Monday, July 30, 2012

25 years old......

The only technical mountaineering I ever did was to climb  Pic Coolidge (above) in France as a 25-year-old.  The route is graded "Easy". Not many climbs are thus kindly graded and one feels they're  there just to make us scaredy-cats think they are mountaineers.   And, yep, I was easily scared.  At one point, there was a gap to step across with a 1500 foot drop if you for some reason failed to put one foot in front of the other. Before crossing, I waited for a couple of minutes, staring, reflecting and wanting to be elsewhere. The patient climber  behind me eventually had to prod,  "Well, go on then!" So I did, but realized I was the proud owner of, as they say, an acute sense of self preservation.

Contrast this with my grandfathers,  both of them, when they were 25.  

97 years ago today,  on July 30th 1915,   the 14th Infantry Division of Kitchener's Army,  in which  25-year-old  Oliver Cecil 'Charlie' Smith was a Corporal,  was defending Hooge near Ypres.  Suddenly, at 3.15 a.m.,  jets of flame shot across from the German trenches - the first time that "liquid fire" flamethrowers had been used on the Western Front.  Immediately a deluge of fire of all kinds fell on the terrified men, and on that day the Division lost nearly 2,500 men.   Charlie spent 3 interminable years fighting at Ypres and the Somme during that senseless war.

But was my other Grandfather, Austen Ashley, any less brave?  He was  one of the only 6000  UK political Conscientious Objectors during that same  Great War.  Marched with others through the streets of Norwich so that the jeering crowds could pelt them with rotten apples and cabbages and throw the white feathers of cowardice at them,  he was sent to Dartmoor Prison for solitary confinement and bread rations.  In the Second World War,  when the Baedeker raids, targeting  picturesque cities, hit Norwich,  while others were cowering in shelters he was working in the flames as an Air Raid Warden.  

Both grandfathers were subsequently mostly unemployed. Charlie, for example, never had a car, a phone or a bank account. His daughter,  a cowman's wife,  first polished her nails in a hospice shortly before she died in the 1990s - blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the Earth. 

Yes,  contrast my grandfathers with their prosperous,  overfed grandson living  52 years of peace and exciting opportunity!   No reason for guilt, but we must remember our good fortune sometimes, must we not? 

Here's a poem by Charlie, written in the trenches,  which I find striking for a working-class man who left school at 12:


God made the Man, gave him the gift of life
Drawn from some unknown, strange, mysterious source.
Lent him his youthful vigour, grace and force,
And bid him run with time an even course,
Discounting enmity and strife.

One swift-sent bullet out of the unseen,
Seeking its billet, and the race was run,
The light extinguished and the darkness won.
The future killed, the day's work scarce begun
And death's dropped veil where life had begun.

Man made the watch a triumph of his skill,
A marvel wrought of craft and subtlety,
Decreed that it would work in mystery
Dogging the steps of time victoriously,
And to the end this task fulfill.

When darkness hid the ills that war had bred,
Its steadfast beat, tranquil as at the start,
Recorded time, playing its destined part
Close to the nerveless arm and silent heart
Still quick and faithful mid the dead.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

What it's like to play with the Jaguar Supercomputer

Back on a recurring theme. I was just pointed to this on CNN Money.  Of course I remember the TV crew coming but didn't know it had been aired.

The comments after the article, as usual, are the most fun.
I liked this one: "It's amazing we went from the first computers that filled entire floors which a bunch of blinking lights and engineers in lab coats monitoring them all the time to ... a computer filling an entire floor with blinking lights and engineers in lab coats monitoring all the time. Nothing changes, just the scale."

Thursday, July 19, 2012

This sleepaway camp.. the Adirondacks costs $11400 a summer and is practically impossible to get into.  So goes the headline about Raquette Lake Summer Camp in upstate New York.  However, yours truly did get into that camp, and for free, in 1979, as a soccer coach thanks to the  British Universities North America Club (which has meanwhile itself expanded somewhat, it would appear).

What I found in the  summer camp didn't seem particularly exclusive: dangerous flints in the soccer fields, lavatories that didn't function until the day before Parent's Visiting Day and endless peanut butter sandwiches - yuk!  The only hint of exclusivity was John D. Avildsen, the Director of Rocky, who came to visit his son, landing in a helicopter and stepping out in a boiler suit. Still, shining flashlights at  the bears at night was fun (you could only see their eyes) and we won the World versus USA Soccer Game  8-0 - I still have the pennant!

That first hop across the pond to New York in 1979 was epic - 24 hours in an "Evergreen Airlines" DC 10 that took off from London, stopped at Paris, then refueled at both Shannon, Ireland and Bangor, Maine before limping into  JFK. I then  got in a yellow New York taxi cab and getting out forgot the direction traffic flowed on American streets and opened the door on the  wrong side.  A passing truck slowly bent the door back 180 degrees  - oops! 

Churchill did worse in 1931, though  - making the same mistake he stepped into Fifth Avenue and was run over. He later wrote, "There was one moment--I cannot measure it in time--of a world aglare, of a man aghast. I certainly thought quickly enough to achieve the idea 'I am going to be run down and probably killed.' Then came the blow." Fortunately, Churchill's injuries, while requiring three weeks in hospital, did not threaten his life. "I do not understand," Churchill wrote, "why I was not broken like an eggshell or squashed like a gooseberry . . . I certainly must be very tough or very lucky, or both."

Monday, July 16, 2012

Zoe Cournia ...

..describes her experience in our laboratory here.

"I cannot imagine being a happier doctoral student in another place!"

Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Greatest Ever!

Spain, who just won the European Championships, are, in my opinion,  the greatest soccer team ever.
Now greatness cannot measured by who would beat whom in some hypothetical match-up, but by how far and for how long a given set of players in their time stands above the rest of the world, and it is their sustained dominance that gives Spain 2008-2012  my vote.

Spain have no rivals in Europe, as the 1974 'Beckenbauer' West German side and  the 1998 'Zidane' French (who I watched win the World Cup in the yard of an old farm in the Aveyron) both failed (just) to win three majors.  Spain's only rivals would be the 1970 Brazil side, who won all of their World Cup games that year, and had a number of individuals such as Pele and Jairzinho, who combined  skill and explosive power in a manner unseen before or since. Brazil 1970 was almost universally considered the greatest team of all time - until July 1st 2012.  But apart from one World Cup that Brazil side won nothing else - there was no serious Copa America or Euro equivalent to test them - and they fizzled in the World Cups in 1966 and 1974.

So Spain win on results, and for me they win on style as well. You see, I have always liked precise passing, consistency and intelligence. That's what Spain, who had never done anything in international football, brought to the game in 2008, when Luis Aragones decided they were not tough enough to beat other nations physically and needed instead to keep the ball. So he instilled the "Tiki-Taka" possession football that Johann Cruyff had initiated as manager of Barcelona.

Now Cruyff  arguably was the world's greatest ever player, but that's a whole new discussion....