No More Pencils

not even waving

Being A Fool When Everyone Is Smart

I was thinking about the film A Serious Man, made by the Coen brothers. The film is unusual because it begins with a short film shot in sepia about a poor Jewish couple in nineteenth century Russia who are visited by a dybbuk (a malicious spirit) that has inhabited the body of a recently deceased rabbi.

The wife is fearful and practical. The husband is ambivalent and hesitant. There is not much to a story but the nub of the story is that the wife is certain that she and her husband will be visited by more bad luck.

Then we segue into the main film A Serious Man about a man who watches his life fall apart around him. Set in the present day, the main protagonist is a middle-aged man, a lecturer at a college somewhere on the East Coast of the U.S. – an intelligent man with a responsible job.

His wife is having an affair right under his nose. Now she tells him she is leaving with her lover.

His daughter ignores and derides him. His son, who is soon to be bar-mitzvah’d, seems to be in a world of his own. His boss at work is enigmatic and disconcerting. His wife’s new boyfriend patronises him.

In the middle of all of this one of his students tries to bribe him to change his grade on a paper. The hero refuses to take the bribe. The student threatens him. The hero talks to the father of the student and the father also threatens him.

Still our hero refuses. He will not take a bribe.

And then he looks around and everything seems to tell him that the smart money is on the people who have no conscience. They prosper.

The student comes to see him again. Sitting in his office, and after saying no, no, no, repeatedly, he gives in and says yes and takes the bribe.

He wants to be seen. He wants to be heard. Taking the bribe is payback time for the pain of being left behind and ignored.

Taking the bribe makes him feel like he joined the human race.

And immediately after the student departs, the phone rings and it is his doctor saying he should come in right away to discuss the results of his latest tests.

Right there he sees the punishment for his sin of accepting the bribe. His life has immediately changed for the worse and he will probably die.

When Bad Things Happen To Good People

He is basically a good man. He has a moral conscience. He tries to do right. He falters and does something he knows he should not.

And this is his reward! That he should be struck down with a serious illness and probably die!

How can this be fair when there are people who do much worse things and don’t suffer any consequences?

They even prosper!

What Is The Answer

Let me ask you something. When you read this sub-heading ‘What Is The Answer’, did you wonder what the answer was? I bet you did. I would. We are all going around in smaller or bigger circles. We think we have it sorted out. We know what is right and wrong, but still…

The protagonist in A Serious Man is Jewish and so are the film’s directors – so it seems fitting to examine the question from the point of view of the touchstone of their beliefs.

There is a thread in the Jewish tradition that teaches that the inclination to do evil is a strange beast. For a man who does what he wants without a thought as to whether it is right or wrong, the inclination to do evil has no work to do and so it becomes lazy, and weak.

But with a man who is striving to do good, the inclination to do evil is really stretched. It is in tip-top condition, so it waits for its moment, and then it slips in and does its work.

And the nearer that a man gets to being a good man, the finer the balance and the greater the consequences for doing a bad thing.

That same thing if done by a bad man will not bring about serious consequences or perhaps even any consequences at all.

Whether this is all true of course, is another question, but we can at least accept that there is logic in the system of thought that holds it together. It is not crazy and illogical, at least.

Of course, a person may accept all this and conclude he can be really bad. Then the chances are that he will get away with just about anything without serious consequences. At least he will do not worse than someone trying to do good.

Way to go!

And that is really the test, isn’t it? – whether one can be a fool when everyone around you is being smart.

A Long Jetty In The San Blas Islands

Some years ago I stayed a night as a paying guest in a house on the San Blas Islands.

The San Blas Islands are a group of semi-autonomous islands off the coast of Panama.

So, I had part of a room and it was curtained off from another part where one of the members of the family slept.

The owner of the house took me through the rules of the house and pointed out to me a very small key that was hanging on a nail on the wall. He explained that it was the key to the toilet.

Then he took me outside and pointed to the toilet in question.

It was on a jetty – a rickety wooden jetty that stretched out into the sea and ended at a little sentry box way above the sea at the far end of the jetty.

The light was fading quickly and I didn’t want to make my way out over to the toilet in the dark, so I set out with the key in my hand and walked along the jetty, conscious of how quickly night was falling.

I fumbled with the lock and put the key carefully in my shorts.

I am not sure what I was expecting when I opened the door, but the toilet was just a hole in the floor.

That was fine with me, but I was conscious of the little key in my pocket as I crouched down.

I crouched there for a while, all the time conscious of the key. I didn’t want to lose it, so I stood up carefully – making sure that there was no chance the key would fall out of the pocket of my shorts.

I closed the lock and then started laughing quietly to myself and continued laughing all the way back to the room.

I left the next morning and I didn’t ask the owner of the house the question that was on my mind.

I didn’t because I didn’t want to risk insulting him. He obviously thought the key was important.

But the toilet was just a hole in the floor, so why the key and the lock?

It seemed hard to believe that someone would claim exclusivity over a hole in the floor high over the sea.

What was he guarding? Did his neighbours go out in the small hours and use his toilet and deny him the opportunity to use it when he wanted?

These are questions to which I will never know the answer, but I can enjoy the memory.

When I Gave Away A Hammock In South America

With three others that I met in Santa Marta we set out to the lost city and hiked for ten days. We went on our own, without a guide.

The hillsides were covered in mud. At every stream I took off my T shirt and ran it in the water to rinse off the sweat. We all looked unkempt, sweaty, legs caked in mud.

I remember seeing an Arawak Indian coming down the trail. He was dressed in white and looked like he was out for a casual stroll, and immaculate.

I fell in love with the light filtering through the huge trees. I can picture a stream broken into several streams and trees spread out around and sunlight piercing it all.

I bought a hammock for the trip. And at the end of the trip I had a hammock that I no longer needed.

I had a thing about keeping weight to a minimum, so I decided to give the hammock away to someone who had some ‘get up and go’ about him or her.

There were plenty of kids without any get up and go. You could see them any time you looked – curled up asleep on the streets with empty plastic bags clutched in their hands from where they had been sniffing glue.

So I decided to give my hammock away and I walked down the street in Santa Marta and I saw a young boy, maybe ten or eleven.

He finished shining shoes and started walking on purposefully to wherever he was going.

He was coming towards me and when he got near I mimed to him that I wanted to give him the hammock.

We exchanged looks and he held out one arm to scoop the hammock. He nodded a thank you as he kept on walking, not stopping to break his stride.

Maybe people gave him things every day. Maybe he was completely used to accepting gifts. Maybe.

If not, then he was very quick witted to size everything up in a second and accept my gift without hesitation.

And I felt like I had made good use of the opportunity to give something away.

This Is How To Improve Your Site’s Speed With Two Plugins

Speed isn’t everything – as for example when contemplating beauty. But having to crank through slow pages on a website is probably one of those times that speed is a definite plus.

Disclaimer: I am not a developer, and everything I am writing here is information I have got from WordPress developers and then applied and tested.

I joined a local WordPress MeetUp group here in Edinburgh, and this article is based on the suggestions from Kathir Vel, a developer, who gave a talk about this.

So, with that said, what I am describing here is not fancy or difficult. It will work with most web hosts and straightforward cPanel shared hosting.

And it uses plugins from the WordPress repository.

The two plugins are:

    WP Performance Score Booster

    Autoptimize

WP Performance Score Booster

WP Performance Score Booster removes any query strings from static resources like CSS & JavaScript files, enables GZIP compression, and sets expires caching.

Once you have activated the plugin, just check the two boxes and it will do its job. For it to work it assumes that you are on an Apache web server, that GZIP compression is enabled, and that you have write permission to the .htaccess file – all of which are pretty normal for most hosting packages.

Autoptimize

Autoptimize aggregates and minimises JavaScript, CSS and HTML. There are three check boxes. One is for CSS, another for HTML, and the third for Javascript.

As Stephen Harris, a developer in the WordPress group, explained: Other plug-ins on on your site may have compressed versions of their javascript files which they use to help reduce the plug-in’s footprint. Auto-optimising twice can lead to errors which you only discover by testing your site.

For that reason I did not check off the javascript box when I ran the plugin.

Do they work? Well as in many things ‘If you can’t test it, it doesn’t exist’ – so the three tools to test this with are:

GTMetrix
Pingdom
Google Pagespeed Insights

Google’s pagespeed test also tests for performance on mobile, and in fact that is the tab that comes up first when you test. So you will need to tab across to ‘Desktop’ to get those results.

If your site is not mobile optimised you will get a lousy mobile score whatever the speed is. Many sites are now mobile optimised, so hopefully this issue won’t apply to your site.

Pingdom offers a range of locations from which to test from. You can test from the USA, Australia, or Europe. You choose the location by clicking ‘settings’ just below where you input your URL. If you don’t choose a location it will default to a US server.

Which location should you choose? If your site targets an audience in a specific part of the world, use that. If your audience is worldwide, choose either where your server is located or where the majority of your audience is located.

The reason for choosing a test server near your own web host’s server is simply because it cuts down the distance the test server has to go to reach your host’s server.

One word of caution about Pingdom’s results: I have run tests on GTMetrix and PageSpeedInsights over and over and get very consistent results. That is not so with Pingdom. I don’t know why, but results do vary even when repeating a test after only a few seconds. That said, the results generally only vary over a narrow-ish range, so still well worth testing.

For your own benefit, it’s important to have a before-and-after snapshot. So before you install and activate the plugins, run all three of these tools with the site you are going to speed up.

Take a screen grab or make a note of the results so that you can compare the before and after results.

nomorepencils-gtmetrix-results

To give you an idea of what you can expect, here is a screen grab of the results of a test for this site according to GTMetrix.

This site is nothing fancy – a blog with ten plugins. I am not using any kind of caching plugin and the site is on shared hosting with a server based in the UK.

The GTMetrix servers are locate in Canada and I would expect to shave a bit of time off the page load time if GTMetrix had a UK server.

Update
As a final piece of the jigsaw I installed WP Super Cache. It’s made by Automattic, so the code should be good. Again, it’s a plugin that was recommended by Kathir Vel in the talk he gave.

So let’s see what GTMetrix says about the site now:

nomorepencils-after-installing-wp-super-cache

As you can see, the size of the page and number of calls to the database has gone up slightly because the new plugin is installed. But look at the page load time. Now it is down to 2 seconds. 🙂

How Many Times Must I Tell You

How do you manage?
How many times must I tell you?
How do you know when it’s over?

What’s the point?
What’s he doing here?

When are you going to face up to it?
When are you going to make a decision?
When are you going?

Why do you put up with it?
Why does he do it?

Where’s the sense in it?
Where did it all go?
Where were we?
Where do I start?

[Inspired by snatches of conversation overheard or read]

Tales Of My Lurcher

I used to have a lurcher. He was a big dog, slim and intelligent and could run like the wind.

That was in the days when I lived in the countryside, and he and I would go out in the fields together.

One day I was standing on the Common – a piece of communal ground facing the cottage where we lived. It must have been the smallest village in England because there were only about five cottage.

It was a beautiful setting and ideal for long walks in the fields.

So on this particular day I was standing on the Common looking at the cottage, and the woman next door came out of her cottage. She came across to talk to me and to tell me some news. Her old dog had started eating again. She had been so worried about him.

Her dog was a heavy-set dog, old and slow moving. I would see him dragging himself around – old and slow-moving. And with the news that she told me, in my mind’s eye I imagined her dog back in the cottage, having roused himself to eat breakfast.

And that’s when I saw my super-sneaky dog coming out of her cottage. He held his head low like he did when he was doing something sneaky. And his tongue was tongue lolling in his mouth, back and forth as he licked his lips.

Of course, he had stolen the breakfast and the dog next door was not eating. But I couldn’t tell her that. I just kept nodding and agreeing and smiling.

My dog, in true lurcher fashion, was too wise to come up to me. He knew he’d be spotted for a breakfast-stealing rogue. So he hung back and eyed me and I looked at my neighbour and willed her not to turn around.

Adventures In Curing Chickens Of Red Spider Mite

In the days when I had chickens, I could watch them for hours.

One time I noticed that they were pecking at each others’ bottoms. I knew that wasn’t good and could lead to much worse, so I spoke to the vet.

He told me that they might have red spider mite. The problem with a mite infestation is that it causes a raw patch that attracts other chickens to peck at it.

The vet suggested a spray to eradicate the mites. That was good in principle, but how was I going to administer it?

I guess I could have asked someone what was the best way to administer the spray, but I didn’t.

I pictured myself running around the chicken run trying to spray the chickens’ bottoms.

I had an idea though. At night when they are roosting, they sit on the roost on their haunches. They bend their legs and lower themselves, and their feet lock in place.

I figured that would give me time to spray them before they stood up and freaked out.

So I decided to spray them at night while they were in the wooden shed where they roosted. The shed had a wooden branch crosswise a few feet off the ground in it, and the chickens roosted on that.

Around dusk they would walk into the shed and walk around a bit inside and then fly up onto the roost.

The shed was what was called an ark – a low building with a pitched roof like a tiny house.

At one end was the box where they laid their eggs and at the other end was a small ramp where they entered the ark and a door so that I could get in from time to time to clean it out.

So after they were settled in for the night I crept into the ark and got my aerosol spray can ready to go up and down the line of chickens’ bottoms, spraying.

I don’t recall but I guess I had a torch with me so I could see what I was doing.

What I do remember is what happened.

I was lucky in that they were sleeping in a line all facing the same way, and away from me.

I figured I had a minute or so while the chickens woke up and stood erect so they could release their grip on the roosting branch and fly up in the air. I pictured a shed full of panicking chickens with feathers flying everywhere.

What I didn’t take into account was that the spray was ice cold when it came out of the pressurized can.

Nor was I ready for their reaction. Those chickens couldn’t have been more pleased.

They each raised their bottoms in slow motion and waggled them into the path of the spray, emitting the chicken equivalent of a low moan of pleasure.

And I worked my way along the row, working to the tune of their little moans.

Understand How To Vote In The Forthcoming Scottish Election

On the 5th May, the people of Scotland will vote to elect Members Of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs).

Every registered voter received a leaflet from the Electoral Commission that explained the voting system.

If reading the leaflet left you with unanswered questions, read on.

There are eight regions in Scotland, with seven MSPs for each region, giving a total of 56 regional MSPs.

Within thoses eight regions that are 73 constituencies, divided roughly equally across the regions.

So the total number of MSPs is 129 (56+73)

Therefore, everyone in Scotland is represented by eight MSPs – one constituency MSP and seven regional MSPs.

MSPs serve currently for four years, and the last election was in 2011 – hence the election on 5th May. That’s changing and those elected on 5th May will serve for five years to keep in line with European Union terms and the rest of the UK. The idea is that it will help cut costs by not having elections in different years.

At the polling station everyone will be handed two voting slips – a lilac voting slip for the constituency MSP and a peach-coloured voting slip for the regional MSP.

The lilac constituency ballot paper lists the name of each candidate along with their party name and party logo.

The peach regional ballot paper lists the parties and any independent candidates. It does not list the names of the party candidates.

So in essence and leaving independents out of the picture, you vote regionally for a party, and locally for a person.

Constituency candidates are elected on a first-past-the-post system.

Regional votes are counted using the Additional Member System. The system attempts to ensure that it is unlikely that one party will dominate the seats or that any party that gets less than 7% of the vote will get a seat.

A party can list up to 12 regional candidates in each of the 8 electoral regions and could get up to seven members voted in at the election. The remaining people on the list are there to fill in any places that become vacant during the next five years due to death or other cause.

Further reading:
The Scottish Parliament (Constituencies and Regions) Order 2010
About My Vote

The City of Edinburgh Council has a link where you can download the Lothian Regional party lists for each party.

The Scottish Regions

    Lothian
    Central scotland
    Glasgow
    Mid Scotland and Fife
    North East Scotland
    West Scotland
    South Scotland
    Highlands and Islands

The Scottish Regions for the election of MSPs

Guilty Men

Guilty Men is a slim book – just 125 pages – written in 1940 by ‘Cato’ – the collective nom de plume of the journalists Michael Foot, Frank Owen, and Peter Howard.

The book was an attack on the governments of Baldwin, MacDonald, and Chamberlain of the previous ten years.

It argued that they had failed to prepare Britain for an inevitable war and describes how the actions of these governments had led to the debacle of Dunkirk.

The book cites Churchill as the man who had consistently warned of the dangers and who was the right man to be in charge of Britain’s future in the war years.

It was a runaway bestseller and the principal author, Michael Foot, went on to become the leader of the Labour Party in Britain.

I bought a copy from a second-hand bookshop after learning of the existence of the book while reading Nehru’s The Discovery of India. I zipped through Guilty Men in a couple of sittings and more or less believed every word of it.

The benefit of 70 years hindsight is pretty good at testing the truth of what was said in the book. I recommend it to anyone who wants to read the story of Britain in the lead up to its darkest hour.

Where The Title Of the Book Came From

The Preface to the book states:

On a spring day in 1793 a crowd of angry men burst their way through the doors of the assembly room where the French Convention was in session. A discomforted figure addressed them from the rostrum. “What do the people desire?” he asked. “The Convention has only their welfare at heart.” The leader of the angry crowd replied. “The people haven’t come here to be given a lot of phrases. They demand a dozen guitly men.”

Who was Cato?

There were several people named Cato in Roman history, but I think the one who fits the best description was Cato the Younger.

Cato the Younger is described in Wikipedia as being remembered for his legendary stubbornness and tenacity, as well as his immunity to bribes, his moral integrity, and his famous distaste for the ubiquitous corruption of the period.

The Bladders In Turner’s Paintbox

In June 2014 Tamara and I went to an exhibition at the National Gallery in London entitled ‘Making Colour’

It examined the way artists have used the distribution of colour in paintings to bring out their brilliance. It is a science; a science of the colour wheel and of primary colours and complimentary colours.

One of the exhibits that caught my eye was Turner’s paintbox. It was divided into square compartments and in each of them was what looked like a small bottle.

However, each ‘bottle’ was misshapen, as though it had been squeezed and deformed. And the neck of each container was bound with twine.

I asked the staff whether they knew what the containers were made of and left the question with them, and subsequently received an email answering my question:

Thank you for completing a Comments Form on 19 June 2014 regarding Turner’s paintbox in the Making Colour exhibition.

I have been in contact with the Director of Collections and Curator of the exhibition Ashok Roy who has provided me with the following response:

The traditional method for storing prepared oil paints before tubes were fully commercialised from 1841 was in ’pigs’ bladders’, by which is meant a bit of intestine (like a sausage casing), tied off with twine.

The paint was squeezed out through a hole made by a metal tack, and re-sealed with the tack. This is the form of the paint container in the Turner box.

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