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Friday, 28 December 2012

Consumption and economics

With the US heading for a "fiscal cliff" unless Obama, the Senate and House of Representatives can muster a last minute deal, it is timely to remind ourselves that western economics is based on driving consumption to stupid levels to encourage "growth". This is ultimately unsustainable.

See for an interesting article on this.

Friday, 21 December 2012

The end of the world? No, the beginning of the future

There has been a lot of publicity about the end of the world predictions which were supposed to have originated from some Mayan calendar that said the world would end at 11.11am on Dec 21st 2012. Well, the time came and passed and we are still here.  But, I am sure I can't have been the only person who asked the question, "what if this really WAS the last day?" and reflected, if only for a few moments, on our life and its finality.

In one way, we can think of today as a new day, with new hope and new ideas. Whatever the past has been has been, it cannot be undone or changed. The future though is an unwritten book. It can be what we want it to be, full of hope and promise. It is ours to forge.

Monday, 10 December 2012

Walking in Devon

Originally I come from the South Hams in Devon. It is a beautiful part of the world with some great clifftop and country lane walks. Last week, I went back  to visit my brother for a few days and do some walking.

Unlike in the high season when there are lots of visitors, this time of year before Christmas it is so quiet. I chanced on some lovely fine sunny weather, albeit cold, and did a couple of longish (for me) walks around 10 miles each.
Thurlestone, Devon
Although I cannot guarantee the weather, I can assure you that this most beautiful part of England is at its best when it is quiet. I shall go back next December too.

Sunday, 4 November 2012

The US presidential election

As I write this, the US election is a few days away and the two main candidates are neck and neck. What puzzles me about the USA is the fixation on candidates who are rich millionaires  totally out of touch with the common man.  Looking in from the outside, it appears a broken society with a lot wrong with it. OK for those with wealth but far from OK if you happen to be at the bottom of the heap. I can't help think this is a recipe for revolution at some point in the future.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Jazz from the heart

"Following the release in October of Tim Lapthorn's third and highly anticipated album, Transport, the trio will be performing a series of UK and European concerts featuring saxophone legend Bobby Wellins, undoubtedly one of the finest if not the finest tenor player to have graced the British jazz scene. The band will play a smart mix of beautiful Lapthorn originals alongside reworkings of more standard material. Expect lyrical, melodic yet explorative and exciting playing from this group of highly experienced and talented musicians"
A "Jazz Steps" quote.
My son Tim, putting his heart and soul into his music

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Remember the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis?

The Cuban missile crisis took place exactly 50 years ago. 

For those of us old enough to remember this time, it was a truly terrifying week. Each morning I went to school unsure if I would return home again before nuclear war broke out. I even recall the chilling words on the BBC radio news, "a need for war may arise".

Later analysis suggests we were even closer than we thought at the time to an all out nuclear exchange and the end of civilisation. It was thanks to the politicians on both the American and Russian sides that eventually tensions were reduced. Thereafter, the Cold War was never quite the same again, and over the following decades we slowly edged towards its end.

What lessons can be learned?
  • Great care is needed in complex international crises, 
  • Never trust the military (they would have bombed Cuba in this case),  
  • Jaw jaw is better than war war, 
  • Think about the people we elect into great offices of state as one day our lives may depend on their judgement in a time of very great stress.

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Phlogiston? Petrol from water and air

Becher who postulated Phlogiston
The BBC Business page carried a story this week about a company in NE England that is developing a technique to produce petrol from air and water. This sounds like something too good to be true, like Phlogiston, but if scaled up to production levels could be something remarkable.
"A British firm based on Teesside says it's designed revolutionary new technology that can produce petrol using air and water. Air Fuel Synthesis in Stockton-on-Tees has produced five litres of petrol since August, but hopes to be in production by 2015 making synthetic fuel targeted at the motor sports sector. The company believes the technique could help solve energy supply problems and curb global warming."
See .

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Jimmy Savile and sex abuse

In no way do I condone sexual abuse of anyone. However, I'm puzzled by the media frenzy over Jimmy Savile, the UK DJ and TV presenter, over what he might (or might not)  have done to girls backstage in his dressing room.  If his actions were so vile and disgusting then why were these not challenged long ago when he was alive and able to face justice, and defend himself?  Some say he was a powerful person and people would have found it hard to fight him in the courts. Sorry, but I don't buy this: if enough people felt strongly then he would have been brought to justice. He is dead and gone now.

There must be other TV presenters and DJs who behaved in a similar way to Savile and I can imagine some of these people not sleeping at night waiting for the next expose.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

The EU and jam jars

There was mention on the BBC TV this morning about a little known EU regulation that prevents the re-use of jam jars, e.g. at church fetes to sell home made jam or chutney. How silly is this!

I understand this is based on real information, although I am not aware anyone has been told about this or anyone has been prosecuted for not obeying the law.  When we should be worrying about the Euro, deficits, debt and job creation what stupid bureaucrats are being paid millions to create such STUPID, idiotic laws? I understand this legislation is about 6 years old. See EC regulations 1935/2004 and 2023/2006.

Although I had great sympathy with the original ideals of a common trading market, free from barriers to trade, I now think the whole European Union serves little useful purpose.  I am a firm believer in nations working together where a common good is being served, but not when it creates waste, inefficiency and needless stupid rules that add no value.

Let us rule Britannia please, not faceless idiots on inflated salaries in Brussels.

Sunday, 7 October 2012


My son's new CD "Transport" is out on October 22nd from Pathway Records. At his concert in St Hilda's College, Oxford today he played some of the tracks from this and they are amazing.

It includes purely original compositions featuring solo, trios and larger ensembles, including with a string quartet. The music draws from jazz, blues, classical, folk and Brazilian influences and is a very exciting project.

Some quotes about his work:
'Lapthorn's beautiful debut set is a marvellous first statement' **** - Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD on Natural Language

'Impressive...Lapthorn blends witty invention with deep swing and unerring reassuring balance' - **** Mojo Magazine on Seventh Sense

'Brilliant music' – Jazz UK on Seventh Sense

'Pure Class' – Jazz Review on Seventh Sense

'Brilliant young pianist...Natural Language sparkles with originality and colour' – Humphrey Lyttelton, BBC Radio 2

'Superb piano playing', Paul Jones, BBC Radio 2 Rhythm and Blues show

...want to buy his new CD???

Charles Dickens cartoon

A few days ago an old friend of mine, Gale Leach in the USA, put this cartoon on her Facebook page. It amused me, so thought I'd share it here.  I've no idea where it comes from, so tell me if it is copyright and I need to remove it.

Gale is an author and she has written some lovely books for children. Take a look at her website at

Another one of my friends here in the UK is reading all the Charles Dickens books this year. He is thoroughly enjoying them. I have to confess that I read few novels, preferring non-fiction books, and have yet to read a Charles Dickens book.

Saturday, 6 October 2012

MS charity jazz concert: Oxford Oct 7th 1pm

Final reminder: Tim Lapthorn Trio (jazz) at the Jacqueline du Pre Music Building, St Hilda's College, Oxford this Sunday at 1pm. Concert is raising funds for multiple sclerosis research.  Tickets from
or on the door. Good music, good cause. Please come if you can to support it.
Tim in one of his many appearances at Ronnie Scott's in London
My son Tim is a world class professional jazz pianist - see - and he is launching his new CD called "Transport" available later this month. Proceeds from the concert will got to the MS Society. 
If you cannot attend and want to make a donation to MS, please email me. Samples of his music available on his website.

On Dover Beach

A friend of mine just posted a photo from Dover beach the night before he rows a gig, with others, across to France. I wish him luck!  It put me in mind of Matthew Arnold's poem "On Dover Beach" in which he reflects on life, faith and a world of broken dreams. I had forgotten that the phrase "sea of faith" came from this poem.
The sea is calm to-night.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand;
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago

Heard it on the Agaean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

The Sea of Faith

Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true

To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

April Jones (missing 5 year old)

Almost everyone in the UK with a heart is wishing/praying that the little Welsh school girl who was abducted earlier this week will be found safe and well, although as every hour passes the hopes are fading.

What I find hard to understand is why the police and press have published both the name and photograph of the main suspect. It it quite possible that this person is totally innocent, yet all his details have been plastered in the press and on TV.  If there is forensic evidence to link him to the crime then surely the police should charge the man. Otherwise, no good can be served by publishing his name and photo.

My heart bleeds for the family of the little girl, who must be going through a living hell at the moment.

UPDATE: Oct 6th 2012
I see that this person has now been charged over the little girl's murder. After the case is heard and assuming he is proved guilty, I wonder what sort of time he will have in prison? 

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Late swallows

Barn swallows (source )
By now, most of the adult swallows (now called barn swallows) have headed south on their way to southern Africa for the winter months, returning to our shores in April. At this time there are still a few young swallows around. Only yesterday I spotted several overhead. The latest swallows I have ever seen was a small flock at Bolt Head , Devon on November 7th. I think these were unusually late leaving. Just perhaps they stayed for the winter as in that part of the UK the weather is just about mild enough to provide enough insects.

The long north-south migration of birds beggars belief, especially when young birds make this journey for the first time not having ever done it before. How they travel over 6000 miles there, and then back again, often to the very same nest, is just incredible. A lot must go on inside that pea sized brain.

Friday, 14 September 2012

Red Kites over urban Leeds

Red Kite (photo by Thomas Kraft (ThKraft))
For the last month we seem to have been away from home half the time. The last few days we have been in Yorkshire for a sibling reunion with my wife's brothers.  On the way back home we had a REAL surprise driving along the Leeds ring road. I could not believe my eyes when I saw a red kite flying quite low overhead. These fine forked tailed daylight flying raptors were once confined to a small part of south central Wales but following selective reintroduction they are making a comeback all over the place. We see them near Newmarket quite often, but I was totally surprised to see one driving through urban Leeds!

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Childhood innocence

Our elder grandson started school last week. He is just under five and has spent very many happy days with us, on his own away from mum and dad, since he was born. We have seen him grow and develop as the years have passed.

Now he is off to his first proper school along with children from many different backgrounds and cultures. Part of me wishes he could be like Peter Pan and stay little for ever and ever. But life is about growing up and developing into a mature adult full of hope and confidence. Yes, the total innocence of young childhood will go, but in its place comes the excitement of learning more about the world and who we are.  I wish him well in the days ahead.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

The sick side of capitalism

A senior executive of Glencore, the global multinational, which made £1.4bn pre-tax profits, reportedly said that recent droughts in the USA and Russia are "good for business". Meanwhile the poor of the world go hungry. This sort of capitalism is SICK. There must be a better way of managing limited food resources than leave it to the fat cats to get fatter.

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Breakfast Pasty

Last week I discovered a new Cornish pasty on sale in our local supermarket.  Unlike the usual version with beef, swede, potato etc, this one is a breakfast pasty and contains sausages, egg, bacon and mushrooms. OK too much processed food of this sort is not good for you but as an occasional treat they are delicious and at £1 good value. See .

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Child circumcision - it is WRONG!!

What right does anyone have to circumcise a tiny child? 

I was amazed to read that the rate of male child circumcision was around 75% in the USA. Why? The evidence that it helps health is weak and the main reason is a religious one. Sorry, but in the 21st century, whatever your (adult) religious views we have NO RIGHT to violate a child because of our adult views.  See .

Where there is medical intervention on behalf of the child, as in the case of vaccinations, I have no problem with adults making decisions on behalf of infants. Where a body is being violated by child circumcision (male or female) there is no justification.

Agree or disagree?

Monday, 20 August 2012

Apple's success and rampant consumerism

I read today that Apple is now the most successful company ever with a market value of $623 billion. Our extended family has a wide range of Apple iPods, iPads and Apple laptops and desktops so I am not surprised at their success: somehow they have a way of making us want their consumer products with each one better than the last.

Of course there is a flip side to this: our whole global society is based on rampant consumerism for growth and yet growth has to be, ultimately, an impossible dream when resources are limited. We are (nearly) all  smitten by the drug of wanting ever more, and ever better, products and rarely are satisfied by what we have.

When did you last go out and buy a product, any product, with the intention of making it last and last? It seems that all consumer products are designed NOT to last more than a few years: washing machines, PCs, kettles, toasters, fitted kitchens, cars, you name it.

I just wonder how our present society and its values will be viewed in 100 years' time?  At what point in the future will the pendulum swing back and will we start to put a real value of quality and longevity again?

Whilst not advocating the "3 choices of wallpaper" communist approach, I do think we now make a rod for our own back by having too much choice and, with it, so much waste. I'm as guilty as you and it is very hard indeed to change one's ways.

Monday, 13 August 2012

Be Ye Not Afeard

Although not great sports fans, my wife and I have been totally enthralled by the London 2012 Olympic Games over the last couple of weeks. For several years now we have watched the stadiums being built - we travel past there every time we visit our son in London - but we had no idea just how impressive the Games were to be. We feared a terrorist attack, but thankfully all was peaceful. This was a good humoured, well run, people unifying, fun extravaganza. It felt GOOD to be British again: we organised the events well, the world enjoyed them and Britain is a better place for having hosted them.

For me one of the most moving parts was the speech during the opening ceremony by Kenneth Branagh in which he quoted these words from Shakespeare's "The Tempest":

“Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises, 
Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not. 
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments 
Will hum about mine ears; and sometime voices, 
That, if I then had waked after long sleep, 
Will make me sleep again: and then, in dreaming, 
The clouds methought would open, and show riches 
Ready to drop upon me; that, when I waked, 
I cried to dream again.” 

For all our faults, the British are a good, just and caring people. During these last few weeks we have shown the world what we are really all about and it is something for which we should be rightly proud.

And we are not quite finished yet! Next comes the Paralympic Games.

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Spiritual Places

In the last few weeks I have visited several of England's famous chapels and cathedrals. Local to home is Kings College Chapel in Cambridge, a most wonderful building from the late 1400s with its awe inspiring fan vaulting and famous for its choir at Christmas. Also I visited Liverpool Anglican Cathedral where my wife and I met in 1968 and the Catholic Metropolitan Cathedral in the same city, also known as Patty's Wigwam because of its unusual shape. Finally, today I visited Coventry Cathedral built 50 years ago adjacent to the site of the old cathedral bombed by German bombers in WW2.

Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral
When I go into a cathedral there is usually a sense of the holy, the other, in our presence. Even as a marginal Christian one senses this and the link with others who have been in the same place years, perhaps hundreds of years, before to be quiet and open to the beyond in our midst.

These days it is sometimes harder to feel this sense of wonder in some of our great cathedrals: they are busy busy places with novel ways to raise money to keep the roof from leaking or to "engage" (how I hate that word) the common man or child actively. So, in this bustle, the quietness and sense of peace is missing. Sadly I sensed this in the Liverpool Anglican cathedral: it no longer felt a holy place. Likewise in Kings College chapel which is now very much on the tourist trail.

And yet, in the Liverpool Metropolitan cathedral (Paddy's wigwam) and in Coventry it was different. Both places still evoked a sense of peace, otherness and calm, helped in both cases by the magnificent stained glass windows which bathe the naves in light and colour.

No doubt other religious faiths have their own temples and places of peace. I hope the sense of the spiritual is still alive in them.

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Virgin Media call centre woes

Recently we've consolidated our media services, saving around £20 a month, but not without some pain. We had TV and calls from Sky, phone landline from BT and broadband from Virgin Media. Now all comes via Virgin Media. The problem was the phone line, for which we had a new number: BT did not disconnect the old line and I found out today we were still being charged line rental and will do so for another 30 days cancellation period. Virgin Media should have informed them to disconnect, but did not.

I contacted BT first to find out what was going on: helpful UK call centre and all explained clearly. Then I contacted Virgin Media's call centre - big problems! Although I have had very helpful call centre operators in India before so have nothing against these as such, the Virgin Media experience was NOT a good one. In all, I was on the call for around an HOUR and passed between a good number of Indian operators getting not very far. Then the line went dead and a Scottish voice said, "hello, do you have a problem with your phone line?". At this point I muttered "God give me strength" when I thought I would have to explain everything all over again. Luckily Jamie, the VERY helpful Scotsman, had my notes and was able to resolve the issue: Virgin would refund the line rental if I sent a copy of the final BT bill to their head office.

Finally I contact Sky to confirm I was no longer being charged for calls. Again a very helpful Scottish lady, Donna, answered. She checked details and confirmed there were no more bills to pay and their contract had been terminated.


   BT UK call centre:  8 out of 10 
   Virgin Media Indian call centre:  3 out of 10
   Virgin media UK call centre: 8 out of 10
   Sky UK call centre: 8 out of 10

When the Virgin contract expires in 12 months I shall think long and hard about what to do. So far I have been less than impressed with their service.

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Swifts -- "the globe's still working"

There is a famous poem by Ted Hughes about the return to the UK from Africa of the swift with this extract:
"They’ve made it again,
Which means the globe’s still working, the Creation’s
Still waking refreshed, our summer’s
Still all to come —
And here they are, here they are again
Erupting across yard stones
Shrapnel-scatter terror. Frog-gapers,
Speedway goggles, international mobsters —

A bolas of three or four wire screams
Jockeying across each other
On their switchback wheel of death."
The return of the swift at the end of April is a highlight of my year: each spring the screaming overhead of this scythe-winged bird signals the return of  warm summer days and reminds me (and Ted Hughes) that the world is still working as it should. There is a danger this may not be for ever though: there are plenty of hazards on the migration paths of summer visitors and many bird species are suffering great reductions in numbers e.g. cuckoo and house martin.

The cycle of life

May 1st 2012 was quite a day.  Just after midnight my niece gave birth to her first child - a baby girl. At around nine o'clock my own daughter-in-law gave birth to our second granddaughter - little Lucinda, shown here.

Later in the same day our wonderfully kind and helpful neighbour David, who had been fighting cancer for many years, lost his battle and died at home at around 5 pm.

So, in one eventful day, two new lives came into the world and one departed. Such is the cycle of our living, brought poignantly to our attention this week. Let's wish the little newcomers a long and happy life and David, rest eternal, either in another life on another plain or as part of nature's way of returning life to life.

Sunday, 29 April 2012

"The world is a better place for his having been there"

Last week there was a note in one of my Facebook groups: my old English master, from grammar school days back in the 1960s, had died at the age of 86. "Ned" Sharp as we called him was an inspirational teacher who made the English language come alive for us all at my school in Kingsbridge, Devon. He will be sadly missed.

One writer posted this comment, "He was the best teacher I ever had, bar none, and the world is a better place for his having been there."  I can think of no greater compliment: he made a positive difference in our lives. He left his mark. Indeed the world of many young people was enriched by his teaching, respect for us all and his joy of living.

Is the world a better place because we have been in it? It makes one think what legacy we'll leave for those coming after us.

Monday, 23 April 2012

Off centre coffee saucers

Whenever I buy coffee at an outlet like Costa, Cafe Nero or Starbucks I seem to get given the coffee in a daft saucer which has an off-centre indent for the cup. I guess the idea is to allow one to place a cake or biscuit next to the cup, but it means that the whole cup and saucer are inherently unstable when carried.

Please clever marketing guys, think before you come out with such daft ideas in future!

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Nearly 60 years on

These two pictures are taken at the same place (Clovelly post office in N.Devon) just about 60 years apart. In the first picture I am about 4.5 years old and about to start school. Here I'm with my brother. The next picture is me as I am today.
1952 (me on the right behind donkey's head)

Me in 2012

Our Mortality

There was a very moving article in The Times yesterday about the last days of Philip Gould, Tony Blair's architect of New Labour. Philip died of cancer and wrote a book about his dying to be published shortly. The account in The Times was written by his daughter and describes his last few days of life and slide into death. I was moved to tears reading this.

In the last few months several people I know have been affected by cancer and have died as a result, or are still battling against it. As a result I have been reminded of my own mortality as in the famous poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins:
Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By & by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep & know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow's springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What héart héard of, ghóst guéssed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.
When my father died I saw his body in the mortuary. It was cold and lifeless yet my abiding memory of seeing him in this state was of a soul that had flown: the essential him was no longer there, yet I felt the real dad was not gone forever, but somehow released like a butterfly on the wing. My little grandson, just 4 years old, talks about us going back into the universe. Dust to dust? Who knows.

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Lynton and Barnstaple Railway

"Axe" pulling the L&B train last week
On our holiday in North Devon last week we enjoyed a ride on the steam hauled Lynton and Barnstaple Railway. This is a delightful narrow gauge line that runs through a small piece of Exmoor countryside. When the line was originally build and opened in 1898 this 1ft 11.5in gauge line ran all the way from the market town of Barnstaple to Lynton on the north coast winding its way around the hills. It included some long 1 in 50 inclines. The narrow gauge was chosen to minimise the costs and to allow tight curves on the line. It closed in 1935. Today the line is run as a trust and only over a very short length although, funds permitting, it is eventually hoped that the whole length can be reinstated as few obstructions prevent this. If you are in this part of the west country I can recommend a visit to this fascinating little line.

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Eureka magazine (in The Times)

Dumbing down science yet again?

Every few weeks the UK's The Times newspaper includes a "science" colour magazine that is meant to "inform" us about things in the world of science. Well Rupert Murdoch, please get a new editor for this as it is, in my humble opinion, (others may disagree) a load of rubbish written probably by failed arts graduates with primary school science at best.

I find the presentation of this magazine appalling - I can never get to what little meat there is in the magazine with all its fancy graphics - and the content is IMHO not worth the effort of sifting through. If The Times wants to inform and educate us then please treat science and technology properly and don't try to dumb it down for the epsilon semi-morons. The UK needs to enthuse people with science and not turn them off.

The Eureka magazine has its uses though - to wrap dead fish skins in or perhaps as garden compost.

Thursday, 29 March 2012

Fuel strikes in the UK?

Delivery drivers who are members of the UNITE trade union are threatening to go on strike over pay and conditions. If this happens it will disrupt supplies of fuel to many garages around the UK and cause widespread chaos and misery for people who need to drive for work and everyone else. Already people are panic buying causing shortages in many places.

Now, I have no issues with people using peaceful means of protest to get a fair deal on pay and conditions. However, as I understand it, these drivers have a fairly easy life driving fuel tankers around the country and earn around £45k average a year, a salary that many in work would be very happy with.  Many without jobs would happily take over the work.

So, I really hope that everyone in the UK (government, people) resists the pressure to cave in on this issue: these drivers do NOT need the money and are just trying to use their powerful bargaining position to win the day. The same applies to London tube train drivers who also earn collossal amounts (luckily new underground trains are being made driverless soon).

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Where ancestors walked

Starehole Bay near Salcombe, Devon
Today my wife and I walked to Bolt Head in South Devon, not far from Salcombe. The weather was perfect with bright sunshine and a not too cold wind with temperature about 11 deg C.  My ancestors back to at least 1428 lived and worked just a few miles from here.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Leaving Alexandria: A Memoir of Faith and Doubt

Leaving Alexandria: A Memoir of Faith and Doubt

Sometimes you read a book and know it will make a deep and lasting impact on you. This will be one of them.

We all wrestle with trying to understand why we are here and whether or not there is purpose and meaning in our lives. Some are able to accept a religious faith and find it satisfies a spiritual quest for meaning, whereas others never rest easy in that bed, like me.

Richard Holloway's book walks us through his many years in high church office (finally as Bishop of Edinburgh and Primate of the Scottish Episcopal Church) to an eventual resting place where religion is cast aside and an honest acceptance of man's plight reached, although he remains agnostic about God and life after death. Here we see a deeply religious man even when religion is cast aside. There IS depth in humanity and an enduring mystery, but religion is not the answer.

I was moved to tears in the epilogue: this was his life laid bare, a struggle shared with us in the book, and all the more wonderful for it.

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Dropbox registry issue - any fixes?

Anyone here know how to PROPERLY fix a Dropbox error with message "unable to access vital account information" Windows registry error?

I have tried ver 1.1.45.exe and that worked for 10 minutes OK then the message reappeared. Uploaded 1.2.45.exe and that was worse. The Dropbox forums are full of people with the same issue. In the past 3 months I've deleted registry data, uninstalled and reinstalled umpteen versions and STILL it doesn't want to work on this WinXP SP2 PC.

Plastic boxes, containers and takeaway shops

Here in Cambridgeshire, some areas collect plastic waste of all kinds at the doorstep and recycle it. Not in Burwell! All we can do is recycle plastic bottles in the village (not from home) and take hard plastics and plastic boxes, such as those supermarket food packages, 20+ miles there and back to our main recycling centre near Cambridge. I actually WANT to do my bit and help the environment but I am not helped by being excluded from a doorstep plastics recycling service - this stopped about 2 years ago, can you believe it?

Another issue: why do supermarkets like Waitrose and Tesco insist in packaging vegetables and fruit in plastic boxes at all? Why not always loose pack or pack in biodegradable packs? Also, why do there have to be so many shapes and sizes? Why not standard size containers that can be stacked in a bin to save space?

Recycling is STILL a total mess in the UK and needs seriously sorting by our governments. All seem to be as incompetent as eachother.

Finally in my rant today, most rubbish at roadsides is from takeaway food places: food containers, plastic drinking cups and metal drinks cans. Just take a look. Why not get fast food outlets like MacDonalds and Kentucky Fried Chicken to pay to pick up their ignorant customers' messes? They'd soon get the message that too much packaging costs them profits.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Encyclopaedia Britannica ends printed version

After 244 years, Encyclopaedia Britannica is stopping publication of its paper versions. See . This is not surprising in the age of Wikipedia and so many online resources, but it was a wonderful resource in its long as you had strong shelves!

Blackcaps here

This morning we had a blackcap on our bird table. This is a largely migratory bird and I suspect this one had just arrived in from further south in Europe or Africa and was hungry.  It's the first time I recall one actually eating from the bird table. Summer bird visitors are starting to arrive now with the first barn swallows likely to be seen in southern England in the next few weeks. It is around mid April before they appear in any numbers in East Anglia. When the swifts arrive and scream through the evening sky you know summer is really here but that is a couple of months away.

Monday, 12 March 2012

Gay Marriage and the RC church

As a heterosexual male, happily married for over 40 years, I may not be best placed to give a view on gay marriage laws. However, I am absolutely incensed when I hear the Roman Catholic church pontificating about how wrong it is for two people in love to make a public commitment of their love by marriage. What right have they to be so "high and mighty" when their record on sexual morality (child sex abuse, priests who are celibate and know little of sex and its value in a loving relationship, etc)  is, frankly appalling!

Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Web robot words

As a typical grumpy old man I get fed up with being asked to prove I'm not a robot by entring two words that I can hardly read on the screen. This way of checking for humans seems to have become a lot more common in the last 12 months. Isn't there a better way?

Sunday, 26 February 2012

The scale of time

A few days back I mentioned this link which demonstrated the physical scale of things in the universe from the very very tiny to the huge on a cosmological scale. Se /589217_scale_of_universe_enhanced.swf .

Now this got me wondering about the real nature of time. We think of time as running at a constant rate, although relativity suggests this is not true. We happen to be human beings on a certain physical size scale and to us time goes, more or less, at the speed we are used to. What if time itself was somehow as strange as the physical scale of the universe and ran at rates so divergent that a second of our time was almost an infinity for some things in the multiverses? That our concept of time could be akin to the flat-earther's incomplete view of a multi-dimensional world?

What I'm saying is our concept of physical size and time flow is just how it is for us. One can imagine other universes where time runs incredibly fast or incredibly slowly. Is it really so odd to think that we are just a sub-atomic particle in another universe, or that other entire universes both in all space and time are contained within each sub-atomic particle that makes us and every other bit of star dust?

I'm finding it hard to put into words the sort of concepts going through my head, but in summary I think the whole nature of space and time is far more of a wonder and a mystery than we think or can ever imagine.

Spring has arrived

Feb 26th 2012 and it now feels as if spring has arrived already. After a week or so of very cold snowy days we have the garden springing back to life with bulbs pushing through, the birds singing and looking at nest sites and the grass growing. This morning I even cut my front lawn for the first time this year - just a trim to even out the growth.  March 1st marks the first official day of spring according to the Met Office, so not long now.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Family history

Many years ago my brother, my father and I set out to research our Lapthorn family history in South Devon. In those days there was no Internet so the research was done by looking through transcripts of parish records and reading gravestones. We managed to get right back to the mid 1500s and even found some other, unconnected, records in the same parishes back to 1428. Luckily our family stayed within an area of around ten miles although back in the 1700s some moved to the Southampton area and established a successful sail making business (Ratsey and Lapthorn) who made some sails for very famous yachts.

At the moment my wife is doing the same sort of research using on-line resources and is already back to 1686. We've found out some branches of her family come from nearby Norfolk where her ancestors were farm labourers before they moved to the industrial north when work on the land was hard and the agricultural  depression was at its height. So, today we took a trip to some of the places in Norfolk where her ancestors hailed from.  We saw and touched the very font in which our grandson's great, great, great, great, great grandfather was christened in a lonely Norfolk church way back in 1797. My wife was visibly moved to "connect" to her forefathers in this way.

Isn't it amazing to think that each and every one of us is here because of a series of encounters stretching back to the beginning of time. If just one of these encounters had not occurred then each one of us would not be here. Our very existence is precious and truly wonderful.

Monday, 20 February 2012

Litter - we are a MESSY country

There is no getting away from it, England has become a messy, untidy, litter ridden place. I remember being appalled at the plastic bottles that were strewn about the roadsides and olive groves in mainland Greece some years ago, but England is not too far behind now. Why?

Visit New Zealand, Iceland, France and Sweden and there is hardly any litter in rural areas. France used to be different, but they have become a nation with pride in their countryside and I was amazed how clean and tidy the country looked last year. If they can do it why can't the UK?

What has changed in the UK? Why are we now so prepared to accept a scruffy and litter ridden roadside? Most of it is takeaway rubbish: cans, food packaging, etc which is thrown out of windows by idiots who could not care less. It saddens me that these people, lots of them, do not care. Do they like living in a rubbish dump?  Have we no pride any more?

What is the solution? Education? Punishment?

Although in my political views I am a liberal at heart, I find myself thinking that, rather than dole out benefits to those unable (or unwilling) to find a job, people should be required to undertake something useful to earn the benefit. Seeing how bad our roadsides have become, why not ask people to spend a few hours a week with a yellow jacket on picking up some of this detritus? Oh, of course not, that would be a "health and safety" risk! As so much of the rubbish originates in takeaway food shops why not put a tax on takeaways that are packaged in non biodegradable materials? Or maybe make local takeaway establishments responsible for roadside "scattered" litter collection locally?

Sunday, 12 February 2012

The scale of things

This quite wonderful website brings to life the scale of things in our incredible universe from the smallest strings and branes to the largest galaxies and nebulae in the cosmos. And we are somewhere in the middle of all this.  Zoom in both directions (smaller and larger) and be amazed.

Saturday, 11 February 2012

Winter Sun

It has been a glorious day here in Cambridgeshire. We've now had snow for about a week and after the fresh falls on Thursday night and overnight temperatures between -10 and -14 deg C it is crisp, powdery and white.  It looks like this will last a couple more days before the thaw sets in.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Saying farewells

When we die is that it?

My old work colleague who had prostate cancer lost his battle last week. I 'd been able to visit him a couple of times recently, the last time being just a couple of days before he died. Today I went to his funeral which included a very Catholic requiem mass with lots of incense, prayers and a communion.  Now John had a very strong faith that helped him cope with his coming end. He said many times that he did not worry about dying. 

Clearly if you have a strong faith, and sincerely believe it, then a funeral is more of a celebration for a life not ended and just moving on to its next, and eternal, stage. If you have no faith, or a weak one, then a Christian funeral service can be a difficult thing to understand or feel part of. That was how I felt today: I just didn't connect with it. It didn't ring true to me.

One of the most meaningful funerals I have ever been to was for my ex-girlfriend's dad. It was a simple humanist service with one of the family members talking about dad with affection and fond memories. Their dad had lived a generally good and fulfilling life but now it had ended. There was no hope for a resurrection, to an eternal life, no fear of a hell, no wish for sins to be forgiven, just quiet thanks for the life that had come to its end. Somehow this felt right and how it should be if we are mature human beings.

And yet, something nags away at me: why does the universe have such complexity, why does it exist at all, why do love and human kindness feel so much more significant than just biological imperatives for the survival of our genes? To use a biblical phrase, "we see as in a glass dimly". Our human brains cannot comprehend the complexities that are the wonders of the universe. Maybe we just have to accept that we do not, and cannot, know if there is more to life than our three score years and ten, if we are lucky.

An agnostic I remain....

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Mid-winter Snow

For the first time this year we have had some snow here in Burwell, and quite a decent amount for around here. I estimate 100mm (4 inches) has fallen overnight. In this part of the UK we have few hills, so when the snow comes, and it rarely lasts long, children head for the local meadow with their rarely used sledges and enjoy the fun on the few slopes we have. Our road is usually very quiet, but this morning it was busy with mums, dads and children dragging their sledges.
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Thursday, 2 February 2012

The film "War Horse"

My wife and I went to see the film "War Horse" this afternoon. A reasonable yarn, but several things annoyed me. Why do film producers (and the BBC for that matter) choose such strange "local" accents for people supposed to come from Devon? Why were there lots of conifer plantations on Dartmoor in a film set before/during WW1? Why was the Devon village made of Cotswold stone? Why do we have to have "American deep" music to portray pathos? Why did I keep thinking about all the CGI effects? Why did Spielberg bother? Why did we bother?

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Chirp birdsong app for iPhone

My grandson very much enjoys the Chirp app for the iPhone and iPod Touch. Using it, one can learn about the bird songs of a great number of birds you're likely to find in your country. The app allows you to play song samples for each bird or you can take a series of graded quizzes to test how well you know the bird songs. My grandson is better at it than me! I can recommend this if you enjoy birds. The app was just £1.99 in the UK and well worth it.

Late winter evenings

At long last the nights are getting darker later: here near Cambridge it is still light at around 5pm now. As the rate of change speeds up through February, it will soon be light until 6pm.

I quite enjoy this time of the year as it  is full of promise and hope. The garden daffodils and crocus are pushing through and the birds in the garden are starting to explore the nestboxes again in readiness for spring and young.  For many years we have had blue tits and great tits in our nest boxes and I hope they will nest again, especially as the nestboxes have been repaired and made ready for the guests.

Saturday, 28 January 2012

Garden Birdwatch 2012

Every year for many years now I've taken part in the RSPB's Garden Birdwatch. You are asked to count the maximum number of each different bird species seen in your garden, or in a park,  in any one hour.  My house backs on to a lane and then open meadows with a good number of deciduous trees so I usually manage to see an interesting variety of the smaller birds. Last year the long-tailed tit (see left) was the big surprise with no less than 12 seen together. Occasionally we get a treat when a sparrow hawk, green woodpecker or spotted woodpecker appear, but so far never in the hour I am doing the count. Anyone can take part for any hour over this weekend and you do not have to be a Royal Society for the Protection of Birds member.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

UK tax inefficiency

Why do we still have TV licences? Why not just increase income tax or increase VAT on TVs, PCs, mobiles and phones and save all that admin cost? Same applies to road fund tax: why not just put up fuel duty? Again, less admin, no evasion.   Likewise the winter fuel payment for all people over 60 in the UK: the taxman knows how old each of us is, so why not just increase the tax free allowance on income tax if you are over 60?

And all shall be well

This afternoon I visited a colleague of mine known for over 40 years. We go back a long time.  Today John lies in a hospice bed in Cambridge, his life hanging on a thread, his body racked with pain from prostate cancer that has spread to his bones and vital organs. He is now on a continuous drip that helps to reduce his pain. His wife is the model of calm as she sits at his bedside, knowing that his life on planet Earth has just a few days or weeks to run.  We talk about "the old days". We mention a few names. We talk about trivial things. He slips into light sleep then wakes again. He is in pain.

And yet he is calm and ready.  John, his wife and their family have a strong faith and believe that he is being held and loved by a far greater power and love. He says calmly in a quiet voice, "I'll go when the Lord calls me".  His faith is utterly grounded and sure, with not a shadow of doubt. Oh to have such a strong faith, a belief that this is not the end, just part of our journey. 

Which brings me to the closing lines of T.S.Eliot's "Dry Salvages" from his Four Quartets:
"With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time. 
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always —
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flames are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one."
And all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Wikipedia blackout

For 24 hours Wikipedia is going "off air" in protest at possible US legislation that could radically affect the Internet as we know it. The Internet works because it is free, open and uncensored. This is the way it should remain, even if this sometimes means we can be offended or hurt by what we see or hear. We are adults and can make up our own minds. There are ways to safeguard children which any responsible parent can implement.

This appears on the Wikipedia main page:
"For over a decade, we have spent millions of hours building the largest encyclopedia in human history. Right now, the U.S. Congress is considering legislation that could fatally damage the free and open Internet. For 24 hours, to raise awareness, we are blacking out Wikipedia. Learn more."

"Shame" Movie

This afternoon my wife and I went to the cinema in Cambridge to watch a new film called "Shame" starring Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan. The film is a UK Film 4 production, but it is set in New York and tells the story of a man, played by Fassbender, who is addicted to sex.  Although there is indeed a LOT of sex in the film it is, in truth, a story about loss, loneliness, isolation and sadness. Many will find it bleak and totally miserable. This is an "art house" genre film and there is no way you will find the sex scenes turn you on: the sex is empty and loveless. If you enjoy films, especially ones that challenge, then you may find this one worth watching.  There is a trailer at

Friday, 13 January 2012

The present

Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery and today is a present. Enjoy it.

Thursday, 5 January 2012

CERN, particles and cosmology

As you may know scientists at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Switzerland are currently searching for some mysterious elemental particles.  At the same time cosmologists are struggling to make sense of the universe (or is it universes?) debating whether space is expanding, contracting, static or made of strings.  They debate how many dimensions they need to make the theories work. The search for a grand unified theory bringing together the subatomic and cosmological scales continues.

Now here's a thought: are we looking in completely the wrong places? Is it conceivable that within each atom there exists an entire universe? And within each atom within this universe there are yet more universes, and so on for ever? In the opposite direction (outwards) are we just part of the space dust that makes our universe a microscopic part of something yet larger, and so on for ever? And do these diverging scales somehow fold back into a unified whole?

I am neither a cosmologist nor a particle physicist and my knowledge of quantum mechanics was limited to some difficult lectures in my last year at university in 1970, but I do remember the sense of awe and wonder when told that everything could be viewed as a wave function existing in all space and all time: somehow we are already everywhere (statistically) and we exist in all time forwards into the future and backwards into the past (statistically). What I am speculating is that the macro and the micro world could be one and the same.

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

In God We Doubt - a book I've just read and recommend

In God We Doubt: Confessions of a Failed Atheist is a book by the BBC Radio 4 Today presenter John Humphrys in which he explores why people do, or do not, believe in God. As an agnostic myself, full of doubt and confused about what to believe, I found this a very honest and open book that asks the right questions, although I am still little further forward on my spiritual journey.

This is the description from Amazon:
"Throughout the ages believers have been persecuted – usually for believing in the “wrong” God. So have non-believers who have denied the existence of God as superstitious rubbish.

Today it is the agnostics who are given a hard time. They are scorned by believers for their failure to find faith and by atheists for being hopelessly wishy-washy and weak-minded. But John Humphrys is proud to count himself among their ranks. In this book he takes us along the spiritual road he himself has travelled. He was brought up a Christian and prayed every day of his life until his growing doubts finally began to overwhelm his faith.

As one of the nation’s most popular and respected broadcasters, he had the rare opportunity in 2006 of challenging leaders of our three main religions to prove to him that God does exist. The Radio Four interviews – Humphrys In Search of God – provoked the biggest response to anything he has done in half a century of journalism. The interviews and the massive reaction from listeners had a profound effect on him – but not in the way he expected.

Doubt is not the easy option. But for the millions who can find no easy answers to the most profound questions it is the only possible one."