Friday, 21 July 2017

tough stuff

I described the local building stone in my home town in New Red Sandstone, but there is another stone, obtained from a quarry about 12 miles south of Penrith, that is used around town for purely decorative purposes. This is Shap granite, which I propose to describe in detail and provide examples of where it has been used around town.

Igneous rocks—that is, rocks that started out as molten magma—are classified according to two criteria: their chemical composition and where they end up. Taking the second criterion first, a rock that has been extruded onto the surface is described as ‘volcanic’ or ‘extrusive’, while a rock that solidified before it reached the surface is described as ‘intrusive’. There are two types of intrusive igneous rock: hypabyssal and plutonic. The first of these terms describes shallow intrusions, usually along bedding planes (a ‘sill’) or up near-vertical faults, cracks and joints (a ‘dyke’), while granite is a typical plutonic rock and is often intruded at great depth, hence the reference to the Roman god of the underworld.

You might think it necessary to perform some kind of analysis to determine the chemical composition of a rock, but you can get an approximate idea of that composition from the minerals present. There are five main groups of rock-forming minerals, and the relative abundance of each is a pointer to a rock’s chemistry. The first group are the feldspars, in which the silicon atoms in a crystal are arranged in a three-dimensional lattice, which places severe constraints on what other elements can fit into the gaps. In practice, all feldspars contain aluminium in a fixed ratio with the silicon, and differences between minerals are determined by the relative proportions of sodium, potassium and calcium, all of whose atoms are similar in size to the silicon, aluminium and oxygen of the main crystal lattice.

In minerals classified as micas, the silicon atoms form flat sheets, meaning that there are obvious lines of cleavage through a crystal, and a typical specimen will appear flaky, like puff pastry. In pyroxenes and amphiboles, the silicon atoms are arranged in single and double chains, respectively, meaning that the structure can accommodate larger atoms such as iron and magnesium, but I don’t intend to discuss these minerals in more detail, because they rarely occur in granite. The fifth rock-forming mineral is olivine, which is an iron/magnesium silicate that never occurs in granite.

The relative abundance of these minerals reflects the amount of silica (silicon dioxide) in a rock. Rocks with the most silica are classed as ‘acid’, and with progressively less and less silica, rocks are classed as intermediate, basic or ultrabasic (there are no ultrabasic rocks in the Lake District). Granite is an acid igneous rock, with a silica content in excess of 66 percent, while the best-known example of a basic igneous rock is probably basalt, perhaps because most people have heard that the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland and Fingal’s Cave on the island of Staffa in the Inner Hebrides are basalt.

There is a group of small islands in the east of Hong Kong, all of which are surrounded by impressive cliffs. One of these islands is called Basalt Island, presumably, by analogy with the Giant’s Causeway and Fingal’s Cave, because of the columnar jointing displayed on these cliffs. However, the rock here is rhyolite, the volcanic equivalent of granite, and what this shows is how easy it is to make mistakes when you jump to conclusions about a subject you know nothing about. Hexagonal columnar jointing is found in all volcanic rocks and is merely an artefact of shrinkage during cooling.

There is no basalt in Cumbria, but there is a small intrusion of gabbro, the plutonic equivalent of basalt, that forms a mountain—Carrock Fell—in the northeast of the Lake District; and there is a sill of dolerite, the hypabyssal equivalent of basalt, in the north Pennines, a dozen miles east of Penrith. This is the Whin Sill, which I believe to be the largest sill in Britain.

Returning to Shap granite, the first photograph shows the use of this stone to form four pillars framing the side entrance to Penrith’s town hall (the town’s library is no longer housed here).


Reflections on the pillars are an indication that Shap granite polishes up extremely well, mainly because of its crystalline nature. Notice too the black spot near the base of the left-hand pillar, indicated by a red circle. This is a xenolith (‘foreign stone’), a piece of the surrounding rock—probably an intermediate volcanic rock called andesite—that fell into the magma before it had cooled and was not completely assimilated. And this is a closer view:


This photo also provides a good indication of the rock’s structure. The large pinkish crystals scattered throughout the rock are orthoclase, which is a potassium aluminium silicate and a type of feldspar. As you can see, these crystals are much bigger than the crystals of minerals in the groundmass, and as such they are known as phenocrysts. If you look closely at the groundmass, you will see a white mineral. This is plagioclase, also a type of feldspar but with a varying composition in which either sodium or calcium replaces the potassium of orthoclase. Plagioclase is in fact what is known as a solid solution series, meaning that all possible ratios of sodium and calcium are theoretically possible, including 100:0 and 0:100.

There is also a semi-transparent mineral, quartz, which is a crystalline form of silica that occurs mostly in acid igneous rocks, reflecting the high silica content of the magma, but never in basic and ultrabasic rocks. Most of the black specks are biotite, a type of mica, but a small proportion are magnetite, an oxide of iron that was the basis of the original Chinese magnetic compass.

There are in fact two types of Shap granite—light and dark—both obtained from the same quarry, and the next two photos illustrate the difference. The first shows the offices of Banco Santander in Market Square, where Shap granite has been used for the pilasters on each side, while the second is a close-up of part of the right-hand pilaster. Note the small xenolith near the top of the second picture.



I’m not sure what causes the difference between the light and dark forms of the granite, but I’m inclined to think that it reflects localized variations in the iron content of the magma. This element is present in only trace quantities here, but the plagioclase in the dark variety is definitely reddish rather than white, and iron is the most likely culprit.

I used to think that there were many more places around town where Shap granite had been used, but I was able to find only three other locations during a recent survey. The first is the town’s main post office, which was rebuilt circa 1960 on the site of an earlier post office (I’ve been unable to find the exact date). The second is a close-up.



The next photo is of an optician’s shop in King Street, where Shap granite has been used for the pediment below the windows, followed by a close-up. This was a newsagent’s and tobacconist’s shop when I was growing up.



The final two photos are of a second optician’s shop. This one was a greengrocer’s shop when I was growing up. Not many shops around town retain their original use now, and many traditional shop fronts have been vandalized by rebuilding, but I’m pleased to see that both these shops retain the original design.



The Dayson Building, which I featured in Windows Ten, can be see beyond the shop in the first of the two previous photos.

Shap granite has another important use, although you wouldn’t necessarily be aware of it unless somebody told you. It is an extremely hard rock, so when it is crushed into an aggregate and mixed with bitumen, it is ideal for use as a wearing course on motorways and other major roads. Locally obtained Carboniferous limestone is often used on the area’s minor roads, but this rock is far too soft to use on any surface where the traffic density is high.

Finally, Shap granite was formed towards the end of the Caledonian orogeny, the mountain-building event that produced the mountains of the Lake District, which makes it approximately 400 million years old.

Saturday, 15 July 2017

separate sounds

There is a small category of expressions in English that consist of either two words or a hyphenated compound in which the only difference between the two parts is the internal vowel. Perhaps the commonest such expression is zig-zag, but there cannot be many more than two dozen examples in total, and for this reason I didn’t think that there was a technical term for their construction. But there is: it’s called ‘apophony’, from the ancient Greek prefix ‘apo–’ (‘away from’, ‘separate’) tacked onto the ancient Greek word for ‘sound’.

Several of these expressions are onomatopoeic in nature. For example, ding! dong! is the purported sound of a bell, tick! tock! the sound of a mechanical clock, and clip! clop! the sound of a horse’s hooves on a paved road. A less common example is jingle! jangle!, the sound made by someone wearing an inordinate amount of costume jewellery as they walk along. However, a typical bell actually goes ‘ding! ding!’, unless it’s a Chinese bell, which can sound two different notes depending on where it is struck. The same point can be made with regard to clocks and horses’ hooves: creating two alternating sounds where only one exists in reality. Splish! splash! is also onomatopoeic, although I do wonder whether this term was ever used prior to the release of a song with this title by Bobby Darin in 1958.

It’s possible that whoever coined the term ping pong had onomatopoeia in mind (the sound of bat, ball, bat, etcetera), but I suspect that it arose when someone discovered that the Chinese are rather good at table tennis, allied to the fatuous notion that this is how Chinese people speak.

Some apophonic expressions have interesting etymologies. For example, shilly shally derives from the Old English subjunctive ‘shill I’ juxtaposed with the indicative ‘shall I’. Needless to say, it means to prevaricate or dither. Some expressions derive from what is a perfectly ordinary word that is somewhat arbitrarily turned into an apophony. A good example is dilly dally; ‘dally’ already means to dawdle, the same meaning as the longer expression, and I’m left wondering whether there are any earlier examples of this term than the old music hall song:
My old man
Said “follow the van,
And don’t dilly dally on the way.”
Other examples of this sort include tip-top, which means simply ‘the best’, sing song, which describes a group of people informally singing songs together, and chit-chat, which refers to light-hearted conversation or ‘chat’. In some cases, the derivation of a term may be fanciful. For example, whenever I hear a confidence trickster described as a ‘flim-flam artist’, I’m immediately reminded of the flimsy connection with reality being peddled by the trickster.

There follows a list of all the other apophonic expressions that I could think of, with additional comments where appropriate:
  • bric-a-brac refers to odds and ends that have some aesthetic value, as opposed to knick-knacks, which are ornaments and other oddments with little or no intrinsic value. Note the additional syllable, presumably to make it easier to pronounce. Clickety-clack, the sound that a train used to make when it rolled over the gap between rails before they started welding individual rails together, is a similar construction.
  • fiddle-faddle is a northern English dialect word meaning nonsense.
  • in gymnastics, a backwards handspring is known as a flick-flack.
  • flip-flops are informal footwear that make a flopping sound as the wearer walks along, while a politician may be said to flip-flop when they have radically changed their mind, opinion or position.
  • jim-jams are what some people call their pyjamas (I don’t).
  • a lilo is a type of inflatable mattress. The word is said to derive from the fact that this product allows the user to ‘lie low’, although it was once a proprietary term in its clipped state.
  • a mish-mash is the indiscriminate mixing of different styles or ideas with little or no consideration for how these styles or ideas might be interrelated.
  • riff-raff is used, disapprovingly, to describe members of the lowest stratum of society. In this regard, it is synonymous with hoi polloi, which is also usually used nowadays to refer to people of whom one disapproves, even though the phrase means simply ‘the many’. If you use the phrase in this way, it may mean that you are a member of hoi oligoi (‘the few’). In other words, you are an oligarch.
  • the wire baskets containing river cobbles that you often see stacked up along the banks of rivers to prevent erosion or flooding are known as rip-rap.
  • a tick-tack man was someone wearing white gloves on a racecourse who signalled changes in betting odds to people in the stands, although whether they still exist in this era of smartphones seems unlikely.
  • tittle-tattle is idle gossip.
There are several commercial products with apophonic names. For example, Kit-Kat is a chocolate-covered wafer biscuit originally manufactured by Rowntrees but now part of the Nestlé empire; Tim Tams are chocolate biscuits made by Arnott’s in Australia; and Tic Tacs are mints that are consumed to freshen the breath. And King Kong is a legendary giant ape that terrorized New York (and movie audiences) in several films.

If you’ve been paying attention, you will probably have spotted that all of these expressions have something else in common besides the characteristics I pointed out earlier: the vowel in the first part of the expression is always an i, and the vowel in the second part is always an a or an o. There appears to be some kind of unwritten rule in operation. After all, referring to what is probably the most recently coined apophonic expression, no one listens to ‘hop-hip’ music, although whoever first came up with hip-hop to describe a genre of urban black music could plausibly argue that they weren’t following any rules. They were simply using trendy language to describe a fashionable dance.

One question arises from the possible existence of a rule: if i takes precedence over a and o, then which takes precedence between a and o? It isn’t possible to answer with certainty, but there are a couple of clues. First, the American name for what we call noughts and crosses in Britain is tic tac toe. The second clue is in the French nursery rhyme Frere Jacques:
Frère Jacques,
Dormez-vous?
Sonnez les matines
Ding! Dang! Dong!
It tells the story of a dilatory monk, Brother Jack, whose job it is to ring the bell for matins but who has fallen asleep on the job. Each line is repeated, but notice the last line, which is how the French refer to the ringing of a bell. This observation provides a good reason for further research into whether the rule, if it exists, also appears in other European languages.

Meanwhile, here are some further clues as to the existence of a rule. First, we always give tit for tat, not vice versa. Second, Jeff Beck sang ‘Hi Ho Silver Lining’ in 1967, not ‘Ho Hi…’. Finally, I can cite the Australian campaign of a few years ago to reduce the incidence of skin cancer, which had the slogan Slip! Slap! Slop! (‘Slip on a shirt; slap on a hat; slop on some sunscreen’). It is possible that the wording of the nonsense song sung by the Scouts, Ging Gang Goolie, was also influenced by the conjectured unwritten rule, as was a silly chant taught to members of the Cubs (‘Dib! Dib! Dib! Dob! Dob! Dob!’).

If there is a rule governing the formation of apophonic expressions, then it’s possible that it has a basis in more formal grammar. After all, we talk of ‘the big bad wolf’, not ‘the bad big wolf’. However, if the rule does exist in formal grammar, where did it come from?

I have a hypothesis. One of the significant ways in which Latin differs from English is in the concept of nouns having a gender (masculine, feminine or neuter). Latin also has a paucity of prepositions, which means that both case (nominative, vocative, accusative, genitive, dative or ablative) and number (singular or plural) are determined by changes to the ending of the noun in question. Adjectives are not tied to a single gender but have to match the gender of the noun being modified. Thus, the demonstrative adjective this is hic, haec, hoc in Latin, which represents the nominative case—used whenever the noun being modified is the subject of a verb—of the three possible genders. This can also be a demonstrative pronoun, in which case the gender rules still apply.

It isn’t necessary to recite the entire so-called declension of a noun, adjective or pronoun in order to learn the word, but I imagine that in the Middle Ages, when Latin was a key part of the curriculum for the fortunate few who received any kind of education, pupils would probably have been required to recite the entire declension of a noun or adjective, which involved 36 combinations of case, gender and number. And notice the vowel changes in hic, haec, hoc, which mirror closely the vowel changes I described above. This could have influenced the collective consciousness of the time in such a way that ‘big bad wolf’ sounded right, while ‘bad big wolf’ sounded odd. This is merely a conjecture, of course, but it does sound plausible.

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

a chinese board game

I grew up playing board games, starting with dice-based games such as ludo and snakes and ladders, and later, Monopoly. However, once I’d discovered strategy games such as chess and draughts (checkers), I stopped playing games where chance is a significant factor in the outcome. Even a game like backgammon, which does require a certain level of skill, is unsatisfactory because the outcome is ultimately determined by the roll of the dice.

By the time I came to Hong Kong in 1974, I’d become familiar with Chinese games such as wei chi and Chinese chess, but soon after my arrival a Chinese colleague showed me an apparently simple board game that I’d not encountered previously. It isn’t listed in Board & Table Games from Many Civilizations, a book that I’d bought several years earlier, and I’ve been unable to find any references to it on the internet, although I did find an illustration of the board with the pieces in their starting positions. However, this game was attributed to Korea, and the object of the game was different. Mind you, this kind of thing is not that unusual; after all, draughts is played on a chess board.

I mention this because I was browsing through some of my old notebooks a few days ago when I came across a detailed analysis of the game that I’d been shown in 1974, written at the time. The following photograph shows the first page of that analysis:


Like wei chi and Chinese chess, play takes place on the intersection of the lines rather than on the squares. The starting position is shown in the following diagram:


The rules are simple:
  • Black moves first.
  • Players take turns to move any one piece to the next intersection along any of the lines that emanate from that piece’s current location. Obviously, diagonal moves are not possible.
  • A player loses if they have no legal moves available (‘blockade’).
  • A player loses if they have only one piece left.
The last rule implies that there is a method for capturing one’s opponent’s pieces, and this procedure is explained with the aid of the following diagram:


In this scenario, if it is black to move, they can capture the white piece on C1 by moving B2–C2 or the white piece on D2 by moving C3–C2. However, if it is white to move, they can capture the black piece on B2 by moving C1–C2 or the black piece on C3 by moving D2–C2. Notice that in each case, capture is effected by lining up two of your pieces with one of your opponents. The fourth intersection in the line must be empty, and that blank point must be on an outside line. A player can move a single piece into alignment with two of their opponent’s without penalty.

Referring to the above diagram, there are four possible first moves for black (A2–B2, A3–B3, B1–B2, B4–B3). The first two are topologically identical, as are the last two, and playing either of the first two would result in the immediate loss of a piece (white plays C1–C2 in the first case, C4–C3 in the second). Effectively, therefore, black has only one opening move. However, the game quickly becomes more complex. I don’t plan to attempt a detailed analysis, although I believe that black should win with correct play by virtue of having first move.

If you’re interested in trying this game, just mark out the grid on an A4 sheet of paper—use a ruler if you must, although it shouldn’t be necessary. Almost anything of uniform appearance will suffice for use as pieces—we used bottle tops in the old days. And if anyone can tell me what this game is called, I’d appreciate their letting me know. My Chinese colleague called it simply ‘chess’, but I soon discovered that many Chinese call all board games ‘chess’.

Sunday, 9 July 2017

windows ten

Just to be clear, this post is about windows, not the ubiquitous disk operating system peddled by Microsoft. I’ve recently been photographing some of the more attractive windows in my home town, and here are ten of the most striking (I could have added many more, but then the previous sentence would have been redundant). I’ve posted the photos in sequence, so that anyone interested in taking a closer look can visit the sites in sequence.

I’ll start on Auction Mart Lane. There was once a thriving livestock market nearby, but it was moved to an out-of-down location in 1987. This building appears to have once been some kind of warehouse, and the central window was once a doorway:


Moving to the bottom of Castlegate, we come to the location of the second photo. The ground floor is currently occupied by a Mexican restaurant, but when I was growing up, this was Dayson’s cafe, and I still think of this as the Dayson’s Building. Note the trefoil mouldings above the windows, an architectural feature that I do not think is repeated anywhere else in town. Note too the red rock surrounding the windows. This is Penrith sandstone, which I described earlier in New Red Sandstone. In contrast to the ordinary nineteenth-century houses that can be seen in many parts of town, in which the window surrounds are a single block on each side, the windows here have several blocks that mimic the way the cornerstones of buildings are arranged. As you will see, this design feature is repeated in many local buildings.


The next photo is of the former Crown and Mitre public house on King Street, which closed decades ago but has since been reopened as the Lounge. As in the previous picture, the red rock is Penrith sandstone, but also like the previous photo, the main material used is another sandstone, of unknown origin.


The location of the next photo is less than 50 metres from that of the previous one. Notice that on this building, the sandstone has been cut into blocks of a uniform size (‘dressed stone’) rather than chiselled into rough blocks of different sizes. I selected these windows because of the elaborate ‘canopies’ directly above them. The local branch of Lloyd’s Bank is located on the ground floor.


Moving north to Middlegate, we come to a terrace of six houses with shops on the ground floor. Once again, the window surrounds are Penrith sandstone, while the walls are of an unknown type of sandstone:


The next building is less than 100 metres further north, on the corner of Duke Street and Corney Square, and is similar, if less elaborate, than the previous one:


On the other side of Corney Square is the town hall, which is probably the single most elaborate building in town. It was built in the late eighteenth century as two separate houses and was designed by Robert Adam. It was converted into the town hall in 1905–06. Very little of the stone used in its construction is local.


The next photograph comes from Penrith’s Methodist church, a short distance from the town hall. Unlike the town’s other nineteenth-century churches, which were built in the Gothic revival style, this building is in an almost brutal Romanesque style. This window is on the front façade. The white pillars appear to be of some kind of igneous rock, although it isn’t possible to take a closer look, so all I can say with confidence is that it is not local.


On the other side of Duke Street is the town’s former Congregational church, which was closed in 1990 and has since been converted into bedsits. Although I think that this is a spectacular window, my main reason for including it in this collection is that the church was built by my great, great grandfather Alf Grisenthwaite (completed 1865) on the site of an earlier Ebenezer Independent chapel.


The final photo is of the former Girls County primary school on Brunswick Road, built in 1894 and now a mixed infants school (P1 and P2 in Hong Kong parlance). I attended an adjoining annex, built in 1901 as a mixed infants school, between 1951 and 1953. Note that there is no longer any segregation by sex in Penrith’s schools.


If you want to check out these buildings in person, the town’s railway station is a good place to start and is only a five-minute walk from the final location.

Saturday, 1 July 2017

photographic abstraction #23

In Photographic Abstraction #22, I suggested that I may have to discontinue this series because I’m running out of suitable images—I currently have only five lined up for the next instalment in the series. However, there are some new motifs in the present collection, which I hope you will find interesting.

The first image is of strips of paper glued to the outside of a squatter hut. I’d taken an earlier photograph of these strips that was more reminiscent of bridges than the one I’ve included here, but it was marred by a big black shadow. This is the unshadowed version:

bridging the gap

Although the next image is not of a squatter hut, it reminds me of a crowded squatter settlement:

crowded

I cannot look at the following image without seeing a demonic face, although I don’t think that anyone will guess what it is actually a photograph of:

demon possession

The following image features another new motif—the lichen patterns on the sides of the staithe that I included in Photographic Highlights 2016–17. It reminds me of a distribution network:

distribution

In trying to come up with a title for the next image, I kept returning to a song by the Bee Gees:

spirits having flown

The final image in this collection is a picture of turbulence, of instability, hence the title:

vortex

recent posts in this series
Photographic Abstraction #18
Photographic Abstraction #19
Photographic Abstraction #20
Photographic Abstraction #21
Photographic Abstraction #22