Monday, 18 September 2017

A case of mistaken identity

Towards the tail end of the 19th century, there lived two men. They shared the same forename and surname, and were approximately the same age as each other. That is where the similarities end.

One of these men was a poet, and went on to be relatively famous, writing one of the better-known poems of the First World War. The other was a rather obscure chemist who both wrote and translated a variety of chemistry text books.

The first of these men is of only passing interest to me, the second is my great-grandfather.

I have been, over the years, gradually tracking down and acquiring copies of the various books my great-grandfather wrote or translated, and the internet has been invaluable in allowing me to search for copies, contact libraries and find titles.

But... there's a problem with the internet. And it's a problem that many of you will already be very aware of. It can't be trusted. Obviously, we all know that some sources of information on the internet are more trustworthy than others, and we all make judgements all the time about how much a given site should be believed. Generally speaking, the more exclamation marks used, the less reliable the information. This hasn't been much of a problem in my research so far, as obscure 19th century chemists rarely rate a mention on BuzzFeed or Breitbart.

The problem now is that I have encountered several major, reputable, decent, academic institutions and library catalogues who have merged the poet and chemist who share a name into one person, and my great-grandfather's work is being attributed to one of the War Poets. This isn't exactly a problem of earth-shattering proportions, but it is something that I feel I should attempt to correct. Because once incorrect information is "out there", it tends to propagate, and the more places it reaches into, the harder it is to eliminate. And one day, earnest biographers and students will be marvelling over the polymath poet who found time to translate German text books on chemistry, completely unaware that there was another man of the same name being gently forgotten by history.

I did manage, after a bit of to-ing and fro-ing to convince Wikipedia to accept my assertion that the famous poet was not also an obscure chemist. But that's because, for all its faults, Wikipedia is intended to be modified and corrected by normal humans being in possession of new information. I'm not sure how confident I feel about convincing collaborative, international, library catalogues or university archivists that they're wrong...

But, like a dog with a bone, if someone on the internet is wrong, I find it hard to let it lie. So, with a certain amount of trepidation, I shall set forth upon my quest to separate these two identities for future historians. I may be some time.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Offering a bit of balance

Sometimes I think BigBear might get what seem like poor ratings on this blog. He rarely features as much more than a bit-part player, frequently seems absent from my adventures, or perhaps may cause readers to think, "but if PhysicsBear is so stressed and unhappy, what's BigBear doing about it?"

And the truth is, BigBear is always here, always supporting, and always looking-after, but because he's a private person, and because it's not up to me to wash his dirty laundry in public, anything that strays into territory that might seem to be his private world is off-limits when I'm writing. Which means, though you may think I bare my whole soul here, there are often things I don't write about. And BigBear becomes a cipher.

So today I am, briefly, going to redress the balance and let you know that BigBear is lovely.

Last night, I stayed up too late making a cake. Part of the "too-lateness" of this cake arose from my own decision not to use the beaters until after I thought LittleBear would be asleep (his bedroom is directly above the kitchen). So I didn't start mixing the cake until 8:30. And it was a large cake, containing 7 eggs, and the recipe suggested cooking it at 140C, so it took a very, very, very long time to bake. And I felt as though Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry were hovering behind me, judging the lightness of my crumb or the sogginess of my bottom. When I first stuck a skewer in it, it was still essentially liquid in the middle, which ratcheted up my stress-levels somewhat. Gin was the only answer. For me, not the cake.

I bet you're wondering where BigBear fits in aren't you? He was watching football on television at the time, if you must know. His role in this story comes later.

As I've already mentioned, I'm suffering from an inability to drink alcohol at the moment, and even as I drank my G&T I feared that it was a Bad Idea. And I was right, because when my LittleBear came and jumped on my headache in the morning, I wanted the world to stop spinning so I could get off. Instead, this is what happened...

We had a lovely snuggly, family cuddle for a few minutes, and then BigBear and LittleBear got up and went downstairs. I had two paracetamol and a bottle of water and went back to sleep. I woke up at half-past eleven and went for a shower, and when I came out, there was a freshly brewed cup of coffee on my bedside table. I didn't get downstairs until nearly midday. I have a five year-old child and I stayed in bed until lunchtime, and BigBear has not once begrudged me that time, or teased me about having a gin-related headache, or asked for any special recognition or reward.

Because BigBear is lovely, no matter how infrequently I mention him here.

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Acute vexation

Today has been One Of Those Days at work. In fact, this week is shaping up to be One Of Those Weeks.

I have been contacted again by Mr Turnip and the Purchasing Department. While this should be the name of a slightly twee indie rock band, sadly it's actually the stuff of nightmares. Literally. I had nightmares about it last night.

It's nearly a year since Mr Turnip insist that I bend to his will and I refused. And it turns out, rather as I expected, there is no-one else in the world who can or will build a bespoke scientific instrument to his specifications, so a year later and his Purchasing Department have put the instrument out to tender. Again.

So, here we go again....

Except, since we last put a bid in, the delightful bureaucrats at the other end have "improved" the tendering system, and we no longer have to submit paper copies, in triplicate, in sealed, colour-coded envelopes, with every page signed, counter-signed and stamped. Now, they have an e-Tender website. Imagine, if you can, the kind of website that will be designed by people who like having paper copies in triplicate, in sealed, colour-coded envelopes, with every page signed, counter-signed and stamped. Now stop imagining that, if you can, because it will only give you a headache.

For reasons that are too vexatious, and might lead to me committing a sackable offence if I were attempt to give voice to them, I am attempting to submit this bid. But I'm very busy - attempting to get 4 instruments tested, 2 instruments built and another one designed. All by last January. So, I asked Minion Who Lacks Gumption to explore the website, read the documentation, find the bid details and instructions and report back to me on what I need to do. I asked him to do this 10 days ago and have seen him studying the website most days when I've walked past his desk. Foolishly I thought that this meant he would have made sterling progress. Such naivete.

Yesterday, I sat down with him to enquire whether he had worked out what the tendering process actually is.

PhysicsBear: what do I have to do?

Minion Who Lacks Gumtion: Ummm

PB: Do I upload a pdf? Or do I have to copy and paste into a web form?

MWLG: Ummm. 

PB: ?

MWLG: I think you type things in. There's a spreadsheet.

PB: Really? It's just that last time we had nine pages of descriptions and photographs and diagrams, so it's hard to see how I can type that in.

MWLG: It said something about blue ink.

PB: How do I use blue ink on a website?

MWLG: I don't know.

PB: So?

MWLG: There's a briefcase.

PB: What's that?

MWLG: Ummm.

PB: Yes?

MWLG: I think you put things there?

PB: How?

MWLG: I don't know. Whenever I try and look I get an error message.

PB: What message?

MWLG: Ummm.

PB: Can you show me?

MWLG: Ummm.

After a bit more poking and prodding we sit and look at the website together. And, lo and behold, there is indeed an error message. MWLG has registered the company on the website, but the registration is incomplete, and without completing the registration, access to the bidding section is restricted. The website clearly states, in big, red letters, "You do not have a Digital Certificate. Please obtain a Digital Certificate before attempting to continue."

PB: What's the Digital Certificate?

MWLG: Ummm

PB: Well, there's a menu called "Digital Certificate" at the top there. We should look at that.

And yea, verily, there were documents entitled "Important Points for applying" and "Application Procedure" and even an actual application form. At this point, somewhat exasperated, I retreated to my own desk to read what were obviously quite important pieces of information that MWLG had failed to find, or read, or tell me about. And it was in the following twenty minutes that everything unravelled before my eyes.

I learnt a new word. It wasn't a swear word, though I may use it as such. Though perhaps it's too pretty for that. It is "apostille". Try it, it's rather nice: apostille, apostille, apostille. My lawyer friends may be nodding ruefully at this point. Those of you who don't know the meaning of "apostille" - I envy you. I wish I too was still in a state of blissful ignorance. I wish I too did not know anything about the Hague Convention. I wish I could just footle around with my protons and electrons and not have to fall into the chasm of bureaucracy that has opened beneath my feet.

Let me explain. I'll try to be brief.

To apostille a document is to certify that it is legal under the Hague Convention. Which sounds quite benign.

The requirements in this case are that I take a signed passport photograph, my passport, the company seal, a legal document demonstrating I am authorised to act on behalf of the company, the company's certificate of incorporation, the articles and memorandum of association, the first and second pages of a company bank statement, the last audit report, and the last annual financial return to a Public Notary. The Public Notary duly notarizes copies of these documents as being true and valid etc etc. Then I have to send these notarized documents to the Legalisation Office of the UK Government to be apostilled. Which appears to mean that they are notarized to prove that the government agrees that the notary who did the original notarizing is indeed authorized to notarize. With me so far?

Obviously, I have to pay for all these services. And they take time. I could get the apostilling done on a next day basis, if I went to London myself.

And then (and here's the kicker), I have to send the apostilled, notarized documents... to Mumbai. Where they will take a minimum of 7 days to process them. At the end of which process, they will issue me with a 2048-bit RSA key digital signature certificate. Though I may also have to provide biometric data. To Mumbai. No, I don't know how they expect me to do that.

And this utterly extraordinary level of security and complexity will essentially be to give me a password to a website so I can (possibly) upload a pdf offering our services to supply a mass spectrometer. And I thought internet banking was a bit of a faff.

We have 30 days in which to submit this bid. We would have had 40 days if MWLG had actually discovered the need for a digital signature in the ten days he had to look at the website.

I've decided not to bother.

I've written to our agent in India and said "No". He can deal with it, that's what he takes a cut for. He can actually be an agent for a change and apply on our behalf. And if that doesn't work, Mr Turnip will have to make his own mass spectrometer, because I give up.

Thursday, 7 September 2017

Getting the phone call

Foreword: for those of a nervous disposition, my LittleBear is absolutely fine, please don't panic.

Yesterday was a rather trying day.

I was late to work after having had the plumber here to bleed my bank account dry fix the central heating and hot water system. I had been at work for less than an hour, and was busy in the lab with a catastrophically broken instrument (a bit had literally just fallen off) when a call came over the tannoy, "PhysicsBear, there's a call for you on line 5, it's the school". My colleagues evaporated into the walls as I reached for the nearest phone, kindly leaving me in peace to take The Call.

"LittleBear is fine, and he's being well looked after, but there's been an accident and he's hurt his eye. The first-aider thinks he needs further medical attention. Can you come and get him?"

I asked her to clarify what "further medical attention" might be - a trip to the GP? A trip to A&E? This proved to be more information than she was privy to.

"Hold on a moment," ..... bump, rustle, clip, clop, clip, clop..... clip, clop, clip, clop, rustle, bump ..... "The first-aider thinks he needs to go to A&E".

I explained I was at work and it would take me 25 minutes to reach the school...

"Would you like us to call your mobile if there are any further updates?"

I don't have a hands-free kit for my car, and didn't fancy getting into trouble with the Long Arm of the Law by answering my phone so I told her there wouldn't be much point and sprinted for the car, literally yelling over my shoulder in the general direction of my boss that it was LittleBear's eye and I had to go.

Obviously, if I'd been level-headed and clear-thinking, I would have tried to extract more information as to the nature of this eye injury before setting off. And it might have saved me from 25 very unpleasant minutes in the car...

What sort of injury? How bad? Bad enough to need A&E but not bad enough to need an ambulance? An injury that might create an "update" within 25 minutes? Something in his eye? Glue? Bleach? A sharp implement? A bite or sting that's made it swell closed? What sort of injuries to an eye can be fixed? What if he loses the sight in his eye? Please no... not my baby boy's eye... please not his sight... please... please... please...

Suddenly I knew exactly what people mean when they talk about your bowels liquifying in fear.

I pulled onto the grass verge outside the school and ran down the path, only to have the door opened before me by LittleBear's new teacher, waiting for me.

"He has a nasty cut above his eyebrow that will need stitches or similar"

Oh thank God, it's only a flesh wound. Patching up a bad cut I can bear. It's not his eye. I have never been so happy to know that my son has a cut.

And as we rounded the corner towards the first-aid station I could hear my beautiful boy's gurgling laugh. He was playing on an iPad with two members of staff, a blood-stained dressing taped to his head, and someone else's clothes on. When he saw me, it obviously all hit home again as he went all trembly and clambered into my arms. He was terribly shaky and upset, and so scared of what might happen at the hospital. And he didn't quite believe me when I explained what would happen or told him that the doctors were specially trained to not hurt people.

It doesn't, here, matter quite what happened, or how, or why, or any of those details. In the aftermath, the first-aiders and LittleBear's teachers had done a sterling job of staunching the flow of blood and getting him clean and calm while he waited for me. They were right though, he definitely needed the trip to A&E.

It became abundantly clear that it was the blood that had distressed him most of all, not the pain, which is why the staff had thought to take his own clothes off and put him in clean, dry clothes. This was brought home to me as I cursed the designers of lifts who think it's a good idea to fit them with mirrors. One look at the blood-soaked dressing on his head had my LittleBear teary-eyed and quivering again.

The staff at our lovely, big teaching hospital were as brilliant with my boy as they have always been, and we were whisked straight out of A&E and into Paediatric A&E where there are toys and books instead of drunks and dripping blood. We had a surprisingly calm and enjoyable time playing (and getting hungry) for an hour and a half before my baby was patched up. "I don't feel hungry yet Mummy, not until after the operation."

I really, really tried to persuade him it wouldn't be that bad, but there was no convincing him.

And finally it was our turn, and I had to hold my baby as he sobbed and trembled while a delightful, kind, gentle doctor peeled the dressing off, cleaned the cut and pulled the edges together before taping and gluing it closed. And one glimpse of the open wound was all I needed to turn my stomach. My admiration for the first-aider at school went up several notches.

But then there was chocolate cake and chocolate ice-cream and cuddles. And it doesn't look that bad now.

Sunday, 3 September 2017

Gross injustice

Today I had a terrible, terrible hangover. The kind that had me whimpering in the shower and wishing the water wasn't hitting my head quite so hard. The kind that had me clinging to the edge of the toilet bowl to reacquaint myself with my rashly-ingested breakfast. The kind that still, fourteen hours after waking up, hasn't quite worn off.

You might be thinking that I went on a real drinking binge last night. Or that I had my drinks spiked. Or that BigBear and I were out partying until the wee small hours.

You'd think wrong.

I did quite a lot of gardening and then had two small glasses of white wine after dinner. I was probably a bit dehydrated after gardening in the blazing sunshine, though I did drink a couple of pints of water as well, which seemed positively sensible, for me.

The real trouble is, this isn't the first time... Before going to Lyme Regis with LittleBear, I went to the pub with my friends, drank two pints of beer and spent the entire following day feeling awful... While in the Lake District with Tigger, we would imbibe the odd glass of wine most evenings. And most mornings I woke with a headache and feeling ropey... For several months now, if I have a drink, any drink, any type, any size, I feel awful the next day. I seem to have lost all ability to metabolise alcohol without feeling utterly, utterly awful the following day.

This is not right.

This is not fair.

This may be the start of me giving up alcohol altogether. And that is a gross injustice.

Saturday, 2 September 2017

Cycling in a long skirt

There are, to the best of my knowledge, three main ways to bicycle in a long flowing skirt.

Method 1

Undertake a complex piece of sartorial origami, using your backside as a final anchor point, allowing your legs to remain gracefully covered and yet still effortlessly mobile. This works perfectly for the first 300 yards, until such time as your backside moves out of the saddle by as much as a quarter of a millimetre, at which point the entire ensemble spills forth from between your legs like satin incontinence. At which point you are back to where you started, but flailing around in the middle of the road, hoping nobody has noticed. If you were a cat you'd start nonchalantly licking yourself clean.

Method 2

Do nothing. Your skirt gets caught in the chain or the wheel, and either you part company with your bicycle, your skirt parts company with you, or, in the worst case scenario, both events occur simultaneously.

Method 3

Grab part of your skirt in one hand, and pinion it to the handlebars. This has the downside of potentially flashing your knickers at the rest of the world, but it keeps you, your skirt and your bicycle all working together as smoothly as the Spanish football team.

This morning, I cycled into the village to acquire some fresh bread for lunch. Being a lady of elegance and refinement, never troubled by wardrobe malfunctions or afflicted with a failure to plan, I was wearing a long, floaty skirt. I think you can guess which of these methods I adopted. I can only apologise to the residents of the village for any surprising views they were afforded and feel relieved that I was wearing my favourite knickers.

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Road Trip: end of the road

And finally, we're home.

Actually we got home last night, but I was (for a change) too exhausted to contemplate writing anything. Besides, it was quite nice to sit with BigBear and catch up on life and the Vuelta a EspaƱa.

Between Lyme Regis and home we stopped for two nights at GrannyBear's house, which I think GrannyBear more or less survived, and more or less enjoyed. I think two days with LittleBear brought her almost to the same level of exhaustion as me though, so it's probably a good thing it wasn't any longer than that.

One of my favourite parts of staying with GrannyBear, aside from having a bed to myself, and aside from two nights of gloriously uninterrupted sleep, and aside from having a chance to do the crossword with GrannyBear*, was the fact that LittleBear, upon seeing us doing a crossword, wanted to set one for GrannyBear. So, LittleBear choose some words, and I made a grid for them, and then LittleBear invented some clues...

First among his requirements was that the clues shouldn't be too easy for GrannyBear. Unfortunately, LittleBear has a rather over-inflated idea of GrannyBear's knowledge of dinosaurs, or of the inner workings of LittleBear's mind. Let me give you some examples:

Sometimes it's wobbly (5 letters)
Go on, admit it, you think it's jelly don't you? GrannyBear did too, but it's not. It's tooth. It's true that a major feature of the road trip has been a wobbly tooth, but it wasn't perhaps at the forefront of GrannyBear's mind to quite the same extent as LittleBear's mind.

Something which tries to creep up on people
Naturally enough, GrannyBear tried to think of as many sneaky predators as possible, knowing LittleBear's preferences. She did not, perhaps unsurprisingly, think of LittleBear himself, as he has rather more of a tendency to bounce up to people rather than creep as such. He lays claim to "sometimes" creeping up on people, so the solution to this particular clue was his own name.

Something with long claws (10 letters)
I particularly enjoyed this clue, mostly because of LittleBear's utter glee as he thought of it. I shall put you out of your misery and let you know that it's Suchomimus, a spinosaurid whose name means "crocodile mimic", due to its very crocodile-like skull. I suggested that we should perhaps mention its crocodilian features, to give GrannyBear a chance, but Littlebear demurred, "No Mummy, that would be too easy. This will be funny because Granny will think it's Baryonyx, and it's not!" In vain did I attempt to convince him that GrannyBear would most certainly not think of Baryonyx straight away, if at all, so poor GrannyBear was confronted with an almost insoluble clue.

I think GrannyBear can feel justifiably proud of herself for getting 7 out of the 10 clues (with a few extra hints) given the level of challenge she was set.

And then... we were back on the road again. And as we set off for the Motorway From Hell, the satnav reported even more foul traffic than usual, and suggested we go the other way. Let me show you...

The Motorway From Hell
We wanted to get from A to B. Generally, clockwise is shorter and quicker. We went anticlockwise. This was a decision of dubious worth, as it took us 3 hours and 118 miles to undertake what is normally a 2 hour and 90 mile journey. I'm clinging to the view that I don't know how bad clockwise was, and it might actually have been worse than our actual journey. Please don't tell me otherwise.

But, finally we're home, after 491 miles on the road.

It's been fun, but exhausting. Being a solo-parent for a week away from home was both rewarding in being utterly all-encompassing, and allowing me to be completely absorbed into my LittleBear's world, and also exhausting in being relentless in responsibility and concentration. So tomorrow I go back to work for a couple of days and let BigBear and LittleBear bond. And I am looking forward to it, just a teensy bit.

* Which I still haven't finished yet, dammit.