Dark at 9:03am in London – or why I like the clock change

Ok. Stand back. Let me explain. The hour shift only actually makes a difference for eight weeks a year.

What??? You all say.

Let me explain. Be careful now, this will involve science.

In the UK, the times of sunrise and sunset change by about 15 minutes a week or about an hour a month. So though we have a big jump this weekend when the clocks change, all that’s happened is that we’ve shifted Sunrise a month to when it was at the end of September, and shifted Sunset a month to when it would be at the end of November. There’s nothing in the clock change in October that we haven’t already had or wouldn’t have in a month’s time anyway.  It doesn’t make the daylight hoours any shorter, though to listen to the grumpiness and ill-informed comments at this time of year, it seems that is what people think.

With me so far?

So the eight weeks which have sunset and sunsrise times which we wouldn’t otherwise have are from Nov 22nd to Jan 22nd or so – ie a month either side of the winter soltice.

So here are the sunrise and sunset times and the length of the day for 21st Nov, 21st Dec and 21st Jan for London

Sunrise Sunset Daylight hours
07:29 16:03 08:34
08:03 15:53 07:49
07:53 16:30 08:37

Without the clocks changing, these numbers would be

Sunrise Sunset Daylight hours
08:29 17:03 08:34
09:03 16:53 07:49
08:53 17:30 08:37

I don’t know about you, but 9:03 is pretty late for sunrise and I hate actually going to work in the dark. So to my mind the clock change is worth it for those two months at least.

But guess what – even with the clocks changing, here in Edinburgh I do have to go to work in the dark.

Even though Edinburgh is only about half way up the UK, that is sufficiently further up the planet for those numbers to be inaccurate.  In January and November the daylight hours in Edninburgh are about 40 minutes shorter than daylight hours in London. and by December they’re about 50 minutes shorter. (Though of course, our daylight hours are longer by the same amount in midsummer).

So here are the sunrise and sunset times and the length of the daylight hours for 21st Nov, 21st Dec and 21st Jan for Edinburgh:

Sunrise Sunset Daylight hours
08:02 15:55 07:53
08:42 15:40 06:57
08:25 16:23 07:57

Without the clocks changing, these would be:

Sunrise Sunset Daylight hours
09:02 16:55 07:53
09:42 16:40 06:57
09:25 17:23 07:57

If it sucks when it’s dark at twenty to nine in the morning, it REALLY SUCKS if it’s still dark at twenty to ten! (I spent a couple of winters in Sweden – I know).

As I said, the specific eight week period between 22 Nov and 22 Jan are the only time when the sun rises at times it wouldn’t if we didn’t change the clocks.

I hope this helps explain

  1. why it’s not that much of a deal
  2. why you’d miss it in December if the clocks didn’t change and
  3. why I’d REALLY HATE YOU if they didn’t

V for Vegetarian

“But what do you eat…?”
“…er…. food…?”

In much the same way that there are deaf people with a small d and the Deaf community with a big D, I am beginning to think that there is vegetarian cooking with a small v – which is all about  meat and the lack of it – and Vegetarian cooking with a big V which is about actual Vegetarianism.

It seems to me there are five types of meat-free cooking.

Aphra’s guide to vegetarian food

1 – Something that’s “almost but not quite entirely unlike meat” (with thanks to Douglas Adams)

Expensive factory-made vegetable protein that passes itself off as cheap factory-farmed meat. These are Seitan, Quorn meat-style pieces, Soya mince, and so on. I loathe these on principle but am ok with them in practice. Mr Behn is a vegan and quite likes them

These represent a style of cooking I was never fond of in the first place; I never did use cheap factory-farmed meat for a start (I used cheaper cuts of meat for sure, but went for good meat usually from independent butchers).

But there’s more to my dislike than that.  There’s an element of selling-out here: there is so much more to vegetarian cooking than pretending to be chunks of meat. For me, this is the vegetarian equivalent of the choice I made to become “one of the lads” when faced with sexism in the workplace. It’s like changing your accent to fit in. It’s accepting normative pressure to be or do something you are not, instead of celebrating something real and much richer.

2 – Even better than the real thing, baby (with apologies to U2)

Well -ish.

There’s a category of vegetarian food which copies meat dishes rather than chunks of meat, and some of these are surprisingly good.  Meat eaters (including me) are surprised by how good Linda McCartney’s vegetarian sausages are. They’re no match for artisan-crafted Cumberland sausages made out of Gloucester Old-Spot pork by an independent butcher, but they are better than most cheap sausages.  (Q: Why do butchers put bread in the sausages? A: Because they can’t make both ends meat. Boom-tish.) Likewise McSween’s Vegetarian Haggis and Simon Howie’s Vegetarian Haggis are as good as meat haggis without the apparent ikk factor. (Haggis is one of the few things I miss: I was never frightened by offal).

Not everything is as successful as these; I’ve had vegetarian haggis that’s been little more than mashed beans. But aiming for meat dishes rather than aiming for meat gives the manufacturers more room for maneuver.

3 – Tribute dishes

These are ones prepared in the style of meat dishes, but unashamedly substitute non-meat ingredients. Don’t look for steak or seitan in a mushroom and chestnut suet pudding. My tendency to use lentils instead of mince puts my lasagne and moussaka into this category.

This isn’t always successful: for years mushroom strogonoff was the default vegetarian option on most pub menus, (mushrooms are apparently “meaty”… no I don’t get it either).

This approach still betrays the thinking that goes “start with meat and work out from there”.

4 – If the meat is in teeny tiny pieces, is it necessary at all?

A lot of dishes, especially mess-in-a-bowl ones, really don’t need meat: risotto, jambalaya, many kinds of curry, chowders, and so on. I can get four meals for six  people out of one chicken (roast, pie, risotto, soup) I know damn fine you don’t need chicken to make a good risotto.

I’ll grant you bacon and ham; there’s no real substitute for teeny tiny bits of bacon and ham as in pea and ham soup, though I do sometimes fry sunflower seeds in soy sauce for small crunchy salty bits to sprinkle on things.

5 – Ta dah! – Vegetarian Food!

Ladies and gentlemen, I bring you…. capital V- Vegetarian Food. Food that doesn’t give a toss about meat. Food where meat would be an intrusion. Food that didn’t start in someone’s mind with meat and work out from there. There is so much of it, and it’s so goddam delicious. And that’s what hurts.

There’s starter veggie food that everyone knows about but doesn’t think of as veggie because it’s comfort food: Mac and cheese, Fried egg sandwich, Beans on toast, Bubble and Squeak, Cheese on toast, Eggs Florentine, Baked Potatoes.

Then there’s a whole swathe of Indian, Greek, Moroccan and Lebanese cuisine: Chana Masala (chick-pea curry); Dolmades (rice or aubergine in vine leaves); Hummous (c’mon, you know what hummous is); Baba Ganoush (always sounds like the witch in a Russian fairy story, but it’s an outrageously delicious smoked aubergine dip); and a wide range of beans in every variety of savoury dressing both hot and cold.

The point about all these dishes is that they don’t need meat.  It’s not missing - it’s irrelevant.

I appreciate that meat substitutes have a place – some vegetarians miss meat and others like Mr Behn find they add variety to their diet. But I see no reason to imitate cheap meat badly when you can celebrate the amazing range of Vegetarian food really well.

How to plan a Vegetarian main course

The trick with Vegetarian food is mixing two or more kinds of protein; so rice and pulses (chick-pea curry with rice),  pulses and grain with dairy (lasagne). It’s a knack, it’s easy once you get the hang of it. And it stops you thinking “meat and then what…..?”

Some rants  – Blue Cheese, Goats’ Cheese and Tofu

While I have your attention, let me share the warm hatred I have in my heart for goats’ cheese. This is the mushroom strogonoff of our times and I’ve had enough to last my one and only lifetime.  Goats Cheese Tart,  Salad with Crumbled Goats Cheese, Grilled Goats Cheese on a Red Onion Marmalade are lazy lazy thinking by chefs who think “if it doesn’t have meat it must have cheese”. And I just plain don’t like the flavour of blue cheese in cooked food. Bored, bored, bored of these two.

What not to serve a vegetarian on Christmas Day

Goats cheese on roast veg, with roast veg – how to sadden the heart of a vegetarian on Christmas Day

Finally there’s tofu. Tofu is compressed soya beancurd and varies in texture from cheese-cake to cheese. It’s nothing like cheese in other ways, and saying “tofu is a substitute for meat” is like saying “ferries are a substitute for trains”. They do different things in different circumstances.

But saying you dislike tofu is meaningless. There’s almost nothing there for you to dislike. It’s an ingredient (like flour), by itself it tastes of nothing (like flour),  it gets its flavour from what it’s cooked with (like flour), it works well when it’s marinated (ok, this is where my analogy breaks down) or when it’s smoked. So don’t bung tofu into your recipe instead of meat and then complain about it. Treat it with respect and it’ll treat you.

I am sorry about those rants; I just had to get them off my chest.


About being a Vegetarian

I shouldn’t be irritated when people who eat meat ask what we eat in our largely vegan household. Mr Behn is vegan. Me, I don’t eat chunks of cheese, buy milk or cream, or eat eggs, but I’m a vegetarian not a vegan because I cannot face having to read every single label of every single product forever. Plus I don’t actually like Oreos.

I rather enjoy telling people “Mr Behn’s never eaten meat” because he was raised vegetarian by dippy hippies, but apparently his family weren’t completely vegetarian until he was a toddler. He did try to eat chicken as a training exercise for going to China. (Note the unpleasant use of the word “try”). So the truth is “he’s never consciously digested meat”, but it doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.

I don’t actually know when I became a vegetarian.

I was raised by women who were adults during the war (both wars, in the case of my grandmother) so I learned to treat meat with respect because you won’t get it at every meal. My grandmother’s macaroni cheese was a wonder to behold, involving soft-boiled eggs and a breadcrumb topping.

They raised me to be fussy carnivore, preferring good meat (free range, from independent butchers) though not necessarily expensive cuts (I can and did stew neck of lamb, casserole rabbits, stuff hearts and cook belly pork with butter beans and apples, as I said offal held no fears for me).

So easing back from meat three times a week, to once a week, to once a fortnight was easy.  I don’t know when I last ate meat.  I do know when I finally identified as ‘a vegetarian’ rather than ‘someone who eats vegetarian food': it was when a cafe gave me bacon with my pancakes and maple syrup and I felt sick at the smell.

The devil I know

I am voting yes tomorrow, and here’s why.

This vote for me has always been about governance, how best to achieve a representative and accountable government for the people of Scotland. Lord knows the Westminster landslides of the last 40 years and the abuses they have enabled have shown that the first past the post system does not give the UK (or Scotland within it) governments that are representative or accountable. And here we have a chance to create a country with a written constitution, proportional representation, no unelected upper chamber; a more accessible and accountable government. Whether or not it will work, it’s a chance I am not willing to let pass by.

My vote is a vote of no confidence in the Westminster system of government.

It is pointless to say “stay and change it”. In the last 40 years Westminster has been getting progressively worse, with landslides that enabled Thatcher to create class warfare that divides the nation even now, with lies that enabled Blair to sex up a dossier and take us into an illegal war with no accountability or consequence and against the will of a million marchers in the street, with corruption which enables MPs to claim expenses and flip houses and avoid jail, with a minority conservative government able to sell off the NHS to themselves and their cronies in an maneuver which was not in their manifesto and which international treaties mean can never be undone.

So, no, I have no desire to stay in the UK and fight to change the system. I am bone tired of fighting to change the system, and there is no-one in the UK left for me to vote for. With turnouts in the 60s it seems most of the UK feels the same way I do. Cameron’s promises of Devo Max are just another example of unmandated maneuvering. Too little too late. The spell is broken, my trust has gone.

How can 8% of the Union end the Union, the English ask now they have had the news sprung upon them by a startled press. Is this fair? No, not really. But that’s another one to lay at Cameron’s door. Sorry.

Here’s the thing: If the referendum was held across the whole of the UK and came out with a majority in Scotland for an independent Scotland would it be right to hold Scotland against its will?

You see, there’s the awkward principle of self-determination. People and newspapers who blithely support people’s right to self-determination when it is far away or long ago and therefore not personal are more squeamish when it’s close to home. My father served in the Indian Army and was a prisoner of war of the Japanese and loathed the break up of the Empire. He used the phrase “when we gave our Empire away”; but I am clear that he was wrong and national self-determination is right. Scotland is not India; it is a partner in a Union of nations not a colony. But it has never been an equal partner. The Scots have a right to self-determination now, as the Irish did a hundred years ago. And I believe – given the venality and corruption of Westminster’s rule – we should be allowed to take it.

Am I afraid? Oh yes. I am very afraid. The currency fluctuations worry me. The market uncertainties. The long-term future of the banks. Mortgages. Jobs. The supermarkets. Of course that worries me. Better Together have done their work. But not better the devil I know. The devil I know sickens me and I cannot bring myself to go into the voting booth tomorrow and vote for Westminster.

Particularly since there seem to be three responses from the English; there’s one that asks how can 8% of the Union break the Union (see above), there’s one that asks “how can you leave us, we love you so much” (oh, diddums, you should have said so sooner then), and there’s one that says “nice country you have here, be a shame if anything were to happen to it” (charming).

I respond very badly to emotional blackmail and always have. So sorry. If you threaten me then my response is to agree with the mannie in the petrol station in Orkney on Sunday who said to me quietly “with any luck, we’ll get away”.

No such thing as “gender neutral” language – Creating safe spaces in Skepticism

Roman Woman in Pompeii

Roman Woman in Pompeii

I was challenged the other day for stipulating that there should be no “ad hominem or ad feminam attacks” in the Skeptics in the Pub UK and Ireland Facebook Forum.

The challenge was a linguistic one, on the entirely accurate basis that:

There is no such thing as ‘Ad feminam’, and its use displays a mis-understanding of basic Latin. ‘Ad hominem’, although grammatically masculine, is actually gender-neutral.

Here is my response.

Skepticism has earned a reputation for being an “unsafe space” for women. I am not going to go into the rights and wrongs of how it earned that reputation here.

The best way to stop Skepticism being an unsafe space is by setting the lead and making it a safe space, and one way to do that is by sending out strong signals and backing them up.

There are many ways of sending out those signals. In Edinburgh Skeptics, for example, we make sure that women members of the committee or women volunteers are active and visible at every event. (This is easy right now because there’s currently only one male committee member, but the numbers ebb and flow). [This paragraph has been edited for clarity].

Another way to do it is with language. Language frames our thinking (a few of us have additional tools such as mathematics and other modelling tools, most of us only have language). So language that silently writes out half of humanity should be resisted by Skeptics whether we are feminists or not if only so we can think accurately about the situations we are in.

You fell for the equivalent trap to “mankind” means all of “humankind” – technically it may do, but it was almost always men who said so. (I read a book in the 70s that explained that babies were weaned too young, and “when the child grew up he became fixated with breasts” as a result…). Gender neutral language can be bad for your thought.

We do not live in ancient Rome; “ad hominem” may have been gender neutral there and then, but here and now it writes out women.

I chose to add in “ad feminam” because it explicitly says “we will not let women be attacked for being women”.

Given that women who speak out online are regularly the subject of rape-threats and death-threats, and given that skepticism has earned a reputation for being full of straight, white cis-men who are members of the academy and who will stay up late arguing because there is Someone Wrong on the Internet, I wanted to signal very explicitly that – in this forum at least – attacking a woman for being a woman is not ok, and I wanted to put men and women on equal terms.

So, I stand by my linguistic error: it helps us think more clearly as Skeptics and it makes it possible to have safer, more inclusive and more diverse spaces for Skepticism.

Plus, as I said in my first post, [I had replied earlier more light-heartedly] it amuses me. Not only, but also. (I am SO over the binary).

Wi’ heart an’ heid – the fire at the Glasgow School of Art

Glasgow School Art ‏@GSofA Photo: The Mackintosh Museum, Winged Victory surveys the intact gallery. pic.twitter.com/KsKTVdATeW

Glasgow School Art ‏@GSofA Photo: The Mackintosh Museum, Winged Victory surveys the intact gallery. pic.twitter.com/KsKTVdATeW

I’ve tried to articulate the difference between Edinburgh and Glasgow for some time now, and the fire in the Glasgow School of Art has brought me closer.

Edinburgh knocks me out with its beauty. When I look at Edinburgh, I see one of those cities like Venice or Florence which is uniquely itself, whereas Glasgow keeps reminding me of other late Victorian Imperial cities like Manchester, Leeds and even parts of Sydney and North Oxford.

Glasgow’s uniqueness is in its people. I lived there for six brief months in 1999 and I miss them and their city in a way that I miss no other city I’ve lived in.

Edinburgh is the wellspring of the Scottish Enlightenment. For all its beauty and architectural follies it was always a city of austere logic. Family legend has it that a forebear was hanged in Edinburgh for stealing a sheep on a Sunday: the capital crime wasn’t the theft, it was breaking the Sabbath. These days Edinburgh isn’t ruled by the kirk, but it is still beautiful and still cerebral attracting some of the world’s brightest and best to an international, intellectual nexus.

However, Glasgow it seems to me mixes passion with its intelligence. Where else, would a fire brigade use the word “cherished” of artworks?

We are of course very conscious the Macintosh is a world renowned building that is a key feature of this great city, and that the artworks it stores are not only valuable but also cherished.
The Scottish Fire and Rescue Service

Cherished? That is not a word used by a Press Officer, or if it is, it’s a Press Officer who has not had their soul sucked out of them.

Then there is this from the GSA itself:

Audacity…? Another word to conjure with.

And here is their audacity:

… the fire services… succeeded in protecting the vast majority of the building, apparently by forming a human wall of fire-fighters up the west end of the main staircase and containing the fire.
Muriel Gray

It’s that eloquent passion I miss, living here on the East coast and working in cool, clever, cerebral Edinburgh.

Dressing down

I had an argument today with a friend of friend about Sarah Millican’s dress.

Some background for you, in case you’ve missed the story.

Sarah Millican is a comedian who was nominated for a Bafta, had a wonderful evening and was eviscerated on Twitter for the temerity of having breasts. She was devastated but responded magnificently and very good for her. Millican was betrayed by her dress which she says looked lovely in the shop but which really didn’t look great in the photographs. This happens, the camera is a bastard at times. As she pointed out she’s a comedian not a model and has never learned to walk or pose in front of cameras.

What was egregious about the response to Millican’s dress was not that it was commented on, but that it was commented on in public.  There is a whole sub-specialty of fashion journalism dedicated to being bitchy about women on the red carpet. And then there is twitter. Oh lord.

I commented in a closed thread on Facebook about other choices Millican could have made and was roundly bollocked for doing so.  But I am English, and was brought up not to be rude to people to their face. Other people think we are a culture of hypocrites because we will comment discretely behind your back. The internet makes this hard, of course. Hence twitter storms.

However, I really felt for Millican. I have more or less the same figure and I never know where to put my tits in a photograph. I end up being so self-conscious when I know there’s a camera around that I always have the shifty look of someone who’s just wet themselves. The only photographs of myself that I like are ones where I didn’t know I was being photographed, or where I’ve given up responding to the camera at all.  So in this thread of doom I was reflecting on my own experience: I too face the difficulty Millican describes of finding clothes that I like and fit.

Two months ago I had my photograph taken for a national paper, one of the ones with a circulation in millions not tens of thousands, and it’s not an experience I enjoyed. I was more resigned than nervous; nervous is for situations where you have some agency. I settled for looking groomed rather than attractive and thought about what to wear for weeks beforehand. I had my hair and nails done,  I wore a highish necked dress and a waterfall cardigan that cut vertically across my boobs. The photographer hated the fact I wore black. If I had known, I’d have worn a different colour. I like to be helpful and he seemed to know his job. the piece has not yet been published, but I will probably ask someone else to read the comments thread for me. The ironic thing is that the story isn’t even about me.  Oh well.

I am so sad that Millican’s bubble was burst after the Baftas. She is a talented person, and deserves so much better.

When did email break?

I am trying to work out when email broke. I think it was about 18 months ago, maybe a year ago. No-one replies to emails any more.

I think it’s because we read them on our smart phones, but we’ll only reply to the easy ones when we’re on the move. Anything more complex we’ll leave till later and, as I learned when negotiating with my mother, later never comes.

Two or three years ago, five or fifteen years ago, emails worked. You would send an email and someone would respond within a few hours, a day at most. You would reply or send another and they would respond to that one. Email was faster and more flexible than letters, more private than faxes (unless you made the tee-hee-hee “classic” “newbie” mistake). It was great.

Recently I have been working on the schedule for Skeptics on the Fringe, and it’s been frustrating. It feels inappropriately public to make the first contact via Twitter and too in-your-face to make the first contact by phone. However, approaches by email are caught by spam filters or suffer from the double-bounce drop (if your email’s too complicated to be returned on the first bounce, it will be dropped).

I worked in times BC (Before Computers). Then I would have used the phone far more when I was confirming the schedule with the speakers, written letters quite a bit and maybe exchanged some faxes, instead of what I did today which was to use a mixture of email, twitter, FB messenger, texts, phonecalls and skype.

I am not certain which day would have been more productive, but I think I’d have been more productive BC.

We all used the phone more as a business tool, but these days I am shy of phoning people without arranging a time first, and when I do arrange a time to speak to someone call it “skyping”.  Today I got my rapid answers via Twitter, Chat, Skype, and Facebook messenger.

Would the letters have got a better response than the emails will now? I think so. People opened their post and put it in an In Tray and worked their way through it. Ideally you would deal with each piece of paper only once using one of the Three Ds (Do, Delegate or Dump). I am now trying to remember when I last saw an actual In Tray on an actual desk that isn’t in a post room. People mean to do that with emails, but the new wave of crap coming in drowns the previous wave of crap to be dealt with.

I am quite tempted to start writing letters again, just for kicks and giggles. Novelty works. In those early years of my working life, a fax was a good way to get someone’s attention because it was an urgent and important thing and the receptionist would bring it round immediately. But no-one has fax machines any more, there’s no “reply” link on a letter, no click through to our website, and stamps are 60p each.

So was BC was a pre-lapsarian age of artisan communications? When I started writing this post I thought “don’t be silly” but the more I re-wrote it, the less certain I became. With my rose-tinted specs on it seems like a golden age but Time Management™ courses and complicated products which were basically diaries in ring binders were heavily marketed suggest that someone made a lot of money out of other people being inefficient.

Instead, I shall think longingly of the true golden age, of the years between 1994 and 2012 when people read and replied to emails.

Incidentally, I assume you know, you babes who are reading this, that the cc on an email stands for “carbon copy”. Tell me you also know that a “carbon copy” was created by placing a sheet of black “carbon paper” between the heavier piece of paper of your top copy and the lighter piece of paper of your carbon copy; the impression by metal typewriter keys would then knock the carbon onto the carbon copy. This was one of the reasons why accurate typing mattered. The first carbon copy was legible, the second less so, the third a grey fuzzy blur.

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