Sunday, April 26, 2015

It Has Not Escaped Our Notice #14

'Wandering at random in Manhattan,' reports my correspondent, Professor Trellis of North Wales, 'I came across this sign - which' (he continued) 'gives me the name for my next fictional prog rock band.'

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Passport Power

I've just come back from the main post office in Cromer where I obtained a form which, with the befurnishment of £££, will be used to renew Crox Minima's passport so she can go on a school trip abroad.

I love the rubric on the inside page of my passport, which says, in flowery script, and I quote:
Her Britannic Majesty's Secretary of State Requests and requires in the Name of Her Majesty all those whom it may concern to allow the bearer to pass freely without let or hindrance and to afford the bearer such assistance and protection as may be necessary.  
It's the 'requests and requires' that elicits a wry chortle. As if we can send the gunboats any more.

As luck fortune morphic resonance would have it I came across, only yesterday, a website which rates passports by their power, ranking them by the number of countries to which the bearer will be admitted without a visa.

The most powerful passport is that of the U. S. and A., which gets a visa-free pass to 147 countries. And despite much talk about the waning power of the U. of K., a British passport is equal in rank. 'Requests', if not necessarily 'requires'.

But WITHOUT LOOKING AT THE WEBSITE, can you guess the country or countries with the lowest ranking? There are actually five of them, and their passports will get you visa-free admission to only 28 other countries.

My guess was Sudan, but I was wrong. A Sudanese passport gets you visa-free admission to 47 countries, along with passports from Iran, Libya, Turkmenistan, Narnia, Mordor and Sri Lanka.

I guessed Sudan purely on the basis of a meeting I had a few years ago with a Sudanese citizen. He was a barista at one of those AMT coffee stands I once patronised, on platform 1 of King's Cross Station Crustacean. (Don't go looking for the stand, it's not there any more.) As I remember it, my barista told me he was due to spend some hours queueing up at the French embassy for a visa. Being Sudanese was the worst thing, he said - you had to get a visa to go anywhere.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Ways To Make My Fortune #14

Now Spring is here I am more often to be seen on the beach with the Canes croxorum.

Heidi, the Golden Retriever, has become very arthritic of late - something of a breed characteristic - and going for walks with her has become painful for all concerned. She has two speeds - 'Dead Slow', and 'Stop'.

When we are on the beach, however, she loves to wade and wallow in the deep tide pools that form at the ends of the breakwaters at low tide. Here she is enjoying one of her favourite spots, earlier today:

Watching her obvious enjoyment I got a great idea - to open a hydrotherapy spa for dogs. I'd install a small swimming pool with gently sloping sides, ensuring that it was fitted with powerful fur-filters (which would have to be changed regularly.) It would be filled with rainwater and wouldn't need to be heated.

If business was thin it could double as a mikveh.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Dogsplaining No. 27

Using only her eyebrows, Heidi the Dog explains the apparent absence of Kardashev Type III Civilizations in the Universe.
Clever dog!

Thursday, April 16, 2015

The Accidental Species Now In Paperback

The news that my tome The Accidental Species: Misunderstandings of Human Evolution will be available in paperback on April 24 (you can pre-order it) was underlined yesterday when a parcel of complimentary copies arrived yesterday chez Crox, by special messenger.
So now it's available in no fewer than four six four formats - paperback, hardback, kindle, audiobook, country and western - there's no excuse for you not to buy it.

Except if you don't read English, but I am working on that.

Monday, April 13, 2015


This week just gone, Crox Minor and I were in London, and while we were there we spent a cheerful day at Greenwich where we visited the Royal Observatory. It had been many years since I'd visited a planetarium, and being of a certain age, I welcomed the kind of tourism during which one could lie back with one's eyes shut and nobody would notice, unless I snored.

But there's more to the Royal Observatory than that, oh dear me yes. The view, for one thing, is spectacular.

Above is the view looking northward to the Royal Naval College, with Canary Wharf in the background. The grounds of the Royal Observatory are fascinating. At left, for example, is the building in which the Astronomers Royal were quartered.

At the very top, above the octagonal tower room (in which many delights of ancient telescopy and Jacobean wood panelling await the eager vistor) is a large red ball owned by Sir John Flamsteed, the first Astronomer Royal. In days gone by, this ball was raised on its spike and dropped each day at precisely one o'clock in the afternoon, the observation of which was noted by ships in the Thames Estuary, so they could set their chronometers.

Time, and its measurement, were at the heart of the Royal Observatory's raison-d'ĂȘtre. At the very beginning of Britain's Imperial and maritime might, understanding navigation became a matter of much concern. Accurate star charts became a matter of urgency - Flamsteed mapped some 3,000 stars, and painstaking astrometry of that kind was the central business of subsequent Astronomers Royal, such as Maskelyne and Halley.

The astronomers assembled a decent collection of telescopes.

Now, I do rather like a nice big telescope, and here I am next to part of the one used by Halley. Crox Minor says my fascination with big telescopes suggests that I am compensating for something. Cheeky blighter.

But I digress.

If one is measuring the position of stars for the purposes of navigation, one needs a reference frame. As every schoolchild knows - and if they don't, they should hie forthwith, or even fifthwith, to the Royal Observatory, where an exhibition will soon put them straight - measuring one's longitude while at sea is always something of a problem. (Latitude, however, is as easy as peasy.)

There is a rather involved astronomical method which involves observing the Moon against its background of stars, and another which involves watching the passage of Jupiter's major moons about the planet itself, but these require that either the Moon or Jupiter are visible, notwithstanding inasmuch as which quite a lot of calculation and a detailed knowledge of the night sky (hence the interest in astrometry.)

An easier way, at least in principle, is to measure one's local time against a global reference. The problem is that every hour's difference on the clock means fifteen degrees' longitude of difference in the sea, from which one can easily sea see that one needs very, very accurate clocks indeed, to avoid getting very, very lost. Not just location, but lives, have been lost due to inaccurate navigation, something that's hard to imagine these days when finding one's location on the Earth to within a matter of metres is a click away.

To estimate one's location one needs a very accurate clock on board one's vessel, calibrated to a reference frame. Given that longitude is a matter of east and west, and there is no East Pole or West Pole, establishing the reference frame is a matter of convention. Current convention holds that the meridian of zero longitude runs through the Royal Observatory itself. Here is Crox Minor standing where East meets West. It wasn't always so - Halley's Greenwich meridian ran a few feet to the west, but they moved it. On the meridian itself is a gigantic telescope, used to measure, very precisely, the time that stars crossed the meridian, allowing the Astronomers Royal to compile the most detailed, most accurate star maps ever made.

The hard part is measuring time accurately at sea. Imagine yourself as a ship's navigator back in the Eighteenth Century, on some leaky tub surrounded by a bunch of jolly tars and scurvy dogs, splicing main-braces every five minutes, sitting on dead man's chests, and teaching their parrots to say 'pieces of eight', all the while being tossed in the towering waves of the foamy brine, lurching violently to fore and aft, let alone port and starboard, and subject to every whim of heat and cold and moisture.

Such an environment is very far from ideal for a delicate ship's chronometer required to be accurate to within a few seconds. Inventing such a clock became an obsession of the Board of Longitude which offered a large financial reward to the inventor who could come up with a chronometer that met the demanding requirements of navigation at sea. Creating an accurate chronometer became in turn an obsession for clockmaker John Harrison, whose story is brilliantly described by Dava Sobel in her book Longitude.

The Royal Observatory has a super exhibition on the difficulties of navigation at sea, which includes all four of Harrison's experimental marine chronometers. Harrison's No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 chronometers are rather large pieces of equipment. The picture on the right shows the insides of No. 2.

So it's a surprise to find that the Harrison No. 4 chronometer, the final version, the piece de resistance, if you will, is very compact - the shape and size of a saucer, and no thicker than a modest paperback book. In its jewelled mechanism was distilled everything, every hard-won, painstaking, tiny detail, Harrison learned about making accurate clocks.

It was on such scientific obsession as much as swashes being buckled that the British Empire was made. There's a moral in there, somewhere, about the importance of basic scientific research.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Leaven and Psoriasis

Being the nice Jewish boy that I am, at least for certain values of 'nice', I have cut down on bread and other baked goods since the beginning of Passover, five days gone. It's hard to do without such things completely when one is away from home (as I am at present) and eating on the hoof, as it were, and besides, the temptations of Danish pastries are just too great. As it says in the Tao of Jew, the Guide to Jewish Buddhist Wisdom:

On drinking tea: With the first sip, joy. With the second sip, contentment. With the third sip, Danish!

Notwithstanding inasmuch as which I have noticed that my psoriasis, which contributes to my general appearance of a distressed and shambling ruin, has decreased in severity, in just a few days.

The last time I noticed a marked reduction in my psoriasis was after a trip to China in 2010, when my psoriasis cleared up completely in ten days. I attributed the change to diet. During my stay in China I resolved to eat what my hosts were eating. Hello noodles, tofu, dead creatures of all kinds (especially seafood), fungi (in seemingly inexhaustible variety) - but goodbye bread, cakes and dairy products.

Thinking that dairy products might be a cause I tried to give up dairy, but this was extremely difficult, and although there was some slight improvement in my psoriasis, it didn't disappear altogether. And I do love cheese. I also decided not to give up baked goods at the time, all the better to isolate the effect of dairy products.

I do wonder, though, whether yeast might be a factor? It's not the wheat as such that one gives up for passover, but leaven - the raising agent. That is, yeast.

The story goes that after God afflicted Egypt with the ten plagues (the plague of people calling random Egyptians to tell them that they were due a refund for mis-sold insurance; the plague of Jehovah's witnesses; the plague of flyers posted through one's door advertising take-out services, and so on) , Pharaoh1 finally allowed the Hebrews to leave, but only if they did so at once, before he changed his mind. The Hebrews left so hurriedly they even took the unrisen loaves they'd put in the oven to cook. Which is why, at Passover, we not only eschew leavened bread but eat matzo, a kind of unleavened bread, rather like giant crackers.

The relationship between psoriasis and diet is complicated, poorly explored and confounded by a rash (pun intended) of anecdotes on the internet in which patients swear by this diet or that, claim that eschewing certain foods helps, and so on. But there is relatively little actual research. This study suggests that people with psoriasis carry more than the usual amount of the yeast Candida than people without, but whether that has anything to do with yeast in bread (which is a different sort of yeast, anyway - Saccharomyces) is doubtful.

In any case, it is now known that the cause of psoriasis (as distinct from the symptoms) has something to do with the immune system (see this recent report in Nature) and might possibly be related to genetic predispositions [what isn't? -Ed.] It could be that what we call psoriasis is actually a set of otherwise similar-looking symptoms to a range of disparate causes, or the result of two or more different things acting in concert. For example, someone with a genetic predisposition to a disease mightn't experience it at all unless they come across an environmental trigger, such as stress, or a dietary item, or a door-to-door encyclopedia salesman, or a virus, or even a combination of these.

As for me, it could easily be that the noticeable decline in my psoriasis has nothing much to do with yeast at all, but is more to do with the flush of warm weather we are having at the moment. Psoriasis sufferers do sometimes report that symptoms lessen in the spring and summer, possibly because they can expose their rashes to the elephants elements elephants and because ultraviolet radiation, such as is found in sunshine, can and does reduce psoriatic plaques.

On the other hand, even if cutting back on baked goods doesn't do much good for my psoriasis, it is bound to have a positive (or, as it may be, negative) effect on my waistline, and could be worth pursuing for that reason alone.

So, I shall give it a little more of a try, even when Passover is over. Ask me again at Shavuot.

1 Some sauces tzores sources suggest that this Pharaoh in question was Psoriasis II, but this is debated by scholars.