“Fish, er, make love in it”

Was W C Fields right about the hazards of drinking water?

I always feel a little uneasy about people who don’t drink tap water, at least in the UK. The water quality here is high, and the reasons people give for avoiding the water often seem to be halfway to the wacky world of fringe medicine.

In any case, I tell myself, how dare these people shun our lovely British water at a time when people across the Global South are endangered by dangerous or scarce water supplies?

So I was intrigued to hear Letizia Bocchi of Italian company Medica SpA , speaking today at a press conference to launch next week’s big EU event on graphene technology. She said that within the EU, only 55 per cent of people drink tap water. This makes Europe one of the world’s biggest consumers of bottled water. Whether the other 45 per cent distrust the water or just hate the taste, something has to be done, for economic as well as environmental reasons.

Medica is leading an EU initiative to develop graphene as a water filtering technology, in a grouping that also includes the University of Manchester, long a global graphene powerhouse, and Icon Lifesaver, a UK company in the clean water business.

Within 3-4 years, she says, graphene may reach the point where it can remove heavy metals and drug residues from water. These two are the biggest concerns among non-users of the public water supply. In combination with other filters, there might be scope too for removing viruses.

Bocchi points out that while water purity can be poor in the South, thing are not perfect in Europe either. One use for this new technology is for to clean emergency water supplies, and she points to recent water quality emergencies in Europe, for example Venice.

While she concedes that graphene filters might cost more than existing materials such as activated carbon, Bocchi adds that much of today’s activated carbon comes from coconut shells. Producing it is a mighty environmental mess. I know from visiting Ghana that there are plans to turn its billions of spare coconut shells into fuel, which might well be a lot greener. In any case, it’s got to be a plus for the environment to reduce the number of water bottles used by Europeans each year.

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Life off Earth: maybe some facts at last?

Life on another planet? (Or to be precise, in the clouds above it?) A news story doesn’t get a lot bigger than the detection of possible life indicators in the clouds of Venus. It potentially suggests that life is abundant in and beyond the solar system.

But for me, some of today’s great journalism (there’s too much of it to link without accusations of bias) on the matter misses one vital point. Existing research on life elsewhere in the universe is a bit like someone who has only ever heard and spoken Danish writing a book on the world’s languages. It’s full of anthropomorphic “findings” such as the necessity for a Moon, a magnetic field, some specific chemical elements, or an ionosphere.

With luck, any discovery of life in the Venusian clouds will moderate this train of thought by adding some facts. While this life, if it is there, may have originated on the (then more hospitable) surface of Venus, it would be a true revolution in our understanding of life to prove that it could now live entirely in the atmosphere.

The first result of all this hubbub is a predictable one -a call for spacecraft, balloons and other forms of life-hunting technology to be sent asap to the planet. But remember that this all grows out of the detection of phosphine (a gas PH3 related to ammonia, NH3) in the atmosphere of Venus using Earth-based telescopes. The scientists are clear that there could be a non-bio explanation. But maybe a hunt for other possible markers visible from Earth might be the smart move before we fuel up the rockets?

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Eclipses! Magic! Toilets! A life lived to the full!

If you haven’t already seen it, take a look at this. It’s the first attested movie of a solar eclipse, filmed on May 28, 1900 in the US. It has been lovingly restored after languishing in the vaults of the Royal Astronomical Society. Shamingly, it’s about as clear as my own digital eclipse pics from the present century (see above).

Despite being a Fellow of the RAS, I first encountered this stunning film through a brief news story in Sky and Telescope magazine. It attributed it to “amateur astronomer and filmmaker John Nevil  Maskelyne.” Fair enough, but I could figuratively hear all British readers going “what??” at this point. Surely, they thought, there was an Astronomer Royal of (more or less) that name?

[What a pleasure btw to see that Sky and Telescope has been rescued from its owners’ financial travails by absorption into the American Astronomical Society, a highly appropriate home.]

Yes there was, the fifth Astronomer Royal was Nevil Maskeleyne, 1732-1811, AR from 1765 until his death. He is unfairly remembered as the enemy of John Harrison in the famous chronometer/longitude wars, but actually achieved much more.

His descendant was if anything an even more interesting character. According to a well-known online encyclopaedia, he invented the pay toilet. He worked as an illusionist and magician, and became in effect a founder of the skeptic movement, showing that no ethereal explanation was needed for the tricks that baffle stage audiences. At the time, plenty of distinguished scientists and experts believed in spiritual and magical powers. And as we see, he was a movie pioneer.

All in all, it strikes me that this Maskelyne is a steampunk novel waiting to be written. Anyone?

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10-22 and all that

If you are at all involved in the world of higher education and research, you have probably heard of Skolkovo. A literal green-field site on the western edge of Moscow, it is home to post-Soviet intiatives including a business school and a science and technology institute, distinguished by their global connections, their international approach and their cutting-edge architecture.

This month, Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology was home to, if not the biggest, certainly the longest-lasting higher education event I have ever heard of. Called Island (Ostrov) 10-22, it ran between those dates, adding up to almost a fortnight of enthusiastic thought about the university of the future.

This was the second iteration of Island. The first was held on an actual island, an approach that was was deemed too much hassle to repeat. This time it was run by players including events company EdCrunch and Russian professional university 20.35.

The big idea of Island is not a unique one. It is to encourage Russian education and business into the digital world, transform working life and help the idea of high-tech start-ups put down roots there. A look at the vast unused area of Skolkovo billed as being set aside for start-ups makes the point that Moscow is still not Northern California, despite the energy and ambition of its denizens.

However,  Island did bring in over 2,000 participants to hear from each other and from around the world about ways of being more digital, especially in the worlds of lifelong keanring and fast-growing business. An example was the series of seminars on making the UK’s Staffordshire University a digital business, run by Andrew Proctor, Staffs’ head of digital services.

And there was also some inspiational stuff.  On the day I was there, Sung-Chul Shin, president of KAIST in Korea, gave a presentation called “Miracle on the River Han,” about the nation’s rise from immiseration to prosperity, driven by education, technology and internationalism. Surely, went the subliminal message, the nation of Mendeleev should be well capable of something similar. In 1962, says Shin, Korea had exactly zero papers in journals in the Science Citation Index, and filed precisely no US patents. In 2018, it had 59,628 of the first and 19,494 of the second. KAIST itself was set up with US aid money to help drive this process. Its next move, says Shin, is to appoint to perhaps the best job in the world university system. The “Singularity Professor” is intended to unearth new research areas for KAIST and will be assessed only after 10 or 20 years in post.

One clear message from  many of these speakers is that even coding skills, which seem to hab replaced the Greek and Latin of an earlier era as the must-have asset for intellectual life, are not the whole story. Instead, we were told by Stephanie Teasley of the University Michigan, soft skill (ie knowing how to operate in society and at work) are more important and longer-lasting.

Tragically, I didn’t stay long enough to see the 130 Russian university teams, totalling 1500 members, competing and cooperating in the Island 10-22 innovation projects. But if there is to be a Russian unicorn charge, some of the runners and riders will be folk who were here.

Full disclosure : I attended as a guest of EdCrunch and the other organisers and was paid to be there.  

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Getting physical in Da Lin

What do you know about Taiwan? Well, it’s where one-time communist Chiang Kai-Shek fled in 1949 after defeat by Mao, to become a thorn in the flesh of mainland China and darling of the US right. It’s where most of the world’s bikes are made. And it is home to that company that may or may not make most of the iPhones, albeit they employ people in the mainland to do it.

Well, Taiwan’s status as an irritant to Beijing remains. While its claim to house the legitimate government of China has lapsed, a range of existential “cross-straits” issues still looms large in political debate. And future possibilities for the well-armed island range from integration into the mainland to full nation status.

This unique situation dominates discourse, and may be the reason why the visitor (me, last week) is sometimes unprepared, even after many years of showing my face there, for the fact that the normal things that go on in any other country happen here too. Green energy, gay marriage, school quality, the ups and downs of the stock market: all these turn up in the newspaper here as anywhere else, in a lively democracy which supports a vigorous civil society.

As an example, try a visit to Chiayi, a modest and far from affluent city that’s half-way down the island on its West side. It’s subject to a challenge familiar around the world – an ageing population, driven partly by falling birth rates but also by the region’s lack of reasons for young people to move there, or to stay once they hit the job market.

To attack this problem, the Chiayi region has built a striking partnership between the local university,  National Chung Cheng, and the voluntary bodies that exist to keep older people healthy and busy. I was honoured to visit one such centre, in the small town of Da Lin, and to hear about its plans to become an age-friendly “slow city.”

Some of the activities that go on at the centre are familiar. Board games are a standby mental simulant for old and young alike on all continents. Less expected was the Ocarina band that greeted my arrival and which was well up to on-stage standards. It now goes on tour.

And there were surprises too. One is that because we’re in China, calligraphy is big business. Any parade of shops is likely to have somewhere selling brushes, pens, ink and special paper for this activity. It’s apparently brilliant for keeping hand, eye and brain active and coordinated.  Another is the sheer quality of the art produced at the centre. It includes saleroom-grade paintings of the area and of other subjects, on show at a gallery formed from the railway station manager’s hut, a beautiful building dating back to the Japanese occupation. Yet another: I have never seen yoga done with this level of physical intensity, even by people in their twenties.

Or try a visit to the bus station. Here a series of sculptures has been created by a group with an average age of over 70, all representing the snail that is the symbol of the slow city. Tyres, bottles and other rubbish, destined for landfill, have become the raw material for a charming and evocative piece of art on what seems to have been unused land.

In total, 316 people are active “students” of the centre, one per cent of the local population. They are helped by a volunteer group of about 30. While it would be good to grow to about twice its current size, teachers and volunteers are both in short supply. One specific aim is to bring in more men. Apparently, males are reluctant to risk looking foolish in class, and are a rarity in this setting.

There are 369 such active age centres on the island, but the group around Chiayi is specially interesting for its links to academic life. Teachers and volunteers have been trained at CCU, which has a deep commitment to education for older people and to other aspects of the ageing issue, and papers in international journals have emerged from the connection.

One strong emphasis is on the physical shape of older people. Asked to take part in tests, I could hardly say no, and a bunch of Masters students were soon attaching me to wires and making me do surprisingly punishing exercise. I was told (eeek) that my body is several years older than I am, and I dd not need telling to lose some weight. And yes, I already knew that my physical coordination  wouldn’t get me a job as a goalkeeper. But maybe this message, transmitted to me by proper scientists in a real science lab, is one that I needed to hear and that others could usefully absorb too.

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Cash or card?

I am not much of a joiner of single-purpose campaigns. But here’s one I’d maybe pay money to support.
And that would be appropriate, because the subject is money, and to be precise, coins and notes. Despite the offical Bank of England line that cash is here to stay, there seems to be growing drumbeat of opinion for abolishing both. The most recent Weekend FT ran a piece on the topic (here it is, paywall) pointing out that Sweden is making progress towards seeing off notes and coins altogether, and that other nations are following, albeit at a slower pace.
Admittedly the same piece concedes that the UK supply of notes and coins has gone up, and that more people are now using only cash for their finances. But there’s little doubt that the abolition of cash is gaining traction as an idea.Of course, enthusiasm varies around the world. It is hard to imagine low-street-crime, high-banknote Japan going all-electronic soon.
Why? Well, part of it is the old story of bits and atoms. The former are more movable and cheaper to process. But if you think about all the things holding back the UK economy (don’t get me started), where on the scale is the hideous cost of handling all those pound coins, fivers and the rest? Nowhere high on the list, I’ll be bound.
So what is this really about? The obvious answer is that an all-electronic economy puts everyone in a panopticon from which there is little escape. Everything costs money. The only way round it would be a false identity.
There is a slight argument here that putting us all in this prison would allow evildoers – tax evaders and criminals – to be caught. This is nonsense. It means that we regard their activities, which account for only a few per cent of the economy, as outweighing the lives of all the honest people. In any case, we know from the Paradise Papers and many other sources that crooks use banks. There’s an estimated $T of their loot running through the banking system each year.
There’s also an argument that says much of the criminal use of cash can be killed off by abolishing the highest-value note. That’s the fifty for the UK (already rumoured), the €500 in the Eurozone (none now being issued although they remain legal tender) and the C-Note in the US. This is an argument I’d buy, although the same FT piece quotes an anti-cash zealot as saying that this is merely a first step on the slippery slope to killing off the oher notes too.
Abolishing cash does of course have some other upsides for those of authoritarian mien. Anyone can be made a non-person with a click of the mouse if their credit can be cancelled.
On the other hand…
Obviously nobody can mention any of this without the Blockchain sidling onto stage. There are no crypto tenners. If these parallel currencies are to gain ground, cash is their enemy. How far is the anti-cash movement backed by the crypto crowd?
In any case, would there ever be support for this change in the current climate of distrust for institutions and the people that run them? I doubt it. That’s doubly true because of the unstable nature of IT systems (add your own example here), including big ones such as those used by banks and finance ministries, and their obvious value as hacker targets. In a world where there is a UK majority for quitting the EU, what do you think would be the result of a referendum on abolishing those sheets of paper with Her Majesty’s likeness on them?

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It was 50 years ago today – the most misreported event in sports history?

.. on December 9, when I was lucky enough to witness an undying talking point in sports history.

The place: Anfield, of course. I, my father and 39,674 others were here for Liverpool v Leeds United. To be exact, in the Paddock, a standing area in front of the main stand, now long since turned over to seats, but which my father always regarded as the best spec in the ground – ideally midway between the Kop and the half-way line.

Remember that this was one of the season’s top fixtures. Both sides had World Cup winners in action (Sir Roger Hunt for us, Jack Charlton for them) along with some great Scottish bruisers (St John and Bremner). And the managers, Bill Shankly and Don Revie, were canonical figures in the national and European game.

In goal, more to the point for this story, were Tommy Lawrence for us, an occasional Scotland player universally knows as the Flying Pig, and for Leeds, frequent Welsh pick Gary Sprake. Everyone present knew that just over two years earlier, he had defied Liverpool almost to the death in the 1965 Cup Final, won 2-1 in extra time, and this in the era when the Cup mattered a lot more than it might seem to now.

But before the match, a sideshow. Mersey poet Roger McGough, now a stupendous national treasure, was at the time fronting a band called the Scaffold. They are remembered, if at all, for Lily the Pink and Thank You Very Much. They were paraded in front of the Kop, to the disgust of a Liverpool supporter standing just to my left. “I’ve been coming here for 40 years and nobody ever paraded me in front of the crowd.”

To business, and after 18 minutes, a definitive Anfield sight of that era. In the number 11 shirt, Peter Thompson up the left: centre into the box: Roger Hunt on the end of it for one of his 285 Liverpool goals: 1-0.

Liverpool were now pressing, but after 44 minutes, half time was in sight and Sprake had the ball in his hands. He drew it back to prepare to kick (and to keep it away from an opposition player). It slipped out of his hand, bounced twice, and hit the back of the net. Liverpool had lost the toss, so this was the Kop end, not perhaps the ideal setting from his point of view.

Many people have described this incident, and most get it wrong. My dad lived to 94 and the inaccuracy of these accounts was one of his favourite themes. Once I heard a supposed expert say it was a wet day and the ball was muddy. In fact it was a cold, clear, crisp day. In his magisterial Shankly tome Red or Dead, David Peace makes it into a snowy day with an orange ball, again completely wrong. Admittedly he has the excuse that the book is a novel (and one you should read if you haven’t already).

Both sides’ players looked baffled, but there was no doubt Gary had scored for us. There was only one thing for the Kop to do – gives him a chorus of “Thank You Very Much for that lovely goal, thank you very much Gary Sprake.”

One thing they did not do was sing “Careless Hands.” That came on the PA at half time, though, and was certainly taken up with some enthusiasm.

I can’t remember a thing about the second half. The record shows that there were no more goals. We ended the season third, behind Man City and United, and Leeds were fourth. But the odd feature of this event, unique in its way and still vivid in my mind after this half-century, is that it could recur, whether at Anfield or Wembley, or at a park pitch, at any match you might imagine. Sprake, who died last year, must have been grateful that his faux pas did not take place in the era when there is always a camera running at any sporting event. Next time it happens, the hapless goalie will be doomed to see it on TV for ever.

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50 Years and counting….

As the saying goes, It Was 50 Years Ago Today. Everyone who was alive around Merseyside in 1967 has their Sergeant Pepper story. Here’s mine.

Oddly, it relates mainly to my late father Leslie. He was born in 1915 and was 51 when Sergeant Pepper came out.

He worked his whole life for Tate and Lyle in Liverpool. One of the perks was a big annual shindig at the Adelphi Hotel (the one mentioned in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne). In 1961 (probably) his office mate John Dunn was given the huge sum of £100 to hire a band for this gig. He found quite a good one, but the price was £130. John asked for the extra £30 and management told him to clear off. That’s why the Beatles never played my dad’s office party. John found some lesser band to do the set.

When my father was born, Liverpool’s place in world trade made it one of the most important cities on Earth. It had lost that status by the time he died in 2010. But it did do three amazing things in his lifetime. In World War II it was the centre for the Battle of the Atlantic, and the most bombed place in the UK after London. The scars remained for decades. But the other two things it did are less serious. In the 1960s, Liverpool became the world capital of popular music. And in the 1970s and 1980s, it was the world capital of the beautiful game, something of prime importance to him.

So yes, we bought the LP more or less on day 1. I’ve still got my sister’s copy (plus the CD and a version on a hard drive, useful as we haven’t got a deck for vinyl). I played it a lot and worked out how to plant to stylus on side 2 so as to avoid “Within You Without You.” Obviously it’s one of the canonical records. But it could have done without this bit of George, and it could have done with a genuine rocker instead, doing for Sergeant Pepper what Back in the USSR does for the White Album.

Father enjoyed it hugely and could identify pretty well everyone on the cover, including to his pleasure Albert Stubbins, whom he described as the most gentlemanly football player he ever saw (he was later a noted football reporter in NE England). But my best memory is of first hearing Rita. At the line “When it gets dark, I tow your heart away,” my father laughed the biggest laugh I ever heard.

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A more rounded view

Do you ever encounter those maddening people who insist that medieval folk thought the world was flat? There’s really no telling them of the swathe of evidence (eg Columbus’s calculation of the distance from Europe to Asia westbound) that shows different. In fact they were happy with a spherical Earth, albeit one that was rather static for our tastes.

But .. here’s another line, thanks to a talk by Dr James Hannam, whose book God’s Philosophers is the go-to tome on all this.

Speaking at the Institute of Astronomy in Cambridge, at the excellent Spring Meeting of the Society for the History of Astronomy, James told us that when the monarch is crowned, in England or in other European nations, a symbol of their Earthly power is placed in their hand. Is it a dinner plate, he asked? No, it’s the orb.

Case closed.

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The Three-Body Problem: a step too far?

I started reading the science fiction of Cixin Liu for a simple if tragic reason. I have always preferred my Iain Banks with added M, and when both of his voices were silenced as inappropriately as they were, I realised I needed a new science fiction habit. Banks and Liu are as different as can be, and nobody would ever confuse Liu’s miserablist epic of the human future with Banks’s amazing invention of The Culture. Banks was better at irony, and was far more of an optimist about the future of the human race. But they both look creatively at massive volumes of time and space, and manage to have some credible people in there, even female ones. For me, the creation of characters I actually care about is the big test for any author vaguely in the world of science fiction.

The other reason I got interested in Liu relates to the time I have spent in East Asia – Japan, Korea, Taiwan and mainland China – in the past decade. Liu’s work is set in the approximate present (it starts in the cultural revolution) and deep into the future. It is placed in a world where China has become more dominant, but where Americans and plenty of others are also present and important. It’s a welcome perspective that someone needed to take. At this point, by the way, wild applause for his translator Ken Liu, himself a novelist.

Liu’s magnum opus so far (he’s only 53) is The Three-Body trilogy, of which volume one is the Three-Body Problem, named after one of the canonical conundrums of celestial mechanics. If there are only two bodies in the universe, maybe a star and a planet, it’s easy(ish) to work out the future movements of the two from their initial starting point. Introduce a third object, and the calculation gets a whole lot trickier.

In contrast to many previous science fiction authors, Liu regards the universe as a place that’s full of life. And unlike Iain M and many others, he portrays most of that life as genocidal or indeed mundicidal, a term I am pleased to see that Word underlines. Slight spoiler alert: in the first two volumes, war breaks out between the naïve but well-intentioned Homo sapiens and the murderous civilisation of the Alpha Centauri system. (Heaven knows what he makes of the recent discovery of a possible Earthlike planet in this star system.) It needs a massively brilliant plot twist for us to avoid extinction. However, it also becomes apparent that the evil Trisolarans of Alpha Centauri are the least of our worries. They actually plan to leave some of us alive. The real problem is the entire universe, which is a “dark forest,” hence the title of volume two, filled with civilisations that would rather obliterate any possible new arrivals in the universe than ask questions about their intentions.

Liu isn’t afraid of turning on a lot of science, and his inventiveness is astounding. He messes with dimensions, with the velocity of light, with time and space travel and many other big themes. And the handy invention of human hibernation means that his leading characters can appear throughout a plot that runs for centuries, and far more in the final volume.

There is apparently a Chinese-language film of Volume One of the trilogy with a 2017 release date, but the second and third books may prove trickier. In the era of movies about Middle Earth, Mars or Hogwarts, you may think anything can be faked on screen. But the challenges here would be far greater. And the real issue is not about technology. The problem is that the film-makers would have to trample the plot very badly to turn up any sort of feelgood ending. Anything resembling a true rendition of the books would make The Hateful Eight look like Disney. On the other hand, it would be a great project for the endlessly ambitious Chinese movie industry.

In the end, was it worth ploughing through three volumes of ingenious but largely spirit-lowering stuff that we must all hope has no prophetic value? For me, yes. But I prefer Liu’s short stories, such as The Wandering Earth and (even more so) The Longest Fall – the same amazing mind, but a lot less “blow your brains out while you still have them” content.



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