“I am half sick of shadows” said

the Lady of Shalott

Very loosely, in Tennyson’s poem, the main character is isolated in a castle on an island, where she can observe the world through a magic mirror, and occupy herself by weaving a magic web, but may not leave the tower or she will be struck by a mysterious curse.

She knows not what the curse may be,
And so she weaveth steadily,
And little other care hath she,
The Lady of Shalott.

From The Lady of Shalott

Compared to many, I am in a very fortunate position in this lockdown. From my office window I see, just beyond a quiet (especially at the moment) lane there flows a small stream, flanked by willow trees. Beyond that are fields, and the dreaming towers of Oxford.

And through the field the road runs by
To many-towered Camelot;

By the margin, willow-veiled,

Selected lines from The Lady of Shalott


I have plenty to keep my occupied, with the garden, software development, plenty of books, and the endless resources of the internet. The ability to have video chats with friends is an amazing development, which would not have been feasible a short while ago, and yet, seeing a young family walk past the titular phrase came into my mind, with many memories and connections.

Arthurian romance

Like many children I read the various stories of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, and these acted as a springboard for many later interests.

Some of my Arthurian Romance collection

The stories act as a framework to discuss good and evil, loyalty and treachery, and even the permanence of defeat and death, as Arthur sleeps in some secret location, to be awakened at the time of greatest need.

The following are a tiny fraction of the books which have been written about King Arthur. They show the diversity of the themes which can be woven from the basic stories.

The once and Future King

This begins with the light-hearted ‘The Sword in the Stone‘, which features Merlin turning they boy Arthur into various animals as part of his education. People being transformed in to animals is also a major theme in the story of Blodeuwedd in the Mabinogion which I mention below.

The Last Defender of Camelot

A short story by Roger Zelazny, this features Lancelot, who has remained alive until the present day, being summoned to awaken a sleeping Merlin, whose ideas on Kingship are incompatible with the modern world. Zelanzy’s novels are complex and many have relations to shadows. In The Chronicles of Amber the world we live in is a shadow of the ‘real’ world of Amber, and in ‘Jack of Shadows‘ the main character exerts his magic through shadow.

The Mabinogion

One of the earliest mentions of Arthur occurs in The Mabinigion, and reading that, in search of Arthur took me into a fascinating world of feuding princes, giants and magical transformations.

Blodeuwedd by Jackie Morris

The story of Blodeuwedd, like that of The Lady of Shalott, is driven by a mysterious curse. Lleu Llaw Gyffes is under a curse that he may not have a human wife, so Math and Gwydion (the king, and his uncle – the relationships are quite complex), make a woman out of flowers to be his wife, and call her Blodeuwedd, which means flower faced.

Blodeuwedd has an affair with Gronw, and would like to be rid of LLeu, but he can not be killed during the day or night, nor indoors or outdoors, neither riding nor walking, not clothed and not naked, nor by any weapon lawfully made. Most adulterous spouses would give up at this point but the resourceful Blodeuwedd wheedles the secret out of her husband, in a conversation which I imagine went something like this:

Blodeuwedd: I am really worried about your safety, despite all that, so I can watch out, is there any way you can be killed ?

LLeu: I can only be killed at dusk, wrapped in a net, with one foot on a bath and one on a black goat, by a riverbank and by a spear forged for a year during the hours when everyone is at Mass.

Blodeuwedd: Let me make some notes…

A year later, another conversation

Blodeuwedd: I am still worried about your safety, and seem to have lost my notebook – silly me, it must be from being made of flowers – would it be easier if you showed me the standing on a riverbank, wrapped in a net and so on bit, maybe at dusk tonight.

LLeu (standing on the riverbank at dusk etc) : OK – like this

Gronw (having spent the last year forging a spear): Gotcha !

Struck by the spear Lleu, rather than dying, transforms into an eagle and flies away. Gwydion tracks down LLeu, and transforms him back, and then pursues the fleeing Blodeuwedd, and transforming her into an owl. The picture, with elements of flowers in her dress, and her hand starting to turn into a wing tip, combines the elements of flowers and owls, reminiscent of the story The Owl Service.

Lleu tells Gronw it is only fair that he (LLeu) should have a turn at throwing a spear, and Gronw ask if he can hide behind a rock, Lleu agrees and throws the spear though the rock anyway, killing Gronw.

Llech Ronw – The slate of Gronw

One moral from this story is that someone can be incredibly powerful, but not necessarily as smart as they think they are (back in those days, naturally – I am sure there are no current parallels !) – or

Mit der Dummheit kämpfen Götter selbst vergebens

Against stupidity, the gods themselves battle in vain

Friedrich Schiller Die Jungfrau von Orleans (The Maid of Orleans)

The Historical Arthur

The historical Arthur may not even exist (as ‘1066 and All That‘ points out, it is important not to get him mixed by with King Alfred, who did exist), and as the sources of stories of Arthur are so diverse, it is not surprising to find sites all over the country associated with him. This does, however lead to a lot of interesting places to visit, from Arthur’s Seat, in Edinburgh – city of my birth, through Tintagel – legendary site of Arthur’s conception, to Glastonbury, sometimes associated with Avalon, where Arthur was taken after his last battle.

Seeking out these places gave me many interesting places to visit, and now provide memories.

Glastonbury – and High Ham

When my father retired from the Forestry Commission, in Edinburgh my parents moved to High Ham, in Somerset, and you could see Glastonbury Tor from their garden. According to some clever marketing by the monks at Glastonbury the tomb of King Arthur is in the grounds of the Abbey.

Music

I was listening to ‘The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table by Rick Wakeman while writing this, although the legends have inspired other works, such as Parsifal.

The world of imagination

One of the reasons The Lady of Shalott sticks in my head is that it paints a picture, and in my mind’s eye I envisage the scene unfolding as the poem is narrated, similar to the way Narnia is created through Aslan’s singing in The Magician’s Nephew. A project I have had in my head for a long time – from long before it was technically feasible – was to turn my mental view of the poem into a video. I have started to look at Blender – I do not know if the movie will come to completion, but it does remind me of two things.

A benefit of enforced isolation has been an outpouring of creativity, as people find themselves with time on their hands an chance to try something new – the poem does not tell if the Lady of Shalott knew weaving prior to the curse. An old boss of mine was fond of saying ‘There are no problems, just opportunities’ – resulting a a certain amount of soto voce mutterings about insurmountable opportunities – but there is at least an element of truth in the saying.

The other is that the world of the imagination is even larger and more amazing than the real world. Examples include Randall Munroe’s xkcd comic ‘Click and Drag‘ (you need to click and drag to see what I mean)

(as an aside his comics on ‘The common cold‘,’Everyone’s an epidemiologist‘, ‘Sourdough Starter‘ , ‘Homemade Masks‘ and more are relevant to the Coronavirus crisis)

The quotation which had come to mind to sum up had been ‘To sail beyond the sunset’, which is again Tennyson, from his poem Ulysses, but although another favourite poem, it is not exactly upbeat. (‘To Sail Beyond the Sunsetis also the title of a science fiction novel by Robert A. Heinlein – in his most fantastic phase).

On the theme of journeys of the mind I turn to Hassan by James Elroy Flecker.



                        ISHAK
        We are the Pilgrims, master; we shall go
          Always a little further; it may be
        Beyond that last blue mountain barred with snow
          Across that angry or that glimmering sea,

        White on a throne or guarded in a cave
          There lies a prophet who can understand
        Why men were born: but surely we are brave,
          Who take the Golden Road to Samarkand.

                        HASSAN
        Sweet to ride forth at evening from the wells
          When shadows pass gigantic on the sand,
        And softly through the silence beat the bells
          Along the Golden Road to Samarkand.

                        ISHAK
        We travel not for trafficking alone;
          By hotter winds our fiery hearts are fanned:
        For lust of knowing what should not be known,
          We take the Golden Road to Samarkand.

Say not the struggle naught availeth

I started this post a couple of years ago and never published it, but this has been a favourite poem of mine for many years, and the idea of a hyperlinked version must date back to before 2009, as that is when Sun Microsystems was acquired by Oracle.
 
The poem can be seen as being about several times when we seem to be in the losing side of some battle. When I originally started the post it represented, for me, the struggle between the general idea that knowledge should be shared, in particular Free (Libre or Open Source) Software,  as against the concept that knowledge should be a commodity to be owned by the powerful and used as a tool to maintain and increase their power.
 
 
 
 

 

Contexts

The poem has been used as a message of hope in inspiration in several contexts, generally from the side who appear at the time to be the underdog.

Software and Internet Freedom

The context I originally thought of. Quite a lot has happened over the past decade or more. Linux, a computer operating system written by a Finnish student, Linus Torvalds, and offered freely to the world, now runs not only the computer I am writing this on, but those used by Google, Amazon, Facebook  – almost every big Internet facing website which is not owned by Microsoft. Android phones, set top boxes and cheap (£5) computers capable of running as a web server, such as the Raspberry Pi also run Linux.

On the down side, the way we communicate has largely moved from standards based, open email and openly published web pages to a small set of proprietary systems, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram.

Churchill and the Second World War

Winston Churchill famously quoted the poem in a speech of February 1941, when the outlook for Britain – and democracy in Europe looked bleak.

 

The war was won, even though at the time of the speech the outcome was very much in doubt.

In the same way that the self isolation needed to tackle Coronavirus, is making this a difficult time for many of us, Churchill struggled with what he called his Black Dog – his term for depression – but he overcame it to give inspiring leadership when it was most needed.

Chartism – the original context

The poem was probably written in 1849, in the wake of the dramatic revolutions of 1848, and the defeat of the Chartist Movement. Although some think it relates to the collapse of the 1848 Italian rising, I think the Chartist cause resonated more strongly with Clough, and in either case today’s situation brings hope. Britain, and much of the rest of the world now has universal suffrage, while Italy is an independent country.

 

Coronavirus

Although the death toll continues to climb, health services all over the world are under immense pressure, and an economic depression looks likely, there are signs of hope.

Scientific American has made all its Coronavirus coverage available for free, and for anyone who really wants to know more about the disease a group at Harvard Medical School have made a Corvid-19 Curriculum available. Reading that reveals the importance of the international free sharing of information about the disease, particularly from Chinese doctors who first encountered it.

It is spurring fundamental medical research, and boosting systems of testing, such as the nanopore RNA sequencing, being done by Oxford Nanopore, whose preferred analysis programme runs on Linux, and whose software is available for community review and enhancement.

I hope it is boosting open Epidemiological models, such as STEM, although I have resisted the temptation to dive deeper into this area I hope a diverse range of models are being openly developed, and tested against the real data to work out which best matches reality. (I intend to write a bit more about that when I get round to writing about Diversity and Regulation in Science)

We are recognising those, from NHS staff and carers to refuse collectors, who really are ‘essential workers’ needed to keep our society working, and I hope, post Coronavirus we will remember the part they played, and that it will not be like Kipling’s Tommy

Then it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an` Tommy, ‘ow’s yer soul? “
But it’s ” Thin red line of ‘eroes ” when the drums begin to roll

http://www.kiplingsociety.co.uk/poems_tommy.htm

The crisis has unlocked creativity all over the world, and people are coming together in creative ways, almost too many to mention here.

The sharp reduction in international air travel has been good for the environment, and I hope unnecessary travel for meetings will continue be be replaced by Video Conferencing,

Bringing me back to the origins of this article, I hope the world will end up using some kind of solution which will be based on standards and openness, such as Jitsi, rather than a closed system which aims to lock people in.

HTML in WordPress

I have been writing HTML, by hand – as that was the only way you could write when it first came out, ever since it was invented. Before that I had been using the DEC format program and IBM GML for some time, so the concept of a markup language was familiar.
As my previous web site was hosted on Demon’s homepage service, it was written in vanilla HTML. Since I read HTML  manuals and used it to experiment, there were features I missed – many of which have been around since the early days of the web – which are not directly available in the excellent WordPress visual editor.

Tooltips (<span> with <title>)

By using a construct like

<span title="Eating, and thinking !">Easter Quiz and Baked Potato Meal £1.50</span></p>

you can make a “tooltip” like “Eating, and thinking !” pop up when someone hovers the mouse over the “Easter Quiz…” text. This was used in several places on the old site, and may be retrofitted, but see http://oxford-phab.paladyn.org/wp/blog/2005/12/31/programme-2005/ for an example (18-Mar-2005)

Internal Anchor tags for footnotes in a page

Use something like

Sonnet<sup><a href="#sonnet">1</a></sup> to a Nonagenarian

for the source, and

<li><a id="sonnet"></a>Technically ...</li>

for the target.

Image Maps

  1. Publish the post  or page with the picture which has the image which should have the map.
  2. Download the image from the page to some temporary place.
  3. Fire up GIMP and select Filters/Web/ImageMap
  4. If needed refer to https://docs.gimp.org/en/plug-in-imagemap.html for more detailed instructions
  5. Save the generated Image Map file
  6. Go back to WordPress and edit your page in text mode.
  7. Find the image you downloaded and update its “img” tag with the “usemap=#map” tag, but if you have multiple images on the page change to something like usemap=”#map-g-ggf”
  8. Copy and paste the generated “map” section below the “img” section you updated, but change the name to match the previous page
  9. Update the WordPress post or page and test.

There is an example on the George Edward Lines – Pictures post.
 

Wishing USB-C a successful future

I  have a crate full of USB cables, and it has been a very successful standard, but I was excited to read a Scientific American article about USB-C – a new Universal Serial Bus cable standard. Over the last few years the ‘B’ end of a USB cable – the small end which plugs into a phone, or a tablet, sometimes to exchange data, but often just to charge it has developed several variations. Most devices now use micro-B, and that has been adopted as the standard for new mobile phones.
In the near future an expansion of provision of USB-A sockets would be of enormous assistant the the modern traveller. I took a long distance bus to London recently and every pair of seats was provided with a 13Amp mains socket, and into each of these was plugged an adaptor, which was providing power to charge a mobile device. Providing one socket per pair of seats does potentially leave half the passengers powerless. Each of those sockets is wired to an inverter, which is converts the 12V DC of the bus wiring to 240V AC, so that the adaptors can convrt it back to 5V DC. Any foreign visitors would need to purchase and carry an mains adaptor to convert physical format of the plug they use to fit an British socket, even though what they really wanted was, in almost every case, to plug in to a USB-A socket. I do sometimes travel with a laptop, and my wife’s phone predates the USB-microB standard, so some people will need the mains socket.
The service life of a domestic car should be at least 10 years, and a bus could be double that  – so vehicle manufacturers should be fitting vehicles being built now with USB-A sockets, and planning to provide at least one USB-C socket per passenger in the vehicles being designed now, with several USB-C sockets available in places around the driver and wired back to the vehicles computer system.  For the passengers this could power, and potentially supply data to their entertainment or mobile office and communications system, for the driver increasingly sophisticated Satnav and driver assistance gadgets could be retro-fitted.