Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Ghost riders in the sky

I must be getting old, tired or have too much on my mind lately. A couple of posts ago I quoted from a description of a squirrel attacking a bat, which included this passage:

This is pure speculation, but it's almost as if the squirrel was seeking to maim the bat in some way. Maim it or kill it such that it couldn't fly.

And the phrase "Maim it or kill it such that it couldn't fly" slipped right under my pedantry radar - if I'd been half awake I'd have questioned whether the implied alternative - to kill a bat such that it could fly was possible outside of movies featuring undead vampire bats.

In a roundabout way this got me thinking about things which can't fly any more. Being a bit of a old aeroplane anorak, I love to see vintage aircraft doing their stuff at airshows. There are lots of old planes lovingly restored to flying condition by enthusiasts, but there are a few aviation classics which are forever consigned to that great hanger in the sky, with no surviving examples remaining. Here are a couple which are gone for ever, but which would have looked sensational in the air:

This is the Dornier Do X passenger flying boat which first flew in 1929. It could carry 100 passengers on short haul flights, or 66 long distance. It was cutting edge technology in its day, although even with 12 engines (six facing forwards and six behind in "pusher" configuration) it was underpowered and couldn't fly any higher than a puny 500 metres (1,650 feet). But it looked magnificent, a flying ocean liner in art deco silver. Only three were ever built - the great depression did a lot to end the career of this luxurious Flugschiff (flying ship). The last surviving example ended up in a museum in Berlin and was destroyed by an RAF air raid in 1943.

And here's the Handley Page HP42 airliner, first flown in 1930. Not such a cutting-edge design, its conservative biplane configuration was mocked by Anthony Fokker, who described it as an aeroplane with a built-in headwind (Fokker was a pioneer of cantilevered monoplane wings and his Fokker FVII trimotor monoplanes had been some of the most popular airliners of the 1920's). However, I think it had certain stately, if ungainly splendour and, by all accounts it was a reliable and well-liked aircraft. Eight were built, often based in Cairo to cover Imperial Airways' Indian and African routes. The service ended with the outbreak of war, when all operational HP42s were commandeered by the RAF. By the early 1940's all had been lost due either to accident, wear and tear or damage by gales.

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Faith group persecuted

Tony Blair, the Pope, former Archbishop Cormac Murphy O'Connor, the Bishop of Rochester - all of them have warned of the perils of "aggressive secularism". Any sceptics out there who still doubt the gravity of the threat should take heed of this appalling example of the faithful being persecuted:

Tesco has been accused of religious discrimination after the company ordered the founder of a Jedi religion to remove his hood or leave a branch of the supermarket in north Wales.

Daniel Jones, founder of the religion inspired by the Star Wars films, says he was humiliated and victimised for his beliefs following the incident at a Tesco store in Bangor.

So says the Guardian. Is nothing sacred?

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Squirrel vs fruit bat

It's one of those great unanswered questions we've all asked ourselves. If a squirrel got into a fight with a fruit bat, which one would win? Now, thanks the BBC, we can stop losing sleep over that one - the squirrel would totally kick the bat's ass:

A squirrel has been seen attempting to savage a fruit bat to death....

"It became apparent that there was an altercation happening between the squirrel and the bat, something I'd never seen before or ever heard of."

"The squirrel had the bat in its mouth, or it was at least biting it, and then the bat went quiet for a while and then starting flapping its wings again."

"The second time it started vocalising and flapping, the squirrel released it and the bat fell out of the tree and literally fell into these small saplings right above my head, and ultimately to my feet...."

"The bat was injured and damaged in very specific places. This is pure speculation, but it's almost as if the squirrel was seeking to maim the bat in some way. Maim it or kill it such that it couldn't fly."

Mental. Read the full, shocking story here. Why a squirrel would behave in such an antisocial way, I can't say, although I wouldn't be surprised to discover that the rodent in question had been wearing a tiny England shirt and was last seen urinating into a shop doorway.

Saturday, 19 September 2009


One death is a tragedy. A million deaths is a statistic.
(quote attributed to Stalin, although he probably never actually said it)

The other day, I heard an obituary of Norman Borlaug (March 25, 1914 – September 12, 2009) on the radio. Not a household name and not a name that rang many bells with me. Borlaug was an agronomist from Iowa, whose work resulted in the widespread use of improved, disease-resistant varieties of wheat. So far, so dull and worthy. But one line in the obituary made me sit up and listen.

The impact of his improved crop varieties in hungry countries was such, said the presenter, that Boralug has been credited with saving more lives than any other human being in history. Do you remember what you were doing when you heard that Princess Diana had died? Elvis? Michael Jackson? If you're old enough, JFK? How many people will remember what they were doing when Norman Borlaug died? How many even knew who he was? Yet if he saved even a small fraction of the lives he's been credited with saving, every schoolchild on earth should have heard of him. It's astonishing the things that escape our attention. Here's more on Borlaug's remarkable career, at Wikipedia.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

The Penrith Tea Rooms, MK11

In my last post I regretted the fact that phrase "cock and bull story" many not really have originated just down the road in Stony Stratford, but here's a definite fact about Stony. A classic moment in one of the finest motion pictures known to humanity was filmed in Stony Stratford. Enjoy this YouTube compilation of the top ten Withnail and I moments and know that the final clip in the "Penrith Tea Rooms" was filmed on location, not in the Lake District, but in Stony Stratford:

Maybe they should erect a statue of Richard E Grant in the high street, clutching a bottle...

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Cock and Bull

Apparently, the phrase "a cock and bull story" originated about seven miles from where I live, as the Robin flies, in the little town of Stony Stratford:

Stony is probably most famous for being the original source of the well known English catchphrase "a Cock and Bull Story", which began when tales were exchanged between drunken punters of the 2 hotels, The Cock and The Bull are both in the High Street and are just 20 yards from each other.

Well, so says the blog at The Garden of Earthly Delights. Unfortunately, no sooner do you come across a fascinating local factoid than some killjoy blows it out of the water:

It is an appealing story but, regrettably, it is little more than that. There's no evidence whatsoever to connect the two inns with the phrase, apart from the coincidence of the two names.

Whisper it not in Stony Stratford if you want to get out alive, but it's more likely that the phrase comes from old folk tales that featured magical animals. The early 17th century French term 'coq-a-l'âne' was glossed in Randle Cotgrave's A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues, 1611 as meaning:

An incoherent story, passing from one subject to another.

Bang goes another interesting piece local "knowledge" I was about to bore people senseless with...

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Doing the right thing?

Somebody drove into my mother's car recently. She had parked outside her local sorting office to pick up a piece of post the postman hadn't been able to deliver. A young driver got into the car which had been parked in front of hers and tried to drive off. Unfortunately, he accidentally put his car into reverse instead of first gear and backed into mum's car.

There were two witnesses, the passenger in mum's car who had been waiting for her to come out of the sorting office and a postman. When mum came out, the young man apologised sheepishly and admitted that he'd made a mistake - apparently he'd just changed cars and hadn't got used to the fact that the reverse gear on his new car was on next to first gear, the gears on his old car having been arranged differently.

Details were exchanged and it seemed like a fairly straightforward case - a fender bender with no injuries, no dispute over liability. Later that day, my mother was surprised by a visit from a representative of the young man's insurers, Quinn Direct. This individual tried to persuade her to authorise Quinn Direct, rather than mum's own insurers to deal with the claim.

Fortunately, mum had already contacted her own insurers and started the insurance ball rolling and didn't sign or commit to anything. I say "fortunately" because Quinn's record when it comes to "third party capture" (the practice of the insurers of the person who caused the accident doorstepping the not-at-fault party and trying to take over the running of the claim from the not-at-fault party's insurers) doesn't inspire confidence:

Kimberley Harrison suffered severe facial injuries when another car crashed head-on with hers in March 2008.

She was surprised - and angry - to receive frequent calls from an agent of the other driver’s insurer the day after she left hospital.

“From the day I got home, the insurance company phoned me and were pressurising me not to take it any further - not to seek legal advice. I was really shocked.

“He was really forceful, like a bully - really trying to push me to close a deal,” she said.

Once she instructed lawyers, Kimberley said the insurance company in question, Quinn Direct, managed to get hold of her medical reports.

“They posed as someone working for my solicitor in order to obtain my medical records. I had no idea insurance companies would behave in that way.”

A whistleblower who used to work for Quinn Direct reinforced the impression of dodgy dealing:

Tommy Scott is a former claims handler for Quinn Direct. He told BBC Radio 4’s Money Box it was his job to “doorstep” third parties, often within hours of the accident.

“My sole job was to capture those clients - to stop them getting independent legal advice, and try to settle direct in their living room,” he said.

Quinn Direct have denied the allegations:

It said its “pro-active” approach is “based on paying fair compensation” quickly, and that third parties “appreciate” the service.

The Association of British Insurers don't appear to think there's anything wrong with the practice:

“It is the right thing for insurers to be doing, rather than requiring claimants to drag them through the courts,” said Justin Jacobs, assistant director of motor insurance at the ABI.

Despite the denials by Quinn and the ABI's "nothing to see here, move along" statement, I wouldn't be happy to see a member of my family, involved in an accident that was somebody else's fault, handing control of the claim over to the insurers of the people who caused the accident. I called the guy from Quinn Direct and told him to refrain from any further contact with my mother, who is proceeding with the claim through her own insurers.

To play devil's advocate for a moment, there could be some general justification for letting the at-fault person's insurers take over the claim. If those insurers were selfless, kindly people, just trying to do the best for everybody involved they could, in principle, settle the claim more quickly and efficiently with lower legal costs without anybody involved - apart from the lawyers- being worse off. But that's a very big "if". And even if you assume that the people doing the doorstepping have the best of intentions, are they any good? My admittedly unscientific on-line research into what people say about Quinn Direct's claims service has turned up quite a few disgruntled comments. The most telling comment about the not-so-mighty Quinn compared them to the budget airline Ryanair - cheap and not very cheerful. Why would anyone want to have their claim handled by a company acting for the other party in their insurance claim, a company who don't even seem to have much of a reputation for handling their own claims well?

Doorstepping accident victims and trying to pressure them into handing over control of their claim sounds despicable. If Quinn Direct, the other insurers who do this and the ABI want to convince people that it really is OK, I suggest that they put their case to some independent bodies - say, the Citizen's Advice Bureau or Which? magazine. If the CAB and Which? look at the evidence and come out with press releases agreeing that you'd be best off signing over control of your insurance claim to the insurers of the guy who just ran into the back of you, then I might just reconsider. Before they get round to writing those press releases, I'll also be interested to hear their views on hell freezing over.

Saturday, 12 September 2009

Tale of the unexpected

Dame Susan Jocelyn Bell Burnell (known as Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell) is getting an honorary degree from the Open University today. The award is for 'academic and scholarly distinction.'

Jocelyn Bell Burnell is best known for having discovered of pulsars, (along with her thesis supervisor Antony Hewish) back in 1967. There can't be many humans alive who have discovered something quite so strange and unexpected. To quote from a Wikipedia definition of a pulsar:

Pulsars are highly magnetized, rotating neutron stars that emit a beam of electromagnetic radiation. The observed periods of their pulses range from 1.4 milliseconds to 8.5 seconds.[my italics] The radiation can only be observed when the beam of emission is pointing towards the Earth. This is called the lighthouse effect and gives rise to the pulsed nature that gives pulsars their name. Because neutron stars are very dense objects, the rotation period and thus the interval between observed pulses is very regular. For some pulsars, the regularity of pulsation is as precise as an atomic clock.

An entire collapsed star spinning around in seconds, or even milliseconds? Who would have thought it before one was actually discovered? J B S Haldane was right:

I have no doubt that in reality the future will be vastly more surprising than anything I can imagine. Now my own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.

It must be a great feeling to have your achievements recognised with an honorary degree, but to just be the first human to discover something wholly new and novel has to be off the scale - that must be about as good as it gets, ever.

Here are some pulsars doing their thing:

And the unoriginal but obligatory burst of Vangelis doing his electronic thing back in the '70's:

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Turn over your papers

I've just done a health and safety exam. Here are a few of the questions presented to candidates:

You have witnessed a serious accident on your site, and are interviewed by an HSE inspector. Should you:

A: tell the inspector what your mates say you should tell him
B; ask your supervisor what you should say to the inspector
C: co-operate fully with the inspector and tell him exactly what you say
D: don't tell him anything

Why should a high visibility vest be worn when working on roads?

A: So road operators and plant users can see you
B: Because you were told to do so
C: Because it will keep you warm
D: So that your mates can see you

A colleague has drilled holes in the top of his safety helmet because the weather is hot. Is this:

A: acceptable if the holes are small
B: his choice
C: acceptable
D: in breach of legal requirements

Which of the following would NOT make a load easier to handle manually

A: Painting it a bright colour
B: Securing the load so it does not shift unexpectedly
C: Reducing its weight
D: Providing suitable handles or hand grips

Which of the following statements is true with regard to the dangers of electricity?

A: Electricity is perfectly safe so long as you wear cotton gloves
B:Electricity is only dangerous if you are not wearing wellington boots
C: Electricity is only dangerous in wet weather
D Electricity is dangerous at any time because you cannot tell by looking at a cable whether it is live

Assuming that the people who weren't able to answer these questions correctly have already been weeded out by the operation of natural selection, I found myself asking the eternal question; "what's the point?" The answer, I imagine, is so someone, somewhere can say that there's a process in place and tick the health and safety box. Job done.