Monday, 25 July 2016

Girls, walks and maps

Living with a daughter and two granddaughters takes a lot of energy. We planned to take Meredith, Molly and Nuala on a suitably exhausting walk around Dunwich.

Almost all walks from Dunwich start at the beach car park. The path passes right by the edge of the cliff, which is sandstone and not particularly stable. Keeping Molly (nearly 8) and Nuala (4) from going on the rampage along paths which are single file causes anxious moments and sharp words among the adults. However, the beach view is panoramic and glorious.

The route winds its way through woodland which, in the distant past, was managed by a complex of a priory and other religious buildings. I’ve not worked out whether or not the orders were associated with each other administratively. Nevertheless, they are physically in very close proximity. The woodland is fairly open, the footpaths well-marked and perfect for walking. The shady environment meant that we didn’t notice the sun getting hotter.

After about 1½ miles, we get to the heath proper that ranges between Dunwich and Mimsmere Nature Reserve.  At this time of year the heather and gorse are in bloom.

Gorse and heather in bloom
The sun is hot and so are the adults, but Molly still insists on wearing a cardigan.

 Nuala collects pine cones. (Where did they come from? I’m clearly not very observant.)

Fortunately, there is a rural bench conveniently placed at almost the mid-point of our route. Nuala uses a very dainty receptacle to quench her thirst.

Nuala quenches her thirst from an elfin cup
Meredith still has Allen blood in her genes, notwithstanding the change of name. She insists on avoiding retracing her steps as far as possible. It provides the opportunity for Molly to revisit a play puddle (perfect for her 3 year-old self) while her parents hid in the bushes. Apparently, Molly was completely un-phased and just demanded supper volubly when she had finished playing.

The day was now hot. There was not much shade and the route back to the car park was very tiring for small legs. Molly managed the whole way and even Nuala was only carried for a couple of hundred yards. Fortunately, Dunwich car park is home to a Flora Tea Rooms. There we treated ourselves to chips and Earl Grey Tea.


Google maps is one of the more wonderful developments to come out of the age of the internet, but it also presents some challenges, For someone brought up on the UK’s Ordnance Survey maps, it comes as a surprise that footpaths are not included. But you can mix and match with Google earth. This is how I first mapped our route, which show a mileage of just over 4. Certainly enough to tire out little legs.
Route using Google Earth
Converting back to Google Maps, we get a very clear route map, but no features whatever. This is frustrating from someone brought up on the OS presentation.

The features on the heathland section were very difficult to follow. I have tried to map it in more detail. It was an interesting experiment, but I’m not sure that improves the accuracy greatly.

For Molly and Nuala, the ice cream at the end of the walk was clearly far more important.

Thursday, 21 July 2016

The Unexpected Swim

Cla taught me how to swim aged 6, after I had tried to drown myself in the Thames at Runnymede. At that point, the floor of the river shelved after sloping gradually and then shelved suddenly. Typically, I stepped off the shelf straight out of my depth. I’m told Cla dragged me out and I was given an ice cream to assuage the fright. Somewhere there is a photograph of me with face and hands covered in ice cream as proof of survival. But it seems I had acquired the habit taking unexpected dips.

Sixty years later, Bryony and I were picnicking with Meredith and her two daughters Molly (pictured below) and Nuala. We had chosen a spot on an island in the River Waveney near Bungay. Molly is learning to swim and has very nearly mastered the craft. Since England was in the middle of an intense heat wave, it wasn’t surprising that both girls insisted they wanted to get in the water. Meredith and the girls were prepared for this with both swimming gear and suitable footwear. I only brought trunks and towel.

Rivers are tricky, as I know, and Nuala is only 4. She insisted on being held by Meredith. This left me with the responsibility of getting in and looking after Molly.

I got in very gingerly. The river was not deep there, only up to mid-thigh, but the river bed was full of sharp unexpected objects. Curiously, I had expected my balance to improve because of the support of the water. This was a major misjudgement. Within a few minutes I had spilled inelegantly on to my bum.

So I was completely wet. I may as well tackle the swimming bit. Breast stroke was OK, but pretty exhausting. Obviously the fitness levels for my upper body are poor. Front crawl was almost impossible, since I tended to clockwise circles. Perhaps this wasn’t surprising since the stroke had demonstrated a tendency to right sided paralysis.

Still I was able keep an eye on Molly. Next time we’re at Walberswick, I really will go in the sea with Meredith and the girls.

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Study processes at the OU

I began studying Mathematics at the Open University (OU) in order to help Patrick, my eldest son, with his passion for astronomy. He was interested in a 2nd year OU module that needed a smattering of 1st year mathematics, whereas he had only studied at GCSE level. I suspected that my 40 year old A-level courses would not meet what was needed to help him. I joined up for a first year Maths module (MST121). This was all 3 or so years back, before the stroke.

Study at the OU is something of a solitary occupation. You work entirely at your own pace, restricted only by the need to submit course work on time and to take an end of year examination. The only time you meet your fellow students is at tutorials. These tutorials are rather artificial; more like intensive school lessons in a very small class. There is a small amount of chatter between the students as well as with the tutor. This chatter does not necessarily indicate engagement because we are still learning about each other, in particular our strengths and weaknesses.

Tutorials at a standard university tend to be quite different, because the ‘getting to know each other’ process has already taken place or at least there would have been the opportunity for it. Accordingly, there is much more engagement between the students and the subject under discussion.  These tutorials are not necessarily more successful than the conventional ‘lesson style’ necessitated by the OU circumstances, but they certainly command direct engagement from the students in a way that the OU approach does not. At least this is certainly true for the Maths & Stats tutorials that I’ve attended over the past three years.

However, this may be more concerned with Mathematics as a subject. The OU Mathematics degree offers an open choice module in the first year. I chose Technologies in Practice (TM129). This is a course in three parts looking at robotics, networking and Linux. Inevitably in a course with such a broad scope the level of detail was limited. But the first tutorial session (which I missed on account of succumbing to the stroke) was a practical in which the student employed his own programming skills to control a simple robot. The environment was real but our tasks were all in 2 dimensions and we had all prepared code for controlling simulated models on screen. One of the really clever things about our on screen models was that the modelling environment included variable discrepancies such as one might get in real life.

This course was geared toward the practical and part of it was aimed at giving students the opportunity to engage with world of academic paper writing. In particular we had to cope with some very constricting restraints in terms of word count, when writing mini papers for assignments (e.g. 500 words including references within the text, but excluding the detailed reference list at the end – marks were automatically deducted for exceeding the word count by more than 5 words). The very nature of these rather artificial constraints encouraged a good deal of discussion among the students. This was the first time at the OU that I felt the student community having an impact on the learning process.

This seems to imply that the OU does not give students the opportunity to communicate with each other. This is quite wrong. There are many general forums and each course tend to have several forums related to various elements of the course specifically. These are excellent for answering specific well constructed questions. In contrast they are very poor at eliciting a useful response to a vague query or idea. This because the author has to commit his vague thoughts in writing and usually does not get the chance top re-phrase his query in the light of responses. This is partly because the individuals who respond want to be helpful but always interpret the query in their own terms and not the questioner’s terms. I believe this leads to untold frustration.

The OU has been active for about 40 years now. This is a period that coincides with a massive expansion in both fundamental knowledge and the computing which allows both the storage and dissemination of such knowledge. The OU has been in the forefront of adjusting its teaching and dissemination methods to cope with and effectively use these new facilities. I am aware that in 1990s the maths courses had a week’s residential seminar. Apart from the many nefarious stories that surround these courses, I was also given the impression, from some attendees of my acquaintance, that this was an essential part of the communication and validation process. Sadly resource constraints appear to have put a stop to this part of the learning process. Educationally, this appears to be a fundamentally backward step.

Sunday, 17 July 2016

An unusual photographic register

Between 2003 and 2008, I spent many weeks each year working under contract either for the Audit Commission or for local authorities in East Anglia on the implementation of the rules for awarding Council Tax and Housing Benefit. (Neither the Audit Commission nor the rules associated with these benefits exist now in the same form.)

I managed the record keeping processes within an Excel workbook using a structured and indexed workbook under the control of a VBA package called ACBA Electronic Working Papers (ACBA-EWP). The purpose of this rather eccentric package was to bring together disparate but related elements of a project together in a format that was rather less rigid than the kind of structure that would be imposed by a database like Microsoft Access. In contrast to many commercial project control systems, all the analytical records associate with this system would be held within a single workbook, where the relationships between the analyses could be exposed clearly.

At this period, many local authorities used software packages for controlling these benefits that employed printed rather than electronic reports. I was faced with the problem of taking copies of these very bland but detailed printed reports within a (supposedly) electronic record (the Excel Workbook). I played James Bond and used a digital camera, which were just coming into vogue. Taking the pictures was easy. I even developed as simple manuscript record of every picture I took, its source and any other detail that appeared pertinent.

Manuscript evidence list
My challenge was to automate the processing of the camera’s electronic images into an appropriate / meaningful location within the workbook. Downloading images from a camera to a PC is governed by the interface, but generally the user has some control over both where the images are downloaded to and the name they are given. ACBA developed a standardized input sheet where these standard variables could be posted.

In ACBA-EWP, the user employs this sheet to tell the system the relevant point within the project to post a reference. I’m occasionally asked “why only a reference as opposed to the photographic evidence itself?” The rational is simply that photographs are very heavy on memory. Posting the photographs in would bloat the files very quickly. So the process looks something like this.

Posting photographs into ACBA-EWP
The next query concerns the “Documentary Evidence Index” and runs along the lines of “Why bother?” Here I have to look back to the original reason for creating ACBA-EWP. This was to support the work I was undertaking for local authorities. Much of this involved examining a wide variety or apparently unrelated material in order to come to view as to whether the central government subsidies had been spent in accordance with the regulations. The facility for reviewing the evidence examined at a single source provided a valuable oversight of the totality of the project. Even though it added a step in the pathway of getting to the evidence itself, it seemed worth it.

I confess that when applied to personal activities, such as the listing above, it can seem a little quirky, but perhaps that is a valid reflection on me. But, please remember, I’m recovering from a mild stroke.

Anyone interested in playing with the ACBA-EWP software itself should go to ACBA Functions.

Saturday, 9 July 2016

Halesworth Parish Church, St Mary’s

St Mary’s is one of those beautiful parish churches that has suffered as fewer people attend for religious purposes. A lofty building built in the 15th Century, it is well suited to music making and performance of all sorts. The church uses its facilities to raise funds for the maintenance of the fabric of the building where it can.

St. Mary's Parish Church, Halesowrth
The Red Barn Orchestra is a chamber sized ensemble assembled by Bob and Lesley Silvester. Fortunately, there is no lack of gifted amateur musicians in Norfolk and Suffolk. Many of these are amateur in name only, having either studied in their youth but chosen a non-performing career or retired to East Anglia from the professional ranks. I am lucky enough to be member of this small group on viola. It’s an excellent opportunity for me to challenge and test my stroke recovery.

This group is performing a small number of popular pieces – Symphony No. 4 (Wm Boyce), Pavane (Gabriel Faure), Brook Green Suite (Gustav Holst), 8 Russian Folk Songs (Anatoly Liadov) and the Water Music (selection) (G F Handel) – on Wednesday 13 July 2016 in St Mary’s Church. The playing starts at 12.30 and I gather that food will also be available for the audience.

Fatigue and recovery time

I have always tended to rise early. In my teens, this was the time for piano practice. Goodness knows how Rose put up with this, but Cla, also an early riser, was nearly always in his office at Mill Hill Observatory. During the earlier decades of our marriage, I was awake for most things first thing in the morning.

On leaving the Civil Service in the mid-1990s, it was very helpful to be a naturally early riser as an HGV driver. But I had to take much greater care managing my sleep patterns. Even so it was rarely difficult to get myself up at any time after 3am and take out an articulated lorry from Neil Bomford’s yard in Harleston. I combined driving with undertaking consultancy work at various Local Authorities in East Anglia. These councils were never operational before 8am. Rising early provided me the opportunity to develop programmed utilities in MS Excel and to expand a very personal view on the nature of the spreadsheet grid.

As driving and consultancy tailed off, I began an OU degree. Early morning was the natural time to study. Time management was not an issue since the need to work did not claim any priority over early morning study. But being tied to a desk/computer screen rather than being physically active may have had a major impact on my weight gain.

I described the immediate after effects of the stroke in ‘The Lurch’. My opening comment was about how tired I was, but assumed that this would disappear as the feeling returned to my right side. However, the loss of stamina appears to be a permanent factor.

Health issues never appear to present themselves singly. The over-weight factor has made me more prone to type 2 diabetes. I have been invited to join a UEA study designed to encourage patients who may be susceptible to diabetes to take steps that prevent them actually succumbing to it. This involves 6 or so group education sessions covering issues such as fats and healthy eating, getting active, portion control and labels, getting stronger and maintenance of goals achieved. Fortunately, most of the eating issues coincide with the restrictions suggested to prevent a further stroke, but there are a couple of really serious conflicts. These concern limiting salt intake and the impact that this has on dietary balance. On the other hand the approach taken towards weight loss and improving fitness is very positive and helpful.

I gave myself the target of cycling to the Rushall, Half Moon pub and back, about 6 miles. Given my previous history this did not seem too unreasonable. I had already tried out getting on and off the bicycle and tested myself on the BMX track. This was working.

The next task was to prove my ability on the road. Here family invasion intervened. Bryony drove Meredith and the children back from London. Two late nights and considerable sleep disturbance made an impact that took me quite by surprise. My first test cycle which was originally going to take our usual morning walk route had to be curtailed as shown below.

Curtailed cycle ride
The main issue seems to be confidence with balance rather than balance itself. I have given myself the interim task of improving confidence by cycling off road and on very quiet roads.

I’m hoping that this initial set back us due, primarily, to being overtired and not giving myself sufficient time to recover.

Thursday, 7 July 2016

Mental and physical stimuli

On reading Sunday’s blog, Bryony suggested “While referring to falling over as a result of the stroke, the rest of the blog had nothing to do with it.”

I don’t really agree. While superficially, I appear almost to have recovered from the stroke, there are nooks and crannies of problems that keep on cropping up. It is open to debate whether these are problems that result from the stroke or they are simply a continuation of weaknesses I have had throughout my life. Nevertheless, it is my intention that the blog should record a wide variety of aspects of my life, both mental and physical, so that I can get a handle on managing it post stroke. This was first discussed in “In the beginning”, but here I consider the scope of the impact of the stroke on life in more detail.

The blog began after I had withdrawn from an OU degree in Pure Mathematics towards the end of the 2nd year course (M208). It is reasonable to ask why, when I was more than ¾s of the way through the course material, I stopped. My course marks were fairly mediocre, but I had passed everything convincingly. The rationale for quitting concerned memory and speed. Sadly, I have always been slow and have never passed any exam well. The stroke has made further inroads into my speed of thought and reaction. Also my memory has definitely been impaired, in particular speed and detailed accuracy of my recall.

As you might guess, this means that certain types of academic exercises are more difficult to handle than others. This is particularly associated with activities that have long pathways with many branches. These characteristics are very prevalent in Group Theory and the more advanced aspects of the theory of calculus. Managing the learning processes associated with more advanced mathematics will provide the subject matter for significant numbers of the blogs.

I came late to computing and had no interest until the mid-1980s, when personal computers were being promoted in the UK Civil Service. At that time, I was an Internal Auditor and had to write up audit reports on a regular basis. So my initial introduction was through word processing.

Along with 90% of the general public, my imagination was fired by spreadsheets. Typically, I took a rather anarchic approach to both the presentation and subject matter of spreadsheets. I am now free to express views on spreadsheet construction from a purely intellectual (as opposed to commercial) perspective.

I will use the blog to expand on a more fundamental approach to the concept of what a spreadsheet is than that of a calculation grid. Typically, the kind of question I pose concerns whether the programmatic formula is fundamental to being a spreadsheet or the flexibility of the grid itself.

I will describe many spreadsheets based on the grid that have relatively few formulae and could not in any sense be described as a database, although there will be times when structures have database like features. 

There are also times when we should consider spreadsheets from the opposite perspective. What is the case for retaining a spreadsheet format when the function could be maintained more securely as a database? This perspective has only rarely been articulated other than in very general terms – like never use a spreadsheet when there is a practical database alternative..

Playing any instrumental is a marriage between the physical and the mental. I was initially surprised at how quickly I was able to play my instruments. My limitations are concerned with playing for public performance. Once again I will articulate these limitations in terms of memory and speed.

It has become clear though that my limitations are significantly exacerbated by fatigue. Managing rest periods is an important part of performance these days. The blog will recount the frequent instants where both poor rest management and loss of concentration blow up in my face.

Handling a large instrument
One of the joys of playing any musical instrument is the process of overcoming technical problems so as to present a meaningful performance. This is so intertwined with issues arising from the stroke, I’ll make no attempt to differentiate between the two.

Much of this blog has already used my pleasures associated with walking and cycling as a means of illustrating the impact of the stroke. You might imagine that once your ideas were committed to paper (or in this case the blog), there would be nothing else to say. However the very process of creating the blogs tends to highlight issues I hadn’t noticed before – e.g. essential time management, and the way that the effects of fatigue accumulates. I very much hope that this may benefit others as well as me.

Sunday, 3 July 2016

The love child of Jeremy and Boris

Walking for pleasure is a favourite past time for both Bryony and I. Tyrell’s Wood is one of those magical places that enthrals children and adults alike. We set off yesterday wondering whether we would escape the inevitable showers. In fact at the start it was beautiful sunshine creating dappled patterns through the woodland canopy.

Tyrell's Wood
Tyrell’s Wood is not huge but it has many interconnecting paths. It is usually easy enough to keep one’s directional sense. Also,we’ve had a very wet spring and early summer. Hence, we were prepared with gum boots rather than shoes or trainers. There were two good reasons for avoiding the inevitable mud. It was mucky and my balance was still fairly naff. I did not want to fall over. This is a real issue with slippery footing.

We opted for the smaller, drier paths. These had many twists and turns. For all that I was sure I still knew which direction I was facing. I have always claimed to have excellent directional sense.

[Dear reader this is based on the fact that little over 41 years ago, whilst on Dartmoor in mid- November (our honeymoon as it happens), we were coming to the end of a longish walk around 3.30pm. We faced a T junction in the footpath. Bryony felt we should turn right, whereas I had been following the map fairly closely and was certain that we should turn left. It was getting late I insisted I was right. Fortunately, we got back to the car just as it was getting really dark. I have relied on this correct decision for 4 decades or so. It has been backed by other directional decisions most notably while trekking in Australia, but the original trumps everything else.]

On arriving at a main path, I decided that we should turn to the right. I had past experience behind me and Bryony followed my lead. After 15 minutes or so the wood narrowed down to a narrow tract of trees and Bryony insisted we were going in the wrong direction. Reluctantly, I could see she was right. We about turned. Silence reigned for a while.

The tension was broken by finding some wonderful fallen trees, entirely suitable for our two granddaughters to climb on. They were coming to visit in less than a week’s time.

Curiously, we chose a much muddier route back to the car than the outward journey. But we also kept on the main routes so as not to lose the way again.

I attempted to pass off my error as that of being over confident in a Putin-esque kind of way. Bryony preferred the concept of the error being a product of the love child between Jeremy Corbyn and Boris Johnson. Given the bullish insistence that each of these politicians knew best in the face of some fairly trenchant criticism, it was hard to deny that the comparison had a degree of validity.

Friday, 1 July 2016

Learning a new camera

One of the less comfortable aspects of my stroke is the impairment of both balance and binocular vision. In fact, this is also applies to stereophonic hearing. The reason I crunched my old camera was by falling down a couple of steps with camera in hand. The up side is that I get to buy and learn about a new camera and the grandchildren get a new toy (the old camera, of course).

I took snaps along one of my regular routes described in The Lurch – Getting into the country. Knowing that Meredith and the grandchildren were to descend on us next week, I started with the playground and exercise area.

This first photos tested the telephoto function. The Recreation Ground sign was easy to make readable when it was only just readable to my naked eye.

The second was even more impressive. I was 60-70 yards away from that car parked in the car park.
There was no chance of me reading the car number plate. As you can see the number plate is perfectly clear in the photo. It’s easy to see how speed cameras work with that level of clarity.

Next I look at the exercise and play area.Here the sets of apparatus were taken from at least 50 yards away using the telephoto between two trees which limited the breadth of vision. Once again the telephoto allowed an unexpected clarity in the shot.

For the two pics of the BMX style track, I used about 30% telephoto which provided adequate magnification and breadth of scene.

The BMX track
London Plane Tree

Changing the orientation for this London Plane Tree, really didn’t work. Lopping off the top of the tree was not what I intended, but it is still impressively tall in comparison to the houses in the background.

Small flowers and plants

The species identification for all these photos is down to my youngest son Guthrie (who has just completed his Ecology degree at UEA). The exercise here was to use the telephoto facility to get close into hedgerow plants and photograph them in situ.

Red Campion (coloured white?)

Nipplewort (yellow flowers)

Dog Rose

Dog Rose - leaf

Hedgerow Cranesbill
The open meadows with their wide variety of flowering grasses are unusually beautiful at the moment. I suspect helped by the very abundant rain we’ve had this spring.

Flowering Grasses
I noticed this curiosity while walking beside a crop of maize. These look like mole hills, but each one was associated with the root ball of a specific plant. If anyone has ideas?
Mole hills round the maize roots
The village of Starston is truly picturesque. A summer’s day after plentiful rain shows it off to full advantage. This is an old community. Look at the size of the Old Rectory, it’s even larger than the Beck House (originally the home farm of the manor).

The Old Rectory

Beck House

View of Starston
Normally we have an excellent view of Starston church from here, but the trees are in such full leaf even the church tower is hidden..

The camera worked surprising well in my fairly untrained and inexperienced hands.