Thursday, May 31, 2007
Wednesday, May 30, 2007
Tuesday, May 29, 2007
Monday, May 28, 2007
Wednesday, May 23, 2007
Tuesday, May 22, 2007
Monday, May 21, 2007
Tuesday, May 15, 2007
I am loath to suggest that knots are in any way trivial. If you have nothing better to do with your life, you can try the little experiment suggested by one of the knot tying websites and count how many times a day you either tie or untie a knot (In my case it came to a somewhat disappointing “three” and two of those were my shoelaces – and before you ask I pulled my shoes off without untying them). Whilst slip-on shoes and clip-on ties might be downgrading the importance of the mechanics of knots in our lives, scientists are increasingly focusing their attention on the importance of knots in our understanding of the very fabric of life on earth. For some time, mathematicians have devoted a good deal of time to what is known as “knot theory”. Mathematical knots are defined as “structures which embed a circle in 3-dimensional Euclidean space” and when represented in diagrammatic form have an uncanny likeness to the diagrams you can find in Boy Scout manuals. More recently, other branches of theoretical science have begun to study knots. Physicists are interested in knots because the latest theories of matter postulate that everything is made up of tightly coiled (and maybe knotted) loops of space-time, and biologists are interested in knots because the long, string-like molecules of DNA coil themselves up tightly to fit inside the cell.
The knot hobbyist however is more of the hands-on rope type of person. They take their lengths of rope and balls of string and from them they conjure the most astonishing creations. Enter the world of the “knot-head” (a descriptive term adopted by many American knot enthusiasts) and you are entering the world of the clove hitch, the sheepshank, the Turks Head, Monkeyfist and Jug Sling. With there ties, passes and bights they create coasters and picture frames, bell-pulls and key-rings, bracelets and decorative wall-hangings. Get a group of knot-heads together in the same room – which the various branches of the International Guild of Knot Tyers does with astonishing regularity – and the passage of time is lost as loops of twine bind the participants together in happy fellowship. And if you are unfortunate enough to live too far away from your local knot tying chapter, there is, of course, a vibrant on-line community ready to welcome you. Currently there are over 1,000 members of the Yahoo knot-tyers discussion group. Recent topics have included the search for a formula for estimating cordage length (SL = (3.14 *(D+3*d)*L)/(d*S) was suggested by one correspondent) and which knotting book one would best like to be stranded on a desert island with.
The internet is also the source of another invaluable resource for the budding knot enthusiast – the animated knot diagram. Turn to any of the standard knot tying books – and these are more widely available than you might think, I found one in my local Garden Centre only the other day – and you will find a load of fussy diagrams showing endless loops and loose ends, with enough overs and unders to give even the most relaxed a thumping good headache. But turn to an animated knot diagram and everything becomes clear. Thanks to one such presentation I am now sporting a tie featuring a full Windsor Knot.
Although the world of the raveller is well catered for in both the traditional and the on-line literature, us unravellers are an endangered, unsupported and unloved species. Whilst our friends are out attending knot-tyers supper parties we sit alone with our knotted string and our desire to open that which has been locked. Like Alexander the Great we take the sword of reason to the Gordian knot of modern living. And we do it in splendid isolation.
Thursday, May 10, 2007
Henri de Saint-Simon was born in 1760 and had connections to one of the great French aristocratic families, but the connections were somewhat fragile and he was far from rich. Whilst still a teenager he travelled to America where he fought for the American colonists in their war of independence against Britain. During a convoluted return journey to Europe, he stopped off in Central America and drew up the first plans for a canal linking the Atlantic to the Pacific. Despite being a supporter of the revolution, Saint-Simon’s aristocratic pedigree resulted in his imprisonment during the height of the French Revolution. However, despite being a proponent of liberty, equality and fraternity, he managed to make a small fortune by buying confiscated land and later selling them at a profit.
Once the fortune had been spent, Saint-Simon threw himself into his writing and produced volumes of detailed plans for the harmonious future of mankind. He was not the kind of person to make do with a general theory when a detailed blueprint could be produced. Thus when he put forward the first proposals for a European Parliament, he carefully calculated the size and location of each constituency and the detailed roles of all the functionaries. And when he published his great work “Le Nouveau Christianisme”, he not only described the basic principles of his new religion – a religion which, blending science, technology and humanity, would underline the equality of mankind – but also stipulated the detailed design of the churches and the manner of dress of the devotees.
And so to Saint-Simon’s contribution to the 101 Ideas Which Nearly Changed The World – the Saint Simonite Waistcoat. His detailed plans for the new communities which would adopt his philosophical teachings state that followers should all wear a particular type of reversed waistcoat, which laced up at the back. Thus they could only be put on and taken off with the help of a fellow human being. The garments would emphasise, in the most practical way, the inter-dependence which lay at the centre of the principles of brotherhood and equality. With inter-dependence reinforced, “evils will start to decrease, troubles to abate, wars to die away”.
By 1823, Saint-Simon had created a body of work which, he believed, would transform society and take it towards a new age of peace and prosperity. With appealing credulity, he informed the various leaders of European states that he was available to advise them on the way forward. Nobody replied and so he attempted to blow his brains out. He succeeded only in blinding himself in one eye, but shortly afterwards he died, a broken man. After his death devotees attempted to put his ideas into action and a number of Christian-socialist communities were established in Europe and America. His followers would wear the famous waistcoat which, by now, would have the words “le pere” stencilled across the front in praise of their founder. But within a few short years the communities had vanished and Saint-Simon, his ideas and his waistcoat had all been forgotten.
Wednesday, May 09, 2007
It was the campaign run by the wildlife photographer, Rebecca Hosking, which caught my attention. She was filming sea turtles in the Pacific and found a number of them dying with plastic carrier bags stuck in their throats. On her return to England she started a campaign which has led to her home town - Modbury in Devon - becoming the first place in Europe to ban the use of plastic bags for an experimental six month period.
According to the latest Government figures over 8 billion plastic bags are used by UK shoppers per year. These figures are now seven years old so the total will, most likely, be much higher. It is difficult to avoid some plastic bags without becoming unnecessarily eccentric. I have not yet reached the stage where I demand that my half pound of Walls sausages are liberated from their plastic wrapper at the check-out. But it is easy to avoid the most conspicuous use of plastic bags - the ones which we carry our purchases home in.
Over the last week or so I have acquired a vast collection of jute bags - available at most supermarkets for less than a £1 - and these are what I now use for my shopping. In addition to the environmental benefit, there is something aesthetically pleasing about a jute bag. They put me in mind of sacks of flour. They transport me back to rural idylls, where the sun shines down for ten hours a day, and foaming pints of English beer quench the thirsts of bone-weary hop-pickers (this may, of course, have something to do with the fact that the jute plant is a close relative of the hemp plant). So, be like me, go jute - and see where you are transported to. Whilst you may live to regret it, the sea turtles may live to welcome your conversion to the cause.
Tuesday, May 08, 2007
There is normally nothing I like better on a sunny afternoon than settling down on my yellow balcony with what used to be called "a picture magazine". Back in the old days these were represented by the likes of "Life Magazine" or "Picture Post". The modern-day equivalents are, I suppose, the weekend glossies that fall out of most daily and Sunday newspapers. When these first appeared back in the sixties they were reasonably anodyne things containing articles on the hedgerows of Devon or Hadrian's Wall Revisited. But, as the cult of celebrity has slowly taken over the minds, dreams and television screens of modern man (and woman), they have become nothing more than minor show-biz fan-mags.
Take, for example, the Guardian Weekend Magazine from the 5th May 2007 (this was one of the offending magazines I took to the yellow balcony over the Bank Holiday). First I flicked through it, then I chucked it in the bin, then I rescued it, then I did a mathematical analysis of its photographic content. Leaving aside advertisements - advertisers are free to use whatever image they want, I have no argument with that - there were 46 significant photographs in the magazine (I have left out of the analysis little header photos and that kind of thing). To undertake the analysis I devised five categories : people, places, food/drink, material objects, and others. (If you are muttering to yourself phrases like "get a life, Burnett" or "he really should get out more", keep your bloody opinions to yourself). The result of the analysis was as follows:
Percentage of total photographs devoted to :
In other words, every other photograph we see is a celebrity's face grinning at us. When not faced with Juliette Lewis or Penelope Cruz or Keanu Reeves or Gordon Ramsey (whoever they are) we are bombarded with images of Polenta Cakes (with rocket salad) or hemp and parsley pesto. Escape food and faces and the chances are you will be looking at a fancy chair or a stainless steel coffee table. Enough is enough. Give us back places. We want the Lincolnshire coastline, the stiles of Dartmoor, the snickets of Hechmondwike, and the forests of Scotland.
There is another Bank Holiday weekend just around the corner. Not to worry, I have bought myself a copy of the National Geographic in anticipation.
Wednesday, May 02, 2007
What you may not know is the the generator has a "VCS" - "Voltage Control System" - a box of electronics that is supposed to keep the output voltage of the generator constant so that - if need be - the batteries recharge at fantastic rate (up to 60 Amps) for their ideal charging voltage (about 87 Volts) AND, conversely, if the batteries are nearly charged the generator doesn't speed up.... in our case anything over 90V would speedily wreck them and, indeed, prolonged over-high voltage could cause them to explode (yes, really!!)
Well, I had a gut feeling the batteries weren't recharging as fast as planned and hoped and - when they were nearly charged - the voltage did merrily get up to 90V (no higher because I hastily turned the generator off and wiped the sweat from my brow whilst imagining popping noises...)
You've guessed it. Our VCS as supplied (second hand) wasn't working. So I fiddled around.. and fiddled around... and fiddled around... and consulted the chief engineer, Chris Baker, at Fischer-Panda (the make of the generator) - he's intrigued about our conversion and kindly answers all my questions but... it still didn't work....
I was slightly in despair. BUT I had discovered the "actuator" on the generator worked fine - it's a neat (and very simple) thing where an electric motor effectively operates the generator's accelerator. You drive it with little 12 volt pulses - voltage one way round for "faster", other way around for "slower". Indeed, being a belt & braces man I wired up a switch to check... yes, pulse the one way, generator got faster, other way, slower. So wonderfully simple I could have sat there all day - and ACTUALLY we don't need a VCS - just me flicking the switch whilst watching the voltmeter!!!!
I shall cut my pet homily to the bone that I don't really go for all this automated stuff if something can be done by hand - human consideration tends to be vastly superior to automated stuff, especially if something unexpected happens!
Nevertheless, I did realise that with all my hobby electronics I could probably dream up a substitute VCS... even better, I had ALL the components I needed (some people collect postcards - I accumulate electronic bits... not particularly intentionally, I've just got reams of stuff left over from previous experiments... and may I recommend electronics as a hobby for the impoverished, most components only cost a few pence each! And getting them to work as you want can take DAYS - it's a really cheap way of filling one's day! And terribly satisfying when things work...)
So, the photo above is my trial circuit at that moment - merrily producing pulses to (notionally) speed the generator up and pulses to set the accelerator to "low" upon switching the generator off. Since then, another little group of bits added to that blank bit of plugboard and, wow, it all seems to work. Pulse, pulse pulse to (notionally) accelerate the generator if the voltage drops by less than a volt, pulse, pulse, pulse to (notionally) slow the generator if the voltage rises by less than half a volt. Don't ask me why, the effects aren't symmetrical. I mean, by the way, don't ask me why or I'll tell you - that would take an hour or more and probably longer for the uninitiated. ....
Before you all applaud loudly (some hope!), I now have to convert this trial circuit into solidly-soldered form. Of all things, I happen to have a bit of PCB (printed circuit board) will fit into the same box the original VCS came in... so, unless I tell people, nobody will actually know we haven't got a Fischer-Panda VCS!! Don't think I'm so modest, I'll tell just everybody (relevant) EVEN if they didn't want to know...
Oh, I'm supposed to be a house developer - that's OK, apparently - plans should be approved June 7th. Yawn... we have to wait a MONTH sitting on our backsides not able to do a thing?
Anyway, my news from nowhere is that the boat is likely to be working A1 OK - Waterways World have already agreed they'd like an article or two - in about two days I'll be ready to do proper tests. House stuff, June 7th to start.
I do wish people would realise what FUN it is to make a functional electronic circuit - unlike history or anything people can argue about, it simply works. No argument.
The keen-eyed amongst us will spot that the note is dated 2 Janner 1913. However, the even-keener-eyed will spot the red overprinting - if you can't make it out it is DEUTSCHOSTERREICH - which pinpoints the date of issue as that brief period after the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire when the western bits of the Empire re-invented themselves as German Austria. Officially, German Austria existed for less than a year and the provisions of 1919 Treaty of Saint-Germain-en-Laye prohibited the use of the term and re-named the country Austria. Of course, that was not the end of the story ... but you didn't come here for a history lesson.
Whatever your opinions on German Austria may be, it cannot be denied that they could design a stunning banknote. I cannot imagine that, in years to come, people will have battered old cardboard files containing long out of date credit cards - kept for no other reasons than their aesthetic qualities. But, there again, one should never try and second-guess the potential eccentricity of true collectors. Think of my Uncle Frank and his bus tickets.