Say Cheese!

Cheese board

Cheese board

Cheese – let’s see if I can come up with one thousand words on cheese. OK, that start is a bit of a cheat, so let’s get into it.

When humans started domesticating animals, my guess is that they would have started small, with goats or sheep. We can’t know why the first cave man or woman first milked one of them. Maybe it was a cave woman who could not feed her growing kids on her own milk and decided to steal some from the goat or sheep. Of course, if the child was too small it would not have worked because the milk would not be suitable for babies. It’s not the best thing for older children too, but it’s better than nothing.

Of course, there would inevitably have been milk left over after feeding the kids, and this would have “gone off”. It’s possible that cottage style cheeses were made from “gone off” milk, though the present day process for making cheese is more complex than simply allowing it to clot. Milk that is clotted is closer to yoghurt than cheese.

Cottage cheese

Cottage cheese

The cave man or woman who first tried eating the curds from clotted milk would have to have had a strong stomach. After all, most clotted milk smells terrible. As I understand it, it depends on the type of bacillus that gets into the milk and causes it to clot.

Proper cheese needs rennet to cause it to coagulate, and according to Wikipedia’s page on the history cheese, it was probably discovered by carrying milk in bladders made of ruminants’ stomachs due to their inherent supply of rennet. It would still have required some person who was desperate or brave to have tried it first.

Cheese curds floating

Cheese curds floating

Once the liquid is removed from the coagulated milk, the solids are processed into the myriad of types of cheese we have today. There was once a shop near us which sold the unmatured and unprocessed cheese as milk curds. They formed quite a nice snack.

There are thousands of types of cheese. France is known for her cheese and former President Charles De Gaulle once commented “How can you govern a country which has two hundred and forty-six varieties of cheese?” In fact he was probably underestimating by quite a wide margin. There are apparently over seven hundred named British cheeses.

Tentation du Vercors

Tentation du Vercors

I presume that this doesn’t include those cheeses which are merely a named type of cheese with added herbs and spices. I’ve seen cheese with added nettles, of all things. If you are interested, it tasty OK. I think that this trend may have sprung from the small, often called boutique, cheese producers. If you are a small company, you will not have the facilities to produce more than one or two types of cheese, and an easy way to provide variety in your range is to create herb infused varieties.

Cheese types presumably fall into various broader types of cheese. There are the soft cheeses, some of which are almost spreadable, such as Brie. Others are denser and more solid, such as the various Cheddar cheese types, some are really hard, such as the Parmesan that is shaved and used as a condiment.

Mottin Charentais

Mottin Charentais

Some cheeses crumble easily and others are more easily sliced. Some supermarket cheese is so processed that it is almost plastic! In fact supermarket cheeses could be considered to be a separate type of cheese. It is almost always highly processed and formed into blocks, slices and spreadable wedges. Even the more conventional cheeses, such as Cheddar cheese, is sold in supermarkets as a block, which seem to me to be a long, long way from the original Cheddar cheese which came in the form of a wheel.

Sometime during the evolution of cheese some cheeses became infected with a penicillin mold and developed blue markings or veins. Once again, some brave person tasted it and liked it, and so blue cheese was born. Blue cheeses are among the tastier of cheeses, and to me, beat all other cheeses that I have tasted hands down.

Shropshire Blue Cheese

Shropshire Blue Cheese

Cheese is used in many recipes, one of which is Welsh rarebit. There are many variations of this recipe, which basically involves melting cheese with several optional ingredients on toast. I particularly like the one which involves soaking the toast in red wine before the cheese is added, although I’ve never tried it.

Cheese scones are another favourite. I always add more cheese than the recipe calls for, as I don’t think the standard recipes call for enough cheese. Cheddar cheese, grated, is the best cheese to use, I find. One thing is important, though. If you like cheese scones hot, it is best to eat them almost direct from the oven. At a pinch they can be reheated in an oven, but heating them in a microwave cooker turns them into something leathery and, to my mind, not particularly nice.

Cheese scones, mmmmmmm!

Cheese scones, mmmmmmm!

Macaroni cheese is a familiar dish from most peoples’ childhood, and even adults find it a tasty meal. It is essentially cooked macaroni, covered in a cheese sauce, covered in breadcrumbs and reheated. Some people put ham in it, some add  herbs, and there are many, many other variations.

Speaking of cheese sauce, cheese and pasta go together. Pasta without cheese sauce is a bare gluggy mess. Pasta with a cheese sauce, with maybe some ham or sausage or even seafood can be heavenly. Some tomatoes or tomato paste make it even nicer.

Farfalloni

Farfalloni

Cheese also goes with pizza. What would pizza be without the stringy mozzarella cheese? Cheese producers around the world have spent large amounts of money, I’d guess in the millions, developing cheese which melts properly and has the requisite stringiness when it cools slightly, so that you can do that twirly thing with your finger to wind up the stings of delicious cheese.

One particularly tasty, but probably not good for you, use of cheese is in cheese straws. These are basically strips of slightly puffed pastry infused with cheese. the strips are twisted to make a spiral shape. The bit is crunchy, the biscuit a little flaky and delicious.

Just one more. Oh no, they’ve all gone!

Cheese straws

Cheese straws

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Round it up!

Circle of Life

Circle of Life

Quite often a visit to Wikipedia starts of a train of thought that might end up as a post here, and often I forget the reason that I was visiting Wikipedia in the first place. However in this case I remember what sparked my latest trip to Wikipedia.

I was looking at the total number of posts that I have made and it turns out that I have posted 256. This is post number 257, which is a prime number incidentally. To many people 256 is not a particular interesting number but to those who program or have an interest in computers or related topics, it is a round number.

US 256

US 256

A round number, to a non-mathematician is a number with one or more zeroes at the end of it. In the numbering system with base 10, in other words what most people would considered to be the normal numbering system, 1000 would be considered to be a round number. In many cases 100 would also be a round number and sometimes 10 would be as well.

In the decimal system, which is another name for the normal numbering system, the number 110 would probably not usually be considered a round number. However, if we consider numbers like 109, 111, 108 and 112, then 110 is a round number relative to those numbers. Rounding is a fairly arbitrary thing in real life, usually.

We come across round numbers, or at least rounded numbers in the supermarket on a daily basis, if we still use cash. Personally I don’t. I recall when the one cent and two cent coins were introduced people were appalled that the supermarkets would round their bills to the nearest convenient five cents.

5 lirot

5 lirot

 

So a person would go to a supermarket and their purchases would total to, say, $37.04. The cashier would request payment of $37.05. Shock! Horror! The supermarket is stealing $0.01 off me! They must be making millions from all these $0.01 roundings. In fact, of course, the retailer is also rounding some amounts down too, so if the bill was $37.01 the customer would be asked to pay only $37.00. So the customer and the supermarket, over a large number of transactions, would end up even.

Then of course the 5 cents coins were removed and this added an extra dilemma. What if the total bill was $37.05? Should the customer’s bill be rounded to $37.00 or to $37.10? This is a real dilemma because, if the amount is rounded up, then the supermarket pockets five cents in one ten cases, and if it is rounded down the supermarket loses five cents in one in ten cases. If the supermarket a thousand customers in a day, one hundred of them will pay five cents more than the nominal amount on their bill, meaning that the supermarket makes a mere five dollars.

Big Money

Big Money

The emotional reaction of the customer, though, is a different thing. He or she may feel ripped off by this rounding process and say so, loudly and insistently. Not surprisingly most supermarkets and other retailers choose to round such bills down. Of course, all the issues go away if you don’t use cash, but instead use some kind of plastic to pay for your groceries, as most people do these days.

There are degrees of roundness. In one context the number 110 would be considered round, if you are rounding to the nearest multiple of ten. If you are rounding to the nearest multiple of one hundred, then 110 is not a round number, or, in other words a rounded number. If we are rounding to the nearest multiple of three, then 110 is not a rounded number but 111 is (111 is 37 multiplied by 3).

Binary Backdrop

Binary Backdrop

Real numbers can be rounded too. Generally, but not always, this is done to eliminate and small errors in measurement. You might be certain that the number you are reading off the meter is between 3.1 and 3.2, and it seems to be 3.17 or so, so you write that down. You take more measurements and then write them all down.

Then you use that number in a calculation and come up with a result which, straight out of the calculator, has an absurd number of decimal places. Suppose, he said, picking a number out of the air, the result is 47.2378. You might to choose to truncate the number to 47.23, but the result would be closer to the number that you calculated if you choose to round it 47.24.

Currency Symbols

Currency Symbols

A quick and easy way to round a real number is to add half of the order of the smallest digit that you want to keep and then truncate the number. For the example number the order of the smallest digit is 0.01 and half of that is 0.005. Adding this to 47.2378 gives 47.2428, and truncating that leaves 47.24. Bingo!

Another way of dealing with uncertain real numbers such as results from experiments is to calculate an error bound on the number and carrying that through to the calculated result. This is more complex but yields more confidence in the results than mere rounding can.

Tube

Tube

To get back to my 256th post. Why did I say that this is a round number in some ways? Well, if instead of using base 10 (decimal), I change to using base 16 (hexadecimal) the number 256 (base 10) becomes 100 (base 16), and those trailing zeroes mean that I can claim that it is a round number.

Similarly, if I choose to use base 2 (binary), 256 (base 10) becomes 100000000 (base 2). That is a really round number. But if I use base 8 (octal), 256 (base 10) becomes 400 (base 8). It’s still a round number but not as round as the binary and hexadecimal versions are, because it start with the digit 4. As a round number its a bit beige.

It’s interesting (well it is interesting to me!) that there are no real numbers in a computer. Even the floating point numbers that computers manipulate all the time are not real numbers. They are approximations of real number stored in a special way (which I’m not going to into).

General Double Precision Float

General Double Precision Float

So when a computer divides seven by three, a lot of complex conversions between representations of these numbers goes on, a complex division process takes place and the result is not the real number 2.333333…. but an approximation, stored in the computer as a floating point number which only approximate, while still being actually quite accurate.

One third

One third

 

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Once a week

English: Lunar libration. see below for more d...

English: Lunar libration. see below for more descriptions Français : Librations de la lune. Voir une description détaillée en dessous. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve been pondering the topic of ‘the week‘. Not the ‘topic of the week’. The week, as in seven days. It’s an unusual number to use as a unit for a length of time, as it is a prime number of days, and this makes using fractions of a week a bit tricky. Half a week is 3 and a half days long, so it’s not usual to, for instance, agree to meet someone in ‘half a week’.

No, we say ‘See you in three days’, or four days. We might say ‘this paint will take 2 and a half days to fully dry’, but this is a bit odd. We’d usually say something like ‘this paint will take between 2 and 3 days to fully dry’. We usually treat days as ‘atomic’ when counting days. The number of days is usually an integer, although we could break days down and use fractions or real numbers with them.

Unusual Calendar

Unusual calendar. 12 months 9 days in week

The fact that the number of days in a week is a prime integer also makes converting from weeks to days and days to week interesting. Quick, how many days in seventeen weeks? The answer is 119. How many weeks is 237 days?  The answer is 33 with six days left over. It’s not easy.

Four weeks is 28 days, which is approximately a lunar cycle. It is also very approximately one month. There are approximately thirteen 28 days period in a year, assuming a 365 days year which is approximately correct. This is probably why some calendars have thirteen months.

Lunar eclipse

Lunar eclipse

The lunar cycle is around 29 and a half days, whereas the month defined as one twelfth of a year is around 30 and a half days. Nothing fits! The month is based on the lunar cycle, and the ancients noticed that that the twelve lunar cycles is 354 days which was close to the 365 and a bit days that comprise a year.

So, they decided to make it fit. They divided the year into 12 months, which left them with bits of days just lying around. This was obviously untidy so they scrunched up the bits into one days and tagged them onto the various months more or less at random. The final left over bit that they ended up with they ignored.

Monthly bus pass

Monthly bus pass

That’s how we ended up with mnemonic rhyme “30 days hath September, April, June and November…” with that horrible line that doesn’t scan. That’s rather appropriate really, as the reason that the rhyme is needed is because the days don’t fit properly into the months. It’s an uneven rhyme for an uneven scheme.

The ancients ignored the odd bit of a day that was left over until someone noticed that the year was still sliding out of synchronisation with the seasons. So they added or took away a day or two here and there in special, short or long years. Problem solved.

Leap year 1908

Leap year 1908

Well sort of. They ended up with a super complex list of rules for working out how many days there are in a month, where to fit extra days into the calendar, and when to fit them in. Horror!

Finally scientists decide to cut through all this confusion and define a second by using an atomic clock. Providing you don’t accelerate the clock to a significant fraction of the speed of light and keep it at absolute zero. Easy!

First atomic clock

First atomic clock

Again, sort of. The standard second times sixty give a standard minute. The standard minute times sixty gives the standard hour. The standard hour times twenty four gives the standard day and the standard day times seven gives the standard week. Yay, you might say.

Unfortunately the actual day and therefore the actual week is not exactly equal to the standard day or week. It would be quite legitimate to claim “Wow, this is a long week, it’s 0.608111.. standard seconds longer than a standard week”. But don’t expect much sympathy.

Leap second 2016

Leap second 2016

Seven days is actually a pretty reasonable length to a week. We divide it into “the weekend” and “the rest of the week”. If it was a couple of days longer, it would be a long time between weekends. We’d probably be tempted to add an extra day to each weekend, or maybe alternate weekends…. But now we’re getting complicated again.

If the week was shorter, we’d probably get less work done. If the week was five days and we still had a two day weekend then time available for work would be about 17% less. Of course five day working weeks are fairly recent in historical terms, but I’m not going to work out the numbers for a 6/7 working week and a 4/5 working week.

Aztech Sun Stone Replica

Aztech Sun Stone Replica

Speaking of work, and assuming that most people would not work unless they have to, we have developed various coping strategies. We count the days to the weekend. “Only three more days to the weekend.” Tomorrow is Thursday and that means only one more day to the weekend.”

We designate Wednesday as “Hump Day”, since it is the middle of the week and if we reach Hump Day before having a breakdown or perhaps killing someone, that’s a win. There’s only half the week to go and we’ve broken its back.

We celebrate Fridays, often with a quick drink, then shoot off to enjoy the weekend. We come in on Mondays, faced with five more days of toil. On Tuesdays, we’ve at least knocked off one day, but it’s still a bit beige. Wednesday is Hump Day and we’re halfway there! When Thursday comes we’re almost there, and Friday is relatively easy. It’s practically the weekend, when we block out the thought of Monday all together if we can.

TGIF - switch off

TGIF – switch off

The week has a sibling called the “fortnight”. Two weeks, as a chunk. At one time the fortnight was usually reserved for a summer holiday. A fortnight at the beach or the bach. Time away with the kids. Idyllic golden weather by the sea. Of course, we only remember the good times, and forget the bad ones, but still it would be summer, it would be fairly warm, and the weather is usually better in the summer.

Weeks are the medium sized sections of our lives, often used to split up the humdrum from the pleasant parts of our lives. We should appreciate our weeks, no matter how many standard seconds long they are.

Girl on a swing

Girl on a swing

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Choose! Choose now!

Fractal tree

Fractal tree

Life throws many choices in our way. One view of the world is that it is like a many branched pathway, with our every day choices causing us to thread a particular path though this maze of branches, to reach the ever growing tip of the tree of events that is our past.

The future is yet to come into being but we can see dimly into it, and we use this limited view to inform our choices. The view into the future is like a mist. Things appear dimly for a while only to fade and be hidden from view. Sometime in the future is the instant of our demise. We know it’s coming but we do not usually know how and when.

Misty Morning

Misty Morning

We try to compensate for our inadequate view of the future by trying to cater for all possibilities, and one way we do this is by making a will, to prescribe how we would like our things, our assets, to be distributed when we are dead.

Some people try to predict the future. Some people gamble, on horses or whatever, trying to guess the winner of a race. There are two sorts of such people, those who estimate the odds and then build in as much of a safety margin as they can. These are usually the ones who run the books, while the other sort take a more optimistic view and gamble that the bookmakers are wrong. The first group is generally happy to make small profits while the second group want high returns. Generally the first group does a lot better than the second group over a reasonably long time frame.

Bookmakers at Higham

Bookmakers at Higham

The interesting thing about choice is that it is a discrete thing. We choose from one or more possibilities and the number of those possibilities is an integer. Often it is a choice between option one or option two. Pretty obviously it isn’t option one point five.

If we have two possibilities, call them A and B, then the probability of A occurring might be thirty percent. This means that the probability of B happening is seventy percent. The two must always add up to one hundred per cent.

Choice of paths

Choice of paths

So there is a mapping here between discrete events and continuous probabilities. Between integers and real numbers. One way of looking at this is that “event A” is a sort of label to the part of the probability curve that represents the event. Or it could be considered that the probability of the event is an attribute of the event.

It could be that when a choice is made and the probability of making that is more probably than making the other choice then that it is similar to making a choice of road. One road is wide and one is narrow. The width of the road could be related to the probability of making that choice.

Choice of routes to Pinnacle Hill

Choice of routes to Pinnacle Hill

The width of the road or the probability of the choice may well be subjective of course. I might choose to vote for one political party because I have always voted for that party. The probability of me voting for that party is high. The probability of my voting for another party would be quite low. However for someone who is the supporter of another party, the road widths are the other way around.

Is it true that when I vote for the party that I usually vote for that I exercise a choice? Only in a weak way. Merely doing things the way that one has always done is just taking the easy way and involve little choice. The reason for taking the easy choice may be because one has always done it that way and there is no reason to change. Habit, in other words.

A or B?

A or B?

Most choices we make are similar. We have a set of in-built innate or learned reactions to most situations, so that we don’t have to trouble to make a choice. If you make a choice, if you drill down far enough you will find that there are always reasons for a choice that you make. Your father always voted for the party, so you do out of loyalty and shared beliefs.

Every choice, when you examine it, seems to just melt away into a mass of knee jerk reactions and beliefs. When you examine choices you find that there was in fact no other way that we were likely to choose and free choice doesn’t really exist.

Spoilt for Choice

Spoilt for Choice

We have all been to a fast food restaurant only to find that the person before us is unable to make up their mind. This is probably because they do not have strong preferences so that they don’t have any reason to choose one dish over the other, or they dislike all the dishes equally.

If we put people in a situation where they have no reason to prefer one course of action over another and we force them to make a choice, they will often think up ludicrous reasons for making the choice that they finally make.

Reason Why lobby card

Reason Why lobby card

For instance on game shows where they have to make a selection from a multiple choice question in a limited amount of time, quite often they will say something like “I haven’t pressed B in a while”, or “I guessed A last time and it worked out for me so I did it again”, even something like “It’s my boyfriends favourite colour.” It’s hard to know if they really used that reasoning or whether they are justifying their choice after the event.

Another way to cause people to make a random choice is to try and remove all distractions. I can envisage an experiment where people are placed in a room with a screen and two buttons. They are then told by a message on the screen to press the correct button within ten seconds and a count down starts. Since they have no knowledge of which is the correct button they will be forced to choose any button to press or to let the timeout expire. Then they will asked why they chose that particular button. The results of such a test would be interesting.

Random Walk Trace

Random Walk Trace

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Celebration of Cavewoman

Woman grinding seeds between two stones

Woman grinding seeds between two stones

My daughter and I were discussing innovation and inventiveness. Well, actually we weren’t but the subject got mentioned in the context of “what if….”. What if our caveman ancestor had not banged together two rocks and invented fire starting? My opinion was that it was probably our cavewoman ancestor who did it. Our caveman ancestor would probably have banged his thumbs together between the two rocks.

This started me thinking. Inventors are usually man. Rarely, in recent times anyway, is a great inventor a woman. Why is this? Is there really a gender gap in inventiveness?

Fire making tools

Fire making tools

Thinking back to the caveman and cavewoman days, it is likely that the woman was responsible for the invention of clothing. The caveman was probably happy to chase pigs through the scrub with his dangly bits flopping in the wind, while the cavewoman would be inventing the loin cloth, which the caveman would likely adopt with glee, as it prevented his said dangly bits coming in contact with the gorse and other spiky plants. For the cavewoman there was an advantage that it hid the dangly bits from her view.

Then when the woman in the next cave over, the blonde one with the big … assets, starting wearing that fitting badger skin outfit, cavewomen had invented fashion. Hmm. The charcoal from the newly invented fire really enhanced the under eyes, and the lighter ash really made the cheekbones stand out. Your move, blondie!

Fur Coat

Fur coat

And cooking too. Caveman probably dropped his slice of bear loin in the fire and discovered that it tasted great, after you brushed the burnt bits and the ash off. Cavewoman then got a stone, put it on the fire and sizzled her steak on that. With a few grilled veges on the side, for the healthy touch.

Of course when caveman was unsuccessful in bringing home any meat, the family had to subsist on berries and seeds. Crushing the seeds between two rocks probably made them easier to eat and that a short step from grinding them up, which is a small step from mixing them with water and then dropping them on the hot stone. Somehow I don’t imagine the caveman doing that. He’d be too busy describing the ones that got away.

Tibetan flour mill

Tibetan flour mill

Then when the caveman invited next door over for tea, then something special was required. So wrap the grilled meat pieces in the flat bread, add a few herbs and spices, and hey presto! Instant cuisine. I bet blondie couldn’t even boil an egg. Oh, wait a minute, we haven’t invented boiling things yet.

What if we take that coconut shell and fill it with water and balance it on the fire? Add a few leaves from that bush over there, and we’ve invented tea. A few ground beans from that other bush and we have coffee. Hmm, let’s domesticate a goat, so that we have an assured source of meat, and hey, we can put some of the goat’s milk in the tea.

A cave

A cave

My semi-serious point is that all these things that were developed in the dim and distant past were likely invented by the women. While the men were out chasing pigs, goats, and badgers and developing weapons and warfare, and all those men things, women stayed in or around the cave inventing, well, home.

When the men came home with pig-on-a-stick, the woman would break down the animal, with a stone knife probably invented by a woman to make it easier, remove the tubes and other gruesome bits, and set it on the fire to cook. She probably accidentally domesticated the dog by feeding it the bits she didn’t want. The cat was always there.

Miling a goat

Milking a goat

Of course, when you spend your days, sitting on the ground, keeping the fire going, accidentally inventing smoking of meat by hanging it over the fire, the ground begins to get a bit, well, hard. Animals skins help somewhat, but animal skins with dried grass under them were even better! But to keep the grass from leaking out from under the skins, woman had to invent sewing.

Of course, sewing helped the skins look a lot better. Take that blonde girl. What? You bought yours! You invented shopping? Go, girl!!

I’d bet it was a woman who invented agriculture. While man was out chasing deer and tripping over rocks, while he was gathering a paleo diet on the side from bushes and shrubs, woman was at home noticing that some of the seeds gathered last year were sprouting. What if she were to scratch some shallow lines in the ground and plant those sprouting seeds? What is she were to water and weed them and, well, let’s invent a word, cultivate them? Then they wouldn’t have to go so far to find seeds when that idiot man couldn’t find any prey! And if they did grow, she’d save some seed for next year rather than just eat it all.

Wheat in field

Wheat in field

Then when the cave gets too small for a growing family, it’s the woman who looks around, finds a bigger, better cave, and pays the occupants half an antelope for it. It’s the woman who invents real estate.

It’s the woman who sticks a few palm fronds in cracks in the rock to give them shade from the sun in summer, and who piles up some rocks to block the wind in winter, it’s the woman who diverts the stream away from the living area. Yes, this cave has running water! No need to go down to the stream to drink! It’s the woman who invents home improvement.

Cave entrance

Cave entrance

Of course, my hypothesis above, that from fire to home improvement, these things were invented by women. The women were, in general, left behind while the men went hunting. The men didn’t have time to invent things, but the women were able to put their minds to work on improving things around the cave, but people give them little credit for it. But when push comes to shove it seems to me that civilisation is the greatest achievement of womankind.

Sappho

Sappho

 

 

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Spring is here!

Bursting buds

Bursting buds

It’s officially spring and things are starting to warm up. Funnily the temperatures have not changed much, but it feels a lot warmer. The chrome sharp acid edge of winter has gone leaving a more bearable softer edged coolness behind. Lyrical words for a lyrical season.

Spring in this part of the world means waves of damp weather coming from the west. A cyclone, a normal one, not one of the monsters that cause devastation, may throw off several fronts as it approaches or passes over us, and we receive several burst of rain.

Water on grass

Water pearls on grass

This year, we have had a wet winter and things are tending to be a bit boggy and muddy. It makes it much harder to keep things clean as the mud tracks indoors. This is particularly bad if you have a dog who think mud is for rolling in. Fortunately our pooch is not one of those.

The wet spring weather means spending time indoors, unless you are prepared to don wet weather gear and brave it. We look forward to the burst of spring sunshine between the bands of showers. Showery weather means clouds and while the sky may be grey, it is not the depressing slate grey sky dispensing drizzle that I remember from England.

Kereru

Kereru or New Zealand Pigeon

The intervals of blue sky should become longer as spring progresses but they are welcome however brief. The enable one to get out and about, to note all the buds bursting from the trees and birds, particularly Tuis, dashing about defending territories, chasing off other birds and generally singing their hearts out.

Some trees have already blossomed and are now presumably in the process of fruiting. I’ve watched fruit trees in the garden throw out blossoms only for the blossoms to fall almost before I can get into the house for my camera! Some flowering cherries have been masses of blossom and are now merely green.

White cherry blossom

White cherry blossom

The pale green of new shoots is a unique colour, contrasting strongly with last year’s foliage which is a much darker colour. This changes the character of the light for photography, but the effect doesn’t last long. The new shoots rapidly lose that unique tinge, even if they are not yet as dark as the last year leaves.

The grass also grows strongly at this time. Paths which were mere tracks are now corridors between rapidly growing walls of grass. Much of this new grass will shortly pause, flower, seed, then turn yellow brown and die back. Fortunately I don’t suffer from hay fever, but during the flowering phase suffers with curse the wind blown pollen.

Fir trees

Fir trees

It’s not just grass that lets loose a volley of pollen. There are no fir trees near where I live, but the wind screen of my car, the edge of the lingering puddles and other sheltered spots develop a yellow edging from the pollen of fir trees kilometres away.

There’s a surprisingly sizeable population of ducks in this suburban area. The reserve and parks all seem to host a few ducks, and they even visit gardens in the area. It’s breeding season for the ducks, with all the raucous clamour that that entails. It’s sometimes difficult to know whether they are courting or fighting.

No ducks!

No ducks!

Good spring weather brings out the lawnmowers. I’m not sure that the ground isn’t a bit too wet at the moment as things are still pretty boggy. In the reserve which I and the dog visit the mostly frequently, the grass cutting has resulted in a mess of tyre marks and some areas where the grass is damaged by the mowers. It looks pretty bad, but for experience I can say that marks will be undetectable in a week or two.

I’ve not seen many insects this year yet, but they must be around as I’ve seen the Welcome Swallows around twisting and turning and catching insects in the air. They are called “Welcome Swallows” because they appear at the beginning of spring, heralding the better weather to come.

Sacred Kingfisher

Sacred Kingfisher

I’ve not seen the kingfisher recently where I usually see him/her in our local reserve. He/she has been about in the last weeks though, so I shall probably see him/her soon. The full name for the Kingfisher is the Sacred Kingfisher. It’s called “sacred” because it is said to holy to the Polynesians.

I like the bird’s original binary classification name of “Halcyon sancta”. “Halcyon” can mean calm, peaceful, happy or golden. “Sancta” means sacred of course. “Sacred peace”. The drug halcion is used to induce sleep or relaxation and there is possibly a connection between the two words. Unfortunately the binary classification name of the bird has been changed and it is now the less appealing “Todiramphus sanctus”.

Winter clothing

Winter clothing

One advantage of spring is that we can start to discard the multiple layers of clothes that we are forced to don over winter. I hate piling on the sweaters and overcoats, changing shoes and so on that going out in the winter involves. Every layer that I can leave off is a cause for rejoicing. Unfortunately the fickle weather of spring with the occasional cold snap means that tomorrow I might have to layer up again.

Today the weather is a bit grey. It’s not too cold. Later on it is forecast to be showery again. That’s OK because I know that better weather is coming. The weather will be up and down for a while, it’s true but the ‘ups’ will get more up and the ‘downs’ will be less down, and before we know it, the t-shirts and shorts will be out, we’ll be looking forward to summer.

Grey weather

Grey weather

Spring is a turn around season, where we say goodbye to the fierceness of winter and look forward to the mellowness of spring. No more chopping of wood and lighting fires, cold draughts through small cracks and mounds of bedclothes to keep us warm. No more donning layer upon layer of clothes when leaving the house. It’ll be back to open windows, time in the garden and much lighter bedclothes, and just picking up the car keys when we leave the house.

Surrey woods near Walton on the Hill

Surrey woods near Walton on the Hill

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Mental Illness

Woman diagnosed with mania

Woman diagnosed with mania

More and more people are being diagnosed with mental illnesses these days. At least that’t the way it appears. Depression, which I suffer from a little, is rife and almost everyone knows someone who suffers from depression or suffers it themselves.

Schools now have special teachers or teachers’ aides to assist in the management of children with autism and other similar conditions. Sometimes these children cause significant disruption in classrooms and measures to handle this are almost always put into place.

It is unclear whether or not there is a real rise in these conditions. It may be that better diagnosis of these conditions is the cause of the upwards trend in the number of diagnoses of these conditions. Certainly I don’t recall there being a lot of mentally ill people when I was growing up. There were always people who were “different” in some ways, and as a result were often teased or tormented by others of the same age. Hopefully that at least we have left behind us.

Mental illness - blanket man

Mental illness – blanket man

It’s in the lesser mental ailments that I think that we have seen more diagnosis and consequent steep rise. For instance, one hears of the “autism spectrum”. I had erroneously assumed that everyone was on the autism spectrum somewhere with most being on the very low end and that those diagnosed with “autism” were located higher up the spectrum.  Reading a few items on the Internet seems to prove me wrong and that there are people on the spectrum and people who aren’t.

When I was young everyone knew of someone whose mother always smelled of alcohol and who had perhaps crashed a car while drunk. Alcoholism was not mentioned as such, so I’m unsure if such a thing was recognised in those days. Alcoholics Anonymous was started in 1935, and I certainly heard of them at some stage when growing up.

AA awareness

AA awareness

Also most families had a creepy uncle who was kept away from the young girls and boys of the family. These days we have “online grooming” and paedophile registers. When I was young scandals were usually dealt with in the family, and steps were taken to avoid situations occurring that led to the scandal. Unfortunately this meant that the scandal was hidden and the victims were often made to feel guilty, when it was not their fault in any way.

With online grooming, the guilty person can be a complete stranger to the child, and this opens a whole new can of worms. Do parents severely restrict a child’s online access and police them every minute that they are online, or do they educate the children about the dangers? Obviously they need to do both. The first strategy mitigates the danger and the second prepares the child for those occasions when the first strategy fails.

Danger

Danger

When I was young, there was an occasional person who we learnt to avoid. The man on the corner with the fierce dog. The crazy cat lady who constantly talked to herself. The compulsive hoarder who built up a pile of junk in their front yard. These people are still with us, but now they have their own television programmes! They’ve always been with us, and likely always will. They are much more noticeable these days because the television programmes, but I suspect that there aren’t any more of them than there used to be.

I recall one old lady who lived alone. I think that she would, these days, be diagnosed with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease or similar. She would wander the streets in her nightie and her robe and have to be taken back home by someone, usually a neighbour or the police. Now and then one of these confused older people would wander off and get lost sparking full scale searches. This still happens today and sadly, not all such cases are resolved happily.

Dementia Praecox

Dementia Praecox

In some ways the rise of the nuclear family and the relative decline of the extended family may have led to the higher visibility of mental illness in society. The nuclear family, mum, dad, and kids has no room for those who mentally don’t fit in. The extended family however can handle the less mentally stable family members to some extent. Adult children can take turns at looking after granny, or maybe pay for grannies care between them. The cousin who is socially inept or who is slightly autistic can find a niche in an extended family.

This can lead to less visibility of much mental illness as the family is unlikely to mention such problems outside of the family and the ill person may be helped by the familiar and nurturing environment.

Asylum

Asylum

Some mental illnesses, however, can’t be handled in this way. The mentally ill person may be violent towards other or to themselves. They may be dangerous to the public, as in the case of the drunk or drugged driver. They may be so out of tune with the world that they need professional help.

In today’s world professional help is often available. In some cases drugs can be effective, as in the case of depression and bipolar disorder. In others there is the possibility of committal to a psychiatric hospital. Such places are generally not nice. The patients are generally gravely ill, and nursers and carers in the hospitals have utmost respect. Often such hospitals are underfunded and can be over crowded. Efforts to make them look better often make then look sad.

Sadness

Sadness

In the past, even in some cases in the near past, mental hospitals or asylums were places of horror. The patients often lived in squalor, were strictly restrained and were subjected to horrific “treatments”. Fortunately treatment of mental illnesses has improved significantly over the last hundred years or so. Let’s hope it continues to get better.

Of the two hypotheses as to why the rate of mental illness has increased, I definitely think that the better reporting has been the main cause. That is exacerbated by the reduction in the level at which such problems are reported. Depression would not have considered an illness at one time, for example, and autism is reported more frequently because people are aware of it. I certainly don’t believe that there is more mental illness that when we were young. It’s certainly a lot more visible.

Sadness or depression?

Sadness or depression?

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