blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit

blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit
By Alison Hobbs, blending a mixture of thoughts and experiences for friends, relations and kindred spirits.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Magician with a message

I went to hear James Randi speak at the National Library. The event was hosted by CFI Ottawa: the Centre For Inquiry, whose mandate is to promote scepticism and critical thinking in the local populace. These are the people who promoted the Atheist bus ads in Ottawa a couple of years ago, allied to the British Humanist Association mentioned in my blog in October '08.

Randi is a retired professional magician, world famous for having offered:
a one-million-dollar prize to anyone who can show, under proper observing conditions, evidence of any paranormal, supernatural, or occult power or event.
To date, this prize has not been won. No one has even passed the preliminary tests to claim the prize although there are an awful lot of people claiming to have supernatural powers (and making money out of it).  Mr. Randi doesn't mince his words about such people. Inventing a name for them, "woo-woos," he calls them blatant liars and cheats, especially the ones (like the multimillionaire Peter Popoff) who call themselves Reverend. They "don't give a damn if they hurt you," and the authorities that fail to control them are "so chicken ... it's disgusting."

Bona fide magicians, on the other hand, are the most honest people in the world. They are not like those tricksters on the make who try to sell you MagnaForce Shoes or Laundry Balls (containing tap water dyed blue). He thinks chiropractors are utter quacks, and as for homeopathic medicine––it's a farce and a fraud. Homeopathic doctors deal in delusion and dilution; making that neat pun as an aside, he told us how he'd once swallowed some homeopathic sleeping pills and phoned the Poison Control Centre to ask for their advice.

"I've taken an overdose of 30 pills. Do you think I'm in danger?"

"Oh yes, sir! Could you just tell us the name of the pills."

He did and said there was a long pause. He said he could hear the person trying not to giggle at the other end of the line. "Not to worry, sir. You'll be fine."

Mr. Randi is 83 years old, a little man (shorter than I am) with a long and bushy white beard and a bald head. He has recently recovered from heart bypass surgery and chemotherapy after bowel cancer. He did not look so small on stage where he spoke fluently, without notes, on his feet, for nearly three hours. For the first fifteen minutes or so of his talk he fooled us into thinking that the object he held in his hand was a microphone. Then he put it down, confessing that it was not a microphone but a beard trimmer (the like of which he rarely uses for its intended purpose, although he did tell a story about having his beard vacuumed when he visited NASA at Houston to perform a remote card trick with the astronauts on the space station). All the way through he regaled us with jokes and stories like that, all with the message: don't believe everything you see or hear. He said that some people are born sceptics ... and some are born-again sceptics. Friends of his included the illustrious Arthur C. Clark and Martin Gardner.

According to Randi, the Bush administration in the USA who recommended "faith-based thinking" was guilty of "science bashing at its absolute worst." Americans still refuse to adopt the metric units, because that system was designed by atheists, people say, and what is worse, by French atheists (laughter). He was "pretty damn' proud" that America had more recently elected a more thoughtful President ("...and I still am, so there!") but was critical of Obama too, for the way he feels he always has to bring a prayer to God into his speeches. Mr. Randi claims there are two kinds of atheist: the ones who say "There is no God!" and the ones who say "There is not enough evidence to convince me that there is a God." He (Randi) belongs to the second camp, not wishing to offend intelligent people who, if it weren't for their religious beliefs, would make good sceptics. Randi's Educational Foundation (the JREF) is therefore not atheist per se.

He was very entertaining when telling his anecdote about the levitating matchbox, an old trick that fooled a team of established scientists at the Lawrence Livermore Labs into thinking that the man levitating the matchbox might really have "psycho-kinetic powers." His account of the fake, expensive mine detector dowsing rods used by the military in Iraq and Afghanistan was not so funny. Apparently these deadly things are still on the market, still being deployed. He took one apart on stage in order to show its workings to a volunteer electrician from the audience. It had the same circuitry that you'd find in T.V. remote controllers made in Taiwan.

Mr. Randi followed this bit of seriousness with an impassioned plea to teach our children and the students in our schools to think critically, and never to accept what we hear without questioning it.

The talk ended with a standing ovation, the 7th out of 9 such presentations given across Canada to packed, enthusiastic audiences. As I walked out of the auditorium past the old gentleman who was continuing to hold people enthralled as they clustered around him, I suddenly realised whom he reminded me of: George Bernard Shaw.

James Randi

Saturday, September 24, 2011

From wax to sugar to New York

Over my breakfast I was reading a leaflet from Eastern Approaches, a British travel group that offers guided tours to the Middle East and beyond. Its originator is the archeologist, Warwick Ball; this gentleman leads some of the tours and writes an editorial column for the company's newsletter. We'd love to meet him.

For its latest edition his subject is Delectable Comestibles and he describes how, through our appreciation of food, we can detect the spread of different cultures from the ancient to the modern world ...
Can we perhaps trace the impact of the Mongol invasions by the spread of stuffed dumplings out of China to [their] distant cousins, the pirogi of Russia, the manti of Turkey and the khinqali of Georgia and Armenia? 
That's an interesting enough chain of thought, but what really caught my attention was this one:
Where would New York be without the importance of honey? The Reformation in Europe led to the collapse of bee-keeping, hitherto the preserve of monasteries because of their demand for wax; the resulting loss of honey led to a huge demand for sugar from the New World, which is why the Dutch gave their loss-making colony of New Amsterdam to the British in exchange for the cane producing colony of Surinam in 1667.
Why wasn't history this intriguing when I went to school?

Friday, September 23, 2011

Reclaiming our cities for people

On Market Hill, in Cambridge
Since I visited Cambridge, England, and Cardiff, Wales, earlier this summer, I have been thinking how pleasant it would be if Ottawa and other North American cities followed the example of the British ones and eliminated more motor vehicles from the places where people congregate. As you walk towards and through Cambridge's central Market Square or along St. Mary Street in Cardiff, where cars once used to wage a continuous battle with pedestrians for priority of access, what you now hear is the sound of human voices and footsteps. What an improvement! Those are acceptable, tolerable, natural sounds; they do not raise your blood pressure. The air is easier on the lungs as well.

Four happy people walk down St. Mary Street, in Cardiff
In Cambridge we sat on a bench by the Guildhall and watched the people go by, very conscious of this quietness. In Cardiff I sat at an outdoor streetside coffee table noticing the same thing.

The only time when Ottawa's city core is reclaimed by the people is on Canada Day when the approaches to the War Memorial and the streets from Parliament Hill to the Byward Market are so thronged with partying crowds that it would be impossible for a vehicle to get through in any case. The only street that's permanently closed to traffic in downtown Ottawa is Sparks Street: "Canada's Most Unique Street" as it claimed to be (to our amusement as we discovered that there are degrees of uniqueness), when we first arrived here.

Where have the vehicles gone since they were forbidden access to the heart of the city in Cardiff and Cambridge? They have been diverted, of course. Driving into town now demands a bit of thought and planning, because you have to park around the edges and walk. Is that such a bad thing? People do get used to the idea when they discover how much more attractive their city has become since the ban on cars, and tend to stop complaining. My elderly mother told me yesterday that small vehicles––"shop mobility scooters"––have been laid on free of charge for the people who don't find walking so easy (although you have to know where to locate them). The city has obviously given this a good deal of thought, as can be seen from this leaflet. Of course it helps that the bus and rail network in and around Cardiff is very good, too.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011


Hourly wages for Personal Support Workers (PSWs) in Canada:

Private NFP
Private FP

We tuned into the talk channel while driving up the road the other day and happened upon a CBC programme that shocked us. They were interviewing women who worked as care-givers in Ontario's residences for the elderly. Untrained as nurses, these PSWs are being expected / required to do nursing jobs: give insulin injections, monitor blood-sugar levels and degrees of dementia, administer narcotics and so on. This is all against the rules, but it sounds as though the real nurses are too overstretched to find time to do these tasks themselves or even––and here's the disturbing part––to train the PSWs to do these things properly. Accordingly, these untrained orderlies* are terrified by the amount of responsibility thrust upon them, are making drastic mistakes, cannot sleep at night, and are desperate to drop out, if only they could find a better job.

Meanwhile the elderly are helplessly vulnerable in the unmonitored system. Obviously proper standards of care ought to be enforced. Why not? Because if health and safety inspection officers were to have private residences closed, it would put so much more of a burden onto the public health care system which Health Canada (and, indirectly of course, taxpayers) can ill afford to pay for. So nothing much is done about it.

I'm sure Canada is not the only country that has this problem.

Should we be saving up like crazy to afford the best quality of residential life that money can buy, or trying to lobby the politicians before it's too late, or just accepting whatever fate is in store for us and our friends and relations, in the hope that our old age won't turn out to be as dire as we fear?

* I used the word "orderlies" because my dad was one of those once, a nursing orderly in the Royal Army Medical Corps. He too had to do some shocking work to help out the higher ranks when situations became critical, for very little pay, under minimal supervision (although he did get fairly thorough training). That was in wartime. The rank and file tended not to question the way things were, in those days. The RAMC motto is In Arduis Fidelis, Faithful In Adversity. They knew where they stood.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Mr. Alder's museum

A model guard (with bike) at the entrance
A week last Sunday we flew with some friends from the Rockcliffe Flying Club to the old airport at Picton (a former RAF Bombing and Gunnery School) where we got talking to an extraordinary gentleman called Keith Alder. He had spent 25 years putting an aviation museum together, in his own home, and he was keen to show it to us. A friend of his lent us her car; five of us piled in with Chris driving, while John had a ride down the hill into town in the sidecar attached to Mr. Alder's bike. We drove along in formation, rolling up at the guardhouse that marks the entrance to his property, complete with a uniformed mannequin as guardsman.

Mr. Alder led us into the house, where his wife didn't seem in the least surprised to have visitors. "He brings people round all the time," she said. "We've had at least 300 this year."

Model aircraft of all shapes, sizes and origins were suspended from the ceiling, pictures and posters covered the walls, and on every surface was a variety of artifacts and momentos from the war years. Over the years, the collection––quite as inclusive as the exhibitions at Duxford's Imperial War Museum in the UK––has expanded until it became too extensive for his living room, and has spilled over into his garage, his barn, and onto his lawn. There are two large aircraft on the lawn! The fighter jet arrived in three pieces which he reassembled with loving care. The other one is a Beechcraft Musketeer from the RCAF base at Portage la Prairie.

In the barn, to John's absolute delight, because he learned his IFR skills in one at the start of his career as a pilot, we found a Link Trainer; these were first used in the 1930s.

Jill admires a corner of the permanent exhibition
in Keith's living room
The guardhouse was Mr. Alder's most recent project. Now that he has finished putting it together I asked him whether he had plans to create anything else. He said, "I'll think of something."

John talks to Keith about the Link Trainer
We could have stayed there for hours, and I'm sure he wouldn't have minded, but the lady at the airport had to have her car back, and we had to find some lunch before the restaurants closed, so we began to make a move to leave. And it was then that I had my chance to sit in the sidecar ("who'd like a ride this time?"-- I was quicker off the mark than Jill!) not going straight up the hill like the others in the car, but by a roundabout route via Picton's High Street, thronging with tourists. The road surface blurred past a few centimetres away as we thrummed along.

Going for my side-car ride ...
Mr Alder's business card is as idiosyncratic as his home. "Organizer - Promoter," it declares. "Used Land - Termites - Pet Fleas - Nails - Fly Swatters - Sailboat Fuel - Sky Hooks - Junk. Wars Fought -Revolutions Started - Governments Run - Aircraft -Lies Told - Bars Emptied - Round Squares - Antique Machinery - Also Miniskirts Shortened -  Musketeer."

... which I quite enjoyed!

Lying around on my desk

Bemused at the juxtaposition of words and phrases on the bits of paper lying before me, I think it's time I tidied my surfaces again.
sicherheitskritisch ... Betriebssystem ... Wahrscheinlichkeit des Versagens pro Stunde
George 12th-16th Brazil
Barbarian Migrations 375-568
courses of bricks to be removed to install through-wall flashing
Voices from Afghanistan
OFCP Household Collection Service Free Pick-up 613 569 6948
Caravaggio's Impact
outbound track in hold
Thurs Oct. 6 boat trip
And three lists of people's names.

Is your clutter like that, too?

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Taking risks

Risk management (Risikomanagement, auf Deutsch), is an often heard combination of words these days, and a friend of ours has pointed out that my husband's job, advising people in the use of safety-critical software, is trendy work to be doing.

I used to get teased for telling my children to "take care" all the time, but nowadays the whole of the western world seems obsessed with caution, security procedures, safety issues, how to mitigate the evils that might fall on us at any moment like the twin towers of New York City. Hours and hours are spent analysing the financial risks we take. Chris wrote a program to generate 1,000,000 possible futures for him and me the other day. Well, he likes playing with numbers (whereas I'm more of of a reactive than proactive sort). Not to worry, if the computer got it right, in 85% of our possible lives to come we won't end up completely destitute. That's reassuring!

We seem to have lost confidence in ourselves. Either that or we can no longer bear the thought, in this modern world, of the inevitability of death and destruction.

At the same time, the risks some people are willing to take seem to increase dramatically. A Spiderman scales skyscrapers without a safety harness, a parachutist leaps into free-fall hundreds of metres into the deepest of caves and divers throw themselves off ever higher waterfalls (see the last two minutes of this video clip). The stricter the norms, the greater our defiance of them, no doubt.

There's a sports clothing shop in town with a quotation displayed on its window: Do something that scares you every day! That's not bad advice, a bit like the Quaker slogan: Live adventurously.

Anyway I did something unusual though not exactly scary a week ago, went for a ride in a motorbike (Yamaha) sidecar without wearing a seatbelt. There I am in the picture, ready to set off. More about this in another post.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Back to work

Andy making (green) tea for us in the kitchen.
He had just bought the Canadian trousers.
After a break from the blogging, I can't say I have stopped thinking about China yet. I gave a talk about it in French the other day, and friends are still coming up to ask how we fared on our long trip. Andy from Shanghai is in town this week, visiting the company headquarters; we had him round for supper and joined him for brunch today. Andy's flight over the Gatineau Hills with Chris in the Cessna this morning was an exciting experience for him (there's next to no chance to do such a thing in China)––on his first trip beyond Asia.

There is talk of our being dispatched to China again, for Chris to work there for another month or two, maybe in the new year; the fact that neither of is daunted by the prospect is proof that we must have enjoyed ourselves there. Before Christmas it looks as though we shall also be off to Germany for a week or two, so we're revising the language, especially the technical jargon. I'm working my way through a paper written by Chris that's been translated by a colleague, extracting the vocabulary he'll need for explaining things, Deutsch als primäre Konferenzsprache being spoken in Sindelfingen at the Embedded Software Engineering Kongress at which Chris must share his knowledge of Functional Safety in Complex Software Systems after the Kaffeepause on the Thursday.

Chris has just got back from Nevada where he'd been giving the engineers at Bently (GE) a three day training course in the use of safety critical software. Their workplace is located on the flat plain between high ranges of the Sierra Nevada south of Reno and Carson City, in Minden, from where it's a short but steep, winding drive over the 7000 ft high pass to Lake Tahoe on the Californian border. The sky over Minden is famous for its gliding opportunities, but he didn't have time to give it a try.

Ladies at the Diplomatic Hospitality welcome party
I have been busy getting the summer edition of Crosswinds published for the Flying Club and working as membership liaison officer for Ottawa CFUW's Diplomatic Hospitality group. 95 Canadians have enrolled so far, and more to come. We hosted a big welcome-back coffee party for the ladies of the diplomatic corps yesterday, hiring a hall at the university, laid on some entertainment for them too: a fantastic performance by the international award-winning, barefoot jazz singer, Kellylee Evans. One of the numbers she sang was Don't let me be misunderstood accompanied by the guitarist Wayne Eagles, as we snapped our fingers to keep the rhythm going. At the end of the party I told her I'd liked it, and she gave me a kiss!

Kellylee Evans on stage

This photo taken by Carol