Thursday, 26 May 2016

Judge Dread

I spent a fraught 4 hours proof-reading Green-Eye's essay on the benefits of human breast milk yesterday, without thinking about human breasts once.

That's the thing about proof-reading, if you concentrate solely on grammar and punctuation, the meaning is entirely by-passed. This means that if you have to also check that it actually makes sense, then you have to read the whole thing at least twice, and usually about six or seven times.

The other factor which complicates it even further is that before the papers are actually marked, they are run through a software program which is supposed to pick up on plagiarism. In the writer's world, there is no greater sin than plagiarism, and this software is written by out of work writers, or worse - software engineers.

So here's the set-up: The student nurses are given massive reading lists of medical and clinical papers which they are expected to read, then pick out the bits most relevant to their essay. They have to refer to these selections thus: (Stephenson et al 2016) whenever they make a reference or an assertion, to show that they have, indeed, read them.

There is one catch, though. The plagiarism software scans their paper in a millisecond, and if it spots a word which is used in the original reference material, it highlights it as potential plagiarism. At the end of the scan, the student is allowed a mere 10% of potentially plagiaristic content, and anything over that is an ignominious fail. You are automatically failed by a bit of stupidly blunt software.

So the only way of avoiding being branded as a plagiarist is to try and find a different - and usually inferior - word to substitute for the one originally used, thereby watering down the original meaning. If - by sheer accident - you happen to string a five-word sentence together which turns out to be identical to something that someone else has written, you might as well tear the whole thing up.

It gets worse. Her year of students are all given the same reading reference material on the same subject, and are expected to write essays on that subject, all of which must be completely different. The software not only scans for similarities between each essay and the reference material, it also scrutinises every student's submitted essay and compares them against each other.

It gets worse still. Green-Eyes is allowed a little extra time to submit hers, because she is dyslexic. She is not stupid, she is just dyslexic. This has its own disadvantages.

The later you are in submitting your paper, the more chance there is of replicating - or just using - some words which someone else has already used before you which the software picks up on, and the greater the chance of being branded a plagiarist, or having to write whole sections over again whilst searching for a different way of saying the same thing, hours before the deadline for submission.

Robots were supposed to make our lives easier.

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

One man and his dog...

Cro's post about Elderflower Champagne has put me in mind of my Summer father. This one was almost the same as my Winter father, but a little more outgoing.

I never, ever, saw my father's bare legs during the whole of my life. As a result of them being badly broken in multiple places during a bomber crash over Kent in WW2, he bandaged them both every day from foot to knee. This was a ritual which - because I knew no different - I did not consider at all unusual. The long, off-white bandages would be washed in pairs and hung to dry in the bathroom until the next change.

If we went to the beach, he would sit on the edge of the sea with his usual charcoal grey trousers on (polished on the seat to a high sheen) and if the weather was hot, he might take his drip-dry, nylon, white shirt off, but leave his baggy, sleeveless vest on. I remember my mother's horror one day in Brighton, when he actually knotted a handkerchief and put it on his head. He looked like a naughty postcard, but with the innuendo.

Sometimes he would come in from the garden for Sunday lunch on a hot afternoon and sit at the end of the table in his vest which gaped horribly to us kids, exposing a white, flabby chest which glistened with sweat. The heat did not diminish his appetite and every meal involved a massive mound of potatoes - and I mean massive - so the sweating did not diminish either.

I found his body - I am ashamed to say - somewhat embarrassing as a kid, so was relieved that most of it was hardly ever exposed, but now I have inherited an identical one, so I have been punished for my youthful disdain.

The other thing I have inherited from him is/was his tendency to suddenly hit on an idea for a little project which usually involved a false economy by attempting to make things which could easily be bought, ready-made, from people who actually know how to make them.

He was, by no means, a big drinker. He would sip one glass of port or sherry at Christmas and make it last all night. On a hot Summer day, he might buy a bottle of fizzy cider, but this was more to do with a romantic notion of what a Thomas Hardy-type rustic would do after half a day's mowing with a large scythe, and he did spend some time mowing our huge, rough patch of lawn with a genuinely large scythe before he bought a petrol-mower. This cider would be accompanied by hunks of bread and cheese with pickled onions for the full experience. It made him happy, and I often do the same sort of thing. It makes me happy too.

One day, he decided to make his own beer - cider would have been too complicated without an apple press, and pre-squeezed apple juice was hard to come by in those days.

He acquired a load of large brown glass bottles with Bakelite screw-tops and rubber seals, then set to work stinking the kitchen out with the smell of boiling hops. This beer was going to be fizzy - the fizz was the magic touch which he was looking for. The brew was to ferment in the bottles and the bottles would produce the satisfying FFFZZZ when opened, and leave a thick, frothy head on the beer when poured. Well, that was the plan anyway.

He bottled the brew and screwed the tops on tight, then stacked them in neat rows in a dark cupboard near the kitchen to mature. I think they were to be there for a week or two.

A few days later, there was a deafening explosion from the cupboard, followed by the sound of broken glass falling to the floor. We all looked at each other in shock before we understood what was happening.

My mother instinctively went toward the cupboard to begin clearing up the mess, but was stopped by him. He tried to remember exactly how many bottles he had brewed, then  - over a period of about 4 hours - we counted the explosions off one by one - and out loud - before it was considered safe to go into the cupboard. We all thought it hilarious, but he didn't.

BANG! - Number 8.

BANG! - Number 9.

(Twenty minutes later)

BANG! - Number 10.

(Half an hour later)

BANG! - Number 11.

(Around the end of the day)

BANG! - Number 15! Hooray!

"Right. That was the last."

"Are you SURE?!"

Tuesday, 24 May 2016


Here in the U.K. there is a great struggle going on across the nation to do with whether or not we should leave the E.U. (in case you haven't noticed).

Journalists are travelling to all sorts of European countries, trying to ascertain what it really means to be a European.

It is turning out to be just as difficult a concept to grasp as what it is to be a German, a Dutchman or an Englishman.

It will be just as acceptable to refer to yourself as an Englishman, they say, if you are also a member of that great tribe of Europe. You do, after all, consider yourself English, even though you are simultaneously British, don't you? So where's the conflict?

Holland, a Canadian was saying on the radio this morning, has seen itself as a haven for the dispossessed for centuries, whilst at the same time as carving great territories for itself across the world, making great highways of the oceans whilst increasing its domestic territory by pushing the ocean back into the highways. Then why are there loads of Dutch weaver's cottages dotted around the South of England from when Protestants fled Holland in the 17th century?

Great Britain  was never any greater than when fighting the Dutch and Spanish for someone else's territories, but in this context, the word 'great' only alludes to a collection of little islands lumped into one territory, so don't get ideas above your current station in world politics. It should be called 'Greater Britain' now that Ireland is a republic, then politicians could say, "Britain has never been greater!" and still not be accused of lying.

2nd generation Brits are now forced to admit to something like, "I feel British first, English second, European third and Indian fourth." Well, there is no such thing as a true Englishman, I am afraid to say. We have been a mixture of all the invaders since the island broke away from the coast of what is now Holland and France, hundreds of thousands of years ago. It's a myth.

Now stop right there and remember one thing amongst all these stupid attempts to sway you one way or the other:

Europe is a continent. It is a large body of land that has remained in one lump, like Africa, America, and Asia.

A rousing anthem ripped-off from Beethoven (which originally celebrated the defeat of the French) and a flag which accretes little stars by the month should not distract you from this simple fact.

If you want to talk about economics, then go ahead, but don't muddy the water by trying to convince us that there is such a thing as a European spiritual identity.

Monday, 23 May 2016

Lily of the Valley

This is a scent which is becoming rare - not because the flower no longer grows or the ingredients can no longer be blended, it is the wearer of it which has all but died out.

If you took, at random, a girl born between 1895 and 1920, let her mature until somewhere between late teens and early twenties, and nurtured her with the occasional ball or dance, a Summer Fete or a trip to the coast with parents and siblings until she watched her own offspring by a survivor of a world war find their own scent - the girls giving it off and the boys never quite identifying its name - then it strengthened through evaporation. Its real name was a secret never to be told, even if she had the words or time left to tell it.

Not just Lily of the Valley, it is - or was - the distilled memories of the youth of an old woman.

Overload time:

This below, is the only proper poem I ever wrote, and I wrote it when living with Shawn here in Bath, in 1976. Ok, I know this is a bit of a floral binge-fest, but I'm going to give it an airing after all these years. It's crap, but I still like it.

Orpheus and Euridice

Walk in the land that time forgot
(the land remembers, we do not)
and in the sickly-scented shade
of Cypress trees, an esplanade
will lead the way to where there stood
a temple, in a silent wood
of Cedars from the Lebanon.

This grove of living censers found
the perfume that they spread around
with roots, sunk deep into the land
where incense lies, and where they stand
like priests upon the mountainside.

A crumbing fresco on a wall - 
a broken picture - can recall
with words more vividly than thought,
a memory, which, if left to aught
but flowers would too soon decay, 
lose its colour, fade away,
like Orpheus and Euridice.


Since I was old enough to travel on my own, I would take the train from Woking to Waterloo and make straight for the British Museum. Once there, I would make straight for the Egyptian section, striding past many thousands more years of history on my way.

Once in the Egyptian section, I would stare and stare and stare, at the same time soaking up the essence of the place with my nose - living in and breathing up the Victorian atmosphere of ancient Egyptian archeology. I could smell the 3000 year-old resins.

It was fairground showmen who first brought the romantic notion of Egypt back to the foggy London of Sherlock Holmes, when they returned with genuine artefacts bought from the real grave-robbers for a few shillings.

I would visit The Joke Shop in Tottenham Court Road and come home with a plastic mummy which - with the artless flick of a hidden magnet - refused to lie peacefully in its sarcophagus.

Back in Woking, I would go to the cinema to watch Boris Karloff - his bulging muscles wrapped in pre-stained cotton strips - pick up a victim with one hand, when I knew that real mummies were so light that even at that age I could pick one up with one hand myself.

I joined the Theosophical Society in case they could let me in on any secrets. They couldn't, of course, so the mystery deepened and my delusions thankfully remained intact.

As with most things, I was a little late in catching up with the craze for all things Egyptian, but even that had its advantages - looking back on the 1920s obsession for Egyptiana was double nostalgia.

Sets of cups and saucers with pyramids, palms and camels; door-knockers in Pharoe-mask form; alabaster jackals with meaningless glyphs set on mantlepieces; writing desks when people still wrote; Hollywood thrillers in black and white - two elderly men with moustaches doing a sand-dance on the pavement for a queue of theatre-goers...

I bought a book called The Secrets of the Great Pyramid, which was a compilation of the hundreds of theories, facts and fallacies attached to the massive structure on the Giza plateaux - some based on science, some based on pure nonsense. I liked both. Here's one fact: The Great Pyramid of Cheops alone contains more stone than all the religious buildings of Europe put together. How? Because it is solid. Nonsensical theories tend to bounce off something as large as this, causing it no harm at all.

I had to get it out of my system, so I made the trip to Egypt (via Athens) on my own, aged about 28. I was not disappointed and it never left my system. Not the romance, not the science, and not the notion of the foggy London of Sherlock Holmes. Why would I deliberately diminish my enjoyment of life by not escaping reality now and then?

Catching the right bus from central Cairo to the pyramids of Giza is easy. The bus starts from outside the university and is number 888. The number 'Eight' in Arabic is an equilateral  triangle, and three together read the same way from one side or the other. The bus has a little row of pyramids for the number.

You can only get a rough idea of how huge the Great Pyramid is from a distance of several miles. When you stand directly beneath it, its shape naturally diminishes as it rises, without the usual effects of fore-shortening. I have heard some fools who have visited it say how disappointingly small it is. I rode a horse out as far into the Sahara as Saqarah (during a rare and torrential thunderstorm) before turning round a looking again. It seemed to blot out half the horizon.

There is a great hall which rises to the King's Chamber (used for hoisting blocks the size of steam-trains, then later - before it was capped-off - as a telescope for a few years) and although it takes about fifteen minutes and a lot of sweating to climb, looks like a line drawn with a map-pen when depicted on a scaled drawing.

The King's Chamber is vast, and when I was there it was illuminated by one low-watt bulb hanging high on the ceiling. This too looks like a comparative speck on a drawing. You can sense the vast tonnage of stone all around you. It effects the very magnetism of the Earth.

I refused to leave with the group of tourists when asked to by the unofficial guide - "You must!" "I won't!" - so I listened to them huffing and puffing for a quarter of an hour on the way down, then was left alone for a half hour in utter silence.

I wandered around the chamber, and I climbed in to the 10-foot stone box (not a sarcophagus, but a unit of volume which relates to the very building-blocks of the universe) and I lay down and closed my eyes, hoping for the visitations that Napoleon had hinted at when he was left alone in the King's Chamber, but they never came.

Then the distant sounds of elderly Americans struggling to climb a 45 degree slope in the heat began to drift up, and I knew I would not be alone for much longer.

I am really glad that I never got Egypt out of my system.

Sunday, 22 May 2016

Fair game

Having my coffee this morning in the kitchen, I heard the raucous squawk of a male Mallard chasing a female over the rooftops, and was reminded that ducks do not so much breed, as get raped, and violently raped at that. It is not a pretty business, with the male strangling the female from behind at the same time as half drowning her as he gets his wicked way.

When it's all over, he leaves her to fend for herself and the 6 or 10 chicks which may get picked-off by gulls, falcons, magpies and - from beneath - pike. I saw a little train of ducklings paddling along behind a mother once, then there was a quick splash as the tail-ender was swiftly dragged underneath by an unseen pike. The mother turned around to see what the noise was, but noticed nothing untoward, so carried on as normal. Ducks can't count.

The thing about nature is that this is just life as it has been since creation - red in tooth and claw, etc. - but for humans it is 'sport'. Not for me it isn't.

A few years ago, the E.U. banned the use of lead shot anywhere near water to protect water-fowl from lead-poisoning. Well, the quickest way of dying from lead poisoning is to be shot, I would have thought, and the pellets or bullets don't even have to be made of lead. I am not aware of any bird which has been observed to show any of the signature effects of lead poisoning, such as talking to itself, singing in public or any of the irrational things which would get any human sectioned very quickly. Actually - now I remember - I have, but I'm not sure it could be blamed on lead. I'm not even sure they live long enough to show the effects, whether they are shot or not.

Nevertheless, wild-fowlers - or indeed anyone who shoots clays near a puddle - has to use extremely expensive bismuth cartridges, or barrel-destroying steel shot. Those with antique, Damascus barrelled, £5000 guns would not dream of using steel.

For a couple of years, shooters over water always took one or two bismuth cartridges with them in case there was a spot-check by an environmental official, but carried on peppering the skies and waterways with old-fashioned lead. They sold their bag to a game-dealer butcher for an extremely small amount of money - it was a spin-off - and the dealer would dress it and pass it on to the public for a small profit.

The environmental officials began to notice that lead shot continued to pile up on the sides of their plates in restaurants, so began to make spot-checks on the butchers, imposing hefty fines if they found lead in a water bird. Up went the price of duck, but what is a duck's life worth? As much as you are prepared to pay for it in a restaurant. It is delicious.

A keen shooter friend of mine was invited to a duck-shoot a few years ago, along with a few other guns who were friends.

They gathered on the farm, having paid quite a lot of money for the experience, and were guided to a small pond on which about 50 mallards were swimming round and round, like the plastic ones at a fairground. They showed no signs of fear at the sight of a load of humans walking up to them with shotguns, so the farmer had to beat the water with a stick to get them to - reluctantly - take to the air.

When they did begin to fly, it was at very low level, round and round, trying to get back on the water to continue to paddle around in peace.

A few people took a few shots at them, but most of the group declined to shoot in disgust at the situation. It even made these sportsmen sick at the idea that this could be considered sport at all.

Ducks are very difficult creatures to kill with a gun. They have very thick skins (like I say, delicious) which are thickly covered in water-proof feathers, so you have to use a high-charge cartridge filled with large calibre pellets, otherwise the shot just bounces off. Steel shot is a lot lighter than lead or legal bismuth, making them even harder to kill.

I think that if you are a wild-fowler, you should get up before dawn and become freezing and soaked to the skin as you crawl through the marshes toward a flock to take one shot, which may or may not bring down a bird, now that punt-guns are illegal.

Think of the money you save on bismuth!

Saturday, 21 May 2016

Bath Bitch Bird in Norfolk Latest

 Before in Bath- butter wouldn't melt

Two years later in Norwich - watch out chicks...
On Saturday 14th May, a large dominant female bird was seen visiting the Cathedral Spire at Norwich. At that point our resident female appeared to be submissive to the female and was taking no action against the ‘intruder’. At that time the chicks were still being fed by both the male and the female.  The following morning, it was noted that the ‘intruding’ female had a blue ring on her left leg, at the time the letters on it could not be distinguished. However it was seen that she was starting to have a noticeable effect on our female throughout the day, harassing her and preventing her from delivering food to the chicks. The last noted time on our webcams where our female was seen on the platform was at 8.29am on Sunday 15th May.
On Monday 16th May, the day of the ringing of our Norwich chicks, the letters on the ring became visible and were confirmed as GA, this is a bird that hatched and was ringed at St. John’s Church in Bath in 2013, the sister project to our Norwich peregrines. GA was seen around the cathedral and on the spire. At one point seen on the window apex above the nest box and throughout the day catching prey, plucking and storing it on the very top of the spire. The Norwich resident female was not seen at all throughout Monday and all feeds to the chicks were delivered by the male.The ‘intruding’ peregrine, GA, is of breeding age, when she was ringed in Bath in 2013 she was described as “a large, feisty female”. However this is not the first time she has visited Norwich Cathedral, as she made an appearance in Norwich in the summer of 2015 and has appeared several times over the last winter. Sightings in the local area have also been reported showing she has been around in Norfolk over the last couple of weeks and we believe she may have been roosting in the nest box that we recently installed at Wymondham Abbey in February this year, as a blue ringed female had been observed.
GA seen briefly in the Norwich Cathedral nest box with the male and chicks at 8.00am on 18th May
The potential outcome with the introduction of GA into the arena here at Norwich, is that our female seems to have been chased away from the Cathedral, though she may still be in the area. The male now appears to have become the sole provider of food. He will continue to bring in food as often as he can, however as the chicks continue to grow and develop over the next 10 days or so, they will require increasing amounts of food. It is in this situation that ‘nature, red in tooth and claw’ may be seen in action and on our cameras. At this stage sibling rivalry may occur and the strongest and fittest of the chicks will pick on the smallest and weakest if food is in short supply.
The policy of the Hawk and Owl Trust, confirmed by Conservation Officer Nigel Middleton is that we will not intervene should this occur. This differs from the situation earlier in the week when the chicks were ringed by a licensed BTO ringer. On that occasion a veterinary surgeon was present to take samples for DNA and throat swabs as part of a research project into DNA profiling. It was a veterinary decision based on animal welfare considerations to treat a sick chick.
Peregrines are a Schedule 1 species of bird that are protected by law and for the Hawk and Owl Trust to intervene would require us to hold the relevant licence to do so. To justify obtaining such a licence there would need to be evidence of a complete abandonment of the chicks by both the parents. As the adult male is still seen to be feeding the chicks as best he can, what is happening now would be regarded as a natural occurrence and as such would not justify intervention from the Hawk and Owl Trust.

(The Hawk and Owl Trust - 2016)