Sunday 30 December 2012

2012 in review

Unusually for me it was events on the national and international stage that made 2012 particularly memorable. The 2012 London Olympics were a great triumph and proved to the world that we can run major events spectacularly well. The doom-and-gloom merchants plus those who exhibited total indifference to the whole event must be fuming! Later in the year the defeat of Mitt Romney in the US presidential election was a relief but the thought he was even considered to be a viable candidate by mainstream Americans fills me with horror.

It has also been an eventful and successful year in both my birth and extended families. Two babies, Grace and Nancy, have joined us and it has been lovely to see how rapidly they change in their first few months. Baby Firth is already overdue so there might be a third new arrival in 2012.
Eve and Ella (adult care-leavers I mentor) have also had girl babies – Nicola and Alice – and from what I read in the weekly email Eve sends me both youngsters are doing well. S, the university student who lost both her parents in a car accident, is my third mentee and she too has had a better year. Events with her vile Granddad are moving towards a climax and he should be appearing for sentencing at the Crown Court this spring. I genuinely hope that he gets a custodial sentence.

2012 will also go down as the year when I dropped out of one hobby (amateur astronomy) but returned to another (philatelic exhibiting) after a long break. I don’t regret either decision even though I accept that the first of the two decisions was long overdue!

Monday 24 December 2012

Christmas Memories

Christmas was always a difficult time in my childhood. My Mother almost never managed to buy exactly what I had asked for – nearly but not quite sums it up - and that was what made it so stressful. It was never the cost that was the issue since Dad was in a well-paid job up in London: it was that she always seemed to be taken for a sucker by some salesman who took the opportunity to offload some slow-selling stock on her.

I wanted a wrist watch. Specifically I wanted a Timex wrist watch like the cool kids had. So what did she do? She purchased an Ingersol watch instead “because it looked nicer”. Not because it was more or less expensive (I later checked in the shop window) but because she thought it looked nicer.
It was the same story with the electric cars – “Top-On Raceways “rather than “Scalelectrix”. Her version of what I had asked for didn’t work at all over Christmas and the cars went backwards and forwards to the shop several times before I got two cars that worked properly.

And again it was the same story with “Action Man”. She came home proudly bearing some substitute product that looked broadly similar but wasn’t what I had asked for.
The final horror story was the worst. My brother wanted/needed a new bike. So his old bike mysteriously vanished from the garage only to reappear shortly after as a Christmas present for me.  Repainted to look like a new bike? – no. Rust removed to make it look less like a rather battered second hand bike? – no.  A blank denial that this was Stephen’s old bike – yes.  To my Dad’s credit even he felt this was unreasonable and in January Mother found another bike for me. A second hand girls bike for which I was supposed to be grateful!

Thursday 20 December 2012

Cure before prevention - I think not!

Imagine that somebody has a nasty fall in a factory and is taken to hospital. You would take it for granted that a diagnosis – she has broken her leg – would be made but wouldn’t you also expect some form of investigation to take place in the factory to find out why the accident happened? If the factory owner said that the important thing was to look forward rather than back I suspect most people would be fairly outraged. Without some attempt being made to discover the cause what is to prevent the same thing happening again and again?  How many people would need to break their leg before something got done?

I was a fairly high-powered meeting this week where this common sense principle was roundly ignored by most of the participants. Looking backward was clearly seen as dangerous because looking at the causes of a problem might mean apportioning blame – perhaps even to people present in the room. Far safer to concentrate of putting things right rather than spending time or resources on stopping things going wrong in the first place!
The adage that “prevention is better than cure” does have some validity but when it comes to people guarding their own backs all too often it seems expedient for senior staff to do the exact opposite. I think that the checks and balances that should exist in well run organisations didn’t operate as they should and it makes me wonder if both tax payers and local residents are being well served by an organisation that puts effect before cause and cure before prevention.

When the current crisis has reached a conclusion this is an issue I intend to raise with all those concerned.

Saturday 15 December 2012

AAVSO Bright Star Monitor Epoch Photometry Database

The American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) Bright Star Monitor Epoch Photometry Database - Part 2

Henden, showing his usual distain for any view that differs from his own, thought that my previous post was disrepectful. Oh dear (not)!

So I wrote - I have enormous respect for the work carried out by the individual members of the AAVSO.

However it was not these members who made the decision to snub the international groups who have been generous enough to share their members’ data with the AAVSO. The decision by a tiny sub-group to adopt a “what was yours has become everybody’s but some of what is ours will remain ours” approach is unquestionably a spectacular public-relations disaster.
I agree that the light curve generator identifies the affiliation of the observer but, crucially, the WebObs facility does not do so. Any observer using the individual results will almost inevitably do so without regard to the affiliation of source observer. My view that the best these overseas data providers can expect from any subsequent use of their results is a generic comment along the lines of, “Thank you to those AAVSO members who provided the results” remains unchanged. That seems wholly unacceptable.

Neither by-the-way was it the ordinary members of the AAVSO who decided to move the thread on the Bright Star Monitor Epoch Photometry Database to the AAVSO Governance forum so that the thread starter (that would be me) and other non-members of AAVSO (surely those most disadvantaged by the decision) could neither see nor contribute to the debate. Sadly this is not the first time that a policy of censoring views that differ from that of HQ’s staff  seems to have been adopted. I’m thinking here specifically of the demise of the AAVSO Data Mining Section and the humiliating fiasco of the First Survey of Professional and Amateur Collaborations in Astronomy - although there are other examples.

Monday 10 December 2012

The AAVSO’s Bright Star Monitor Epoch Photometry Database

The American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) Bright Star Monitor Epoch Photometry Database

By any normal measure this is a fairly obscure title for a blog post but recent events surrounding this database of variable star results shows the American psyche at its least attractive.
Other international groups have been generous enough to share their members’ data with the AAVSO but when the AAVSO had the opportunity to demonstrate their appreciation for this generosity they failed dismally. Instead of doing everything in their power to make this bright star data available to the wider astronomical community they have decided to adopt a curious “what was yours has become everybody’s but what is ours will remain ours” philosophy.

I think non-members of the AAVSO who now find their results in the AAVSO database are likely to be fairly unimpressed by all of this – for several reasons.  The “word on the street” is that the source of this third-party material is very far from obvious to the casual database user. It seems that the most these overseas data providers can expect from any subsequent users of their results is a generic comment along the lines of, “Thank you to those AAVSO members who provided the results”!
That the top people within the AAVSO initially made a fairly crude attempt to censor any debate on this unfortunate affair just adds a certain piquancy to the entire business. Moving the discussion thread to the AAVSO Governance forum meant that the thread starter (that would be me) and other non-members of AAVSO (surely those most disadvantaged by the decision) could neither see or contribute to the thread. Luckily this decision was later reversed.

I await developments with some interest.

Thursday 6 December 2012

Remembering My Mother

For the last three years of my Mother's life Claire and I used to visit twice a week. Every Thursday and Saturday as regular as clockwork we used to drive over to Rugby - on the way just past the former Great Central railway station we almost always used to see a man walking his dog in the direction of Rugby and the van looking out for speeding motorists.

Cherry Trees where Mother lived was a Residential Home for the Elderly - Mother called in "The Place" or "The School" but never Cherry Trees. It was a small home and Claire and I felt it was very well run and we never had the slightest concern for Mother's welfare while she was there. For the first year or so the car park at Cherry Trees was quite often empty when we arrived but for the last 18 months there were almost always other cars parked there.

Mother lived in room 6 but although she could never remember the number she could always find her way there unaided. Her visual recall of the route was fine once she was at Cherry Trees but when she was out with us she was often very worried that she couldn't remember anything about where she lived. Another curious aspect of life with her! She was usually very pleased to see us but we sometimes had to quite firm with her about wearing enough clothes and an appropriate coat.

In the early days at Cherry Trees she seemed to use hair grips and a hair-net at night. We used to find the grips on the floor most visits and buying supplies from Sainbury's was a regular event. Then it all suddenly stopped, never restarted and was never mentioned by her again. This was one of the more curious events we experienced as her dementia gradually got worse.

I always did the driving to Cherry Trees and then on to the supermarket with Mother in the front seat and Claire in the back seat. Mother never had a shopping list but always agreed she needed one. The first of the days worries would always be about what she needed to buy. We must have visited Sainbury's about 300 times during Mother's three years at Cherry Trees. We almost always drove to the far side of the car park, turned right and then almost always turned left into a space. On reflection I almost always park this way - not just at Sainbury's but in any car park - strange!

Fruit was just inside the entrance. Bananas were the most regular fruit purchase by far. They needed to be not too green and not too hard – yes, she was very fussy. Claire sometimes left us at this point to do our shopping and I would do the rest of the circuit without support. Chocolate was next, then magazines for me (sometimes) and for Mother (rarely). Biscuits, fig rolls, were other regular purchase. When Claire turned up we would jointly check we had everything we needed and she would go off to pay and I would take Mother to the cafe. Every time it was the same routine - sit her down, "Do you want a coffee" - "Yes please dear" - then I would collect a carton of fruit juice for Claire, a diet coke for me and a coffee for Mother.

Towards the end we switched to hot chocolate instead of coffee since Sainbury's didn't seem able to make a hot coffee. We would sit down a a circular table for a good old worry session and a three question cycle repated N times. Every visit Mother complained about the size of her drink - it was too large.

Eventually our patience would wear out and Claire would take her to the toilet prior to the next part of the afternoon's excitement. We found it was less stressful for all concerned for our twice-weekly visits to follow a fairly set routine. Even before her illness she had disliked spontaneity and this character trait became more pronounced as the years went by.

The Rugby town-centre park with the circular flower beds was our most frequent walk. This was a very impressive facility and reflected well on all concerned. The avenue near the Sports Centre was less exciting but made a change and it was our second most frequent destination. The out-of-town garden centre was my personal favourite and over the last year moved into third place. We also sometimes visited Draycote Water, the cemetery gardens next to the football ground and Cock Robin Wood close by the Supermarket.

Saturday 1 December 2012

Cause and Effect

I’m always surprised when an ostensibly sensible person confines their analysis of a possible course of action simply to looking at the first stage of a multi-stage process. In my experience this is almost always a recipe for disaster.

The most extreme example of this was RD who was employed as an Assistant Principal at a Further Education college. RD seemed to regard every interaction he had with people as being totally divorced from what had happened in the past and irrelevant as a predictive tool as to what might happen in the future. Time and again he was left publically bemused by colleagues who didn’t share his view of the world.
If you were trying to write a job description for a totally unsuitable post for RD it would have involved giving him a managerial role overseeing people who were better educated and more articulate than he was. Given that he was a former woodwork teacher such people were not hard to find in a post-16 college.

RD didn’t seem to be able to get his head around the fact that people have memories – very long memories when it comes to being stitched up – and that “forgive and forget” isn’t necessarily part of everybody’s philosophy. Time and again RD would engage in the very worst forms of macho posturing as a manager and then he would act both aggrieved and sad when he found that as a result he was almost universally despised.
 Some years after I left the college I met up with RD in a situation where I was several steps above him in the educational hierarchy. I was chairing a committee on which he was a very junior member – so junior in fact he didn’t even have voting rights – and he still was the odious little man I remembered so well.   Clearly time hadn’t shown him the error of his ways.