Visiting Lincoln's Inn Fields...

After the Singh hearing this morning, David Allen Green took a small clutch of us to see Lincoln's Inn Fields. The exact workings of the legal profession in England are a little obscure to an American, but the gist is that there are four clusters of barristers' chambers around (known as Inns of Court) and near the big courts, Lincoln's Inn Fields being one of them. David claims it's the most beautiful of the three; I can't comment. It is laid out a lot like a residential square crossed with a university campus, so the quad in the middle is perfect green lawn and along the sides are buildings of varying ages that house barristers' chambers. David stopped to point out the building in which Dickens' Bleak House opens, part of which is modern (ie, it was there in Dickens' time) and part of which is medieval. Across the way there's a very large not-sure-how-many-centuries-old building, the library. We had a stroke of luck in that one of the library's curators came past and knew one of our group, and she offered us a quick tour. It is in fact a very beautiful building inside, utterly private; its upkeep and collections are paid for out of the rents collected from the barristers' chambers. The dining hall was set for lunch (it was noon, and lunch starts at 12:30). This is a hierarchical affair of lots of long tables, all perfectly set. One long bench at the front is for the bigwigs (David did say what you have to do to qualify as a "bencher" but I don't remember what it was); a number are for students; the staff sit at a set that was pointed out to me. The walls have many portraits of former members, one of which was Sir Thomas More, the named scholarship that paid David's way to become a barrister (althoug he later diverted and became a solicitor). At one end there's a giant tableau painted on the top part of the wall of some legal which there is a chap in green wearing a turban, who is a Muslim (he seems to be quite knowledgeable).

The library itself smells of old books in the best sense, but you could see was a bit confined in terms of space. I asked if there was any thought to making any of it available electronically. Our guide explained that most of their collection will never be avaialble in that form; they could themselves scan it in, but they won't. They don't, she said, throw anything out. She pointed upwards to a catwalk. The books up there, she said, are old copies of textbooks - because sometimes in a case you need to find out what the law was *at the time* of a particular case you're citing.

Originally, of course, you didn't - couldn't - go to school to become a lawyer. Instead, you learned the law by attending a number of dinners with the older, more knowledgeable members of the profession; the tradition persists (although now you go to school, too). There's a list here ( of some of the present and former members of Lincoln's Inn.

Wikipedia ( says that LIF is the largest public square in London and is thought to have been the inspiration behind New York's Central Park. One thing about it is that the thick, stone walls and the design eliminate all the street noise from outside. So you walk through the gate and bang! you've gone back a few centuries.


RIP Baslava Premanand (1930-2009)

(I keep meaning to set up the personal blog on my own domain, which is why it's so long since I've posted. But I don't have time today and I really do want to write some notes about Premanand.)

Probably most readers here won't have seen or heard of him, but Premanand was India's leading skeptic and humanist; he published The Indian Skeptic and was a teacher, debunker,and performer.People compare him to James Randi, but it might actually be more appropriate to compare Randi to him.

I met him once, when Lewis Jones did an interview with him for The Skeptic. Seeing him was the same kind of mind-blowing experience that seeing Randi for the first time was. He *looked* like a guru; he performed the miracles that India's gurus use to attract followers; and then he explained exactly what he'd done like Agatha Christie. Simply brilliant.

The thing that has always stuck in my mind from the interview was that he said that debunking miracles was very important in India because miracles are how religions/religious leaders sell themselves (with the implication that once they have sold themselves all kinds of exploitation become possible). This seems to me an important point to keep in mind when someone asks, "What harm can it do if people believe...?"

The Times did a pretty intelligent writeup of his work in 2003:

And the BBC here, in 2004:

Premanand took a lot of risk in trenchantly opposing gurus he believed to be fraudulent. I hope among his many admierers are some who can carry on his work.


Heathrow Terminal 5

Finally got to experience the new terminal last night. Not impressed.

- Security is set up so that *everything*, even roller bags, has to go in a try. The trays cycle back via an under-counter conveyor belt. This was insufficiently stocked, so people had to wait until more trays cycled back.

- the *noise* is incredible. Heathrow (in fact, all British airports) is always hot and noisy, and the new terminal, though spacious, does nothing to improve on that. The worst was waiting at the gate to board. There is a big space with a lont line of gates and waiting areas (we were leaving from A5). Each gate has a giant flat-screen tV, each of which was tuned to the same channel. Each TV echoed through the long space, so that you are assailed by a continuous pulsing wave of TV sound.

- T1 is actually more human these days. Plus, I can use the Star Alliance lounge, but that's not a fair comparison.


40 years of Garbage!

Back in 1972, when I was 18, I went out to a party after a concert - probably John Roberts and Tony Barrand - run by the Cornell Folk Song Club. The party involved a lot of singing, a lot of cats, and a raccoon named Marshmallow, but that's not the point. The point is that this guy drove me home that night, we sat talking in his car until 5am, and he's been a friend ever since: Bill Steele.

One of the things I learned pretty early about Bill was that he loved Pete Seeger, he'd written a song called Garbage!, and one of the proudest things that had happened to him was that Pete Seeger had recorded his song.

The song is 40 years old this year and, sadly, is as true now as it ever was.

But still: happy birthday, Garbage!


Off to Chicago

I've been wanting to go to for years, and this year is it.

Back on the 28th. On email for sure, Twitter probably, while I'm gone.


Search engines and exclusion

We were talking over dinner tonight about search engines (as you do), and one of my guests commented that the percentage of Google (or ) users who ad exclusionary terms to their search terms is tiny. It occurred to me that Google could increase this with an interface change such that as a user types terms into the search box a second list is created onscreen with a tick box next to each term with a caption like "tick box to exclude"). The training wheels would teach users the function was available, and you'd have the option of turning them off.

Of course, it may not really matter to Google how efficiently people search.


Off to Edinburgh

Well, off to Edinburgh for the weekend; Sunday is my gig at the Royal Oak's Wee Folk Club. Pls to ignore the 37yo pic they posted on the site, and also the mention of concertina, since I'll be bringing the banjo instead.



Treo 680 sound

Around the time the iPhone was announced I decided on a Palm Treo 680. It synchs with Ecco (cut loose in 1994, but you know, it still works). It turns out that the significant flaw in the 680 is (not any of the things that you might think of first) a the 2.5mm jack you're supposed to use for headphones. It transpires that there's a teeny switch in there and when you plug in the headphones the switch directs the sound to the headphones and when you unplug them it directs the sound to the speaker. Which would be fine except teeny switch vs headphone plug, you know the teeny switch is going to lose, eventually. It took about six months for the switch to break.

Seidio makes a workaround for about $10. This thing plugs into the port for the hotsync/recharger cable; there's a standard 3.5mm headphone jack in the other end. Fine. So I bought two of those, and got a little free routine called "Headcold" that you use to tell the Treo whether you want sound through speaker or sound through headphones. Only to discover after a couple of months that plugging in either Seidio intermittently sets off an attempted Hotsync. For some things, that's really annoying.

Time moves on.The Treo has Bluetooth, and Softick now makes a bit of software that gives the Treo A2DP compatibility, and you can get a tiny thing you can hang around your neck to plug ordinary headphones into - Jabra makes them, but the one I got is a Motorola Sound Pilot. So - your favorite headphones, now paired to the Treo via Bluetooth.

I don't think this is remotely ideal - I'm not a fan of using something that requires battery power and radio waves to do a job that is perfectly well done by sticking a plug into a hole to make the connection. It's more to carry, more to go wrong, more to fuss with, and more battery life to worry about. Still, it buys me time to consider the underlying problem, which is:

Palm OS is going away. It's the only thing Ecco will sync with. Major upheaval portends. When the Treo dies, what next?