30 DAYS HATH SEPTEMBER,

30 days hath September,
April, June and November.
All the rest have 31,
Except for February alone,
Which has 28 days clear,
And 29 in each leap-year.

This is a handy little poem that seems to have been phrased in this way just so that it rhymes nicely. No-one talks like that.

“Hey, how many days are there this month?”
“There are 28 days clear”

But a cool (yet kind of obvious) fact about today in particular is that not only do we only get a February 29th once every four years, but every February 29th has a guaranteed five of one particular day, and just one. Every other year, all the other months get at least two fives of something (because 30 divides by 7 four times with a remainder of 2), and February does not. But in leap years it does. It’s not left out anymore! Hurrah! Unfortunately this month we’ve had five Mondays, but in 2020 we get five Saturdays, so at least we have that to look forward to.

Something a bit more unusual: I wanted to write something on blue moons, and whether or not February can have them (you’d think not because a lunar cycle is 29.53 days, and February can’t go on for longer than 29 days exactly – not even a little bit), but discovered that my understanding of the term “blue moon” was incorrect! This is pretty cool, and should definitely be on QI sometime (are we up to Series ‘M’ yet?)

A Blue Moon isn’t actually the second full moon in a calendar month, as everyone seems to think it is. It dates back to medieval times and refers to an intercalary month (there’s more info on what that word means and on Blue Moons generally here). A season would normally have three moons, but if a season has four moons, the third one is a blue moon – and these occur once every 2.7145 years.

Winter runs officially runs from about 21st December to 21st March (Winter solstice to Spring Equinox), although it varies by year – I did not know this (it makes sense, what with a solar year not quite equalling a calendar year, but I never really thought about it), and so it is actually possible for February to have a blue moon!

Just to confirm the numbers:

21 Dec – 21 Mar = 90 calendar days in non-leap years, and 91 in leap years.

Winter is approximately 89 days in actual scientific terms (position of Earth in relation to Sun, etc.)

3 lunar cycles = 3 x 29.53 = 88.59 days

So it’s possible, for either a year with 365 or 366 days, but it’s less likely than for other seasons, as Winter loses a few days compared to Spring, Summer and Autumn.  It also depends on the moon’s cycle lining up with the 89-ish day window, which happens very rarely.

The last time we had a February blue moon was in 2000, and it also happened in 1981 and 1905, as shown in the values below (all times GMT):

Winter 1904/5 Full moons

1904 Dec 22 18.01
1905 Jan 21 07.14
1905 Feb 19 18.52
1905 Mar 21 04.55

1904 Winter solstice 22 Dec 06.14

1905 Spring equinox 21 Mar 06.58

Winter 1980/1 Full moons

1980 Dec 21 18:09
1981 Jan 20 07:40
1981 Feb 18 22:59
1981 Mar 20 15:23

1980 Winter solstice 21 Dec 16.56

1981 Spring equinox 20 Mar 17.03

Winter 1999/2000 Full moons

1999 Dec 22 17:33
2000 Jan 21 04:42
2000 Feb 19 16:28
2000 Mar 20 04:46

1999 Winter solstice 22 Dec 07.44

2000 Spring equinox 20 Mar 07.35

I got my data from timeanddate.com and http://home.hiwaay.net/~krcool/Astro/moon/fullmoon.htm#09

It won’t happen again this century, so it really is a unique thing.  While blue moons in any season occur once every 2.7145 years, we’re looking at a little over one per century for the February blue moon.  Interestingly, neither of those in the 20th Century fell in leap years.

Curiously, it’s also possible to have a season with only two full moons; this is also dependent on the moon’s cycles lining up so that a full moon happens just before the Winter solstice and one straight after the Spring equinox.  These are also super-rare, and can only happen in Winter (because it’s the only season short enough to permit it).  We last had this in the Winter of 1961/2, and there won’t be another until 2314/5.  Wow!

NO SH*T, SHERLOCK

I’m not an avid viewer of the BBC series Sherlock. In fact, there are a lot of geeky series that I don’t follow, mainly due to time constraints. So I do feel a bit left out, especially when my mates are all talking about whatever episode had that controversial / exciting / conversation-starting plot device.

But on Boxing Day, I made an exception. Much like 2014’s Xmas Doctor Who special (the WWII themed-one), I allowed myself to just sit and absorb for a couple of hours, and it was wonderful. I really enjoyed the episode, for a lot of reasons (some of them outlined below), but I felt particularly compelled to write about it because of the inevitable Twitter furore. And I somehow managed to disagree with almost all of it, so maybe I should have joined in to shake it up a bit.

Overall, I thought it was a good story – as a non-viewer of said series, it really drew me in and was intriguing and fun. It was just complex enough to require 100% of the viewers attention, but not so complex as to exclude a large portion of the audience. But there seemed to be some issues that people had with it:

1. That it co-opted feminism as a plot device
Well, ok, that is one way of looking at it. But we have often based period dramas in times of turmoil, and used the events of the day as a backdrop for a more in-depth or even tangential story. Did Lady Chatterley’s Lover co-opt the decline of the landed gentry? Did Atonement co-opt the plight of soldiers in WWII? Did Doctor Zhivago co-opt the Russian Revolution (actually, some people did claim that, but then I guess there is no limit to what people will get offended by)? I don’t see why the suffragist or feminist movements should be immune to use in TV dramas. And if we “protect” them by not using their historical context to set the scene, then they become invisible and their importance diminished.

The main reason I take issue with this point is that everyone’s perspective is different, and this argument is framed through the lens of someone who is really clued-up about current feminist topics, and ignores the fact that a large number of viewers will not be so involved with that particular movement. I actually see it as a very positive thing that it featured the suffragettes. Their time is one that I do feel is neglected by the history books and lessons, even though it was a mere 100 years ago. So many people will just see the suffragists in the programme and be reminded of that part of our history. Others may analyse it further, but in terms of what we can reasonably fit into a two-hour drama that isn’t really about that topic, I think they did a bloody good job.

2. That the suffragists were the “bad guys”
Oh, good grief. Talk about missing the point. Sherlock clearly states that:
“Every great cause has martyrs. Every war has suicide missions and make no mistake, this is war. One half of the human race at war with the other. The invisible army hovering at our elbow, tending to our homes, raising our children. Ignored, patronised, disregarded. Not allowed so much as a vote. But an army nonetheless, ready to rise up in the best of causes. To put right an injustice as old as humanity itself. So you see, Watson, Mycroft was right. This is a war we must lose.”

On the one hand, this looks like an admission by a 19th-Century man that things need to change. He’s being honest about inequalities in that society, and accepting the violent acts committed by the suffragists as necessary and in pursuit of a noble and morally justified cause. Also, we need more female baddies. There’s no point getting more women on the screen if they’re inoffensive cardboard-cutouts. Give them agency, give them flaws.
And on the other hand, it looks like…

3. Sherlock basically explained feminism to a room full of women.
When I saw this quote on Twitter, my immediate thought was “Haha, that is well funny! He actually did do that!”. But I didn’t feel that it was patronising, and like in my first point, many of the audience will not hold a degree in gender studies, and so wouldn’t pick up on this point. Whether or not that is a bad thing (yeah, it kind of is) is a topic for another post, but you have to work with what you’ve got. Unfortunately, a lot of TV is made with the lowest common denominator in mind. Bearing this in mind, I actually think the episode was quite progressive.

4. That the main villain fitted the cliché of the jilted woman out for revenge
Yeah, they did. But there are plenty of cliches in entertainment, some stand as they are, some are mocked, some are challenged, and some are twisted to tell a bizarre time-hopping dream-sequence story. I don’t think this was a problem at all, and it follows the pattern of cheesy mystery novels – if you were feeling a bit postmodern, you could say it was done ironically (I’m not going to do this because I’m not a hipster twat).

5. That the suffragettes were wearing weird KKK-style hoods
Hmmm, yes. When I watched it I just interpreted it as them being a clandestine society revealing their true nature, to complete the story. But it is quite weird, I will admit that. One possible explanation, related to point 2; back then, the suffragists were seen as the bad guys by contemporary society. They were violent, unnatural, and an affront to decency, etc, etc, so portraying them as secretive and evil might be a good way of accurately representing their perceived threat to society. Still weird, though.

6. That it wasn’t feminist enough
Oh, come on. It might have been clumsy and controversial, but it was a very pro-feminist episode. Exemplified by Molly’s appearance as Dr. Hooper, disguised as a man. It’s the only way she would have been able to get “a man’s job” at that point in history. As Watson remarks, “Amazing… what one has to do to get ahead in a man’s world.”

7. That it was confusing and difficult to follow
Well, it was something that you needed to invest in. There was a lot going on, and the viewer needed to not just figure out the solution to the mystery, but why everything was suddenly set in the wrong era, with the regular characters in equivalent, past roles. I noticed something was up with Sherlock’s “virus in the code” line – such an obvious anachronism – but because I don’t usually watch it I didn’t know it’s normally set in the present day. I like my stories to be complex and engaging, maybe some people don’t. Their loss.

8. That it didn’t follow the Sherlock “formula”
I actually don’t have a reference point for this, because as I said, this is the first Sherlock I’ve ever seen. I get the impression that a lot of the haters don’t like Stephen Moffat’s style generally. I know plenty of people are relieved that he’s leaving Doctor Who (another series I have very little knowledge of), but given that I also liked the WWII 2014 Xmas special, which he wrote, I guess I’d be inclined to disagree. But it’s a matter of taste,

On the whole, I felt the episode did a great job. Holmes was simultaneously likeable and repugnant, Watson was likeable and provided a lighter counterpart, Mycroft was peculiar and Moriarty was delightfully creepy. Attention to detail was so precise that the odd time-switching things were noticeable as “errors”. The link to the suffragettes was done in a sensitive and interesting way, while still remaining true to the characters personas (so I am told ). The format was pretty cool, and, well, I sat still for two hours to watch it, so they must have got something right.

@

I’ve recently been working with overseas students (more on this in a later post), and one of the questions that I’ve been asked most frequently over the last two weeks is:

“Where is the ‘@’ key?”

Because British keyboards are pretty much the only ones in the whole world where it isn’t above the ‘2’ key (we have a habit of being “unique” in really annoying ways). Quote marks and the ‘at’ symbol are swapped on a British keyboard, which I had sort-of heard about before, but there are a number of other differences, summarised in this article, and in the diagram below: Differences Between the US and UK Computer Keyboard | English Language Blog

uk-us-keyboard

I’m wondering how many emails they will have to compose before they no longer instinctively type instead of @.

ENGLISH PEOPLE AND THE WEATHER

I had a very interesting conversation with an overseas student during Freshers Week this year, about how English people perceive the cold. You often don’t realise things about your own culture unless someone from outside the culture points them out to you. A few things came to light:

1. The English see it as a contest as to how long they can wait before putting the heating on. Presumably because we have a reputation for being thrifty – fuel costs are high as a percentage of income, but compared to the rest of Europe, our unit fuel costs are lower.

2. No matter how cold it is, if it’s a traditionally ‘warm’ month, like April, the heating’s not going on until it’s a month deemed more deserving of burning fuel.  It’s like we have no regard for our own internal thermometer.  There might be icicles indoors, but that heating’s not going on until 1st October.

3. You can never have too many jumpers. If it’s literally freezing in your house, just jumper up some more. My current home is well-insulated and has a decent heating system (which I’m not afraid to use!), but in my parents’ home, we used to wear a ridiculous number of woollen layers, all to cut down on fuel bills.

4. Which contradicts the fact that English people tend to dress for the month, rather than the actual weather conditions.  It’s July? Bikini time! But it’s snowing? That cannot be. Bikini time! The number of people I see in ‘summer’ braving the icy cold in shorts and sandals just because it’s supposed to be hot runs into the hundreds, easily. This is the most creative piece of wishful thinking I have encountered, as I’m pretty sure that putting on a summer dress isn’t actually going to make the sun come out, no matter how much you want this to be true.

5. And as a result, the British (because let’s face it, there are parts of the UK that are colder than England) are sometimes perceived as being quite resistant to the cold. Are we really? Or are we just resistant to common sense?

Given how variable the British weather is, and how frequently we talk about it (like, All The Time – we’re not good with small talk but mention the outdoors and we can go on for hours), you’d have thought we’d have figured it out by now. But the truth is, each morning I cannot decide on the most appropriate outfit, and so I just guess / select something that looks / feels “right” and hope I don’t end up too uncomfortable.

Number 4 might happen because we don’t really have well-defined seasons. On the whole, winter is cold and summer is warm, but there is a lot of variation from day-to-day, and because the temperature doesn’t vary by more than about 15°C across the year, it’s difficult to define what a day in the British Spring, Summer, Autumn or Winter might be like.

Where I live, in the North of England, you could go outside and (devoid of all other knowledge, uh, like what the date is), you wouldn’t be able to tell what month it was. It’s weird, and strangely predictable and unpredictable at the same time.

And most of the time, I pretend it’s warm and sunny and end up freezing my butt off.  Maybe I should put on an extra jumper…

DOWN TO EARTH

There’s a double-edged problem with social class in my engineering sector that I see repeating itself over and over. I’ve worked in the industry for 15 years and this thing doesn’t seem to have changed. I find it sad because it’s off-putting and it holds people back.

There are many who (rightly) see engineering as a respected profession, with certain standards of presentation and behaviour. Good. But then there are some who take it too far, and it becomes a way of excluding people who are different, who don’t quite fit the mould. The success stories I’ve observed are predominantly male, white, and over 6′ tall. Frequently, issues related to one out-group are intertwined with those of other groups, and often, people fall into more than one category.Then there’s the other stereotype, the amiable salt-of-the-earth. This is limiting for both those within the group, and exclusive for those who feel they’re out of it. One place I worked at was reviewing CVs and they laughed at an applicant for having a Ph.D. Apparently they were too much of a “geek”. It’s really worrying that in a profession that requires intensive training; education and aspirations are openly mocked.

So what happens if you fall somewhere between the two groups? Well, you don’t really fit anywhere. And as much as we like to pretend we live in a meritocracy, the playing field is not level. Being well-connected is often more important than having the right credentials. There’s also a fine balance between standing out and being left out. I’ve often heard it said that women (this might apply to any other ‘out’ group or minority, too) should use their gender as a positive, to distinguish themselves from the rest of the competition. But I don’t really like this argument for two reasons:

  1. It’s just encouraging division. If you’re being noticed just because you’re female, then you’re reinforcing the stereotype. It’s up to employers to apply anti-discrimination legislation and encourage diversity.
  2. It’s using a gung-ho attitude to deny that there’s a problem. “We can do it!” does nothing for those who feel that they aren’t getting anywhere, and it makes it look as though the problem has been solved.

So attitudes need to change, for sure. I sometimes feel like my industry is still 30 years behind everyone else. But other industries probably have their quirks and nuances too. Things will change over time, but definitely for the better? I think the situation I’ve experienced is quite unusual in that there’s a two-tier system of acceptable class, dress and behaviour, especially seeing as the two groups in this case are quite distant from each other – the gap stretches from upper working class to upper middle class, with nothing in-between. What does it mean? Is it reflective of society? Does it highlight inequality?

TOILET ETIQUETTE

Sometimes the topic of bathroom segregation comes up in my office – we work on a variety of buildings with varying needs and accessibility and diversity policies. I have heard resistance to change expressed, not always in complimentary or logical terms, but I really like the way that more progressive firms and institutions (universities are especially good at this) are making changes that allow inclusivity and convenience for as many people as possible.

Current students of the University of Manchester were invited to provide their opinions on the new engineering campus development, and one of the topics for discussion is what the toilet arrangements should be like. I’m hugely in favour of the set-up in the Students Union, which has one large toilet with cubicles only, that people of any gender can use. There are also larger accessible toilets at ground floor level. If people wish to use gender-specific bathrooms, ‘male’ and ‘female’ toilets are available on the upper levels of the building, just off of a central core.

We also covered cultural considerations, like how overseas students may react to a Western loo. It might seem like an odd thing to think, and you might cry ‘discrimination’ at face value – but the fact is that there are a lot of international students in Manchester (this is good!), and there is huge variation in toilet type and etiquette across the world. Two of the more common ones I’ve heard about are that in some cultures it’s more usual to squat over the toilet (by standing on the seat) rather than sitting down, and that some places have less robust plumbing systems so used toilet paper would go in a bin rather than down the loo (ick). In most places that I’ve worked, this problem is gotten round by displaying polite notices on how to use the facilities. It’s clear that they’re not aimed at any person or group in particular, and it’s far better than the alternative, which I encountered in one office that I worked in.

There were literally (several) emails sent around the office asking people to not pee all over the floor in the toilets. In addition to that, people had to be advised how to correctly use a sink and dishwasher. It’s like as soon as people step outside of their own homes, they forget how a kitchen and bathroom are supposed to operate. Not sure how much better it would have worked out if the issues had been pre-empted, but it is pretty astonishing that it even got that far in the first place. It was even to the point that the ladies loo was protected by an access code, not for reasons of safety and privacy, but because the Wanton Widdler decided to have a go in the ladies as well! The office was about 95% male, so there was a good chance that it was a bloke, but I really don’t think that dirty behaviour is actually gender specific. That’s one stereotype that I’ve heard trotted out time and time again, and it needs to stop. The lock did seem to stop the culprit, though.

DUBLIN

My work offers me plenty of scope for international travel, and that is just what I’ve been up to this week. I’m working on a project in Ireland, and I’m loving every second of it. The work is challenging and varied, and did I mention that I get sent to Dublin every couple of weeks or so? Even though I’m working, I love the excitement of going to a different place. So many people say “oh, it’s just work”, but those people have no souls.

So here is a little about my time as an engineer working abroad for the day:

Because Ireland is so nearby, and you can book a flight for less than the cost of a railway ticket to London (this is more to do with the fact that rail fares in the UK are exorbitant, rather than flights being cheap), a day trip to attend a meeting is feasible.  However, because you’ve had to make a concerted effort to get to the damn meeting and make sure you’re thoroughly prepared before leaving the country, there is a certain pressure on you to make it worthwhile.

My adventure began at 5am, with me thinking “oh, this will give me plenty of time to make my 8am flight”. I got ready quickly, had all my stuff packed, passport to hand, had checked in online already. Nothing could possibly go wrong. I got in the taxi, thinking I had loads of time, and in fairness to me, I did. Upon arrival at Manchester Piccadilly station, I noted that my preferred train had departed 1 minute earlier. Not to worry, the next one is in…. forty minutes. Crap.Ok, ok, I’ll see if there’s an indirect route I can take. Yes! I went to Wilmslow and got a local stopping service back. Slightly less panic. The train gets me to the airport at 0704, so that’s easily doable. Let’s just hope that security is quiet.

Nope. Upon arrival at T1, the queue was huge and chaotic.  Why, why, WHY??? I was stood internally panicking in the queue, getting more and more frustrated at every single minor transgression imaginable.  Screaming children, people clueless about what you can / cannot take on a plane, people not knowing where they’re going.  All of them a trigger.  It’s a miracle I managed to hold it all together. It got to the point where there was a real possibility that I could miss my flight, so I ended up being one of those annoying people who gets rushed to the front of the queue and treated like royalty because of poor planning.  But if the airlines didn’t do this, the system wouldn’t be able to operate efficiently and smoothly.  Sometimes people get it wrong, but the system is set up in such a way that it can only work if people are in the right places at the right times. Sometimes you have to obey rules you don’t like and put up with annoyance and discomfort.

So after getting priority treatment at security (sorry guys), I literally had to run to the gate.  I just made it.  The adrenaline rush I was feeling at this point was totally unsuitable for someone who needs to sit still on a plane for the next 45 minutes, but at least I was actually On The Plane.

I love flying, everything about it is fun (as long as there’s no undue panic involved).  I like getting ready to go, listening to the familiar safety procedures, taking off, watching Manchester disappear and seeing the clouds below me. Each trip is an adventure, even if I’ve already done it a hundred times before. Upon arrival at Dublin Airport, I was annoyingly early for my appointment.  There were no convenient flights to get me there just before the meeting, so I had to take the one that got me there three hours early.  Oh, well.  Time for a bit of sightseeing.

I got myself a coffee in the airport bar (it’s called The Oak, and it’s very stylish and reasonably priced – this is a thing I noticed about Dublin: how cheap it is.  Even when they are trying to rip you off as a tourist, the prices don’t even come close to day-to-day UK prices), and planned my excursion.  The airport is quite far from the city, so either a taxi or a bus is needed for this bit.  I got a taxi last time, but I don’t have a spare €35 to fritter away on a chaffeur, so I opted for the bus instead.  Having never done this before, I went to the tourist information centre upstairs in the airport, who were incredibly useful.  I had an inkling that I needed to get the 700 bus or similar (this is a special bus for clueless tourists like me), but they offered me a cheaper and more convenient solution in the form of one of the commuter buses that the ordinary folk use.  Wow, really immersing myself in the culture here.

Buses work differently in Dublin to how they do in Manchester.  In fact the whole transport system works completely differently.  It works Very Well, but only if you know how to use it. Dublin is one of those annoying cities in which you either need exact change on the bus, or you have to buy in advance.  I was pretty clueless about this, but there were plenty of helpful people at the bus station (perhaps a little too helpful, or maybe too chivalrous, perhaps). They have a ticket where you pay a fixed price and it’s valid for 90 minutes (they have barcode readers on the bus to track you!).  This is enough to get you from the airport into town, and I’d be interested to see how much bus you could get into 90 minutes.  Well, you want to make the most of your investment.

On the way in we drove past a shop trading in Key Cutting and Virgin Mary statues.  Which is an interesting business model.

Philip P. Lynott 1949 - 1986
Philip P. Lynott 1949 – 1986

I wanted to see a bit of the city, but I had one item to specifically tick off my list: Get a photo of the Phil Lynott statue.  As you can see from the photo (right), I was successful in this part of my mission. I then took a leisurely stroll to my meeting, in a glorious converted Georgian townhouse.The meeting went very well. I’ve been at some meetings in which I wasn’t sure why they’d invited me, but this wasn’t one of them. I had a lot to talk about, and so did other people.  Pretty much everything discussed was relevant to me, and I made the most of the day.  My opinion was respected, and the team was really mixed.  It seemed a bit more “with the times” than some other meetings I’d previously attended, and I hope this is reflective of other engineering meetings elsewhere. I felt after the meeting that I’d done my best, and that we’d achieved what we’d set out to.

But that’s not what you want to hear about.  Back to lovely Dublin! My flight home was quite a late one (again, no other convenient flight so I had to get one at a peculiar hour), and I decided to use the time to buy a present for my lovely (and if he doesn’t like it, I do, so I’ve done myself a favour either way).  I’d been advised by my Irish colleagues that there are some cheesy tourist shops around (they called these the Fiddle-dee-dee Shops), but I actually found a really cool alternative homewares store, reminiscent of Manchester’s Northern Quarter.  As previously mentioned, even though it was very tourist-geared, it was surprisingly cheap.  I wonder how cheap it is to live as an ordinary Dublin resident?

And then, time to go back to the airport.  I left a good amount of time to do this, because I had been burnt earlier that day on the flight out.  But, I just wasn’t prepared for the complete catastrophe that is the Dublin rush hour.  During the day, Dublin is actually a very quiet city.  Like Canterbury, but with less people, and more city. During the evening rush hour, the population appears to increase thirty-fold, and nothing moves.  I got really nervous on the bus back (the local bus; proudly using my recntly obtained insider information) that I might miss my second flight.  But I didn’t have to worry too much because although the first half of the journey was undertaken at slower than walking pace, the driver belted it down the R132 to the airport once we were out of the worst bit, and I actually made it there at a sensible time.

Taking off in the dark, I could see the lights of Dublin arranged in perfect rows, marking out the suburbs and arterial routes.  It was splendid, and something totally artificial.  We don’t need spirituality or miracles to find beauty in the world.  We can create it ourselves.

SOCIAL CLASSES ABC1 C2DE

The UK is less of a class-based society than it once was, but remnants of it do still exist.  Broadly speaking, we all know what working class, middle class and upper class mean to us.

But nowadays social class is often used by public bodies, businesses and universities to categorise people.  You sometimes hear about these classes in passing, e.g. the ubiquitous ABC1 male, but what does this actually mean?

The classes are summarised as follows:

 GRADE SOCIAL CLASS CHIEF INCOME EARNER’S OCCUPATION
 A upper middle class Higher managerial, administrative or professional
 B  middle class Intermediate managerial, administrative or professional
 C1  lower middle class Supervisory or clerical and junior managerial, administrative or professional
 C2  skilled working class Skilled manual workers
 D  working class Semi and unskilled manual workers
 E  non working Casual or lowest grade workers, pensioners, and others who depend on the welfare state for their income

More information available at Wikipedia.org.