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Saturday, 23 September 2017

Uprooted

But if I had stinted him, in his usual quantity of wine, or forbidden him to taste it altogether, that would only have increased his partiality for it, and made him regard it as a greater treat than ever. I therefore gave him quite as much as his father was accustomed to allow him; as much, indeed, as he desired to have — but into every glass I surreptitiously introduced a small quantity of tartar-emetic, just enough to produce inevitable nausea and depression without positive sickness...

...and once or twice, when he was sick, I have obliged the poor child to swallow a little wine-and-water without the tartar-emetic, by way of medicine; and this practice I intend to continue for some time to come; not that I think it of any real service in a physical sense, but because I am determined to enlist all the powers of association in my service; I wish this aversion to be so deeply grounded in his nature that nothing in after-life may be able to overcome it.

Anne Brontë – The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848)


Straightforward aversion therapy, the core of which must have been common knowledge for aeons. Sometimes it seems as if much of what we once knew has been recast into jargon then regurgitated as new, technically complex and only understandable by the initiated. As if we have been uprooted by modernity because otherwise we would have understood too much and resisted.

Thursday, 21 September 2017

Leonardo's millions

This story is interesting in an odd kind of way.

Leonardo DiCaprio announced Tuesday that his eco-focused foundation has given more than $20 million this year in fresh grants to more than 100 organizations around the world.

From lion recovery and mangrove restoration to the defense of indigenous rights and better access to affordable solar energy, the actor announced the grants ahead of his appearance at a climate change conference at Yale University.

He planned to use the appearance to urge more immediate steps to reduce the world's reliance on fossil fuels in favor of renewable energy sources.


I used to dismiss the guy as a hypocritical, virtue-signalling plonker but he seems to believe too. No doubt the money could be better spent but he is not an ungenerous hypocritical, virtue-signalling plonker.

The Beast of Bolsover on the EU

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Big badges



It isn't only the cars, but car badges seem to grow bigger and bigger as the years roll by. There is no mistaking a Mercedes in the rear-view mirror, with a badge big enough to adorn a truck only a few years ago. As most cars are little more than boxes on wheels I suppose manufacturers have an increasing need to distinguish their brand. 

Does it work though? Not for me, I prefer something more discreet, but times change so there must be some advantage to big badges. 

I wonder if car badges will continue to grow? Perhaps manufacturers will come up with some kind of holographic effect where the badge seems much bigger than it really is. 

Monday, 18 September 2017

One is but an insect

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As today is Samuel Johnson's birthday, here are a few Johnson quotes still suited to our own times.

My dear friend, clear your mind of cant.

The true measure of a man is how he treats someone who can do him absolutely no good.

The world is like a grand staircase, some are going up and some are going down.


A fly, Sir, may sting a stately horse and make him wince; but, one is but an insect, and the other is a horse still.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Stop Saying Things That Make You Weak




I’ve been thinking along these lines for years and would be surprised if it is an uncommon idea. We prefer harmony to disharmony and go too far in our pursuit of it. Whether Jordan Peterson is right to suggest that that this is a weakness and something can be done about it I’m not so sure, but that’s a weakness too.

Maybe somebody has to promote harmony but forceful, abrasive and assertive are better for the career and for clarity - I think most of us know that. We are also familiar with the less desirable consequences so harmony is genuinely important.

Yet political correctness is a pervasive and forceful invitation to be weak. The implied threat is that if we don’t accept its strictures then we risk being even weaker as an outcast. It is far from being a new technique so maybe Peterson is right.

No - Peterson is right.

Saturday, 16 September 2017

Headlines

Not so long ago we found ourselves on holiday with poor WiFi. Good enough to use the iPad for scanning headlines but not worth firing up the laptop. No matter. Headlines are familiar enough anyway - barely worth scanning apart from a residual interest in major stories and a fading desire to keep tabs on the memes of the day.

Scanning the headlines is rather like shopping in a supermarket. Ignoring isles of salty snacks, sugary drinks, confectionery and prepared food becomes a habit. So much so that one doesn’t notice just how much junk there is in the average supermarket - 

- average? 

No not average - they are all like that. Selling the average is what supermarkets do. So it is with media headlines – barely worth a second glance and this is what struck me as I browsed the headlines on the iPad. 

The world is a wonderful place. There is an infinite variety of fascination out there, so much so that ten lifetimes would not be enough to do it justice. That’s not what we see in the headlines. We see the equivalent of supermarket isles full of salty snacks, sugary drinks, confectionery and prepared food. We see the junk which sells but doesn’t inform. We see the junk which isn’t even good for us, the garbage we might shun if it were not for our ingrained laziness, our perennial habit of taking what is offered rather than seeking out the best that is available - 

- no that’s not it – not quite. 

Media headlines have begun to seem infantile. They were always strident, over-dramatic, misleading and simplistic, but the desperate hunt for clicks has reached another level as they say. Infantile feels new to me and it feels like a trend. Not particularly new because we have seen this level of reporting for quite some time. It’s back to the supermarket isles, back to the infantile consumption, back to the isles of confectionery.

Friday, 15 September 2017

The price of cars


Source

As a child I remember seeing two of these in a car showroom window. I always wanted one in a vague, yearning for the moon sense.

Thursday, 14 September 2017

Something in Our Blood

Not new but a reminder. Two quotes.

Caracas Chronicles
It’s 4:00 am, still dark. She stands in line, about 50 people in front of her. Old, middle aged, housewives, even children with their mothers: standard deal. Some brought blankets, some shiver in the cold air, others sleep on the floor. A few places behind her, a man pukes on the sidewalk.

For three days, that was Marianyelys’ life: waiting at the National Guard Regional Command 8 (CORE-8)’s health care center in Puerto Ordaz, from 4 am to 5 pm —hoping to get the malaria treatment she needed after a trip to La Gran Sabana.

The days when Venezuela spearheaded the global war against malaria are gone. In 2015, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), Venezuela had 30% of all malaria cases registered in the Americas. The situation in 2016 was much worse, with 240,613 registered cases, a 76% increase over the previous year. Unofficial sources calculate that Venezuela might have up to 48% of all cases in the Americas in 2016. Back in 2000, that figure was 2%.

Mr Corbyn has previously supported the Venezuelan government under both socialist president Hugo Chavez and his successor Mr Maduro.

As a backbencher Mr Corbyn attended a 2013 vigil following the death of Mr Chavez, hailing him as an "inspiration to all of us fighting back against austerity and neo-liberal economics in Europe". He also shared a platform with Mr Maduro in 2006.

Asked whether his political philosophy was closer to President Maduro's or Tony Blair's, Mr Williamson declined to answer but said: "When a government is doing good things, as they certainly were under Hugo Chavez...that's surely a good thing that we should celebrate."

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Food bomb North Korea

The Salisbury Review has an entertaining piece on dealing with North Korea.

The answer is certainly not to refresh South Korea’s stock pile of weapons as President Trump is doing. An unconventional solution would be, after switching off all of North Korea’s electronic communications using an electromagnetic bomb, for the US airforce to food bomb North Korea under fighter and missile cover, not with a few thousand tons of grain, but a continuous rain of food over two months. After the period of electronic blackout would come a series of airbursts of tens of thousands of micro radios, perhaps smaller than the one in the picture, which would sycamore down over the country telling people what was happening and about the west. North Koreans would find it hard to believe what they have been told about America, that it is a capitalist hell barely able to feed its people. Where does all this food come from?

Obviously not meant to be taken seriously but even a piece like this leaves one with a yearning for something more imaginative than the dull rhetoric we've heard so often before. I can't see sanctions working.

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Enjoy

One of our pet hates is the word ‘enjoy’ too often used when folk serve food at cafes and restaurants. It comes across as supremely casual with a subtle hint of de haut en bas, a throwaway sign-off because the food has been duly delivered and that’s that. Actually eating it is the lowly unskilled part - anyone can do it. 

Does one enjoy food anyway? Food can be pleasant and even delicious but I wouldn’t class the actual mastication as enjoyment. Far more important is the social aspect, the occasion, the ambiance the conversation ebbing and flowing across the table. All that should be enjoyable but the food? I don’t think so - pleasantly palatable will do. Taste buds are not that important. 

It’s the occasion not the food. An airy, offhand ‘enjoy’ doesn’t enhance the occasion.

Monday, 11 September 2017

Is Blair crazy?

No he isn't crazy, but ever since Tony Blair emerged from the protection of his media minders he has come across as politically unhinged, as if permanently scarred by the lunatic mess that is modern political life. From the BBC

Tony Blair has defended his call for new controls on EU migration as a cabinet minister accused him of a belated "epiphany" on the issue.

The ex-PM said the UK could stay in the EU after all with new curbs in place.

He claimed this would address people's "grievances" without the "sledgehammer" of Brexit.

Critics have pointed to his Labour government's decision not to apply transitional controls to eastern European migrants in 2004.

Voices from the political past rarely manage to break through into the politics of today because they have generally said whatever they are able to say and people have done listening to them anyway. Blair should know that but apparently doesn't Still bleating about his lost vision of whatever it is that drives him – who could possibly be interested now? Media outlets with space to fill and a Europhile readership to prod, but nobody else.

Sometimes when people retire they are prepared to say what they would not have said before, particularly about their previous employment and expertise. Sometimes they let a little light into those murky areas protected by PR, compliant media and the financial loyalty of employees. Sometimes.

Not political leaders though. Apart from back-stabbing memoirs they generally seem wedded to the same old songs even though they should know how threadbare it all was. One might almost imagine that their public profile has burned the songs into their souls, as if they actually believe what they must once have known was dubious at best.

This level of intense exposure, this political imperative to stick to a narrative and beat down all opposition, all doubt and all uncertainty – it seems to leave its mark. It seems to send people crazy, as if they cannot bring themselves to leave the stage and watch the show from the other side of the footlights. We would all benefit if they did.

Saturday, 9 September 2017

Personality is a compromise

An interesting piece in aeon by Cody Delistraty examines the fluid nature of personalities, particularly in relation to coming of age myths and fashionable ideas about finding ourselves. However it is not so much the article itself, but one of the comments which makes the whole thing so applicable to our times. First a few quotes from the article to set the scene.

Finding one’s true place in the world is a massive trope, not just in film and theatre, but also in literature, education and motivational seminars – any place where young people are involved. In all these cases, the search for the ‘self’ is dubious because it assumes that there is an enduring ‘self’ that lurks within and that can somehow be found. Whereas, in fact, the only ‘self’ we can be sure of is one that changes every second, our decisions and circumstances taking us in an infinite number of directions, moment by moment. And even if we think we have ‘found ourselves’, this is no panacea for the rest of our lives. In the last line of F Scott Fitzgerald’s debut, This Side of Paradise (1920), young Amory Blaine cries out: ‘I know myself, but that is all.’ Young as he is, Fitzgerald’s confused Princetonian still sees how insubstantial the knowledge of his ‘self’ is within the larger context of his life.

The idea of there being a single ‘self’, hidden in a place that only maturity and adulthood can illuminate and which, like archaeologists, we might dig and dust away the detritus to find, is to believe that there is some inner essence locked within us – and that unearthing it could be a key to working out how to live the rest of our lives. This comforting notion of coming of age, of unlocking a true ‘self’ endures, even though it is out of step with current thinking in psychology, which denies a singular identity, and instead posits the idea of staged development, or an eternally malleable sense of self that shifts as we grow older, and with the uniqueness of our personal experience.

Fair enough. The whole thing is worth reading, but to my mind a revealing comment puts it into a wider and more pointed perspective.

Jan Sand
As someone who has lived longer than normal my own life agrees with the final conclusion that circumstance has demanded central changes in my efforts to construct myself into something acceptable to the various societies I have immersed myself into. This can be seen as a series of multiple failures or as a most peculiar success in that I have survived as long as I can. Some people do exceptionally well in all the various social contexts they face. At best, I have gotten by and not found any real satisfaction in all of my attempts. I have had to fall back on the generality that no society offers me anything that fits well with my rather unextraordinary unfittedness in what I have encountered. Survival alone has to be sufficient in my sense of satisfaction.

We all find ourselves adopting personality niches, but some of us have problems slotting ourselves into them, as the writer of the comment seems to have found and accepted. The trouble is, those niches also seem to negate the very idea of personality because a social niche is not a personality; it merely attracts, nurtures and demands a certain type of personality.

Social niches force all of us into types and almost all of us succumb to some extent - usually to a large extent. This is why those who conform seem to lack the quirks and unpredictability of an authentically original personality.

To give a commonplace example - instead of exhibiting a powerful and distinctive personality, the celebrity who rants about equality, social justice or saving the planet seems to have a more limited personality than someone who is not so easily convinced. The celebrity seems to have adopted a set of conforming behaviours rather than a distinctive personality. Those conforming behaviours may be stridently promoted with much waving of the arms, but they still lack the authentic flavour of an individual personality.

With global pressures and global social media, the idea of a distinctive personality could even fade away. What use will it be?

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Castro wins



Here is an oddity in the world of chess – a game played by Fidel Castro in 1966. It soon becomes obvious that Castro isn’t much of a chess player and his opponent seems poised to beat him fairly easily.

Then from a winning position, Castro’s opponent makes a ghastly and inexplicable beginner’s blunder allowing Castro to checkmate him in one move. Hmm...

Not entirely inexplicable is it? 


As an aside - what does Jeremy Corbyn think of Castro?

“Fidel Castro’s death marks the passing of a huge figure of modern history, national independence and 20th-century socialism,” said the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who claimed that “for all his flaws” Castro would be remembered as an “internationalist and a champion of social justice”

It’s a pity Jeremy was never in the same position as Castro’s chess opponent. It may have given him a deeper perspective on the man’s “flaws”.

Irma


Screen shot of Hurricane Irma from Earth Wind Map. Scary, yet people live with the threat, it's part of their lives. No doubt many have no real choice.

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

How delightful


A furious scaffolder has hit back at a 'spoilt rich girl' artist who posted a pictured mocking him and his colleague as they stood in McDonald's.

Hetty Douglas, 25, shared a photo on her Instagram of the two men in boots and blue jogging bottoms, with the sneering caption: 'they look like they got 1 GCSE'...

Douglas, who comes from Nottingham, studied fashion illustration at University of Arts London before working in retail for Slam City Skates in Covent Garden and Supreme in Soho.

Poor Hetty, maybe she can't help it. The Mail has published a picture of her art. Do take a look, it's hilarious. 

Monday, 4 September 2017

Gender neutral kids

The John Lewis story about gender neutral kids’ clothes has trundled its way around the media, yet the key point remains largely ungrasped - huge swathes of middle class people are bonkers.

Those who think it is essential to be able to tell at a glance whether a child is a girl or a boy may be relieved to hear not everything has changed.

John Lewis is still selling dresses - although they are tagged with the same "Girls and Boys" label as the children's trousers.

Anyone who thinks genes can be trumped by politically correct clothing strategies is certainly bonkers. What else does one say? It isn’t likely to do much harm in the long run so maybe John Lewis and their parent customers see it more as a look at me opportunity than a genuine determination to prepare middle class kids for a gender neutral future. The world is not gender neutral.

In other words it is little more than virtue signalling rather than a somewhat unethical experiment on real children. At least one hopes that’s what it is. From a lesser of two evils point of view.

Back to school



Round here today was the first day of the new school year and exactly as I always remember it. Misty and humid with an early morning chill. Everywhere damp and heavy, leaves beginning to yellow and fall, air thick with the aroma of autumn, summer a fading memory.



Sunday, 3 September 2017

A few inches of modesty

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He recognised the gardener's daughter, a girl who had been confirmed last Easter and had just begun to wear long skirts. To-night, however, she was dressed in one of her old dresses which barely reached to her ankles.

August Strindberg - Married (1884)


Strewth, what’s the distance between enticing ankle and modest floor? I’ll get my tape measure...

...about four inches I’d say, including the heel of my shoe. No wonder Freud was invented.

Saturday, 2 September 2017

Short cut

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I use a mains electric mower to mow our lawn. An easy enough job with the extension lead but because of the trees I find it best to cut the lawn in two halves. Mowing the lawn in two halves reduces the risk of mowing the cable into two halves.

When I've finished half the lawn I need to shift the extension lead to the half I’ve already cut. Easy enough if I don’t get tangled in all those yards of electric cable. However a few years ago I changed tactics. Instead of trying to shove the extension lead to one side when switching halves, I took the time to make the job neater and easier.

Unplug the mower from the extension lead.
Rewind the extension lead.
Re-route the extension lead to the mown half of the lawn.
Plug the mower into the extension lead and off we go.

Previously I couldn’t be bothered with all that, but out of interest I timed how long to took me to re-route that extension lead. Less than a minute and it made the job easier. Not a major improvement but well worth that extra minute.

I put it down to habits picked up during my working life. Push on, finish the job and move on to the next. Small improvements can be lost amid the pressure to get things done, but that’s not quite it. There is another factor at work too.

In many circumstances, a perceived lack of haste can come across as plodding because that's how plodders go about their plodding. Increasing the number of steps in a job for whatever reason, can seem like plodding too. Moving on swiftly without an obvious pause seems keen, dynamic and on the ball even when it isn’t. Now it doesn't matter.

Friday, 1 September 2017

This banal, bookless age

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Rabbi Daniel Ross Goodman has a fairly lighthearted essay in Mercatornet on the well-trodden theme of young mobile phone obsessives, particularly students. His key point is a good one, if not unfamiliar to older people. A few quotes may give a flavour of the piece but the whole thing is worth reading. It isn't long.

Western civilization died on March 6, 2015. This day will forever mark the beginning of the decline and fall of the West, not because this was the eve of the first Sabbath during which I would serve as a substitute rabbi—though that fact alone is reason enough for us to fear that the apocalypse is nigh—but because, while on a Peter Pan bus traveling from New York to my hometown in western Massachusetts, I spotted a blue road sign on Interstate 91 that read: “TEXT STOP: 5 MILES.”...

The students in the bus who weren’t dozing were using their smartphones to talk to their friends, to queue up a Kanye song (this is what the girl in the purple sweater to my left was doing), to scroll through Facebook (what the scruffy, black-haired boy in blue corduroys to my right was doing), and to—of course—surf the web (does anyone even use this term any more?).

And they all did so with eyes cast downwards, firmly fixed on the small flickering screen at their fingertips, applying the now ubiquitous forward-and-upward flicking motion of the index finger or thumb that has become the universal symbol of “nothing in this world could possibly interest me more than this puny, potent, omnipresent appliance in my palm.”...

How will this ceaselessly distracted society sustain the capacity for undisturbed quiet that is necessary for studious scientific prodigies to become our future nuclear physicists, biomedical engineers, and pioneering astrophysicists?

I fear that our future Einsteins and Keplers and Hawkings and Hubbles will be lost in the swampy smog of digital quicksand. I fear that one day, each of us will look back on this moment in history and say, “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by the e-crack of the internet, starving for wisdom, dragging themselves through the nefarious technological streets looking for an info-byte; angel-headed thinkers and writers thirsting for an ancient heavenly connection, but lost to the interminable trolling and tweeting and tumblring to sacred Saint Text.”


It is almost as if human intelligence is being outsourced to the machine. The machine will give us the answer, tell us what to do, avoid the questions we should not ask, divert us with games and trivia when we should be thinking and questioning. 

Thursday, 31 August 2017

Shining a light

The 1899 flashlight was a fiber tube with brass end caps and bulls-eye glass lens at one end.
source

All inventions were new once upon a time. Older fiction was often written during the early days of inventions we now take for granted. Sometimes that allows us to see familiar bits and pieces of our world from a different and less familiar perspective.

There is a trivial but interesting example in the fiction of Robert Barr. He was a friend of Conan Doyle in spite of the fact that he once wrote two parodies of Sherlock Holmes. Look up Sherlaw Kombs on Google.

In the passage below Barr feels it necessary to describe the workings of an electric torch so one assumes that most of his readers would be unfamiliar with such new-fangled gadgets.

It was perhaps half-past ten or eleven o'clock when I began my investigations. I had taken the precaution to provide myself with half a dozen so-called electric torches before I left London. These give illumination for twenty or thirty hours steadily, and much longer if the flash is used only now and then.

The torch is a thick tube, perhaps a foot and a half long, with a bull's-eye of glass at one end. By pressing a spring the electric rays project like the illumination of an engine's headlight. A release of the spring causes instant darkness. I have found this invention useful in that it concentrates the light on any particular spot desired, leaving all the surroundings in gloom, so that the mind is not distracted, even unconsciously, by the eye beholding more than is necessary at the moment. One pours a white light over any particular substance as water is poured from the nozzle of a hose.


Robert Barr - The Ghost with the Club-Foot (1906)

According to Wikipedia

The invention of the dry cell and miniature incandescent electric light bulbs made the first battery-powered flashlights possible around 1899.

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

If it was not for the inspector

source

Well, I simply hate school.  I don’t care for children — they are unpleasant, troublesome little things, whom nothing would delight so much as to hear that you had fallen down dead.  Yet I would even put up with them if it was not for the inspector.  For three months before his visit I didn’t sleep soundly.  And the Committee of Council are always changing the Code, so that you don’t know what to teach, and what to leave untaught.

Thomas Hardy – A Mere Interlude (1885)


Is nothing new? The frustrations of modern life seem to have remarkably deep roots. 

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Sandra is calm and seems fine



According to trustedreviews  the latest rumour is that Apple’s iPhone 8 launch event will take place on September 12. Two weeks to go to the big day.

A few months ago Jordan Kahn of 9TO5Mac speculated about the new phone's potential for fun and games with augmented reality. Among various possibilities the above image surely sets a few hares running. 

Perhaps Sandra is calm because she views the future with equanimity. One day she may benefit from augmented equanimity. Or is that what these gadgets are all about anyway - a spurious sense of control?

Sunday, 27 August 2017

Strangely modern



While on holiday we popped into Coleton Fishacre. For those who do not know the place, Wikipedia has this summary

The house at Coleton Fishacre was built as a country home for Rupert D'Oyly Carte and his wife, Lady Dorothy Carte, between 1923 and 1926. The architect was Oswald Milne, a former assistant to Edwin Lutyens, who designed the house with the principles of the Arts and Crafts Movement in mind: simplicity of design and quality of craftsmanship. The influence of this older movement notwithstanding, the house is influenced by its own time, especially in its Art Deco interior. 

An interesting house from an interesting period. Completed in the year of the General Strike, it is unsurprisingly modern and yet noting that it is quite modern comes as something of a surprise too. A huge number of us live in houses of a similar age or older, but this one has been furnished to resemble its original internal appearance from a century ago.

Yet apart from some obvious clues such as brass light switches, Lalique light shades, deco furniture and antiquated kitchen equipment the interior still feels remarkably up to date even though it obviously isn't. Bedrooms even have washbasin surrounds decorated with tiles made from recycled glass. Did somebody read the Manchester Guardian I wonder? One could easily live in the house today and that feels a little odd because the interior is almost a hundred years old. 



Take a look at the saloon pictured above. Imagine the Jazz Age background music played while we were there. Why is that odd? Maybe it isn’t, but this visitor was left wondering why we have made so few improvements to the domestic interior, as if there were hardly any worthwhile improvements to be made so we did not make them. That was not the case for ordinary people, but millions soon had all that Coleton Fishacre had apart from size, servants and setting. This has been improved too -



Or has it? How about this?



The world has certainly moved on from the nineteen twenties and taken us to where we are now, but after strolling around Coleton it is easy to imagine the vague shapes of an alternative future. Coleton seems to have embedded within it a range of possibilities, a range of practical ideals we could have adopted but never did, the best of which never took root and perhaps never could have taken root within the feckless agitations of human nature. Yet they are still there to haunt us, those ghosts of what might have been.

It is as if Coleton shows us a future where we might have made ourselves more aware of what is good and what works, what enhances life and what does not, what lasts and what is ephemeral and why that matters. The house has a timeless and even virtuous solidity we have managed to discard because cheap and disposable keep the show on the road while solidity does not and virtue has become political anyway.

Running counter to that thought is an irresistible temptation is to compare the best of the present with the grimmer aspects of 1926 and there is no shortage of those. We have so much that our ancestors did not. Vaccination, prosperity, the welfare state, mass education, all these changes reflect a harsh light onto the past. They also obscure the view. We cannot easily put them to one side and compare our present with an alternative timeline which never happened. And yet one is bound to wonder...

Saturday, 26 August 2017

Red Arrows



Back from our holiday a day later than planned. We booked an an impromptu overnight stay in Sidmouth so that we could watch the Red Arrows display. Seen them before but crikey they are good.

More later.

Thursday, 17 August 2017

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

The prison on the plain

As a youngster I read a number of stories which impressed me, stories I’ve always remembered. One was about a futuristic prison set in a vast, uninhabited plain. The was no cover on the plain, no hiding place for prisoners should any be enterprising and lucky enough to escape its massive walls.

Not only was the prison itself secure, but above the plain robot aircraft patrolled day and night, designed to detect and fire on the slightest movement. The story concerned an escapee who made it to the plain but I can’t remember how he avoided those robot aircraft.

What I do remember is how fascinated I was about the notion of an escape-proof prison, because in my young mind that’s what it was in spite of the hero presumably escaping. A comparison with modern life is obvious. Even in my childhood the prison on the plain was not particularly fanciful. Suppose we stick with the word fanciful.

Imagine a future where there is no cash, nowhere to buy anything outside monitored electronic transactions. Everyone is known to the system, anyone can be monitored in any number of ways. Anyone can be financially deactivated within minutes and located within hours should they violate any one of an uncountable number of laws and regulations.

Is that fanciful?

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

A bit o’ butter



This is a piece of eighteenth century porcelain. Made in Lowestoft round about 1770, the cobalt design has clearly run into the lead glaze but with Lowestoft that is not particularly unusual. Firing these things was an art and some firings turned out better than others but everything had to be sold if at all possible. I have included a 50 pence piece to show how small it is. The capacity is about 50ml.

What is it though? Sometimes such pieces are described as cream boats, sometimes as butter boats. Georgians were fond of cream and melted butter so perhaps they were used for both or maybe something else entirely.

If they were used for melted butter then the question of cleaning them afterwards may be worth a thought, especially if we bear in mind the greasy nature of butter, the lack of modern detergents plus the high cost of porcelain even with that runny design. It was expensive and could not be treated roughly.

In which case a servant would never give a porcelain butter boat to the kitchen cat to lick off the greasy remains of congealed butter. That idea would probably work as a cleaning technique but the risk of breakage is probably too high.

How about this possibility? After the nobs have finished their meal, a servant wipes the butter boat clean with a piece of bread, eats the bread then finishes off by licking the butter boat clean. A quick wipe with a kitchen rag and back on the shelf it goes – job done. 

That’s antiques stimulating the imagination.

Monday, 14 August 2017

Shoe fetish

A widely reported shoe story is bound to catch the cynical eye.

Clarks has been accused of "everyday sexism" for a calling a girls' school shoe "Dolly Babe", while the boys' equivalent is called "Leader".

The girls' shoes carry a heart-patterned insole, while the boys' insoles are decorated with footballs.

Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland, said the situation was unacceptable and "almost beyond belief" in 2017.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Conservative MP for North East Somerset, also criticised Clarks. "To call a pair of shoes for a girl Dolly Babe is dreadful. It's wrong in all sorts of ways ... this is just really silly," he told the BBC.

Carolyn Harris, shadow minister for women and equalities, described the situation as "blatant discrimination", while Sarah Ludford, a Liberal Democrat peer and shadow Brexit minister, called the name choices "depressing


So much madness. A blogger could easily post on nothing else - there is so much of it out there. One might respond more rationally in any number of ways. The obvious one is to suggest that if boys, girls or parents don’t want politically incorrect shoes then they can take their custom elsewhere. Clarks sales figures may then lead it to correct the situation because that’s what markets do.

This of course is part of the problem, the chattering classes do not approve of markets, they think they should be policed by people who think as they do. Of course markets are already policed with respect to standards, but as ever there are those who think they should be policed politically too. Hence our increasingly shambolic energy market.

What about the madness itself, the source of so many crazy stories? It is not the madness of insanity, but the madness of a civilisation that chooses not to recognise certain realities it cannot change but for political reasons must pretend to be changing. That is one for the future, one of the chapters in our ultimate collapse or a problem we learn to deal with in the wider story of our ultimate survival.

For the present we have a minor skirmish in the war against diversity which pretends to be promoting diversity. It also seems to my cynical eye that this battle over kids’ shoes is a reminder of where those stereotyped shoes came from, a reminder that gender stereotypes are popular, particularly with the young. They evolved because they work. Yet we are supposed to believe or at least accept relentless public harangues telling us that gender stereotyping is repressive, out of date, harmful, immoral, itchy or whatever epithet is fashionable, even though almost everyone knows it is not so.

Gender stereotyping is clearly popular out there in the real world. It can be observed over and over again, especially among the young. I recently saw a group of about a dozen young girls and every one of them had fashionably long hair, at least shoulder-length. That was only one of their ways to stereotype themselves.

To my low mind, one should not avoid the basics. Females tend to seek alpha males and in doing that they do not usually depend on gender-neutral footwear. This is the way of the world, one of the biological basics we should not avoid. I don’t know what drives the faux outrage apart from the obvious Pavlovian explanation, but if we neglect the basics we neglect what we know. 

Saturday, 12 August 2017

Silence



We were walking on Ecton Hill today. A pleasant walk, part of which took us along a narrow country road which led to a few farmhouses before petering out into a track winding along a valley. This part of the walk was very quiet. We were well away from the Manifold Trail, there were no busy roads nearby, hardly any people and nothing to disturb the sheep from their contented grazing.

It was so quiet that we both noticed how silent it was. Hardly a sound apart from our own footsteps. It didn’t last but most of us have probably become so accustomed to noise that the lack of it is noticed, especially in broad daylight.

The picture shows an old millpond with a small derelict stone building in one corner. Not even a duck ripples the water.

Thursday, 10 August 2017

Amazon Prime Trending Movies


Currently the first four Amazon Prime Trending Movies are

The Mask - a 1994 American superhero fantasy comedy film directed by Charles Russell, produced by Bob Engelman, and written by Mike Werb, loosely based on the comic series of the same name distributed by Dark Horse Comics.

Constantine - a 2005 American occult detective film directed by Francis Lawrence (in his directorial debut) and starring Keanu Reeves as John Constantine. Rachel Weisz, Shia LaBeouf, Tilda Swinton, Pruitt Taylor Vince, and Djimon Hounsou co-star. With a screenplay by Kevin Brodbin and Frank Cappello, the film is based on DC Comics' Hellblazer comic book,

Practical Magic - Maria Owens, a young witch, is exiled to Maria's Island in Massachusetts with her unborn child for escaping her execution. When her lover does not come to rescue her, she desperately casts a spell upon herself to stop falling in love due to heartbreak, only to die soon after.

Annabelle  - a 2014 American supernatural horror film directed by John R. Leonetti, written by Gary Dauberman and produced by Peter Safran and James Wan.

To summarise - we have a fantasy based on comics, an occult tale also based on a comic, a dose of witchcraft and a tale of the supernatural. Movies are merely entertainment of course. However popular they may be, does their popularity cast doubt on the rational nature of our culture?

Yes.

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Former People

"Comrade Lenin Cleanses the Earth of Filth" by Viktor Deni. November 1930
source

Written by Douglas Smith, Former People: The Destruction of the Russian Aristocracy is not a cheery read. It is a very well written and horribly compelling history of the Bolshevik Revolution. “Former people” is a term applied to the tsarist ruling class, the class enemies of the revolution. Their story is told primarily through the grim fate of two noble families, the Sheremetovs and the Golitsyns. As Smith says -

History, we are told, is written by the victors. What is less often stated, though no less important, is that history is usually written about the victors; winners get more attention in the history books than losers.

The Sheremetovs and the Golitsyns certainly lost, although many nobles saw, however dimly, the inevitability of a Russian catastrophe. They knew Tsar Nicholas II was hopeless and they also knew things had to change and would change sooner or later. What they did not foresee was how ruthless, how astonishingly rapid and catastrophically devastating that change would be.

As the historian Evan Mawdsley commented, “The Civil War unleashed by Lenin’s revolution was the greatest national catastrophe Europe had yet seen.” Russia descended into savage anarchy beyond imagination. “War and strife, famine and pestilence—the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” Mawdsley wrote, “devastated the largest country in Europe.”

However, there are also a few touches of grim irony to remind us that human nature is not changed by even the most severe political turmoil.

The famine gripping Russia in those years spared no one, except for the new elite; the Sheremetevs’ remaining chef left them around this time to cook for Lenin and his comrades in the Kremlin.

Inevitably the hypocrisy took many forms.

Bunin reveled in pointing out the hypocrisy of Red leaders who preached “war on the palaces” and then moved into them as soon as the owners had been evicted. He was revolted by this “new aristocracy”: “Sailors with huge revolvers on their belts, pickpockets, criminal villains, and shaved dandies in service jackets, depraved-looking riding britches, and dandy-like shoes with the inevitable spurs. All have gold teeth and big, dark, cocaine-like eyes.”

With equal inevitability, some journalists had allegiances they were happy enough to share with their readers.

The British reporter Walter Duranty arrived in Moscow in 1921. Among his earliest impressions of the Soviet capital was the dreadful condition of the old aristocracy.

To another Western reporter, Edwin Hullinger, the same scene testified to the revolution’s great achievement. Having stripped away the institutional foundations upon which class and caste had been built, the revolution had exposed people’s true essence:

As proof, Hullinger quoted the words of a former countess. “Yes, many of us can see that the Revolution was for the best,” she told him. “It made us into living, real people. Many were only existing before. We have gained confidence in ourselves because we know we can do things. I like it better. I would not go back to the old. And there are many young people of our class who think as I do. But we paid a terrible price. I presume it was necessary, however.”

As a single example of that terrible price, here is the story of one life briefly told.

Consider the case of Professor Nikolai Nekrasov, the last governor-general of Finland before the revolution and a former minister in the Provisional Government. An excellent engineer, he had been arrested several times, most recently in 1930, when he was sentenced to ten years. He was brought to Dmitlag as an inmate specialist, yet was given his own newly constructed house in the “the free sector” along with a car and driver. He was released in 1935 but chose to stay on and worked at Dmitlag until the project was finished. In 1940, he was arrested for a final time and then shot.

The Former People story is well told and well worth reading, but to my mind the most lasting lesson of Smith’s book is a forceful reminder of something we already know. Former People sets before us an important political lesson to be drawn from the Bolshevik Revolution – the eternal role of political enemies.

Political parties, factions and movements all need enemies. Even the effete parties of our floundering democracies need them. There is an absolute political necessity to have or to invent the Outsider, the one who is responsible for present woes, the one who must be destroyed in order to set things right, who must be hated in order to relieve the faithful from any possibility of doubt.

Life, comrades,” Stalin announced in 1935, “has become better, life has become more cheerful.” His words became the defining slogan for the mid-1930s, the brief three years from 1934 to 1937 between the end of the First Five-Year Plan and the Great Terror.

The same year Stalin made his famous remark, the newspaper Komsomolskaia Pravda ran a series of articles on “Teaching Hatred” by such luminaries as Maxim Gorky and Ilya Ehrenburg. Hatred, it turns out, was not to be condemned but instilled, encouraged, and celebrated, for persons “who cannot hate with passion are unlikely to be able to love with passion.”

One is left with the impression that even our politically correct laws against hate speech may not be what they seem. By inventing haters we have surely invented yet another enemy. The person or social group accused of hating may in turn be hated with impunity. People who used to speak their mind on subjects now closed for debate perhaps. Former People we might almost say.

Monday, 7 August 2017

August

August is a rum month. On the one hand it is still the height of summer but on the other it isn’t as the days become noticeably shorter and even the trees seem ready to shed their leaves. That delicious green of spring is long gone, leaves are darker, almost dusty in appearance.

It’s not that I dislike August. A bit more summer is always welcome, but September seems more honest somehow, more inclined to be what it is supposed to be. August isn’t like that. So far, here in Derbyshire August is a bit crap. It has sneaked in too much cloud and rain for a start. Give me honest September any day.

While we are on the subject of weather, I'm sure the Met Office forecasts are less reliable than they were a few years ago. Maybe it's their ridiculously expensive new computer - perhaps nobody really knows how to work it. Or maybe it relies on wind power.

Sunday, 6 August 2017

The culture of the BBC

It was the usual round-up of rootless intellectuals, and the talk was the kind of thing you expect—terribly knowing and disillusioned and conscientiously indecent. I remember my grandfather had a phrase for the smattering of cocksure knowledge which was common in his day—the “culture of the Mechanics’ Institute.” I don’t know what the modern equivalent would be—perhaps the “culture of the B.B.C.”
John Buchan - The Island of Sheep (1936)

The quote surprised me when I originally came across it. Surely in Buchan's day the BBC was stuffy, high-minded and acutely conscious of its social responsibilities?

A casual observation by a character in a work of fiction does not overthrow that perception, but it certainly chimes with Buchan's general outlook. He disliked the kind of trite intellectual dominant in our public arena today and especially within the BBC. He would have raised an eyebrow at BBC salaries too.

At the time of publication, John Buchan as 1st Baron Tweedsmuir, was Governor General of Canada so he probably looked down on the BBC as a callow upstart in the world of social and political ideas. Perhaps he thought the corporation might mature into something weightier if only the right chaps were involved,  a perspective likely to be common enough within his exalted class.

Eighty years later the BBC seems to be much the same apart from the technology and the accents. Its culture survived and flourished while Buchan’s did not. 

Saturday, 5 August 2017

An ineradicable daftness

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We’re all getting old, of course, but you’re not acquiring the virtues of age. There’s still an ineradicable daftness about you.
John Buchan - The Island of Sheep (1936)

There is problem with being almost the same age as Jeremy Corbyn. In my younger days I knew people just like him, faux political radicals who were never going anywhere but a safe and comfortable niche in the public sector.

Even then it was obvious where they would end up. Even then it was clear that their talk was merely talk, a kind of futile strutting with no more substance than a mission statement.

That is the problem with being almost the same age as Corbyn. I find it almost impossible to take the chap seriously - it's the ineradicable daftness of the man. He should have grown out of it long ago. 

Friday, 4 August 2017

Little Chef



Saw a number of derelict Little Chefs during the journey to and from our Suffolk holiday destination. Hardly surprising - the last one we visited was so grim that Mrs H left her most negative TripAdvisor comment ever.

For a while they were sometimes convenient coffee stops but those days are long gone. Slow service and a dated Formica ambience are not the way to compete with the likes of Starbucks and Costa. According to Wikipedia 

 On 1 February 2017 the Little Chef chain was purchased by Euro Garages Ltd. where the chain's future became unclear.
In February 2017 Euro Garages began a programme to close down all Little Chefs, replacing them with other brands available to them such as Starbucks. This is scheduled to be complete before the end of the year.

Stopping off for a coffee on long road journeys is not usually an enriching experience, but the demise of Little Chef could be a welcome improvement.

Thursday, 27 July 2017

Hols

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We'll soon be setting off on our Suffolk holiday, so limited blogging for a while.

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

In the midst, there was a darkness

In Lytton Strachey’s book Eminent Victorians, there is an interesting observation about William Gladstone. Interesting because with only slight alterations to the wording, Strachey’s viewpoint could be applied to modern leadership. For example, if we substitute Tony Blair for William Gladstone we end up with a passage which does not fit Blair exactly but is close enough to be interesting.

There is absolutely no intention to imply that Blair is another Gladstone. It is a question of leadership and different types of leader. Here is the passage with the alterations.

In spite of the involutions of his intellect and the contortions of his spirit, it is impossible not to perceive a strain of naiveté in Mr. Gladstone Mr Blair. He adhered to some of his principles that of the value of representative institutions, for instance with a faith which was singularly literal; his views upon religion government were uncritical to crudeness; he had no sense of humour. Compared with Disraeli's Thatcher’s, his attitude towards life strikes one as that of an ingenuous child.

His very egoism was simple-minded; through all the labyrinth of his passions there ran a single thread. But the centre of the labyrinth? Ah! the thread might lead there, through those wandering mazes, at last. Only, with the last corner turned, the last step taken, the explorer might find that he was looking down into the gulf of a crater. The flame shot out on every side, scorching and brilliant; but in the midst, there was a darkness.

Lytton Strachey - Eminent Victorians (1918)

If we choose to expand this, then we might say it is impossible not to perceive a strain of naiveté in the very concept of modern democratic leadership, impossible not to perceive how necessary it is for modern leaders to adopt and project an uncritically crude view of government capabilities.

There is no need to stick with Tony Blair to see this played out in modern leadership. Political ideas must have wide appeal to chime with the millions who do little or no research, being satisfied with crude maxims and naive allegiances.

We evolved, to navigate our way through life by evading surprises. A crude standpoint enables us to do that, especially when it comes to the infinite complexities of political life. If nothing is irretrievably anchored to reality then everything is explainable, especially after the event. This is the political world in which all would-be leaders must cast their nets.

A further point is Strachey’s claim that Gladstone really had a strain of naiveté in his character and his religious views really were uncritical to the point of crudeness. It was no facade and perhaps that was advantageous too.

We have certainly seen this kind of thing in modern leaders and maybe we see now in Jeremy Corbyn. Perhaps this is the source of his appeal just as a lack of a sufficiently crude outlook is the source of Theresa May’s credibility problems. In which case she is unlikely to resolve those problems because other people do it better. Boris Johnson for example, although he made the mistake of adopting a clown persona. An oddly naive thing to do – it displays the facade.

Yet facades work too. Leaders do not have to be like Gladstone. They do not have to be naive themselves to see the value of naiveté, neither need they have a crude notion of government in order to promote crude political maxims. On the other hand, leaders who are genuinely naive with a genuinely crude notion of government may be very effective political leaders, especially in a world of Twitter storms.

Of course this is politics. It is the other lot who always adopt the crudest notions of government and promote the most naive policies don’t they?

Monday, 24 July 2017

Three Mercedes ads



Via Mercatornet we are treated to three Mercedes ads where the cars are barely seen. All is emotion, soul-searching and glutinous modernity. The three ads are called.

Grow up: “Be a good parent”
Grow up: “Settle down”:
Grow up: “Start a family”:

The second and third ads are here and here. Meanwhile the Telegraph treats us to another, more familiar angle which may help us to explain what must be a substantial advertising spend.

Germany’s biggest car manufacturers shares plunged in early trading as investors digested allegations about decades of collusion between Volkswagen, BMW and Daimler.

Investors dumped the shares after reports, which first appeared in the German press late on Friday afternoon, claiming the companies may have secretly worked together on technology, forming a cartel that could have led to the “dieselgate” emission scandal.

The allegations come just days after Daimler recalled more than 3m of its Mercedes Benz cars for work to lower their emissions. The week before, Audi - which is owned by Volkswagen - recalled 850,000 vehicles.

Sunday, 23 July 2017

Ercol revival



Over the past few years a mild air of dissatisfaction has begun to taint the musty atmosphere of antiques centres. At least it has for us and the culprit is Ercol furniture. Nothing wrong with Ercol if that is how your tastes evolved. The quality seems pretty good and the company is still around making more of it, but we have two problems with it infesting the antiques trade.

Firstly there is the disconcerting fact that a style we grew up with is now labelled as 'antique'. Oh dear - are we that old? Labelling it as 'retro' helps a little but 'vintage' is no great improvement. Not that we ever bought any Ercol but it helped define the seventies interior and now gives an unwelcome nudge about those aspirations we nurtured only a few decades ago.

Secondly it is too obvious where much of this Ercol is coming from. Oldies who bought it to furnish their houses are downsizing, moving into retirement homes or dying. As it is now worth money, their lovingly polished furniture passes into the antiques trade.

I suppose one might call it recycling. Even that sounds better than 'antique'... or maybe it doesn't.

Friday, 21 July 2017

Vinegar, salt and sardines


Via pri.org we discover the delights of shopping in Venezuela.

Rosalba Diaz pushes her shopping cart through what, at first glance, seems like a well-stocked supermarket in Caracas. But looking closer, she can see that many of the shelves are jammed with bottles of vinegar, boxes of salt and cans of sardines.

Diaz, 66, is an economist at a Caracas consulting firm, but she says her salary cannot keep up with Venezuela’s near 800 percent inflation. Last year, she stopped traveling and eating out. She has shopped at this market for more than 20 years but now, she says, many basic items are missing from the shelves — things like bread, rice, coffee and corn flour. And what is on the shelves is unaffordable.

“Food is so expensive,” Diaz says, as she pushes her cart. “I can’t buy heavy cream. I can’t even buy cereal or fruit.”

She checks out the onions, which cost 4,000 bolivars a kilo (about 50 cents at the black market exchange rate). That’s twice as much as last week, so Diaz says she’s only buying two.

Thursday, 20 July 2017

Best job in the world

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John Reith (1889-1971) was the founder of the BBC. He was its first general manager when it was set up as the British Broadcasting Company in 1922; and he was its first director general when it became a public corporation in 1927. He created both the templates for public service broadcasting in Britain; and for the arms-length public corporations that were to follow, especially after World War Two. Reith fought off the politicians' attempts to influence the BBC, while offering the British people programmes to educate, inform and entertain.

The recent BBC pay issue has been interesting on a number of counts, but surprise is not one of them. We have always known about celebrities attracting huge salaries, yet even though the information provided by the BBC is far from complete we are not talking about vast sums when compared to corporation's overall income.

Two aspects do stand out though. Firstly the distribution of the lucre seems oddly haphazard. One might expect to see talent rewarded in a fairly systematic manner, but that does not seem to be how it is actually done.

For example, it is not at all obvious why Gary Lineker earns between £1,750,000 and 1,799,999. Personable football pundits are not rarities. Somebody deep in the bowels of the BBC will have a justification, but it probably seems haphazard because it is. Similarly we learn that talking heads may earn £500,000 or more doing a job any competent actor could do and would probably enjoy doing at least as well for far less. 

Secondly we note how the BBC makes no attempt to apply its aggressively egalitarian public ethos to its own internal affairs. That is no surprise either. The BBC has adopted the ethos of the entertainment industry even though it need do no such thing. As a dominant UK player with much to offer in terms of security and satisfaction it could have been a very different organisation with a less hypocritical ethos. For example.

BBC Radio 5 live Breakfast's Rachel Burden, who co-presents with Nicky Campbell (who's in the £400,000 - 449,999 bracket), was under no obligation to reveal her salary as it falls below the £150,000 threshold.

But she tweeted: "Whilst we're in the transparency game, and for those asking, I fall in the middle of the 100-150k category.

"This is a huge amount of money for a job I love doing five days a week, and I know what a privilege it is to be able to say that.

"Also worth saying we have a brilliant team of journalists on far, far less than that who we totally rely on and I'm so grateful to them."

Political correspondent Chris Mason added: "Good on Rachel for volunteering this. I'll do same: I earn £60,000 as a Political Correspondent. Best job in world."

BBC Radio 4 Money Box host Paul Lewis also disclosed his earnings, saying: "Many of us are now doing this. Excellent. As I said some hours ago in 2016/17 I got £67,413 total BBC fees."


"Best job in the world," says Political Correspondent Chris Mason. It probably is for those on the inside.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Turbine tech



The Engineer has an interesting article on the remarkable technology behind Rolls Royce turbine blades.

The components the ABCF is producing are not ones that most people ever see: they are the turbine blades that are hidden away in the hottest part of jet engines. For from the decorative brilliance of Greek bronzes, they combine a utilitarian appearance with complexity of form and function and a jewel-like internal perfection: weighing only about 300g and small enough to fit in the palm of a hand, they are in fact perfect single crystals of a metal alloy whose composition has been fine-tuned over many years to operate in the hellish conditions of the fastest-moving part of a jet engine.

During a summer job in the late sixties I worked in a Rolls Royce lab where we tested this type of blade. In those days they were simpler but not so very different in appearance. The lab I worked in was trying to coat them with tungsten using a kind of plasma spray gun. Tungsten wire was fed into the plasma and sprayed by hand onto test blades. One problem was sunburn from all the uv generated by the plasma.

Surprisingly enough it all seemed rather casual to me, with little sense of urgency. We drank tea from laboratory beakers and some people brought in foreigners, which were DIY projects smuggled in to take advantage of Rolls Royce technical and engineering facilities in various parts of the site. 

One chap repaired his rusty torch this way. First he had the metal case sandblasted to remove the old paint and the rust, then he repaired rust holes with resin. Next he had the thing spray painted in a Rolls Royce painting booth and finally a metal ring which held the glass was nickel-plated in a Rolls Royce plating bath. A few years later Rolls-Royce was declared bankrupt. That torch was a symptom of malaise, even I could tell that.

Things are obviously very different now and it's a pity that this kind of story in the Engineer rarely makes it into the mainstream media. No doubt it is basically a press release, but it is an interesting one, isn't all that technical and deserves a wider circulation. Instead we have reams of drivel about the latest incarnation of Dr Who, a kids' TV programme.