Thursday, 30 November 2006

A night off

No proper post tonight as have got other (Real Life) stuff to be doing. So here's the mile point photos from todays lunchtime 3 miler. Usual service will resume in 24 hours...

Mile 1

1.4 Miles - Sans Rabbit

Mile 2

Mile 3

Wednesday, 29 November 2006

I can't wait for Lego

I don't want to wish my kids lives away. Miche and I get told frequently by older friends and family to enjoy them whilst they're still innocent and small. They're right of course. When I look at them I can't believe how fast they've grown and developed. Conversely, memories of our life pre-sprogs feel blurred and distant. I'm sure at one point we had a social life, if only I could remember their names...

Nonetheless, I can't help wishing Meg and Dom were old enough so I can get away with buying them tonnes of real lego, not the poor substitute that is megablocks.

Sorry, when I say buy them tonnes of lego I mean buy myself tonnes of it. It truly deserves the accolade of 'Toy of the century' which it has won twice incidentally. I spent so much of my younger years building stuff with lego and learning about structural engineering.

Of course I'm not alone with this obsession. The slashdot crowd are currently waxing lyrical about lego here. It truly is the geek toy of choice.

Not long now, not long...

Tuesday, 28 November 2006

Beyond Belief

The NYtimes published this interesting article on the 21st November reporting on the outcomes from the 2006 Beyond Belief conference held at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California.

For the uninitiated, this is its context (from the beyond belief website):

"Just 40 years after a famous TIME magazine cover asked "Is God Dead?" the answer appears to be a resounding "No!" According to a survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life in a recent issue of Foreign Policy magazine, "God is Winning". Religions are increasingly a geopolitical force to be reckoned with. Fundamentalist movements - some violent in the extreme - are growing. Science and religion are at odds in the classrooms and courtrooms. And a return to religious values is widely touted as an antidote to the alleged decline in public morality."

(The Pew Forum look suspiciously pro-christian to me. But I must say I've only come across them today, so I may be being unfair.)

The conference aimed to debate this and plan how the scientific community could redress this imbalance.

However, I'm not sure whether this imbalance is a reality or just a myth that we've all bought into. If it is a reality, then I think its wholly North American centric. After all, the Bible belt neo-conservatives do have a friendly ear at the White House right now. And as a result, the attention of the Washington press.

So, the conservative christians may have a disproportionate influence in the national policy of the US, but to say that 'God is winning' is a bit of an overstatement.


Well, even debating the idea that the 'God is winning' strikes me as being utterly pointless. This isn't a corny western film. In my view this town is big enough for the both of us, whether you're theist or nontheist.

Francisco J. Ayala's argument made at the conference that " of belief that require nothing more than unquestioning faith are extremely dangerous" is a flawed oversimplification in my view. Yes, there are horrific examples of violence to innocent people in the name of religion. But to infer that because of this violence, all religions based on 'faith' are extremely dangerous is a bit of a logical leap.

In my experience, the vast majority of the truly religious (ie those who have 'faith' as opposed to those who follow the customs without any real belief) are no more dangerous than my Gran. On the whole, faith based communities are moderate and tolerant, they value kindness and charity. Christian, Jewish, Hindu and Muslim alike.

There are extremists, of course, who are violent and terrifying. But I would argue that these people do not posses a true 'faith' in their god. They are unfortunate people, who lacked opportunity and education and are ripe for indoctrination through misinformation.

We don't need religion to indoctrinate people into violence. We can look closer to home for evidence of this. Take the BNP and some anti-vivisection extremists. Both are accused of promoting violence through indoctrination of its members.

There will always be people on the fringes of society who are ripe for radicalisation. What makes us think this will be any different if there were no religion?

We call these unfortunate people terrorists because they aim to terrify and bewilder us.

And they're the ones winning right now, not God.

The western media are like rabbits trapped in the headlights of terrorism. They can't stop talking about it. This Beyond Belief Conference has contributed to this clamour in my view.

This attention, paranoia and talk of 'God is winning' energises the 'terrorists'. They see that their cause is reaping rewards. They see that we're all terrified of 'them' - the 'others'.

Rather than a 'War on Terror', I think we should have a 'War on Intolerance'. Lets divert the billions of USD spent on the war on terror across the world to projects that share knowledge and awareness of all faiths and philosophies to the masses. If this was a reality, we might have a western community more open to tolerance, liberalism and reflection.

And what will be the logical outcome to this increased liberalism and reflection? A dramatic reduction in the need for people to say that they're 'religious'. Job done.

I'll let Dr Carolyn Porco summarise my sentiments “Let’s teach our children from a very young age about the story of the universe and its incredible richness and beauty. It is already so much more glorious and awesome — and even comforting — than anything offered by any scripture or God concept I know.”

This lifted my spirits no end.

You can watch most of the conference presentations on google video here.

Sunday, 26 November 2006

Exchanging addictions

There's many reasons why I enjoy running. Over time I'll try explore all of them in this blog. However, the main reason is how it makes me feel physically. I definitely experience the 'runners high'. It comes over me once I've ran about five miles.

I begin to feel euphoric and stop thinking about the usual rubbish that bounces around the brain, and just enjoy the syncopation of inhalation, foot falls and exhalation. My surroundings seem to blur and I enter into a state of almost meditative concentration.

I'll come back home from these long weekend runs muddy, sweating and panting but I've got an inane grin on my face. This 'high' can last all day sometimes. I can recommend it to anyone.

If I had the time I'd run much more frequently. Family and work have to take precedence of course. Perhaps this is good, as I'd probably get addicted to this high in the same way I'm addicted to caffeine & nicotine right now.

Incidentally, its been five days now free of nicotine, alcohol and caffeine, today is the first day that I'm feeling the benefit. I'll dedicate a post to it once I've achieved a drug free week. Free apart from the runners high endorphins of course.

Apparently endorphins may not be the actual cause of runners highs. Here's a great blog post by Scott Dunlap explaining his runners high.

Unfortunately, because of circumstances beyond my control, I didn't get a long enough run this weekend to get 'high'. Nonetheless I managed to get a pleasant 4 mile jog in yesterday afternoon and a 3 mile fast scarper at my work lunchbreak today. Half way through today's run I past a dead rabbit hanging from branches of a small tree. It was both surreal, and tragic. I took a photo of it and have posted it below.

As promised, here's a picture taken at each mile;

Sundays 4 mile run;

Mile 1

Mile 2

Mile 3

Mile 4

3 mile (with rabbit);

Mile 1

The rabbit (1.4 miles)

Mile 2

Mile 3 (who said Graffiti is an eyesore?)

Santa on Easyjet?

We live quite near an airport. Thankfully not close enough so we hear aircraft scream overhead, but close enough that if you look out of our windows on a clear night you can see them buzzing around the sky.

One night last year nearing Christmas, Meg & I were watching stars out of her bedroom window. Suddenly she whispered, in that deafening way kids can "Daddy look, its Santa!"

Sure enough, in the sky was a red and yellow flashing light, slowly flying above the rooftops.

"He's coming!" Meg shouted this time.

It was still a week or two before Christmas Day so I thought I'd capitalise on the Santa Claus legend. I said that it was indeed Santa but,

"He's only doing a 'fly past'. Each night he'll check up on all the children to see if they've been good or not. You'll have to tell him that you've been good today."

So, each night between then and Christmas day she would wait at her window until she saw a plane fly past. "Santa, I've been good as gold today" She would whisper to the sky.

Meg would have been 3 years old then. She still had some remnants of baby in her.

I'd forgotten all about Santa's pre-Christmas audits until last night. A year later. It was about six o'clock and Meg was at the lounge window. I could hear her whispering something, but couldn't hear her clearly. I sneaked up behind her and stood with her for a bit. She whispered it again and this time I heard;

"I've been good today Santa."

Sure enough, the lights of an airplane were blinking in the distance. It took me aback a little that Meg had remembered this from last year. I'm not sure if long term memory starts to form at the age of three. Perhaps Meg has been sneakily standing at her window all year, talking to Santa.

Saturday, 25 November 2006

Golf in space?

There has been some criticism about Mikhail Tyurin's golf shot in space. Personally I think it's great. His swing could do with some improvement however, space suit or not.

Some would say that this is a grasping, dumbed down, profiteering stunt. Which it is, of course. But it's also got the attention of millions more people than a run of the mill space mission ever would.

Set against the overblown threat of terrorism, bird flu and global warming, vacuous stunts like these give us something to gossip about on an international scale. I'd like to think it lifts our collective spirits just a little bit.

Here's the video of the shot. I think it went out of bounds.

Friday, 24 November 2006

A glimpse into hades

"As part of a series on housing and ways of life in the UK, Morris and Myra Jeffers talk about living in a park home..."

Welcome to the lives of Morris and Myra Jeffers. Let all ye who enter abandon hope. Look at them. Look them in the eyes and you'll experience the true horror of their existence. They're the purveyors of a particularly vile brand of lifestyle; mediocrity, dogmatic conformity and bigotry.

I know I'm being harsh and judgemental, so read the article and make your own mind up. It's a piece of photo journalism primarily, with short written passages. You'll probably be horrified, amused and puzzled all at the same time. I'm still not convinced it's not a spoof. I can't stop looking at them. It's like a painful scab that you can't stop picking. I want to laugh at them, but slap them at the same time.

Here's some of my favourite quotes from the article:
  • "Myra says the growing multi-racial nature of their former home town was one factor in their decision to move. "I don't believe in all this mixing," she says."
  • "The 10mph speed limit is not always observed though, says Morris: "I heard that at the liaison committee the other day."
  • "A couple of years ago we went on one of those Saga tours – Myra had a mini-stroke on the last day. It was all the excitement and probably too much wine."
  • "I wouldn’t want to live in a brick house now. They are so heavy whereas these are light and easy to clean."
It lifts my spirits that small minded pedantic bigots like Morris and Myra seem to want to coalesce together in park homes, gated communities and social clubs. We should celebrate the fact that they want to build barriers to keep the rest of us anarchists out.

Lets supply them with the Daily Mail and keep them scared of the real world with its vagaries and uncertainties,unfairness and crueleness. At least it keeps them off our backs.

Thursday, 23 November 2006

Selfish Altruism?

I feel quite ambivalent about altruism. On the one hand I find it the most attractive facet of the human race. But on the other hand I can't reconcile the fact that 'true' altruism simply cannot exist.

I've labelled two posts so far in this blog with 'altruism'; Ubuntu and Google Image Labeller. But when I think back, perhaps the word altruistic is an inaccurate description for what people are doing with free and open source software etc. Lets say I create a new computer program that people love. I give it away for free under the GNU. Is this a truly altruistic action? Most probably not as I'm likely to get a lot of publicity and accolades from others, and a possible job offer from Microsoft.

A definition for the word is "Altruism is unselfish concern for the welfare of others. It is a traditional virtue in many cultures, and central to many religious traditions."

Now, I'm no Professor of Philosophy, neither am I particularly well read in this area. But it strikes me that it's even more difficult to be truly altruistic if you're religious. Particularly if you have an omnipotent god who watches and ultimately judges your actions in life. So, if you selflessly help some one and you're religious I guess this should be called 'duty' as opposed to true altruism?

What lifts my spirits, is that I don't think it really matters. As long as the human race continues to share and collaborates in ways that look altruistic, but in truth are not, we're still in net gain. So I think I'll continue to misuse the word.

For a much more insightful and knowledgeable debate about this check out this mornings 'In our time' (Radio 4 programme). I'm not sure how long the podcast will be available. So, apologies in advance for a dead link.

Wednesday, 22 November 2006

Hello, I'm Jamon and I'm an addict

Ok, time for a confession. I'm an addict, and I'm bored now by being one.

I smoke cigarettes. Not heavily, but I smoke every day. I stopped smoking for 4 weeks recently. The hardest part was stopping at work where there's numerous smokers to tempt me. But I did it. I can stop smoking relatively easily to be honest. I can go a week sometimes without missing them. My problem is that I start smoking again insidiously. A sly one when I've have a drink, or another when I'm stressed. AS soon as I've had that sly one it's a slippery slope back to habitual self abuse.

Right now I'm hiding the fact I'm smoking from my work colleagues. I'm no longer smoking through the day, but I'm coming home, seeing the kids for 5 minutes, then out the back for a sly fag. How desperate is that? I'm embarrassed writing about it to be honest.

And it doesn't end there. Now I'm certainly not an alcoholic, and I don't mean to belittle the daily battle that many people dependant on the stuff have to endure. But Miche & I drink wine fairly frequently. Perhaps a bottle 2-3 times a week. Sometimes a bottle and a half between us on an evening. Now this isn't particularly heavy drinking I know, but I can often tell that I've had a drink the night before. I rarely get so drunk that I'm hungover, it's just that alcohol affects the quality of my sleep. Which brings me to my next addiction.

Caffeine. During the day I can drink 5-6 cups of coffee. Particularly if I've had a drink the night before and am feeling a bit tired. I use the caffeine to brighten me up on a morning. It's also habitual.

I also recently discovered that nicotine increases the speed at which the body metabolises caffeine, dulling the stimulant effect of it. Therefore, smokers often drink more coffee.

So, this is my vicious circle. I'm physically and psychologically addicted to nicotine. So I drink more coffee than I should. I drink wine frequently and it effects my sleep, making me drowsy in the mornings. So I drink more coffee than I should. And because I smoke, I need to drink even more of it. This can make me over stimulated in the evenings, so I might have a glass of wine to come down, with a fag or two.....and round it goes, ad nauseum.

So, I need to break this cycle. The question is where best to make the cut?

Given that the focus of this blog is making sense of spirituality I thought I should try a little experiment in fasting. It seems to be all the rage for the religious. Checking out the wikipedia page on fasting I don't think there's a religious ideology that doesn't have elements of fasting in it.

So, here's my experiment in fasting from legal drugs;

Starting tomorrow morning I will stop smoking. Period. Neither will I drink coffee. And in the evenings I will not drink alcohol.

I plan that I will stop smoking for good. This will be the cut in my vicious circle. I will have the odd single glass of wine a month from now, which takes us close to Christmas. I plan to reintroduce caffeine into my diet after three weeks, following physical withdrawal from nicotine.

Just like David Blaine's current stunt of hanging about in a gyroscope for three days, I'll let whomever wants to watch me demonstrate my feat of human endurance :-).

Each day I will rank my cold turkey fever for each of my addictions on a scale of 1-10. 1 being totally OK and 10 being on the brink of breakdown. A 'F' will signify a failure eg, a fag, cup of coffee or glass of wine.

I'll keep on blogging in the same way as usual but will append the stats to each post. If there's a particular addiction drama relating to spirituality, then I'll talk about it.

I'm going to bed now, in readiness for a brand new day.

I used to believe

Writing last nights post about Dom taking things literally reminded me about doing the same when I was young. I also remembered about

I Used to Believe is a rich repository of all things naive and wonderful. There's thousands of beliefs and misinterpretations that people have posted to the site. It makes for great reading.

Here's a few of my personal favourites;
  • "At one point growing up, I became convinced that the world would end on February 29, 1997. I have no idea how I came by this belief, but there it was: it didn't matter what I did, what I achieved, or how I lived my life, because come February 29, 1997, the whole world would blow up and utterly extinguish all life on earth. I believed this until one day, when I realized that 1997 wasn't going to be a leap year..."
  • "I used to believe that my parents relied on me to make the traffic lights green. I would do this by absorbing the green from trees and grass with my eyes and beam it into the traffic lights. If i was given enough time i had a 100% success rate."
  • "couldn't understand why no-one had invented a word for something that isn't big but at the same time isn't small so I used to express the concept with the word "little-big" or "big-little". It was a revelation to me when my mother asked me go to the shops for a medium sliced loaf (of bread) and I discovered that someone somewhere had actually solved the problem that was perplexing me at the time."
  • "I thought, in kindergarten, in order to read a book you had to read the page then turn it around and wave it back and forth. Little did I know the teacher was just showing us the pictures and it was not required if you were reading to your self."
I could go on all night posting them. Anyway, I added this example of my own personal errant beliefs ages ago;

"I used to believe that satellite TV really was from a satellite, I could never work out how they got all the people into space to make the shows."

And it seems to be quite popular. Perhaps it's in the book that's been published from the site. I think I'll buy it for someone for Christmas this year.

Tuesday, 21 November 2006

We're all children, literally

Dom, my little boy is really advanced for his age. No, really, he is. The problem is however, that if you search this phrase on google you will get circa 5,040,000 webpages of people telling you the same thing about their children. So, either we're a race of geniuses, or we're a species who admire and covet our young?

You could interpret this 'my child is advanced' obsession, as middle class parental oneupmanship. And Perhaps it is. I think it may also be adults living vicariously through our children.

Lets translate the phrase; 'My child is advanced for his age' as 'My child is advanced because I'm such a good parent, look at me, and look at how I was as a child. Only better'.

I don't have a problem with this; I see Miche and I in our children every moment of every day. I'll admit to basking in the reflected glory of my kids learning at a rapid pace, being pretty and charming. And I'll also admit to fretting needlessly, because other children are better behaved, more literate, more intelligent, kinder and more confident than my kids.

I think that at the root of this parental obsession with our kids progress (other than genetic parental urges) is the need to remain children ourselves. It scares the shit out of the majority of us that we're actually adults. We wonder 'how the fuck did that happen?'. One moment we were kids, and before we realised what was going on, we're looking down the barrel of old age.

What do we do with this realisation then? We do what we always have - deny it and pretend that we are OK with being responsible, balanced, in the red and mortgaged. Rather than admit to our (sub) conscious urges to run away from it all, we express our nascent needs through the youth in our community and family.

Which is OK really, as long as we can admit it to ourselves. In my view, we should embrace the child within us and enjoy each opportunity for playfulness that life gives us.

Which brings me back to my Dominic.

He's just about to meet his third birthday head on, ripping through each day like a whirlwind. And like any child of three he takes life literally. These past two days have been no exception;

After a glass of milk on Sunday evening Dom let rip a huge belch. I swore it vibrated the floor boards. Stifling a laugh I said "Now Dom, What do you say when you burp?"

He looked at me, and after due consideration of my question he said; "I say 'BURRRRP'!"

True, true. How could I deny the fact that when you burp you say "Burrrp".

The next day he was walking down the stairs. Miche was at the bottom looking up at him. As he got to the bottom she said "Kiss on the stairs Dom!". Miche puckered up, ready for her sloppy, motherly kiss. Dom looked at his Mum in the same way he'd looked at me yesterday. He turned around, pointed his arse towards his mother and kissed the stair.

Fair do's - she had asked him to kiss the stairs. How could this not lift the spirits?

As I say, Dom is pretty advanced for his age.

Monday, 20 November 2006

Aleatoric waves

I'm old enough to remember the world before the Internet (yes, there was one). It was bleak. Good information was hard to come by and took time, effort and skill to access. It was also hard to keep in touch with cultural changes.

These days we're dripping with information. Because of the Internet we're knee deep in the stuff. Some of it's good, a lot of it's shite, but we've got access to it nonetheless.

The emergence of search engines and latterly some 'web 2.0' applications like, digg, google image labeller & flickr help us organise and categorise it. However, the balance between information generators and information consumers is shifting rapidly.

Now there's a torrent of new content being added to the web by ordinary people as we blog, post video, tag images, leave messages & link web sites collaboratively. So much in fact, that in my view, current technologies cannot possibly index, categorise and make the data available in a usable form. Which is why notion of the semantic web intrigues me. Particularly as it purports to give meaning to web content and, as you know, I'm all for meaning in our lives :-).

Yesterday I promised to tell you about the banal thoughts that yesterday's morning of aimless, floppy surfing provoked;

I've always liked 'alternative' music. Before the Internet the best way to keep up with 'good' new music was John Peel (what a tragedy it was that he died). I also lacked a cooler big brother to nick LP's off, so John was my primary pointer to new good music. The problem was that a lot of the stuff he played I couldn't get hold of (or afford) in our local music shops. There was plenty of Aha or Bon Jovi (the evil hellmiesters of Toss Rock) if that was your bag, but not much alternative stuff.

Which is why I love; another 'web 2.0' application. It indexes every track you play and displays them for you on your personal page. This is a nice gimmick really, but the way that it links you up with other people with similar tastes and then allows you to surf their listening habits makes your exposure to new and interesting music explode exponentially.

I've discovered so much new music through Including a band called The Books. Currently they're my third most frequently listened to group. I don't know a lot about them so I clicked on the band wiki page on According to it "the band mixes aleatoric, electronica, and acoustic music...".

I had no idea what aleatoric meant, so a quick Google seach took me to a wikipedia page on aleatoric music. So, aleatoric music " is music in which some element of the composition is left to chance". Interesting. As was the list of external links at the bottom of the article.

I clicked on this link: A Visual Interpretation of Indeterminacy: Found Photos Paired with One-minute Short Stories. It took me back to blogspot! It is a fascinating blog where the 'author' posts random photos and people contribute by writing a stories about each of them. I wasted a good half hour reading them. I'll definitely be submitting a story in the future.

What a wonderful waste of time eh? I'd found out stuff about a great band, learnt a new word, understood a new concept and made a connection with a group of really interesting people. Not bad eh.

The fact that in 20-30 minutes I'd been able to access and begin to absorb this amount of information is awesome. I'm convinced that we're living in the most exiting time for Humankind. We're at the start of something big, really big. Predictably my spirits were raised no end :-).

Sunday, 19 November 2006

Slow, slow mornings

Yes, as predicted we were both rough as dogs this morning. The problem with dinner parties is that you loose track of the amount of alcohol you're puttting away. As ever though, there's a silver lining.

The kids were still happily rampaging around their grandparents house. Leaving us to recouperate quietly in our bed till well after 10. We're usually up by 7 at the latest, so this was a rare and appreciated treat.

Miche brought up coffee and newspapers about 8:30, crawled back in to bed to read them whilst I booted up the laptop; Plugged in to our worlds we snuggled up together, sharing stories and thoughts about what we were reading. There was a time we might have arsed about all day like this on a Sunday but two little things have put pay to those sloppy days.

I was going to talk about some ideas that randomly scarfing around the web had provoked, but frankly all I'm good for tonight is staring at the TV. So, come back tomorrow and I'll furnish you with my, in all likelihood, banal thoughts :-).

Just hanging around with Miche today reminded me why I married her in the first place, and really lifted my spirits. I just wish I hadn't downed so many last night.

Saturday, 18 November 2006

A scarper around

I didn't get my beach run unfortunately as I forgot that Miche is whacked from her busy week and needed a lie in.

I did however get to have a good run in and around our village later on in the morning. It was cold and clear; a great day for a long run. I managed to fit in 8.2 miles. I know this for a fact as I have a Garmin Forerunner 201. I recommend this gadget for any geek runner. It's a GPS watch that monitors your pace, distance and elevation on the fly. I bought it to help me train for the 2005 Great North Run.

It beeps at me each time I complete a mile. So, I thought rather than blather on talking about why I find running so spiritually uplifting I would take a photo for each mile I achieved. I'll let them talk for themselves, as I haven't got long to type today as we've got the kids babysat overnight (yey!) and we're out for dinner with friends in an hour or so.

At least the miles I got under my belt this morning will ameliorate the guilt I'll feel for getting utterly debauched later on tonight, which is pretty much a certainty :-).

Here's the pics;

Mile 1

Mile 2

Mile 3

Mile 4

Mile 5

Mile 6

Mile 7

Mile 8


Friday, 17 November 2006

Santa travels on easyjet

We live quite near an airport. Thankfully not close enough so we hear them scream overhead, but close enough that if you look out of our windows on a clear night you can see them buzzing around the sky above us.

One night last year nearing Christmas, Meg & I were watching stars out of her bedroom window. Suddenly she whispered in that deafening way kids can "Daddy look, its Santa!" Sure enough, in the sky was a red and yellow flashing light, slowly flying above the rooftops.

"He's coming!", Meg shouted this time.

It was still a week or two before Christmas Day so I thought I'd capitalise a bit on the Santa Claus legend. I said that it was indeed Santa but;

"He's only doing a 'fly past'. Each night he checks up on each child to see if they've been good or not. You have to tell him that you've been good" I told her.

So, each night between then and Christmas day she would wait at her window until she saw a plane fly past. "Santa, I've been good as gold today" She would whisper to the sky.

Meg would have been 3 years old then. She still had some remnants of baby in her.

I'd forgotten all about Santa's pre Christmas audits until last night. More or less a year later. It was about six o'clock and Meg was the lounge window. I could hear her whispering something, but couldn't hear clearly. I sneaked up behind her and stood with her for a bit. She whispered it again, this time I heard.

"I've been good today Santa"

Sure enough, the lights of an airplane were blinking in the distance. It took me aback a little that Meg had remembered this from last year. I'm not sure when this long term memory starts to form at the age of three. Perhaps Meg has been sneakily standing at her window all year, talking to Santa.

Thursday, 16 November 2006

The infinite coastal run

Shh, keep this quiet and don't tell anyone, but this beach is in Northumberland. I'd rather not have everyone bringing their towels and windbreakers, spoiling our view thankyouverymuch.

The picture is of Meg on a Saturday morning about 10:45 on Druridge Bay beach. If you look carefully enough, you might just be able to make out a man with his dog in the distance. Otherwise the beach is ours. How could this not lift one's spirits?

In my personal opinion Northumberland has the best beaches in the UK. They're long, golden, relatively litter free, dog friendly, broad, and above all very 'beachy' in a beachy kind of way.

I particularly enjoy early morning runs along Seaton Sluice beach. It's not often I get the chance though, as there has to be a specific convergence of weather, tides and weekend mornings being free for me to get the chance. Tomorrow (according to BBC weather) may well be one of these lucky days. check in tomorrow to find out if it was.

The last time I ran on the beach there was a dense mist which gradually burnt off as I ran. It was eerie at first, running along the sand, 'thump thump' on the wet hard sand. The sea, muffled by the mist whooshed quietly to my right. I felt closed in and a little claustrophobic. This felt odd as really what attracts me to the coast is its openness and infinite nature.

I'm sure that this is why they 'speak' to many of us. Why else do we spend so much money on holidays to spend them on beaches? Apart from the fact that people tend to wear very little clothes on them, I think it's got more to do with fractals. Bear with me here whilst I get geeky;

"a fractal is a shape that is recursively constructed or self-similar, that is, a shape that appears similar at all scales of magnification and is therefore often referred to as infinitely complex." Source: Wikipedia

In human language, a fractal shape is something that can look like it repeats itself, irregardless of how close or how far away you are to it. The shape of a tree is a nice example. Stand back and look at the tree. Go up to it and snap a branch off it. When you look at it you can see the overall shape of the tree repeated in the branch. Now, snap off a small bit of the branch with a twig off it. You can still see the overall shape of a tree.

When fractal mathematics are represented visually they can produce the most beautiful shapes. They often remind us of structures found in nature, like our stick. We seem to be naturally attracted to these shapes. Check out these flickr images of fractals to find out if you are too.

Coastlines have strong fractal characteristics. Check out this picture of a river delta. Beautiful isn't it? Incidentally, it reminds me of the human blood circulation system from GCSE biology (another fractal shape example!). Now, check out the second image. Remarkably similar isn't it. This image though is 10 square feet of Northumberland coastline. These recursive patterns repeat themselves all over the place in the natural world. This fills me full of awe and definitely lifts my spirits just thinking about them.

This is one of the reasons why coastlines lift my spirit. I can't wait for my run now...

Tuesday, 14 November 2006

Meg and the Magic Book

Meg is beginning to read. She can now pick out quite a few words and letters. Since she started full time school in September her pace of learning has gone from a trot into a "full on" gallop towards literacy. It's simply awe inspiring to watch.

In an effort to keep up with her we've started to read Winnie the Pooh stories before bed. The book we have is beautifully illustrated with original ink drawings but it's primarily text. She's used to reading fully illustrated books with fewer words, this is the first 'proper book' that we've tackled.

Meg loves it. We read a page or two each night until she starts to droop and I say "and tomorrow night we'll find out what happens next...". She's usually asleep a minute later.

Tonight as we were finding where we left off the night before I told her that books are magic things. I said that once you've learnt to read "their magic is unlocked and they'll take you into different worlds. All you need to do is get into them".

Meg looked at me, then looked at the book with a puzzled expression. She then poked the page with her index finger twice then looked behind the book. She asked "Daddy, why can't I get into the book now? I want to meet Pooh!"

I wish, as much as Meg did that we could actually climb into the worlds that exist in books. I'll have a think what would be the coolest place to visit and get back to you soon :-)


My Gran died three weeks ago. I miss her dearly. She was, and still is, a major influence in my life.

For the last three years Gran lived in a nursing home that cared for people with dementia. Prior to that Gran had lived, fiercely independently on her own for years. When she died it was bittersweet experience for all her family (I think) as she'd been very ill for a couple of weeks. I guess we had experienced anticipatory grief in waiting together for her to pass away.

In the end she was with three of her four children, her son in law and two grand children. She died, with all of us around her quietly, gently and with a great deal of dignity. When I die, this is how I want it to be.

I put on the suit I wore at Grans funeral today. It was for a meeting with some upper wigs of the behemoth that is our National Health Service. It was the first time I'd worn it since the funeral. I'd forgotten that I'd left a print out of the tribute I gave as part of the ceremony for Gran in the breast pocket.

I read it through before the meeting. I was late in to the room, predictably.

Remembering Gran and the way she lived her life has really lifted my spirits.

Here's what I said about Gran, hopefully it'll give you a flavour of the wonderful person she was;

"Grandma was 4’ 9’’ at her tallest. For a small person she was the biggest woman I’ve ever known. Grandma commanded an immediate respect and admiration from all those around her. She had almost limitless energy and drive. Looking back, I can hardly recall ever seeing Grandma sitting down.

We have photos and videos and all sorts of keep sakes that will remind us of Grandma. However there is one thing that for Miche & I sums up all that Grandma was.

This is a wooden spoon that Grandma had. She gave it to us shortly before moving out of her flat. If you didn’t know Grandma you might assume that this is just an old worn out wooden spoon that should be discarded and a new one bought. But if you knew Grandma you would know why this is so special to us.

I’ve never seen a wooden spoon so worn down. I can hardly imagine the elbow grease and years of effort to so smoothly wear this spoon down. This signifies Grandmas determination and stamina for life in my view. That, and biceps like walnuts.

This spoon must be at least 30 years old. Grandma could have easily afforded a new spoon, but she chose to keep the same old spoon that she’d had for years. This reflects Gran’s make do and mend attitude to her life that so many of her generation shared. I think many of us can learn a thing or two from her. What with our shiny new cars, dvd players, PC’s ; wide screen TV’s.

We hang this spoon up in our kitchen so that we’re reminded of Grandma each day and inspired by her drive and determination to meet the challenges each day and to appreciate what we do have, rather than worrying about what we don’t.

I have so many other memories of Grandma that I will cherish. Some of them you may recall too. I’d like to share some of them with you;

* I will never forget the smell of her Sunday lunch as we walk up to Grandmas front door.

* The best Yorkshire puddings I’ve ever tasted, or ever likely to. Mind you, I won’t miss the veg so much as she would usually start cooking the veg for Sunday lunch on Wednesday afternoon.

* Making brass rubbings of her metal trays that she’d brought back from Africa of elephants.

* Playing with her little bakelite walking cow, trying to get it to walk down a book without falling over.

* Peering into her display cabinet at her delicate china ornaments and Faberge eggs, wondering if I’d ever be able to play with them. I was never allowed to. Even as an adult I didn’t dare open the cabinet.

* Always coming away from her flat with a gift of some sort. A small toy, fifty pence piece or a keepsake.

* Boxes upon boxes of her biscuits that she cooked in industrial size quantities and taking them to my work and sharing them out. People who’d never met my Gran would ask after her and ask when they would get their next fix of her ginger snaps.

* Looking through her photos and mementos from her numerous holidays. Imagining grandma on the Great Wall of China, at the base of Victoria Falls, travelling by helicopter in the Grand Canyon and taking a balloon trip in her 80’s.

* Drinking tea out of china cups and learning to believe that tea in ceramic mugs was somehow evil and ought to be a crime against humanity.

* Wondering what else she had secreted away in that huge cupboard in her flat. It really was like a tardis in there.

* Listening to her tell stories of how she cooked for royalty. Chuckling at her making egg and chips for a prince who’d never had anything like it before. And him coming back for more.

* Having grandma stay over at our house on Christmas Eve.

* Being so proud when I told people about my Grandma who, in her late eighties still lived independently and self sufficiently.

* Grandma taking care of other residents in her block of flats, many of them significantly younger than she was.

I’ve got a lock of my hair from when I was 8 months old. Grandma gave me it not so long ago. (She had it archived this in that huge Tardis cupboard.) I can remember the day that she gave me it. At the time Gran struggled to remember whether she’d left the oven on or not, or what day of the week it was, but she could still tell the story of how she cut a lock of my hair and sealed it in a little envelope for ‘memories’, back in 1972.

I realise now why she gave me this, as around that time she seemed to be constantly giving away other important things to her, including the spoon; keepsakes and items that I remember being important to her.

Grandma was giving away her memories before she lost them.

Now that Grandma is gone in body, our task is to keep these memories and experiences safe for her. By doing this we’ll keep her close.

I know all of us will miss Grandma, Elsie dearly. She was a woman of such energy, spirit and determination who had a limitless capacity for generosity and love. But Grandma dying is no tragedy. And I don’t think she would want us to think it was. I feel that Grandma would like all of us to remember her how she was;

* Sprightly
* Determined
* Funny
* Belligerent
* Stubborn
* Caring
* Generous and
* Loving

She will never be forgotten."

Meaning through ESP

Google Image Labeler, or the ESP game in it's original incarnation is the brainchild of Luis von Ahn, currently an assistant professor in the Computer Science Department at Carnegie Mellon University.

The premise of the game is simple, but its implications are huge in my view. Put simply, these two sites harness the power of 'human computation' to give context and meaning to every single image on the internet today.

The rules are simple; you are paired with someone else on the internet, you don't know who this person is. You both get presented with the same image. Each of you submits words to describe the picture and you score points when you get a match with each other. In doing so, each of you generate numerous words to describe each image. Google can then use these words to enhance their image searching for you.

Computers are notoriously bad at understanding images. They're pretty poor at understanding anything subtle about the human condition to be honest. Currently it's almost impossible for a computer to understand context or meaning of information. They're good at Boolean logic; yes / no, true /false or 1 / 0, but ask a computer what does "Toast the bride" mean, it will have no clue. Perhaps it will suggest roasting the poor girl over a spit.

So, computers struggle to understand meaning in human life? Hmn, maybe we're not so different after all. I know that most of us can mostly understand meaning and metaphor in our day to day lives but so many of us struggle with the more metaphysical questions of meaning like "why am I here?" and "why?" and "Is there a God?".

Typically, my (western) culture tends to value the individualistic notions of the human condition. Just take the recent case of drug abusers suing the prisons authority because of their inhumane treatment in enforcing them to withdraw from opiates. Now, I don't want to get all Daily Mail on your ass here but surely the rights of the community that we live in supersede the rights of these individuals to continue methadone treatments for extended lengths of time whilst in prison?

So, they have won out of court settlements totalling some £750,000. Fine. But this money is due, in my view to the people that they will have inevitably abused and stolen from to feed their addiction in the first place.

My point is this; Meaning, be it that of a photograph, or that of the lives that we live can only be understood from the point of view of others. In my humble opinion, most of us (and I consider myself to be amongst them) are far too focusedon our own, individual livesand experiences to truly understand the meaning of our lives, and thus misunderstand what we often seek; spiritual awareness.

Google Image Labeler & The ESP Game are a nice metaphor for this I think. That, and they're great fun to play...which is nice; it does lift my spirits.

These projects harness the collective power of people and their natural urge to work together. Yes, I do feel a little manipulated in that I'm doing Google's work for them. But in doing so I'm helping humanity in my own minusculeway, one image at a time.

Mind you, I worry about wordgirl (who's constantly at the top of the score board by a mile). She must play the game constantly. I hope she's OK.

Here's a lecture that Luis von Ahn gave shortly before Google created the image labeler project. Funny that, isn't it :-)