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Saturday, 31 December 2011

"The English" by Jeremy Paxman

Although this book is now 12 years old I've only just read it having seen a copy on my son's bookshelf recently. It was a thoroughly enjoyable read. Let me quote from the Amazon description of The English:
"What is it about the English? Not the British overall, not the Scots, not the Irish or Welsh, but the English. Why do they seem so unsure of who they are? As Jeremy Paxman remarks in his preface to The English, being English "used to be so easy". Now, with the Empire gone, with Wales and Scotland moving into more independent postures, with the troubling spectre of a united Europe (and despite the raucous hype of "Cool Britannia"), the English seem to have entered a collective crisis of national identity."

Saturday, 24 December 2011


Whether you celebrate Christmas as a Christian or simply as a time in mid-winter when you can enjoy some good food and family company, I hope Dec 25th is a very happy time for you.

What happened in the Middle East over 2000 years ago this Christmas may never be properly known, but just perhaps something extraordinary did happen back then. The stories about it have passed down over the centuries. They may be inaccurate, mixed up, partly myth, or totally wrong. Somehow though I have a deep sense that in this muddled, often contradictory, set of accounts there is something timeless and important we need to respond to. 

And here is the famous poem by John Betjeman that senses this. In the midst of the humdrum activities of Christmas - the presents and the food and the decorations - there is that mystery. What really happened? What is the message?


The bells of waiting Advent ring,
The Tortoise stove is lit again
And lamp-oil light across the night
Has caught the streaks of winter rain.
In many a stained-glass window sheen
From Crimson Lake to Hooker’s Green.

The holly in the windy hedge
And round the Manor House the yew
Will soon be stripped to deck the ledge,
The altar, font and arch and pew,
So that villagers can say
‘The Church looks nice’ on Christmas Day.

Provincial public houses blaze
And Corporation tramcars clang,
On lighted tenements I gaze
Where paper decorations hang,
And bunting in the red Town Hall
Says ‘Merry Christmas to you all’

And London shops on Christmas Eve
Are strung with silver bells and flowers
As hurrying clerks the City leave
To pigeon-haunted classic towers,
And marbled clouds go scudding by
The many-steepled London sky.

And girls in slacks remember Dad,
And oafish louts remember Mum,
And sleepless children’s hearts are glad,
And Christmas morning bells say ‘Come!’
Even to shining ones who dwell
Safe in the Dorchester Hotel.

And is it true? and is it true?
The most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue,
A Baby in an ox’s stall?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me?

And is it true? For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant.

No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare -
That God was Man in Palestine
And lives to-day in Bread and Wine.

— John Betjeman (1906 - 1984)

Remember Spangles sweets?

If, like me, you were a young child in the 1950s you will remember the sweets called Spangles that came in long rectangular packets containing square shaped hard sweets. They were available in all sorts of flavours. Spangles disappeared from shops years later and I don't think they are available nowadays. To me these are one of the evocative memories of the post war years in England along with sherbert lemon and similar treats.

For a look back at how we were see The 50s and 60s The Best of Times Growing Up and Being Young in Britain which is a nostalgic look back at the things that defined us.

Friday, 23 December 2011

Bara Brith

We were introduced to Bara Brith,  a low fat cake recipe, when in Wales with friends a few years ago. A version made with self-raising flour keeps for a long time. The Welsh recipe soaks dried fruit in tea overnight before baking. It is delicious with a cup of tea or as a slice with a dollop of ice cream after dinner. What is more, being low fat it is quite a healthy cake to enjoy.

Thursday, 22 December 2011

Eckhart Tolle

Are you, like me, one of the people who had never heard of Eckhart Tolle? My son told me about him this week. He's a German-born Canadian resident, a philosopher and thinker, and the author of the The Power of Now, a book I'd never heard about. I have watched a few of his YouTube videos and he does talk a lot of sense.  Tolle writes that "the most significant thing that can happen to a human being [is] the separation process of thinking and awareness" and that awareness is "the space in which thoughts exist". He also writes that religions "have become so overlaid with extraneous matter that their spiritual substance has become almost completely obscured", that they have become "to a large extent ... divisive rather than unifying forces" and become "themselves part of the insanity".   I am a little uncomfortable about the commercialisation of his work though which rather taints the good sense he talks. Still, there is a lot of free content around which is worth a look. Make up your own mind whether it is helpful or not on your own spiritual journey.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Bathroom spiders and memory

Some people love them and some hate them, but I find spiders fascinating and harmless creatures. About 6 weeks ago I noticed a spider about 5mm across, type unknown but typical type found in UK houses, creating a little nest above our bath. Rather than clear it away I left it and waited to see what happened. About 2 weeks ago the baby spiders started to appear, most often when we were having a bath and the room was warm and steamy. The first time just a couple appeared but within a week or so up to 10 baby spiders no more than 1-2mm across started to appear. This weekend I've noticed they've started to venture a bit further and are now at the other end of the room.

What amazes me about spiders, and indeed all sorts of insects and other wild creatures is the ability to do things by what must be inherited "memory". How does this tiny little spider know how to go hunting? How does it know how to create those incredible webs of silk? How does a late flying young swallow know how to head south across 6000-7000 miles of often hostile desert and oceans to join its parents in South Africa every autumn and then make the same journey back again the following spring?

How we all have evolved is nothing short of incredible. In the case of human beings we have something like 100 billion neurons and countless neural connections. It beggars believe.

Finally, one does wonder about inherited memory. Here I mean not only the sort of thing we'd call "instinct" but is there a possibility we actually can inherit/pass down actual memories (of things, places, events) from our ancestors? The traditional view is no, but sometimes I do wonder.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

What does the EU do for Europe?

I heard about yet another case where the bureaucrats in Brussels want to interfere with something which does not need interfering with today. In this case it was to do with amateur radio kits now needing additional tests. The impact of such changes will be to kill the market for these products in Europe. No-one benefits.

The EU as a free trade area without barriers to trade for its members is a perfectly fine thing, but when the bureaucrats and politicians want to go further and impose stupid regulations where none are needed I get frustrated and annoyed.

The problems with the euro today are because some nations either lied or hid the truth about their financial affairs. Living with the consequences will hurt all within the EU, including the UK which does not have the euro.

We would do well to forget federalism, a common currency and the meddling of petty bureaucrats and politicians and just agree that the EU will be again simply a free trade area, still with national identities, currencies and traditions. Light touch bureaucracy works best. 
Has Europe become a better, happier place in the last 40-50 odd years as a result of the EU? Unquestionably no.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

The Quaker Way?

The traditional view of a supernatural God "out there", beyond and above us, has never truly felt meaningful to me.  Nonetheless, despite reading and largely agreeing with much rational, atheist writing (e.g. that of Richard Dawkins), I am still left with a sense of the holiness, depth, mystery and "connectedness" of all things in the universe, especially of all living things. A purely biological explanation of how we came to be may be correct, but somehow misses something to do with our connectedness, our sense of the "spiritual" depth in our lives, of the fundamental mystery of life, consciousness, and total, unconditional love that appears key to our very existence. Life is not shallow.

The Quakers seem to have the right ideas. Let me quote from the Quaker faith in action webpage:
"Quaker faith springs from a deeply held belief in living our lives according to our spiritual experience. Some of our spiritual insights, which we call our testimonies, spring from deep experience and have been a part of Quaker faith for many years. These Quaker testimonies arise out of an inner conviction and challenge our normal ways of living:
  • they exist in spiritually led actions rather than rigid written forms
  • they are governed by continuing spiritual experience and are not imposed in any way
  • they require us to search for ways in which we can live out the testimonies for ourselves
It’s not easy, but with loving advice and a supportive community, Quakers are encouraged to keep trying.
Truth and integrity
Quakers try to live according to the deepest truth we know, which we believe comes from God. This means speaking the truth to all, including people in positions of power. Integrity is the guiding principle we set for ourselves and expect in public life.

Justice, equality and community

Quakers recognise the equal worth and unique nature of every person. This means working to change the systems that cause injustice and hinder true community. It also means working with people who are suffering from injustice, such as prisoners and asylum seekers.


Quakers are concerned about the excesses and unfairness of our consumer society, and the unsustainable use of natural resources. We try to live simply and to give space for the things that really matter: the people around us, the natural world, our experience of God.
Perhaps Quakers are best known for our peace testimony. This arises from our conviction that love is at the heart of existence and all human beings are equal in the eyes of God, and that we must live in a way that reflects this. The peace testimony has led Quakers to refuse military service, and to become involved in a wide range of peace activities, from practical work in areas affected by violent conflict to the development of alternatives to violence at all levels from personal to international. Read more about Quakers and peace."
Quakers are well known for their peace and reconciliation work across the world. They were central in bridge-building in N.Ireland. They have always maintained that war is ultimately futile and that there are better ways to solve international problems and disputes.  They have always had a very ethical way of doing business.

Fundamentally, Quakers look for "that of God in everyone". This sounds quaint, but it has deep meaning: in every human we see something of the depth and mystery that is at the core of all life. We are part of a complex interconnected web of life: in the face of every living thing we glimpse the ultimate meaning of life, the ground of all our being. We see what some would call God.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Steam trains, love and forgiveness

This weekend was rather special: we spent 3 days with one of our sons, his wife and our younger grandson in Kent. On Friday our other son and his wife and our other 2 grandchildren joined us for a family meal. It was a very happy time. Yesterday we took both grandsons (aged 2 and 4) on a Santa Special steam train and, of course, they loved it, especially the Christmas gifts they got from Santa.

This time of year can be very hard for many people: expectations seem to heightened at Christmas and for those who are lonely and unloved it can be a very cruel time. So, this Christmas let's spare a thought for our friends who don't have a family, or whose family is broken, those who have lost someone recently or who are suffering from mental or physical illness. I have a loving wife, a wonderful family with 3 grandchildren who are precious. Although my faith in God, if she/he exists, is weak, I do feel that I've been blessed and held by a love greater than I can explain or comprehend. Perhaps it is wishful thinking. Who knows. What I do know is that love and forgiveness are the greatest of gifts, especially at Christmas. 

Friday, 2 December 2011

Katla Volcano

The 1918 Katla Eruption
In the last 4 weeks there have been 500 small tremors under and around Katla, a volcano in Iceland. Last summer (just 24 hours after we drove across it!) an earlier flood caused by a small Katla eruption washed away the main bridge across the ring road in the south of Iceland near Vik. Katla erupts every 40-80 years and another is due. The consequences can be dramatic with 20% of the Icelandic population wiped out in an earlier one a few centuries back. It's dust cloud can affect weather on a worldwide scale reducing the temperature across the planet for several years. We could be in for a very cold spell for a few years if Katla decides to erupt big time.

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Dumbing down of skills

In my professional life I interviewed many graduates aspiring to become radio frequency (RF) engineers. Very few, in recent years, had what I would call "the knowledge". By this I mean a "gut instinct" for RF that does not come from an academic course, important though this is.  Rather, this "jizz" came by living and breathing RF through building radio things themselves, however simple. A great many "good" graduates in communications electronics knew little or nothing about radio or radio engineering, had never touched a soldering iron ever and were rejected.  A good RF engineer could usually be spotted within 2 minutes of the interview starting.

In the UK we have a growing, and very serious, issue with poorly educated science and engineering graduates who come out of universities without the skills needed to start work in industry. One answer was the sandwich course in which young A-level students were accepted on a company training scheme that married "on the job" skills training with educational training, usually to HND or degree level. People spotted young, with real RF "jizz" (easily judged in interviews) usually went on to become the best engineers we had.

The problem that I saw in radio engineering recruitment is also seen in other areas of electronics and engineering. We are risking our nation's future unless we educate young people well and equip them with the skills they need to live and work in the 21st century. Good creative and innovative engineers are essential.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Soul shards

Michael Rainey, a ham radio friend from New Hampshire posted this on Facebook today.   I thought I'd share it here too. It is the chapter called, "Soul-Shards" from Douglas Hofstadter's book, "I Am A Strange Loop", a book I have not read (yet).
"One gloomy day in early 1991, a couple of months after my father died, I was standing in the kitchen of my parents house and my mother, looking at a sweet and touching photograph of my father taken perhaps fifteen years earlier, said to me, with a note of despair, “What meaning does that photograph have? None at all. It’s just a flat piece of paper with dark spots on it here and there. It’s useless.” The bleakness of my mother’s grief-drenched remark set my head spinning because I knew instinctively that I disagreed with her, but I did not quite know how to express to her the way I felt the photograph should be considered.

After a few minutes of emotional pondering - soul-searching, quite literally - I hit upon an analogy that I felt could convey to my mother my point of view, and which I hoped might lend her at least a tiny degree of consolation. What I said to her was along the following lines.

“In the living room we have a book of the Chopin etudes for piano. All of its pages are just pieces of paper with dark marks on them, just as two-dimensional and flat and foldable as the photograph of Dad - and yet, think of the powerful effect that they have had on people all over the world for 150 years now. Thanks to those black marks on those flat sheets of paper, untold thousands of people have collectively spent millions of hours moving their fingers over the keyboards of pianos in complicated patterns, producing sounds that give them indescribable pleasure and a sense of great meaning. Those pianists in turn have conveyed to many millions of listeners, including you and me, the profound emotions that churned in Frederic Chopin’s heart, thus affording all of us some partial access to Chopin’s interiority - to the experience of living in the head, or rather the soul, of Frederic Chopin. The marks on those sheets of paper are no less than soul-shards - scattered remnants of the shattered soul of Frederic Chopin. Each of those strange geometries of notes has a unique power to bring back to life, inside our brains, some tiny fragment of the internal experiences of another human being - his sufferings, his joys, his deepest passions and tensions - and we thereby know, at least in part, what it was like to be that human being, and many people feel intense love for him. In just as potent a fashion, looking at that photograph of Dad brings back, to us who knew him intimately, the clearest memory of his smile and his gentleness, activates inside our living brains some of the most central representations of him that survive in us, makes little fragments of his soul dance again, but in the medium of brains other than his own. Like the score to a Chopin etude, that photograph is a soul-shard of someone departed, and it is something we should cherish as long as we live.”

Although the above is a bit more flowery than what I said to my mother, it gives the essence of my message. I don’t know what effect it had on her feelings about the picture, but that photo is still there, on a counter in her kitchen, and every time I look at it, I remember that exchange."

Monday, 21 November 2011

The Four Horsemen Cometh?

We increasingly behave like lemmings running towards that cliff edge. The question is when will we reach it? 2012, 2013?

In Europe there are no signs of solving the Euro crisis. In the USA the congressional committee tasked with getting bipartisan support for huge spending cuts has totally failed to come up with anything. The indebtedness of the UK has risen to 492% of GDP, according to new research.  World CO2 emissions were higher still last year and the rate of increase is accelerating.  When ARE we all going to wake up and realise all this is not a computer game, but for real?

Somehow  as individuals and nations we've lost our way and got our values all wrong. Maybe this is the big wake-up call we need to change our behaviours, individually and nationally, to sustainable and better ones. I can't see it happening without a lot of pain though. Rarely before have we needed innovative and creative thinkers, strong communities, and human kindness and generosity so much.

The alternatives are too frightening to contemplate: mass unemployment, resource shortages, poverty, civil unrest, lurches to the far left or far right leading to violent revolution on a scale not seen for nearly 100 years. And on top of that we have a planet that is being cooked.

Sometimes it seems the Book of Revelation was right and those Four Horsemen really are riding towards us. If this reads like a tract for the Jehovah's Witnesses then please forgive me. I am a rational person but the portends for humankind are not good unless we change and change fast. It is up to us. No-one else is going to save us.

Friday, 18 November 2011

Time travel in quantum universes?

Although not a particle physicist I am fascinated by the news that CERN scientists have repeated their recent neutrino experiment and yet again confirmed that neutrinos seem to be travelling faster than light, despite theory saying this is impossible. This work may still be in error and the results may yet prove false. More tests are being carried out at other research centres over a longer timescale to see if the results hold up.

If true however, it raises all sorts of questions about the nature of space-time and our ability to move about in its many dimensions. Will we, one day, be able to look into the past and future? Maybe not in a way that allows us to interact, but simply look at who are ancestors were and our descendents will be.

Theories will have to be re-written and who knows where this will take us.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Website design - Cambridgeshire Choral Society

My wife sings in a local choir called the Cambridgeshire Choral Society. They have had a website for some years but it had not been regularly maintained, so I was asked to create a new one. This I have just done using Google Sites. Although I am no website expert, Google Sites allows quite a credible website to be created without knowledge of HTML coding. I am quite pleased with the result and hope it encourages a few more people to attend the concerts and join the choir.

Their next major concert is in Ely Cathedral in March 2012 when they will be singing Elgar's famous "Dream of Gerontius" which is a wonderful choral work. They are also singing Britten's "St Nicolas" in late January 2012.

Eye contact (or lack of it)

Have you noticed how people avoid eye contact in the streets these days? Years ago one could walk down the street in any village, town or city in the UK and be sure of saying "good morning" or whatever to anyone walking the other way. Nowadays this is increasingly hard as people seem to want to avoid eye contact. This is less so with older people, who still say a cheery "hello", but with younger people (locked into their iPods and MP3 players) it is increasingly difficult to engage in the social niceties we all took for granted. I find this very sad.

As an experiment, the next time YOU walk down a street see how many people you can make eye contact with and say something like "good morning" or similar. It is not so bad in my own village but I am convinced people are now more "in their own worlds" than even 10 years ago.

I tried this experiment in Stoke Newington, N.London a  few months ago. In walking for 15 minutes in leafy residential roads I managed to get just one grunt from a very surprised Hasidic Jew and one friendly response from an Afro-caribbean man. Everyone else was too busy to notice or just preferred to keep their privacy.

Sunday, 6 November 2011


Last summer my wife and I enjoyed a 10 day holiday traveling around Iceland by car. We had expected a rather barren country with lots of lava and little vegetation and were pleasantly surprised by just how incredibly beautiful the country was. Everywhere below mountain level was green and the wild flowers were in bloom everywhere. Wild lupins were the most common flower seen growing wild all over the place. Of course there were glaciers, volcanoes and hot springs but the overwhelming impression was of a spectacularly wonderful and very beautiful country. There were also a lot more trees than we expected.

The people of Iceland were incredibly warm and welcoming and we enjoyed the holiday immensely. It is on a par with New Zealand for beauty.

One surprise when we were there was a chance visit to a little church in north Iceland one evening where we saw an Icelandic male quartet sing. The group is called Út í vorið. They were incredible and the music probably as good as any male quartet we have ever heard. We immediately bought one of their CDs and a few weeks later we wrote to them to get the others they have recorded.Like all Icelandic churches it was warm and cosy, heated by geothermal energy.

Iceland suffered in the financial crisis of 2008 but chose to declare themselves bankrupt rather than seek bailouts and help. In effect they said, "stuff the bankers", and I have some sympathy with this attitude and approach. The policy seems to be working: they have good natural resources (free geothermal electricity), plentiful fishing, aluminum reserves, wool, a healthy tourist industry now the exchange rate is better and a hardworking people keen to rebuild their economy. I wish these good people well.

For more information on Iceland I can recommend Iceland Review online.

I wish the Icelanders all the very best and hope to return to their fine country before too long.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Nuclear Fusion

For over 50 years researchers have been struggling to make the dream of relatively clean, nuclear fusion energy generation a reality. It has been a long and uphill struggle and at times the chances of succeeding seemed low: there were just too many technical problems to overcome. At long last there are some hopeful signs that the technological breakthroughs are almost there. Even if sustained nuclear fusion is achieved soon in research environments, it will be many years before this translates into commercial scale nuclear fusion plants. Nonetheless I am very hopeful that within my lifetime we may see the first nuclear fusion test reactors built and commercial reactors in place within 30-40 years. The changes to the world's energy situation as a result of this will be immense: raw materials needed are plentiful and inexpensive, radioactive waste will be negligible and immense amounts of low cost energy should be possible.  Let us hope that we all invest in the research and commercialisation of nuclear fusion rather than waste resources on trying to extract the last fossil fuels from the ground.

The future of Europe and the west - downhill?

There was an excellent article in The Times today by Matthew Parris entitled, "Face it. There is no answer to the eurocrisis". I'd like to link to it but don't subscribe to the Times app yet.  In summary, his thesis is that we have now past the best times in the west and our only route is downhill. We are kidding ourselves about our current fate by evasion.

We are kidding ourselves that the problems were created by the bankers whereas it is fundamentally down to our excesses in the last 50 years or more.  We elected our politicians. We allowed a system that rewarded bankers huge bonuses and allowed them to gamble our money for their gain. We could have seen the writing on the wall, but we chose to ignore it. We were all aware we were living beyond our means on money that didn't exist, but we all believed the myth that growth was making the world better for everyone. Now our chickens have come home to roost and we'd better come to terms with the new age we now face.

My own view is this new age is also an opportunity: one in which sustainable living within our means and personal happiness will be more important than growth and the culture of excessive consumption.  Just maybe we'll get our values more in focus and see the last 100 years as an aberration. It is up to us.

Monday, 31 October 2011

Halloween and early Christmas hype

Since 2001 spending in the UK on Halloween has risen from a few million pounds a year to around £350M. Now I've no problem with children dressing up and making a few Halloween masks or candles from pumpkins, but I find the commercialisation of this activity nothing short of a scandal. In the same vein, the Christmas hype starts in some shops as early as late September, which is ridiculous. Why does our capitalist, money centred, world draw so many of us in to this? Why can't Halloween be the simple, low key, fun it once was and why can't Christmas be, well, at Christmas?

Saturday, 29 October 2011

Those Indian calls trying to fix my viruses

Even though I have telephone preference registration to minimise unwanted phone calls, I regularly get calls around  lunchtime from an Indian call centre perporting to be from a company wanting to fix a virus on my PC which they've detected. Do they really think I am that stupid? What worries me are all the people who may believe this rubbish and disclose all sorts of data by allowing these rats to steal PC data.

Not sure what is the best tactic to use when taking the call - ignore it, play along for 5 minutes to waste their time, be very rude, threaten them by saying I am from the internet fraud police, or what.

What is sad is the person in the call centre is probably just trying to earn a living, whereas the people behind it have nothing but malicious intent. Is there anything one can do to reduce this menace?

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Fixing the Euro?

So the politicians in Brussels have come up with a package to fix the Euro debt problem. Why does my mind think of Neville Chamberlain coming down the plane steps having arrived back from his meeting with Hitler in Munich in 1938? Probably because I think this bit of paper and his have about as much chance of working.

I hope the plan works, but think it totally wrong that the good honest workers of Europe have to bail out profligate and irresponsible governments and banks. The voice of the common man will not accept this much longer. Many, but not all, citizens of Greece have made tax avoidance a way of life. In Italy corruption is still endemic. If countries cannot run their affairs properly when members of the European club then they MUST take the consequences of their (in)action. If the Greeks are allowed a haircut on their debts why not Ireland?

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Military expenditure

Today I heard that the UK government  has agreed to upgrade Warrior military vehicles at a cost of £1 billion. Will these really help quell riots on our streets or make the world a safer place?

Like the decision to upgrade the Trident submarines at costs up to £100 billion over a lifetime, I cannot understand what possesses our politicians. In an age when budgets are tight there are surely better ways to safeguard national security that to throw away money on rubbishy things like this.

Do we NEVER learn that wars rarely achieve anything other than stirring up hatred and bad feeling for years to come? Although not a Quaker myself, I am a firm supporter of the Quaker way of peace and reconciliation.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Simple pleasures

Feeding the ducks near Ely Cathedral
Nearly 4 years ago we had our first little grandson. Since then we have been blessed with another grandson and a little granddaughter.  It is hard to explain just how powerful a bond there is between grandparents and grandchildren: in some ways it is even stronger than the bond to our own children. Today we enjoyed the simple pleasures of walking around Ely with its cathedral with our eldest grandson, feeding the ducks and walking in the woods and playing hide-and-seek between the trees. We know that all too soon he and the other grandchildren will grow older and away from us. For now we are enjoying every single moment.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Cambridge Guided Busway

This morning my wife and I used the new guided busway from Cambridge to St Ives for the first time. It was excellent with double decker buses with good leather seats, free wi-fi. Being over 60 we get to travel for free. It runs for most of the way on the track of the old St Ives to Cambridge railway line.

St Ives is a pleasant little town by the river (don't confuse with the other one in Cornwall) with some interesting shops. The whole busway was the centre of controversy as it was very late opening. I hope it is successful and attracts lots of customers. See also

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Recycling: why is it so difficult in the UK?

There is a lot that can be done to improve our recycling in the UK. My wife and I do our best trying to recycle whatever we can - papers, plastics, food waste, garden waste etc, but trying to get it recycled is far from easy.  More needs to be done to simplify the process.

We carefully save all our plastics which seem to be marked as suitable for recycling: bottles, yoghurt cartons, soft fruit plastic boxes, etc. As our local recycling centre has been closed to save costs - barmy decision - we take them 11 miles each way to our nearest centre. When there, we find only bottles can be put in the plastics recycling, so we have to separate out all the plastic food cartons as they have to go in a different bin. Then there is the garden and food waste. Some is composted. Our local council provides thick brown paper sacks for this waste and they collect it at the doorstep every 2 weeks. If I want to get more sacks I get charged 50 pence each.  Finally, we get a black bin (household non-recycled stuff) collection every week despite this bag being only about a quarter full these days.

My annoyances are these:

(a) Why not make it more clear what is, and is not, recyclable on the labels in the first place?
(b) Why do suppliers like Waitrose and Tesco sell so much stuff in non-recyclable plastic packaging?
(c) Why do I have to travel a 22 mile round trip to dispose of much of my plastics?
(d) Why should I have to pay 50p for each extra recycling sack when using them saves money on landfill?
(e) Why is recycling policy different all over the country from area to area?

Why does trying to save landfill costs and helping the environment have to be so very difficult here in the UK? Other countries make it easy, but here we seem to make it very hard.

Monday, 17 October 2011

Death in a Multiverse

My religious views oscillate from being a theist to total atheist and back again. Of late, my views have been changing partly as a result of reading The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, which I found an absorbing and honest book.

Nonetheless, I am still basically open minded when it comes to thinking what happens when we die. I am not a believer in Father Christmas, tooth fairies or heaven as such, but I do think that the universe(s?) we inhabit are barely understood and our place in time puzzling. In a multiple universe all things in all time may be possible so who can be sure that this one life of ours is "it"?  The very existence of each one of us is a miracle of coincidences and chances over a period of billions of years: just one sexual coupling missed, or one chance meeting of two people missed, in all that time and you or I would not be here at all. Can we even be sure that we are not living some kind of dream?

So, when we finally drop down dead will we just cease to be? Or will we find ourselves in another universe as someone or something else, even perhaps reliving the very same lives but choosing different paths at the critical moments when we went in one direction and wondered what would have happened had we chosen differently?

Medical Records

Recently my wife and I made requests at our local surgery for copies of our childhood medical records. They were very helpful and managed to produce mine and photocopy them for me. However my wife's records before the age of 20 were missing. There is usually a small charge for copying these but as there were only a few pages of records, plus letters relating breaking my leg as a youngster, they did not charge me.

Recent experience of hospitals - my daughter-in-law in Kent and my wife in Addenbrookes in Cambridge 2 weeks ago - confirm that, although medical care is generally excellent, the handling of medical records data is appalling: how many times do you have to give the same information to different people? Surely in this day and age it is possible to manage a simple database of information on a patient and have this available over a secure wi-fi network in hospitals? OK, grand national database schemes may be too complicated (although I don't see why) but on a local level surely there is no excuse. Not being asked the same questions by a dozen different people when in hospital would surely make the patient experience a better one, and save the NHS both time and money.

At least I now have a copy of my early medical records in PDF format.

Charity Letters

Do you get annoyed when people like the British Red Cross send envelopes filled with greetings cards begging for a contribution and putting emotional blackmail on you? I  prefer to give when I choose and wonder how much money is wasted with these unsolicited postings costing at least 50 pence a time.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Power to the People

This picture appeared on my Facebook pages today. It shows someone on one of the marches across the world protesting at bankers and the mess they have caused.  I think it is excellent and speaks volumes about the concerns of good, decent and ordinary people. Stupid bankers have gambled away OUR pensions and OUR livelihoods for the sake of THEIR short-term gain. Power to the people!!