Saturday, 14 May 2016

Friedrich Nietzsche and the Large Hadron Collider

The world's biggest machine

There is, apparently, a large circular tube underneath the edges of Switzerland and France. This houses the Large Hadron Collider. It cost about three thousand million Euros and is the world's biggest machine, by far. This is astonishing. How it came to be built should not be allowed to pass without comment. So, what is it, and how did it get there?

The LHC does science. But behind science is scientists, and just as there is a Realpolitik of personal and practical hopes and needs behind the Politics shown to the people, so there is a Real Science behind the outward show of papers and experiments.

Enter Friedrich Nietzsche, the odd-ball German Philosopher of the 1880s, who reminded us, in the endlessly entertaining Beyond Good and Evil;
"To be sure, among scientific men, you may find something like a drive for knowledge, a clockwork that, once wound, works without any participation from the other drives of the scholar. But the real "interests" of the scholar lie usually somewhere else, say, in his family, in making money, or in politics. 
There is a point in every philosophy when the philosopher's "conviction" appears on the stage."
So what's the Real "interests" behind the Hadron Collider? Seems to me it came about for three main reasons, in descending order of importance ...

1. It proves Europeans are Best....
...especially, that they're better than Americans. The USA was very busy building the Texas high-energy accelerator, but Europe got there first, and the Texas one lies in ruins. So hurrah for the Old Countries and Yah! Boo! to the uppity colonials. You don't get politicians organizing payments for stuff unless it's going to make them look good. And the LHC provides physical proof positive of European superiority, and a clear demonstration that European politicians are very clever and know about complicated physics and stuff.

2. It makes money. Lots of Money!
Surely you don't make money out of pure research? Oh yes you do. The LHC cost zillions, which goes into the pockets of building contractors, and surveyors and, of course, a certain amount drips off to politicians and civil servants. Without pressure from moneyed would-be builders, stuff like this doesn't get started.
If anyone had really wanted to just do science, it would have been drastically cheaper to simply finish off the Soviet accelerator near Moscow. It was headed to be a tad more capable than the Euro one, and would have come with ready-trained technicians. But the fall of the USSR stopped it, so to speak, in its tracks and, anyway, using it would have made Russia look Best, negating aim No 1.

The rusting tunnels of the abandoned Soviet particle accelerator
3. It does discovery.
Possibly so. But a poor, and relatively unimportant, third. All the same, 1 and 2 are what you have to do to get No 3. As Herr Nietzsche also said;
"The term "good" has no necessary connection with useful and unselfish actions,"

Thursday, 5 May 2016

Why Americans can't make tea ...

... and why Brits can't make coffee

You can play this. It is perfectly safe.

You don't need me to tell you this. Tea in North America is pretty universally appalling. Weak, flimsy slop. And anyone from across the Atlantic who has been offered a cup of coffee by a well-meaning English or Irish or Welsh* host will, equally, have had to smile gracefully while wondering how on earth it can be possible to get so trivially, microscopically, laughably simple a task as just putting hot water on coffee so gigantically wrong.

The problem is not a new one. As early as 1822 the, otherwise generally splendid Mary Eaton in her The Cook and Housekeeper's Dictionary, suggests making coffee in England...
"To an ounce of coffee, add a tea-spoonful of the best flour of mustard, to correct its acidity, and improve its fragrance; and in order to render it truly fine and wholesome, it should be made the evening before it is wanted ... Next morning pour off the clear liquor, add to it a pint of new milk, warm it over the fire, and sweeten it to taste. Coffee made in this way, will be found particularly suitable to persons of a weak and delicate habit" 
What? Mustard? Made the evening before? What the ...? Though she does add; "If for foreigners ... make only eight dishes from three ounces." Phew! That sounds all right. But wait, Mrs Eaton isn't going to let even foreigners get away that easily; 
"If not fresh roasted, lay it before the fire until perfectly hot and dry; or put the smallest bit of fresh butter into a preserving pan, and when hot, throw the coffee into it, and toss it about until it be freshened, but let it be quite cold before it is ground."
Yep, we've been having problems with coffee for a long time. Not surprising an exasperated Alexis Soyer, the Victorian cuisinier célèbre, wrote in 1850;
It is a very remarkable fact that but few persons in England know how to make good coffee, although so well supplied with the first quality of that delicious berry; but, by way of contrast, I must say that the middle classes of France are quite as ignorant of the method of making tea.
So what's the problem, and what the solution? It is easy. It is basically TEMPERATURE.

Listen carefully... Tea needs boiling water, coffee just needs very hot water.

So those who are good at tea (which needs boiling water) use it too hot for coffee (which needs just very hot water) and so make bad coffee. Those who are good at coffee (which needs very hot water) use it too cool for tea (which needs boiling water)

Got it? Pour boiling water on ground coffee and all its volatile flavoring oils will evaporate. Dip a tea-bag in just hot water and you won't extract the flavours.

Tea = boiling water, Coffee = very hot water.

Oh for goodness sake.

*The Scots, for reasons unknown, seem to be capable of making perfectly good coffee.  No, I've no idea why either. True though, isn't it?

Monday, 2 May 2016

In Praise of Bad Repairs

Ancient buildings. To repair or restore? Tricky. I'd like to suggest an alternative - go back to the original way of doing things, which is to say, do it really badly.

They don't build houses like they used to. Well no, they're not allowed to, because they used to be crap. And most of them have fallen down. So only the good stuff from the past is left, which gives us a false impression of cosy solidity.

Houses for common people used to be really rubbish. Flick through the ever-fascinating London Labour and the London Poor or just look at the early photographs of lower-class people's homes. They could be comfortable, but they don't ever seem to have been neatly built.

Yep, crap.
Consider, for a start, re-plastering an ancient property. Doing it 'correctly' means, say, getting a skilled master plasterer to do the walls using original materials, the best tools and the finest traditional lime plaster. You'll be amazed by the beautiful, smooth finish, the neat corners and that ingenious little fillet over the door. Just like it was done in 1850. Except that's not how it was done in 1850, because most houses were originally plastered by the incompetent and the ham-fisted, using the wrong tools and poor-quality materials. The modern expert will do it 'right', which will be wrong.

That was never straight, was it?

Here, by happy fortune, I have a double advantage. First, by curious circumstance, we've come to own a little house untouched since about 1900. Second, I have the remarkable skill of being able to very accurately imitate centuries old craft incompetence. A skill which is completely self-taught. In fact, I can say with some pride, that the new window frames in our house are, after my attempts at puttying, pointing and painting, now absolutely indistinguishable from the 1700s version.

The ceiling had been repaired with bits of old packing cases. A lead miner lived there. Look what he used.

So the 'Back House' at Winster is going to be have its rotten woodwork replaced (just as non-straight as the original) get re-plastered (a bit wobbly) and painted (original colours - green and cream - and original-style blodges and streaks). It is going to have the gloomy gaslights and the sloppy slopstone and leaky windows all repaired. I think you can still buy Reckitts Blue to make your own bedroom distemper. I might just draw the line at retaining the authentic damp, but I have persuaded the carpenter that, no, we don't want draughtproofing in the window frames. No, not even hidden draughtproofing. No! Not even if it looks just like the original.

When it's finished, you can come round and have a cup of tea. You'll have to light the range first, you'll find the coal in the shed, next to the privvy.

No, Richard Grafton Interiors Ltd, this is not a restored Victorian kitchen. No. Not.

Sunday, 1 May 2016

9/11 - It wasn't Muslims...

No. Don't go away. I haven't got some new weird conspiracy theory - just a rather interesting little note on how we use language.

After the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center, somebody had to decide who was responsible. Well, we know who was responsible, it was the group of people who hijacked the 'planes. But we're still pack animals and we need to know who is in what gang, so what gang were the 9/11 attackers? How do we identify them? Which Not-Us group do we say they belong to?

The current answer seems to be that they were Muslims. The USA was attacked by Muslims. But it didn't have to be that way.

Men in white shirts? Nah.
It could have been said that the attackers were MEN. Which they were. But that doesn't define them as an out-group, as roughly half of Our Gang are men too. We could even have gone for MEN IN WHITE SHIRTS, or YOUNG MEN but we've got those too.

A more sensible delimiter might have been to call them SAUDIS. "The USA was attacked today by a group of Saudi fanatics". Which would make sense, as they were all Saudis, or had strong connections with Saudi Arabia. What's more - to the extent that it is possible to identify the supposed reason for the attacks - it was in protest at the USA's involvement and infidel presence in the blessed land of Saudi Arabia. The trouble with that designation is that Saudi Arabia is our Friend, on account of spending lots of money with us, being very nice to our politicians and more-or-less controlling our energy supply.

So how about saying they were WAHHABIS or SALAFISTS, referring to the unusually strict version of Islam they were connected to? That would have been a pretty fair description, and not really likely to harm any blameless group too much, as there aren't all that many respectable Salafists out in the wider world.


And so on. But it was us who decided that the enemy people were MUSLIMS (or occasionally ISLAMISTS, which amounts to the same thing). It didn't have to be Muslims who perpetrated 9/11. It could have been someone else.

This matters to me, because I was there.

(If you do want the nutcase version, try starting with )