Sunday, March 29, 2009

China Trip #3: Hong Kong

I have now been awake 32 hours and sleep is going to overtake me soon. This is my way of staving off jet lag. We'll see if it works tomorrow. I will certainly sleep well tonight.
Apart from my lift from the airport to the hotel being 2hrs late, nothing has gone wrong at all. When a driver did turn up (I'm blaming nobody for this) he was very polite. His 7-seater limo was geet lush. We could, however, have so easily got off on the wrong foot.
As I climbed in he asked "You wanna wink?". Well, no, I didn't, as it happens. Random exercise involving one eye...(?) Or maybe I misheard. "Pardon?" said I. "You wanna wink?" Bugger. I hadn't misheard. I thus assumed that winking was a local custom. So I summoned up my best wink (right eye; left eye is nowhere near as good; long story) and whilst doing it said "Go on then."
He then gave me a drink. Lovely, chilled water it was.
Went down without touching the sides.

China Trip #2: Dubai

This could be Rotterdam or anywhere... as the song goes.
It is sanitary white and spotless. If it isn't being cleaned it has just been cleaned; everywhere.
I am writing this in Dubai, Terminal 3, Gate 226 (they have lots of other gates too).
It is coming up to 1.30am and my flight leaves at 3.15am. I need a drink. The chunky Kit-Kat I substituted for a drink now feels like a bad idea. I am full of sugar, dog-tired and very thirsty. It is like being a chronic diabetic.
We flew through some amazing storms to get here and they suspended landings for over an hour. The scene on the Forward Camera (Channel 17 on my personal TV in the back of the seat in front) was awesome! We arrived only moments after the rain had stopped. Everywhere was drenched.
The desert will bloom tomorrow.
But I'll be in Hong Kong (via Bangkok).

China Trip #1: Newcastle International Airport

Time is standing still. On a much shorter scale the two minutes that must elapse before you can open your washer door are like this. Endless. 105 minutes in the departure lounge. 6300 seconds. I will count them all. Twice.
Fortunately, eventually, nature calls. My over heavy bag and I are travelling together alone. This is tricky at times. One of those times is now. Heading towards a urinal in a completely deserted toilet it occurs to me that the whole "which urinal?" problem is irrelevant at this precise moment. Phew! The hours... Anyway, on second inspection I decide against. There is a lot of splashage and my bag is very heavy to keep over my shoulder out of the puddles and... well, you know. So I head for a cubicle. Designed for poos. A poobicle.
The first has a smashed lock. I discover this after a struggle involving a 15 point turn with a heavy bag to face the door. The next has an inoperable lock. I can't see why but I'm no sanitary equipment operational engineer. The third looks like a shrine to the late Bobby Sands, IRA hunger-striker and dirty protest supremo. The fourth is a work in progress to emulate the third. I give up and go to the 16th. It is fine. My coat is hung on a hook that is there. My bag helps keep the door shut. I check the seat, then the floor. Dry, dry. Well, today is looking up. I sit. The gigantic Kimberley-Clark loo roll dispenser makes sitting vertically an impossibility. What were they expecting? Dysentery at Newcastle Airport? Maybe these loo rolls are meant to last the expected life of the airport. And then some.
Finished, I dried my hands using an air blower that could strip flesh from bones. It doesn't dry your hands; it blows the water off. The perma-damp wall sports a lovely commonwealth of the black mould aspergillus niger along each line of grouting, immune to the casual wipe of the cleaner's cloth.
Back in the departure lounge I decide on a Ritazza latte (large). Pronounced "lah-tay" all over the country but "la'ee" with a voiceless glottal plosive at the ' mark in Newcastle. Either way, it was very pleasant. Well worth an arm and a leg.
Got to go. My flight has just been called.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Great Graduate Rip-Off

Graduating soon? Some advice for you.
The stated aim of our beloved Government is to have 50% of the UK population with university degrees. To do this they created lots of "new" universities from the old polytechnics and then proceeded to cram students in. Of course, students need qualifications. To make sure enough people pass, the A-Level has been getting steadily easier*. It is now so devalued that nobody actually believes they are worth anything (which is a shame for those that have them). But if you can't handle A-Levels there are all sorts of alternatives: BTEC, GNVQ, HEFC - just about any combination of four letters you can imagine.
Now here's the question. Assuming that one of the big reasons people go to university is to train up for a job at the end of their degree, are we now genuinely expected to believe that 50% of the jobs out there in UK Ltd. require a degree? Walk down your high street. Do half of those manning the shops need a degree? What about the factories? Building sites? Transport? Service industries? Are we really saying that half of these jobs require degrees?
Of course not. Stop being silly.
So why are we cramming people into university? Well, here is my take on it.
If we get half of our 18-21 year-olds into university that is a hell of a lot of dole we don't have to find, apprenticeships we don't have to create and opportunity we needn't worry about. Then, when we've got them into university we charge them for the "privilege". £3000 in fees (due to rise steeply). So a tax (clearly) of £9000 for a 3-year degree. Then there is £3500 per year in loans (government backed). So, a government loan of £10500 or so across the three years to be paid back as soon as you cross a very low threshold. Those graduating this year are looking at starting their working lives with around £20000 in debt and probably a lot more. What a rip-off! Look at our economy. It is an unmitigated mess with the opportunity for job-seekers shrinking by the minute. If you do get a job and actually manage to get a decent salary they will tax you more. Heads you lose, tails you lose.
My advice?
Go to a country that values a UK degree. Plenty do. You won't have to pay back the 20 grand so you can have your education for free and then start a new life in a country that values your education. What a deal!
Do it. You know you want to.
*Hotly denied. Therefore true.


This time of the year is a fabulous time to switch on the "science" light in young minds. March and April are littered with rainbows. Next time you are out and about in the showers, have a really good look at a rainbow.
Things to look for...
The colours are staggeringly pretty. We don't see Red-Orange-Yellow-Green-Blue-Indigo-Violet. Victorian poppycock. We see deep red, orange-red, yellow (a lot), a thin green zone, cyan, blue and violet. The colours aren't distinct. They melt into one another. Inside the bow it is much brighter than outside. Outside the main bow there is often a secondary bow, much fainter, where the colour order is reversed. There may be some other bands of colour too. If the sun is low in the sky the bow will be very high, and vice versa. You never need sunglasses when you are looking at a rainbow. The sun is shining on the back of your head. Evening rainbows are much redder than midday rainbows. The pot of gold is the illumination of the ground where the bow meets the earth. You can also get rainbows at night. Ghostly moonbows; best around full moon.
Show your children. "See" rather than "glance". After a lifetime of being immersed in science I still love seeing rainbows. They replenish my love of physics.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Pigs in the Trough

There are few things less surprising than corrupt MPs. Tony McNulty is the latest. Although he quite rightly points out that he hasn't broken any rules it is worth remembering that - in their own countries - neither did Stalin or Hitler. Okay, so he isn't in their league but it really stinks when the "Right Honourable Member" is plainly on the fiddle. Irritatingly, MPs are amongst the highest paid in the country. Top 5%, I think. They always bleat on that they would earn much more in industry or commerce. Well bugger off and earn it! Let's see you do it.
Most of our MPs are career politicians. They have done very little outside politics and they learn, from a very early age, how to fiddle the system. The House is geared around fiddles. They can ask for £250, with no paperwork, on any day they like to take a visitor out to lunch. I have screeds of paperwork to fill in every time I buy a text book on Amazon.
They have systematically denatured our democratic system. The ONLY thing I would like to see Cameron and his mob achieve is the cleaning up of Parliament. Hercules managed to clean the Augean stables in a single day. I will gladly kneel at Cameron's feet if he cleans up Westminster in one term of office.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Alcohol: Pricing per Unit

To listen to the Puritan Kakistocracy's Chief Quack you would be forced to conclude that we are a nation of binge drinkers. We most certainly are not. A tiny minority, less than 1%, do the whole binge drinking thing. So basically the lie we are being told this time is that alcohol is too cheap so we should make it expensive to stop binge drinking. What about the 99% of us who have done nothing wrong? Oh yes, we pay too. So it's just a tax then? Well... Yes. Will it curb binge drinking? Well... No. Not a chance.
The irony is that a 50p per unit pricing system will almost certainly increase binge drinking. It is self-evident that binge drinking happens in public; in pubs. Since these places already charge much more than 50p per unit they will be more or less immune to the Quack's Tax (© JAT 2009). The remaining few who binge at home (if, indeed, anybody does) will thus be driven into pubs to binge there. The whole scheme might put a lot of off-licences out of business, but the publicans will love it.
Dear Puritans: Prohibition in the USA. Go read up about it.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Balls Talking Balls

Every so often you have to feel sorry for Ed Balls.
But this is not one of those times.
Social Services. He is in charge of them.
Lord Laming has just delivered a massive smack across his ministerial bare bottom and he had the bare-faced cheek (no pun intended) to appear on BBC Breakfast this morning as though everything in the garden is rosy. Ed, listen to people who know*. It's a mess. A paper-choked, risk-averse, blame-avoidance, solution-free mess. Rather than sitting next to the lovely Susanna Reid with your smug smile, bag full of platitudes and your Blackberry Bolloxtalk go back to your opulent office and actually do something. Just go and earn the money we pay you. Just do your job.

*not me, I don't

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Chocolate Tax

The Puritan Kakistocracy are at it again! This time it's chocolate in the gunsights. With a veritable epidemic* of obesity and Type 2 Diabetes absolutely out of control we have to do something. Anything! "Let's tax chocolate!" they all shout in glee. Problem. Chocolate doesn't cause either obesity or diabetes II, sugar does. So why not tax sugar? At least have the decency to tax the right thing!
I really do despair of this lot. I also despair of the morons who are going along with them. Taxing chocolate will not reduce consumption by one bar. All it will do is pour money into the Treasury, who will then dole it out to cronies, consultants and quangos to waste with their usual great aplomb. All these neo-Puritans sucking their recently flossed teeth and telling us fatties to lay off the Maltesers can go to hell. While it is still a free country, I'm off to get a bag of chips with lots of salt on and a deep-fried Mars bar. I'm going to wash it down with a Guinness, a Red Bull, another Guinness and some lard.
So there.

* or not, as the case might be.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Anglian Regiment

In Luton today, the Anglian Regiment came home and marched, to general applause, through the city. They were at one point confronted with a small group of Islamic protesters who called them "war criminals" and "murderers". The vast majority of the crowd were extremely upset at this and some turned their venom on the protesters and were promptly arrested. Clearly, freedom of speech only applies if you are an Islamic protester [yet again]. Our "hate laws" only work in one direction [yet again]. British values count for absolutely nothing [yet again].
The Anglian Regiment, to their eternal credit, did not stop, aim and fire. There are plenty of precedents for this, from Ancient Rome to early Victorian times. Two thousand years of precedent. They just marched on. God bless them.
It must have been like being in good old Basra.


A lot of scientific professions end in "-logy". And quite right to. The ending comes from logos meaning speech, word or discourse in good old Ancient Greek. So why, oh why, do some think the word should end in "-ology"? Biology (bios=life) I have no problem with. Mineralogy I have no problem with. Criminology I have a lot of issues with. Is this the study of criminols? Surely, it should be Criminalogy.
Zoology is another one that irks me. Not because of the spelling; it's the pronunciation that gets me. I guess that 99% of the UK would pronounce it "zoo"+"ology". That would make the spelling "Zooology". It is pronounced "Zo"+"ology", the first two letters as in the girls' name Zoƫ.
I'm going to bed. Not that I'll sleep with all this mayhem!

The Rising Tide

Sea levels are rising (in some places, not others). Apparently, 600 million people world wide could be in danger from this rising tide in the next 100 years. Now, correct me if I'm wrong here, but that is total bollocks.
I've watched quite a few human beings. Not one of them was rooted to the spot. If we said to the 6 million per year affected worldwide, "Move away from the big blue wet thing. Go inland.", I think there is an outside chance that they might, actually, go, inland.
Rising sea-levels are not new. Nor are they particularly catastrophic. There was a massive rise in sea-level after the end of the last Ice Age. A hundred metres or so. This time we are talking about 1 metre. One piddling little metre.
This all comes from climatologists getting money to fund their ideas and a platform from which to spout. If mesolithic hunter-gatherers can survive (and they did; look around at their descendants) then I'm sure we can.
Ask the Dutch. They know how to do it.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Copyright, Twitter and Facebook

I've tried Twitter now and I've given it up. It's crap. Writing one line to tell the world (viz. the five people who are your "followers") what you are up to is, ultimately, quite pathetic. Likewise, I'm not a huge fan of the "status" line of Facebook. I sometimes like what people write but I use it mainly as a spam-free email system. And of course, I look at photographs.
The recent shenanigans about the ownership of the photographs on Facebook has been very interesting. Facebook Inc. (I just made that up - I've no idea who runs Facebook) claim a right to use the photographs we upload. They want ownership and copyright. Fair enough, upload a couple of thousand pictures of child porn and call the cops. They'll soon run away from that idea.
But you have to see their point in a way. Their system, their servers, their storage space, their cost. If we are stupid enough to upload our pictures so that they are available to all then almost by definition we have surrendered our rights to them. I don't know. It's all very perplexing. I think the Australian legal system might have it right. To have copyright on anything in Australia it has to be of lasting value.
Facebook? Nah.

Soft Targets

A man was recently arrested for laughing too hard. A trivial piece of news but the outward symptom of a real disease. Two things: the policeman who carried out the arrest thought he was justified and the "criminal" was a law-abiding like-you-and-me citizen of our country.
The fact that the policeman thought he had justification is scary enough. It suggests that the Police make it up as they go along. They probably have to, to be fair. They have been deluged with new, pointless offences for years. The total area of grey areas of the law increases daily. We now have a specific law against setting off a nuclear weapon. As if the existing laws on explosions, murder, destruction of property etc. weren't enough. There are now hundreds of reasons the Police can now give you to enter your home without a warrant. The Police will not know them all, so if they need to they will make it up on the spot.
The other point I would make is that the guy who was laughing "too much" was just a regular bloke. Normal. No risk of alienating a section of the community. He obeys laws. He pays taxes. He respects authority. He is you and me.
Soft target.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

The Coming Equinox

I love astronomy. I hate astrology. Nevertheless, we have an astronomical event coming up soon that ties these two together. The Vernal Equinox happens this year on 20 March at 11.43. At that time, the Sun is directly over the equator. At the North Pole it is just rising, at the South Pole it is just setting. The two hemispheres of the Earth are illuminated equally and we have 12hrs of daylight and 12hrs of night1. Hence, equinox; equal night.
The point in the sky where the Sun does all this clever stuff is called the First Point of Aries. It is in Pisces, as it turns out, but it used to be in Aries. You will notice the use of two star signs here. They are genuine constellations in the sky. The fact that the First Point of Aries is in Pisces is because it slowly moves through all the zodiac star signs; something called the Precession of the Equinoxes. Our star sign is the constellation where the Sun was when we were born. Virtually all of us are given the wrong star sign by the astrological community2. That's why I hate astrology. It is all bollocks from the word go.

1 Neglecting atmospheric refraction; which you shouldn't.
2 They don't even include the 13th star sign Ophiuchus

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Gordon and Plate Tectonics

Gordon Brown to the US Senate et al: "No power on earth can ever draw us apart"
Sadly, he is wrong. There is a big crack in the Atlantic ocean floor that is pushing us wider apart every day. It isn't particularly quick but it is certainly drawing us apart. The island of Surtsey, south of Iceland was created by this fissure, where two tectonic plates are pulling apart, in 1963. I remember news of it being formed and it is quite big now. We might get a whole string of islands between us and the US one day. That might be fun. A long time ago (170 million years), what is now the US and us were actually joined. Since then we've drifted apart at an average of 3 cm per year. It is now 5585km from London to New York... and rising.
Maybe Geology isn't Gordon's strong point.
Maybe Geology is his strong point!

University Challenge

Only in Britain...
University Challenge (avid watcher here btw) has been running for 40 years, but this year the Press decided to get involved. First is was Gail Trimble. I don't know about you, but she seems like a really nice girl to me. Clever, a bit shy, slightly awkward with twenty cameras in her face. For God's sake, leave her alone. The hate/envy thrown in her direction is horrendous!
Then there's the whole disqualification thing. It was a great final. Manchester led for a lot of the time, Corpus Christi powered through at the end. I thought that the show epitomised everything I love about being English. Good competition, fairly fought, tight finish, applause from the losers to the winners. Then I got dragged back into the 21st Century. Ineligibility. Disqualification. Investigation. Shock, horror, probe. Everything I hate about being English.
The Manchester team was interviewed on Breakfast (BBC) the following morning. They were clearly gutted at having "won" in the way they did. Their dignity in "triumph" was admirable. Their captain, Matthew Yeo, spoke for all of us after the "scandal" broke: "It's only a game show."

Monday, March 2, 2009


My Dad died a year ago (3rd March 2008). That basically means I've missed him 365 consecutive days. I've missed his smile, his encyclopaedic knowledge of all things mechanical, his "general swearing", his unconditional love for those around him and for the words "Hello Son". He taught me how to learn everything I know. My PhD thesis is dedicated to him (and my Mam) although he never had the foggiest idea what I was doing for those three years.
Dad was alive 28593 days (78.28 years). He did all sorts in a very full and interesting life. He had all sorts of jobs and was never unemployed from leaving school aged 14 to when he retired. He's got a great job now. He is Guardian Angel to my niece, Olivia, and he is bloody good at it. He has to be!
The tickover on my bike is still too high. It must be driving him crackers.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Tomato Soup, Polo Mints and Rubber Bands

I had tomato and basil soup for lunch today. Delicious and, in a way, perplexing.
When you stir tomato soup it obliges and goes around the pan in the direction you are stirring. If you then pull your stirring spoon out quickly it continues on for about a centimetre then reverses for a few millimetres. Now I'm no scientist, but that is odd. Quite anti-Newtonian.
Not so odd though as when you break polo mints in conditions of utter blackness. Get under your bed, or in that cupboard under the stairs with a packet of polo mints and break a few. They give off light! Amazing. When anyone knocks on the little triangular door and asks what you are up to, you can say "breaking Polo mints". You will then hear speechlessness.
Even that is not so amazing as unstretching rubber. If you stretch a really fat rubber band across your lips (very temperature sensitive are lips) and then suddenly let the rubber unstretch* it feels very cold. Quite incredible.
I must get out more.

*unstretch? God knows what the right word is.

Striking Miners

We are coming up to the 15th anniversary of the end of the miners' strike. This event, for me, will go down in history alongside 14/10/1066, 1/5/1707 and 15/9/1940 as crucial dates in the development of the Britain we are today.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of the strike, it was the event where a democratic government turned and bared its teeth on its own people; when the Police Force was used in exactly the way that Hitler used the SS; when honest hard-working people were labelled "the enemy within".
Look around the battlefields of the world. You'll find miners everywhere, dressed temporarily in uniform. Fighting and dying for their country. Thousands upon thousands on the Somme, Paschendael, Ypres and a thousand other places. Northumberland, Durham, Yorkshire, Lancashire and Nottinghamshire lost countless men fighting to keep this country free and then they, their family and friends are called the enemy within.
Scargill? As it turns out, he was right.

Poor Old Fred

You might be surprised that someone is sticking up for Sir Fred Goodwin, but here goes.
First off, he has done nothing wrong. Sure, he led his company into the nadir of its fortunes and is clearly a failed banker, or something that rhymes with that. But he did nothing wrong (as in criminal).
Secondly, his pension is all above board, was agreed by the confederation of morons we call the government and if RBS hadn't turned its toes skyward we (a) wouldn't have known anything about it and (b) wouldn't have cared less, apart from the odd, Trotskyite tut. When Gordon Brown shuffles off into retirement, will we hold his abysmal record against him? Of course not. We should, but we won't.
The thing that really sticks in my throat is that serial hypocrite, as she was wonderfully recently described, Harriet Harman going for Goodwin guns blazing. She and her mates waste more money in a week than he will earn for the next 100 years.
Leave Fred alone. He might be that old Spoonerism a wad banker, be he is completely in the right.