it, it's not art!".

Nor am I much of a fan of 'installation art'. I'm fairly sure Tracy Emin is a very talented artist, but is an unmade bed really art? If so, I plan to sell my bedroom as an installation piece for ooooh, I don't know... £3,000,000?  All I need to do is give it some provenance - I can say that the clothes on the floor are indicative of my non-conformist streak, whilst the colour of the walls demonstrate my subconscious desire for inner peace. The bed itself show that even in vast surroundings, I like to have a specific area which is delineated from everywhere else as my own little haven (to give this some context, I live on my own, and despite having a double bed, I always sleep pretty much on the edge of the bed, I have no idea why).  So, there you go, grade A installation art. Now, let me see if I can find Sotheby's phone number...