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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."