Tuesday, 28 February 2012

The man who lived in Down House

Not far from London, UK, just a few miles down the A21 past Bromley, is a turn off for a small village called Downe. To get there, you need to go past the High Elms Country Park and Golf Course, on a pleasant drive (or walk, for those of you with more stamina than me). It's a lovely little village surrounding an old church, but is especially notable because it is where the eminent Charles Darwin made his home.

I visited it just the other day. It's very charming, and by any standards a beautiful property which only someone already very wealthy could have afforded.

Down House

One of the interesting things concerning Darwin is not, perhaps, his defining work which changed the way we understand life on Earth forever (with the short title of "On the Origin of Species"). Of course, the body of work he left was simply without equal in terms of its volume, its careful scientific method and its insight. Despite this, I visited the house interested to find out about the man.

He had a very real human side, something that made him, like many historical figures, interesting and individual. In fact, he had to deal with a difficult decision early in his life. Despite being perhaps one of the most important works ever published, you may not be aware that "On the Origin of Species" reveals the genuine difficulty Darwin faced when deciding to turn his back on his religious studies at Christ's College, Cambridge. (His father, disapproving of Darwin's interests, had decided to try to force him to study to become an Anglican priest.) Darwin wrote later in correspondence with his American friend Asa Gray...
With respect to the theological view of the question; this is always painful to me.— I am bewildered.– I had no intention to write atheistically. But I own that I cannot see, as plainly as others do, & as I [should] wish to do, evidence of design & beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent & omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonid√¶ with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice. Not believing this, I see no necessity in the belief that the eye was expressly designed. On the other hand I cannot anyhow be contented to view this wonderful universe & especially the nature of man, & to conclude that everything is the result of brute force. I am inclined to look at everything as resulting from designed laws, with the details, whether good or bad, left to the working out of what we may call chance. Not that this notion at all satisfies me. I feel most deeply that the whole subject is too profound for the human intellect. A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton.— Let each man hope & believe what he can.
Darwin was a prolific writer of letters, papers and scientific books and journals. But he was also a doting father of no less than ten children. Three of them died tragically in childhood, from ailments common in Victorian England. Two of these deaths were in infancy, but the death of Annie at the age of ten from complications of scarlet fever (she may also have had tuberculosis) broke Darwin's heart. He wrote in his memoirs
We have lost the joy of the household, and the solace of our old age... Oh that she could now know how deeply, how tenderly we do still & and shall ever love her dear joyous face.
In the end, there is a vast wealth of knowledge about Darwin that could not possibly be covered in a short blog post. Wikipedia has a useful summary of his life, and you can read vast amounts of what he wrote for free courtesy of Project Gutenberg's eBooks. But importantly, at Down House you can touch the life of this amazing man. He helped us understand who we are; a visit to the home he lived in for forty years offers a compelling chance to return the favour and understand him.
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You can't take photos inside the house for reasons of copyright (sigh), but I managed another decent shot in the lovely gardens, inside Darwin's greenhouse. English Heritage continue to grow plants which interested Darwin in it and it's worth exploring (and is a good way to get out of the cold).

Darwin's Hothouse

Find out more about a visit at English Heritage's website -- they're the current custodians and have made big efforts in the past few years to improve your experience as a visitor.

Friday, 24 February 2012

More perils of business travel

My previous blog post reminded me that I have plenty to say on the subject of business travel, and I suspect it's a theme I'll revisit from time to time. Like now, for example.

I often travel with a friend and colleague who lives not too far from me. She is obviously a bad influence. It was only mid-afternoon, and we were in the bar at Edinburgh airport. Then, ringing out across the entire departure lounge, the following message: "Would passengers Nam and Colleague please proceed to gate 7, your flight is ready to depart. Last call for Nam and Colleague." Her name isn't Colleague, of course. That'd be silly. I'm sure you get the idea. Will you stop interrupting me, I'm trying to tell a story.

So we quickly necked our drinks (it would be bad manners not to) and rushed to our plane. That's the worst part. Every last soul on that plane stared at us with stone cold contempt. How dare we delay their trip home? The captain made it worse, pointedly announcing that he was in discussion with air traffic control to seek a later departure slot. The on board undercurrent of loathing was visceral; you could almost touch it, roll it around, strap it into an emergency life jacket.

The thing was, the plane was trying to leave early. This wasn't really our fault; all the other goody-goody passengers had got to the gate as soon as the flight was announced and made it onto the plane almost immediately. We had not anticipated this and quite reasonably and traditionally gone for a swift livener instead. Not really our fault.

Still, a month or so later, there we were back in Edinburgh again. Another tough meeting and I'm pretty certain we were determined to get our post-meeting pint. But my colleague needed to visit the shops first (she's a girl, it's an airport departure lounge, instinct just kicked in). So I mulled the cameras and calculators and pads and pods while she was off somewhere restocking with Molton Brown (I don't know why she didn't just steal it from her hotel room).

Then the dreaded announcement came: "Would passengers Nam and Colleague please proceed to gate 7, your flight is ready to depart. Last call for Nam and Colleague." Oh no. Similarly humiliated and once again the villains, we got on the plane as quietly as possible and sat nicely, hoping that no one had noticed our tardiness. Once again everyone had. We were half an hour late landing in London, and we had been forced to rely on trolley service for our alcohol fix, served with a charmless near-smile by a frustrated flight attendant.

If you've been inconvenienced by my friend and I, please accept my apologies. We didn't mean to do this to you. We'll try harder in future, I promise. Oh, and to make up for it I'll buy you a pint.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

When the day starts early

I had to travel between London and Yorkshire today. Not a particularly pleasant prospect, mainly because it'll be hugely inconvenient, and when I've finished my round trip I'll be a sleepwalking zombiefied wreck. And it's not even Friday. It all starts when I get up at around 0430, and I won't be home again until well after 2000. I'm too old for all this.

Last time I did this journey, I sat on the train, laptop on the table and Blackberry to hand, poised to spend the otherwise dead time usefully. High ideals. But perhaps it's just me. I accomplished next to nothing. All sorts of distractions present themselves; there's coffees from the buffet car and trolley, snow out of the window, my colleague chit-chatting. Sleep, of course.

Other people around me, similarly on their way to discuss their real concerns about the shocking rise in the price of raw industrial polymers (or whatever the hell it is these people all do) seem able to focus. I watched a woman work her way through hundreds of emails on a trip not too long ago. But not me. I just never seem to be able to knuckle down and get on with it.

Mulling this, I took another sip of coffee and sought the opinion of my colleague and travelling companion. Like me, she'd had lofty plans to see off an email deluge, and was sitting there identically with laptop and Blackberry at the ready. Equally, like me, she had accomplished zero output of any kind. So was it just us two then?

Well, I don't know but I'm guessing not. I reckon there's something intangibly distracting about business travel that prevents anyone but the most hardcore lappy-tapper from getting anything useful done. This realisation has had a profoundly refreshing effect on me. Now, knowing that I am not going to bother to try to work, my guilt has slipped away and been replaced by an hour or two of reclaimed sleep. Result? I don't yawn quite so much in my boss's meetings. That has to be a good thing, right?

(Tube) Gates of Hell

Siddie Nam here, Londoner and normal bloke. I live and work in this incredible city, which has both terrible and wonderful things going on in it everyday. This is what it's like to be here.

The BBC reported recently that Staffing at Tube ticket barriers [is] 'inadequate' according to research by London TravelWatch. It's an interesting point of view which Transport for London (TfL) doesn't agree with; they claim that their own internal research (which I can't find published anywhere) conflicts with this. Spokesperson Nigel Holness is quoted in this article as saying LU "...does not recognise the picture painted in this report...". Publish your own study then, Nigel.

In the days before the trusty Oyster card was introduced, Londoners enjoyed the still possible but now vaguely antiquated experience of thrusting their ticket into a card reader, in the hope that they would be continuing their journey broadly unhindered. This was usually what happened (occasionally the Rottweiler Gates would bite-yer-bum on the way through, but your average Tube-weary commuter regarded this as an occupational hazard).

But on more than more than one occasion my ticket had been somehow rendered unreadable in the period between purchase and use. This would then require negotiating with The Gatekeeper, one of the uniformed barrier-watchers referred to in the previously mentioned research. I have been refused point-blank when the ticket was also illegible; annoying because both the magnetic strip and the printing were produced by a poorly maintained ticket machine. I must confess I've never deliberately evaded paying my fare, but it's times like these which make you squeeze through with a friend (well -- I had paid, I just couldn't prove it). Sometimes we did this anyway, just for fun, mainly because it annoyed The Gatekeepers -- sorry if you're one of them now reading this; I've matured in recent times, honest...

These days the illegible ticket is less common, as the Oyster has replaced it. Now, TfL have new tricks to exploit the unwary Londoner (or tourist). Try these for size:
  • Failing to touch out having touched in -- this will result in TfL debiting you as much money as they think they can get away with based on some idea of a maximum fare, or something... This usually occurs when you absent-mindedly walk through an unmanned gate on which the barriers have to be left open for safety reasons.
  • Failing to touch in but remembering to touch out. This is also infuriating because it is caused by and results in a similar effect to the first bullet above. You try to be honest, and TfL says, "thanks very much, we'll now take lots of your cash".
TfL has collected a fair bit of cash from unwary Londoners in this manner (see here from the Greater London Authority's own Blog -- shocking!; or here for an article from The Independent last year). My advice -- register your card or TfL will simply not believe you when you moan at them. And check your balance regularly -- TfL doesn't have to pay you back if you don't tell them within 28 days that you've had a problem (another scam in my view -- you might not know until you top up, so what if you only top up once a month?).

Against a backdrop of all this, who would want to be A Gatekeeper? They must get endless pain. Most of them at the station I use regularly are pretty decent (if world weary) people just trying to help. What a pity TfL puts them in this position.

Footnote: Is Oyster data being used as a surveillance tool? A discussion for another day, but have a read of this article at The Register and see what you think.