Of all the animals of prey, man is the only sociable one.
Every one of us preys upon his neighbour, and yet we herd together.
The Beggar's Opera: John Gay

Monday 30 September 2013

Whew - that was close!

Another day, another asteroid.

Russian observers claim to have spotted a 15m wide object that passed the Earth on Friday night at a mere 11,300km from the planet's surface.

Their findings are still awaiting confirmation, but if they are right, this one came out of the blue without warning and passed by an astronomical whisker away, inside the orbit of geostationary satellites - in fact, it was at first believed to be a stray piece of orbital debris.

Meanwhile, the same night, at even closer quarters, a meteroid was filmed burning up in the atmosphere across fourteen states of the USA. Fireballs are a reasonably frequent occurrence, but this seems to have been a particularly spectacular example.

It's likely this will be put down to random coincidence, in much the same way as February's Russian fireball was deemed to have no connection with 2012 DA14 which passed by the same day,

Nevertheless, though the  risk tables of NASA's Near Earth Object Program currently list only one asteroid in the category 'merits careful monitoring' and that won't be along for another 35 years,  it's food for thought and a reminder that, amid the vast emptiness of space, there is bound to be a rock out there with our name on it - or even two.

Still, a passing space rock is always an excuse for a drink; to brighten a Monday evening, I invite you to raise a glass in salute to the as-yet-unnamed asteroid and the eagle-eyed Russian astronomers.

Na Zdorovie!

Sunday 29 September 2013

Beautiful Eurydice shows how it's done

With the Tavern's interest in matters maritime, it may not surprise you to know that we once owned a tide clock.

Things have come a long way since the intricate machines constructed for the purpose in the 19th century, which represent an impressive degree of initiative and ingenuity as well as having a certain steampunk charm.

Ours resembled a normal clock, except that the numbers had been replaced by a jaunty selection of flags (which may, for all I know, may spell out an exceedingly rude message in naval code; I never checked) marking off the tide levels in its 12.4 hour circuit.

Setting this useful gadget turned out to be a complicated and arcane ritual which had to be performed at high tide when the moon was full, as close to midnight as possible. Even then the clock lost 15 minutes a month and had to be reset at regular intervals, necessitating much checking of tide tables to find a suitable opportunity.

The speckled sea-louse, however, is spared all this fuss, since it has its own internal tide clock. According to recent research, Eurydice pulchra, even when removed from tidal waters and deprived of the circadian mechanism that reacts to light, continues to swim in time to anticipated tide changes.

The creature's name presumably derives from the way it burrows deep into the sand at low tide and emerges when the tide comes in, all, it appears, guided by a built-in ability to predict the ebb and flow.

I can't help feeling that, given the vast number of tide-related call-outs the RNLI have reported this summer, it would be a very good thing if scientists found some way of implanting this awareness in human beings.

Meanwhile, you can never have enough Gluck.

Wednesday 25 September 2013

"Whenever you do a thing, act as if all the world were watching."

Some news stories are just crying out for the treatment...

(photo: Sky News)

One man on his own
Opposed to radiation,
One man and his dog
Made a demonstration.

Angry Iain Dale
Flushed with indignation
Fought the one man and his dog
Who made a demonstration.

Then the mainstream press
Depicted for the nation
Iain Dale fighting one man and his dog
Who made a demonstration

Photographers all round
Filmed the confrontation
For reports of Iain Dale fighting one man and his dog
Who made a demonstration.

The comments flooded in;
Political exploitation
Of the photos and reports of Iain Dale fighting one man and his dog
Who made a demonstration

Trenchant observation
On the comments on the photos and reports of Iain Dale fighting one man and his dog
Who made a demonstration.

When you're in the public eye,
Whatever your frustration,
Take a lesson from the posts on the comments on the photos and reports of Iain Dale fighting one man and his dog 
And the media sensation*.

*Unless, of course, that was the whole aim of the exercise - how far will a publisher go to create interest these days?

Wednesday 18 September 2013

Small... far away

Exciting news this week; asteroid 2013 RZ53, discovered only five days ago, will be flying by tonight less than two thirds of a lunar distance away.

Sadly for those of an apocaholic disposition, the celestial body about to inflict a near miss upon us would probably fit comfortably into your sitting room and, anyway, would almost certainly burn up on impact long before it crashed through your roof.

It's amazing to think that asteroid detection has now reached such a level of detail that objects less than three metres across can be spotted hundreds of thousands of miles away.

At the opposite end of the scale, the impressive 230km-wide 324 Bamberga passed us last Friday at  the rather more respectful distance of just over 120 million miles.

So which is the more interesting; the near approach of the undeniably dinky RZ53 or the dignified progress of the distant Behemoth? Judging by the coverage, it's more or less a dead heat.

Human nature being what it is, this is merely an extension of the principle that governs our news media; stories are prioritised through an unwritten calculation of scale and distance. The further away the event, the larger it has to be to attract our attention.

It's hardly surprising that our principal concern with asteroids has to be how they affect us, so, perhaps, we should be worried that, of the ten most recent Near Earth Objects (admittedly 'near' in this case means at a distance of between 886,000 and 27,000,000 km), six were  discovered only this year.

Or perhaps, at least here in the Tavern, we should simply for get about it and salute RZ53 in our customary way.


Sunday 15 September 2013

Government Cuts and Family Ties

As usual, a return to the Tavern is prompted by the realisation, while commenting on another blog, that the comment was in danger of becoming longer than the post that inspired it.

In this case, it was a piece by the indefatigable JuliaM  - who reads Comment is Free so the rest of us don't have to - on deprivation and food banks.

The post quotes an article squarely blaming the Government for the deprivation that drives desperate people to seek handouts:
The number one reason cited for food bank referral is cuts or delays to benefits, including sanctions and bedroom tax.
Understandable, certainly, in some cases; the benefit system, like other state monoliths, is unwieldy and prone to errors and people must occasionally slip through the net. Yet it seems odd that so many people are coming forward to ask for charitable help of this kind.

The writer of the article is in no doubt who should be footing the bill:
And while food banks are meeting a real and desperate need for half a million families in the UK, surely the responsibility for feeding the poorest and most vulnerable lies with the government, not with charity? Isn't that the entire point of the welfare state?
Well, yes. Except that the welfare state was once seen as a last resort, to be used when all other means had failed. That was how you identified the 'poorest and most vulnerable' and - crucially - concentrated the limited resources on giving help where it was most needed.

Those other means were once well established in Britain, as they still are in other parts of the world; family members who succeeded in life would do their bit to maintain elderly parents or help to support their nephews and nieces. The concept of 'looking after your own' was an ingrained part of long-standing communities; even if you shunned your neighbours, you were expected to chip in to assist your close relatives.

When illness or unemployment struck, the family rallied round. Children were reared along with cousins while their parents looked for work or housing, or, at the very least, regularly fed in other households; work clothes and winter coats would be lent or handed on as needed - no need to turn up for a job interview in 'tatty jumper and dirty jeans'.

I am sure this still happens, but woe betide the claimant who admits it when officialdom is sniffing around. Farming the children out to Auntie's while you get back on your feet would leave you embroiled in a bureaucratic nightmare over residence for child benefit and tax credits, while letting on that your brother helped out with a small loan until your housing benefit kicked in is likely to be a one-way ticket to axed payments.

And that is without considering the effects of family break-up, of course. Once the stigma of unmarried parenthood disappeared and serial monogamy became the norm, the time-honoured support network fragmented in the face of hostility or indifference between former partners. With potential earnings likely to be reduced by child support payments and benefits reduced for cohabiting couples, fathers have an incentive to avoid either marriage or employment, leaving single mothers to rely heavily on benefits.

The article suggests that persuading the Government to increase housing benefit, legislate for a 'living wage' and revoke the 'bedroom tax' (a misnomer worthy of a post in itself) would tackle the problem at source by reducing poverty but, interestingly, makes no mention of assistance from family; it's either the government or charity food banks*.

Could this be because the idea of an all-providing state has effected a massive cultural shift and turned people in on themselves; why make sacrifices to help out when the benefits system says it's not your problem? Or is it because successive Government policies have put the right to 'independent living' above traditional family ties even if it is at the public expense?

Of course, some may have no access to help from close relatives (and much needs to be done to help young people leaving Council care) but can it really be true that half a million people have no family who would help out rather than see them asking charity to put food on the table?

There are doubtless vast numbers of relatives out there still doing their unsung part to help - where's the news value in everyday acts of kindness? - but, if the tales of hardship are genuine, there is a sad irony in the way that a succession of well-meaning social policies and humanitarian gestures appear to have absolved some willingly complacent families of any moral obligation or responsibility to assist.

* Even without the question of using take-up figures as a measure of actual need (Julia again at OoL), I have to admit to a certain scepticism on the subject of food banks since the grand opening of that one in Essex, where the Great and the Good were offered a glass of champagne and - oh, the irony! - a finger buffet, because "The event is straight after work and many people will not have eaten".