Sunday, March 31, 2013

The end of a chapter

I thought this year would be fairly uneventful, plough on at work as usual and get most of my dissertation out of the way before the deadline next January but life is seldom totally predictable. On Thursday i left my employer of 12 years and now will be (for the next few months at least) a full time student!

It was sad to leave my colleagues (who gave me a lovely send-off) and the university (where i also studied for 5 years) but life goes on. Now i can concentrate on my studies for a while but also take stock and decide where i want to go next in life. For 18 years i have worked in web development, maybe its time for a change, or work for myself. Lets have a good think anyway.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Project 042

Its still cold but i'm fed up waiting for the Winter to end, the 2013 model making season is off to a proper start with construction of Project 042 HMS Suffolk commencing. It is my first ship kit since i restarted model building a few years ago though i did quite a few in the past, unlike most of my plane models i think i still have some of my old ships somewhere...

Monday, March 25, 2013

Was it a comet and not an asteroid that finished the Dinosaurs?

Scientists examining the amount of rare metals released by the impact that caused the Chicxulub crater in Mexico (which scientists believe is where the object that hit the Earth to spark the mass extinction event at the end of the Cretaceous took place) now think that the Earth was hit by a smaller object than an asteroid but one traveling at a higher velocity, a comet in other words.

This is because the amount of debris deposited is less than would be expected if a larger asteroid struck the Earth. The object that hit the Earth is calculated to would need to be 5km in diameter to result in the rare metals like iridium detected however the size of the crater would indicate a much larger object, unless it was traveling fast. Other scientists say that it might not be possible to say conclusively from the metals detected and their displacement may not have been uniform.

However the strength of the impact was sufficient to send huge amounts of dust into the atmosphere and cause the "Nuclear Winter" that killed off the Dinosaurs and many other creatures, 70% of all species.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Living memory, second-hand memory and American Civil War pensions

One historical concept i find fascinating is that of "living memory", by this i mean historical events that were witnessed (either first or second hand) by people still living. While very recent events have millions of living witnesses all historical events eventually pass from living memory as people who were alive during these events die off.

World War 1 for example will soon pass from living memory. It is not thought any soldiers who fought in the conflict are still alive since the passing of veterans like Harry Patch, there will still be some civilians who were alive during the war who will have memories of the times (even if they were no where near any actual fighting). Even the youngest of these (say someone who was 5 or 6 in 1918) will be over 100 nowadays.

Second-hand memory can persist for longer. By this i mean memories being passed on by first-hand witnesses to their descendants (orally face to face). In some ways this retains a living link to events that passed from living memory many years before. Interestingly the American Civil War even though it ended in 1865 is still in second-hand memory after news of a couple of children of veterans still being alive and still receiving a war pension.

The last veteran of the war died in 1956 though many veterans did marry much younger women and the last widow did not die until 2003. It is likely these surviving children were the result of older veterans marrying young women (which was not uncommon in the early 20th century). How much these 2 survivors can remember of what their fathers may have told them about the war is unknown, it is reported that both are of poor health and very old, but they remain a living link to a war that passed from living memory half a century ago.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

The case of the Birmingham Ship Canal(s)

Birmingham famously is supposed to have more canals than Venice (albeit over a wider area) but lacks easy access to the sea by larger vessels. In the 1880s there were a number of schemes to enlarge some of the canals linking Birmingham to the major rivers of the country to create a ship canal that could allow vessels up to 200-300 tons (depending on the scheme).

River steamer on the Severn
at Worcester
The scheme which probably came closest to getting the go-ahead was a link to the river Severn above Worcester by enlarging the Worcester & Birmingham Canal(1). The scheme envisaged going through Droitwich so presumably the Droitwich Canal would also have been enlarged. The Birmingham City Council formed a Ship Canal Enquiry Committee to look into the scheme which would have allowed vessels up to 200 tons right into the centre of the city. The cost of the scheme was estimated at £2 million (when of course this was real money).

However in 1888 the Council declined going ahead with the scheme and disbanded the committee, citing that it was outside of their municipal concerns(2). There were also worries that the railways would undercut the canal making it economically unviable.

This wasn't the only scheme however, a number of the city's great and good also proposed a ship canal scheme linking Birmingham to the river Mersey(3). This canal, which would have allowed ships up to 300 tons would have linked Birmingham to the Weaver Navigation Canal and then through to the Mersey, Liverpool and the sea. This canal would have been 60ft wide and 11ft deep and would have passed through South Staffordshire, the Potteries and Cheshire(4). However this scheme (which would have cost a mere £1.6 million) came to naught as did a scheme to link Birmingham to the Thames(5).

By the late 1890s canals were beginning to be seen as old hat as the railway network continued to grow. In many ways it is a shame none of the ship canal schemes came to anything. Ships up to 300 tons would be much larger than anything that usually chugs through the canals at Birmingham's heart. The Edwardian steamer TSS Earnslaw perhaps can give us an idea of the sort of boat we might have expected making it up to Birmingham in the early 1900s (although it would be slightly oversize at 330t). The canal schemes came to nothing though may have inspired this song...
Photo (c) trakesht at Wikipedia

(1) Charles Anthony Vince MA, History of the Corporation of Birmingham Vol 3 1885-1899 (Cornish:Birmingham, 1902), p. 365
(2) Vince, p. 368
(3) Birmingham & Liverpool Ship Canal (Pamphlet, 1888), p. 5
(4) Birmingham Daily Gazette 6th July 1888
(5) Birmingham & Liverpool Ship Canal, p. 17

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The 70s house

Scanning a few old photographs yesterday i came upon this one taken in the first house i lived in, in Crosby. I was only a baby at the time so the photograph was likely taken sometime in 1972 or perhaps early 1973. What is most interesting about the photograph is probably what is missing. There seems to be a total absence of technology though there was probably was a TV out of shot. Nowadays a photo of a living room would include remote controls, mobile phones, consoles, DVDs and other technology. Back in the early 1970s you would have a TV and a telephone and little else, maybe a hi-fi or a radio. Other than that the room is very familiar and probably trendily retro these days. I wonder how the living room will change in another 40 years time.

Its interesting how much has changed though some items in the photo have survived all these years, the painting on the wall for example is right behind me on my own wall now as i type this!

Monday, March 18, 2013

Lets get the 2013 model making season started!

I build my models in the kitchen extension, its a light and airy room but too airy during the Winter as its unheated! Because of that i tend to have a Winter lay-off and resume building when it finally gets warm again. We are still some way off it being warm to be honest but Spring is here (officially) so its time to begin the 2013 season. First model will be Project 042 which will be the cruiser HMS Suffolk, my first ship.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Known but unknown ancestors

Recently i have been lucky enough to have found a few photographs of some of my ancestors taken in the interwar period. The first photo is of my Great Aunt Annie and Great Uncle Leslie (plus a dog, name unknown). Annie lived very close to where i live now literally a few hundred metres away (though the street her house was on no longer exists) so it is likely the photo was also taken in the area.
Although i have heard stories about Leslie, who was my Nan's younger brother, i never met him (he died not long after i was born). He was captured at Dunkirk and spent the war in Nazi coal mines, this affected him terribly physically and mentally i am told. I do have his last will and testament in my archives and he did not leave a great deal after he passed away. I know these things about him and his life but nothing from the man himself.

Despite all the information we can glean on our ancestors these days we still often lack enough to truly understand them, to know how they thought and what they were truly like. The NY Times has an interesting article on how the internet and social media will enable people to record so much about themselves and how they thought for future generations (though whether people will be that interested is another matter). For now though we usually just have to rely on piecing together bits of information with hazy memories (often second-hand).

The other photos, taken from Aston in the 1920s (or early 1930s) unfortunately have no names on them so the identity of these ancestors is unknown. Sometimes we just have these tantalising snippets on the past age. It perhaps means we cherish what has survived all the more, any future historians looking into my life will have to wade though hundreds of photographs of my dinner and blog posts on science-fiction before they can get any idea about me!

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Did Gustave Whitehead build the first successful aeroplane?

Its common knowledge that the Wright brothers built the first practical aeroplane and as everyone knows they flew first in 1903, an event which heralded the age of heavier-than-air flight. However there have been other claims over the years about people who may have beaten the Wright brothers to it. One claim is that Gustave Whitehead (or Wei├čkopf) first flew his Number 21 aeroplane in 1901, interestingly Jane's have now said that they think he was indeed the first. The first flight was widely reported at the time in over a hundred newspapers and periodicals though nowadays of course everyone knows it was the Wrights.

Its no surprise if it is true and that Whitehead was first but is largely forgotten now, often this happens with inventors. The first is not necessarily the one who is remembered especially if there are a number of people working on the same problem simultaneously. Historical "facts" can be challenged later on especially as new technology allows for analysis of material that was not possible earlier. One example is the analysis that has been made of a proported photograph of Whitehead's aeroplane in flight at a 1906 exhibition. A photograph of the exhibition has been forensically examined to see if the phone of the flight can be discerned. The analysis is fascinating but i remain to be totally convinced by it.

This story comes with a whiff of conspiracy too. The Smithsonian has barred access to some photographs which may (or may not) show Whitehead's aircraft due to the fragility of the material. The Smithsonian got their hands on the original Wright Flyer in return for giving the honour of first flight to the Wright brothers (this has been found to be true thanks to a Freedom of Information request according to Jane's).

Gustav Whitehead probably did fly his aeroplane first though whether it was what you could consider a controlled flight is a matter of opinion, he stated himself that to steer the aeroplane in flight he had to move himself around in the fuselage. Whitehead's aeroplane was a bit of an evolutionary dead-end, the Wright biplane was the template for heavier-than-air aviation for the next few decades in many ways.
Photos from Wikimedia Commons.

Did large eyes cause the demise of the Neanderthal?

A study of Neanderthal skulls has led scientists to suggest that the size of their eyes may have led to their demise and eventual extinction. Larger eyes meant that more of their brain was dedicated to seeing in the longer darker nights in Europe and the generally lower light conditions compared to Africa. Modern humans who stayed in Africa for longer (thus in better light) did not evolve this eye and brain adaptation and so their brains could develop higher level thinking, which enabled them to better adapt to the ice ages through improved clothing (for example evidence of needles and early tailoring has been found while Neanderthal clothing remained cruder) and to develop larger social groups.

However modern humans living at higher altitudes have also evolved larger vision processing areas in their brains and this has not resulted in reduced cognitive abilities. The findings seem to run counter to recent research that has dispelled the earlier view that Neanderthals were "stupid brutes" and instead were only slightly less intelligent than ourselves. Indeed although modern humans' advantage was only slight it was apparently just enough to tip the balance in their favour in the battle for survival during the ice ages.

John Hawks is among those sceptical.

Monday, March 11, 2013

The strange beauty of historic computers

Wired have a great article on the sights and smells of historic computing, the strange beauty indeed of the "olden days" of computing : mainframes, minicomputers, line printers and other historic computing artifacts. Many of the computers and peripherals at places like the Computer History Museum in California (somewhere i must visit one day!) still work after being restored adding an extra dimension to the experience. The sound and heat of a punched card reader...

It is a very different tech world to now, a bigger world too. Computers filled huge rooms with printers being the size of small cars, plus tape units the size of wardrobes. That is part of the fascination i feel, its just so different to the computing we use now.

Unfortunately by the time i entered work we were past the age of old iron, though i did use a Prime minicomputer at university which was great fun. The biggest computer i've ever had physical access to is a HP PC server which was the size of a small fridge. Just not the same as a room full of IBM 360. One place i must try and get to this year is the UK National Museum of Computing which includes a fair amount of old iron in it's collection.
Photo from Flickr Commons

Sunday, March 10, 2013

A825 passed!

The Open University surprised me by releasing my module result a week early, a nice surprise as they told me i had passed! Actually i did expect to pass (or at least i did not think i would fail which is subtly different) but i passed well so now i am ready to move onto my next module and complete my Masters. In fact it should be this time next year i get that result too.

A826 will begin in May and will consist of writing the dissertation i proposed as part of the final A825 assessment. I will get feedback on my proposal soon and until then there isn't much point in starting research. By mid-April i probably will be at least planning what i am doing.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Book code

Last night i finally got around to reading an old paperback book which i had bought off eBay years before. The book (the novelization of Bruce Lee's "Enter the Dragon" no less) is in reasonable condition though is rather faded and looks like it has passed through quite a few hands since it was printed in the early 1970s. The content itself is of course cheese central. But there is nothing wrong with that on occasion...

However on the second page of the story i found the word "man" circled. This struck me as rather random and i have not detected any other circled words yet. Of course having watched far too many spy dramas over the years i immediately thought of secret codes.

I suppose what might be fun might be to circle random words in a book you sell or give away and hope that one day you drive an amateur cryptographer mad trying to work out what you meant...

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

All England Badminton

I have vowed to try and see more live sport in the wake of the Olympics and today attended my first event of the year. Actually i am a big fan of badminton but last year when i was watching the Olympic badminton i thought to myself i really need to see the All England, especially as its actually held in Birmingham! So here i am, and i will be there tomorrow too. I did take some photos even though you arn't supposed to, but just some blurry iPhone pics. I did get told off once!

Its my first time to the National Indoor Arena which is a lovely venue. I must try and make this an annual pilgrimage.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

London again

I've just returned from an accidental trip to London. I last went at the beginning of February but when i booked my train tickets the first time i accidentally bought them for the 2nd and 3rd of March and not February and so had to hurriedly rebook. Still it worked out fine in the end. A tiring trip though crossing London from the West End to Stratford twice all in all but i was able to indulge in my love of Korean food, visit St Pancras (which looks amazing) and got some serious tube travel in.

And i found the Dog and Duck, the pub which politicians and media commentators always mention when they want to talk about where the "man in the street" discusses issues. As its in Soho i suppose they do actually mean this one!

Friday, March 1, 2013

Free vintage posters

Its sites like this which make the internet so wonderful, Free Vintage Posters does exactly what it says on the tin. It has hundreds of vintage and period posters available for download. I love so many of them but my favourite are the Art Deco designs. Its the sort of site that can drag you in and before you realise it you've spent ages browsing the available riches...