Weather – changeable

Today I imagine if you could look down from above

the land would be seen between fast-moving stripes of sunlit cloud.

From down here it has been a series of darks and lights

wind-driven, one minute throwing hail and rain and (now) wet snow at us,

then bright sun, doubly bright as it bounces off the wet road.

At each break in the cloud another optimistic dog walker sets out,

like those figures in a German weather house, to hurry back before they are caught by the next sweep of stinging wetness.

As I write snow is swirling and the sky is sliding from dirty grey to a kind of yellow as the clouds pass

and now over there it’s bright again and a washed blue rises up to high emptiness.

There goes another dog and friend, disappearing up the lane before the sky refills, to hide the setting sun.


Paper sizes, geometry and irrationality

Triggered by a comment on the dancing professor’s blog about weird British paper sizes, I had to look up the details of the A system (ISO 216). And found I was among the confused people who thought it was based on the Golden ratio. So as an aide memoire to myself:

The A series paper sizes are all in the ratio 1:√2, which has the property that when you cut a piece of A-sized paper in half the two halves are of the same aspect ratio as the original piece of paper. And this ratio is related to the Silver ratio, not the Golden Ratio. The actual sizes used start from A0, the largest, which has an area of 1 square meter (thank you internet – I didn’t know that bit before!), so that’s why the absolute dimensions may seem irrational or arbitrary. (They are irrational of course, as √2 is irrational.) The arbitrariness comes from the meter being defined originally in terms of the circumference of the Earth (putting the ‘geo’ into geometry).

To construct a rectangle of this ratio, construct a square and take an arc from the diagonal to determine the long side of the rectangle (good old Pythagoras: the square on the hypotenuse and all that). (See diagram A – a throwback to secondary school geometry; I was pleased to discover I had not forgotten how to construct right angles, bisect a line etc. using a straight edge and pair of compasses.)

Diagram A
Diagram A

The Golden Ratio (another irrational number – related to the Fibonacci numbers), on the other hand, is approximately 1:1.618 (or phi), and it has the property that when you cut the largest possible square off the rectangle you are left with another rectangle of the same aspect ratio as the one you started with. To construct a Golden rectangle:

Construct a square. Draw a line from the midpoint of one side of the square to either of the opposite corners. Use that line as the radius to draw an arc that defines the long side of the rectangle. See diagram B.

Diagram B
Diagram B

This is the ratio that crops up all over the place in natural forms like shells and pine cones, and also has been used as a compositional device by artists and architects for centuries.

(This little excursion into geometry, as mentioned, arose from a passing comment on differences in paper sizes. It might seem that the mathematics behind the A series means it will take over the world (it is an ISO standard after all). But, while standardisation may yield benefits, like knowing you can get a ready-made frame to fit your drawing, or being able to ship goods around the world in ISO sized containers, variety is the spice of life they say – and perverse artists will always be cutting their paper (or canvas) to fit their subject, or even sticking extra bits on when they run out of room, thereby keeping the custom framers in business.)

Copyright ©2015 F. Watts

More thoughts about politics – or: the triumph of presentation over substance

In a trailer for a documentary about Parliament, promising to show us life behind the scenes and on the benches, David Cameron speaks of the fearfulness of Wednesdays. He is referring to Prime Minister’s Questions, which happens every week in the House of Commons. The Prime Minister faces Parliament and responds to questions from MPs. It is clearly a trial. His comment is probably intended to gain our sympathy, to make him seem human. Of course it must be terrifying to stand there and have your actions challenged by a jeering mob, by the leader of the opposition, whose job it is to undermine your government, and whose ambition is to take your place. Traps will be laid, statistics quoted and quibbled with. You must have at your fingertips (or on the tip of your tongue) a response to any possible attack, a factoid, a number, a witty turn of phrase to answer them all.

Of course it is terrifying; it’s like a tutorial with the most withering tutor – worse, it is the oral exam, the viva, at which you must save yourself from a lower class degree, or worse (BA Oxon. (failed)). Poor David, who has to face this every week, knowing that any minor slip of the tongue or lapse of memory will be gleefully leapt upon and exploited. This is the nature of political debate in the soundbite era.

But hang on. Surely this is not (or should not be) the point. PMQs should not be a personal test or trial of the Prime Minister’s skill with a comeback or his ability to remember large numbers. It should be a chance for him and his colleagues in Parliament to debate the government’s policies and actions and their effects. If he is confident that those policies are justified and that he understands their justifications, he need not be afraid of questioning. And if what mattered were the correctness of those policies, the possibility of a challenge proving valid would not be something to fear; it would be a reason to keep an open mind, to be ready to reconsider, to take on board another view or new information that might inform the decisions that have to be made.

I like to imagine a political debate that resembles a conversation between medical staff (I think they call it the MDT meeting in the NHS) deciding the best treatment for a patient – a discussion between concerned experts, sharing their expertise, focused on the task at hand. These people don’t need to be ‘terrified’; they are not there to be tested, to be tripped up by their colleagues, but to do the best they can for someone else. Personal fear does not come into it.

Sadly, this is not how our government works. Instead we have an ego-ridden defence of a party line which must be held at all costs, whose victims include truth and logic as well as the electorate.

No wonder our government is largely populated by people whose skills in this kind of rhetorical cut and thrust have been honed by public school and the Oxbridge tutorial system. The tutorial system can be a wonderful way to engage the mind, to grapple with big ideas, but it can perhaps also contribute to a glibness and a short-termism that fit perfectly with our macho and adversarial politics. And now with the adoption of televised debates as a key aspect of electioneering, this is likely to get worse rather than better. It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it that matters.

Copyright ©2015 F. Watts