19 September, 2014

humour in religion

One characteristic that I don’t associate with religious fervour is a sense of humour. You only have to recall the fury generated in the Muslim world by cartoons allegedly poking fun at the prophet Muhammad that were produced by a Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, in 2005 to realize that for Muslims, depicting their prophet in any way other than complete reverence is blasphemous, although I would concede that the cartoons in question were not particularly funny.

However, you would have to search long and hard to find anything funny in the Bible, so I conclude that Christians share with Muslims a revulsion at the very idea of not taking their respective religions seriously. Nevertheless, I know of one passage in the Bible that had my son Siegfried in hysterics when I read it aloud to him many years ago (he was 12 or 13 years old at the time).

Chapter 19 of the book of Genesis relates how God conveys to Abraham his intention to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah because of the licentious lifestyles of their inhabitants. Abraham queries whether this is such a good idea. The conversation that results may not match the incisive wordplay of Abbott and Costello’s ‘who’s on first’ routine or the Two Ronnies’ ‘fork handles’ sketch, but it does feature the same kind of incongruity that characterizes Monty Python’s ‘dead parrot’ sketch, in this case the very idea of a puny, insignificant human who has the temerity to tell God that he’s wrong.

The passage below is based on the Authorized Version of the Bible, but when listening to someone reading it aloud, it is impossible to tell the difference between ‘He’ and ‘he’, so I’ve replaced these pronouns by ‘God’ or ‘the Lord’ in the former case and by ‘Abraham’ in the latter. Do bear in mind that if you plan to read it to someone, any comedic effect will be lost if you stick with the usual po-faced solemnity with which any reading from the Bible is usually treated. Comic timing is essential.

23 And Abraham drew near and said, “Wilt thou also destroy the righteous with the wicked?
24 “Peradventure there be fifty righteous within the city; wilt thou also destroy the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous that are therein? 
25 “That be far from thee to do after this manner, to slay the righteous with the wicked; and that the righteous should be as the wicked; that be far from thee! Shall not the judge of all the Earth do right?” 
26 And the Lord said, “If I find in Sodom fifty righteous within the city, then I will spare all the place for their sakes.” 
27 Then Abraham answered and said, “Behold now, I have taken upon myself, which am but dust and ashes, to speak unto the Lord: 
28 “Peradventure there shall lack five of the fifty righteous; wilt thou destroy all the city for the lack of five?”And the Lord said, “If I find there forty and five, I will not destroy it.” 
29 And Abraham spake unto God yet again and said, “Peradventure there shall be only forty found there?” And God said, “I will not do it for forty’s sake.” 
30 And Abraham said unto God, “Let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak: peradventure there shall be thirty found there?” And the Lord said, “I will not do it if I find thirty there.” 
31 And Abraham said, “Behold now, I have taken it upon myself to speak to the Lord: peradventure there shall only twenty be found there?” And the Lord said, “I will not destroy it for twenty’s sake.” 
32 Then Abraham said, “Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak but this once more: peradventure a mere ten should be found there?” And God said, “I will not destroy it for ten’s sake.” 
33 And the Lord went his way, as soon as he had finished communing with Abraham; and Abraham returned to his place.
Incidentally, there is no indisputable archaeological evidence for the existence of the two cities, let alone for the ‘fire and brimstone’ that God allegedly used to destroy them.

06 September, 2014

the democratization of knowledge

If you want to find out about something, the internet is a good place to start. And if you are a regular user of search engines, you will probably have noticed that any relevant Wikipedia articles will appear at or near the top of your search results. This observation automatically leads me to question the accuracy of this ubiquitous online encyclopaedia, because I’m not convinced that its operating principles are sound.

A few days ago, Paula and I were walking across fields on the outskirts of town when we saw a massive halo around the sun. I’ve always known this relatively rare atmospheric phenomenon as a ‘sunbow’, but because I thought I might want to post photos, I decided to verify that this was the correct terminology to use. The Wikipedia article was highly dubious on the subject:

It forms no more than one-quarter of a circle….

Wikipedia, 28th August 2014.
The following photo, taken by Paula, shows an almost complete circle (the contrast has been boosted to highlight the halo), while on the next photo I used the chimneys of the house opposite ours to block out the sun. Part of the sunbow is thus obscured, but the photo nevertheless shows more than a quarter of a circle.

In addition to this demonstrably false assertion, the article also contains this statement:
…it arises from refraction of sunlight through horizontally-oriented ice crystals….
ibidem, 28th August 2014.
Other online dictionaries also refer to ‘refraction’, but I’ve always understood this phenomenon to be the result of diffraction, or scattering of light by ice crystals, rather than the bending that results when light passes from one medium into another (from air to a raindrop in the case of a rainbow). I could be wrong, of course, but here are three other examples of what I believe are false statements in Wikipedia articles.

When I wrote A Wet Day in Buttermere three years ago, I looked at the Wikipedia entry on the subject, which stated that the name ‘Buttermere’ derives from the Old English for ‘lake by a dairy pasture’. Now, however, two origins of the name are given. The second of these explanations is that the lake (and adjoining village) is named after Jarl Boethar, a quasi-mythical Norse chieftain whose chief claim to fame is that he engineered the most comprehensive military defeat suffered by the Normans on English soil.

However, Wikipedia cites an ‘expert on the subject, who ‘suggests that the personal name interpretation is incorrect’ without explaining why. On the other hand, there are many other sources that support this second interpretation, so I consider the Wikipedia article to be subjective, which is not what one wants to read in an encyclopaedia.

Dr Crippen
Dr Hawley Harvey Crippen was hanged in 1910 for the murder of his wife; his name was a byword for horror when I was growing up in the 1950s, when his wax effigy was one of the main attractions in Madame Tussaud’s Chamber of Horrors. Most of the Wikipedia article seems to me to be authentic, but the following paragraph is not:
A theory which was first propounded by Edward Marshall Hall was that Crippen was using hyoscine on his wife as a depressant or anaphrodisiac, but accidentally gave her an overdose and then panicked when she died. It is said that Hall declined to lead Crippen's defence because another theory was to be propounded.
ibidem, 28th August 2014.
According to Marshall Hall, a biography by Nina Warner Hooke and Gil Thomas and published by Arthur Barker Ltd in 1966, the theory suggested by Wikipedia was indeed first propounded by Sir Edward Marshall Hall, coming originally from the biography of Hall written by Edward Majoribanks, a barrister friend, shortly after Hall’s death in 1927.

However, the Hooke/Thomas biography cites the testimony of Edgar Bowker, who was Hall’s senior clerk at the time of the Crippen case. What happened was this: Arthur Newton, Crippen’s solicitor, brought the brief to Hall’s chambers while Hall was on vacation; Bowker’s first duty was to discuss the fee; Newton was engaged in negotiations with a national newspaper, which would provide the money needed for Crippen’s defence, but that money was not yet available; Bowker refused the brief on behalf of his employer because taking on such a high-profile case without the certainty of payment would not have been of benefit to a barrister who was already at the peak of his profession (see Murder Most Foul).

I first read about the archaeological site at Glozel, near Vichy in central France, soon after ceramic artefacts from the site had been subjected to testing by a newly invented method for dating ancient pottery—thermoluminescence (TL)—in the mid-1970s. The site had been discovered in the 1920s, but half a century later it is widely regarded by archaeologists as fraudulent, like Piltdown Man. Wikipedia’s introduction to the subject includes the following sentence:
Initially, many experts argued in favor of a hoax, but advanced testing from later decades confirmed that many of the Glozel artifacts were most likely of genuine antiquity.
ibidem, 28th August 2014.
Note the use of the word ‘confirmed’, which implies certainty, yet you would be hard-pressed to find a reputable archaeologist who thought that the Glozel artefacts were genuine. So what is happening here?

This site, with its huge quantities of pots, inscribed clay tablets and bone carvings, was discovered by an uneducated farming family on whose land it was located. However, it soon came to the attention of a local doctor and amateur archaeologist, Antonin Morlet, who told the family that they stood to make a lot of money. Morlet confidently identified many of the artefacts as palaeolithic or neolithic, but if this interpretation is correct, then the ‘writing’ on the clay tablets, which remains undeciphered to this day, would be the oldest writing in the world. This, of course, chimes perfectly with notions of French nationalism.

After several years of controversy and legal wrangling, the saga disappeared below the horizon until 1974, when a group of Danish physicists decided to use a newly invented technique to date some of the pots from Glozel. The clay minerals (kaolinite, gibbsite, etc.) used to make pottery contain minute quantities of uranium, which emits beta particles (electrons) as it decays. These electrons become trapped in the crystal lattice, but when a pot is fired, the extreme heat drives off these electrons, thus resetting the pot’s internal clock to zero. However, the radioactive decay continues, and TL works by counting the number of electrons in a pottery sample, which is in effect a proxy for the amount of time that has elapsed since the pot was fired.

Wikipedia clearly has no doubts about the efficacy of the technique:
Thermoluminescence dating of Glozel pottery in 1974 confirmed that the pottery was not produced recently.
ibidem, 28th August 2014.
I would be the first to state that archaeology is not a science, but it is not crackpottery. It is a rigorous academic discipline, and the consensus among its practitioners is that the Glozel site is not merely implausible; it is impossible. The soil at the site is thin, and it is on quite a steep slope, so there would have been a considerable throughflow of water during the centuries when the artefacts were alleged to have lain undiscovered in that soil, which militates against the surprising fact that most of the many pots found on the site were intact.

It is evident that Wikipedia’s editors have shown blind faith in science, but if the TL dates (600 BC to AD 100) are accurate, whole areas of theoretical archaeology would need to be thrown out. Yet none of the pottery matches anything from the Celtic and Gallo-Roman periods in France found at other sites (these are the periods covered by the TL dates). However, the following comment from the inventor of TL, written in 1975, is relevant here:
The Glozel tablets must have a message either for the archaeologists or for the TL-dating specialists, and, having been in business for only seven years, it behoves the latter to peer anxiously, in case the message is for them.
*  *  *
I believe that the fundamental concept behind Wikipedia is flawed. Allowing anyone to edit an article on the site might seem democratic, and there are ‘editors’ who check all changes, but the problem is that just because 99 percent of people believe something to be true doesn’t make it so. After all, large numbers of people believe that the Japanese have a form of ritual suicide that they call hari kari. They don’t.

30 August, 2014

twenty miles of bad road

Whenever I’m in my home town in the UK, I have a choice of three cycling routes that I follow regularly, ranging in distance from 9.6 to 27.3 miles. Unfortunately, this summer a crucial section of road that is shared by all three routes has been closed to allow a new sewerage system to be installed, so I’ve had to find an alternative. This is the story of that new route, which at 20 miles is short enough that it can be repeated daily, weather permitting, without the need for intervening rest days.

The new route is shown on the map below as a series of red dots, which are followed in a clockwise direction. The last four miles are the same as the first four miles, except that they are ridden in the opposite direction.

Paula has been over in the UK for the last couple of weeks, and we did the route on each of the first three days, but then we had to find an alternative because the road between Skelton and Blencow was closed for repairs—the road surface on this section was so bad that it was often necessary to ride down the middle of the road to avoid the worst of the potholes.

Instead of turning right at Ellonby (the small hamlet between Lamonby and Skelton, which is not named on the map), we turned left, up yet another hill, through Lamonby, over another hill (see photo below), followed by a final climb through Greystoke Forest and a long, fast section to Johnby and Greystoke. We finally rejoined the original route at Blencow, having added 3.2 miles to the overall distance.

The first point of interest on the original route comes at the point marked X on the map: I feel as if I’m riding downhill in both directions (the first photo below was taken on the outward journey, while the second photo was taken on the return). Note that this road, like many other sections of the route, is just wide enough for a bike and an oncoming car to pass each other.

The first major hill starts immediately that the route turns right just before the village of Newbiggin, and the next photo was taken at the top. A deer crossed the road in front of me here earlier in the summer, but I’ve seen no further signs of cervine activity either here or elsewhere on the route.

The road then plunges down a steep hill, at the bottom of which a right turn leads onto another narrow road. The purplish mass on the right-hand side of this road (see photo) is a huge stand of rosebay willow herb. Stands of this opportunist weed are common on the sides of roads around here and are a spectacular sight in early summer.

The next uphill section begins in the picturesque village of Greystoke. The gradients are easy at first, but the last section to Johnby is quite arduous. The next photo shows Paula posing at the top of this final hill, which starts well before what appears to be the bottom in the picture. I should probably confess that we headed down the hill after I’d taken this photo, although we had passed this way in the uphill direction 30 minutes earlier.

The section from Johnby to Ellonby is relatively straightforward, except for the last half-mile, which provides a winding stretch of continuous but not unduly taxing uphill work. The shortest way back to Penrith from Ellonby is almost entirely downhill, but as noted above, a detour through Lamonby and Johnby adds a few more hills to the excursion. The next photo shows Paula approaching the first hill southwest of Lamonby.

We did the 20-mile circuit and the augmented version three times each in the first week, but then I thought that Paula needed a tougher challenge, so we followed the 23.2-mile circuit as far as the left turn towards Johnby, which we ignored. Instead, we continued towards Hutton Roof, turning left before we reached that village and heading towards Berrier.

However, this detour is not about adding extra distance, as the next photo illustrates. I’d stopped to take some photos of the fells to our right, meanwhile urging Paula to keep going (I would catch her up). Having taken the photos I wanted, I continued on my way but stopped again when I saw a splendid opportunity to capture the obstacle that lay in our path. This hill is by far the toughest on any of my regular routes (Paula can be seen as a tiny speck just starting the hill).

The second time we did this route, I decided that I wanted some photos of Paula tackling this hill, which is steepest near the top. Despite facing a 15–20mph headwind, she does look comfortable. The mountain behind is Carrock Fell, which is the only example of a gabbro intrusion in England (gabbro is chemically identical to basalt, but it cools deep below the surface rather than being extruded from a volcano).

Finally, I couldn’t resist including the following picture, taken at the top of a second hill, which follows the one I’ve just described but is much easier.

“Can’t we do something harder?” Paula seems to be saying.

20 August, 2014

competitive edge

I’m not by nature a competitive person, unlike my wife. In the 1980s, Paula fenced in the men’s competitions because there wasn’t enough challenge in the ladies’. And I can still remember being whacked by her several times when I inadvertently got in her way during a game of squash. For readers who’ve never played this game, the usual practice is to call a ‘let’ and replay the point.

And then there was the first time I took her rock climbing, when she complained that the climbs I was taking her on weren’t hard enough. As I quickly found out, she likes to push herself physically; she welcomes a challenge. And I’ve been doing my utmost to provide that challenge ever since.

About six years ago, Paula decided to change the gears on her bike while I was in the UK, and she kept trying to persuade me to do the same, but I resisted on the grounds that my existing gears were adequate for my purpose. I remember warning her that if I were to change, she would regret it. And that is how things worked out. My existing six-gear system started to malfunction, and I replaced it with a nine-gear system. But the three extra gears were all higher than top gear on my old system, and as a result I was able to go much faster on flat, open sections of road. Paula struggled to keep up.

However, she finally had an opportunity to retaliate earlier this year. Riding an ordinary bike over extremely rough ground has resulted in soreness around my elbows, so Paula offered to buy me a mountain bike. She’d seen one in a bike shop in Sheung Shui, so off we went to check it out.

It isn’t obvious in the photo below, but the tyres are about 5cm wide, even though Paula claims that because the surface that contacts the ground is slightly convex, the nominal width is a mere 2.2cm. However, I don’t buy this deception, which I regard as a blatant attempt to slow me down!

My new mountain bike. I’ve since changed to a more comfortable saddle.

Nevertheless, I’ve been able to do the journey to the west a couple of times with the new bike, although I didn’t get the gear sequence right on the climb over Saddle Pass the first time, which made it harder than it needed to be. We’ve even done the ‘grand tour’ once, which adds the long and winding road and the frontier road to the journey to the west, while I’ve been on the new bike. I’ve  succeeded on the hill a couple of times too! On the other hand, I’ve yet to do Liu Pok Hill, which is an optional add-on to the frontier road, on the new bike.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be making this admission publicly, but as we approached the top of the climb away from the frontier area, I let Paula choose whether to take the easy way or to turn right to the village of Liu Pok and the gruelling category 1 hill beyond, confident that she would be too tired to take the harder option. The fact that I would be too tired too isn’t relevant, apart from being able to shirk responsibility for the decision.

Anyway, Paula is in the UK for a couple of weeks, and we’ve been doing a 32km route through the countryside almost every day. This may seem rather a short distance, but being on the eastern fringe of the Lake District, the route does include several long hills. And it is short enough that it can be repeated day after day without any intervening rest days.

I’ll conclude this account with a photo of Paula that I took a few hours ago. It was taken on a fast (i.e., slightly downhill) section through Greystoke Forest. After cresting a short rise, a panorama of the northern Pennines opens up to the east of the road. Meanwhile, I’m saying nothing about what I have in mind for the coming winter in Hong Kong, but it will involve extending the grand tour to 120km, and I will get around to doing Liu Pok Hill, despite those 5cm tyres.

Paula: “The most scenic part of the route.”