Thursday, 25 February 2016

Living on the edge of the world

Judith Wildwood outside her Braystones home
JUDITH Wildwood has a unique perspective on the world - which is not surprising as she lives on its edge.

She is one of a few dozen people who live on the beach at Braystones in West Cumbria  in wooden single-storey homes that started life over 150 years ago as huts for men working on the railway. Their location tucked into the side of the railway - but on the same side as the sea - makes them some of the most precarious homes in Britain. The tide will generally lash against small, fragile walls in front of the houses - and during a storm the wooden structures take the full blast.

"I am incredibly lucky to live here," says Judith - which on the calm, bright, sunny day I visited her is easy to appreciate. The blue and white home looks out on the Irish Sea, the Isle of Man and what must be jaw-dropping sunsets.

"The summers are absolutely breathtaking," Judith said but added: "In the winter though you cannot remember what the summer was like."

Some of the recent guests to Judith's home have been Barney, Clodagh, Frank, Henry and Imogen - all storms with a particularly vicious sting in the tale. And Judith has no doubt that these storms are getting worse as global warming takes hold. Warmer winters, stronger winds and higher tides are all taking their toll. On the day I visited Judith the 'beach road' - it is barely a track with a few stones in front of it - had just been put back thanks to a man with a digger.

"You can see how much has vanished in the last 50 years," said Judith who has watched bigger and higher tides claim more and more of the beach.

So how do you survive on the edge of the world? Some of the homes do have electricity -some of them having set up generators or turbines for that purpose. Lighting is usually by gas cannisters or paraffin. Heating is by an open fire or gas. There is a telephone and some even have access to the internet. For those who want it - though it's hard to see why when you have one of the planet's greatest views out of your lounge window - there is even a TV signal or you can erect a satellite dish. And yes, they do pay council tax - though it's hard to see they get a fair deal  for the facilites on offer. There is waste collection and the postman finds his or her way up the beach (a letter simply addressed to The Blue and White House on the beach at Braystones will find its way to Judith).  Tesco will even deliver food to your door (the nearest shop is in Egremont) but the van sometimes need a hand getting off the beach. But other firms promising "national delivery" are not usually adept enough to find their way across the railway crossing and onto the beach road. After six months Judith gave up waiting for the delivery van with a new bath to find this 'lost' part of Britain. It's a stark existence and in winter some of the residents will retreat inland but for those who make it through another winter it's a reason to celebrate and be thankful. While storm and flood  coverage by the press has concentrated on the likes of Carlisle, Cockermouth and Keswick the forgotten world of Braystones has largely been overlooked. Perhaps the reporters just couldn't find it.

There is a wonderful archive of stories and pictures about the huts at Braystones at It's not clear who has put this wonderful resource together but it's well worth a look.

Homes at Braystones in West Cumbria

Sunday, 21 February 2016

Pythagoras' Theorem explained. Or How To Think

This has nothing to do with the Lake District - but I haven't got anywhere else to publish this! I have spoken to a couple of people of late about Pythagoras' Theorem (as you do) and the wonderful explanation of it given by Socrates to a slave boy. There's no clear illustrated translation that I can find on the web so I've had a go at adding illustrations myself. It is the simplicity of it which is so remarkable. It is like watching a magic trick - then being told how the trick works, watching it again and still being amazed. If you didn't think you liked maths, didn't think you would ever understand Pythagoras' Theorem or thought ancient Greek philosophy was boring, this is for you. Here Meno asks Socrates to demonstrate how "there is no teaching" and he does so on Meno's slave. This dialogue is nearly 2,500 years old. Socrates did not 'believe' in writing as it too firmly fixed ideas that might be wrong - Plato therefore wrote this.

"There is no teaching, but only recollection" - Socrates 

Socrates believed you could not teach anyone anything - only remind them of what they already knew deep down. He believed the soul knew everything but once it was born into a human body that knowledge was lost, waiting to be rediscovered.

Yes, Socrates; but what do you mean by saying that we do not learn, and that what we call learning is only a process of recollection? Can you teach me how this is?

Soc: I told you, Meno, just now that you were a rogue, and now you ask whether I can teach you, when I am saying that there is no teaching, but only recollection; and thus you imagine that you will involve me in a contradiction.

Meno: Indeed, Socrates, I protest that I had no such intention. I only asked the question from habit; but if you can prove to me that what you say is true, I wish that you would.

Soc: It will be no easy matter, but I will try to please you to the utmost of my power. Suppose that you call one of your numerous attendants, that I may demonstrate on him.

Meno: Certainly. Come hither, boy.

Soc: Attend now to the questions which I ask him, and observe whether he learns of me or only remembers.

Meno: I will.

Soc: Tell me, boy, do you know that a figure like this is a square?

Boy. I do.

Soc: And you know that a square figure has these four lines equal?

Boy. Certainly.

Soc: And these lines which I have drawn through the middle of the square are also equal?

Boy. Yes.

Soc: A square may be of any size?

Boy. Certainly.

Soc: And if one side of the figure be of two feet, and the other side be of two feet, how much will the whole be? Let me explain: if in one direction the space was of two feet, and in the other direction of one foot, the whole would be of two feet taken once?

Boy. Yes.

Soc: But since this side is also of two feet, there are twice two feet ie four square feet?

Boy. There are.

Soc: Then the square is of twice two feet?

Boy. Yes.

Soc: And how many are twice two feet? count and tell me.

Boy. Four, Socrates.

Soc: And might there not be another square twice as large as this, and having like this the lines equal?

Boy. Yes.

Soc: And of how many feet will that be?

Boy. Of eight feet.

Soc: And now try and tell me the length of the line which forms the side of that double square: this is two feet-what will that be?

Boy. Clearly, Socrates, it will be double.

Soc: Do you observe, Meno, that I am not teaching the boy anything, but only asking him questions; and now he fancies that he knows how long a line is necessary in order to produce a figure of eight square feet; does he not?

Meno: Yes.

Soc: And does he really know?

Meno: Certainly not.

Soc: He only guesses that because the square is double, the line is double.

Meno: True.

Observe him while he recalls the steps in regular order. (To the Boy.) Tell me, boy, do you assert that a double space comes from a double line? Remember that I am not speaking of an oblong, but of a figure equal every way, and twice the size of this-that is to say of eight feet; and I want to know whether you still say that a double square comes from double line?


Soc: But does not this line become doubled if we add another such line here?

Boy. Certainly.

Soc: And four such lines will make a space containing eight feet?

Boy. Yes.

Soc: Let us draw such a figure: Would you not say that this is the figure of eight feet?

Boy. Yes.

Soc: And are there not these four divisions in the figure, each of which is equal to the figure of four feet?

Boy. True.

Soc: And is not that four times four?

Boy. Certainly.

Soc: And four times is not double?

Boy. No, indeed.

Soc: But how much?

Boy. Four times as much.

Soc: Therefore the double line, boy, has given a space, not twice, but four times as much.

Boy. True.

Soc: Four times four are sixteen - are they not?

Boy. Yes.

Soc: What line would give you a space of eight feet, as this gives one of sixteen feet? Do you see? 

Boy. Yes.

Soc: And the space of four feet is made from this half line?

Boy. Yes.

Soc: Good; and is not a space of eight feet twice the size of this, and half the size of the other?

Boy. Certainly.

Soc: Such a space, then, will be made out of a line greater than this one, and less than that one?

Boy. Yes; I think so.

Soc: Very good; I like to hear you say what you think. And now tell me, is not this a line of two feet and that of four?

Boy. Yes.

Soc: Then the line which forms the side of eight feet ought to be more than this line of two feet, and less than the other of four feet?

Boy. It ought.

Soc: Try and see if you can tell me how much it will be.

Boy. Three feet.

Soc: Then if we add a half to this line of two, that will be the line of three. And on the other side... and that makes the figure of which you speak?

Boy. Yes.

Soc: But if there are three feet this way and three feet that way, the whole space will be three times three feet?

Boy. That is evident.

Soc: And how much are three times three feet?

Boy. Nine.

Soc: And how much is the double of four?

Boy. Eight.

Then the figure of eight is not made out of a three?

Boy. No.

Soc: But from what line? Tell me exactly; and if you would rather not reckon, try and show me the line.

Boy. Indeed, Socrates, I do not know.

(In Socrates' philosophical arguments he often starts by demonstrating that the 'expert' or 'teacher' does not know anything. Or that his arrogance actually hides ignorance. So Socrates does the same with meno's slave - first demonstrating that he knows nothing.)

Soc: Do you see, Meno, what advances he has made in his power of recollection? He did not know at first, and he does not know now, what is the side of a figure of eight feet: but then he thought that he knew, and answered confidently as if he knew, and had no difficulty; now he has a difficulty, and neither knows nor fancies that he knows.

Meno: True.

Soc: Is he not better off in knowing his ignorance?

Meno: I think that he is.

Soc: If we have made him doubt, and given him the "torpedo's shock," have we done him any harm?

Meno: I think not.

(There's no easy translation of Plato's phrase 'torpedo-shock'. The torpedo fish stuns its prey by giving it an electric shock. ie Socrates' has shocked the slave out of his complacency)

Soc: We have certainly, as would seem, assisted him in some degree to the discovery of the truth; and now he will wish to remedy his ignorance, but then he would have been ready to tell all the world again and again that the double space should have a double side.

Meno: True.

Soc: But do you suppose that he would ever have enquired into or learned what he fancied that he knew, though he was really ignorant of it, until he had fallen into perplexity under the idea that he did not know, and had desired to know?

Meno: I think not, Socrates.

Soc: Then he was the better for the torpedo's touch?

Meno: I think so.

(Having 'disarmed' the slave by demonstrating to him that what he knows is wrong, Socrates now helps him understand the right answer)

Soc: Mark now the farther development. I shall only ask him, and not teach him, and he shall share the enquiry with me: and do you watch and see if you find me telling or explaining anything to him, instead of eliciting his opinion. Tell me, boy, is not this a square of four feet which I have drawn?

Boy. Yes.

Soc: And now I add another square equal to the former one?

Boy. Yes.

Soc: And a third, which is equal to either of them?

Boy. Yes.

Soc: Suppose that we fill up the vacant corner?

Boy. Very good.

Soc: Here, then, there are four equal spaces?

Boy. Yes.

Soc: And how many times larger is this space than this other?

Boy. Four times.

Soc: But it ought to have been twice only, as you will remember.

Boy. True.

Soc: And does not this line, reaching from corner to corner, bisect each of these spaces?

(Here is the key to Socrates' 'trick' - one might almost say he's teaching the boy ;-) He shows that a square can be split in two by a vertical line, a horizontal line - or one other: a diagonal)


Soc: And are there not here four equal lines which contain this space?

Boy. There are.

Soc: Look and see how much this space is (in the red square).

Boy. I do not understand.

Soc: Has not each interior line cut off half of the four spaces?

Boy. Yes.

Soc: And how many (triangular) spaces are there in this section?

Boy. Four.

Soc: And how many in this?

Boy. Two.

Soc: And four is how many times two?

Boy. Twice.

Soc: And so this space is of how many feet?

Boy. Of eight feet. (Two triangles = 4 sqft so Four triangles = 8 sqft)

Soc: And from what line do you get this figure?

Boy. From this.

Soc: That is, from the line which extends from corner to corner of the figure of four feet?

Boy. Yes.

Soc: And that is the line which the learned call the diagonal. And if this is the proper name, then you, Meno's slave, are prepared to affirm that the double space is the square of the diagonal?

Boy. Certainly, Socrates.

(ie - the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the square of the other two sides - Pythagoras' theorem)

Soc: What do you say of him, Meno? Were not all these answers given out of his own head?

Meno: Yes, they were all his own.

(And now Socrates goes on to extrapolate that since he has this knowledge deep inside him it is proof of the existence of the soul)

Soc: And yet, as we were just now saying, he did not know?

Meno: True.

Soc: But still he had in him those notions of his - had he not?

Meno: Yes.

Soc: Then he who does not know may still have true notions of that which he does not know?

Meno: He has.

Soc: And at present these notions have just been stirred up in him, as in a dream; but if he were frequently asked the same questions, in different forms, he would know as well as any one at last?

Meno: I dare say.

Soc: Without any one teaching him he will recover his knowledge for himself, if he is only asked questions?

Meno: Yes.

Soc: And this spontaneous recovery of knowledge in him is recollection?

Meno: True.

Soc: And this knowledge which he now has must he not either have acquired or always possessed?

Meno: Yes.

Soc: But if he always possessed this knowledge he would always have known; or if he has acquired the knowledge he could not have acquired it in this life, unless he has been taught geometry; for he may be made to do the same with all geometry and every other branch of knowledge. Now, has any one ever taught him all this? You must know about him, if, as you say, he was born and bred in your house.

Meno: And I am certain that no one ever did teach him.

Soc: And yet he has the knowledge?

Meno: The fact, Socrates, is undeniable.

Soc: But if he did not acquire the knowledge in this life, then he must have had and learned it at some other time?

Meno: Clearly he must.

Soc: Which must have been the time when he was not a man?

Meno: Yes.

Soc: And if there have been always true thoughts in him, both at the time when he was and was not a man, which only need to be awakened into knowledge by putting questions to him, his soul must have always possessed this knowledge, for he always either was or was not a man?

Meno: Obviously.

Soc: And if the truth of all things always existed in the soul, then the soul is immortal. Wherefore be of good cheer, and try to recollect what you do not know, or rather what you do not remember.


I am sure others can illustrate this better than me - please do so! - but I hope you enjoyed it. The original translation was by Benjamin Jowett.