A morning with Maisie

English: toilet seat up Deutsch: hochgeklappte...

English: toilet seat up Deutsch: hochgeklappte Toilettenbrille (USA) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Shall we get up Uncle Martin?”. I groan and ask Julie whose turn it is. “Yours” she replies sternly. I reach over and grope for my watch. Squinting, I can just about make out that it is 8:45AM which is actually very good for a Sunday morning. She woke up at 7AM last weekend when it was Julie’s turn.

As I struggle to pull on my dressing gown, Maisie grabs me by the hand and pulls insistently. “Come on Uncle Martin – Let’s go!” We hold hands down the stairs and she leads me into the front room. “Do you want to play in my house Uncle Martin?” as she points under the dining room table. “Yes Maisie, but can I have a cup of tea first?”

The first cup of tea of the day is something to be savoured. There is no drink like it in the world. “Can I help you make it Uncle Martin?” She offers to get the sugar and then the milk but as I tell her, I take my tea black with no added sweetness. “You can get my teabag out if you want to.” She runs enthusiastically to the cupboard and pulls out a box of Darjeeling. As soon as I sit down with the cup of tea, “Shall we go shopping Uncle Martin”. I ask her what we need and she lists off some random items.

Knowing I won’t get any peace until the shopping is done, I walk with her to the games room. “This is for dinner” she says as she hands me a plastic Peppa Pig car complete with occupants. “And this is for dessert”, a plastic giraffe this time. Each time she places an item into the bag she pretends to scan it and makes a beep noise.

Shopping done, we return to the lounge. I sink back into the sofa and reach for my tea. “Uncle Martin – we’ve forgotten the salt.” I raise my eyes to the sky, knowing that resistance is futile. Again, we go hand in hand to the games room and go shopping for salt this time. When Maisie asks a third time to go shopping, I am firm. I tell her I am drinking my tea which she grudgingly accepts.

“Can I have an ice pop Uncle Martin?” She knows she is not allowed treats until she at least has some breakfast. After the argument about the ice pop, we head to the fridge to find her some breakfast. There is yoghurt and a box of cheese dippers unless she wants some cereal. She chooses cheese dippers of which I have to eat half ‘aeroplane style’. Once all the bread sticks are gone, she asks for a spoon to eat the remaining cheese dip. She chooses one from the array I bring her from the drawer. She spends 5 minutes playing with the cheese and making a complete mess before saying “I don’t like it.” and handing me the spoon, cheese end first.

“Can I have an ice pop Uncle Martin?” According to the rules, she has now had some breakfast, so off we go to the freezer. She stands there agonising for 5 minutes over which ice pop to have before picking a coke flavoured one. The top is soon lopped off. “It’s cold!” she complains. As usual, I take her to the toilet to get some toilet roll which we diligently wrap around the ice pop.

As soon as she finishes the ice pop, “Uncle Martin – I need a wee!” There is no time to lose. We dash out to the toilet. When we get there, the toilet seat is up because I used it earlier. She berates me, telling me that the toilet seat should be down for the girls. I groan and put the seat down. Drama over, we return to the lounge. “Uncle Martin – shall we play in my house?” pointing under the dining room table. Under I go and we start to make a campfire out of some random stuff. “Do you want a sausage Uncle Martin?” as she piles Jenga blocks onto the campfire.

Eventually, I get a second cup of tea. As I sit there relaxing, the sudden realisation that I can neither see or hear Maisie (which normally means mischief is afoot). I jump to my feet and dash out to the hallway. Maisie has just shut the fridge. “It’s OK Uncle Martin – I have put the shopping away.” I open the fridge and sure enough there is a Peppa Pig car and a giraffe on the bottom shelf.

Smiling, I shut the fridge. Is there any better way to spend Sunday morning?


An act of generosity


Commuters (Photo credit: Alan Cleaver)

It had been a long morning even thought the day was young. The chill of the concrete pavement seeped up through the cardboard into his bones. He had not looked at the sky, knowing it would be slate grey. The cold, damp atmosphere enveloped him and sapped away at his soul. A steady stream of commuters had already marched past him. Most steadfastly ignored him. A small minority had mumbled some abuse under their breath. A smaller minority still had offered kind words. None had thrown any money into the plastic cup offered out in front of him.

The ironic thing was that not so long ago, Eric had been among them. Every morning, he used to put on a shirt and tie, kiss his wife goodbye and set off for work. He would have marched past the vagrants sitting at the side of the street, striving to avoid eye contact. Wondering why they didn’t do something to pull themselves out of the gutter. It didn’t take long for Eric to fall. His wife left him for another man. In the ensuing breakdown he lost his job. The house went soon after. The last thing to go was his dignity.

Someone stopped in front of him and fished around in his pocket. Eric knew not to get excited. The first few times he had looked up expectantly only to receive a mouthful of abuse or a patronising lecture. Once someone had made a show of rooting around in their wallet before dropping a load of old receipts in his cup. He wondered which one this man would be. Allowing his mind to drift, he started to imagine what he would do if the man gave him some money.

He was hungry, but then he had got used to it. He could murder a drink. Alcohol took away the cold and the pain for a short time. For brief moments, the numbness would seep through him soothing his soul. Give him numbness over cold, hunger and sadness any day. The man was still there rummaging around in his wallet. For reasons he could not fathom, Eric started to think about his old job at the newspaper. He had been a cartoonist and illustrator. He used to really his work and it lightened his mood.

The man bent down and stuffed something into his cup before walking off. Eric snatched at the cup, eager to see the man’s donation. Would it be a sarcastically penned note of advice? A piece of chewing gum wrapped up in paper? It was neither. It looked like money. Erik suddenly found it hard to draw breath. Nobody had ever donated paper money before. His spirits soared as he fished out the note and unfurled it. Twenty pounds. He could get very numb indeed with twenty pounds and have something to eat. Hiding the note, he looked left and right to make sure no other vagrants had noticed his windfall. Being robbed now would be a cruel twist of fate.

Making his way around to the supermarket, he began mentally spending the money. He began to salivate for the first time in longer than he could remember. Feeling like he was walking on air, the pain began to melt away, he could see the supermarket ahead of him. Just beside the supermarket was an art shop. He wondered why he’d never noticed it before. Probably because they don’t sell food or super strength beer.

Pausing in the doorway of the supermarket, he looked wistfully over at the paints and pencils in the art shop, scrunching the twenty pound note in his pocket. A security guard, his interest piqued by the automatic door constantly opening and shutting. “Oi – mate! You coming in or what?” Eric turned and stared at him. “I just don’t know.” He replied.

Wouldn’t we be better off without computers?

Panellists Peter Hitchens, Rt Hon Ed Balls MP,...

Panellists Peter Hitchens, Rt Hon Ed Balls MP, Rt Hon Theresa May, Baroness (Shirley) Williams of Crosby, and Benjamin Zephaniah, join host David Dimbleby for Question Time, filmed in Westminster Hall for the first time on 3 November 2011 (Photo credit: UK Parliament)

I love watching Prime Ministers questions or Question Time on the BBC, but by far the best debating chamber has always been the local hostelry. Last night, the motion brought by my right honourable friend Sidney of Norfolk was that the world would be a better place without computers. The motion was seconded by my right honourable friend Martin of Lockers. Not only that, but a recent comment on one of my blog posts raises the same motion.

So are they right or wrong?

Technology can be bewildering for many people. For people who do understand technology, the challenge is finding common ground on which to base an explanation. I was once at a conference where I was explaining how a new product worked. A member of the audience looked puzzled and asked me to clarify something I had just said. Taking a mental step backwards and thinking for a moment, I rephrased what I had just said in simpler terms and tried to build his understanding. He still looked puzzled, so I tried to make things simpler. After several iterations, he was none the wiser and I had run out of ways that I could explain the same thing.

So I told him that it worked by magic. With that, acceptance bloomed over his face and we moved on. This lack of common ground leads to suspicion, wariness and a general reluctance on the part of most people to learn. Technologists are guilty too. It’s all too tempting to just grab the mouse and fix whatever needs fixing in a fraction of the time it would take to describe the process.

None of this helps in my defence of the motion, but let me try and justify the existence of computers.

Firstly, without computers, the banking system would collapse (even with computers it might still collapse if Angela Merkel has her way). Any wealth that is held in any kind of account anywhere would disappear overnight. Trade and commerce would have to fall back to barter and the goods being bartered would very soon become very basic. Any currency or plastic cards might as well be discarded. Mobile phones would become little more than paperweights and cars would become roadside ornaments.

English: Mobile phone scrap, old decomissioned...

English: Mobile phone scrap, old decomissioned mobile phones, defective mobile phones (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Energy would become a problem. Refineries would shut down as would oil terminals and power stations. Pharmaceuticals would soon dry up and before long, the only treatment that doctors and hospitals could supply would be sympathy.

Telecommunications would break down which would render the world ungovernable. Distribution networks would disappear, shops would empty and we would quickly revert to hunter-gathering status.

Automated systems providing water and sewerage would break down which would mean that clean water would be very hard to find. Disease would take hold and spread rapidly.  Society would collapse into small tribes. There would be no law other than that enforced by local tribal leaders.

All this sounds rather extreme and like anything, technology can be used for good or ill. Without computers, there would be no nuclear weapons and the world’s carbon footprint would be slashed at a stroke. A large percentage of the population would no longer be baffled by remote controls and mobile phones.

Of course the most powerful argument is that without computers, the right honourable Sidney of Norfolk could not read this – although I doubt he’d agree.

The mobile supercomputer

Automobile crossing rope bridge

Automobile crossing rope bridge (Photo credit: The Field Museum Library)

Maybe it’s my fading memory, but I seem to remember that winters were much colder during my school years. It could be that I spent a lot more time standing around in the snow waiting for buses, but the cold used to seep up through my shoes and into my bones. You didn’t need to look out of the window to see whether it was a cold and frosty morning. The starter motors of the reluctant cars made a characteristic whining noise in a gradually slowing rhythm as the last dying remnants of the battery was eaten away.

In the early 1980s, the ignition systems in cars were mechanical in nature. This meant they had the annoying habit of wearing out at the most inconvenient moments. Not only that, but there wasn’t much adjustment available. It didn’t matter whether it was 30 degrees and sunny or -20 degrees with inches of snow on the ground, the components in the ignition system worked (or rather didn’t) in exactly the same way.

The only tool available to the driver was a little knob called a choke which pulled out of the dashboard and controlled the strength of the fuel mixture. On a cold and frosty morning a richer mixture was required. As the engine heated up, the choke could be pushed gradually back in returning the mixture to normal.

Ford assembly line, 1913.

Ford assembly line, 1913. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Electronics were not the only reason cars were unreliable. The assembly lines on which they were produced had not advanced significantly since Henry Ford came up with the idea. Although many parts were pressed out of steel using a massive die, almost everything was assembled by hand which meant that fit and finish were inconsistent. Some cars were more reliable than others and there was a suspicion that quality of assembly went significantly downhill towards the end of the working week. If you were unlucky enough to have bought an unreliable car, people would refer to it as a “Friday afternoon car”. The metals used in car construction were nowhere near the quality of those used today. In addition, galvanisation had yet to take off and few car manufacturers used sufficient rust protection. Even if your pride and joy was in fine fettle, the dreaded tinworm could have nibbled its way through crucial parts of your car’s anatomy.

Construction techniques have advanced and cars have undoubtedly made massive leaps forward in terms of comfort, reliability, efficiency and safety but the basic form factor has remained the same for about a hundred years. The biggest leap forward has been in terms of the sophistication of the electronic control systems watching over the engine, brakes and suspension. It is not uncommon for a premium car to have 20 – 30 micro controllers and 100 million lines of code buried under the considerable bonnet (or hood if you’re American).

Just to put those numbers in perspective,  according to the Mythical Man Month (required reading for anyone in software) it is estimated that developers on average produce 10 lines of code per working day. I’m assuming that car manufacturers must find more productive programmers otherwise writing the software for a car would take approximately 50,000 man years. Of course not everything is written from scratch and the same code must get reused between different components and different cars. Still, it’s an incredible amount of software and not only that, the quality seems very high which is a comfort when you stamp your feet on the brake pedal in the rain.

I’m just glad I don’t have to listen to that infernal racket on a cold and frosty morning.

Get me some elephants!

1916 photograph of an execution by firing squa...

1916 photograph of an execution by firing squad in Mexico. Caption: “Executing an Enemy – Just over the boundary such gruesome sights as this have been of frequent occurrence during the last few years and have kept alive the apprehensions of Americans on the border.” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There are two main reasons for society to punish someone for any transgression. Firstly to deter the offender and make then think twice about offending in future. Secondly, and usually in more severe cases, to make it impossible for the offender to recommit the offence in question. You would be forgiven for thinking that we have been punishing people for long enough to learn the most effective mechanisms for doing so. Unfortunately reoffending rates across the globe, at least for those where the punishment is not death, remain stubbornly high and the cost of undertaking most punishment methods has ballooned.

There is no real consensus with different countries punishing offenders in different ways. Although advances in forensic science have vastly improved detection rates, miscarriages of justice remain. Some of the most heinous crimes don’t have any witnesses other than the perpetrator and the victim and often it comes down to one persons word against another. Depending on the legal system, either the judge or the jury need to decide who’s telling the truth.

A very real barrier to justice is society’s attitude to human rights. In a recent European row, the European Court of Human Rights say that prisoners should be allowed the constitutional democratic right to vote. The UK government, together with most of the country disagreed. As a result, the tools available to society are fairly limited. Almost all punishment now involves either monetary punishment (in the form of fines), electronic tagging, denial of liberty through incarceration or the ultimate punishment; death. Roughly half of the UN nations still have the death penalty although the other half have either an unofficial or official policy of non enforcement.

Of course before human rights came into focus, there was a lot more scope and historical punishments show a great deal of imagination. I’m prepared to bet the reoffending rate was lower and the costs nowhere near as high. My personal favourite is the “brank” which in medieval times was reserved (mainly for women) to stop the offender from excessive talking and gossip. It consisted of an iron cage with a metal tab that held the tongue down suppressing speech.

If you were convicted of theft in ancient India, being trampled by an elephant was the favoured punishment. In ancient China, if you were found guilty of treason, you could look forward to a process called slow slicing which was probably as excruciating as it sounds. Given the choice, I’d take the elephant. In England, treason was punishable by being hung, drawn and quartered as immortalised by Mel Gibson in Braveheart. In you killed your father in ancient Rome, you could look forward to being blindfolded, placed in a sack with a serpent, an ape, a dog and a rooster before being thrown into the sea, regardless of whether daddy deserved it or not.

Most of these punishments make me squirm and I wouldn’t be happy to see them applied today, but I can’t help being frustrated by the blunt instruments wielded by our authorities. Added to this, the amount of money spent on punishment makes me angry. It costs nearly £50K (or $75K) to keep someone in prison for a year. Maybe we should get some elephants.

Where would you like to go today?

English: Hong Kong SAR passport stamps

English: Hong Kong SAR passport stamps (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Before I started work, I had never been up in an aeroplane (unless you count a brief flight over Dunstable downs in a glider). As kids, holidays consisted of a couple of weeks in a holiday camp or caravan park. I think the furthest we ever went was Minehead in Somerset. The entertainment was a mixture of bingo and the odd knobbly knee competition.

When my employer said that they wanted me over in Zurich for a few days, it was a cue to my fellow employees to start winding me up about how scary flying was. Although I had grown up on a diet of 1970s aircraft disaster movies, I took no notice and as the thrust of the aircraft’s engines pushed me back in my seat, an involuntary smile lit up my face. I loved the sensation of speed and the feeling of lift as the aircraft took off. The view through the window of the verdant English countryside slowly shrinking away was sublime. After hundreds of subsequent flights, the appeal has somewhat diminished.

At the time, the only people who flew were either on business or a package holiday. Air travel was expensive and usually booked through travel agents. 30 years ago, budget airlines such as Ryanair and Easyjet didn’t even exist. Today, they fly the best part of 130 million customers per year on a combined fleet of over 600 aircraft. It’s fair to say that they revolutionised the way we book, pay for and undertake our international travel. They were among the first to offer direct internet booking and their variable prices per seat tended to significantly undercut the prices of the traditional operators. The other airlines eventually followed suit and air travel is probably cheaper than it has ever been, opening up ideas like commuting to another country or just nipping over to see the Geneva motor show for the day.

Cruise ships also used to be way out of reach for most travellers being solely the reserve of the rich and famous. Most cruise ships up to the 1960s were converted liners rather than purpose built. Over the past few decades, there has been an explosion in the number of companies offering cruises. Both the number and size of cruise ships have ballooned. Coupled with the cost reduction in air travel, prices have tumbled in real terms. Not only that, but today’s cruise ships have gone to great lengths to outdo each other in terms of the entertainment offered on board. On some ships you can play golf in the morning, go surfing in the afternoon and go climbing in the evening.

A NASA astronaut jokingly advertises a recover...

A NASA astronaut jokingly advertises a recovered defective satellite for sale during a space walk (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On the whole, people have become much more adventurous about where they go on holiday although it varies from country to country (roughly 38% of people in the USA own a passport compared with 80% in the UK).  It wasn’t so very long ago that travellers heading to Africa would probably go on a steamship and be accompanied by a big game hunter in a pith helmet. Nowadays, many people go on safari for their honeymoon.

What will tourism look like 30 years from now? There is no doubt that for many of us, spaceflight tourism will become commonplace. Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic venture has all but sold out of the first 500 seats at $200k a throw. You can even charter a spaceship from him for a million dollars. The American government have even come up with a set of procedures for space travellers. Will I be partaking? Well, no, not at that price. Even if it was cheaper, it all sounds a little bit dangerous with roughly 1 flight in 50 resulting in fatalities.

I wonder how long it will be before we get an “Easyrocket” or “Ryanspace”

Unintended Sri Lanka

English: Ketchimalai Mosque- Beruwala, Sri Lan...

English: Ketchimalai Mosque- Beruwala, Sri Lanka Français : Mosquée Ketchimalai, Beruwala, Sri Lanka (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Just before our honeymoon, we received an apologetic letter from the travel agent we had used to book explaining that due to unforeseen circumstances, they had to cancel our trip and refund our money. This was not welcome news. We had weeks in which to find another holiday and it needed to be somewhere special. My wife to be was too upset so the task fell to me. I had never taken a package holiday in my life and every page in every brochure looked remarkably similar to me.

There was one location that called out to me. I don’t really know why, but Sri Lanka sounded exotic and I didn’t know many people who had been there. It also had the considerable merit of fitting within our beleaguered budget. I phoned my partner to explore the idea and she readily agreed. Moments later, the trip was booked. There was a note of mischief in my partner’s voice and she knew I didn’t want to go anywhere too adventurous so I looked up Sri Lanka.

I read with alarm that the island lay close to the equator with a tropical climate and that it had the highest incidence of snakebite death of any country in the world. It was going to be my first visit to Asia and the culture was completely different to anything I had ever experienced before. Still, the Arabs liked the island so much, they named in Serendib (which is the origin of the word Serendipity).

When we stepped off the plane, I assumed that we were in the wash of the nearby engines, but as we walked towards the terminal I realised that it really was that hot. Inside the Terminal, it was chaos. I have never seen so many people scurrying around like ants. Eventually we located our luggage among the unlikely items spinning around the luggage carousel such as fridges and parcels tied up with string and made our way to the Coach.

Our escort explained that the hotel lay 38km away so the journey would take approximately 3 hours to get there. The flight had taken 11 hours from Heathrow, so we were both shattered and assumed that one of those figures must be wrong, but as we wound our way through the roads of the capital, we began to understand why.

English: Auto rickshaw in Polonnaruwa, Sri Lan...

English: Auto rickshaw in Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka Français : Tuk-tuk à Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Outside the coach windows, there was bedlam. The roads teemed with bicycles, motorbikes, trikes (called Tuk Tuks we were to learn), cows and elephants. We were used to traffic travelling in an orderly fashion. There were vehicles on the wrong side of the road. Sometimes it looked like there was going to be a head on collision before one vehicle or another gave way. All this was played out to a cacophony of car horns. Some like klaxons. Some playing out a melody. All of them noisy.

There were paradoxes everywhere we looked. A line of children dressed in pristine school uniforms filing their way out of a hut at the side of the road. A stunning car dealership standing amongst a number of ramshackle dwellings made of oil drums and wooden pallets. A lady fastidiously sweeping the small area outside her hut. Western fast food outlets serving unrecognised Asian variations on their menus.

Arriving at the hotel, the tiredness seeped away as we tucked into a welcome cocktail. The complex lay on the coast amongst a stunning rainforest backdrop next to a single railway track. The noises coming from the trees sounded like a special kind of music to me. A constant varying chorus of insects and birds, the occasional interjection by some kind of ape all accompanied by the sound of the wind through the trees.

Sri Lanka : Kandy

Sri Lanka : Kandy (Photo credit: artist in doing nothing)

Stowing our things quickly, we were eager to explore so we set out around the complex. The accommodation surrounded a large grassy area with a wooden shaded bar in the centre. Playful chipmunks crawled around the bar area and danced among the tables. The staff were friendly and it didn’t take too long for the chipmunks to come over and introduce themselves either. They would jump onto your table and look at you as if to ask for a chip. If you gave them one, they held them vertically in both hands whilst periodically nibbling.

At Dusk each night, a couple of guys went around the complex carrying a lantern ringing a small bell every so often. We asked a member of staff why they did it. He shrugged and told us it was a ritual. I asked why they seemed to be in such a tearing hurry, eager to know the back story behind this “ritual”. The guy looked furtively in each direction to make sure no-one was listening before bending down to tell us conspiratorially that the ritual had been invented by a visitor from the travel agency and the reason they dashed around was because they thought it was ridiculous.

The hotel had an onsite elephant which made several appearances resplendent in a gold filigreed howdah and bejewelled cape. Lizards clung to the hot hotel walls and occasionally you could see a long line of huge ants making their way nonchalantly across the path. As we walked across the lawn one day, I saw a snake just by Julie’s feet. Knowing that it was best not to make any sudden noises, I delayed telling her until later, which was just as well because when I did, she made a lot of noise.

Tea plantation in Sri Lanka

Tea plantation in Sri Lanka (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Venturing outside meant crossing the railway track. Hoards of cyclists went past in each direction. Each of them smiled and waved. Many of them said hello. I was amazed at how friendly everyone was. A steam train rattled slowly past. If you think your morning commuter train is crowded – this train had people on the roof, people hanging onto the sides and people precariously hanging out of the windows.

Someone had told us about a shop called Liberties in the nearby town so we hired a tuk tuk one day. I had imagined a glass fronted shop, but this was more like a narrow horse box with a stable door on the front. Inside the walls were covered in shelves piled high with clothes of all descriptions. An army of young boys crawled acrobatically up the shelves retrieving anything requested.

Our Sri Lankan odyssey was over all too soon and it had been the perfect holiday. The lead up to getting married can be quite stressful and we arrived back after two weeks invigorated and excited by everything we had seen. We must return one day, because there is plenty of Sri Lanka that remains undiscovered to us. If it hadn’t been for the apologetic letter from the travel agent, we probably never would have gone there – serendipity indeed!

Getting from A to B

'This Is Design' at the Design Museum

‘This Is Design’ at the Design Museum (Photo credit: kieranmcglone)

During my childhood, before we undertook any long journey, my dad used to spend the evening beforehand doing his homework. He would sit at the dining room table with his trusty road atlas open in front of him. Working methodically, he would trace a route from where we were to where we ultimately wanted to be, noting down any major place names on the way.

During the journey, we would look out for direction signs to place names from Dad’s list. A medieval traveller would probably recognise the idea. If you want to get from Falmouth to London, you follow the milestones for Truro and then for Bodmin and so on. The system worked well, mainly because Britain has some of the clearest and best road signage in the world. Thanks to the efforts of Jock Kinnear and Margaret Calvert, the original designers of our modern road signs, roads are easy to identify and it is very easy to pick out direction signs for major towns.

With the advent of a piece of software called Autoroute, we were able to automate the route finding process. After firing up the software and choosing the start and finish points, the system would churn away for a moment before offering the fastest route between the two. If you were lucky enough to own a printer, you could print out a map and step by step directions to take with you. Eventually web sites became available offering route finding which negated the need to install any software.

Of course such levels of prior preparation are not strictly necessary. Armed with a trusty navigator and a road atlas, you could navigate on the go. It’s definitely better if I navigate and my wife drives rather than the other way around. During one trip where the roles were reversed, we were driving down a road beside a river heading for a town on the coast. I had this nagging feeling that we were on the wrong side of the river and every time we neared a bridge or a ferry, I asked my wife to confirm which side we were on. Each time, she insisted we were on the correct side and it was only when we physically ran out of road that she accepted that we were indeed on the wrong side.

When the US military opened up their network of Navstar satellites to public use, portable devices became available which could automatically pinpoint their location anywhere on Earth. As long as a satnav box can find enough satellites, because of the doppler effect, there will be a delay in communications with each one allowing the triangulation calculation to be made.

Smartphones now equip us with a phenomenal array of navigational tools. We can find out where we are, which direction we are facing and how to get to where we want to be. There are virtual reality apps which overlay labels on our screens to show exactly where nearby points of interest are. We can search for a nearby station or restaurant. We can even do all this using our voices alone.

Early explorers who navigated huge distances purely by the position of the Sun would probably find it highly amusing that we still get lost even with all these tools to help us.

Here we go, here we go, here we go

World cup England

World cup England (Photo credit: @Doug88888)

No-one really knows agony like an England football supporter. The last time the country won a major international football tournament was 46 years ago, before I was even born. On the eve of their first group match for Euro 2012, for the fans, it’s time to take a big deep breath and brace ourselves for what’s to come.

I’ve seen enough tournaments now to know how the story goes. In the build up to a major tournament, there will usually be some kind of managerial crisis. Invariably a foreign man who gets paid more in a year than most people earn in a lifetime suddenly decides that it’s all been too much and they would rather go and do something easier. Then a pause whilst FIFA contemplates its navel for a while before the announcement of the next high-profile name to bring glory to England. I certainly don’t envy them the task. Nor do I envy them the inevitable attention of the tabloid media.

The qualification process usually goes fairly well. Many teams would be highly envious of England’s record in the games leading up to the Euro or the World cup. As we get closer to the main event, things start to unravel. There will be at least one dressing room scandal. One player or another will succumb to “dodgy ball control” and end up sleeping with another player’s wife / girlfriend / sister / mother and the whole team will be thrown into disarray.

Just before squad gets announced, there will be a flurry of injuries. At least one of them will be a broken metatarsal. All of them will be players seen as crucial to England’s chances in the tournament. The England team have always been a bit asymmetrical and the manager will come up with some new wacky and zany formation just so he can accommodate the plethora of talent in the middle.

The group stages will be agonising. Somehow the team will limp through but not without another injury and the star player earning a red card. Inevitably, they will finish in the wrong place in the group meaning that they face the strongest teams in succession in the knockout stages. This is when we all start to feel false hope. We dismiss the poor performance so far as nerves and the team getting used to a new formation. We start to think we are only a handful of games away from glory. Surely it must be our turn this time?

Then the real agony begins. We come out in red strips for the first game – always a good sign. Our hopes soar with an early goal putting us into the lead which is good because we kid ourselves that we always win if we score first. If the other team scores first, that’s OK too. Some of our greatest victories have suffered the odd hiccup – remember Dunkirk?

But before too long the inevitable happens. We crash out of the tournament and all the fans sink into the pits of despair. Only to do it all again next time.

Come on England!

A little of what you fancy…

Figure 1 from United States patent #1,773,079 ...

Figure 1 from United States patent #1,773,079 issued to Clarence Birdseye for the production of quick-frozen fish. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My wife regularly asks me a question such as what do you fancy for dinner tomorrow night, which seems a bit like asking me where I want to go on holiday the year after next. I simply don’t know. I can tell you what I feel like now or whether I liked what I just ate but asking me what’s going to tickle my culinary fancy tomorrow is a bit of a stretch.

I can’t imagine there were too many such conversations in the Neanderthal household. Back in those days, what you ate came down to what you could grow or catch. If you fancied something meaty it came down to whether you could run faster than this evening’s dinner. Once the nasty business of killing was out of the way, you had to peel your meal – removing any fur or feathers. Before fire was discovered, having rare meat was not a choice, it was a necessity. I don’t think I’d have lived too long unless a met a particularly feisty cave girl.

With bartering came a lot more choice. Instead of doing everything yourself, you had the option of sharpening your neighbour’s axe in exchange for a chicken or hiring out your feisty cave girl for something more exotic in return. No-one really moved around that much, so communities were still restricted to what lay within easy reach.

With more mobility came more choice still. Knowing that rarity breeds value, smart people with orchards went to where there were no orchards and exchanged their goods. As transportation technology evolved, foodstuffs could be moved further and further. Unfortunately, most food has a shelf life and perishability determined how far they could travel. Salt became the preservative of choice or food was cured or pickled in some way.

People eventually worked out that keeping foods cold helped to keep them for longer. In the beginning, there were no artificial cryogenics available, so large blocks of slowly melting ice in cool rooms had to suffice. Once the humming white box in the corner had been developed, there was no stopping us. Everything was frozen from vegetables to meat and a whole new selection of sweets became available for the first time. Legend has it a certain Captain Birdseye realised on a polar fishing expedition that food frozen quickly tasted so much better than the stuff that was left in the icebox to cool down on its own.

Of course, now that the other side of the planet can be reached in a mere 24 hours, pretty much any delicacy from anywhere in the world is available in a choice of high street supermarkets all year round. Ecologically, this is a disaster. There is every chance that if you choose the right (or wrong depending on your point of view) choice, the carbon footprint of your evening meal could be several thousand tonnes. All this explains why our fridge and freezer are rammed full of a multiplicity of ingredients – hence my wife’s insistent question!