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Rest in Peace

Roger Lloyd-Pack (1944-2014)

I was saddened to hear that the actor Roger Lloyd-Pack died yesterday of pancreatic cancer.

Probably one of my favourite TV shows whilst growing up was “Only Fools and Horses” and Lloyd-Pack’s “Trigger” was an absolutely vital part of the ensemble that made that show so brilliant – and it was epically good at times rising to heights of utter genius. Of course he was in loads of other stuff like “Harry Potter” and “Dr Who” but for me he shall always be the bumbling Peckham street-cleaner. I think we forget too easily that whilst the show was centred on the antics of Del and Rodney the rest of them from Mike at the bar of the Nag’s Head to Denzil the scouse trucker, Grandad, Uncle Albert, Boycie, Marlene and all the rest of them really made the show and gave the central cast folks to spark off.

As I said, I grew up watching that and I still watch it. Trig is no longer in my memory but in the Sky (in every sense). He is the overhead one Dave or Watch or whatever. Perhaps the nearest to immortality we can get. His peerless deadpan shall not be forgotten as long as electromagnetism exists.

I don’t think I can embed this (it’s BBC) but just click

…and there is loads more.

Uncertainty

It’s the Physics Department Christmas “party”. Dr Smith can’t stand such things so he has a couple of sips of the ghastly warm white wine and makes his apologies  and leaves. 

Driving home He sees the blue lights in the mirror and pulls over. It’s a routine Yuletide stop.  Smith hasn’t been speeding and is clearly totally sober  so the frustrated coppers, for something to do, decide to search the car. One pops the boot open and says, “Sir, did you know you have a dead cat in here?”. Smith, somewhat annoyed, shouts back over the traffic, “Well, I do now!”

Today, or yesterday (it’s a delayed choice joke, OK) is/was Erwin Schrödinger’s birthday. There was even a Google Doodle.

I’ve really not known what to say of late about much of anything.

An irreducibly stochastically birthday Erwin!

Wherever you may/may not be.

Was it just me…

… or as guests at Maggie’s funeral did I honestly see Geoffrey Howe and Michael Heseltine? And I heard that José Manuel Barroso was there. What were that vile trinity planning upon – dancing upon her grave?

At another level, according to the BBC News, some scumbags threw stuff at the horses in the cortege. That says much to me.

It is the same mentality that blew-up the Boston Marathon. Just lacking the blood and guts to do it for real.

Disgusting,

“What can men do against such reckless hate?” – Theoden, King of Rohan.

That phrase chimes with me and has done since I was a kid. Because the enemy does hate with a recklessness beyond measure, beyond reason. That is why they chucked stuff at the horses.

She stood against reckless hate.

And that is what we have to do. We have to stand. Maggie did and so shall we.

Stand!

Maggie

I was born in 1973 so Margaret Thatcher was PM for my formaive years.

I very vaguely recall “Sunny Jim” and have no recollection of that fat treachorous oaf Ted Heath or of that deranged buffoon Harold “bloody” Wilson. He thought MI5 were gonna kill him. If only…

So she was my PM. In eleven years you can do much good and much bad and a heck of a lot that is just expedient. She of course did all three but overall she was more on the side of the angels. I am not going to eulogise her here because that has been done both here and elsewhere.

Instead I shall make some random points about my experience as a kid under Maggie. And about the BBC coverage of her death.

When she took over it, Britain was on it’s arse wearing trousers you could x-ray with a petrol station flash-light. Something I don’t remember but experienced was my Mum and me (I was in a pushchair) shopping in Newcastle’s great department store, Fenwicks by candle-light. In Newcastle, in the 1970s. Jesus Christ! Try telling that one to the youth of today. The trash wasn’t collected, the dead weren’t buried and it was kinda like Mogadishu with a worse climate.

Like it or not something had to change. Otherwise I’d be eating dung.

Previous commentators on stuff here about MaggieT (that’s her blog-name that is) have said basically “Know someone by their enemies”. So true.

But also know them by their friends.

Now I’m not sure how conservative I am. I am not sure how patriotic I am. I’m British for fuck’s sake! I don’t need to be patriotic. Being patriotic would be an indulgence. As Margot from “The Good Life” (the character was based on Thatcher) might have said, “Enough with these Latinate histrionics!”. Do I need to explain British achievements? Nah, didn’t think so. The Argentine Emisary is not cracking out the Ferroro-Roche for the funeral. He or she shall be sadly missed.

No, I’m not celebrating Britishness (though we have much to celebrate) but Maggie was British to the core and it came as no surprise that at her funeral this will be played:

watch?v=7MG27BKwjaI

But her reign meant so much more to me. It meant colour TV, a microwave and a ZX-Spectrum. It meant things moving out of the horror-show of the ’70s. The era of Thatcher and Ronnie meant a scantily clad nymph capering about the fore-deck of a Panamax* battleship** and straddling a 16″ gun and leaving very little to the imagination of me, you and hundreds of sailors. We weren’t gonna lose the Cold War after that!

And the movies were so good and up-beat! It was a different world to now. It was a world of immense leaders and great fun and a massive hope for the future. The future was not feared. Think of the movies of the time! They didn’t play Les Buggeurs Risible about ersatz “moral ambiguity”. No, they said life was good and getting better.

The past was another country. It was better and that was Maggie’s country. And Ronnie’s country.

I wish I could turn back time.

In some ways.

I certainly don’t want a full-scale Cher comeback!

*The Iowa class fast-battleship was built with 18″ clearance for the Panama Canal. Now you might think parking at Tesco is tricky in a Ford Focus but…
**The USS Missouri. Interestingly enough the warship upon which the Japanese signed their surrender in 1945.

Thatcher’s greatest achievement ~ it’s not what you think

Many more eloquent writers with first hand experience will have eulogised Baroness Thatcher, and rightly so.  The Falklands, the privatisations, the tax cuts, the near destruction of the trade union movement as an effective political force and the enormous economic turnaround have all been well covered as has the poll tax.  Most commentators have either missed or minimised the financial deregulation that made London the financial capital of the world, and the revenue this generated.  Neither should achieving public sector debt repayments (sic) as opposed to today’s endless borrowing and QE be forgotten.

And most commentators be they natural allies, conservative opponents or indeed members of the Labour party have behaved with decorum more or less.  Most have, one or two vile specimens have not.

Case the first, would be the cretinous socialist worker types who were dancing on the streets.  Most could barely have been alive at the time, this is purely thoughtless Pavlovianism.  It doesn’t make it right, just brainless.

Case the second would be the people in former mining communities.  Now it is certainly true that pit closures would and did devastate pit towns.  But this seemed to me to be more or less unavoidable.  The raison d’etre for the towns was the mine.  When the economic case for the pit goes, so frankly does the town.  Some interviewees could not get past the hatred, most had not moved on*.  They were fat, indolent and unemployed.  The media talked about their shorter life expectancies.  Yep, no exercise, crappy diet, smoking and boozing will do that.  Hardly the Lady’s fault all these years later.  I felt sorry for them.  Betrayed by their erstwhile leaders, they were effectively living in the past, wishing for a bygone era that will never return.  They will die bitter.

Case the third, Gerry Adams.  I guess when you are a former bomber it is unrealistic to expect decent behaviour, or even a straight response.  We got neither from this scumbag.  He made a statement about how Thatcher had allowed the hunger strikers to die.  That slightly understated his own responsibility and was to put it mildly, disingenuous.  He also skipped right past his friends attempt to murder her in Brighton.

Case the fourth, and the worst by far in some pretty rum company, Neil Kinnock.  This two-time whining failure made some ludicrous sixth-form type remarks about how the poor got poorer under Thatcher.  Needless to say they got much, much richer but such a stranglehold on reality perhaps explains why the people of the UK said ‘No’ to Neil, twice in succession.  And despite all the money sucked from the public teat for him and the entire family, he still wasn’t happy.  And then it struck me, perhaps the Lady’s greatest achievement was kicking out Callaghan, obliterating the ludicrous Michael Foot and trouncing Neil “two-time-loser” Kinnock**.  Keeping these hoons out of Downing Street may indeed have been her best.

* Of course I appreciate this was not a representative sample.  Those who had moved on, had in all probability, left the area.

** Yes, I appreciate it was Major who beat Kinnock second time around.  I itself a tribute to rank incompetence, being beaten by the grey man.

Sir Patrick Moore

I know this is late. I know I should have written about his death but I didn’t. I didn’t know what to say. So I shall say what I can now for it is the least I can.

Patrick Moore didn’t make me look to the stars exactly but he fostered on these rainy isles (really unsuited to star-gazing) a sort of culture that said “This is cool!” despite not exactly seeming “cool” and perhaps that is the true measure of his greatness. You didn’t even need to watch him once a month on the graveyard shift on the BBC (a slot I always thought perverse because isn’t that when you ought to be looking at things vastly more magnificent than anything the BBC could ever imagine?)

So I did physics at university and then astrophysics because it was sort of in the culture and Patrick Moore had put what is “up there” in that culture more than anyone. On the odd clear night here I look at the stars though I haven’t lugged my Tal-Mizar out for a while. It’s an ex-Sov Newtonian Reflector*. I shall do but again Cheshire is a terrible place for optical astronomy. For doing it by radio, mind…

I was there recently to see Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell FRS FRAS give a talk. Magic stuff. Just a few years ago they were going to close Jodrell Bank down**. I seem to recall that was for want of GBP3.5m which to government is the mere dust of the valence. I mean how many diversifying out-reachers can you hire for that? How many plasma TVs for MP’s second homes and what miniscule proportion is that of a far from astute submarine? But it was saved and partly this was down (I reported this way back) to a small kid who was most upset. He wanted to be an astronaut you see. My point with this digression is that the Daresbury Synchrotron was closed but the other major physical science facility in the county remains and indeed is going to be the HQ of the SKA.

Now that is cool! and the animus against the closure, the love we feel (and I have to admit I speak as a Cheshire resident who loves the stars) for things like Jodrell Bank (the talk I mentioned was packed) is in no small part due to Sir Patrick. He enthused generations of small (and not so small) children to look to the skies. To see more and be more and think more. When I applied for funding for an MSc in astrophysics at London (which I got!) my tutor (who was working on wave-guides) wished me all the best and wrote a glowing reference*** and said, “I’ve always thought astrophysics the true engine room of physics”. That from a physicist of a semi-detached discipline (to say the least) says a lot. Astrophysics is the alpha and omega and always has been. Just conjure the names! You know them all. From the old Greeks to modern Geeks (…and old Arabs and Hindus, and Chinese and…) astrophysics has been instrumental in the development of everything that separates us from the gutter***. Except it is much more than just navigation and stuff isn’t it?

And nobody on this planet over the last hundred years or so did more to promulgate this and get people caring about it than Sir Patrick. No writer or broadcaster did more to create public interest in what might possibly be regarded (by numpties) as rather abstruse science unrelated to their “real” daily lives. This is of course a myth – we are intimately bound to the stars in so many ways. The belief this is abstruse is, to be polite, complete Horlicks. Obviously. The material results of our species star-gazing over the millennia are obvious. We’d all be living in a mental Somalia and as a torch-bearer of the enlightenment that the study of the night sky brings we have been lucky to have been blessed with an advocate so brilliant as Sir Patrick.

How he managed this is fascinating. Partially of course it was his sheer erudition and joy in the subject he wrote voluminously about and partly it was because he was a true scientist (both the US and Soviet space-programs used his lunar maps) but also because “The Sky at Night” was probably about the only broadcast science show in the UK that didn’t (doesn’t?) talk down to you. And that really mattered. I recall, not long-since, seeing Brian Cox trying to explain the second law of thermodynamics by building a sand-castle in Nambia. Quite why the Coxster couldn’t have built one in Scarborough is utterly beyond me. Certainly, I learned my Stat Mech in Lecture Theartre B1, Nottingham University. And that was the Moore difference. He told it how it was and did so brilliantly without the pointless air-miles and the moodily lit staring into the middle-distance shots whilst wondering how his hair looked. Sir Patrick clearly never gave a toss how his hair looked – it usually looked like his ‘stylist’ was “Through a Hedge Backwards”, Brighton. He was just there and talked and explained. He was the exact opposite of cunning stunts pop-science with the endless re-caps you see today. Frequently he would also be talking to real top folks in the field. His “machine gun delivery” (ref every MSM obituary I read) was the true antithesis of most pop-sci which is narrated at the rate and style of a wearisome parent trying to explain for the umpteenth time to their toddler that eating mud is not a good idea. We are not all mud-eating toddlers. In short watching Moore made me (and so many others****) feel clever. To feel that the skies were ours to take rather than drowning like the slowly boiling frog in the idea that science is for other people and needs to be explained v e r y s l o w l y to the great unwashed. Perhaps, in that context, it is not surprising that when de-mobbed from the RAF he turned down a scholarship at Cambridge and just plowed his own furrow. But what a furrow!

I could write so much more (no pun intended) but a long and wondrous life has ended. I’d be here all day if I mentioned Sir Patrick’s other achievements or his (generally excellent) political beliefs (particularly on his falling out with the Liberal party over them hitching their wagon to the SDP). But…

There is one thing though that sums up this thoroughly irascibly brilliant British iconoclast that I must mention. At the 1981 Royal Variety Performance he played the Sex Pistol’s “Anarchy in the UK” (“God save the Queen and the fascist regime…”) on xylophone. That is the mark of a man. And not just any man but an Englishman.

So farewell Sir Patrick! You were unique and brilliant. And I have no idea who can now fill your shoes. You are greatly missed already. And this in a terrible year for spacer deaths. Join Neil and Sally out there in the star-spangled firmament. Hit c Sir! (He also once played a duet with Einstein – Patrick on piano and Albert on the fiddle).

Sir Patrick Alfred Caldwell-Moore CBE, FRS, FRAS (4 March 1923 – 9 December 2012)

Though my soul may set in darkness, it will rise in perfect light;
I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.

- Sarah Williams

* I was away when my university house-mates received a large, heavy, old-style wooden case (think “Raiders of the Lost Ark) from Russia with stenciled Cyrillic on it. They knew I was doing physics so wondered what I’d got. And yes, enriched uranium was on the discussion list. Thankfully this was well before 9/11 or I’d have been extraordinarily renditioned.
** As a listed building it was going to become a “heritage site”. “Look at what we used to be able to do kiddies!” Like the pyramids or some-such. Actually Stonehenge is perhaps more appropriate but the Pyramids of Giza are aligned with Orion.
*** The Oscar Wilde ref is implicit.
**** As a young girl the astronomer Heather Couper wrote to Moore asking if it was OK to be an astronomer if you’re a girl. She still has the letter she received back saying, “Not a problem” and encouraging her greatly. I seem to recall she spent some time working in Top-Shop and then though bugger this for a game of soldiers and got into Leicester University. Last I heard she was a professor at Gresham College, London.

Neil Armstrong

I know Nick has had a draft lying around for a while (so have I; I just keep them on my own hard drive), so I hope he doesn’t mind me jumping in, but some comment should really be made on the passing of Neil Armstrong before the week is out. It already feels a bit like raking over old news. The reason I’ve held off (and it seems to be the case for Nick, too) is that there really isn’t much more to say that hasn’t already been said. His name will be remembered long after any of us are gone, after David Cameron, Angela Merkel, and President Obama become mere footnotes in history. We don’t know the identity of the first vertebrate to haul itself out of the primoridial ooze; we don’t know who disovered fire, the smelting of bronze, or of iron. But Armstrong, the first living creature to set foot on the moon, the first from this planet to set foot on any other, his name, his words, his deeds, have been recorded, and will not be lost as long as humanity endures.

By all accounts, he was a humble, not to say shy, man who shunned adulation. But it’s not adulation – we know he didn’t do it at all alone, and won his chance to be first almost by lottery – just a simple statement of fact: like Rameses or Caesar, his name will be known to schoolchildren in not just hundreds, but thousands, of years. Of who else, in our lifetimes, can that be said?

Alan Turing

Today would be Alan Turing’s 100th birthday. Alas it never transpired. He died in still debatable circumstances when he was in his prime. Was he a great pure mathematician? Yes, I’d put him almost as high as Gödel and that is like comparing a footballer to Pele. Both of course were not normal men. Turing had some fairly odd ideas and Kurt Gödel starved to death. Gödel was paranoid and refused to eat any food not prepared by his wife, then his wife died. Now Gödel was a nutter. Perhaps everyone who scales such (literally) infinite heights is going to be a bit unusual. It is hard to say what killed Turing. It has entered the popular consciousness that he was a sort of gay martyr (the statue of him in Manchester is in the gay village and not where it ought to be – in front of the University) and this is possibly true. He was convicted of “gross indecency” for having sex with another man. If there is a great villain here it is the law. My understanding is Turing had sex with Arnold Murray in his own home in Wilmslow and it all came out when he reported a burglary by his shagging partner. I fail to see how anyone can be “indecent” in their own home.

But it is possible the cyanide coated apple was a mere mistake. It has been mooted. Certainly Turing (a pure mathematician not schooled in lab discipline) was new to the game. And trust me as a physicist I have worked with lethal things and I wouldn’t trust a mathematician in my lab. Mainly those lethalities were in the sense of serious voltages and radioactive stuff and not any biohazard or poison*. So maybe? Who knows! Who cares! I am typing this on a Lenovo S205. That is what matters. It is certainly possible that the female hormones Turing was ordered to take after his conviction that caused him to grow breasts outraged him because he was also verging on being a world-class long-distance runner or following his conviction (not unrelated to the Cambridge spies) he lost his security clearance (for being gay – unlike the Cambridge spies he was not a KGB agent, just gay) or even the fact he was only a reader at Manchester because the security about Enigma/Lorenz had left a “black-hole” in his career. A fundamental thing here is that we were moving from Empire at the time and gave as a parting gift Enigma machines we’d snicked from the Germans but we didn’t want them to know we could break the code. Sneaky? Brilliant! But it meant nobody involved with Station X or Ultra got the credit. You can compare and contrast with Manhattan. Of course that was for obvious reasons much harder to keep on the QT.

There are people who define centuries. Roughly the Stephensons defined the C19. The C20th was invented by Nikola Tesla. Our time belongs to Turing. If you are reading this you are reading this on a Turing Machine. Much the same as the Turing machine I am writing this on. I got my first Turing machine (a 48K Speccie) in 1984. I felt like a king – I had a computer and they had been huge things maintained by fit librarian-type birds in lab-coats with clip-boards and owned by Bond villains in Mao suits and cats. I wrote a game even – it was very poor – but hell’s buggery – I wrote a game! I learned maths and drew fractals from outlines of programs from Scientific American my Dad nabbed from work. Alan Turing made it so. The game BTW was called “Orc Fighter” and was truly dreadful.

So fill your cups for Alan Turing. He made us. We have a category here called “Transformative Technologies”. Turing is certainly up there. He is up there with George Stephenson and the Wright Brothers. He is there in the pantheon with Tesla and Newton. And I don’t say that about many folks.

*My final university experimental project was… Well I built a magnetometer out of bits. It worked down to very few fractions of a Tesla. Nano Tesla I think. It annoyed some profs because I had proven data of car movements in the car park… Not everyone was actually clocking in or out at time. But that was not my original scheme. Oh, no I wanted to play with magnetotactic bacteria as a model for certain solid state systems. Three problems. A budget of GBP35, the fact these buggers come from New England swamps and thirdly nobody in the physics department having the slightest idea on the H&S issues. The magnetometer was built in the end with scavenged parts for about a tenner. God knows what happened to it.

Hands up, who else is completely fucked off by the Titanic ?

Every time I turn the TV or the radio on, there it is, heading towards its doom in the gloom and the Iceberg, Polar Bears cheering like Sirens from the Berg’s upper reaches (that’ll teach ya for Global Warming you arrogant human bastards!).

I’ve had the straight story in the 1958 film, a Night to Remember (you bet it was) the romantic bollocks of the DiCaprio version, socio economic studies of the British class system viz who gets to get in the not nearly enough lifeboats first, “Women and children first, then the first class passengers, then the second and finally the steerage and coloureds, and the band played on (they all died).

Was it all down to Imperial arrogance? (unsinkable) bad workmanship? bad riveting ? the bulkheads not reaching all the way to the deck? What did it mean for the reputation of Belfast as the best shipbuilding town in the world? Was it a portent of the First World War?

Did Global Warming cause it, them icebergs being so far South? (you can’t leave that one out these days can you?) Why did ships close enough to rescue ignore the distress calls? Were the Lookouts drunk?…

Quite frankly I don’t fuckin care! It was a terrible tragedy, with a huge loss of life, but thousands of ships have sunk in equally tragic circumstances before and since, but we don’t get this minute bloody scrutiny of them do we?

There is even a cruise going on that traces the exact journey of the doomed ship, that is laying a wreath on the exact spot it sank on the anniversary. Well I feel like towing a bloody big iceberg into its path myself, just in the interests of  realism you understand. I mean, how fucked up  and maudlin do you have to be, to be on that particular cruise!!

E fuckin nough of the bloody Titanic already!!!

RIP Etta James – January 25, 1938 – January 20, 2012

Take 2, from the 2′nd best Etta James, ever

Christopher Hitchens – Rest in Peace.

I just heard Ian McEwan talking about his pal Christopher Hitchens. Well, I didn’t have a term for Hitchens until I read Neil Gaiman’s “American Gods” who had Shadow describe Odin as an “irascible old fucker”. I think that just about describes Hitch to a “T”. The World is poorer for his loss even (because) he was an irascible old fucker.

Gary Speed MBE (1969-2011)

It is rare that I find the death of a famous person shocking but when I heard of Gary Speed’s death today I was shocked.

A fine player for many clubs (he holds the appearances record for an outfield player in the Premiership) and a great player for his national team (but can I be forgiven for recalling mainly his time at Newcastle) and his current job as the manager Wales seemed to be going very well (Wales had leap-frogged about fifty places in the FIFA rankings). He was also by all accounts a thoroughly decent bloke. It would appear he hung himself.

I shall leave the final words to his Newcastle team-mate Alan Shearer.

Alan Shearer, who played alongside Speed at Newcastle for six years between 1998 and 2004, said: “Gary was a magnificent person, bright, fun and a wonderful family man – he lit up every room he walked into.

“I am proud to have been his friend and will miss him dreadfully.”

If you have followed football at all over the last twenty years you will appreciate that from the notoriously taciturn Mr Shearer.

In Memoriam

RIP

Dennis MacAlistair Ritchie (September 9, 1941 – October 8, 2011)

And if you don’t know who he is, your opinions on computers don’t matter.

Red 4 Down

I was really quite upset to hear Red 4 was down. I watched the news – flicking between Sky and BBC with little hope. I saw him a month ago in the skies over Southport. Alas, I have no photos. I used the last of my battery charge on XH-558. The Red Arrows go on forever of course – or so I thought. I have seen them before and I shall again. I should have saved some time but… Isn’t that life? And death.

I should have said something earlier but I wanted the dust to settle and didn’t really know what to say.

Then I picked up an old collection of sf stories called “Master’s Choice Vol.1″ I’d bought recently for pennies in a second-hand shop and happened quite by chance upon “Requiem” by Robert Heinlein – a story I had never read. It starts with this quote:

Under the wide and starry sky
Dig the grave and let me lie:
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will!

This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.

- Robert Louis Stevenson

The story is about an elderly businessman who due to his personal passion invested early in space, made a packet from it and despite the better judgement of his company and his legacy-seeking family, employs two washed-up rocketeers and burns it all for one lonely impulse of delight – to visit the moon. Where he dies.

Flight Lieutenant Egging, it shall go on because you are not the only one to love the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.

Per ardua ad astra!

We just want to go home.

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