The Schirmer Discrepancy

…sounds like something by Robert Ludlum, doesn’t it? But the Schirmer Discrepancy is just an observation I made a few years back while trying to study the vapour transmission behaviour of a plastic film.

There are two relevant documents: the American Standard, ASTM E96, and the European Standard EN ISO 12572. In these two, the permeability of air is given by:

δa = 0.083 x (po/RTp) x (T/273)1.81

δa = 2.306 x 10-5 x (po/RTp) x (T/273)1.81

Obviously, the difference between these calculations is a factor of 3599, which corresponds to transmission rates worked out in seconds and hours. But the values of R – and its units – are the same in each analysis.

Turing’s ideas: if a machine can give a convincing impersonation of the process of thinking, then it can be regarded as thinking. Turing also raised the possibility that patterns in the structure of plants and the fur of wild animals could arise from mathematical rules – algorithms. This idea suggests that there is an element of mechanical programming to the natural world; the flash of inspiration, the sweet urges of romance and the whimsical texture of jokes and magic are just conditioned responses; if a machine can ‘think’, then a thinking person is just a highly complicated machine.

Which is a deeply disturbing notion for a society which believes in divine order; it’s hardly surprising that the British establishment was so keen to rid itself of him when problems arose.

In Manchester at the weekend, the Olympic torch was passed on above the seated bronze statue of Turing on the hundredth anniversary of his birthday; the old boy might have been amused at the formal logic that governed the route of the torch and the numerous predictable arguments about the value of the sporting events. We are all just machines; Roger Bannister was genetically programmed to have speed and stamina; Myra Hindley was simply following her instructions like a wayward mercenary; the games people play are just games that play people.

Journal Entry, 16 Aug 2002:
On Monday night went to cinema to see ‘Matrix Reloaded’ which was v disappointing. Too heavily derivative of ‘2001’ and ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Aliens’ and ‘The Prisoner’ and ‘Dr Phibes Rises Again’.
And I was reminded of my time in Derby years ago, when I would wander down to the QC lab to spray panels and have a natter to Rob T and browse the Daily Mirror, which carried a feature about the new Sci-Fi movie called ‘The Matrix’.
And they had the obligatory motorbike race scene on a Ducati.

Journal Entry, 25 Nov 1991:
Last night Freddie Mercury died of bronchial pneumonia just two days after announcing that he was suffering from AIDS. The news came too late for today’s papers, some of whom printed snide editorials in which they condemned his S-and-D-and R-&-R lifestyle.
Today ‘phoned Scott-Bader and cancelled interview; I can’t get hold of £45 train fare. Still got interview lined up at Revertex, waiting to hear from CMB and Medisense.

Journal Entry, 19 Mar 2006:
Working on my management course – one question asks for three examples of when I’ve used creative problem-solving. I can’t think of any.


Through the gaps between the houses
You can just make out the ruined factory that lies
At the back of Leire Street.

The same old Sunday morning, hungover
In a stranger’s bed; I always
Seem to wake up somewhere else.

Emerging from sleep, I scan
The anonymous lampshade and mysterious wallpaper
While broken shadows hold the furniture in place
And unfamiliar curtains tumble in
Renaissance polyester folds; sometimes

A paperback will occupy a corner of the room. It’s
Only when you see the Hawkwind poster or
The Van Gogh prints
You realise that you’ve made a big mistake.

Then awkward breakfast, coffee and lies
Watched by the neighbours across the way
As I notice the saucers and the plastic lids

All stacked in random disarray. And so,
The concept shuffles into place with mica flakes
And haematite together in a sweeping barrier of doubt.

Good Book, Bad Idea

Gove! Michael Gove! If he didn’t exist, you’d have to invent him. Apparently he is the Education Secretary, and one of his mad ideas involves sending a copy of the King James Bible to every school in the country. And to enhance the importance of this splendid tome, each copy will carry the name of Gove! Immortal saviour of the intellectual heritage of Grande Bretagne! (It is uncertain if anyone of a different faith – Catholics, Hindus, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Sikhs – will be interested in carefully studying this hefty tome…)

But now the good Saint Michael has decided that the ‘GCSE’ exam is to be phased out and replaced with the old ‘O’ level, a decision which has been applauded as a step to restore academic excellence. Perhaps we should remind Mr G that ‘O’ stands for ordinary; this was at one time considered the basic degree of intelligence among typical teenagers.

Surely everyone should remember that the O-levels which I sat back in 1980 were dismissed as being a feeble shadow of the real O-level exams inflicted on schoolchildren in the 1950s. Oh happy days!

Is he going to insist on the return of Slide Rules and Log Tables for mathematics lessons? Calculating anti-corrosive primer coverage in ounces per square yard rather than grams per square metre? Pounds per gallon, instead of kilograms per litre?

Journal Entry, 29 Mar ’88:
Centre for Policy Studies (Tory Think-Tank) recently issued guidelines for a national testing system for schoolkids. You know the sort of thing – being able to recite ‘I had a little nut-tree’ and tell the time by age 7, and have read 3 Shakespeare plays by age 16.  I’m a failure cos I haven’t read any Shakespeare and I’m 24.

Journal Entry, 12 Feb ’89:
Yesterday bought ‘Grimus’ by Salman Rushdie & ‘The Stagnant Society’. In the news: tax allowances to be increased in budget, student loans, net book agreement, Sunday trading, Royal Opera House going to turn into Disneyland, rail link from London to Channel tunnel going to wipe out house prices, Edwina Currie and listeria in eggs, Sky TV launched, water firms to be privatised etc….

From Larkin to The Stones

Here come the Girls! Or, more accurately, the Girl; after 170 years, the Royal Society of Chemistry has finally appointed a female President, Professor Lesley Yellowlees. Does the role of RSC President involve carrying lots of heavy boxes around? Arm-wrestling with Cabinet Ministers in order to secure research funding? Playing five-a-side footie against members of the BMA?

Since the answer to each of these questions is ‘no’, it seems odd that the Presidential post has until now been regarded as suitable only for blokes. (One hesitates to suggest that the more senior members of the RSC mistakenly thought that the candidate was ‘Leslie’ Yellowlees and that they were voting for a male President…)

Yesterday was the centenary of John Enoch Powell, historian, intellectual and maverick British politician, whose carer imploded in the sixties when he delivered a speech about immigration in Smethwick. This occasion put both man and town firmly on the cultural map for many thousands of people. However, I was slightly puzzled when I reported to start work in Cornwall in January 2010; as requested, I had taken with me a copy of my birth certificate and my passport. While we were filling out the various bits of admin, the manager glanced at my photograph with a hollow laugh…but then, noticing my place of birth, he asked ‘Where’s Smethwick?’

I wondered whether this was some kind of joke, and if I was being invited to make some politically incorrect remark about the residents of that place; after all, everybody knows about Smethwick, and everybody knows about that speech.
So, to be on the safe side, I said only that it was a small industrial town on the outskirts of Birmingham. He continued to examine my paperwork in silence with a worried expression.

I realised afterwards that when I had attended the interviews for this job, I was staying with a relative in Cornwall, and the company may have been under the impression that I was a native; the English are widely viewed as imperialist aggressors, and during the 2010 FIFA World Cup, several department stores in Cornwall were criticised for selling the St George’s Cross flag to football supporters. Perhaps they should emulate the Scots, who eagerly support any team playing against England….

Journal Entry, 26 Jan 09:
Back to work today after 4 days in Woolwich. They had already held one consultation meeting, and Jemma had taken notes as our rep: someone asked Steve whether we would be getting a pay rise as part of our deal for transferring down south, and he said something like –
“You should welcome the challenge of a new workplace and the job satisfaction of being among your colleagues should provide motivation. Pay rates at EC are v competitive and the cost of living is no more down in London than here…” which, I think, means ‘no’.

Journal Entry, 08 Apr 09:
Well, it’s a good job I’m not planning on going anywhere today – they (crew of council navvies) have just finished laying hot tarmac across the pavement outside the house.
This morning applied for four jobs – lubricant tech, polymer chemist, manufacturing technician and tech service chemist.
Still reading Ted Simon – he’s now in Oz, and it’s hilarious. One of those books you want never to end. If Ted Simon set out in October ’73, then he would have been unaware of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ which is why he refers to it as being performed by ‘The Queen’ and misquotes the lyric.
But it’s fascinating that he should recognise the New Eltham architecture and be able to put it in context (time-warp thirties decor).

Just had a moment of exquisite spookiness: I was reading the New Casebook on Philip Larkin and came across the discussion of ‘Sympathy in White Major’ – derived from Gautier’s Symphonie en Blanc Majeure – so I Googled the poem’s title and ended up at the homepage of St Ambrose College, Trafford, which has the entire text of this poem – but with no indication of the author (Larkin) – on the screen.
So I looked up the original French poem, and then I thought; why not look up the play Art by Yasmina Reza which is also a flurry of obsessed whiteness.
So I Googled ‘Art…Play’ and found a list of websites, one of which was the play itself. However, another site carried an advert for a wall-mounted frame in which to display your LP covers as art.
The picture showed someone loading the frame with ‘Let it Bleed’ and on Radio 2 at that moment Zoe Ball was playing ‘Gimme Shelter’.

The painting that causes all the arguments in the play Art is a blank white canvas with some barely discernible streaks of colour, rather like the intumescent fire test-panels I was testing a few years ago. These were square steel plates, thickly coated with matt white paint, which are initially tested by exposure to cyclic humidity before being placed in a furnace to see how well the coatings’ ceramic mousse would protect the metal from damage.
As part of the test programme, we would take photographs of the panels at various stages to monitor any deterioration in the condition of the coating; but these panels were so featureless that the camera was unable to focus on the paint film. Perhaps we need to use panels bearing a regulated grid of numbered squares and different shades of grey paint so that any change in surface morphology would become more obvious.

Journal entry, 20 Jul 09:
In the papers: the skool year is almost over, and parents are agonising about what is the right gift for their little cherubs to present the teacher with – dozens of websites offering advice – chocolates, glass paperweights, scented candles, champagne.
Meanwhile, British soldiers in Afghanistan are desperately lonely and ask for tiny reminders of home – sweets, letters, photos.
Puts it all into perspective, really…..



Leicester Poly Blues

‘Grace from Space’; that’s how my room-mate at Leicester Poly used to refer to Grace Jones, who he believed to be an alien. I don’t think any of us could have imagined the Amazon Chanteuse, thirty years later, twirling a hula-hoop and belting out ‘Slave to the Rhythm’ as part of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations.

This arresting vision reminded me of a music festival three years ago, when I saw a DJ called ‘4-Tet’ who delivered a trance-tastic set, accompanied by three pouting lovelies who spent the entire evening hula-ing with glow-stick hoops.

It seemed like a minor miracle as Jones proceeded to hula steadily throughout her note-perfect rendition of ‘S-to-the-R’. The TV camera, roaming the crowd, spotted ex-Prime Minister John Major watching her with disbelief; perhaps he was wondering, like many others, why the concert organisers had decided to include her. After all, she had no connection with Great Britain or the Royal Family.

One person who is connected with the British establishment is George Gideon Osborne, fabulously wealthy scion of the wallpaper empire and currently Chancellor of the Exchequer. He would never be seen onstage in a PVC leotard, gyrating a hula-hoop at the age of sixty-four; but today he did something equally outrageous, by announcing that the government was planning to inject one-hundred-and-forty-thousand million pounds into the banking sector to ‘kick-start the economy’. Rumour has it that the current recession was caused by high street banks lending money to people who couldn’t afford to repay it, in order to encourage them to buy houses and cars that they didn’t really need. And of course, the only way to solve this problem is to give the banks more money which they can lend to people to etc, etc, etc….

Of course, whenever I hear the song Slave to the Rhythm it takes me back to 1985, when I was a young undergraduate chemist in Leicester. On Friday and Saturday nights I would disappear off to a small atmospheric basement nightclub called ‘Spots’. The place would gradually fill up until about eleven o’clock, when the dancefloor would be plunged into darkness; and, as a single green laser began to carve up the smoke-filled club, the DJ would play ‘S-t-t-R’. Oh happy days!

Bookcase Blues

A few years back, someone brought a small wooden bookcase to work and left it in the canteen. An assortment of secondhand paperbacks began to fill the shelves; two volumes of ‘Tales of the City’, novels by Alan Massie, Terence Stamp and Iris Murdoch. I contributed a few items: Mason and Dixon, Martyn Pig, Eight Minutes Idle, and Lullaby. I was reminded of this by the recent announcement that we were to see the Transit of Venus – not visible again for 105 years.

Of course, devout Catholics will realise that all this is an illusion: the Sun travels around the Earth, and therefore so does Venus. Heliocentricity equals heresy, Galileo was wrong, sweet Thames run softly till I end my song, I see a little silhouetto of a moon, we can’t make out the craters but the waiter’s brought a tray.

After laughing helplessly through ‘Tales of the City’ I decided to look at ‘The Night Listener’, the plot of which involves the question of whether or not a person is real, based on their mention of Thomas Pynchon. In ‘Mason and Dixon’ Pynchon raises the idea of transubstantiation and the eating of the divine body, which itself is an element of the plot of ‘Tales…’ while Messrs Mason and Dixon spend many pages musing on the anticipated Transit of Venus.

Journal entry, Sun 8 Apr 2001:
In the Observer Sports Magazine, bitter sporting feuds – Ali and Frazier, Coe and Christie. Long interview with Lineker; nice, gd looking, clever.
Article about Total Fighting, includes interview with Chuck Palahniuk, author of ‘Fight Club’, who doesn’t own a TV.
Dancehall fights in Rio; Peru fight festivals.
Interview with Meijer Stad, brilliant footie player & athlete ‘executed’ by the Nazis. Marat Safin, Russian tennis player. Fulham women’s footie team. Buster Mottram used to be an NF supporter.
And Ian Bradshaw’s wonderful photo of a naked Michael O’Brien surrounded by coppers on the pitch at Twickenham in 1974.
Other news: 20,000 jobs expected to go in London’s financial industry.
Sophie Rhys Jones has dented monarchy.
F- and M- disease still spreading; Apparently (allegedly) a sample of virus was stolen from Porton Down. Current total: 1120 cases.

Journal entry, Sun 15 Apr 2001:
Easter Sunday. 7.45 am, outside it is bright with half the sky dirty grey and the other half a vivid, hope-coloured blue.
Just bumped into James Twigg in papershop: ‘Got a job yet?’
He looked puzzled when I said no.
‘I heard that you were working for Spencer Coatings.’
‘No,  I don’t think they wanted to risk someone going all the way up there and not liking it’ I replied.
Other news: Business pages, US and UK companies carry out staff losses at diff stages of economic crisis, which is why share prices rise or fall.
BT to demerge Yellow Pages.
George W Bush has turned his back on environmental issues, so catalytic converters are way down the agenda and Pt metal price falling.
Next genetic mapping: ‘proteomics’, action of genes on protein and impact on bio-functions.
Cammell-Laird called in  receivers.
1290 cases of F- and M- disease; Tamworth is one of the sites chosen for landfill disposal of animal carcasses.

Journal entry, 17 May 2001:
Tuesday morning went up to Scotland on train; bought ‘Mill on the Floss’ and read half of it on way. LK bungalow. Pizza. Chips. Red wine (3 bottles, v bad.)
Next day interview Avecia; hammered down with rain, I sheltered at Falkirk High Station.
Interview dreadful, him and her, personnel and technical, dimensional analysis (decision making) and questions about organic synthesis.
Pair of them utterly lifeless and devoid of interest; reading questions from a sheet, no discussion or flow of ideas.