31 March 2010

Human Encounters and Referee's feet.

I rushed to John Lewis at lunchtime to buy some new rugby boots.
Washing Day
I was happy on my own, but a shop assistant soon intercepted me and I sent her scurrying off to look for a pair of size 12s.  She soon returned with the enormous boots and slowly laced them, looking at me quizzically.

Here we go again, I thought; and then sure enough, with only the slightest hint of incredulity:

"Do you still play rugby then?"

It took some considerable restraint not to sigh, wearily, but I managed.

"No, I don't; but my son does -  and I referee"

"Do you need boots, then, just to referee?"

This time a small sigh, just a small one, simply forced its way out.

"Well the mud's just as slippy for refs"

"Oh yes, of course"

"And if someone stands on your foot it hurts just as much"

"What, even a little kid?"

A  shaft of sunlight split the air, my spirits raised, my heart was lightened. A little kid  :-)

"Yes", I replied warmly, "even if it's just one of the little kids"

22 March 2010

Orderly queues, human encounters and women of a certain age

Two weeks ago
pic by Seventh Continent

A woman of a certain age (well my age really) intercepted me as I joined the cloakroom queue after Marcus de Sautoy's maths lecture in the RGS. She smiled at me and, uncertain what do in this unexpected situation, I smiled back.

"Did you enjoy the talk?", she asked me, being careful to let me see her pretextual cloakroom ticket.

"I think he's very good", she continued before I had time to answer, "I liked what he said about the Goldbach conjecture"

A woman interested in the Goldbach conjecture! Score 5 points.

"I did like his talk", I said, "it was very well constructed, and the 'sleight of hand' he admitted to was actually quite fun"

"Oh, I didn't even notice that!", she laughed

A woman pretending to be less intelligent than she is. Score -5

She smiled again and we retrieved our coats, and went our separate ways.


A woman of a certain age (well, my age really) intercepted me in the queue to record finish times at the Bushy Park Run.

"Would, you mind? could I ask you to help..I..."

She turned round and showed me the problem: the inner pocket of her lycra shorts was tangled and she couldn't get at the contents.  Somewhat gingerly I fished inside and freed the car key I could see poking out.

"Thanks" she said, "but it's my registration card I need - that's stuck in there as well."

Never let it be said that Alibert Botogol fails to rise to an occasion:  I tried again with more vigour, but the little bit of crumpled plastic was somehow bound tight with lycra and surprisingly hard to extract

"How deep should I delve?" I asked, after a moment

"You're doing fine", she said and I tussled some more;  eventually I freed the damn thing and handed it to her.

She smiled and thanked me

"Have you ever heard of the Goldbach Conjecture?", I asked?

17 March 2010

Oh, Sorry Day

I don't normally like to be helped in shops but the wine at Majestic was piled high and precarious and the assistant was young and willing so I accepted her smiling offer.

photo: ~jjjohn~
"Yes, please: could you fish out a dozen of those Côtes du Rhône, right there at the bottom of the stack"

"Ah", she said, "my Dad likes that wine"

Her Dad? Her Dad?

Oh, sad and desperate day.
Oh, woeful encounter.
Oh, mean and sorry chance.

Do thee compare me to thy father?,
(I wanted to say)
Surely I am younger and have a wittier blog?

Oh, woman, speak not of your father, tell me of your boyfriend or your lover, tell me of the velvet, scented wine you carry home from work to share with him on a warm spring evening.. Or, failing that, what does your brother drink?

What I actually said was "Oh. Does he?"

Later, at the till, while she waited for me to find my glasses so that I could enter my PIN number, she compounded her error, asking me if I would like her to help carry my wine to my car.
More in resignation than in revenge: I said yes

11 March 2010

I am not a number, I am a free man

These are the Big Five: the five dimensions of personality by which many psychs would take your measure:

The rich pattern of life's tapestry
Openness - appreciation for art, emotion, adventure, unusual ideas, imagination, curiosity, and variety of experience.

Conscientiousness - a tendency to show self-discipline, act dutifully, and aim for achievement; planned rather than spontaneous behavior.

Extraversion - energy, positive emotions, surgency, and the tendency to seek stimulation and the company of others.

Agreeableness - a tendency to be compassionate and cooperative rather than suspicious and antagonistic towards others.

Neuroticism - a tendency to experience unpleasant emotions easily, such as anger, anxiety, depression, or vulnerability; sometimes called emotional instability.

You could score a person for each one, on a scale from 0 to 9, and create a five digit number that defines them. Perhaps we could all have our number tattooed on our forehead; or something; and understand each other better. Get back to your oar, 93517, and don't come back until you are more agreeable.

Or turn it into an after-dinner parlour game... who are the following numbers? I should patent the idea.

10 March 2010

What science is for

In 1972 and 1973 the Pioneer 9 and 10 spacecraft were launched. I remember them well because they had on them this intriguing plaque.

A message to another world
I had a book by Carl Sagan that explained all the symbols 1
Forty years on the spacecraft are at the edge of the solar system and are even more intriguing than when they left, for they are not where they are supposed to be: each year they travel a few thousand kilometres less than the laws of physics say they should. This is known as the Pioneer Anomaly

One of the experiments that was designed for Pioneer was to demonstrate that the Law of Gravity works just the same all over the solar system. The unexpected result of experiment suggests - tantalisingly, impossibly -  that perhaps it doesn't.

I love this inspiring passage from the latest report of the scientists investigating the anomaly:
In the short run, knowing the gravitational constant to one more decimal digit of precision or placing even tighter limits on any deviation from Einstein's gravitational theory may seem like painfully nitpicking detail. Yet one must not lose sight of the "big picture". When researchers were measuring the properties of electricity with ever more refined instruments over two hundred years ago, they did not envision continent-spanning power grids, an information economy, or tiny electrical signals reaching us from the unfathomable depths of the outer solar system, sent by manmade machines. They just performed meticulous experiments laying down the laws connecting electricity to magnetism or the electromotive force to chemical reactions. Yet their work paved the way to our modern society.

Similarly, we cannot envision today what research into gravitational science will bring tomorrow. Perhaps one day humankind will harness gravity. Perhaps one day a trip across the solar system using a yet to be devised gravity engine may not seem a bigger deal than crossing an ocean in a jetliner today. Perhaps one day human beings will travel to the stars in spacecraft that no longer need rockets. Who knows? But one thing we know for sure: none of that will happen unless we do a meticulous job today.  Our work, whether it proves the existence of gravity beyond Einstein or just improves the navigation of spacecraft in deep space by accounting for a small thermal recoil force with precision, lays down the foundations that may, one day, lead to such dreams.
 That's what science is for.

1  From memory: 
- the two circles, top left, represent a hydrogen atom
- the lines, with binary numbers along them, are distances from the sun to major pulsars (and hence our position)
- along the bottom are the planets, with distances to the same scale - our ship came from the third one
- the hand is raised because we come in peace
- the people are the same scale as the picture of the Pioneer craft behind
In 1972 that the couple were naked was a source of great controversy.

06 March 2010

Spring Clean

The sun is shining the crocuses are coming out and each day is two minutes longer than the one before. It is enough to raise the spirits of even the gloomiest blogger. Next week I plan to cycle to work again.

In the meantime, a spring clean, there, doesn't that look better?

02 March 2010

The prism of the past

We invited our old English teacher round for dinner.
picture B T
Well, not that old: after all 60 is the new 40 and if I'm honest he didn't seem that much older than us. You should certainly be thinking Dead Poets Society more than Goodbye Mr Chips

"Oh Captain, my Captain", I essayed when we shook hands in the hallway, and then "Ouch" as Mrs Botogol kicked me sharply in the ankle; but she needn't have bothered because Mr Robb wasn't paying any attention to me.

We are the prisoners of our pasts and captives of the prism through which we are perceived and in his eyes I was still 15, and my dad was the maths teacher, and I was giving up English in favour of computers and physics and if there are two cultures, I am in the other one.

Mrs Botogol, on the other hand, went on to A-Level English. Indeed she studied the subject at his alma mater.. there was a bond.. as there was also with the our eldest whom Mr Robb was there to coach, for she faces A-Levels of her own this summer  "Wisdom is not finally tested in the schools", I said, "wisdom cannot be passed from one having it to another not having it. Wisdom is of the soul, it is not susceptible of proof, it is its own proof."

They weren't listening - they were discussing an article Mr Robb had written for an on-line journal comparing Brideshead Revisited with The Great Gatsby.

"That Anthony Andrews never did much, really, after Brideshead", I opined. Cast as the oaf I rose easily to the challenge: "when you think about it Robert Redford was much more successful".

"Be a dear and go and check the potatoes, will you"

And so it came to pass that during the only literary meeting in our house for eleven years (I am not allowed at  Mrs Botogol's book club) I spent the hour in the kitchen while Mrs Botogol and our guest settled in the drawing room (no, we don't normally have a drawing room but somehow it had risen to the occasion) where they engaged in grown-up literary criticism of the most sparkling and erudite kind, occasionally sending for more smoked salmon blini (easy on the dill, dear, and can you have a look in the cupboard for those smoked almonds we got from the nice deli in Winchelsea ?)

When eventually the roast was captive and the vegetables under control and I ventured in to top up their glasses they were talking about Chekhov "Did you tell Mr Robb how I once wrote a blogpost about Chekhov", I asked lamely, and there was a sudden silence. I realised was trying too hard.


"I said how long do you reckon it takes to cook a Yorkshire Pudding? Only my batter looks really watery  - do you think I should add another ten minutes?"

I am large, I contain multitudes.

We had roast beef and plenty of gravy, and although the Yorkshire was soggy (no one asked me for the recipe) the potatoes were perfect. Mr Robb and I drank two bottles of red wine between us; he asked me if I was in IT and in retaliation I told him about the teachers at school whom I had particularly admired.

Next week my mates are coming round and we are mostly talking rugby.