Category Archives: History

Hello – you must be my wife!

Poitiers town hall

Poitiers Town Hall in France – I met my wife on the front steps 28 years ago today…

Ever since I started re-reading my diaries for followthehumming, I’ve been counting down to the day I met the girl I would one day marry.

And so here we are. 26th October, 1986.

28 years ago, today’s the day.

Just for the record, here’s the ‘how did it happen?’ bit:

Back in 1986, I was about to start a year abroad in France, teaching English in a junior school in Royan. Unbeknown to me, my equally blissfully ignorant wife-to-be was going to be doing the same thing in the nearby secondary school. We met on a basic teacher training course in the regional capital, Poitiers, and were both immediately disappointed to find out that another English student was going to be living in what we had already separately decided was going to be ‘my’ town. My (as it turned out, entirely inaccurate) diary entry for the day we met tells me this unwanted female interloper was “a year older than me, and quite serious” and that – on the train journey we took together to Royan once the course had finished – she was not terribly talkative. This was October 1986, yet by Christmas not only had there been a bit of a turnaround, but we’d set out on a relationship that has now survived 28 years and three children.

The tiny, insignificant events that all had to come together perfectly for us to meet still amaze me – as do the ever-widening impacts that our life together has had (yes, I’m talking about you, kids!). If ever there was a moment of singularity in our own personal universes, our meeting was surely it.

Identifying the absolute key moments in the randomness of our lives before we met is impossible. I asked to be sent to that particular town in France because of a previous family holiday nearby – the only overseas holiday we ever had as children. But what were the events that conspired together to make my parents choose to travel to that specific location when they did? My wife’s request to teach near Royan was similarly based on the flimsiness of chance. She’d had previous experience nearby as an au pair, something that could have taken her almost anywhere.

In some ways, the odds that we would ever meet at all seem vanishingly small. But of course that assumes she is The One, and that no other Ones could possibly exist – a theory that neither of us – rather unromantically, I’m afraid – subscribes to. Perhaps a more interesting question might be to ask what the odds are of meeting someone who it’s highly likely you could end up spending your life with.

Well, it turns out someone has already given that particular question a decent amount of thought. Researcher Peter Backus published a rather tongue-in-cheek paper in 2010 entitled ‘Why I don’t have a girlfriend‘ in which he used Drake’s equation (suggested by Frank Drake in 1961 to estimate the possible number of alien civilisations in our galaxy) to work out the size of the pool of his potential partners. By focusing on a variety of measures of compatibility and practicality (things like age, education, location and mutual attractiveness), Backus determined that there were 26 women in London at the time that he could possibly have a ‘wonderful relationship’ with, and that the odds of meeting one of them on a given night out in London were about 0.0000034%, or 1 in 285,000. This may sound rather depressing, but in a very satisfying and odds-defeating postscript, Backus ended up meeting someone and marrying her last year. Here he is describing his paper:

My conclusion? Well, I’m not sure there is one, other than to confirm that life is full of tiny moments of coincidence that almost all have the profoundest possible impact, however insignificant they may seem. And that sometimes, if you’re as lucky as I have been, they can work their random magic in a way that transforms your life.

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Say hello to Life in the Future

Life in the Future - Delphic Study

I’d like to introduce you to Life in the Future, one of my all-time favourite books, which got a passing mention in my diary on 26th July 1986, 28 years ago today. It was published in 1976 and still graces my bookshelf.

My favourite bit of the book has always been the double-page spread above, illustrating a Delphic Study from the mid-60s in which a host of experts were asked when they thought specific technologies might become available. Their answers were collated and plotted on a timeline (starting in the 1970s and finishing with ‘Never’), with markers to show when 50% and 90% of them agreed a particular technology would be in use.

Life in the FutureThe predicted dates were only part of the fun for me. What really interested me was which technologies had been chosen. My favourites – truly children of their time – were:

  • Two-way communication with extra-terrestrials (50% of the experts were expecting this by about 2025, while the rest pessimistically chose ‘Never.’)
  • Automated language translators (should have been done and dusted by the early 70s if you believe the study)
  • Effective, simple and inexpensive fertility control (predicted to be available by 1985)
  • Economic regional weather control (1990-ish)
  • The widely accepted use of non-narcotic drugs for changing personality characteristics (somewhere between the 80s and 90s)

Re-read rather ironically from my vantage point here in the far future – some way past the previously mythical 2000 AD – the book as a whole provides a fascinating insight into 70s thinking.  The influence of the  preceding few years is obvious: the new liberalism and free thinking of the 60s, the 70s energy crisis and the expansion of nuclear power (the accident at Three-Mile Island was just a few years away), the rise of the environmental movement, significant improvements in medical technology  (the first heart transplant was already old news by this point), the development and early use of packet switching telecommunications networks, and so on.

Longer-term hopes featured in the study included the feasibility of education by direct information-recording on the brain, the breeding of intelligent animals as a low-grade labour force, the control of gravity by modifying gravitational fields and economic ocean farming to produce at least 20% of the world’s food. Wonderful stuff.

Despite the boundless technological optimism on show, the experts had to draw the line somewhere. They baulked both at the use of telepathy and ESP in communications, and at the idea of induced long-term comas used as a form of time travel.

Before long, I’ll be reading Life in the Future on a date beyond the end point of the study, which was around 2020. Compiling a list of likely technological change over the next 60 years would be just as difficult today as it was back in the 60s – but it might be fun to try (suggestions below please!).

Finally, it’s worth noting that while the study was busying itself with telepathy, controlling gravity and alien contact, it missed a few rather important developments that we take for granted today:

  • Instant access to a worldwide network of connected computers – from a device you hold in your hand
  • A system allowing you to search all the world’s knowledge – anytime you want, and from pretty much anywhere
  • In-vehicle video and audio navigation systems controlled by a global satellite network

…to name but three!

If you were taking part in a similar study in 2014, I’d love to know what key technology breakthroughs you’d expect between now and 2080. Who knows, if we compile a big enough list, the Internet could help us run a Delphic study of our own!Futuristic capes

*Life in the Future was written by Michael Ross-Macdonald, Michael Hassell and Stuart McNeill. I can’t remember how I came by it (I wasn’t keeping a diary back then!), but it’s essentially a broad and very readable look at predicting the future and how people affect it by the way they organise themselves and live their lives. I realised as I got older that  it was written with a clear environmental slant which was very new at the time. I owe it a lot.

Atomkraft? Nein danke!

Smiling sun: Atomkraft? Nein danke.Diary date: 18th May, 1986

My diary for this period 28 years ago makes a series of slightly concerned references to an ‘apparently quite serious’ nuclear accident in ‘a place called Chernobyl‘ – a previously unheralded town in the then Soviet republic of Ukraine.*  With typical reluctance, the Soviet authorities only agreed that an accident had taken place after the radiation alarms went off at the Forsmark Nuclear Power Plant in Sweden – over 1,000 kilometres away.

‘Apparently quite serious’ turned out to be a significant understatement. Chernobyl remains the worst nuclear power plant accident in history (in terms of cost and lives lost) and is one of only two to reach the maximum classification on the International Nuclear Event Scale – along with the Fukushima Daiichi tsunami-related meltdown in 2011. Its effects continue to be felt to this day.

A decade earlier, the accident at Three Mile Island had thrown doubt on the future of nuclear power, but Chernobyl cast an even longer shadow. It quickly became impossible to imagine a completely ‘safe’ nuclear plant, many countries began scaling back their nuclear ambitions, and 70’s-style ‘Nuclear power? No thanks!‘ (or more frequently, ‘Atomkraft? Nein danke!’) stickers began to proliferate once again.

Yet despite all this, the industry survived and eventually began to thrive. In many ways, the longer-term impact of Chernobyl was to promote the international nuclear cooperation which has resulted in today’s more robust global safety regime.

Nuclear remains controversial for obvious reasons, but with the end of fossil fuel supplies in sight and global warming an increasing threat, many countries – the UK included – are returning to it as the possible answer both to longer-term energy independence and challenging climate change targets. Even some of the early environmentalists who were instinctively anti-nuclear – such as Whole Earth Catalogue author Stewart Brand – have begun suggesting we should revise our thinking. Brand now sees nuclear as the cleanest current form of reliable, grid-scale energy generation, and believes there are practical ways of dealing with related issues such as reprocessing, waste storage and weaponisation.

Remembering how I felt watching events in Russia unfold, it’s hard to believe that the push for ‘green’ energy is yet to yield a resounding winner. And if the post-Chernobyl nuclear makeover continues, it may be some time yet before the incentives to develop clean renewables are quite as strong again.

*These sorts of national boundary changes are nothing new to followthehumming – and current events in Ukraine suggest more may be on the way before too long.

Crossing the Channel by stagecoach

Channel TunnelDiary date: 26th January, 1986

My 1986 diary has more space than the previous year and comes with an unexpected bonus feature – an area headed ‘Notes’ every two or three pages. On the now 28-year old Notes page for January – conscious of my requirement to keep abreast of all things French – I solemnly recorded the fact that British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and French President François Mitterand had signed an agreement on the building of an undersea tunnel between the two countries.

The scheme they chose involved the construction of two one-way rail tunnels for shuttle and high-speed trains, plus a third service tunnel connected to the other two at regular intervals. Among the schemes they had rejected in coming to their decision were a suspension bridge, a set of artificial islands joined by bridges and a tunnel, and a set of road and rail tunnels.

However, for sheer visionary ambition, I doubt anyone has ever really improved on the plan put forward in 1802 by mining engineer Albert Mathieu-Favier. Favier suggested a single two-level tunnel. The lower level had practicality in mind and was a watercourse designed to collect and deal with the inevitable leaks. By contrast, the upper level was an altogether more romantic affair. It was to be used by horse-drawn carriages and stagecoaches, and lit with oil lamps. Air was to be provided by great iron chimneys connecting the tunnel to the surface, towering at regular intervals above the waves. Half way across, an artificial island was to be built on top of Varne sandbank to allow tired horses to be changed and travellers to rest and stretch their legs.

Favier’s zeal was sufficient to gain the support of Napoleon Bonaparte, who took the opportunity at one point to discuss the tunnel with a visiting British statesman – Charles James Fox. However, with war in the air – and the British suspicious of the First Consul’s motives – the idea was quietly put to one side.

Today’s tunnel is about as far from Favier’s vision of sedate, lamp-lit carriages as it is possible to get, with high-speed Eurostar trains hurtling beneath the sea at 100mph and the world’s largest roll-on-roll-off shuttles ferrying lorries and cars to and fro every 20 minutes. It’s an astonishing feat of engineering – and one that Favier would almost certainly have approved of.

2014 is the new 1986

Diary date: January 5th, 1986

1986 h

The first month of a new year is as good a moment as any to pause and reflect on my followthehumming journey so far. Re-reading my 28-year old diaries week-on-week has been fun and fascinating, sobering and thought-provoking. I’ve used the differences between then and now as kick-off points for what I hope have been some interesting contrasts, but what has really hit me hardest is how little of the detail I genuinely remembered. There’s a whole new blog post just in that thought, but at times I barely recognised the person writing the diary, let alone the situation he was agonising about.

So now I’m moving on to a new diary for 1986, one that covers a whole new set of hopes and fears. As it starts, I’m close to half way through my second year at university, I’m working hard and playing hard, I’ve just  fallen for a lovely new girlfriend, and – if I but knew it – I’m also about ten months away from meeting my wife for the first time.

One thing that will make 1986 a little easier to write about than 1985 is that it’s a perfect clone of the current new year, 2014. Every Tuesday then is a Tuesday now, every weekend is a weekend.

Whether the similarity ends there, I am hopefully about to discover.

Happy new year!

A Latin lesson for the European Monetary Union

coinsDiary date: 13th October, 1985

Before I returned to university for my second year of French and Swedish, my friend Adrian and I decided we had time to spend a month seeing the sights of Europe courtesy of an InterRail card. There’s enough material in my diary for those four weeks alone to keep followthehumming going for years – from the quaint way we tried to communicate with friends and family while we travelled, through to the miles we walked just trying to find a map. One very concrete souvenir of the trip was a small bag of leftover foreign coins and notes which has spent the intervening years living with my diaries in the bottom of my wardrobe – and which these days contains the cash remnants of just about every country I’ve ever visited.

It’s all a far cry from today’s European Monetary Union and its near-ubiquitous Euro. Holidays and business trips are now devoid of the complications and local colour once provided by Francs, Deutschmarks, Schillings, Guilders, Markka, Drachma, Lira, Pesetas and the rest.

But it turns out that monetary union in Europe isn’t a new idea. The most recent attempt at something similar was in the mid-1860’s, when France, Belgium, Italy and Switzerland formed the Latin Monetary Union and agreed that their various currencies could be exchanged at a fixed rate. Silver and gold coins were minted according to strict regulations governing weight, fineness and denomination that made them interchangeable.

The club became larger a couple of years later when Spain and Greece joined in, and bigger still when Serbia, San Marino, Romania, Bulgaria, and (curiously) Venezuela were admitted in 1889.

It all sounds fine in principle, but as ever it wasn’t plain sailing. Arbitrageurs were needed to manipulate the market as the price of silver or gold fluctuated – a process which involved things like driving up the value of silver by removing coins from circulation or bringing additional gold to the mint to be turned into more coins.

The Union’s signatories didn’t help themselves either. Some members (mentioning no names, Greece and the Papal Treasury) started minting coins with less than the requisite quantity of silver, and then exchanging them for coins from other countries that had been minted in accordance with the regulations – all in the interests of a quick profit.  The tension between the changing price of silver relative to gold and the fixed exchange rate that operated within the Union eventually meant that it made sense to have silver minted into coins which could then be used to buy gold at a discounted rate. By then, the writing was well and truly on the wall.

By around 1878, the value of silver had declined so much that the minting of large silver coins was stopped altogether, meaning that the Union was, to all intents and purposes, on a Gold Standard.

In practical terms, the LMU lasted until 1914 and the chaos of the First World War, although it remained a legal entity until it was formally abandoned as late as 1927.

Just 28 years after my first European odyssey, my bag of coins feels genuinely anachronistic. Yet the lessons of the LMU certainly remain relevant in today’s turbulent financial markets. Questions of political and monetary union and the subsidisation of weaker economies are just as important today as they were at the tail-end of the nineteenth century.

Wimbledon: normal service is resumed

WimbledonDiary date: 2nd July, 1985

If my diary has it right, I think I may have watched more of the 1985 Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships than I have of any tournament since – including the one that’s happening right now.

The reason? I was waiting.

Nervously.

The first year of my course in French and Scandinavian Studies had come to an end and I was about to head off for the Summer to work as a cleaner on a Gothenburg dockyard. While I waited anxiously for departure day and the trip to Harwich to catch the ferry, I sat mesmerised by the goings-on in SW19 and tried not to think about how little Swedish I could actually speak.

Somehow, that little patch of grass in London was like a haven of stability just as everything was about to change – reassurance that things would turn out for the best.

So, in honour of the hallowed turf that helped keep my nerves at bay, here are five Wimbledon men’s service-related facts of the kind that might have kept me occupied for at least a minute or two of my maiden voyage across the North Sea.

Meanwhile, I’m off to catch that ferry.

1. Height equals speed

As a top player, more centimetres in height generally equals more speed on your serve. In fact, the link is so strong that an analysis of Wimbledon statistics from 2009 showed that the height of a player in centimetres is almost exactly equal to his average first service speed in kilometres per hour!

2. Aces high

More aces are served in the men’s singles at Wimbledon than at any other slam tournament – the US Open comes next, then the Australian, then the French. Between 1990 and 2009, the number of Wimbledon aces shot up from about 1,900 to around 2,900. The number of aces per tournament has grown steadily at all the other slams too.

3. Speedy slams

In 1999, the average men’s first service speed at Wimbledon was about 15 mph faster than at the French Open. But by 2009, things had evened out, and the average first service speed at all four grand slam tournaments was almost the same at around 116mph. The record for the fastest serve ever at Wimbledon belongs to Taylor Dent and stands at 148mph.

4. Falling  faults

Despite the general increase in service speeds – particularly at the Australian, French and US Opens – the number of double faults has fallen sharply in recent years. In 2001, the double fault count at Wimbledon was about 1,600. By 2007, it had halved to about 800.

5. Second try

The average men’s second service speed has been steadily increasing since 2000 in all Grand Slam tournaments except Wimbledon, where it has remained relatively steady at about 97 mph.

Just for the record, while I was waiting for my slow boat to Gothenburg back in 1985, Boris Becker beat Kevin Curren to win his first ever Grand Slam title, and in the Ladies’ final, Martina Navratilova beat Chris Evert-Lloyd.

(Data courtesy of the School of Physics at the University of Sydney and Wimbledon.com; Image credit: Spiralz)