Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Finding your time and place

Have you ever noticed how people never seem to be in the "right time"? How often do you hear someone say they wish they had lived 200 years ago or 1000 years in the future? It is a very odd phenomenon that afflicts a significant number of us. But why do we do this, why do we frequently overlook our current existence and covet a different time period in which to live out our lives? The same often applies to location,

Personally I know I am just as guilty as others of this. The books and films I enjoy are generally not contemporary and those that are set in the present are often far from here.

Which is odd really because there is no real logical reason why this desire to be elsewhere exists? Is it perhaps an extension of the "grass is always greener" situation or is it something more basic than that? Are we humans simply that way inclined, always looking to be somewhere (or "somewhen") else?

Or is it that we like to imagine how are lives could be different IF we were somewhere or somewhen else? It could be that we prefer to counter our mundane (as they often seem to us) lives by pretending to be back in a "golden" time period, or off somewhere idyllic, or in the future which we can sub-consciously shape to our own preferences and make it the ideal place to live.

Whatever the reason I sometimes wonder if we are missing out on something by looking so desperately to be anywhere else. All around us there are fantastic experiences to be had, places to see, people to meet. And they are all within touching distance.

We don't need to imagine or dream about being elsewhere, we just need to look more closely around us and see that, actually, you are exactly when and where you should be.

Today's #randomfactoftheday - Donald Campbell remains the only person to set both the land and water speed records in the same year (1964).

Today's #badjokeoftheday - Q: What is the difference between a dog and a marine biologist? A: One tags a whale and the other wags a tale

Today's #websiteoftheday - A Manchester institution, the Museum of Science and Industry (http://www.mosi.org.uk/)

On this day; 1917, The Original Dixieland Jass Band records the first jazz record

Till tomorrow,
DT

Monday, 24 February 2014

Recipe #2 - Banana Oat Bars

I have no energy today. Mainly due to a lack of sleep but also due to running around a muddy field for 47 minutes yesterday. The lake dip probably didn't help either! So I basically don't have enough energy to write a proper blog. HOWEVER, how about a very tasty recipe for some energy intensive Banana Oat Bars which will keep you going even when you feel like me?

The below recipe makes 10 of these crackers.
They take about 10-15 minutes to prepare and 30 minutes to cook.
Enjoy!

Ingredients
100g porridge oats
1 tbsp granulated sugar
1/2 tsp cream of tartar
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
3 medium ripe bananas, mashed
2 medium eggs, separated
150g low fat plain yoghurt

Method
1. Preheat oven to 180C (160C for a fan)
2. Lightly grease a square 8in baking tray and line with greaseproof paper
3. Reserve 1tbsp of oats for later and "powder" the rest, preferably in a food processor
4. Mix oats, sugar, tartar, cinnamon together in a bowl
5. Add mashed banana, eggs and yoghurt
6. In a separate bowl, whisk the egg whites to soft peaks (recommend using an electric whisk if you are short of time)
7. Stir a spoonful of egg whites into banana oat batter, then fold the rest in carefully
8. Pour into tin, scatter reserved oats on top
9. Bake on centre shelf of oven for about 30 minutes until firm and springy
10. Cut into fingers and store in a Tupperware container
Alternatively, wrap in clingfilm and freeze

So there you have it, tasty energy-rich bars which you can have for breakfast or whenever you need a boost. A fraction of the cost of "power bars" on sale in the shops.

Today's #randomfactoftheday - In 2011, 145 million metric tonnes of bananas were produced!

Today's #badjokeoftheday - Q: What kind of key opens a banana? A: A monkey

Today's #websiteoftheday - List of Current Impact Risks for Earth. There are a lot actually, though all either (a) won't happen or (b) won't be big impacts at all (http://neo.jpl.nasa.gov/risks/).

On this day; 1582, Pope Gregory XIII introduces the Gregorian Calendar. Still the most widely used civil calendar in the world.

Till tomorrow,
DT

Sunday, 23 February 2014

Success breeds success

Today saw the successful completion of Tom's Many Silly Adventures Challenge #10. You can check out my website for all the details but the general gist of it was; 6km obstacle/mud run including a pleasant dip in the lake and several encounters with zombies. The two man team of Rick and I managed to get round in 47:16 which smashed our original target of 1 hour by some distance.

Before  After

However, it is the effect that completing one of these events has on people (well, me actually) that I wanted to comment on today. Why oh why is my first reaction upon completing one of these things, "that was awesome, I want to do another"?!

Don't get me wrong, they are great and I do want to do more. But why does my mind seem to completely ignore the messages coming from my body at the particular instant in time? Messages which are usually along the line of, "the following parts of your body hurt, please lie down and attempt no further moving for the foreseeable future".

It is pretty obviously some kind of adrenaline or endorphin rush (coupled with the sense of achievement of finishing something) that causes this phenomenon but it can be a dangerous one, particularly if armed with the internet and some method of paying for these new events. I don't know whether it is part of my mind playing a funny joke on me while the other parts concentrate on reminding me the pain I'm in, and how tired I am feeling.

So having just dragged myself round Challenge #10, and acutely aware of how sore I'll be tomorrow, I have since spent the rest of the afternoon finding new things to sign up for, though thankfully resisting the urge! I definitely need my head looking at, and preferably re-wiring. It's not just physical things either, I spent approximately 12 years as a student due to the fact that every time I finished I thought, "I enjoyed that so let's do it again"!

Anyway, Challenge #11 is merely 20 days away - the fantastically named "Mighty Deerstalker". This is going to be a team of 4 or 5 so it should be cracking fun. I just wish it was a few more weeks away! Because tomorrow I'm going to feel today's effort and I'm going to be very grateful that I somehow managed to ignore what I am going to call the "glutton for punishment" instinct which would have had me signing up for something next week if I had succumbed.

Today's #randomfactoftheday - The world's largest jellyfish is the Lion's Mane. It is 8ft in diameter and has some 50m of tentacles.

Today's #badjokeoftheday - I've used this one many times before, but its is so ridiculously funny that it gets another airing (I don't get out much by the way).

1: Knock, Knock. 2: Who's there? 1: Europe. 2: Europe who? 1: Europe who too!

Today's #websiteoftheday - Build your own website (http://www.wix.com/)

On this day; 1941, Plutonium is first produced and isolated by Dr Glenn Seaborg

Till next time,
DT

Saturday, 22 February 2014

Challenge #10 is on the way

Less than 16 hours to go till the next of my Many Silly Adventures, Pandemonium! A (hopefully) quick jaunt through 6km of water, mud, zombies and general exercise. Once again the main aim of this challenge is to raise money for Friends of Serenity, the fantastic charity set up by a friend and also to raise awareness for Trisomy illnesses, and Trisomy 13 in particular.

Further details of the challenge are here: http://nakedstrength.co.uk/events/pandemonium-2014/

But more importantly, if you get a chance them please head to both my challenge website and the Friends of Serenity official page. Both links can be found over on the left side-bar and also here;

Tom's Many Silly Adventures
Friends of Serenity

Any support you can give would be great. If everyone who reads this blog is able to spread the word even a little by sharing or whatever, then we can help to raise awareness of these heart-breaking illnesses and hopefully make a bit of a difference to people's lives when they need it most.

Thanks in advance folks, I'll have a full review of the race up tomorrow - along with the usual "gems" which grace my blog!!

Friday, 21 February 2014

About me

This is not a cry for help, nor is it a plea for attention.

This is not a guilt trip, nor is it a play for sympathy.

This is, simply and honestly, the truth.

I hope that for those who know me this will explain a few things. For those who don’t know me, maybe there is something of value here for you too.

As far back as I can remember I have suffered from a medical condition. Without getting too deep into the details it is essentially a nerve problem which leads to a chronic form of constipation. The net result is an inability to regulate my “bodily movements”.

This means that I have long periods (months often) of “blocking up” followed by periods of excruciating pain and uncontrolled bowel habits which usually end up with a hospital trip or extreme intervention. Everything that has been tried so far has been unsuccessful, some of which I will admit has been down to my own inability to truly help myself. It remains undiagnosed though tests are ongoing.

The physical aspects are only a part of the story however, and part of the reason for doing this now is to help me deal with the psychological and mental aspects that I have unknowingly ignored.

Without consciously realising it, I have allowed this condition to dictate my life. Particularly bad cycles of it have left me emotionally, physically and mentally drained for long periods of time. The condition has always existed at the periphery of my thoughts, driving certain decisions and never leaving me truly free. It has been with me, in some respects, every day and I have allowed it to overwhelm me at times.

This condition will not drastically shorten my life span, nor does it leave me in constant physical pain or suffering but it has been a part of me for longer than I can remember and it has given me my very darkest moments. I have no doubt that it has in some way also contributed to some of the other problems I have had.

I have lost great opportunities to do things throughout my life, either directly due to physical condition or because I have been unable to commit to things for fear of something happening. The mental and emotional aspects of this condition (and my method of dealing with it) are so hard to articulate and yet so easy for others to dismiss as unimportant.

For example, when you know that sometimes you are unable to complete a single round of golf or game of cricket without the potential for “an accident” if drastically reduces your desire to do these things. So you don’t. But you give crappy, non-committal excuses because you aren’t strong enough to admit the simple truth. You destroy people’s belief and trust in you and the cycle goes on. I know it doesn’t sound like much but it can cripple you at times if you let it.

I know to some it may seem a minor problem and I am certainly making no attempt to put this on a level with terminal or life-changing illnesses. I have on occasion considered myself weak for allowing this to affect me so greatly, even now I feel like people will think that I am merely over-exaggerating for effect. And I can certainly understand how people could think the physical aspects trivial. But it is real and it is difficult.

I have tried to hide my fears and anxieties for so long now, resorting instead to withdrawal and isolation. Of course people close to me have known my struggles but I have kept so much buried away that only the tip of the iceberg remained - a mere fraction of what I have really been feeling. In truth I have buried some things so deep that even I have not been aware of just how it has affected me.

It has been a constant battle for me and one I have tried to ignore for too long. I was ashamed and embarrassed and in the end I pushed so many people away who only wanted to help – people who could see how I was struggling and who I have needlessly allowed to suffer with me.

Those who I should have trusted I didn’t and it has cost me. I have lost friends, I have missed out on opportunities and I have pushed away those who mean the most to me and those who I hold dearest. This condition and my inability to deal with it has led to the biggest regrets of my life and I have lost more than I ever thought I could have.

But enough is enough. Although the condition still remains undiagnosed I refuse to allow it to dictate my life any longer. I don’t know what the future holds but from today I refuse to be the person whose life is defined by this. I have fought an internal struggle with myself, my body and my mind every single day but the days of allowing this to overwhelm me, to drag me down and to consume me are over.

In all truthfulness the real struggle has always been an internal one with myself. Now I have finally understood and acknowledged the hold it has had, I can start to work towards the future with positivity. It will still be tough at times and I won’t always get it right so I apologise in advance.

This blog entry feels like the first step and a huge weight off my shoulders. The past is gone where it belongs and I intend to make sure the future is shaped by me and not my problems.

Thank you for taking the time to read this. Here’s to the future.
Tom

Thursday, 20 February 2014

REVIEW: Beyond Numeracy by John Allen Paulos

For those of you who know Paulos's work, this is a follow up book to his New York Times bestselling Innumeracy. Paulos is a mathematician who is passionate about being being "mathematically literate" and his first book covers a lot of the common misconceptions of the average layperson when it comes to mathematics.

His next offering was this little number (if you'll pardon the pun), an "uncommon dictionary of mathematics" to quote the front page. And it is just that, it is a journey through a whole host of mathematical concepts ranging from Area and Volume through Calculus, Trigonometry and Pi to more abstract concepts such as Fractals, Human Consciousness and Platonic Solids.

This is a man who loves mathematics and wants other people to love and understand mathematics too. That is never a bad thing in my book, maths is not as scary as people make it out to be. Well, most of maths actually is frightening but the day-to-day stuff is fascinating, useful and not all that difficult.

Anyway back to Paulos. This book is a dictionary and so naturally the concepts are arranged in alphabetical order. This is the logical way to arrange things but I find it means the level of understanding required for a partial topic jumps around a lot. I guess this is by no means a bad thing, it just means it is not the sort of book you can "work your way into" as such.

You might find some of the earlier concepts pass you by a bit if you aren't from a certain school of mathematical thinking. This is definitely not a "mathematics for dummies", nor was it ever intended as one. I have a pretty decent standard of maths as a baseline and there were some of the ideas that outfoxed me completely.

However it is worth persevering with because there are some fascinating sections and Paulos's love for his subject shines through. Everyone who reads this will be a little bit better at understanding mathematics and how it interacts with and influences the world around us, which is definitely no bad thing.

Verdict: 4 stars out of 5

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

The measure of things

So I was doing a calculation at work today that involved everyone's favourite unit, the British Thermal Unit (BTU) and it got me thinking about us humans and the way we measure things. More specifically I became interested in the methodology we use for defining certain units of measurement.

For example, the temperature scales of Fahrenheit and Celsius are the two most popular in normal, everyday use today. At first glance there appears to be very little in common between the two except for the fact that, the higher the number, the warmer something is.

In layman's terms, Celsius seems a reasonably logical scale to us in that there are two major points on the scale which are easily definable and have easy to remember values. By which I mean of course 0 degrees for the freezing point of water and 100 degrees for the boiling point of water. These constitute two well defined points with the range in between split into 100. We like values of 10, 100, 1000 etc.. because we are happily decimalised, a fact no doubt down to our ten fingers which constituted some of the earliest methods of counting.

(An interesting footnote here relates to why we use 60 as our base for time, angles and geographic co-ordinates but I don't quite have the time to go into that right now. Basically, blame the Sumerians and check out here for more info - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sexagesimal). Also, a lot of countries used a non-decimalised form of currency until as late the 1970s. But trust me, we generally prefer base 10).

Anyway back to temperature. 0 degrees Fahrenheit (by contrast to 0 Celsius) doesn't seem to be anything particularly interesting, neither does 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The freezing and boiling points of water in Fahrenheit are 32 and 212, seemingly meaningless. But in actual fact, Daniel Fahrenheit defined his scale in EXACTLY the same way as Anders Celsius did, he just chose different points for his 0 and 100 definitions. For those of you interested in this he chose 0 degrees as the "lowest temperature to which he could reproducibly cool brine" and 100 degrees as the "average human core body temperature".

This type of phenomenon is in evidence all over the place. Every single unit on this planet was defined by humans and so every unit has a logic behind it. However we are often woefully ignorant of why some units are what they are.

For example, most people know that the unit of "1 foot" is, unsurprisingly the average length of a human foot in Roman or Greek times (but not Egyptian as they tended to use the "cubit" which is the length from your elbow to the tip of your middle finger). This is actually quite an intuitive unit which you could approximate if needed to. But how many of you know where the "metre" came from? Or indeed, the kilogram? I'll let you find out yourself.

It really is fascinating that we have so many different units for things (such as temperature and length) that sometimes it seems like complete overkill. Yet it turns out they were all defined for a specific purpose and so are actually all very relevant in their own right.

I wasn't really making a point with any of this, more sharing a bit of an interest of mine regarding units, measurement and the human way of trying to define measurements to make them as easy to understand as possible. I often dismiss units like yards, Fahrenheit and the like but they actually come in very useful in the right context. Astronomical Units (AUs) for example, no use to a chemist really but cracking for astronomy.

And for those of you who were wondering from before, 1 BTU is the amount of energy needed to change the temperature of one pound of water by 1 degree Fahrenheit. Pretty nonsensical these days but it made perfect sense when it was defined.

Today's #randomfactoftheday - Currently the kilogram is the only S.I. Unit defined by an object rather than a fundamental physical property

Today's #badjokeoftheday - Q: Where does bad light end up? A: In a prism

Today's #websiteoftheday - The world's longest running experiment - The Pitch Drop Experiment (http://www.theninthwatch.com/feed/)

On this day; 1473, birth of Nicolaus Copernicus - one of the greatest astronomical minds of all time.

Till next time,
DT

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Recipe #1 - Pumpkin Puree Enchilladas

Yeah that's right, this is now a foodie blog too! I'd like to say that I'm a really good chef who can dazzle you all with my skills but that's not entirely true. I'm not a bad cook but I don't get to do it very often. Plus I like food

The main reason for going foodie on you tonight though is that I've only just thought of a topic for my blog and it'll take too long to do the necessary research this evening. Instead you get it tomorrow.

So, in the meantime I am starting my Recipe of the Week theme. Yes, I know I already have Website of the Day, Fact of the Day, Joke of the Day and Historical Event of the Day but I like things like that so I'm all good.

Therefore, may I now present to you; Recipe #1 - Pumpkin Puree Enchilladas
Recipe serves 4 and takes about an hour to make

Ingredients
800g pumpkin (or butternut squash) - peeled, deseeded and "chunked"
1 bunch spring onions finely chopped
200g soft cheese
1 tbsp whole grain mustard
1/2 tsp chilli powder (or to taste)
1 can chopped tomatoes
25g cheddar (though mexican cheese also works nicely)
Handufl fresh coriander (though marjoram or oregano also hits the spot)
8 soft tortillas

Method
1) Steam the pumpkin for 15 minutes
2) Place pumpkin in a large mixing bowl with onions, low fat cheese, chilli powder and mustard
3) Mash
4) Preheat oven to 180 C
5) Pull a couple of spoonfuls of mixture in each wrap and roll
6) Place wraps in an ovenproof baking dish, side by side
7) Tip over chopped tomatoes, grated cheese and coriander
8) Bake for 20 mins
9) Eat

I appreciate that this is a relatively lazy blog today but I've had one of those busy evenings so there we are. Give them a try though, they really are cracking and pretty healthy provided you don't eat them all to yourself.

Oh and for the record, tomorrow's blog will be very very interesting - honestly!!

Today's #randomfactoftheday - The world record holder for the largest pumpkin ever grown belongs to Mr Ron Wallace who produced a 2009lb (911 kg) whopper in 2012.

Today's #badjokeoftheday - Q: What is a pumpkin's favourite sport? A: Squash

Today's #websiteoftheday - I'm sorry. I might have just distracted you forever (http://www.peopleofwalmart.com/)

On this day; 1930, Clyde Tombaugh discovers Pluto

Till tomorrow,
DT

Monday, 17 February 2014

Hitting a bit of a wall

Been a bit of a struggle to think of something to write about today. I have quite a lot on my mind but it is not something I really want to share yet, though maybe later in the week as I have a potentially important appointment coming up. So the topic isn't a great one, but it was either that or talk about my CD collection and, trust me, that is not pretty.

I've got the next in my Many Silly Adventure Challenges coming up this weekend. For those who don't know, have a little look at the links on the left hand side (Friends of Serenity and Tom's Many Silly Adventures). I'm basically raising money for a very important charity by doing a "challenge" event each month - swims, run, triathlons, mud-runs, zipline etc... 

As mentioned, the next one (Challenge #10) is on Sunday and I have made the classic human trait (which a significant number of us suffer from I'm afraid) of leaving everything to the last minute. By that I mean my training. What is it about a lot of humans that causes us to do this, putting off stuff we don't want to do until such a time that we then get to a point that we wish we had done it earlier?!? I know I've done it all my life and even though I know I'm doing it, I can't stop myself.

I read a great article earlier in the week (I actually can't remember where so apologies to the author) which basically talked about procrastination and why we do it. It kind of centred on the mistaken belief we have that our future selves are somehow better equipped to deal with it. 

We have this "oh I'll leave it to later and by then I'll have figured it out" approach. Which makes no sense as when then proceed to spend zero time figuring it out and instead the deadline gets closer and closer and closer. Our future self is then stuck in exactly the same situation, but with less time to deal with it. So we panic and somehow get it done, and yet we don't learn a single thing from this experience!!

So with you, my loyal readers, as my witness I promise that I will never put something off ever again. Well, maybe just a couple of things. Ah, who am I kidding? I'll be back to procrastinating like the best of us as soon as this challenge is over. I will instead endeavour to be slightly better than I have been. 

To that end I have written a list of "medium to long term" tasks I need to do and I shall try and knock one of those tasks off per week. I'm not actually going to tell you what they are though, in case I don't do them and they end up dribbling along as they always have. 

I think I may be a lost cause on this but there is still time for you. Find something you have been putting off and get out there and do it. You'll feel much better once it is done. Probably. I wouldn't really know to be honest, I've spent the last two hours writing this rather than doing the jobs I have got to do!!!

Today's #randomfactoftheday - Barra Airport on the island of Barra in the Outer Hebrides, Scotland is the only airport in the world where scheduled flights use the beach as a runway.

Today's #badjokeoftheday - Q: What do you call a man with a map on his head? A: Miles

Today's #websiteoftheday - Want to see celestial events? Sign up here (http://events.slooh.com/) -Next event is in about 4 hours from now by the way!

On this day: 1600, Giordano Bruno is burned at the stake for heresy. His crime? Supporting the Copernican Model of the Universe

Till next time,
DT

Sunday, 16 February 2014

REVIEW: Sacrificed in Shadow (Book #1 of the Ascension Series) - S M Reine

I'll admit I got this book as a freebie from Amazon. It was part of a collection of 6 books by different authors which are all from a similar genre ("Urban Fantasy"). Most of the books are the first book in their particular series. So I knew very, very little about it - except for the fact that it appeared to have werewolves and demons in it.

One thing I didn't realise (until I was a good 1/3 of the way through it) was that this is the fourth series in the same "universe". I struggled a bit at the start because of this, simply because I am joining a narrative in the middle and so some of the character development aspects had already been covered in earlier books. Having said that though, you can still enjoy this book without all the prior information, the individual story hangs together well enough on its own.

So "Urban Fantasy" then. This was my first venture into it and I actually quite enjoyed it. There is a significant supernatural theme running through this; demons from hell, fallen angels, werewolves and succubi to name a few. I don't know if this is true for all Urban Fantasy but it certainly adds an extra element compared to my usual reads.

The story itself is well-paced and the characters have plenty of depth to them. It definitely feels like a story in the middle of an overall narrative, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. As a stand-alone tale it has enough to engage you and keep the pages turning. There is not particularly original in here, it seems like your fairly typical angel/demon battle which drags a few humans into the mix.

However the denouement does hint at something bolder and grander to come so there is plenty of potential here. It has also piqued my interest enough to contemplate going back through the earlier books and catching up with the previous adventures of some of these character.

So overall, a decent enough book with plenty to keep you entertained and promises of more to come. Definitely worth going back throgh Reine's earlier stuff if you want to get the full benefit from it though.

Verdict: 3.5 stars out of 5

Saturday, 15 February 2014

The search for beauty

There was a recent article on the BBC News website talking about the relationship between mathematics and beauty (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-26151062). It talks generally about the fact that seeing certain mathematical functions and expressions can elicit similar brain functions to looking at artistic masterpieces. It got me thinking about the notion of beauty and things that are beautiful.

The BBC article mentions one equation in particular, and I have to admit it is something I have found to be "beautiful" in past - though I might not have used that term. Euler's identity perfectly relates five of the most fundamental mathematical constants (0, 1 e, i and π) and three of the basic arithmetic operations (addition, multiplication and exponentiation.

Euler's Identity

I remember the first time I ever "got" this equation, the first time I ever understood the dichotomy of it. It is so simple to look at yet it is both fundamental to mathematics and highly complex in its own way. I was stunned by it, I wanted to know more about it and, yes, it made me instinctively smile .

To me THAT is what finding beauty is about. It is about seeing, hearing, touching, tasting or smelling something which elicits those raw emotions. Beautiful things stop you in your tracks, they fundamentally change the way you think about things and they make you smile uncontrollably. It is not a superficial thing at all but a much more primal and instinctive reaction.

One of the best things about this world is how much there is out there which has the potential to do those things to us. We shouldn't be striving for possessions or power but rather searching for those moments, those sensations of awe and wonder which we all have the capacity to feel. They don't cost anything to feel and they transcend all barriers. 

And beauty is different for every single one of us, that is what make life so interesting and so full of variety. So get out there and keep your senses open. Don't close your mind to anything and just be alert for those moments that take your breath away, they can come in so many different forms. And when they do come, appreciate them for everything they are. 

Today's #randomfactoftheday - In humans the X-chromosome is 53mm long and contains 155,270,560 base pairs compared with the Y-chromosome at 20mm and 59,373,566 base pairs.

Today's #badjokeoftheday - Q: Why is it hard to explain puns to kleptomaniacs? A: Because they always take things literally.

Today's #websiteoftheday - Some of the many silly World Championships you can find in Finland (http://www.visitfinland.com/article/the_silliest_events_in_finland/)

On this day: 1971, Decimal Day - the decimalisation of the British coinage is completed

Till next time,
DT

More than flowers, chocolates and champagne

Valentine's Day - the day of love. But amongst the over-commercialisation, the giant teddy bears and the colour red EVERYWHERE is a more important message which I think has been lost somewhat. For me Valentine's Day is less about overt displays of affection and awkward "well we should do something shouldn't we" meals out, and more about something introspective and personal.

The cynics out there, and I was surprised not to find myself amongst them considering my luck with romance over the last year or so, ask why you need to wait till a particular day to show someone you care. They even go so far as to say that if you HAVE to be reminded to show a little love then you are probably not in the best of situations!! But I think it is more complex than that.

Life is very busy these days and it travels as such a pace that things like romance and affection do get pushed to one side. Ideally they shouldn't, but the fact of the matter is that they do. A lot of the time it isn't because the love isn't there any more but it is just the way modern life is. You get comfortable in a relationship and it no longer becomes the norm to tell each other every day that you love them, even though you may love them more than ever.

As I mentioned before, I think Valentine's Day itself is horribly over-commercialised but I don't think the concept is necessarily a bad thing in this day and age. The arrival of Valentine's Day is just a little nudge to remind you that the person you love probably hasn't been told it enough this year.

I guess what I am saying is that there is nothing wrong with a bit of fun and frolics on Valentine's Day. But beneath the superficial and the endless flowers, chocolates and champagne on display today is something much much more important.

By all means celebrate Valentine's Day, but don't forget that it is merely one day of the year. What you do for the rest of the year should be just as romantic, just as thoughtful and most importantly of all, just as full of love.

Today's #randomfactoftheday - Last year in the UK, people spent a total of £978m on their partners on Valentine's Day.

Today's #badjokeoftheday - A horse walks into a bar. The barmen says "hey". The horse grins and responds, "you read my mind".

Today's #websiteoftheday - 5 minute talks on a variety of subjects. Held every three months. I had a go last night and I think it was at least a partial success! (http://igniteliverpool.com/)

On this day: 269, martyrdom of the "original" Saint Valentine

Till next time
DT

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Remember who the real boss is

Well that was interesting. A bit of the "furniture" hanging outside our office fell off today. Maybe two actually. I don't think they hit anything in the car park but, wow, it was close. Then we had goodness knows how many aborted landing attempts at the airport today (I work pretty close to the end of the runway). Plus the Manchester City match in town was cancelled due to the weather. So all in all, it is definitely a bit crazy out there.

And today's Northern problems seem to be nothing compared to those being encountered by people down South. Also don't forget the Polar Vortex and the Arctic Winter the USA has been "enjoying". Nature constantly reminds us that we humans are not as important as we are often prone to thinking we are.

I don't mean this blog post as a trivialisation of the crisis down South at all, nor for that matter the other natural phenomena which hit our world from time to time. The events in the news have just given me a nice prompt to lead into this topic.

Personally I do think occasionally that is not a bad thing to be reminded that we aren't running the rodeo here. We have been on this planet for a fraction of its existence (something like 0.004% for modern anatomical humans) yet we do seem to have placed ourselves at the head of everything!

Now I'll admit that from an evolutionary point of view that we seem to have done a reasonable job. No one would really argue against human claims to have had a significant impact on shaping the world as it is today. No species has had the impact we have had. It also isn't a stretch to describe us as the most aggressive species in terms of our relationship with nature, we are undeniably the only species to have attempted to shape the natural world around us to the extent we have.

Some of this is not necessarily a bad thing (think crop cultivation for a start) but every now and then we need a reminder that we are a mere sidekick to the real boss here - nature herself. As proved by the events of this week, nature has no real regard for what we do as a species. She does what she wants, when she wants and we are merely passengers on the ride. Don't forget that a single Super-volcano eruption or a "new flu" pandemic would swiftly reduce the human race to rubble and ruin.

As I said before, this isn't meant to be a commentary on current events nor an indictment of human behaviour. But it is just a little reminder that if nature wants to be crazy, then we better strap in and hope for the best. And if we can do things to keep her temper under check, then that would be a cracking idea all round. That, however, is a topic for another week.

Today's #randomfactoftheday - The largest ship in the world (MS Allure of the Seas) is a mere 50mm longer than her predecessor (MS Oasis of the Seas)

Today's #badjokeoftheday - Whatever you do in life, always give 100%. Unless you are donating blood.

Today's #websiteoftheday - I don't think I've used this before. Rock-Paper-Scissors-Lizard-Spock - and then some (http://www.umop.com/rps101.htm)

On this day: 1809, birth of one of the greatest scientists to have graced us - the naturalist Charles Darwin

Till next time
DT

REVIEW: The Simpson's and their Mathematical Secrets - Simon Singh

I love The Simpson's and I love maths. So finding out that there is a book which celebrates the numerous mathematical references in my favourite TV show was a very pleasant surprise indeed. And it doesn't disappoint.

For those who don't know, there has always been a very strong mathematical culture surrounding The Simpson's (and the sister show, Futurama). A large percentage of the writing and editorial team have higher education level qualifications in maths and/or other sciences. They have made it their personal campaign over the years to fit as many references and nods to the mathematical arts as they can.

Simon Singh is a pretty smart cookie too. With a PhD in Particle Physics from Cambridge and time spent at the CERN laboratories in Geneva he is the perfect host to navigate us through the "narcissistic primes" and other assorted number references that have been shoe-horned into 25 years of animation history.

Having read another of Singh's books (another mathematical offering concerning Fermat's Last Theorem) I kind of knew what to expect and he doesn't disappoint. The writing style makes it very easy to engage with the book, and while the level of maths required is not basic, neither is an advanced degree in differential calculus needed. Enough is explained when relevant to allow one to appreciate the mathematical aspects without it completely sucking the fun out of the show going forward.

It is fascinating to read just how many mathematical references and "in-jokes" have been slipped into the program over 500+ episodes. The basic rule appears to be that every number that makes an appearance in the program has a point, it has been thought about and long debated. Nothing has got in here randomly and it is a real insight to read the reasons behind some of them. 

Singh spent time with a lot of the writers and production team and their love for mathematics and the shows come over in the interview snippets and anecdotes relayed to the reader. These people LOVE what they do and they are delighted if just one person picks up on a reference that they have popped in. It is genuine affection for their audience and the show that has, perhaps. kept it running for so long.

It is also interesting to note that when it came to writing Futurama , there was very little cross-over between the writing teams. Yet the new program managed to pull together another band of intrepid mathematicians/comedy writers to continue the trend. Somehow, the mathematical references are even more elaborate and intricate in Futurama.

But back to the book, it is not particularly long (you could probably crack through it in a weekend) and it barely scratches the surface of what has been slipped into the programs by the writers. However it has already piqued my curiosity to the point of re-watching old episodes to find numbers and trying to see if I can see where they have come from! 

This was a thoroughly enjoyable trip through two topics which are of genuine interest to me and I am happy to recommend it heartily to all those out there, mathophiles and non-mathohiles alike.

Verdict: 4.5 stars out of 5

Looking back to now

I've recently started to listen to a series of podcasts from 2010 entitled "A History of the World in 100 Objects". It is essentially exactly what it sounds like, 100 objects from the British Museum used to talk about the history of man through the ages (from 2 million BC to the present day). It got me wondering about how our era will be viewed by history.

We are living in one of the most fluctuating periods of human history. If you think about the Old Kingdom period of Egypt (for example) you will see what I mean. That time period is widely accepted to be approximately 500 years long and didn't differ greatly from the Early Dynastic Period which filled the 500 years previously.

Yet if you think about our time frame it seems inconceivable that people will look at the 21st Century and the 19th Century (never mind the 11th) as being periods of time that can be placed under one umbrella. The shear breadth of change in the human landscape makes this an exceptionally turbulent and transient period to live.

At no point in history has the face of the planet changed to quickly and so markedly in only a few generations. The dawn of the Information Age has come so rapidly and with such force that it is rendering seismic shifts in the world as we know it, within the space of our own lifetimes, not across eras as before.

The following chart shows the biggest and most appreciable change to our planet - the population explosion.


Part of the reason we can group large chunks of history together is because, realistically speaking, not a significant amount happens in them. There are gradual advancements and changes through the years and eras but in all honesty not a great deal changes, either with population or technology or general advancement.

Then you hit these last few hundred years or so and, wow, blink and you miss it. The population explosion is a big part of this, along with the attendant related issues such as; resource needs, technological advancements and the like. For information, the population was 370 million (ish) at the time of the the Black Death (700 years ago), passed 1 billion in 1800 and is now 7 billion and counting.

Head another 2000 years down the line and try to imagine what our ancestors will be trying to piece together, though I guess with the improved ability to record history research may be somewhat different then. Nevertheless, just try and think about being someone in 2 millennia looking back and trying to characterise the time we now live in. From a time perspective, the event is almost instantaneous and yet we have changed the face of the planet beyond all recognition.

It is truly a staggering time to live in. And now we understand why sometimes the world seems to be moving so fast and overwhelming is. Its because, in chronological terms, it really is changing at something approaching the speed of light!

Today's #randomfactoftheday - According to http://howmanyofme.com/ 99.78% of people with the first name Thomas in the USA are male. Hmmmm......

Today's #badjokeoftheday - Q: How do crazy people navigate? A: The take the psycho path

Today's #websiteoftheday - A History of the World (http://www.bbc.co.uk/ahistoryoftheworld/about/british-museum-objects/)

On this day: 660BC, traditional date for the foundation of Japan

Till next time
DT

Monday, 10 February 2014

Learning something new

Well this evening I have been up to my eyeballs in Lorentzian Intervals, Spacetime Events and Euclidean Geometry. And now my brain hurts. A lot. Today was the first day I sat down and started to read through my course notes for my Astrophysics and Relativity MOOC (Massive Open Online Course).

I managed to get through most of the homework problems in one piece, except for a minor miscalculation resulting in there now being 1000cm to a metre! This is what comes of being an engineer and dealing in millimetres and metres. It is also what comes when astrophysicists use grams and centimetres to measure the masses and radii of planets!!

I've always loved learning new things, definitely more so than applying what I have learnt. There are some people that hated studying and couldn't wait to stop but I'm the opposite, always wanting to learn a new skill or fact and never far away from places I can do that - be it virtual or physical.

These MOOCs are a great idea, there are plenty of websites out there offering them and the array of topics you can try your hand it is staggering. There are some pretty snazzy institutions on there as well such as MIT, Edinburgh, Stanford, Harvard so you can be sure you are getting top people on the case.

But what is it about learning? Why do some people love it and some despise it? It surely can't be as simple as some people enjoy it because they are good at it whereas others aren't and so don't like it? I have always enjoyed it and thankfully I'm not too bad at it but I think it takes a certain mentality to want to learn beyond the point of compulsory education!

Some people seem to simply enjoy the process, others are much happier applying knowledge rather than acquiring it. It is a fascinating subject to me, what is it that drives the pursuit of knowledge of in some but drives others away from ever picking up a textbook or randomly trying to learn something new? I have very rarely met someone who is in the middle of this debate, although maybe my vast amount of time spent studying it more likely to bring me into contact with "perpetual students".

It is a topic that I definitely need to probe a bit more and get to the middle of. Now if only I could find someone to take on the role......oh wait.....

Today's #randomfactoftheday - Queen Victoria has the longest reign of any Queen in recorded history, for now. Queen Elizabeth II is only about 18 months away from surpassing her.

Today's #badjokeoftheday - Doctor, Doctor, I keep painting myself gold. Don't worry, it's just a gilt complex.

Today's #websiteoftheday - A sense of scale; the Universe (http://htwins.net/scale2/)

On this day: 1942, the first gold record is presented to Glenn Millar, for "Chattanooga Choo Choo"

Till next time
DT

Saturday, 8 February 2014

More is often less

It is vary rare I find myself in front of the TV on a Saturday night. I don't deliberately avoid it but to be honest I generally have something else to do and it has been a fair while since I've partaken of the delights of "Prime Time" weekend television. I wish I hadn't bothered.

There are over 200 channels available on the "typical" Sky package and the number which contain something which would command my attention for more than 5 minutes can be easily counted on my fingers and toes - without needing to use my toes. Maybe it is just me, I've never been the biggest watcher of TV, but I really do think that the standard of programming is falling off a cliff.

You would think that more channels would mean more chance of finding something to watch but it seems the opposite is true. More choice seems to relate to less effort being made in putting together programming and so the quality becomes dire. But it is not just this aspect of life where I have noticed this.

The "mass production" age has without doubt sacrificed quality for quantity and the shelf life of things seems to have been dramatically reduced. Take road repairs as an example. While I appreciate there has been a substantial increase in the number of cars on the road, the lifetime of the average road repair appears to be
significantly shorter than it was maybe 5 years ago.

We have roads near me that are being dug up and repaired on an almost yearly basis - yet you can see just by looking that the quality of workmanship and the materials is vastly inferior. The approach seems to be to spend as little time and effort as possible on a short fix and not worry about the fact you have to do it many times as often as if you had done the job properly in the first place.

Household goods are another thing where the proliferation of options has lead to a massive drop off in quality. Washing machines, ovens, TVs and other (mainly electrical items) seem to break on an alarmingly regular basis compared to the "good old days". This isn't a case of perfectly good TVs being discarded for the latest model either, this is terminal "kaput-ness" necessitating a brand new item. Yet we seem to just treat this as part of modern life.

Part of the problem has of course been brought on by our own short-termism. TVs aren't made to last 5 years any more because manufacturers know that the average person will want to upgrade their TV to the latest model after only a few years to avoid being "left behind". We are demanding less from our products and services and those providing them are simply supplying the demand. Short-term thinking is a real problem when it comes to tackling long-term problems.

Back to the TV channel analogy. We marvel over the endless possibilities of 200+ TV channels without realising that there is nothing on these channels of value. How many people will plonk themselves in front of the TV and "try and find something on"? We have to become more discerning about our choices and to demand more of those providing services and goods again.

It is a slippery slope to get on when you start to allow standards and quality (of anything, not just TV programmes) to fall. I think we need to begin to raise the standards of what is expected and what we are prepared to accept, in all aspects of life.

Choice is a fine thing, but the illusion of "more means better" needs to be shattered quickly before mediocre becomes the norm and the standards we set for ourselves and others drop any further.

Today's #randomfactoftheday - The only fictional character to have two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame is Kermit the Frog.

Today's #badjokeoftheday - Q: What do you call a woman with one leg longer than the other? A: Eileen

Today's #websiteoftheday - Solving a Rubik's Cube (http://www.rubiks.com/solving-center/solve_rubiks_3x3_cube.phphttp://www.rubiks.com/solving-center/solve_rubiks_3x3_cube.php)

On this day: 1905, death of one of the greatest and most influential Science Fiction writers of all time - Jules Verne

Till next time
DT

Thursday, 6 February 2014

A place of wonder

Have you ever looked at the night sky? I mean REALLY looked at it. It is staggeringly beautiful and mind-blowing at the same time. There are officially 88 modern constellations according to the IAU (International Astronomical Union) but the view is so much more than patterns and billions upon billions of twinkling lights.

Astronomy is one of the oldest sciences as cultures as far back as the Babylonians and Maya recorded observations of the night sky (and put their findings to practical use in most cases). In fact, almost every civilisation there has ever been has looked to the heavens and tried to understand the universe or simply marvelled at the beauty of it.

As a scientist by nature, the way the stars and planets interact and the "celestial dance" they perform across our night sky is fascinating, but today I want to get away from the mechanics and look at the aesthetics and the "feel" of the sky. Because it is contains a beauty and serenity that is all too often overlooked.

The night sky is slow - I don't mean that literally as we travel through it at something approaching 30km per second. But things seem to happen slowly. Yes the stars will move over time, but the movement as you look at them is essentially undiscernable. And the light from some of these stars has taken so long to get here that the star is long gone. Everything about gazing at the night sky is an exercise in patience and relaxation.

We in the built-up areas of the Western world don't get to see the sky in all its glory due to light pollution but it is truly magical sight. On a cloudless night and with the right location you can stare for hours at the majestic beauty of the cosmos and still only see a fraction of a fraction of what there is to see. You can go back every night for a lifetime and see something new each time.

That is another aspect of staring at the sky that I find so appealing, the sense of scale. Some have great difficulty in understanding their place in the universe but I take great comfort in being (as Gargravarr in the Hitchhiker's Guide to Galaxy put it so succinctly) "An invisible dot on an invisible dot, infinitely small".

There is something, for me, so relaxing and soothing about the night sky. It is hard to convey in words but it is a kind of enjoyment in the infiniteness of it. The knowledge that the universe is so vast and old puts our short, small journey through it into perspective. As I said before, some don't like to think of life as essentially a blip on the radar of existence but personally I take great comfort from the sense proportion it gives me.

Those who know me will know that I haven't had the best time of things recently; both medically and personally. But every time I look up into that sky I still retain that sense of wonder, that understanding that everything is possible and that sense of serenity that comes when you realise that all your struggles can be forgotten in the grand scheme of things. It doesn't make problems go away but, for me, staring up at the night sky helps me to remember that my problems and stresses are only as important as I decide to make them and there is so much more to life than that.

So next time you get a chance, pick a spot in the sky, stare at it and remember the first time you ever looked in wonder at the universe out there. Remember that time when the sky was a place of beauty and amazement. If you are anything like me then you might be amazed at how much better your own little universe feels afterwards.

Today's #randomfactoftheday - Although the Punic Wars technically ended with de facto peace in 146BC after a duration of nearly 120 years, a peace treaty wasn't officially signed until 1985!

Today's #badjokeoftheday - Q: Which side of a chicken has more feathers? A: The outside

Today's #websiteoftheday - Monopoly board pub crawl around London (http://monopolypubcrawl.org.uk/route/inorder/)

On this day; 1952, King George VI dies and his daughter Elizabeth becomes Queen.

Till next time
DT

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Anti-social media?

As Facebook celebrates 10 years of whatever it is it does I've been pondering on the rise of social media. Is it, in fact, making us less social with each other? I know for a fact I have "friends" on Facebook that I haven't talked to in countless years. I get the occasional glimpse of their lives but I don't know anything more about them really than I do a stranger in the street. And because I see them on Facebook it is fair to say I am actually less likely to catch up with them in real life.

Has social media actually increased meaningful interaction between people or is it all just a misnomer? Yes there are significantly more "virtual" interactions between people as a result of Twitter, Facebook, Instagram etc.. but does that mean we are more social - or just better connected? Liking 40 photos of a friend's trip to London is vastly different from meeting up and talking to them about it over a beer.

People actually seem LESS likely to physically catch up with a friend or make the time to go and see family members or old work colleagues in the way that used to happen even five years ago. We seem to think that an online (and often very indirect) social interaction in some way adequately substitutes for a good old fashioned get together and as a result those physical face-to-face interactions fall by the wayside.

I will confess to being exceptionally guilty of the above charge so I am not bashing people who choose to interact that way, just pointing out that we have maybe been hoodwinked slightly into believing we are becoming more social when actual we simply have more ways of interacting from afar with people.

Twitter for example allows you to interact with other people and get an insight into their lives but it doesn't make you their friend. Interaction does take place but it is at such a superficial level (and often fleeting) that I would hesitate to call it social. Virtual contact can only take you so far.

There is also the darker side of social media to consider. It is a tool that can be manipulated and used by people for more sinister things. It is very easy to hide behind a blanket of anonymity and interact with people in a manner that is quite definitely towards the more "anti-" side of social.

As we travel further into the digital age don't forget that virtual interactions are all well and good, but sometimes it is better to get out there and remember what social interaction is actually all about.

So go see someone you haven't physically seen for a while; meet a friend for a drink and have a face-to-face talk about each other's lives or simply get on the phone and remember what someone sounds like. Now if you'll excuse me, I have some friends to properly catch up with.

Today's #randomfactoftheday - The mean number of friends among adult Facebook users is 338.

Today's #badjokeoftheday - Q: Why can't you hear a pterodactyl go to the toilet? A: Because the "p" is silent

Today's #websiteoftheday - The first ever webpage (http://info.cern.ch/hypertext/WWW/TheProject.html)

On this day: 1909, Leo Baekeland (a Belgian chemist) announces the creation of the world's first synthetic plastic - Bakelite

Till next time,
DT

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Getting that first one out of the way

Having horribly neglected my training over the colder winter months I have made a concerted effort to get back into things ahead of my next challenge in less than 3 weeks. And I tell you what, getting that first run out of the way has proved to be a significant physical and mental hurdle!

I don't know what it is but every time I put it off due to bad weather or concerns about my injury it got harder and harder the next time to think of reasons to go out there and do it. I suppose it is true for a lot of things in that the first time is often the hardest and once you break that barrier (which is often more mental than physical) it becomes somewhat easier.

Why is this though? I suppose maybe it is fear of the unknown to some extent? Also there is often an element of fear of failure in there too, particularly with something that you know will push you and test you to your limits. As a society we are often quite happy to not do something and always wish we had done than run the risk of doing something and then wishing we hadn't.

It is definitely more common to be risk averse in this day and age which seems to contradict quite strongly with our risk "prone" forefathers. Maybe the modern world presents consequences of failed risks in such a way that we are happy to say "actually, I'm good as it is so I don't think I'll bother". It is a very easy mindset to get into and I do have a phenomenal amount of respect and admiration for those people who are prepared and able to put body, mind and ego on the line and take that challenge (whatever it is).

Part of the drive for me to take these challenges (as well as keeping me busy when I've needed to) has been to conquer some of my fears and to overcome some of those mental hurdles that maybe kept me from achieving more than I had. I'm not saying that I am changing the world or anything like that but I feel like so much more is possible than it was before in certain aspects of my life.

So I guess what I'm saying here is , you know that thing that you keep saying you are going to do but don't? Well work out what that first step is and go and get it out of the way. You might be amazed what opens up for you on the other side.

Today's #randomfactoftheday - Technetium (Atomic Number 43) is the lowest element (by atomic number) to have no stable isotopes.

Today's #badjokeoftheday - Q: What is black and white and red all over? A: A sunburnt penguin

Today's #websiteoftheday - Free courses online, should find something to take everyone's fancy (https://www.edx.org/)

On this day: 1789, George Washington is unanimously elected as the first President of the United States of America

Till tomorrow,
DT

Monday, 3 February 2014

You do what for a living?

It dawned on me today, during a moment of clarity in amongst the mayhem of my thoughts, just how many employment opportunities there out there that just don't seem to make any sense nor actually serve a purpose.

I'm an engineer by trade so I console myself at night with the thought that I at least contribute slightly to the betterment of the world by helping to make things we need. I admit that the things I help to make aren't absolutely 100% vital for the improvement of humankind as a species, but it is better than some.

Political spin doctors for example. Why do we need people who's job it is to tell you what the politician means when he/she speaks? Surely the politician can do that for himself, no? Simply by being a bit more honest? I guess it would also help if other people then didn't pick every single syllable uttered apart to try and determine some hidden meaning so we could kill two birds with one stone there.

Take all the doctors, teachers, garbage collectors and firemen (just some examples of course) out of the world and I imagine it would grind to a halt reasonably quickly (though I guess we could do without all those surgeons carrying out breast enlargements).

But is the world really going to suffer if one day people have to resort to buying their own clothes instead of getting someone to do it for them? Or how about people manage their own lives rather than rely on a "life coach" to talk them through it?! Part of the problem I suppose is that we have a world population spiralling out of control and there seems to be a need to keep everyone busy but the proliferation of jobs that seem to exist just because they can is bizarre.

And so many of the careers that are becoming more prevalent these days actually exist because people simply don't trust each other not to take advantage. For example, the only reason football agents exist is due to the fact that the players don't believe the club and the club doesn't believe the player. So they have to get everything written down and use about three go-betweens, all of whom take a nice handy chunk of cash for performing a function that we could happily do without if we just trusted each others word.

I appreciate that, as per usual, I am making some sweeping generalisations about what people do without making any attempt to understand why or how, but the general thrust of this blog still stands I think. The amount of money, time, resources and energy that could be diverted away from these roles and towards functions which can help to benefit society is staggering.

It is high time we started as a race to put aside mistrusts, greed and envy and begin to work together to face and overcome the challenges coming over the next few decades and centuries. And if the result of this is that I've got to work out for myself what so-and-so MP from wherever is saying then I'll take my chances.

Today's #randomfactoftheday - The Arctic Tern has the longest regular migration of any known animal. They average 44,300 miles per year!

Today's #badjokeoftheday -I tell this joke far too often but I love it. Q: What do you call a one-eyed dinosaur? A: Doyouthinkhesaurus

Today's #websiteoftheday - The London Tube System, mapped accurately rather than a simple representation (http://www.london-tubemap.com/)

On this day: 1959, "The Day the Music Died" - The Big Bopper (28), Ritchie Valens (17), Buddy Holly (22) and pilot Roger Peterson (21) are killed in a plane crash near Clear Lake, Iowa.

Till next time,
DT

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Superbowl XLVIII Prediction

So here we go. The biggest worldwide TV audience of the year. Want to advertise during it? A 30 second TV spot will set you back approximately $4 million. Yes, its the Superbowl. But who will lift the coveted Lombardi trophy and take the title of World Champions (yes I know it is only played in one country but hey ho).

In the Orange Corner we have the #1 AFC Team - the Denver Broncos. Possessors of statistically the most prolific offense that has ever been seen. Under center they have a guaranteed Hall of Fame QB while another runs the football side of operations. It is 15 years since they last lifted the trophy and they are looking to improve upon their record of 2-4 in the big game.

Key Questions
Are they ready to win again? 
They have suffered some poor PO losses in recent years, is the mentality right?

Can Peyton Manning get that second ring? 
A relatively poor return for a man of his abilities. Will the pressure overwhelm?

Will that offense fire as it has done all season? 
The weather could be sub-zero, the Seattle defense is stingy and the Broncos may struggle to get the Seahawk offense off the field if they go behind

In the Blue(ish) Corner is the #1 seeded NFC Team - the Seattle Seahawks. A frighteningly quick and agile defense coupled with a rumbling ground game and a smart, young QB have got them to the big game for only the second time in their history. They froze somewhat 8 years ago against the Steelers so they will be looking to right that wrong.

Key Questions
Can that defense get to Manning? 
If they can rattle him they might slow them down enough. Seattle don't want to get into a shootout

How will the lack of the "12th Man" play a part?
Seattle are 3 timezones and many kilometres away from CenturyLink Field. They won't have the fabled home fans (who are loud enough to create earthquakes) to disrupt the Broncos rhythm. Will being away from their environment affect them greatly?

What is the offensive game plan? 
The Seahawks will want to keep the Broncos off the field. They will have to lean heavily on the running game but when the get to 3rd and 4,5,6 do they look to pass or play it safe.

It should be a cracker. The weather could play a huge factor and whichever team manages the conditions could well prevail. Getting ahead early may be the key as not turning over the ball will be critical. Both teams would like to play from in front and control the clock.

Almost to close to call this one but I am going to go for Denver by a FG. I just think Manning won't let another great season go to waste without a ring and I think they'll just score enough to edge it. Don't be surprised if this one stays close all the way and it comes down to one mistake near the end.

Spreading the word

Wow! I post something new and suddenly I've got an extra 100 views on the blog. Thanks to all those who are reading it and spreading the word. It it great to know that people are finding something interesting to read about and are enjoying what I am doing. It is very much appreciated and inspires me to keep thinking of new things to do, see and write about.

REVIEW: Flashman Papers #1 (Flashman) - George MacDonald Fraser

The Flashman Papers were recommended to me some time ago but I have only just got around to starting them. I was aware of the character of Flashman as the bully and main antagonist from Thomas Hughes' book "Tom Brown's Schooldays" but hadn't connected him with these stories until I picked the first one up

Flashman begins with Flashman's expulsion from Rugby School as depicted in Tom Brown's Schooldays and follows him through the next few years of his life. The way the story is presented is in the form of real-life memoirs from Flashman which were found some years after his death and have been edited and commented upon by Fraser. 

Flashman himself is a thoroughly unlikeable yet typical mid-19th century man from privileged background. Most of his thinking is done with a certain part of his anatomy and his treatment of woman and those of lower standing (particularly the Indians he encounters during his posting in the army) would be classed as deplorable by modern standards. 

However the time he "lived" is was different and so it feels authentic and Fraser's attention to detail ensures that the stories never become parodies of the times they are trying to portray. In general I have to day I thoroughly enjoyed this book but there is a particular element which deserves significant praise.

Fraser chose to integrate Flashman into real-life events but he does it in such a way that he doesn't take liberties with the facts of history. In this novel for instance, Flashman ends up posted to India and then Afghanistan. He is present during the latter events of the First Anglo-Afghan war and participates in the well-known British retreat from Kabul in 1842 (which ended in the massacre at Gandamak). 

So seamless is the way in which Fraser weaves this fictional character into real life events that you find yourself believing that Flashman really was present and did have some influence on historical events. Fraser is not the first to do this but it really is very impressive the way it has been done in this instance. This approach also ensures the reader learns a bit of history on the way too. I found myself reading this with the Wikipedia entry for these events never far away and found Fraser's descriptions and storyline weaves in beautifully.

As mentioned before, Flashman is thoroughly unlikeable. However I like the way Fraser has made no attempt to redeem him during the story (although maybe he does in later books, I haven't got there yet). Flashman is what he is, no apologies are made and some of his behaviour really is quite reprehensible. But set against the context of the time period and the situations he finds himself in, it works as a concept much better than a redemption story would. 

I'm looking forward to the remaining 11 novels which make up this series. It will be interesting to see where Fraser takes Flashman and what further influences on history he has. The attention to the real-life facts of the period is fantastic and book 1 proved to be a thoroughly engaging and stimulating read.

Verdict: 4.5 out of 5 

Saturday, 1 February 2014

Sticking to the stereotype

Lying here in bed with "man flu" got me thinking about the concept of cliches and stereotypes and whether they are necessarily always a bad thing. I think most right-minded menfolk would accept that we, as a general rule, tend to ridiculously overreact when we are ill whereas the female of the species is usually a bit tougher.

Going further I am happy to accept that certain male stereotypes are, in my case, absolutely spot on; I never admit I'm wrong, I can't do two things at once and I certainly never look properly for anything when it is missing. But surely that is the point? These things are stereotypes and cliches because they generally are true.

There seems to be a politically correct driver to say that you can't use stereotypes or cliches (certainly not as much as you used to be able to) because they might be offensive. But the fact of the matter is that these things don't exist randomly, we say "women can't park" because over the years there have been enough instances of women being unable to park that people have started to make a generalization. In the same way, not all men hate shopping but enough of us would rather pull or teeth out than do it so it becomes a "norm".

I guess I'm moving towards a more general point here, one of equality and a "level playing field". Sorry to say this people but to me it is an artificial equalisation of the genders that doesn't actually improve the situation. I am not going to stand here and say that only men can be race car drivers or only woman can be nurses because that is clearly bunk. People should be given the opportunities to do what they have the talent, drive and ability to do. And two people doing the same job should be paid the same regardless of whether they are male or female.

But I also firmly believe that the differences amongst the genders (and you can extend this to different races, age-groups, sexual orientations or whatever) are things to be celebrated and add to the vibrancy and variety of life. We need to get away from this belief that we can't categorise or generalise about people because it might be offensive or because it might create inequality.

Yes, under the wrong circumstances inequality is a terrible thing but it is more how we perpetuate certain inequalities rather than the fact of the imbalance itself. Life is the greatest creator of variety and inequality there is, and life will thrive and survive long since we have stopped talking about man flu or the supposed inability of women to understand the offside rule!
 
True equality to me doesn't mean standardising, equalising or normalising but it stems from allowing every single person on the planet to utilise their strengths and talents and embracing and harnessing those differences to create a dynamic environment that benefits all.

That sometimes includes accepting that some groups of people simply have different innate skill sets which we should celebrate and not be afraid to embrace. I am perfectly happy to accept that I am behaving like a typical man with this "illness", and I don't think that is a bad thing really.

Today's #randomfactoftheday - The last formally Ratified Amendment to the US Constitution (the 27th) was proposed on the same day (25th September 1789) as Amendments 1-10 (The Bill of Rights). However it was not formally ratified until over 200 years later (7th May 1992).

Today's #badjokeoftheday - Q: What do you call a man with a car on his head? A: Jack

Today's #websiteoftheday - All the ice melts, what happens? (http://www.fascinatingpics.com/maps-of-what-the-earth-would-look-like-if-all-ice-melted/)

On this day: 1865, Abraham Lincoln signed the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude.

Till next time
DT

You have GOT to be kidding me!

So today a 9st, 5ft 7in mother of four from Nebraska ate 363 wings in 30 minutes to win Wing Bowl 22 and the $22k first prize. Her performance was described as "the greatest performance in Wing Bowl history". I actually don't know where to start with those statements, I really don't. I'm trying to work out which of the following appals me the most;

a) This is the 22nd ANNUAL version of this event - 22 years of eating crap for the sake of it
b) Assume each wing is ~50 calories. What does a 9st woman need with around 18,000 calories?!?
c) There are a substantial number of jobs in the US that don't pay $22k a YEAR
d) The local online news site in Philadelphia gave this "story" 700 words and a video
e) Eating is now a performance rather than a necessity to survive

Seriously though, what is wrong with this world? When did competitive eating become a good thing that deserves our time and attention? There are entire communities that could be fed on what was eaten today in this event yet it is treated like a game, a sport, something to be celebrated?!? You can tell this is making me angry because the punctuation is coming out in force.

But I really cannot believe that this kind of thing actually exists. Or maybe I can? Maybe it is symptomatic of the divide between rich and poor that engulfs this world. To us in the Developed World it doesn't seem wrong because we see food in a totally different light. It is not something we treat with the respect it deserves, because we have so much. Instead we essentially make sport out of it whilst turning a blind eye to the suffering of others.

This is another one of these blogs that I start off meaning well but lose my thread somehow. I know I should so something to help but I don't know what. There is something wrong in this world when food is eaten for fun yet also is in desperately short supply at the same time. So that is my plan this weekend, to try and find a practical way to help even a little bit to balance things.

A few things are for sure; I'll be giving wings a wide-berth and there will certainly be no prizes for gluttony awarded.

Today's #randomfactoftheday - St. Petersburg is the most northernmost city on the planet with a population over 1 million people.

Today's #badjokeoftheday - Q: Why do cows wear bells? A: Because their horns don't work

Today's #websiteoftheday - Live webcams from Chester Zoo, obviously much better during the day (http://www.chesterzoo.org/must-sees/web-cams/)

On this day: 1961, the first Hominidae (Great Ape) is launched into space - a chimp called "Ham"

Till next time,
DT