Death of a truly great man

I have just learned that a truly wonderful man died a couple of weeks ago. He was my secondary school maths teacher. Harry Smith, known by all as Brab, was 86, and had been a maths teacher at the Burton Grammar School, in Burton-on-Trent, where I grew up.

A report is to be found at the Burton Mail that is is fine for the facts. ( Though I think that the dates may not be perfectly accurate )

What is known by all that knew him was that he had the ability to get the very best out of all of his pupils. With a mix of Shakespeare quotations, gentle mocking and insistence on precision in maths and English, Brab changed us all through brilliant teaching, humanity and erudition.

If we muttered an answer through lack of confidence, we were made to stand up and say in our best stentorian tones ‘A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse’ or ‘A man has come to iron the billiard table’.

If we didn’t manage to get a solution immediately, he consoled us with ‘the impossible we do at once, miracles take a little longer’.

He taught so well that the whole of our class ( some 32 pupils iirc ) achieved the top classification at O level. He did it with style and aplomb, with a special sense of humour. He set the most evil exam questions for the Welsh schools examination board, and drilled us relentlessly in mental arithmetic.

But that was the stuff most people know.

What they did not witness was the day he came into our class after his wife had died in a car crash – a car which he was driving. So committed to his job and his boys was Brab, that two days after the accident, he arrived in our classroom for his first lesson. He was a middle-aged man, we were 13 year old kids.

We were amazed to see him, as were expecting another free period to waste. He wanted normality. He start to teach us, and managed for a while, but the strain was clear. We suggested that he go home, but as I remember he continued until he could take no more, and broke down.

Like most kids that age, we didn’t owe him anything. But we knew from that day we would never forget Harry Smith. We learnt respect. We learnt understanding. We saw love.

That was the day that we all changed, and from then on, whatever Harry did, we still loved him for it. He continued to be our maths teacher for between 4 and 6 years depending if we took A level maths.

He really was a great man and it was a real pleasure to have known him.

Butterflies, gardens and sunshine

A couple of weeks ago we had a White Admiral in the garden. It was flying gracefully over the brambles that fill the gaps between the trees in the garden. It was the first time I’d seen one.

Then a couple of days ago, we had a Silver Washed Fritillary in the same sunny gap in the trees.

Then today, a Purple Hairstreak.

So, you’re thinking, why get so excited ?

Well. It’s the first time I have seen two of these species, and the first time for 40 years since I have seen a Silver Washed Fritillary. That on its own would be brilliant, but what really got to me, was that these butterflies are probably only around here because we have managed to grow their perfect food plant environments.

White Admirals love the longer Honeysuckle that climbs up the bushes around woodland glades. Silver Washed Fritillaries feed on the Common Dog Violets that we have made room for by managing the woodland floor, and the Purple Hairstreak is to be found in the Oak trees that we are opening up by removing the Alders.

I wanted to share because I am so pleased that we can manage our garden to make it such a great habitat for the butterflies.

This is on top of the annual influx of tiny toads that sweep across the woodland floor each year ( though seemingly every other year they are way more numerous ).

Add the Grass Snakes, the Newts, the flowers in the meadow, and the sun shining through the trees, the world is just wonderful to be in.

#SMIDSY – the trials of cycling

OK, so I am too old to ride a bike. I get it. I have no road sense, my joints creak, and what few brain cells I have are no longer functioning at anywhere near full performance.


I think they are doing a little better than those hiding inside the crania of so many car, van and bus drivers that pass me whilst I pedal my old faithful Sun Chris Barber bike. ( for those interested, the frame is at least 50 years old …. and made of steel. )

You see, the problem is that there are so many drivers out there that have to as many risks as they can to save 287 nanoseconds during their journies.

Specifically, they have to get past anything that has two wheels, is propelled by human leg power, and is taking up more than 300mm of carriageway.

I used to be paranoid about the way that some vehicles want to cuddle up so close to me that I can touch them with my right hand without even stretching it out. ( yes, we do still drive on the left hand side of the road in Blighty. I know it’s quaint and very confusing for many of my friends in the USA, but we have got used to it over the years. After all, we did invent powered road vehicles ….. so we probably have some right to decide how to position them on the road. Yes, Cugnot did stick a ruddy great steam engine on wheels, but it wasn’t for passengers. OK, OK, so it was Verbiest if you believe that. And while we are at it, the Brits made the first powered flying machine but we didn’t have any Kodachrome on hand )

So, I ride on the left of the carriageway, and vehicles should be over-taking me sensibly, leaving me room to wobble to miss that pothole that the local council can’t afford to fill, wobble because my brain cells can’t cope with pedaling and  steering and thinking at the same time and wobble at being surprised at being taken from behind.

It’s their job to look what’s ahead of them, as they are one doing the manoeuvre. I’d also like them to miss the bandage my right elbow from the last time someone else was a little too friendly.

What is with so many drivers ? I’m not sure that they have realised that the stick with a knob on the end of it, thing coming out of the car just below their left hand, is there to help them go faster. I probably shouldn’t expect them to know what the power and torque curves of their cars’ engines looks like ( the ones that know this sort of thing tend to be much more careful when it comes to other road users. Well, those over 24 are, anyway ), but there are clues when you drive.

When you ( dropped into a direct discourse now – that should generate some flames ) press that pedal on the right to pass me, the car is talking to you. That rumbling, nasty, mechanical groaning noise is because you are in the wrong gear. The principle is that if you change down a gear, you will go faster, and get past me quicker. You see, that way, neither of us is exposed to any more danger than we need to be. If you drive an automatic, just push the accelerator harder : automatics are designed to take away some of those activities that you can’t cope with.

This is all fine and dandy so long as you leave me enough room. I know it must be really hard to think about changing gears, look ahead for obstacles or on-coming traffic, peer at the clock on the dashboard as your appointment time whooshes by, and looking at the beautiful green hues of our Surrey lanes, but really, just at that moment, I am the most important thing in your life.

At that time I have the power to make you have a very expensive insurance claim as you hit that on-coming car. I am the one who has the power to charge you with dangerous driving. I am the one that has the power to give you bad dreams.

Oh no. Wait. No I don’t. Silly me. Of course I don’t. I’m a bit muddled here. If I had that power, every driver would be much more circumspect and careful.

Now, there are many drivers out there who do give room, who do care, and who are considerate, and I always thank them as they pass me, as I have probably delayed them for a few seconds.

These are the ones who know that a blind bend may have another vehicle coming around it just as they may be overtaking me. They are the ones who know that a blind summit may have any manner of objects, moving and not, just over the crest. They are the ones who can do more than one thing at once.

Sadly, many BMW and Mercedes drivers, Private Taxis, and white vans don’t seem to have cottoned on to these really self evident possibilities.

SUV drivers generally seem to have an issue with spatial awareness. I do believe that they must have a switch on the instrument panel that makes their vehicles thinner so that they can squeeze through smaller gaps in traffic. ( well, maybe the Marauder doesn’t have one of these ) I have to assume this, because it is always SUVs that try to squeeze between me and the bollards for pedestrian crossings ( qv the sticky up bits at the bottom of this picture. I can now recognise the make of most popular SUVs by the noise that the anti-lock brakes make as their drivers realise that the  ‘make me thinner’ switch was disabled at the last service.

And whilst I’m here, I know you all think that I should be riding my bike in that grotty bit of the road that you never use unless you’re weaving when drunk. You know, the bit near the kerb with all the nails and pointy thing that go through tyres ( see the above link for kerb 🙂 ).

I, and most other cyclists, don’t really like that bit, and neither do my tyres. So I follow the guidance of the UK’s cycling organisation, The Cyclist’s Touring Club : not less than 1m from the kerb most of the time. Guidance is to make oneself visible and affect the behaviour of drivers so that they have to divert their attention to the cyclist.

Oh, and one more thing to help you drivers make sure they see me : when I think that I may be in more danger than necessary, I will take up lots more of the road. If I move towards the middle of the carriageway, it is a not so subtle hint that I can see potential danger to me, and I would really appreciate it if you could wait a second before overtaking.

I am not being bolshy or bloody minded : merely self protecting.

As I said, I used to be paranoid, and thought it must be something I was doing, but the more I read from other cyclists around the world, the more I conclude that this is a serious issue everywhere. Well maybe not in Denmark and the Netherlands where cyclists are not seen social pariahs.

How to help people get over their negative view of cycling and cyclists ?

Include 30 minutes on a bicycle as a part of the driving test ? Put their children on bikes and make them overtake ? Have chariot knives attached to bike wheels ? Who knows.

We often talk about this when out on our bikes, and I’m not sure if it is ignorance, arrogance or incompetence. It may be a combination of all of these, with a little selfishness thrown in.

Whatever causes it, I think we are stuck with it for a while.

Chris Packham, conservation and cuddly mammals

I just spent an evening listening to Chris Packham talk about his photographs and conservation issues.

Some may know him from his very reasoned argument that we spend too much time, effort and cash trying to save Pandas. I wholeheartedly agree with him ( and managed to tell him so tonight ).

I enjoyed his very serious points about the potential of extinction of wild tigers. We have so many in captivity that they probably won’t die out totally, just in their chosen natural habitat. I share his frustration with attempts to save the Wildcat, as it easily interbreeds with pet and feral cats. I have little time for pets that have been introduced into important environments : for instance I would ban all tourists from selected Galapagos islands, and make sure we cleared all of the cats goats and rats. I’d love to do that with Madagascar too, but I think it would be an impossible task.

But why I chose to write this was that I was actually quite disappointed by the reaction of the audience to many of his photos. Chris, if you do happen to read this, I hope some of your audiences see what a challenge we have to save environments and animals dependent on them. I hope that the ‘oooo’s and ‘aarrr’s heard tonight are not totally representative of how we Brits view the natural world. As a set of cuddly mammals

OK – so thinking that Big Cats are cuddly is fine, because. to be honest, they are… and having photos that show them ( literally ) in their best light, is a great start. But I wondered, while people were cooing over the pictures, if they grasped the enormity of what we are doing to the world. Drat, I’m on that same old hobby horse again. I must feel really strongly about how we are not looking after the planet.

What I heard was a shared passion for natural history. A shared love of animals whatever shape, size or smell. A shared concern for how we can make a serious change in conserving and increasing numbers of animals. I hope that the people in the audience work this through, and relate it to how they might alter their behaviour to help.

Chris suggested making sure the audience set their children or grandchildren free in the countryside to climb trees, to fall out trees, to get dirty, to collect things : to wonder at the world and develop a love for nature. That is just what I used to when I was growing up and never really lost the love of our countryside and the fauna and flora in it : and it is just what many kids simply do not get an opportunity to do : but they would love it if they did.

Let’s hope that at least half of the audience concluded that they need to change, even slightly, how they view the world, how they bring up their kids, how they think about food production and how they can help conserve those cuddly mammals they all cooed over. If they did, then the world will wake up a little easier tomorrow morning, knowing that the legion of its supporters expanded a little overnight.

It’s not the fault of the Baby Boomers

It isn’t, honestly.

I was talking to my father in-law over the weekend, and we were discussing the current plight of the world, and the expectation that the current 0-20 generation are expected to have less than we have enjoyed.

That’s less of almost everything except hassle and temperature. Less water, less energy, less fuel, less growth. Fundamentally we all need to put significant effort into making what we have go further, and use less of our store of finite resources. Yeah, I know, I do bang on about this, but it is true.

If I look back at how we have behaved over the past 60 years,  I probably should not be surprised at how we have got where we are. One activity that struck me as a particularly good example of how things were,  was the Sunday afternoon drive. We would all pile into the car and drive : not going anywhere in particular, just driving around, looking at the countryside and listening to the transistor radio strapped to the dashboard. That would be a complete anathema to kids today. Not just the seemingly pointless driving and the fact that they can only rarely glimpse the  hundreds and thousands of Lapwings and Starlings that we saw, but that cars did not even come with radios ….

We followed our parent’s guidance and aspirations, as you do. We bought more stuff, we ate more food, we wanted bigger houses and faster cars. We demanded more, because we were told that in the 21st Century we would have unlimited energy, flying cars, more leisure time, silver jump suits and jet packs. We’re still smarting from the lack of jet packs.

We were led by our parents to waste, though I am sure they did not realise that that was the message we were taking away. They had lived through at least one world war, and rightly they felt that they deserved a good life. They had to put up with hardships, but they came through, and when the world economy took off, they benefited.

In the booming post war period, Careers, Teenagers and Marketing were invented. People were getting more and more money with promotions, and they wanted to spend it on themselves and their kids. Marketing simply and easily guided them to the stores to do that.

The economy was growing fast enough to deliver wonderful new luxuries to us and our parents, and none of us gave it any real thought. Until the early 1970s, it was hunky dory. That little blip when the oil producing countries made us ration fuel was a bit of a worry, but the optimists won, and we soon forgot all about how life might be without our cars.

So, as the 70-90 generation hits the end of their lives, they can look back remember a generally pretty good time. They may possibly have had the best lives of any general Homo Sapien population.

The Baby Boomers that followed them have also had a pretty good time, but it isn’t totally their fault that world is how it is. They ( OK, We ) just didn’t really have a cause to think until recently. We were never told by our parents to stop consuming, as more consumption was a measure of success, we all consumed more to show our success.

I’m sure we would have acted differently if someone had provided convincing arguments as to why we needed to show some reserve when buying and wasting stuff. I’m also sure that making food into a cult and the de rigueur wearing of braces ( suspenders for those in the colonies ) in the 80s was a bit of a mistake. Just look at how much food we have wasted in the last 30 years. Though, thankfully, fashion has calmed down a little.

As things got better, science helped us to live longer and reduce infant mortality. The population expanded like topsy, maintained good health for longer, bought ever more stuff, and wasted ever more irreplaceable stuff.

So unless we noticed ourselves, and acted off our own bat to change our ways, we were guaranteed to get to where we are now.

No-one came to us with convincing arguments about restraint and concern.

No-one that most of noticed.

Except there was someone, shouting quietly : Rachel Carson, Silent Spring. How prophetic she was.

It’s a shame that there was not an equivalent economist doing the same. Well, maybe there was, but in this case, there was absolutely no-one listening.


Edit : you can read a copy of Silent Spring online at Google books

Friends, Foxes and Flying Squirrels : and business doing the right thing

As I sit here in the just after midnight hours, listening to the foxes barking outside ( no doubt going through all of the bins and bags that they can get their teeth into ) my mind wanders to a couple of things that happened today.

One : continuing my wonder at how the mind works, I have been trying to remember the name of a girl I knew at Uni. A girl I spent a lot of time with – though by no stretch was she a ‘girl friend’. I couldn’t for the life of me remember. Then today, I was walking in a Northern UK Town and passed by someone who was so like said girl … I instantly remembered her name : Gill. How could I have forgotten her.

Second : Heather Clancy blogged about business’ leading role in making sustainability happen. She mentions Jonathon Lash’s three threads, but for just for today, I’ll take on the first one. I have something to say about the other two as you may guess.

It may not be the many and various governments but business, and I add, the population that may make the change.

The driver for both is money. I’d love to think that the driver is our will to make the world better for our children, to make sure that Polar bears live for another million years, and that Flying Squirrels don’t fall out of the sky from heat exhaustion, but I’m not that naive ( or optimistic about current human nature ).

I am concluding that the best way to make sure that rivers continue to flow, that the oil doesn’t flow in the wrong places and that the foxes still bark, is to point out how much money we waste and how much we can individually save by doing those things that just happen to help put the planet right.

I just hope that those who think this doesn’t apply to them, those who don’t care, or to who are too selfish to even think about it, start to understand.

Clouds, job protection, and what business really wants

A few years back, I was Programme manager for a service offering from IBM that enabled mainframe system programmers to be much more productive. We took all those nasty little bits and bytes of the various software products that made up and MVS system, and packaged them to order.

It meant that they could install a new version / upgrade existing systems in a few hours. Sysprogs thought that we were doing them out of a job. They could not have been more wrong.

By releasing them from the drudge ( OK, they thought it was fun, and their value-add to the business ) they could focus on the companies real business needs. By reducing their efforts required to upgrade and maintain, we were setting them free to do interesting things that their bosses would see real value from : new applications, better interfaces, more responsive systems, better networks. Endless lists of things that they never really got round to before.

This is what Clouds will do. There are some that say the Cloud will remove the need for what they do : but if the past is anything to go by, they will be freed from the old tyrannies of maintenance and midnight calls. They will be able to show real ROI for what they do.

In the days of IT departments becoming revenue centres rather than cost centres, this has to be a good thing.

Heroes : the one man I would have loved to have dinner with died 30 years ago

John Lennon

I grew up to the Beatles soundtrack. Starting with walking to school, in the snow, singing “I wanna hold your hand” at the top of our voices, and continuing through working in a battery egg shed singing “Across the Universe”.

More than that though, John Lennon would have changed the  world had he lived now. His uncompromising directness would have gone down so well in the age of open source, wikileaks and freedom of information.

I would have loved to have an hour with him. Yes, I’d probably stumble and stall in the conversation, but that wouldn’t have mattered.

I heard the news that he had been shot when I was relieved from my night shift, trying to fix an IBM mainframe. Darn. I had only just been trained on the 370/158, and had not run the EARS diagnostic disk. Richard Bubien came in ( it was his account ) told me the news and ran EARS. Machine fixed : life changed.

As I drove home, every other tune on the radio was either a Lennon solo or a Beatles song. I cried most of the way home.  Maybe it was that I hadn’t slept for more than 30 hours. Maybe it was because I went into mourning. Maybe I had lost a friend I never knew.

Sorry – UK Politics again. And students.

So I am really pleased that our student population has woken from it’s collective slumber. 1968 was a little extreme, as was 1990, but at least people were moved to do something. I had understood that the majority of students were so concerned about grades that they did not want to rock anyone else’s boat.

But now, they have found a common cause. Problem is, I’m not at all sure that it is the common cause that they should have found.

Yes, the Liberal Democrats promised much before the election, and it was pretty obvious that even though they formed a coalition with the Conservatives, they would have to play second fiddle to most policy decisions ( well, at least the ones that are contrary to what the Conservatives promised before they got elected ).

It doesn’t mean that they are evil, or bad, but it does mean that they have had a great experience of what needs to be done to be in power.

In fact, I believe that the coalition is possibly the best thing to have happened to the UK for long time. Notwithstanding the budget issues, that there are now two different political views being discussed within the government has to be good. Rather that than a more dictatorial process of previous governments.

So why have the students latched onto the wrong case ?  The cause for free University training is absolutely a good one. I wholeheartedly believe that we should offer free education to degree level. However, with a target of 50% of all 18 year olds going to University, I am also pretty sure that we cannot really afford to pay for many of the courses, and maybe there should be some more thought put into the real cost of courses, the actual salaries gained by students of some of courses, and how best to deliver the training. I could just suggest that canceling our nuclear deterrent would pay for us all to go back to University : but I won’t. Today.

Yes, OK, so I am getting on, and I did get free University ( for a year 🙂 ). I was doing pure sciences, and I would use this situation to seriously look at funding courses that need a full 3 years of training : and those that can help us get out of our current situation.

I have always believed that every person has at least one major skill that they can use to benefit society ( and I hope that doesn’t sound condescending in any way, as it isn’t meant to ), but really, we don’t need degrees in some of the things that we degrees in now. Vocational training, apprenticeships, part time courses, shorter but more intense courses. The list of possibilities is large.

So, yes, I really appreciate our student population becoming more vocal, but I think they should maybe think a little harder before they shout.

And certainly should think before they appear on television suggesting that if one year’s fees are 9,000 GBP then three year’s fees would be 21,000 GBP : it doesn’t really help your cause….

Simpler times

Yes, I know that catching sight of your early teenage self at my age is not the most productive thing to do, but I was listening to Planet Rock on the radio and there came the strains of “Oh Well” by Fleetwood Mac.

I very quickly went back to hearing it for the first time. I was about 13 I guess, and I was playing with my big brother’s reel to reel tape machine ( btw, worth following the Delia Derbyshire link from Wikipedia …. great woman, and we owe her so much ).

I was in awe of it. It sounded terrible with the equipment to hand. The speaker was a very limited range single cone, probably not even reaching more than 6KHz, and the tape was, well, tape. But it was absolutely magic. Strong composition, strong lyrics, and pretty powerful when you’re trying to work out how the world works.

That’s probably why I shot back in time so quickly when I heard it again – I haven’t heard it for ages. Was ever life so much simpler then ?

I have to admit to doing that sort of thing a lot though. Music is a brilliant time machine. I can tell you when I bought certain CDs, or what I was doing when I was listening to particular bits of music. I wonder how that works.

I know I am not alone in doing this, but why should music cause such a strong reaction ? There has been research done on it ( This for instance ).

Damn, why didn’t someone invite me to The Music and Brain Forum at Stanford.

And the other thing. Why on earth did I get the tingles when Jeff Wayne’s War Of The Worlds was on the radio yesterday !!! That response should be reserved for special music with special memories or tunes. I guess it must mean something to me after all. I wonder what associated trauma I have locked away forever !?