Notes to My Younger Self

Inspired, as so often, by my friend Katy I wanted to write down some of the useful things I would have liked my younger self (I’m thinking teenager, student) to know and which I could now impart – but of course can’t until such time as someone perfects time travel. In fact some of these things I still have to learn properly.

In no particular order …

  • You are right, ballroom dancing is the work of the Devil and you do well to scorn it. Likewise ballet, opera theatre, film and mainstream classical music, while not works of the Devil, are best avoided if one is to retain any sanity.
  • No, you never will be able to do practical things like drawing, woodwork and plumbing. Just be glad you can pay someone to do it for you.
  • You will rediscover books and reading.
  • Yes, cats are magic.
  • Bucking the usual trend you become more socialist as you get older.
  • Your parents were right: sugar really is bad for you. But they were wrong in asserting that chocolate and cheese cause acne.
  • No, you still won’t have a clue what you’re doing, where you’re headed, or why. You will drift along.
  • You never will be fashionable, cool or handsome. And you don’t care if people think you’re either stupid or eccentric. Those that matter, don’t mind; those that mind, don’t matter.
  • Your father was right: God is bunk.
  • Being kind and compassionate is good. But no-one said it was always easy.
  • You will never regret eating (good) chips. But they do need salt, and vinegar, tomato ketchup or mayonnaise. In fact you’ll never regret eating good food.
  • Yes, you can believe six impossible (and contradictory) things before breakfast.
  • However hard you try, and however much you enjoy playing, you will never be good at ball games. It’s a matter of basic lack of athleticism and poor hand-eye co-ordination.
  • Try anything twice, the second time to be sure your first impressions were correct. Regrettably this means no one-night stands.
  • Yes, beer will be your downfall.
  • You’ll remain a dull, introverted, frightened, small boy who needs recognition and to be in control. This is not failure, it is what you are – or rather what your dysfunctional father made you. You do not need to be like this; life is hard enough already. You’re in the top few percent intellectually and could go far if you develop some more self-confidence.
  • Learn not to be so perfectionist. Yes it is what a research scientist needs, but in other spheres “good enough” is usually good enough.
  • Anger is destructive; excitement, panic and worry are all overrated entertainments. Learn to let stuff wash over you sooner rather than later. And don’t worry about things you have no control over. Measured calmness is prescribed.
  • You’ll never do enough, or the right things, to satisfy your father. Ignore him. Be confident enough to call his bluff. If he doesn’t like it, that’s his problem, not yours. It’s your life, not his.
  • You never will make friends easily and throughout life you’ll have very few. But those friends you do have will be influential and formative.
  • Do not be in awe of people “above” you. They’re human too – just as fallible but able to talk a better game.
  • Treat other people as you would like them to treat you, with respect and courtesy. If you treat people as you’d like them to be, you give them the space (and incentive) to grow; treat them as they are and they’ll stay that way.
  • You don’t have to believe in any god(s) to be moral. Morality comes from within and knowing what is just and compassionate.
  • Things happen when they happen, and for a reason. You don’t have to be a fatalist, but maybe you shouldn’t push back too hard either – although you should stand up for what you believe to be right.
  • You will change you mind, ideas and beliefs over time. This is good; it means you’re thinking about things.
  • It does get better.

Wasps

It is that time of year when we start seeing black and yellow flying insects about. Yes, summer is wasp season.

There are essentially three wasp species in the UK. The two we see most often are the ones most people despise: the small ones the Common Wasp, Vespula vulgaris, and German Wasp, Vespula germanica. Both are definitely yellow and black. To all intents and purposes they look identical (if you really want to see the difference you’ll need to get up close and personal with them – most of you won’t want to).


(L) Common Wasp and (R) German Wasp

The queens (which are quite large) are out at the moment, starting their nests. In a few weeks time there will be the smaller workers around; these are the ones which are the pest of picnics and alfresco fun. Come September their job is done: they’ve raised new queens, who will mate and hibernate to repeat the cycle next year. So now the workers are at a loose end, and go hunting anything sugary. They’ll die off with the first very cold nights and frosts.

I understand just how annoying wasps can be, especially if you have a nest nearby. But please leave them alone! They are wonderful predators of other insects, which they need to feed their grubs. Without them we would be knee deep in creepy-crawlies – an average nest can consume several tons of insects in a single summer! They also have a minor role in pollinating plants.

By August/September a mature nest can have anything between 5000 and 25000 wasps in residence. This not something you want to go poking at even with a barge pole! Having said that the nests are amazing structures, built essentially from paper.


Wasp nest

Destroying a wasp nest is rarely worth the effort. The nests, once dormant, have low humidity and are essentially just paper. Removal of the wasp nest will not prevent future queens nesting in the same area. If pesticides are used on the nest then you may contaminate other areas to no purpose, and dust based pesticides tend to remain active for years, so might knock down future queen wasps, or indeed other insects that you’d want to keep.

The main thing that worries people about wasps is their sting. A wasp uses its sting for killing prey, but it can also use it very effectively for defending itself. An ordinary uncomplicated sting contains an absolutely tiny quantity of venom (a pinhead less than the size of the full stops on this page!) which is injected deep into the skin. So treating the skin surface with almost anything is going to have very little effect (except maybe psychologically). Probably the best course is to use an antihistamine ointment and/or an oral antihistamine tablet. But … if the victim becomes pale and feels unwell with giddiness and nausea, get medical advice immediately as a very few people can suffer anaphylactic shock which can be fatal.

The third wasp species you might encounter is the European Hornet, Vespa crabro, although these are very much less common that the two wasps mentioned above (despite years of nature watching, I have never knowingly seen one in the wild). And they are roughly twice the size of a a “normal” wasp and very definitely yellow and brown.


European Hornets

(If it is yellow and black, it’s a wasp. If it’s yellow and brown and large it is a hornet – and you’re very lucky to see it! If it is furry, it’s a bee of some kind.)

Hornets follow the same life cycle as wasps, but are generally more docile and less likely to sting (though you’ll know about it if they do get you). They are relatively uncommon, especially in cities, preferring wooded environments. The only thing against hornets is that they can predate honey bee colonies.

There are many other species of wasps around the UK. Most are solitary rather than social, often parasitic predators and they don’t sting. The other social wasps are generally uncommon, although the Norwegian wasp, Dolichovespula norvegica, is more prevalent in the north of the UK. There are also a couple of very uncommon non-native hornet species in the UK and there are scare stories about “killer wasps” in the media from time to time – generally these can be ignored (although this could change over time).

So unless you are one of the very few, unlucky, people who are allergic to their stings (when you do need to worry) the moral is: please leave wasps alone! If you have a wasps’ nest, treasure it! Wasps are wonderful predators, superb engineers and they’re mostly harmless unless you start threatening them.

Bidet

Michele Hanson in yesterday’s Guardian bemoans the fact that “prudish Brits” don’t have a bidet in their bathroom, and most (especially the blokes) wouldn’t know what to do with one if they did.

I agree. We don’t have bidets. And most Brits wouldn’t be seen dead using one. Why not?

I’ll tell Hanson why not. Because most of us have pathetically small bathrooms that you struggle to get a bath, loo and handbasin in. That’s why.

When we had our bathroom rebuilt a few years ago we struggled for a long time with how best to use the tiny space. Out went the bath and in went a shower cubicle. The handbasin was moved and a towel rail installed. Loo and radiator stayed in position. This made a tiny extra amount of space, but not enough room for a bidet. Despite trying hard there just is no way, short of removing a wall, to accommodate a bidet. And there is still almost no room as the space is about half the size of the average box room – cats cannot be swung.

To the majority of Brits, a bidet is like Europe: it’s either for the poncey well-to-do or its foreign. And God forfend we have either of those! Thank you, we’ll remain insular and isolated in out tiny little island/bathroom space.

The solution? Maybe these all-singing-all-washing-all-drying Japanese-style toilets are the way to go, but at the moment they’re way, way too expensive.

But that raises the question of whether a quick wash and dry is more environmentally friendly than 8-10-12 sheets of bog paper. Interesting one that.

Your Interesting Links

As usual our monthly list of links to interesting items you may have missed the first time around. There’s a lot in this month’s edition, so let’s get going …

Science & Medicine

Here are 101 ridiculous science “facts” which are mostly myth and need to die.

Researchers have worked out the genealogy of our dog breeds, and it isn’t as simple as you might think.

Meanwhile scientists have discovered the world’s largest canary on an isolated island of giants and dwarfs off west Africa.

Changing tack, it turns out the new £5 note isn’t so indestructible – if you’re a determined enough mad scientist.

Wow! A photographer has used black light (ie. UV) to photograph the luminescence emitted by plants. And it is amazing!

Another sort of discovery has led to the finding of lost research notes which undermine dietary advice we’ve been given for the last several decades.

Looking at even older “research” it seems that some of the medical recipes in medieval books may actually work and point the way to new antibiotics.

Sexuality

I wasn’t sure whether to put this here or under “science” but it turns out that unprotected sex may disrupt the microbiome of the vagina. Now there’s a surprise!

A Victorian ivory dildo, with an interesting story, has generated a lot of excitement at an auction in Ireland.

Environment

Max Hooper, the man who worked out how to date old hedgerows, has died at the age of 82.

History

Here’s another which could easily have gone in the science section … Scientists have now worked out how to extract the DNA of ancient hominids from the surrounding dirt.

Turns out we aren’t the first people to be scared of zombies; it seems the mediaevals were too and they did some barbaric things as a result.

It’s well known that the Tudors bathed only about once a year and were very smelly the rest of the time. Turns out that may be another myth as it is possible to go months without bathing and not be smelly. Yes, an intrepid researcher has tried it!

They’ve found, quite by chance, the remains of five lost Archbishops of Canterbury in a small London church. Harry Mount, new editor of The Oldie, was first on the scene.

Lifestyle

Are you a devotee of nail polish? If so here’s a piece on some of the chemistry which makes them work.

Food & Drink

Cheese. That microbial concoction of from milk. Well here’s a guide to the natural microbiology of cheese rind.

Why is ultra-heat-treated (UHT) milk so stable that it is a shelf staple, especially in tropical climes where milk easily spoils?
[Incidentally, UHT milk is always known in our house as “UFO milk” but I have no idea how you might milk a UFO!]

So what really does give beer its bitterness and flavour? While some of it is down to the malt, most seems to originate with the hops.

Why are we masochists? Why is it we love chilli so much when it burns like it does? And how does the burn work?

Shock, Horror, Humour

And finally … someone thought it was a good idea to teach a computer to write cookbooks and invent cocktails. Its recipe ideas are hilariously brilliant. Chocolate pickle sauce anyone?

Word: Caterpillar

Oh, go on then, let’s have another word. In writing about frass, I was minded to wonder about the origin of caterpillar, so …

Caterpillar

1. The larva of a butterfly or moth; sometimes extended to those of other insects, especially those of saw-flies, which are also hairy.
2. A type of tractor which travels upon two endless steel bands, one on each side of the machine, to facilitate travel over very rough ground. (And by extension to other such vehicles.)
3. To move like a caterpillar or on caterpillar tracks.

The first uses, in sense 1, recorded by the OED is from c.1440 in Promptorium Parvulorum 63: Catyrpel, wyrm among frute, erugo.

I’m going to reproduce the etymology from the OED essentially in full:
Etymology: Catyrpel, in Promptorium Parvulorum, may be merely an error of the scribe for catyrpelour (or -er); [later sources have] the full form. Generally compared with the synonymous Old French chatepelose, literally ‘hairy or downy cat’ (compare the Scots name hairy woubit, ‘woolly bear’), of which the Old Northern French would be catepelose. This is a possible source, though no connection is historically established: the final sibilant might be treated in English as a plural formative, and the supposed singular catepelo would be readily associated with the well-known word piller, pilour, pillager, plunderer, spoiler. This is illustrated by the fact that in the figurative sense, piller and caterpiller are used synonymously in a large number of parallel passages. The regular earlier spelling was with -er; the corruption caterpillar (?after pillar), occasional in the 17th century, was adopted by Johnson, and has since prevailed.
(Some think the word a direct compound of piller. The giving to hairy caterpillars a name derived from the cat, is seen not only in the French word cited, but also in Lombard gatta, gattola (cat, kitten), Swiss teufelskatz (devil’s cat); compare also French chenille (from canicula, little dog), Milanese can, cagnon (dog, pup). Compare also catkin, French chaton, applied to things resembling hairy caterpillars.)

In other words, we don’t know!

Word: Frass

Frass

The fine powdery refuse or fragile perforated wood produced by the activity of boring insects.
The excrement of insect larvae.
(Or to put it in the vernacular: caterpillar shit.)

First used in an academic paper in 1854, the word is derived from the German frasz, fressen, to devour.

Open Door

There’s been this meme circulating recently, especially on Facebook, about people having an “open door policy”. Leaving aside that I generally don’t get involved in such viral nuisances, I’ve not engaged with this because (a) the wording felt wrong and (b) it is not new for us and should not need saying.

About 35 years ago Noreen and I made a deliberate and considered decision not to have children. Instead we said that we would always be available for our friends, their children, etc. if and when they needed us.

All our friends know this (at least they all should know this!); most have been told at some appropriate time. And as the younger ones reach an age to properly understand (generally around 15-16, but sometimes earlier), we have a quiet conversation with them about it. What we say is ad lib but generally something like:

Know that we are here if you ever need us. No parents, however good they are (and our friends really are brilliant parents) can provide everything a child needs. However open, frank and honest your relationship with your parents there will always be something you don’t want to talk them about – but something you would like to discuss with someone detached and outside the family. That is what we are here for. You can come and talk to us at any time and about anything; literally anything: boyfriend/girlfriend problems, exam worries, sexuality; if you’re in trouble and need bailing out of the police station; if you need a bed for the night; if you want to talk about life and what direction you’re going; or you just want someone to talk to. Remember, we may be geriatrics, but we’ve been there ourselves. We were students in the heady hippie days of the late-60s/early-70s so we’ve either done it or we have a friend who has. You are very unlikely to shock us – one way or another we’ve encountered most things. We don’t do judgement. And we aren’t going to tell you what you must do. We’re here to listen and to help you work through whatever is worrying you. Just pick up the phone or turn up on our doorstep (call first if you can to ensure we’re at home) at any time; day or night. And most importantly anything you tell us is in complete confidence; it will not be repeated to your parents/family/friends unless you specifically ask that it is. This is what we are here for and why we chose not to have children of our own. Here’s a card with our contact details; put it in your wallet and keep it in case you ever need it.

Yes, this is indeed a part of why we are here. Having someone detached to talk to is important. (It’s like mentoring at work: I always did it and vowed that I always would even if management told me not to.)

Over the years we’ve helped a number of friends in various stages of separation and relationship problems, medical worries, and confusion about life. We’ve even been called at 3AM by a friend about to appear in court and who expected to end up in jail (they didn’t). More than one of our friends has said to us that although they’ve never needed to take us up on this, it is a great comfort just knowing we’re there if needed. There are several friends for whom we are either “spare parents” or “spare siblings”, which is a good way of looking at all this.

This is more than just having an “open door policy” or “a friend in need”. It is about the meaning of life; being a true friend; and being ethical.

Taxing Meat

Could a tax on meat help us save the planet?

That’s the interesting question posed by Simon Fairlie in a Guardian article a few days ago.

It is, I think, now becoming widely accepted that fattening livestock for human consumption is a very inefficient use of feed and water – and thus environmentally unsound. One way to reduce consumption of meat would be to tax it, perhaps treating it as a luxury item.

As usual here’s the tl;dr summary of quotes from the article.

Feeding cereals and beans to animals is an inefficient and extravagant way to produce human food … there is a limited amount of grazing land … the world will be hard-pressed to supply a predicted population of 9 billion people with a diet as rich in meat as the industrialised world currently enjoys, and … it’s not a very healthy diet anyway. [Additionally] … livestock [generate] 14.5% of all manmade greenhouse gas emissions.
… … …
Meat taxes have been proposed … the ideal solution might be not to tax meat itself, but to tax fossil fuels … meat production would decline as a consequence – partly because nitrogen fertilisers … for growing animal feed would become more expensive, and partly because there would be increased competition for grazing land.
… … …
Most proposals [for meat taxes] foresee different rates of tax applied to different animals … a pig fed on food waste and crop residues has a tiny fraction of the environmental impact of a pig fed on soya and grains.

If we were to have a meat tax, it would … be simpler to have a flat rate for all meat; and in the UK and the rest of the EU there is an oven-ready way of doing that … VAT … It is hard to think of a more seamless way of introducing consumers to the concept that meat … is a luxury item they will have to pay more for.
… … …
[Another] aspect of applying VAT to meat [is that] small livestock farms with an annual turnover of less than the £85,000 threshold could be exempt. They would benefit from an advantage of up to 20% over supermarkets for any meat they sell direct to consumers … [this] might help reverse the drastic decline in the number of small family farms, and give a boost to new entrants into farming. It would also provide a fillip to local economies, with farmers’ markets, community-supported agriculture schemes, urban food co-ops, small farms in the green belt, conservation graziers … likely to benefit.

It’s an intriguing idea, but one which I don’t see happening. The consumer in the developed world is far too wedded to meat as a staple food to accept what will be seen as an arbitrary price hike for no gain. But then again why not scrap income tax and charge VAT (or equivalent) on everything?