So the clocks went forward, and summer is upon us – specifically, British Summer Time – and we’re all very pleasantly dazed and confused. We got an hour less in bed yesterday (assuming we wake by the clock on a Sunday) but a long summer-type evening in compensation.

Photo: Christine Matthews

Photo: Christine Matthews

British Summer Time, or Daylight Saving Time as it is more universally known, is used in something like 70 countries as a means of maximising productive daylight. It was first conceived of, apparently, by Benjamin Franklin in 1784, and made it to Britain in 1916, enacted in the Summertime Act as a wartime measure.

There have been various experiments with it over the years – between 1968 and 1971 British Summer Time was retained through the winter, but no one (not least the Scots) could stand the bleakness of the dark mornings. During the Second World War Britain ran on Double Time, advancing to Continental Standard Time (+1 hour) and Daylight correction (+2 hours) in the summer.

The original proponent of BST, William Willet, wanted the clocks to change not by an hour but by 80 minutes, and not overnight but over four weeks, in twenty minute increments. He reasoned that the gradual adjustment would not be noticed, in the same way that people travelling by ship to America had no difficulty adjusting to time zones (there is no such thing as ‘ship-lag’.

We should be grateful that that detail of the measure was not introduced. However, Willet was correct in noticing that humans are oddly sensitised to the tick of a clock – anyone who has tried to train themselves to guess the time will know how spookily accurate our internal chronometer can be.

Pity, then, the submariner. I was told once by a student, an Italian navel officer who had spent time as a guest on a French submarine, that once they have submerged the clocks on submarines speed up by 25%, so that an hour by the clock passes in 45 minutes. The day lasts 18 hours, divided into three 6-hour shifts. No one is allowed a personal chronometer. Just as, when you drive long distances in kilometres you seem to travel faster than when you travel in miles, the submariners day is made to tick along at a good pace. Just as well, since tours of underwater duty regularly reach 90 (or is that 120) days without surfacing.

Perhaps that would be the answer for our winter clocks, not to mention English lessons – the winter evenings would pass in a trice if we worked to a rhythm of more and shorter hours.


A night in the cells

One of our students narrowly avoided a night in the slammer a few weeks ago. Toshi was cycling without bicycle lights when he was apprehended by the Forces of Order, but miraculously (egregiously?) the arresting officer decided to blame the rental shop rather than the miscreant, and sent him on his way with a metaphorical cuff round the ear.


It was a close shave. Or perhaps not particularly. In fact Toshi would not have been hauled down to a police station unless he had chosen to resist arrest or cheek the copper, or perhaps steal his hat – they simply give you an on-the-spot fine (I should know – I was once done for riding on the pavement).

The police have their hands full with cycling misdemeanours in a city like Cambridge. Bicycles have something of the mildly rebellious about them; they are, to the very young, an emblem of freedom. So cyclists make free with red lights and pavements like nomads coming into town and terrorising the dull-witted upstanding townsfolk. The local and national newspapers are full of letters and purple-faced comments from irate drivers (known to the press as motorists for some reason).

When I lived in Rome I rode a bicycle everywhere but there seemed to be nothing I could do that would bring me to the attention of the police there. Bicycles are invisible. I once crashed a red light where a Carabinieri car was stopped, and, their pride damaged, they cruised after me and gave me a ticking off through the window; once I came nose to nose with a police car on a one-way street, and they made me get off and walk back the way I had come. And once, best of all, I got finger-wagged by the traffic cop on the upturned tub in Piazza Venezia as I sped past the palm of his hand.

But other than that, it was ten years of trouble-free cycling. Unlike the hardened Toshi, I’m a bit more respectful of the rules of the road now, perhaps because I’m not in so much of a hurry and don’t mind a rest at a red light. But I remember my nomad days with fondness.



Blimey, it’s hailing cats and dogs

One of the great myths of the English language is that we say it is raining cats and dogs. We do not. We never say that. It isn’t true.

Gravure_de_pluie_de_poissonsHowever, yesterday during the morning lesson it did hail a bit cats and dogs, if you know what I mean. Fahad, one of our Omani majors, couldn’t resist the temptation to make a short documentary film.

We don’t really know what to say about hail, except to reference its size (size of golfballs is popular). All I could think to say, since it was so near lunchtime, was ah, great.


In my early days as a teacher I was told by a student, an Italian woman of elementary level, that English was a very inexpressive language. I asked what she meant, and she told me (necessarily in Italian) that in English we speak only in pre-formed idioms (cats and dogs; Great Scott!) whereas in Italian they just speak from the heart.

It was hard to know where to begin with that. I think I suggested that she might not yet have accessed the full expressive range of the language. That, if you discount languages such as German where compounding of words renders the lexicon infinite and a total word count meaningless, then English speakers by and large have a working vocabulary greater than speakers of any other language, as well as a word bank dwarfing all others.

It was a fruitless discussion. I was new to teaching, and it would take me a long time to realise that people (other people I mean, not me) were hopelessly wedded to the belief that their language was both preposterously hard to master and capable of endless minute expressive distinctions. And that the language they were learning was a bit, well, cats and dogs.

So now I let such comments slide. I just remind students that we never say cats and dogs, that if it’s rodding down we will probably just say it’s good for the garden; and that in the event of hail (more predicted today) blimey covers most eventualities.



Silicon Fen

Cambridge is not just a university and a city, it is also an internationally important technology cluster, rivalling Silicon Valley and Cambridge Massachusetts.

The city (or cluster) recently came third in an important-sounding innovation ecosystem benchmarking study (the MIT Skoltech Initiative), carried out by MIT (who came top, as it happens – Stanford was second), beating fourth-place Imperial College London out of sight. Here, in a BBC report on the newish Silicon Valley, reporter Neil Koenig looks at the strengths of the local technology cluster and some of its successes (ARM Holdings, Autonomy), and also notes some of its structural weaknesses – chiefly, a lack of financial support for young start-ups.


Having said all that, I know a few Cambridge software engineers and computer scientists, both professionally and socially, and they are a dour lot. One, who subsequently fled to the more happening Boulder, Colorado, complained that nothing ever happened in Cambridge, it was impossible to get anything done. Another seems to be in a perpetual depression about the state of his professional life. And I could cite other examples (two of them Scottish, as it happens).

Perhaps this is a characteristic of the place, in the end. The high-energy positivity we associate with California, for instance, would sit oddly here in this dank fenland retreat. The virtue of Cambridge lies, in the end, not in its connectivity, its energy, its infrastructure, but in its semi-removal from the daily flux of business and affairs. It has always been a more detached, rarefied, exilic counterpart to Oxford. It is a place you can properly think (as is in fact acknowledged in the film, above). Thus Oxford supplies the politicians and the dandies, Cambridge supplies the philosophers and scientists.

That, at any rate, is what we like to think. Oh, and the friend who upped and left for Colorado is coming back in June.




Culture Shock

We were discussing culture shock in class yesterday, listing the sort of things you can’t easily prepare for, or don’t really expect, when you move from one country to another.

We had various examples, but none quite so literal as that experienced by a group of Singaporean students in Cambridge last year, who were co-opted to help clear out part of one of Cambridge’s twelve nature reserves, Byron’s Pool, and rapidly discovered what a stinging nettle was, and why it was so named.

Photo: Uwe Friese

Photo: Uwe Friese


I say Cambridge has twelve nature reserves (the City Council website lists eight, but I have read of others), but you would not really recognise them as such unless you were told. We are not talking about the Masai Mara, or Yellowstone Park. One, for example, I know as a patch of land opposite Tesco; another, apparently, is the puddles on Stourbridge Common. But these reserves are vital attempts at preserving ancient habitats, and keeping Cambridge just a little bit wild.

It is, after all, an unusually porous urban area, shot through with commons and grazing areas for cattle, more or less in the middle of the city. I have seen kingfisher nesting on that very spot opposite Tesco, near where the swifts have their strange tower, and a couple of days ago there was a heron sitting on the roof of the house next door to mine.

None of this constitutes a culture shock, exactly; more of a culture pleasant-surprise, as it was for that student who told me he had been into the centre of town the evening before, and had seen among other things a cow.


Two of our students, Toshi and Yuko, discovered last week that they work two floors apart in the same building in Japan for different companies, but they have never previously met.

Perhaps it is not that surprising. Marketing is not random, not uniform across space and time. There are only a finite number of language schools in the world, a finite number of students, a finite (albeit) large potential clientèle. And there are a great many language schools around the world where no coincidence worthy the name happened last week.

Richard Dawkins is kind enough to explain.


Still, I know how it feels. In my first job as an English language teacher, many years ago, I worked for a Berlitz on the outskirts of Milan, in a place known as Metanopoli for the presence there of the headquarters of the Itailan national gas and oil companies. We were located in a backstreet of an obscure suburb of a city that not so many people visit (compared with Rome, say, or Venice or Florence); and yet one day a teacher from my secondary school started work there, as my colleague. He had left his teaching career in order to travel, and found, of all things, me. We had never really got on – he once gave me 0% in an exam I took for him, on account of my facetiousness (it was a exam in Religious Education). We never spoke of our common heritage. He turned out to be a pleasant colleague. No doubt he was more shocked than I was, and I was pretty shocked.

Raspberry Pi

The science festival is reaching its culmination, with a series of events this weekend across the city and university, concluding on Sunday at the Biomedical Campus at Addenbrooke’s hospital with a series of talks and presentations on biochemistry.

Tucked away on the Saturday, however, is an event at the Cambridge Junction on Clifton Way entitled How to Make Music with the Raspberry Pi, billed as follows:

In a two hour workshop, you will get a chance to learn some basic coding, allowing you to create music on the Raspberry Pi computer.

The Raspberry Pi is a single board computer the size of a credit card, designed by the Raspberry Pi foundation in order to promote the teaching of computer coding. The current computer science revolution, the argument goes, was founded on legions of teenagers in the 1970s and especially 1980s learning coding at an early age through trial and error with cheap personal computers such as the BBC Micro and Sinclair Spectrum. This gets coding into your DNA, gets you thinking about the world as nested classes, about problems as algorithms, and so on. With no such rudimentary devices available to proto-coders, the pool of coding talent would dry up.

Hence the Raspberry Pi, developed just outside Cambridge with funding and support from the University of Cambridge computer labs. It comes in two flavours, A and B, the former costing $25 and the latter $35. You have to download the operating system to an SD card (not supplied). Whether the machine rejuvenates the dwindling art of computer coding remains to be seen. But here, very much in the spirit of those early 80s computer kit enthusiasts, is a short video explaining how to set up the Raspberry Pi. It contains an almost inevitably Blake 7 reference.

Read more about the Raspberry Pi on their website, here.