Archive | January, 2009

The Space Shuttle: Space as Routine

Posted on 27 January 2009 by JamesHamilton

I sat up all night when Columbia broke up, following the news via Samizdata’s Dale Amon. I’d seen the Challenger disaster live, too, but at the age of eighteen, which is different. Of course, NASA had carried forward an awful lot of ill fortune that really belonged to Mercury, Gemini and Apollo. But there’d been something clean, brushed and modern about the ’90s shuttle missions that was befouled by what happened to Columbia.

Here are three cockpit videos taken on board the Space Shuttle. Unlike the thrilling Apollo broadcasts I posted a few days ago, these are characterised by a kind of preppy longeur. The Yeager-esque “aw shucks” manner that Tom Wolfe made so much of has gone. In its place, an atmosphere familiar to anyone who has ever haunted an American campus coffee bar.

It’s the sensibility of the future and what orbital space travel has to become before Branson turns it into an hysterical version of BMI.

Taking off:

[youtube=http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=iwfsFtpACFw&NR=1]

Docking with the ISS:

[youtube=http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=KaX7DGSO31s]

I think they’re attempting re-entry sir! Or is that not what you want to say around Shuttle footage?

[youtube=http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=TOieURpnbm0]

Comments (4)

Football and Television in Edinburgh

Posted on 25 January 2009 by JamesHamilton

“Football and Television in Edinburgh” : I didn’t say “Scotland” as it might be different elsewhere.

I was prompted to this by my struggles yesterday afternoon to watch ITV’s live coverage of the FA Cup Fourth Round tie between Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur, a suburban London side. Scottish ITV weren’t showing it.

Anecdotally, I pick up that Scottish ITV don’t take the ITV FA Cup live feed. Not doing so opens up a prime slot of some size into which can go programming that’s either from Scotland or relevant to Scotland.

Everyone can see the point of that, if that really is the policy. But what were they showing yesterday instead? This

Scotland has some good young players coming through at the moment, and the future looks brighter than it has done for some time. So SITV’s decision had the immediate result of preventing young Scots from watching Scottish players (well, Scottish international and oftimes captain Darren Fletcher) and a Scottish manager performing at the highest level. (Alan Hutton was never going to play – foot injury – but none of the other live Cup action was shown either, so I’m guessing that the decision makers didn’t know or care).

In Edinburgh pubs, people watch whatever’s on. On one occasion, we were the only people in a bar who didn’t have a Scottish accent. Scotland’s game had just finished, and the choice facing the assembly was to stick around for the punditry, or retune to watch England’s match. The TV was retuned, and England’s game went ahead – with only a moment’s jocular jeering from one individual, who was immediately frowned into silence.

There’s as much interest in the Premiership as in England – I’ve lost count now of the number of lifelong Edinburgh people I’ve run into or overheard who support Arsenal, or Liverpool, or, unsurprisingly, Newcastle. I don’t know if it’s the religious question that puts such people off from local teams, and in Edinburgh, I’d rather doubt it: I’ve had conversations with Hibs and Hearts fans alike and the subject has never arisen. (I met one man who streams text commentary of Hibs games worldwide, which is the excellent flipside of what I’m discussing here).

The Premiership is on in pubs, and advertised on blackboards outside. And, the Saturday evening Spanish game is also shown.

I’d feared, when I realised that I really would be moving up here, that I’d have three years without Match of the Day. Not at all: there it is, on BBC Scotland, large as life at the usual time. It’s Sportscene that gets shunted. MOTD2 will be blocked back by an hour on occasion, which is irritating but understandable.

Of course, and as I am constantly told, this is a rugby town. Walk around and it’s overwhelmingly rugby pitches that you’ll see. You can even witness pick-up games of rugby taking place, which was something that, hitherto, I’d thought confined to the back pages of the Boden catalogue.

And, at least in the middle, it’s a wealthy, literate town with bookshelves visible in the windows, just the sort of place whose sporting life happens mostly on television.

There are soccer pitches. There have to be: Hibs train in my local public park. (A comparative luxury: Aberdeen still train on the beach).

But the soccer pitch that’s highest in my mind tells a different story. It’s beside the old railway line-cum-cycle path, near Granton. Imagine an open space next to some grubby 1950s low-rise flats. On it, picture one rusty metal goal, still standing, in heavily-littered waist-high grass. A little way off, there’s the remains of someone’s unofficial bonfire, and around it, beer cans, half-bottles, cigarette butts.

It doesn’t take a village: a lawn mower would be sufficient here.

(Edinburgh Academicals update: I reported the demolition of the pavilion a couple of months ago. I now discover that there are plans for a large-scale redevelopment, better facilities, and the incorporation of the Raeburn Hotel, which remains boarded up on the site as of now. Presumably the current economic climate is holding all of this up, but the designs I’ve seen are handsome enough).

Comments (9)

BBC Coverage of the Apollo Space Missions

Posted on 23 January 2009 by JamesHamilton

This is MTMG’s 600th post. I wanted to reflect for a moment on the privilege of living through a time in which, for the first time in history, there are things more exciting than war. International professional sport is the first: it’s better than politics, too, and these days Sky Sports News has become a kind of refuge.

The exploration of space is the other. The race to the Moon was a proxy war; but that’s the very point. And I hold it forever against my parents that they left me in my cot for the moment Armstrong and Aldrin touched down. My wife is a month younger than me, and she was allowed to stay up, so why..

One of the first proper books I was ever given was the Observer Book of Manned Spaceflight by the estimable Reginald Turnill.  My copy, which i have next to me now, was given to me by my father when I was three.

Turnill, the lucky man, was at the right place at the right time to cover the entire thing from beginning to end. That world of Florida and Houston and James Lileks motels and restaurants and AC Cobras and cigarettes and late nights and coffee in plastic cups was the one I thought I was going to grow up into.

I remember what little of it we had over here in Blighty. Lying half asleep, unbelted-up in the back seat, looking up at the window as the motorway lights ticked past and the raindrops climbed. The radio would be on, saying  “Late – Night – Rock”  to me with absolute confidence.

One jingle used a NASA-style countdown. But by the time I reached 17, everything was Merchant Ivory.

Here’s what it was like. BBC black and white serious science on late, on a television the size of a packing case, in a new-build detached house near the proposed route of the M3. Cheese on toast – white bread, grilled, because although the ex-wife didn’t take the toaster with her, the husband prefers burned fingers.

And the motor in the drive with its white stones in black tarmac. And James Burke, Patrick Moore, and Michael Charlton.

Apollo 8:

[youtube=http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=DWCYq7gE0wY]

Apollo 11:

[youtube=http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=kYd1d7a12eI]

Apollo 13:

[youtube=http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=DUP5IKyOiio]

Apollo 15, I think! (I can’t read, can I? Apollo 11 again, at least at first.)

[youtube=http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=I9BAP3cO9Bg]

When the revamp of this site is complete, there’ll be an extensive reading list and playlist on this subject, which won’t ignore the Soviets.

Comments (9)

Two Neuroscience Surprises

Posted on 22 January 2009 by JamesHamilton

Biased analyses of fMRI studies call into doubt some of the remarkably high correlations found between localised areas of brain activity and specific psychological measures.  In other words, researchers have been seeing what they wanted and expected to see, and they’ve been unconsciously creating the experimentational circumstances in which their hunches are confirmed.

I’d long suspected that this was going on in a lot of epidemiological psychological studies, but I’m surprised to find it going on here.

That’s the first, and perhaps the least, of the two surprises. The second is altogether less expected and more of a nuisance.

It now appears that changes in the blood flow in the brain does not necessarily correlate with shifts in neuronal activity.

Why is that a nuisance? It’s a nuisance because we have instruments that can measure blood flow very accurately. We have made a great deal of progress in recent years in devising instruments to monitor brain activity. British science has been in the forefront of this. Now it turns out that measuring blood flow is all they do. We thought they were a window onto more fundamental neuronal changes. They aren’t.

But, as you might expect, one door closes… and if you read the rest of the piece, it’s clear that this has opened up a new line of enquiry:

The interpretation of human brain imaging experiments is founded on the idea that changes in blood flow reflect parallel changes in neuronal activity. This important new study shows that blood flow changes can be anticipatory and completely unconnected to any localised neuronal activity. It’s up to future research to find out which brain areas and cognitive mechanisms are controlling this anticipatory blood flow. As the researchers said, their finding points to a “novel anticipatory brain mechanism”.

I’ve always said that neuroscience was far from finding any real answers to the sort of questions we have now. All it’s doing is finding out what the questions actually are. This bears that out a little.

Comments (4)

Different Kinds of Corruption in Football History

Posted on 22 January 2009 by JamesHamilton

(What follows derives from research for a fiction project)

By 1979, English football was clapped out. Decaying stadia, violent fans, and the fading away of the post-War talent boom left most lovers of sport with little to cheer. There had been eighty years of the Football League. For most of that time, the League had enjoyed large crowds, and, courtesy of the maximum wage and retain-and-transfer, captive entertainers to put in front of them. Ground maintenance was inexpensive relative to revenue. Clubs were a cash cow.

Where did all that money go, over all that time? To the Board, presumably. So what could an ambitious secretary-manager do, in the first part of the century, to get his hands on more of the wealth he was helping to create?

Assuming complete absence of scruple, our corrupt manager could weigh the following options:

Gambling Until the arrival of the Football Pools in 1923, gambling on sport was fiercely regulated, and thus capable of providing vast fortunes for anyone willing to walk on the dark side. Match fixing allegations haunted the early game – the 1905 Manchester City bribe scandal is the most prominent example. It would be a hard trick for a secretary-manager to pull without the knowledge and connivance of his team – unless, of course, he was prepared to ensure their silence.

Embezzlement With all of that lovely money pouring in from the turnstiles, the chance was there to divert some of it: all that was needed was the cooperation of a corrupt cashier or accountant. Illegal payments to players were a feature of pre-maximum wage League football. Secretary-managers, of course, were not subject to the pay restrictions of players. Something of this nature was probably responsible for the demise of Leeds City in 1919, but as they never handed over their books, the precise nature of their misdemeanours will forever remain a mystery. Herbert Chapman was banned from the game for life for his part in that. Those few biographers that he has had assert that he was away from the scene of the crime, running factories essential to the war effort.

Property Fraud We are witnessing something of an arms race in the stadium business now. Courtesy of Health and Safety legislation, most of the old stadia can no longer house sufficient supporters for the likes of Everton and Tottenham to compete at their natural level. This happened at the turn of the twentieth century, but in a more intense manner. Consortia of businessmen founded a club, built a big stadium, and cut all manner of deals to get their club straight into the Football League. Chelsea were founded in 1905 and went straight into Division Two: without the attractive opposition that that provided, the huge investment behind the club would have been lost. When Leeds City were banished from the League in 1919, they became insolvent overnight. At the same time, Arsenal were ratcheting themselves up the pole by dubious means – with the aid of a separate match-fixing scandal involving Liverpool and Manchester United – desperate to clear the debts generated by their move to Highbury. The opportunities open to the secretary-manager in both circumstances – success and bankruptcy – are obvious. Backhanders from construction firms; skimming of out-of-control construction budgets; cutting corners with materials and equipment. Again, none of this is possible for someone working alone.

Transfers The sheer power a club had over its players held possibilities for the unscrupulous and determined. There are many examples of secretary-managers negotiating over players with board members of other clubs. It takes no great leap of the imagination to envision a manager allowing the release of one of his players, once “certain conditions” are met..

On the other hand, some of the more modern scourges were less attractive. The most obvious example here is performance-enhancing drugs. They were always in use – but the financial implications of a cup win, or a league win, were relatively minor compared to the greater consequences of league membership or cup participation itself. Drug use was carried out purely for love of the game and with the selfless, unmonied desire to win.

I close with a paragraph from Wikipedia’s entry for Herbert Chapman:

Chapman returned to Leeds City from Barnbow after hostilities had ended, but resigned suddenly in December 1918, eventually moving to Selby to take up a position as a superintendent at an oil and coke works. No reason was given for his resignation, but as football resumed in 1919–20, Leeds City were accused by a former player of financial irregularities, involving illegal payments to guest players during wartime matches. No documentary evidence was produced, but Leeds’ refusal to allow the authorities access to their financial records was deemed a sign of guilt, and they were expelled from the Football League in October 1919 and five club officials, including Chapman, were banned from football for life. The club was dissolved, with the players auctioned off and their Elland Road ground taken over by the newly formed Leeds United.

Comments (3)

How to Combine Sport with Writing

Posted on 21 January 2009 by JamesHamilton

Haruki Murakami, interviewed by the Paris Review, passes on some trade secrets:

When I’m in writing mode for a novel, I get up at 4:00 am and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for 10km or swim for 1500m (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at 9:00 pm. I keep to this routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind. But to hold to such repetition for so long — six months to a year — requires a good amount of mental and physical strength. In that sense, writing a long novel is like survival training. Physical strength is as necessary as artistic sensitivity.

I’m a morning person, and would prefer to keep going until midday. But otherwise, this seems reasonable.

(H/t: Daily Routines)

Comments (4)

Duncan Edwards at Bible Class

Posted on 20 January 2009 by JamesHamilton

Courtesy of Mark Holland, an interesting piece in the Black Country Bugle about a 1940s Bible class photograph taken in Dudley. Of the thirty or so well-turned out lads present, only one has been identified: Duncan Edwards of Manchester United and England.

Mark points out that it was a Methodist class and that this was likely given the strength of Dissenting in the Black Country of the time.

Changes in religious belief and practice are harder to track than you might imagine. One reason why there are so many late Victorian churches and chapels in our towns and cities is that, when a survey was done in the 1850s, it was found that there were sufficient places of worship for only about half of the existing population. It follows that more than half of the population, before Darwin, had ceased to attend on any regular basis. Mayhew’s Survey is packed with instances of everyday people’s total ignorance (and ignoring) of religion.

For all that, the 1950s were the last boom time for Christian church attendance in the UK, the last time it was an unremarkable thing to do. Numbers at Easter Communion, and Anglican vocations fell off a cliff in the ’60s, and have declined at a steady rate ever since. (Individual churches have, of course, had their own stories to tell, some going in the opposite direction without being able to nudge the overall figures).

The founder of this Bible class, Bert Bissell, outlived Edwards by a full forty years. He sounds an interesting man in his own right:

Bert Bissell (1902-1998) founded the Vicar Street Bible class in 1925. On VJ-Day, 1945, he led a group of boys from the Bible class to the summit of Ben Nevis, where they built a cairn as a memorial to the new peace. The Ben Nevis Peace Cairn is now a significant landmark. Bert Bissell was a life-long peace campaigner and in 1987 he was awarded the prestigious World Methodist Peace Award.

Comments Off

Scotland v England 1966

Posted on 15 January 2009 by JamesHamilton

Footballers in the 1960s walked and ran differently.

There is a tautness and purpose to the Ramsey England of ’66. It’s best seen in games other than the World Cup ones, simply because the matches with Argentina, Portugal, West Germany et al are so familiar.

This is pretty much the post-Greaves side. Talk of “wingless wonders” conceals how well this England got to, and used, the corner flag. Greaves’s absence, in turn, conceals just how good Roger Hunt and Geoff Hurst actually were – how aware, how quick, possessed of great touch. Hurst in particular epitomises what Sir Clive Woodward came to call TCUP: “Thinking Correctly Under Pressure.”

[youtube=http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=F01b-h8sbqw]

Law and Baxter are tremendous here. Law, the commentator says, has his critics in Scotland. The real question for critics who can exercise that kind of judgement is whether or not they themselves had any part in Scotland’s failure to qualify for World Cup Finals in 1962, 1966 and 1970, at a time when their club sides were among the best in Europe.

Comments (7)

The Return of Blimpish

Posted on 14 January 2009 by JamesHamilton

Iain Dale commented not long ago that British political blogging hadn’t “yet” made the inroads achieved by its counterparts in the United States. That left some of us muttering to ourselves about how that was because British political blogging wasn’t actually terribly good, and that the bloggers who did show any talent were already writers or journalists of one stripe or another.

For me, the whole value of British political blogging was in the refreshing exchanges it made possible. In the early days, 4-6 years ago, there weren’t that many of us around. Samizdata, Harry’s Place, Peter Cuthbertson, Matthew Turner, Ian at England’s Sword, and someone calling himself Junius. People of every political stripe turned up everywhere. What resulted was sometimes a dust-up, but more often refreshing and enlightening exchange.

It was only a matter of time before talkboard denizens wrecked it. The big driver here was the creation of Comment Is Free. I’ve been acquainted with one of the Graun staffers who set up CIF since he was an inquisitive schoolboy, and, without malice, there was never any possibility of their successfully importing the blog format into their online paper.

And Crooked Timber, and the rantbloggers, and then the steady division of the expanding blogosphere into party categories.

So I was delighted to hear that Blimpish had started blogging again. He’d been by far the best of the openly Tory bloggers, a wide reader and deep thinker who could write and who was willing to engage in a proper argument – if you were foolish enough to take him on, of course. It was as pointless as debating with Oliver Kamm; always that effortless outflanking, executed with grace and every proper expression of regret.

Intelligence, fine writing and polite discussion are to modern British political blogging what a wooden racquet is to modern men’s tennis. Blimpish will have to learn to swear, to post his stats, to list-post and obsess about libel. It might take him some time. But until he does, we’ll have someone to show the Americans.

Comments (14)

More Thoughts on Nigel Clough at Derby County

Posted on 08 January 2009 by JamesHamilton

Derby’s victory over Manchester United at Pride Park last night was probably the most cheerful thing to have happened in any field in 2009. How dumb, dull and depressing if United had put on an expensive show and humiliated an already low County side in front of their new manager, the man with the magic name. Instead, his reign began with Kriss Commons’ magnificent candidate for goal of the season. That, and not the Clough legend, is what the match will be remembered for.

My concerns about Clough’s decision took two forms: the state of the club – poor; and the weight of history – heavy. I felt that Clough’s achievements at Burton were real and deserving of a better sequel than seemed likely to me at the time his move became news.

Here’s what I was forgetting.

Nigel Clough is his father’s son, but not in the tabloid sense. We’ve all experienced Brian Clough, but only from the stands or through the medium of newspapers, television and Youtube. Recent biographies have rounded out the picture, although only through the inevitable sycophantic fog. Nigel Clough knew his father at home. While there is no sense that Brian was anything other than a devoted parent, there is equally little sense that the son looks up to the father either as hero or as one who must be emulated. And, remember, he was there for the heavy drinking years. Rightly, there’s a lot he knows about that that we don’t. Graham Taylor, who knows Nigel and knew Brian, describes Nigel as taking after his mother rather than his father, as a strong, intelligent man who – above all – knows his own mind.

In short, taking over his father’s old job is different for Nigel than it is for the press, for television, or for bloggers. It will look, feel, seem to him in a way we won’t have access to from the outside.

Then there’s the question of Derby County itself. One comment on a football website exulted in the emotions Nigel would be feeling, taking over the club after living locally for forty years. Well, I don’t know about that. But it did remind me that the Cloughs have kept up close links with the club since Brian’s death. Nigel will indeed know the place inside out – furthermore, that will be as the club is now, not as it might be through a nostalgiascope pointed towards the ghost of the Baseball Ground. He’ll know what the problems are, and his chances of turning them around.

I get the feeling, now, that the idea of succession is far enough away from his mind for it not to be his problem, and that he has the strength of mind to ignore the press on the subject. He is joining a club, now, that he knows as it is, now, and does not appear to feel any weight of history upon his shoulders. All the better for him. Everything that has come from the mouth of Nigel Clough since his appointment has been down to earth, unromantic, realistic and mature.

There was a period towards the end of his father’s career at Forest when he entered, press-wise, his romantic period. No one doubted him anymore; everyone wanted him, as they’d once wanted Stan Matthews, to end his career with the FA Cup on his “humble” mantlepiece. Or, perhaps, to find one last reserve of the old energy and fire, and ride with it to England’s rescue. Or to go into Parliament. Or take over the FA and kick out the “blazer brigade.” All through this period, Brian Clough was on his bottle a day. A real man, living a real life and not finding it an easy or comfortable place, never incapacitated but, his son would have known, not the figure from the tabloids.

The figure from the tabloids might have been heavy on his shoulders. But the real father was family, used the same roll of toilet paper, the same bottle of milk. Brian always came home: that was him in front of the telly, or grumbling about the bathroom. I would guess that old big ‘ead, the man who’d tried to get a bridge four together in the England dressing room under Winterbottom, with his clever wife and academically-able children, wasn’t old big ‘ead at home. Whoever he was, at home, is the man Nigel Clough sees himself as succeeding. And he ain’t heavy.

Comments (11)

Advertise Here
Advertise Here