Wednesday, 21 February 2018

and he had a gun....

A friend has just had his 64th birthday and it'll be mine later this year. Because he lives in Southampton I doubt he'll be renting a cottage on the Isle of Wight and if he ever does stay out till quarter to four there'll be  a search party long before anyone locks the door.

In the early 1980's I spent a year living in the United States and I didn't know anyone that I knew had a gun. Of course this doesn't mean that none of my American friends did, just that they didn't choose to talk about it.

A decade later we took our young family on a camping trip to the North West coast and spent a few nights camped half way up Mount Spokane in Washington State. Along with the marvelous views and an entertaining troupe of gophers we shared our campsite with, among others, a couple of old hippies in a camper van. 

Now one of the things about life under canvas is that you get to hear everything that's going on around you. The sound of rain, on a well pitched tent with a decent flysheet, is actually quite comforting but an unwanted trample through the Beatles back catalogue at half past three in the morning isn't. 

Not being particularly sensible, and by then sleep deprived and bad tempered, I crawled out of the tent, went over to the hippies camper van and politely asked them in that passive aggressive English way if they'd mind turning the music down. "I've got small children and we'd really like to sleep"

It worked, the music stopped, I calmed down and dropped off.

The next day I overheard the hippies discussing the incident with another camper. The final words were "and he had a gun.."

A family of gophers watching an idiot risk his life in a land full of guns

Wednesday, 24 January 2018

The washing up geek.

I suspect that when most people are faced by what seems an inherently boring task such as doing the washing up they respond by either putting it off as long as possible or, when they do get around to doing it, paying as little attention as possible or getting someone else, or a machine, to do it for them.

Back in the late 70's and early 80's I spent most of my time living in shared student houses where washing up was always a major bone of contention. In one house I hid most of the surplus pans so that, rather than just getting another pan out of the cupboard, my house mates were obliged to clean up at least one of the dirty ones we'd already got. The least contentious way of managing shared cooking turned out to be to make the cooking and washing up a combined task. If it was your turn to cook it was also your turn to do the washing up.

Unlikely as it may seem I have been able to have a few decent conversations with people about the basic principles behind washing up. A simple one, which comes from experience camping when there's not a lot of water to go around, is that at each stage of the process you get the water as dirty as possible before getting rid of it and moving onto the next. But, by and large, and this includes my present housemates, these are discussions that most people simply don't want to have. Indeed, they're discussions that my current housemates won't let me have. I might try to explain the logic and science behind my way of doing things but that requires an attentive, and definitely not hostile, audience. So, even though there are reasons behind what I do, I never get the opportunity to explain what they are. 

Most readers will be familiar with the sense of frustration you get when you're prevented from completing a song that you've started singing. Well us poor compulsive didacts get the same feeling when our attempts to explain something aren't allowed to run their full course.

So, this illustrated post is my way of relieving this frustration.

Someone has been doing some cooking and this is how the working part of the kitchen has been left.

The starting state of the kitchen

The draining board is full of washing up from the last session and new items are beginning to pile up. Some things have made their way into the water left over from the last session and are having a soak.

Sink and draining board at the start

The first, and I'd say obvious, stage is to make space by putting away the now dry crockery and cutlery from the previous session. 

Stuff put away and drainer now clear

Stage 2 is to get the worst off using the water left in the bowl from the previous session.

Items have been swilled clean and the dirty 
water from the bowl disposed of down the sink

Previously swilled items can now be put back into the bowl so that those which will be stacked first, on the right hand side of the drainer (to avoid dripping water on stuff that's already draining), can be washed first. In the following picture you'll notice a small amount of washing up liquid in the cereal bowl in the centre. The basic technique is to slowly run hot water into the first item, clean it with a brush or nylon scourer tipping the left over soapy water into the bowl ready for the next item. The first item is then rinsed under the slowly running water and stacked to dry. Repeat for each item with the bowl slowly getting more full of water.

Previously swilled items in the bowl about to be washed

Greasy items with hollow interiors can be swilled by simply scooping a bit of water from the bowl and then disposing of the dirty water down the sink. This avoids getting a lining of grease in the bowl. 

Getting the worst off a dirty frying pan 
without contaminating the water in the bowl

Finally, everything has been cleaned, stacked and in 10-15 minutes will be dry enough to put away and for the process to start all over again.

Everything washed and drying with 
water left over to swill off the next load

For the sake of completion just a word about stacking patterns on the drainer. The basic principle is that bowl shaped items (where even plates can be thought of as shallow bowls) are stacked with the smallest to the right so that the bigger ones effectively contain the smaller but without touching.

+ On this occasion I used a measuring jug to see how much water I'd used and it came to about 2.5 litres.


This post began a long time ago, in pseudo philosophical style as "A dialogue concerning the washing up" I can't remember why the two protagonists were titled A and M but, so that you can see where this particular strand of geekiness comes from, here's how it started.

M. "I understand that you've a long history of annoying your housemates by being seeming to be obsessed with the "correct" way of doing the washing up. What's that all about?"

A. "Well, as a student I briefly worked in a hospital laundry. Loading the washing machines, transferring wet washing to the spin dryers and then loading the tumble dryers was men's work. The women then took the dry laundry from the tumble dryers and ironed it on vast ironing machines. None of the work was particularly exciting but I made my own amusement by working out the most efficient ways to transfer the washing between the various stages. Now it just so happened that we were being assessed by time and motion men and at lunchtime I'd chat with them in the hospital canteen about their work and whether or not my enthusiasm for efficiency would cause problems for the other workers."

M."So you then realised that you'd got a thing about doing things properly?"

A. "Not so much that, more that the way I found to deal with the incipient boredom was to think about what I was doing rather than day dream about something else.  During my second week on the job we were joined by another young temporary worker who wasted no time in letting everyone else know how crap he though the job was and I left because I simply couldn't bear to hear him being so thoroughly disrespectful to the other workers who had little choice but to get on with the job."

M. "So how does this fit in with the washing up?"

A. "Well its simply just another task that you can either choose to belittle and attempt to ignore or you can deal with the boredom by thinking about what you're doing."

M. "So what washing up wisdom have you got to impart?"

A."Well, the first thing you need to know is that I still do it all by hand. The kitchen we inherited is fine but the spaces under the work surfaces are tight and without major reconstruction there's no way we could actually accommodate a dish washer without major disruption. Anyway, my first principle would be that you can't start the washing up until you've cleared a space to put the stuff you've washed up. This means putting stuff away."

Monday, 22 January 2018


From the late 60's to the mid 70's I followed Leeds United all over the country. Unlike today, going to top flight football was still a cheap afternoon out, you didn't often need ticket reservations and most of us preferred to sway on the terraces rather than sit in the stands. 

My Dad, who never really had much idea of what was going on in the game, but liked the spectacle, often came along too and we'd use the car park of an industrial unit not far from the ground. The first time we did this we simply said to the guy on the gate that it was "Mr Sharp", he just presumed that we were supposed to be there and, for subsequent games, even kept a space for us if we were a bit late.

I'd get to most other games by catching the supporters' bus from Harrogate, though there was one memorable occasion when my Dad did drive us down to the match at Nottingham Forest. Stood opposite the main stand, which had the dressing rooms underneath, at half time we noticed what looked like flames coming from under the seats. Within ten minutes the stand had emptied onto the pitch and, instead of watching the second half, we were entertained by firemen attempting the quell the flames with water from the nearby River Trent. By the end all that was left was a smouldering heap of timber. The unfortunate headline in Goal magazine that week was  "Leeds ready to set fire to Forest".

Later that season I went to the penultimate game of the season at Anfield ( Liverpool) where a goalless draw gave Leeds the championship. With the Leeds team heralded by the home fans, I left the ground in good spirits and made my way back to the bus. As we were going past Stanley Park I had my scarf nicked, protested loudly and got beaten up for my troubles. It turned out that I'd got a cracked coccyx (the vestigial tale bone at the bottom of your spine). It might have hurt but at least gave an excuse not to play cricket at school: A dangerous game where the fast bowlers could spot any sign of weakness and where my usual tactic was to daydream on the boundary keeping well out of the way of that horrible hard ball. 

Leeds United taking tributes from the Kop (28/4/1969)

Since these were the olden days, we used to spend most of our time playing out; climbing trees, making dens in the woods, dams on the beck, tracking on our bikes and generally being places we weren't supposed to be. A lot of time was spent playing football on the fringes of the local cricket pitch. I knew I wasn't very good but, even so, for many years a good part my fantasy life revolved around suddenly developing real talent and somehow being discovered by the scouts at Elland Road

As a slightly distant child, who always seemed to be thinking about things that the other boys weren't, who often missed the jokes (because of a strong and surviving tendency to take words at face value), who never got picked first for any of the teams and hung out more with the girls than was considered normal, I longed to fit in but didn't quite know how to do it.  One of the signs of fitting in was to be given a nick name and eventually, one day, I was, "Cardboard".

Now I'd always presumed they'd called me this because of my general obliviousness to standard boyhood humour, but a couple of months ago, more than 40 years later, I finally learned the truth.

My mother was in a cafe in Ripon when she recognised one of the other customers as one of my early playmates. They spoke about the past, what he and his 3 brothers were up to and the nickname they'd given me. It turns out that it had nothing to do with my slow response to jokes, which (being differently stupid*) I'm well able to live with, but with something altogether more undermining. During all those games of football it turned out they thought I was as much use as a cardboard cut out.

Even though it's a long time ago, and those particular fantasies have been successively replaced by others that have turned out to be similarly foolish, I found this surprisingly upsetting. It seems that the judgement of your peers can cast a very long shadow.

* A politically correct term I fondly imagine I formed for myself when an acquaintance learned where I'd been to college and said "you must be quite clever"

Sunday, 21 January 2018

An open goal (draft)

This is a blog post that started being put together a long time ago. The basic idea was to gather evidence supporting the extremely simple proposition that if we took seriously the task of getting people to be more active there would be very large benefits to public health and personal well being. In addition, it would mean that the overstretched NHS would see fewer people coming through the door with entirely preventable illnesses and be better able to cope with the rest. It might also have made the point that what we've got at the moment isn't so much a health service as an illness service.

I'd already produced a few posts on this topic. Most notably the first "If it were a drug" and a follow up "The cost of sitting around in North Yorkshire" that used official studies to estimate some of the costs of physical activity in my home county 

So, what follows is the draft post as I find it today, including the slightly weird introductory paragraph that looks like it belongs somewhere else. I can only suspect that I was going to mention the organisation "Transport 2000" (now re-named The Campaign for Better Transport) that looked forward to the days when we'd take walking and cycling seriously as ways of getting about our towns and cities. 

As a child I used to imagine what it would be like in the year 2000. Apart from the obvious personal calculation - I'd be 46 - there was also the assumption that we'd lead our lives in very different ways. The millennium now feels like quite a long time ago. 

One in three cases of Alzheimer's are preventable

Inactivity drives obesity? 

Obesity linked to urban design and time spent in a car

Six seconds of exercise

Dr Bhaskaran said he hoped the findings would help governments take "courageous action" to tackle the obesity. "It will require action in various different areas. We need to look at how the most offending foods are the cheapest and most available and how [towns] are not set up for activity. We need support for people to lose weight. It is a big challenge."

Walking and cycling to work improves well being.

Thrill seeking sedent at The onion

Lancet article on health impact of physical activity (used in HIPI)

Promoting cycling is good for jobs

Fitness not fatness

Car dependency and mental health

Physiological dysregulation

Lack of adequate appreciation of physical exercise's complexities can pre-empt appropriate design and interpretation in scientific discovery

2012 Nice Report "We all face barriers in changing our lifestyles and many of us feel we don't have the time or the inclination to add regular physical activity into our lives. But walking and cycling – to work, to school, to the shops or elsewhere – can make a huge difference. It's an opportunity to make these activities part of normal, routine daily behaviour."

Royal College of Psychiatrists. Physical activity can reduce stress, anxiety and depression.

American retirees are looking for walkable communities.

NHS report An hour of exercise might compensate for an office life style

Active lessons can boost learning. Loughborough Universtiy project

Cars are the new tobacco  Journal of Public Health 2011

Psychology of attitudes to cycling

Barriers to cycling

Them and us Myth of the blameless cyclist

"This is the other key point – free parking is fundamentally regressive, a subsidy to people who tend to be richer than average. Many politicians, and newspapers, see the car as the default travel choice for everyone, and of course if you’re outside a town or city, often dreadful public transport means a motor vehicle might be your only means of getting to the nearest hospital."

Walking with your doctor ?

Moderate or vigorous Try the "talk test" 

Get up now and then and move about (the benefits of breaking up prolonged sitting) With particular reference to Diabetes

Friday, 20 October 2017

It's all about me (Trump and his ilk)

A few year back I did some work for a company in South Africa. The boss was British, an ex military man and cast from the same psychological mould as Donald Trump. 

Despite working in an industry where he was surrounded by well qualified graduates, he himself got by with three fake degrees purchased from the fictional Middleham University (Leeds). Of course, I'd spotted the forgeries because I know that Middleham is a small market town in North Yorkshire with a fine tradition of training race horses, a wonderful old castle but nothing at all corresponding to a University. 

But by talking to him you could tell that he wasn't at all embarrassed by his relative lack of formal education and that he regarded the rest of us as fools for not working out that it was just the piece of paper that mattered (and why waste potential money making time studying when you could just buy one off the shelf). In Trumpian terms he was the winner and we, by definition, were losers.

Like Trump, his only interest in other people was in what they could do for him and, like Trump, there was a huge turnover of workers as people worked out what was going on and fell from favour. Like Trump, he covered up his lack of real knowledge with anecdotal bluster. If anyone had ever tried to get him to explain the concept of energy, or distinguish a kW from a kWh, I've no doubt that he would have done what he always did and gone off an extended personal anecdote. An anecdote designed not only to cover up his lack of real knowledge, and take up the time where this lack might be exposed, but also to big up his own prior "achievements". 

At one stage a glossy brochure was produced to promote the company. A full page spread showed a picture of him with the quote "Doing nothing is not an option" he couldn't help but put his own name to it. Just like Donald Trump he had an obsession with self promotion.

So, when Donald Trump says "Nobody knew health care could be so complicated" it's because he couldn't bring himself to say "I never knew health care was so complicated". To do so would have admitted his own ignorance. When he tells the family of a dead American soldier that "He knew what he was getting into" it's the Donald's way of reminding himself, and the rest of us, that he was too smart to get drafted.

Finally, like Trump, he was a sexual predator. Indeed, when I did expose him to the relevant authorities (in his case the UNFCCC), the thing that made me jump rather sooner than I probably should have done were the tales told to me, in confidence, about how he'd harassed women in the company.

This is an account of our last days working together. He still owns the company but it's now base in India not South Africa. 

Cartoon with thanks to Steve Bell (The Guardian 20/10/2017)

Monday, 9 October 2017

Bicycles and the Cinder Track (it's a matter of scale)

Short version

Getting someone out of a car and onto a bicycle is good for their health and good for everyone's environment. 

The Cinder Track connects places 3, 5, 15 miles apart. A bit long for a walk but fine on a bicycle. 

The biggest reasons people in the UK don't ride bicycles are fear of traffic and worries about hills. The Cinder Track is traffic free and only goes up when it has to. 

So, should we make the Cinder Track wide enough for a person on a bike to go past two people walking side by side? 

Should we make it smooth enough for buggies, wheelchairs and the fragile wrists of the elderly.? 

Yes and yes....

Friends of the Old Railway

Long version ?

I'll do one if anyone asks. 

Alternatively, you could search on "cycling, physical activity, health" or on "cycling, active transport, pollution" and write something yourself. 

+ While no sensible plan to encourage cycling in Scarborough would leave the Cinder Track as it is, what else would need to happen to get more people on bikes?

Thursday, 5 October 2017

Comrades in ink

In May of this year my father was taken seriously ill and given hours or days, not weeks, to live. After 10 days at his bedside, with all of us getting used to the idea that any breath might be his last, he began to recover. It seems that sometimes, when you stop all of someone's existing medication and just give them pain relief, their body can just get on with getting better. The word a palliative care doctor used was poly-pharmacy ....

By the middle of June he was well enough to be discharged into a care home. Stuck down the end of a blind corridor in a rambling old building this clearly wasn't the best place for him to be, but it was close enough to home for my elderly mother to be able to get in to see him.

Looking around for alternatives we found two other homes that looked much better and that would be able to cope when, as we knew it would, his condition deteriorated. The first was an expensive, purpose built home on the edge of town. We got most of the way through an application and were just waiting for the company that ran it to have a board meeting where they'd decide if we had enough money to admit him. I suspected that we didn't, but the *******s didn't even give me the pleasure of listening to them explain that we weren't rich enough; they just kept it to themselves and never got back.

Meanwhile, we'd also applied to Lister House in Ripon. Run by the British Legion, entry is restricted to people who've served in the British military or their families. Now my father was hardly what you'd call a military man but he did do his National Service after the Second World War, was therefore eligible and, once we'd got over a few bureaucratic hurdles, was admitted to their nursing wing at the start of August. 

None of us can think of anywhere better for him to have been. The care was exemplary and extended to us, his family, as well. All in all, a dignified place to spend the last days of your life.

Shortly after he was admitted I was approached by the editor of his local parish magazine and asked if I could provide a few words to go with an article in the next edition. There's an awful lot that could be said about his life but I simply wrote a few words about his brief military experience .....

"After a period of severe illness Roy Sharp, a long term resident of Galphay, has just been admitted to Lister House in Ripon (a nursing and retirement home for ex-military personnel and their families). Not a natural military man, Roy probably wasn't to be trusted with a gun, for his own safety as much as others, but even then he had a handy way with words and found himself part of a Public Relations team in post-war Germany."

Roy Sharp, on the left, and his comrades in ink in post war Berlin

He finally died in the early hours of the 1st of September and I have to admit that my main feeling was one of relief. For four months he'd made it very clear that he didn't want to be here, was annoyed that they couldn't just give him a pill to take his life away, and was frustrated that the words no longer came to him as once they had. Besides, he'd got to "two fat ladies" (88) and that was as old as anyone else in his immediate family including his mother, a keen bingo player.

Postscript. Although he'd had humble beginnings, living with his entire family in a one roomed basement flat in West London, he was evacuated as a child to the West Country. For a few years he stayed with a wealthy family where he learnt the important lesson, in class ridden England, that just because you were posh didn't mean you were clever. After those few years he was joined by the rest of his family when his father's engineering firm was also evacuated from London down to Bridgwater in Somerset. There he attended the local School of Navigation but left at 14 to work in a local printing works (it turns out that his father took him out of school because he feared that at 16 he'd be conscripted into the Navy) Well spoken, having learnt from the posh folk, he was initially considered for officer training. However, in one exercise they were obliged to stab a straw dummy with a bayonet whilst shouting "we will kill all enemy, we will take no prisoners". At which request he turned to the commanding officer and said "But surely that's against the Geneva Convention Sir"  You can guess the rest...