Mr Acid Rain and our Interconnected World

The entrance to the Forestry Commission Northern Research Station, near Roslin

My father, Roger Lines, was a research forester, working for the Forestry Commission. When, in the early 1970’s, I did my Statistics O-Grade I was fortunate to be able to help with some real research at the, then fairly newly established, Forestry Commission Northern Research Station. I was chopping young Sitka Spruce trees, grown under different conditions, in half at the basal node, and weighing the root and stem halves to determine how the environment in which is it grown affects where the plant puts its energy.

On the door of my father’s office was, in lieu of an official plaque with a job title, a clipping, presumably from some forestry journal, which simply said ‘Mr Acid Rain’

Acid Rain was one of my fathers many forestry related specialities. In earlier years soot from factories and power generation had been deposited on nearby vegetation, (and building and clothes on washing lines) physically blackening them and cutting off the light. The Clean Air Act of 1956 had greatly reduced smoke, but the sulphur which was still being emitted from the higher chimneys which were then being used was carried by the prevailing winds across the North Sea, where is acidified the rain falling on the Norwegian forests, stunting their growth.

In a similar fashion to the way that the damage caused by soot pollution led to the Clean Air Act(s) in the UK, the problem of Sulphur pollution led to the 1985 Helsinki Protocol on the Reduction of Sulphur Emissions. This is an example of the way that Science informs political decisions and is an example of the reasoned feedback loop in operation. Note that while the soot pollution led to regulation at a UK national level, the sulphur pollution problem required action at an international level.

Chinese Treasure Fleets

Some years ago I read 1421: The Year China Discovered the World by Gavin Menzies, and although the specifics of that book are strongly disputed by orthodox historians, it was, for me, an interesting introduction to Chinese naval power at the time, and the existence of the Ming Treasure Voyages under Admiral Zheng He is not disputed.

The fact that a mighty fleet of treasure ships could set sail from Nanjing in China in 1421 to reach as far as Aden in Yemen without being any impact on a Europe busy fighting the Hundred Years War shows how independent different areas of the world were in mediaeval times.

Suez Canal blockage

Six hundred years later, in March 2021, another gigantic Treasure Ship sailing from the far east along roughly the same route, sailed past Yemen, but became stuck in the Suez Canal. This time Europe was immediately aware, and not simply because it made a dramatic story, there was a real impact on some prices and on availability of some items. (This is slightly reminiscent of the expected effect on the price of goods when the sailing barque Kishon was due to arrive at some destinations, but on a much larger scale).

Vaccine components

Another item dominating the news in March 2021 was the Covid-19 pandemic, and how vaccines – developed with impressive swiftness, could be fairly distributed around the world. Although the various vaccines tend to be associated with particular countries (or even cities – unless it is just around here that the Astra-Zenica vaccine tends to be called the Oxford vaccine), supply chain difficulties tend to reveal how interconnected all the items required to create a vaccine which can be delivered to people really are. The interconnected nature of today’s world also makes a worldwide response to the pandemic essential, as if there are large populations of people who are transmitting the virus then it will mutate amongst that group, and will re-emerge as a new threat.

The worldwide flow of goods, information, wealth and problems.

The interconnectedness of our world means that it is not only goods and people who move around the world, but wealth and information too. Incorrect information about vaccine safety is reaching tribespeople living the the amazon rainforest, and slash-and-burn agriculture is, in turn, contributing to global climate change.

As an aside I am currently reading ‘Good Economics for Hard Times‘ which has some interesting commentary, by Nobel Prize in Economics winning authors, on the traditional thinking on Free Trade, Globalisation, Migration etc. This article is already long enough, but I really recommend this book if you are interested in the economic issues raised by our Interconnected World.

The world did come together to deal with the issues raised by sulphur in fuels in the 1980’s – I hope that in 2021 the world can work together on the harder issue of climate change.

New Year 1919 in Sarajevo

Margaret Ada Box started the year 1919 far from home (Croydon), in a hospital in Sarajevo, where she was a Red Cross Nurse with the Scottish Women’s Hospitals. Although the First World War was over, sickness and disease – particularly the Spanish Flu, meant there was a great need for medical attention. The Armistice had been signed, but many of the causalities of war needed treatment for their injuries.

Margaret was my Great Aunt, and I have inherited many of the letters she wrote home. Here she writes to her father, my Great Grandfather, on the first of January 1919.

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Jan 1st 1919

My dear Father

We had a pleasant surprise today in the shape of a mail. Thank you for your letter of the 25th (Nov) just received & the parcel from Mother arrived at the same time. Please thank her very much for all the things, the handkerchiefs are lovely, am sorry she had such a bother to get them. The gloves too I am needing badly.

We are lucky to get more letters again so soon, it being only Xmas Eve when we received the last. Dr Chesney returned on Sunday last with the news that we were to remain here & open the hospital – or rather take it over from the Germans. So since then we have actually been nursing again & I am continuing on night duty. I shall only do 1 month altogether on nights.

We have not many patients yet, but they are a strange collection – five different nationalities in one ward! Today we received more orders from home. The unit is to return home as soon as possible & the London Committee has resigned. The difficulty is that we cant’ go home as the Unit has no money here at present. So we shall just have to sit & wait till it comes. I have asked to be transferred to another Unit out here & so finish my year. It will mean some more travelling round to join one of the other hospitals. The one I want is farther north than the place where I first joined this hospital.

I am awfully sorry to hear Rose had the ‘flu’ & do hope she soon recovered & that Mother did not take it too. What a good thing she was in a place where she could get good attention. I hope by now all is serene once more. You must have been terribly lonely all by yourself. I wonder if Leonard is home yet & how he will like the office again.

The money we are using at the moment is the column marked (by me) the value alters very frequently at present 1 kr is only worth 5d & someone yesterday got 115 kr for a golden sovereign. The money has altered in almost every place we have been, the French not being the usual & in some places even refused. All native souvenirs of any sort, clothes or anything else are very expensive now since the war & doubly so to us who they know are English but I hope to bring a few things back with me. I am sending you a white felt cap, as worn by the Macedonians, usually by itself tho’ often with a bright handkerchief round forming a broad band similar to a turban. They look very funny, little white patches on top of a black head. This one fits on the back of my head beautifully & I hope will be large enough for you. Am sure it will be nice & warm for you to wear indoors. I shall ask someone who is going home to take & post it.

On Tuesday afternoon several of us went out to see a Turkish gentleman, his house & his family. It was a wonderful arrangement. They had beautiful carpets & embroidered cushions & covers of all descriptions made by his wife. Then they had very valuable cups, plates etc & all kinds of treasures, they must be rolling in wealth. The wife was very beautiful & dressed in pale blue silk trousers, very full. Her hair was in 2 long plaits & covered with a little scarf edged with artificial flowers. The little sister age 9 – called “Xuda” pronounced “Heba” was very pretty, also dressed in baggy trousers, but not nearly so full. The Mother was dressed in bright orange. They all wore their hair the same way. “Xuda” brought us raspberry syrup in marvellous red fancy glasses with gold rims, on a lovely silver filigree tray. After that we had coffee in tiny china cups. The Turkish women when out of doors wear black silk or material veils hanging over their faces & a great many of them wear white flowing robes, all over heads too. You can imagine how ghostly they look. You can never see their features & they stand still & stare at us through their masks.

We had a lot of snow last week which froze & the sleighs have been out on the streets, but today it has been thawing fast.

Very many thanks for all the Xmas wishes. We certainly had a strange Xmas here. I hope all the others were able to get home for it.

Very best love to all & all good wishes for the New Year to all

Your loving Daughter



The Parcel

Connecting across a century, sending parcels to Europe was associated with a requirement for a customs declaration, which, from a historical point of view generated some interesting documentation, even if it was probably a nuisance at the time. I don’t have the customs declaration, but there is an itemised list of the contents of this parcel.

Christmas Presents for Margaret
  • 1 pair (something)
  • 9 (something) Hankerchief
  • 2 (something)
  • 4 Cotton ?socks
  • Total for clothes
  • Something
  • Writing (something )

  • 7/11 ½
  • 1/4
  • 2/6
  • /10
  • ——–
  • 14/7 ½
  • 2/9
  • 2/6

I hope to return to decoding John Box’s handwriting, to complete the list, but I am sure Margaret was very glad to replenish her supplies of stationary and socks, handkerchiefs etc.


The exchange rate table, which Margaret presumably enclosed with this letter is interesting.

This appears to have been cut from a newspaper, which Margaret must have had access to in Serbia – she was, by now, in a major city (Sarajevo). Most of the other currencies, such as the French Franc have gone, but interesting to see that £1 was worth $4.87 – as opposed to $1.39 when I wrote this.

The reverse of the cutting is also interesting.

My mother used a Boots Scribbling Diary, which was always one of her requested presents, but it is interesting to see that they date back at least as far as 1919.

The white felt cap

From the description this sounds like a Plis, though that is more often associated with Albanian national costume than Macedonian.

Albanian wearing a plisi – not my Great Grandfather

From Salonica to Sarajevo

My Great Aunt, Margaret Box trained as a nurse and, towards the end of the First World War went as a Red Cross Volunteer with the Scottish Women’s Hospitals to join their life-saving work in Serbia. She had been working in Skopje, but the unit was no longer needed there, and they had been sent, via Salonica to Sarajevo. She wrote this letter on 30th December 1918, telling her Father about her voyage.

This post covers a lot of ground and I plan to revise it to fill in more details, but posting it as a draft.

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Dec 30th 18

inprepr 2 4/1/19

My Dear Father,

I will try to continue the story of my travels from Salonica. We went on board on the Sunday morning & we set sail on Sunday morning about 8 A.M. It was a lovely fine day, but a very cold wind & the sea was quite choppy.

All the mountains round were snow capped & Olympus of course was very conspicuous. We wrapped ourselves up & sat in hammocks on deck at the end of the ship. We had a big 6″ gun which was uncovered as soon as we got out of the harbour & the sailor on watch showed it to us & we looked through it & had a ride on it. It was fixed on a swivel. Next day it was much warmer & we were amongst the Greek islands. We passed Anti Milo, an island where they found a statue of Venus of Anti Milo which is now in the Louvre at Paris. We passed Crete later in the morning – by this time the weather was very mild.

Next day the engines broke down. The weather was frightfully hot & we were somewhere in the Mediterranean south of Greece. There was only one point of land very faintly visible on the horizon. We started again next day at 11 A.M. & arrived at Gallipoli in italy at 8:30 in the morning. A submarine came out of the harbour & a whole string of destroyers. We left Gallipoli on Dec 11th at 1 p.m. and proceeded to Taranto arriving there at 5:30 p.m. We anchored outside the gates.

Next day 4 huge coal barges came out to coal us & the whole ship & everyone on it got smothered in coal dust. We bought oranges from natives who came out with huge baskets full in rowing boats. We put our watches back an hour.

There were a lot of old Austrian ships anchored there. We started off again at 5 p.m. & next morning anchored outside the Bay of Velona. A pilot came out at 11 a.m. to take us into the harbour. There were mine fields all across the mouth of the Bay & only a very narrow channel in near the coast. We all had to wear life vests & line up near our life boats. It took half an hour to reach the boom & then we were safe. They bay was marvellously beautiful & great huge mountains all round. Velona was in the hands of the Italians.

This is Velona Bay & the little pilot which guided us round the corner into the harbour. We left Velona at 4.30 p.m. & came out as we went in.

Next morning we came up on deck at 8 A.M. in lifebelts. Ragusa was in sight but we could not land there so a pilot came out and took us to Toplis Bay. There were any amount of mine fields. We went along by the coast crossed the mouth of the Bay – a huge fort was on a little island in the centre & went in by the south shore. We passed Castellnuovo & anchored in Joede Bay (the 2nd one) at 12.30 p.m. In the afternoon some of the crew from the ‘Glasgow’ came on board. The Glasgow is the only destroyer that escaped in a big battle at the beginning of the war, near South America I believe. They took us in their steam launch across the Bay – 4 miles to see the remains of the Austrian fleet, 4 battleships, 2 cruisers & about 40 submarines and destroyers. Then we went to tea with the Captain on the Glasgow & looked all over the boat. He had lovely rooms, very cosy & even luxurious. He gave us a delicious tea & we returned to the Danube by moonlight.

After dinner we had a dance on deck . A good number of the ‘Glasgow’ officers were there, also 2 from the ‘Luce‘ an American destroyer also in port. Next day the Americans asked us to lunch so we all went on board & then to our joy we steamed off to Cattaro, thro a narrow channel into Cattaro Bay. The scenery was very beautiful.

We had lunch then went ashore. The town is very quaint, the streets are paved passages winding about & every now & again leading into large paved squares. We climbed up the hill which springs straight up at the back of the town. There is a fort on top built by Franz Joseph & a very strong wall up either side of the hill (see p.c. enclosed). We found huge snowdrops & all sorts of ferns & campanulas. We returned to the ‘Luce’ & had tea there on the way back to our Bay & then returned to the Danube.

The next afternoon some of us went to Zelenika with some of the American officers & had a lovely country walk thro’ woods & footpaths to Castellnuova. This is a most beautiful place where oranges grow & roses were in full bloom. The Serbs were having a ‘Slava’ & dancing in the market place & carrying about oranges on branches. We walked thro’ the town & down to the quay where the American steam launch was waiting. The Serbs all marched in a long procession down the Quay carrying their flags in front & a man & a woman in most wonderful clothes leading them. They were all beside themselves with joy at getting back to their country. Most of our passengers on the Danube were Serbian Officers returning to their country & as we came into the Bay they all clapped & shouted. On this day they had gone ashore for a feast. They all went on by boat to Fuime & so to Belgrade. The other nurses who did not come with us went to the Glasgow to tea again.

On Tuesday morning we had to get up very early & leave the Danube at 6 o’clock- just after we landed on the quay at Zelenika a destroyer came in to escort the Danube out & they departed together. They had exciting news that a mine had been sighted & not destroyed, but we have heard since that they, the Danube, did not see it. Our train left Zelenika Quay at 9 A.M. We had very comfy carriages, an engine at each end of the train & a most exciting journey as it was mountain climbing & very rocky. We arrived at Sarajevo at 12 noon the next day in the pouring rain which soon turned to snow. A Serb Doctor was at the station, commandeered a tram & took us off to the Hotel Europe for refreshment, rolls, butter, raw ham (! filthy !!) & tea with rum in it which warmed us up nicely & fortified us for what was to come. We were then driven off 8 at a time in 2 cars to this building. It is very big & is a boys college but used by the Germans as a hospital.

The Germans were still in possession under the Serbs & said that they were not moving out till the New Year. The Serbs had made a horrible muddle of everything & the Sarajevo Serbs did not know till the last minute that we were coming here & as they had no official notice from the War Minister they could not turn the Germans out. Consequently we were stowed away in empty rooms on the top floor. Every room that had been used as a ward (& most of them had at some time) was swarming with bugs. I have never seen such a crowd even on Lambeth District. The floors are infected with them & at night they come out & crawl up the walls.

Dr Chesney & Miss Gwynn went off to Belgrade to see the War Minister & ask for our passports home as apparently they did not need us any more in spite of the urgent message to depart to Sarajevo. They came back in a week & said that the Serbs were very humble & wished us to stay in Sarajevo & take over the Hospital on the 1st. So the Germans got their way. The patients & wards were in the filthiest mess imaginable. I came on night duty on Dec 30th.

To complicate matters more a letter arrived from the London Committee on Jan 1st saying that they had all resigned & the Unit must disband. We had heard at Salonica that the Unit was to go home in a month. Now the Unit has no money & can’t go home yet!

They can scrape enough together to send home six (who have finished their year) & they are leaving on Monday. Sisters Drummond & Stuart are both going & are taking this letter.

I am very sorry they are going as we are very good friends. They don’t know what route they will take, possibly from Fiume to Trieste & overland thro’ Venice & north Italy.

I have asked to be transferred to Dr Emslie’s Unit which at present is running a very good hospital at Vrania south of Nick. I expect I should go to Belgrade & then down, but we are sure to be here a good many more weeks yet. We are the first English in the town, except of course Army Officers going thro’ to Belgrade. The place is chiefly German & German is the usual language. It is a fairly big town & the buildings are huge white stone affairs. The mountains round are very lovely.

We were very lucky to get another mail on New Year’s day. I had a letter from you dated Nov 25th & a parcel from Mother with beautiful handkies, just what I wanted & all the other things too. I am sorry to hear Rose has been ill & do hope that she is all right now also the rest of the family.

The Transport Drivers belonging to our Unit have all joined use here. Most of them came thro’ Nick & touched Montenegro, then on to Belgrade & then down here. They have had a very exciting & adventurous time. They were all presented with gold medals by the Crown Prince. The others, 5 of them, came round with us by boat & then went on to Fiume. They could not land the cars before Fiume.

The Serbs & Italians are not at all pleased with each other. We heard the other day that they had had a ‘scrap’ & we proceeded to get read for the ‘wounded’! But it was a false alarm. Our patients are a terribly mixed crew – Serbs, Australians, Germans, a Russian, a Pole, an Italian & Turks & a Greek. There are a few languages about. I am still struggling with the Serb language. It is much like Russian but the Grammar is like the Latin & the arrangement of verbs at the last minute of a sentence a la German.

I am getting frightfully good at dumb charades. The alphabet is such a trial as nearly all the letters are entirely different from the latin. This is my name written in Serbian letters.

I hope Mother received my letter with list of people for photos. In case she did not please will she send to –

Miss Saville – 1
Dorothy Nevett – 1
Miss Dingle – Woolverstone Park Hospital, Ipswich – 1
Miss H Ribler – Nurses’ Home, Guy’s Hosp. 1
Miss G. Butler – G.L.I. Hospital, York Rd. Lambeth – 1
Miss K.V. Coni – ” ” ” 1 & 1 for Sister Mitchell & 1 for Sister Fourdrinian – enclosed Coni’s if you will ask her to give them.

Then please will you send me 6 our here.

The snow has been melting fast & the sleighs have disappeared again – we miss their jingling bells. The Serbs Xmas is on Monday next so there will be great rejoicings. We hope to be invited to a ‘Slava’. They are 13 days later than we are, the same as the Russians.

One peculiar custom of the people out here, more especially, I think, the Greeks & Macedonians is that all their horses and donkeys wear necklaces of big blue beads – sort of lucky charms I believe to keep away the devils.

The soldiers don’t have any ?diaums to my knowledge, but they are first rate spitters. I should not think that there can be another race on earth that spits so much.

I am sending you a little felt cap “to keep the draught off” & hope you will find it nice & cosy – it just fits the back of my head. It is a Macedonian cap & all the country peasants wear them, sometimes they wind a bright handkerchief round their heads below the cap, turban style. I got it at Uskub, they make them there from the sheeps wool.

We have had very little work to to at night as we only have a very few patients.

Much love to all the family & all good wishes for a Happy New Year.

Your loving Daughter



Postcard Recipients

Miss Saville

There are several Miss Savilles show at though not all are Miss

Dorothy Nevett

She is not in the Red Cross list, and may have been a non-nursing friend.

Miss Dingle

She was Janet Dingle, Matron at the Wolverstone Park Hospital – this site has much interesting information about the Hospital, and British Home Hospitals in general, including information about Janet Dingle, and a link to her Red Cross Card.

Timeline and map of the journey

Although in her letter of December 2nd, Margaret expects to be setting off the next day, (Wednesday 4th, as her letter continues to be written on the 3rd), the Danube does not leave Salonica until December 6th. These bits of timeline are taken partly from the letters and partly from her diary – I will revisit this to fill them in better.

Tuesday 3rd December

8 am. Board the Danube, but do not sent sail

Wednesday 4th December

Went on land, had lunch at Red Corss

Thursday 5th December

Had a Serbian lesson, and swarms of people came on board.

Friday 6th December

Set sail from Saloncia at 8.30 am, view the guns. Pass Mount Olympus

Saturday 7th December

Pass Anti Milo or possibly Milos as the island the Venus de Milos was discovered on, and Crete, later that morning.

Sunday 8th December

Engines Break down

Monday 9th December

Engines start again and then break down again

Tuesday 10th December

Arrive at Gallipoli

Wednesday 11th December

Leave Gallipoli at 1 p.m.

Thursday 12th

See Austrian boats, Guided past the mines

Friday 13th

Anchor off Bay of Velona

Saturday 14th

Enter Teode bay. On Glasgow in the evening

Sunday 15th

Lunch with Americans on Luce

Monday 16th

Walk to Castlenuova, Serbs having a Slava

Tuesday 17th

Ashore on Glasgow’s launch, then on the train through Ragusa, Mostar

Wednesday 18th

On train, through Podoratec, Rastelisa, Pagaire, arrive at Sarajevo at 12 noon

We had a very jolly Xmas 1918

Margaret Box, my Great Aunt, spent the Christmas of 1918 far from the rest of her family, working as a nurse with the Elsie Inglis Unit of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals. On the 28th of December 1918 the unit, including Margaret, were assigned to the hospital in Sarajevo, from where she wrote to her mother.

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Dec 28th 18

My Dear Mother,

I received Father’s letter of the 17th Nov on Christmas Eve – please thank him very much. We are still here doing nothing, but in a horribly awkward position with Germans running the Hospital. I hope we move on soon, probably the unit is returning home shortly but I have asked to be transferred to another unit.

We had a very jolly Xmas on the whole & managed to make a Xmas pudding. also had a fancy dress dinner.

Someone just going to take a mail very soon – terrible haste.

Hope you had a happy X.



It seems as if, for Margaret and her friends, Christmas 1918 had similarities to many people’s experience of Christmas 2020, unable to spend it with their families, in a state of enforced idleness, but doing their best to celebrate as normal.

With letters from England taking over a month, and, according to John Box (Margaret’s Father) note, letters from Sarajevo sent via a returning nurse, still taking until January 18 to arrive there would be no Christmas Day family catch-ups by telephone or video chat for them.

Germans running the Hospital

I think the Elsie Inglis Unit had been sent to Sarajevo because the Germans were due to withdraw, but when they arrived the Germans were still in charge, but did not really seem enthusiastic about running the hospital, which was not very clean. There will be more about this in Margaret’s next letter.

Terra Incognita, Mr Box – 12th December 1918

The Scottish Women’s Hospitals wrote to my Great Grandfather, John Robert Box, on the 12th of December 1918, sympathising with his frustration that he had to communicate with his daughter, my Great Aunt, Margaret Box by way of Salonica (Thessalonica) in Greece, when she was working as a Red Cross Nurse in Sarajevo, over 300 miles away. This is one of many letters which cover the time Margaret was nursing in the Balkans at the tail end of the First World War.

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The Elsie Inglis Unit of the Scottish Women’s hospitals was based, for administrative purposes in Salonica, but the medical staff moved to where they were needed

Miss Durham

I suspect this was Edith Durham who had written ‘Through the Lands of the Serb’ in 1904. She seems to have been another determined British woman who roamed the Balkans fearlessly in the early years of the 20th century.

Scottish Women’s Hospitals to Mrs Box – December 6th 1918

During the First World War Elsie Inglis, a Scottish Doctor, realised the urgent need for medical assistance to treat the wounded, but as a woman, her offer of assistance was declined by the War Office. Undeterred she established the Scottish Women’s Hospitals, and recruited women to go and and tend the casualties of war. My great aunt, Margaret Box, a trained nurse, was one of those women. In December 1918 she had been nursing near Skopje, but was now en-route to Sarajevo to join a hospital there. The war was over, but it had left many sick and wounded in its wake. This letter, one of many I have inherited from my Great Aunt, is from the London office of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals to my Great Grandmother to inform her of Margaret’s move. I think Margaret’s mother wanted to send her a Christmas present.

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I think the parcel that Margaret’s mother would have liked to send was to include a tartan tie, which was designed by Elsie Inglis as part of the nurse’s uniform.

Dorothy Willis also writes to the Box Family on:

  • 3rd October 1918 – to reassure her father that Margaret is safe
  • 29th November 1918 – to tell her father that Margaret may be on her way home
  • 12th December 1918 –
  • 20th December 1918 – twice – once to tell her father that she might be returning soon, and later that day to tell him she would probably be in Serbia for another three months.

Margaret Box to her Dad – December 16th 1918

Margaret Box, my Great Aunt, trained as a nurse, and went out to serve in Serbia with the Elsie Inglis Unit of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals. She had been working near Skopje, but at the time of writing this letter she was on her way to Sarajevo.

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Dec 16th 18

My Dear Dad,

Our 3 days trip has lasted 10 days & have have had a most enjoyable voyage. The weather has been & still is perfect & so warm. We have appreciated the complete change of living too for a little while &now we are going back to our old style ! The last 2 days have been very gay. I think we have had our Xmas festivities. We have been out to tea & lunch on other boats & yesterday we went ashore & climbed a bit of mountain.

We expect to leave by train tomorrow morning & I suppose we shall soon arrive at our destination & it will be quite strange to start nursing again & I wonder how long we shall stay there !

This country is wonderfully beautiful. We picked huge snowdrops yesterday & ferns of all varieties. I saw lots of different leaves such as cyclamen, columbine etc & in the spring the flowers must be lovely.

I hope you got my letter with post cards safely. We reckoned it ought to take about 10 days to get home. We have not the least idea how or where we shall get letters here. I should think it will be a good many weeks. I hope in about 2 months to send you another newsy letter as I think some of the Sisters are going home then. Their time will be up & they have promised to take anything home for me.

This afternoon we have been ashore & had a glorious walk thro’ orchards & woods to such a pretty town. Oranges grow there now & roses & large blue campanulas wild . It has been a perfect day, very warm & the water is like a pond. It was very windy when we arrived on Saturday morning & the sea was quite choppy.

We are to get up at about 5 o’clock tomorrow morning & start off on our travels again. They say we are going through gorgeous scenery, but I have seen so much already my brain is overflowing with it, and the sunrises & sunsets are so brilliant & so many colours you would not believe it was possible. I will write later & tell you about some of the people we have met on board, their departures & destination we mentioned in one of the daily papers, but they did not mention us !

Please tell mother not to bother about the tartan tie as I hear they are very difficult to get so I will write to Miss Willis for one.

I am wondering what you will be doing at Xmas. I suppose the family will be very scattered. It is most unXmaslike out here. We were told it would be frightfully cold & snowy, but evidently it has not begun yet. I find I like the sea so much & we find the Navy life so well that several of us are thinking of joining it !!

It is very strange that the ships Dr. on one ship we visited here was a student at Guy’s when I was there. I did not recognise him as he has shaved his moustache off, but he remembered me. Of course we talked Guy’s but neither of us had much news of the old place.

Very much love to all

Your loving daugher



Her father’s notes say ‘arrived 24/12/18’ and ‘answered 29/12/18’

Margaret had asked her mother for a Gordon Tartan Tie on her letter of the 3rd of December.

How do we decide ?

This is very much a work in progress, which I intend to refine, but published in this incomplete form to link other posts into a wider context.

Choices can be tricky – important ones always are, and for each choice we (as individuals, groups, societies and humanity as whole) make there will be an alternative which we did not take.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

The Road not Taken by Robert Frost


With great power comes great responsibility

Peter Parker

Ethics, as I am using it here, is a huge field, containing philosophy, religion and politics.

Individuals, Groups, Nations, Humanity

Finding the right balance between the needs of the individual and the needs of the group has always been hard, and is becoming harder as the world grows more complex.


Scientia potentia est (Knowledge is Power)

Francis Bacon (attributed)

Any decision which is incompatible with science will ultimately go wrong, because the science tells us about the world as it is, rather than the world as we might like it to be.

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool.

Richard Feynman in Cargo Cult Science

Science can not be used on its own for some big decisions.

It is strongly hinting that we can not both continue to burn fossil fuels, and avoid climate change, but does not in itself say which option is ‘better’.


The Golden Rule: He who has the Gold makes the Rules

I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country… corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed.

Abraham Lincoln

Economics is another decision support system, helping us to decide how to allocate resources. As a nation, should we spend more on the NHS, or Education or the Arts – and if we say ‘yes’ to all of these, what do we cut, or do we (there is no magic money which comes from ‘the government’)

To paraphrase William Jevons, “Money‘s a matter of functions four, A Medium, a Measure, a Standard, a Store“. In supporting decisions it is its functions as a Measure – i.e. a way of comparing the economic values of two things at the present time, and as a store, which can be thought of a way of comparing the value of having one thing now against something else at a later time.

Pure economists tend to work with a hypothetical ‘economic man‘, who makes rational choices, based on economic self interest, however most real life people blend economic with ethical and scientific considerations.

How do They decide ?

If we can take a set of circumstances, and apply some combination of Ethics, Science and Economics, to work out what the response to some situation should be, then others, such are governments and corporations are, explicitly or implicitly doing the same.

If we examine the decisions they make we can work out how they actually weigh, for example the science which suggests that Climate change is a danger, against the economics which suggests that increasing air travel will bring prosperity.

All politicians claim to be working to benefit those who voted for them, and the question is, does examination of who actually benefited from their policies, once they have been implemented, match the claims ?

This is why transparency in the decision making process is so important. We should not expect perfection from politicians, or any decision makers, but if we, and they need to be able to show their reasoning, as part of a reasoned feedback loop.

Do we decide ?

I am not talking in the deeper sense, of do we have Free Will, discussed in an interesting way in ‘Is God a Taoist ?‘, but in the more pragmatic sense that access to information shapes our ability to make rational decisions.

A decision implies that there were some set of choices, and that one of those was picked. If the choices do not exist, or we are not aware of them then no decision is possible. It is easy to look at some other person, or group, and say that they are making poor choices, but they may not be aware of, or have access to alternatives.

This is where diversity interacts with decisions – or lack of them. If the only food available is burger and chips, because that is all that is available where you live, or you are not aware of alternatives, then you do not have a choice.

In an Internet context, if you are only aware of the products of the big monopolies – as is quite likely for most ‘real’ people, then there is not really a choice. For example Excel has become synonymous with spreadsheet, and Zoom with Video Chat. Although, for example Hoover is often used where we mean Vacuum Cleaner, we do actually know that in that case there is a choice, and we benefit, when we go to the shop to purchase one from range of options available.

The reasoned feedback loop

The reasoned feedback loop is central to human progress. Feedback loops are everywhere, but the key element introduced by people is the Reason step. It is core to the way that science works, and engineering, and good (I wish I could think of a better word here), legal, moral and political systems.

In such loops things are in some state, which is examined, and reasoning is applied to do something, to get to a new – intended to be better – state. This seems very abstract, so I will supply some examples to show what I mean. I will also point out where access to information is important in this.


To many non-scientists, the role of a scientist is to know things, but real science starts with not knowing something, but wanting to find out. Scientists start off not knowing, for example if there is a connection between smoking and cancer, or where the energy that powers the sun comes from. They perform experiments, or apply statistical tests, and reasoning, and the end state is an increase in human knowledge.

The success of this process depends on open sharing of the information and reasoning used make the new discovery. Usually these are published in scientific journals, for fellow scientists to see if they can reproduce the results, and examine the reasoning.

This process is international, as spreading good knowledge helps everybody, thus Chinese scientists published an article on ‘A pneumonia outbreak associated with a new coronavirus of probable bat origin‘ in the scientific journal Nature on 3rd February 2020, which is available to anyone to read (note that Nature is normally a subscription publication – that is how they make their money, but they make some articles Open Access). The link to the article came from the excellent Medical Student COVID-19 Curriculum which itself is being improved regularly.

Accurate measurement and good data is essential to all science, and in medicine this is particularly the case, which is why I support the Cochrane foundation – which promoted evidence based medicine, and the All Trials campaign, which pushes for the results of all drug trials, not only the favourable ones, to be made available.

Applying the Reasoning stage is particularly important in the face of a global pandemic. Denying it exists, or humanizing it leads to worse outcomes. An epidemic is the bad kind of a positive feedback loop leading to the bad outcomes, and rationally applied strategies can push towards the good outcomes, as described in ‘Is Coronavirus a Catastrophe

The Law

I shall use the British system here, as it is the one I am most familiar with, and because – despite it’s flaws – it is the result of many people over a long time trying to do The Right Thing.

The Law is not perfect, change can be frustratingly slow, and implementation often fails to match the ideal, but potentially it uses the same process of a reasoned feedback loop as science does.

British Law is made by Acts of Parliament, proposed, discussed and voted on by elected MPs. These discussions are publicly available in Hansard. They are not the most exciting reading, but these parts at least are public.

When there is doubt about the meaning of a law, this is decided by the Court system, refining this through the appeals system until a final judgement is reached. To make these judgements the lawyers use Hansard to try to work out what Parliament intended by the law, and the judgement of previous courts (precedent), to try to make the law as fair as possible. Most of the body of ‘case law‘ is in legal libraries, not published on the Internet, but, for example the British and Irish Legal Information Institute does make many cases available.

Parliament should (and usually does) take existing case law into account when passing Acts which replace previous laws.

Systems where knowledge important to bits of this process are hidden from wider view tend to work less well, as there is more chance that some key information will be missed. If the information is not available to decision makers (for example if their primary source of information are biased lobbyists – and there is no way to review the accuracy of what they have been told) they will make poorer decisions.

The Internet

The Internet, the core part, which should be distinguished from the things which run on top of it, is another example of the effectiveness of open decision making and transparency being used to drive progress. The ‘laws’ of the Internet are a set of documents called Requests for Comments, and they most important of these are published by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF). The final versions of these can be found on the web site of the RFC Editor. Those which are Standards are produced by IETF Working Groups, and the discussions which lead to the final documents are openly available (and open to public contribution).

In general for something to be a Standard there must be at least two interoperable implementations.

The guiding principles of the Internet Architecture Board (IAB) an guiding committee of the IETF, is that ‘The Internet is for End Users‘ making the ethical framework explicit.


This article reflects on and in some cases restates some of the points in Diversity and Regulation.

In the spirit of the article I welcome thoughtful feedback, either through comments, or via Federated Social Media to

Margaret Box arrived in Sarajevo – December 1918

Margaret Box was one of a number of women who joined the Scottish Women’s Hospitals, leaving their homes to deliver aid where it was needed during the First World War. She was my Great Aunt, and I inherited her diaries, and some of the letters she wrote home. By December 1918 the war was over, but the need for medical care, for disease as well as war wounds continued. Margaret had been nursing in Bralos in Greece and Skopje, and has now travelled to Sarajevo, from where she writes to her mother.

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Dec 19th 18

My dear Mother,

We actually arrived at our destination yesterday at 12 mid day. We had a very comfortable train journey, 1st class compartments not cattle trucks. The scenery was wonderful & most of the way we had an engine each end as we climbed such steep mountains. This is a big town with fine big buildings & very good shops.

We are taking over a hospital there are 80 patients in it now, it is a huge place & is really a boys college. There is a fine museum also laboratory & gymnasium. There are radiators in every room & all corridors & double windows – so they are evidently used to very cold weather.

It started to snow 2 hours after we arrived & everything was soon thick with it. Now it is melting & it is very wet & ‘slushy’ outside. On our arrival a tram was commandeered for us & took us to a Hotel for lunch. From there we drove on in cars.

We look out onto very fine mountains & a little river runs along the other side of the road. There is a garden belonging to us with a tennis court & summer house. We felt very desolate & miserable yesterday afternoon coming into this huge place quite empty (except for the wards where the patients are !). Our luggage is arriving tonight then tomorrow we hope to get our rooms straight & our beds put up, you see we have no furniture.

I am afraid we got horribly spoilt on the boat. We were on for a fortnight & had such a good time. Everyone was so kind to us. It all seems like a dream now. But I think we shall soon settle down when we have got things straight.

All the shops are showing Xmas goods & everywhere in the streets are people selling Xmas trees. They look so funny standing up along by the railings waiting to be sold.

This afternoon we went into a lovely mosque – at first we were told to take off our boots but then a man produced slippers which we put on over our boots. The floor was covered with the most beautiful carpets & the walls & ceiling were magnificently painted. Their women are not allowed in & they walk about in the streets with flowing robes & black masks on their faces. There of course are only the Turkish women. It is very strange to see so many well dressed women about. I think they are mostly Austrian & German & a few Serbs.

I am longing for the Spring to come as I am sure it will be lovely then.

Very best love to all

Your loving Daughter



‘Our destination’

Although instructions from the censor, still vigilant, even though the war is over, prevent her from saying so explicitly, Margaret has arrived in Sarajevo – where the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdindand in 1914 had set into motion the events which would lead to the First World War.

The journey

Margaret’s previous letter, on December 3rd, had been as she was about to depart Salonica on the S.S. Danube. Her journey took her, I think, from Salonica to

There is a web page at which describes, with some pictures, and a map, a railway journey on this line in 1965, when it was still narrow gauge, and probably similar to the way it would have been in 1918.