Archive for February, 2021

Fly Casting and “The Barometer Question”

February 24, 2021

The “Barometer Question” is really a test of the correct positioning of a question when used to measure the understanding of the person answering it. It has seen several variations but the central theme is much the same.

In the barometer question, the query is “describe how you may use a barometer to measure the height of a tall building” the expected, some would suggest required, answer is that if you take the difference in barometric pressure between the base and the top of the building you can estimate the height.

But there are of course a number or correct answers which may not necessarily demonstrate any great understanding of physics.

  • You could tie the barometer to a string, lower it from the building and measure the length of the string.
  • You could measure the length of the shadow of the barometer and the building and a simple ratio given the height of the barometer would tell you the height of the building.
  • You could go to the supervisor’s office and offer him a nice new barometer in exchange for him telling you the height of the building.

There are more possible answers: but the essence is that none are actually incorrect, they just don’t demonstrate any real understanding of the physics of the issue. In effect it is a clear illustration that all too often there is more than one answer and at one level it doesn’t matter that it wasn’t the answer you were expecting. It is, for example, quite possible that using the shadow is going to give you a more accurate answer than using barometric pressure despite the fact that the former is technically not the correct answer.

That brings me to much of the on-line discussion of fly casting, some of it is wildly inaccurate or at least apocryphal, much is well meant and moderately true, at least in a simplistic sense, and to be frank nearly none of it is absolute fact in terms of quantum physics.

The problem is that most of these discussions (read arguments if you wish) relate to teaching fly casting, not in fact the physics of it, and I would suggest that teaching anything requires that one fib, at least just a little bit, if not actually lying, one at least is going to be forced to simplify things beyond what a bone fide geek would accept as factually correct.

This really is the norm when it comes to teaching near anything. We were all taught the same basic structure of the atom in physics in high school. That the electrons whizz around the nucleus (containing protons and neutrons) usually illustrated with something like the diagram below:

Informative perhaps but definitely untrue

Speak to anyone who really knows this stuff and it is wildly inaccurate if not indeed untrue. More “advanced” models have the electrons in an electron cloud with probabilities of their position changing based on wave function.(yes and if that lost you, as it did me, that is the point of the discussion).

Equally and more simplistically I could point out that in reality an electron is about 10,000 times smaller than a proton, but of course how the hell would you draw that on a piece of paper?  Physicists should be screaming from the roof tops that we are teaching our children inaccuracies, and threatening to burn books. We have been teaching lies.

In fact the structure of an atom, as we best understand it, means that a solid isn’t actually very solid at all and is mostly space, and yet with the simple diagrammatic representation above and our concept of what solidity is, none of us worry about sitting on a table for fear that we might fall through and end up with a Higgs Boson up the bum.

It should come as no surprise that I like fly casting, and recognize that it is a functional skill which will no doubt catch you more fish or at the very least make the catching of fewer fish less frustrating. But I like it, I will cast on a lawn with no prospect of catching a fish and still be happy.

I am not sure that I am a card-carrying member of the “casting geek” fraternity, but I could be, I may even aspire to be. My problem comes with much of the on-line discussion related to fly casting, most of which is targeted at learners or the instructors of those very same learners.

It is, I would imagine, imperative, that as an instructor you know more about your subject than your pupil, I would suggest that it is equally important that you don’t necessarily try to convey all that you know during the first class.

I see endless debate about SLP (straight line path) or hard and soft stops at the end of the strokes, I see what are to my mind overly pedantic discussions about the minutia of rod flex or arguments about what is or what isn’t a tailing loop. All good, perhaps if you are an instructor you need to discuss this stuff, I can certainly enjoy the debate, but I don’t believe that you need to baffle your student with it.

The above image supposedly demonstrating SLP (straight line path) and adjustments to casting arc with increased rod bend is in exactly the same class as the atomic diagram. It is wildly inaccurate. There is virtually no translation (stroke) the arm movement is questionable, there is some degree of curvilinear hand movement etc. we can discuss it ad infinitum, but for most novices it is probably “good enough”.

Teaching is, by definition, explaining something to someone who currently doesn’t have knowledge of the subject. To do that, educators require some basic format to work with and it is likely that the format will become more complex and possibly more accurate depending on the level of the education. In fly casting for example, Bill Gammell’s “Five Essentials” have stood the test of time, not perhaps because they are the final word but because they do offer up a workable framework in which to position instruction.

For the average, or even relatively advanced student, the casting equivalent of the above atomic diagram is more than sufficient to convey what needs to be conveyed.

Certainly, our understanding of some things has evolved, as indeed should be the case, by all means question everything, but the reality is that students often need to understand things in a more practical than scientific sense.

So, the old “casting clock” system of moving the rod between 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock has been debunked, it is pretty easy to prove that that isn’t a reliable manner of casting a fly line and I wouldn’t accept anyone using that as a reasonable method of tuition. Even for a complete novice such instruction, although simple is perhaps “too wrong” to be reasonable.

Other things however, if still not entirely true on a quantum level, are to my mind “good enough”. Suggesting that a student try to move the rod tip in a straight line is probably a fair explanation of what we are aiming for. That some of us recognize that a true SLP isn’t possible and quite likely not even desirable doesn’t matter a jot. The student is trying to improve their casting and “SLP” is a reasonable approximation of the truth, at least until they reach considerably more advanced levels.

So, a recent on-line discussion as to whether the rod tip in a video by Carl McNeil actually moved in a straight line as he suggested, is on the one hand a fair and reasonable discussion, on the other hand what Carl is attempting to demonstrate in a video aimed at relative novice casters is to my mind “good enough”. Actually, more than good enough, he produces in his “Casts that Catch Fish” series some excellent tuition, all clearly filmed and in glorious surroundings. I would recommend those videos to any aspiring fly caster.

Virtually all of my academic education was focused in the sciences, it is essential that from that perspective we continually update our knowledge, question the status quo and explore better explanations, it is equally important that we don’t become overly dogmatic and accept new evidence as it is presented. The demise of the “clock system” is evidence of the benefits of doing exactly that. But the vilification of a teaching method because it isn’t “entirely true” probably over steps the mark.

Most five-year old’s have a fairly limited understanding of physics and most fly anglers cast poorly, neither group requires the quantum mechanics explanation of cosmological string theory to help them better function in the world. What they need are clear and simple explanations which whilst perhaps not entirely accurate are “good enough” for them to progress.

It is probably important to be as accurate as one can when teaching something, but absolutes rarely exist and if they did may still not be entirely desirable.

For all of that, if you are a novice caster I would highly recommend to you that you get proper instruction from a certified instructor at your earliest convenience. Most of us (instructors) spend far more of our time undoing ingrained faults in anglers who have been taught poorly than we ever do with beginners who with a few simple instructions can improve greatly.

Not About Fishing

February 21, 2021

Firstly, let me tell you a little story from my childhood:

I come from a small town in the Northernmost corner of Cornwall on the English South West coast. It has always been primarily a holiday town, serving summer visitors and providing a central hub for the farming communities around it. It was small but not exactly tiny, there was very little industry, but lovely beaches and good surf, if you are into that sort of thing.

Image result for Image of Bude Cornwall
Bude in North Cornwall

When our household required provisions, my mother would write out a shopping list of required foodstuffs and other items on the back of an envelope and take it down to the local grocery store. Mr Bate, the owner and operator of that store would then weigh out and pack up the required items after mother had left. For those of you unfamiliar with the idea, in those days most goods were loose in sacks and boxes, and Mr Bate would weigh out the cloves, sugar, flour, raisins or whatever and pour the measured amount into a crisp white paper packet, sealing it with a quick flick and twist of his wrist, in something of a flamboyant professional flourish.

Once all the required items were bagged and packed, Derek Inch (local schoolboy), would then deliver the parcel to our house on a bicycle specifically designed for the job. On the bike there was a tiny front wheel to accommodate the large delivery basket on the bow and a larger wheel at the stern, designed to provide traction and forward momentum from whatever energy Derek could manage to force into the pedals. I doubt this weighty contraption boasted any sort of gears and having done a similar job in my youth I can attest to the fact that such cycles were tricky to master. The basket doesn’t move when you turn a corner, but the front wheel, hidden under the aforementioned basket, obviously does, it makes steering rather troublesome and most delivery boys had grazed knees to prove it.

Image result for Image basket of groceries old

The delivery service cost nothing extra, and mother would only be required to wander down to the shop every Friday, whereupon Mr Bate would investigate the dusty pages of his large accounts book and calculate a total owed; which mother would dutifully pay in cash.

Now this system is remarkably efficient and cost effective, it required no additional time from my mother, produced very little if any additional waste and certainly no plastic, the newspaper wrappings and the crisp white bags could be used to light the fire and little went unused. It essentially allowed Mr Bate to use his time most effectively and did much the same for his customers. There were no electronic tills, self-service lanes or credit cards and bear in mind that mother could purchase goods in any volume or mass she wanted and not be restricted to a plastic packet of 376 grams or some other arbitrary measure. People with a five-person family could shop to suit them and those alone at home could do the same with lesser volumes.

It was efficient, based on good service and as much to the point benefitted both retailer and shopper alike. It was equally efficient because customer service was the measure of a business and if Mr Bate failed to twist those crisp packets neatly enough, or Derek failed to summon sufficient energy to pedal fast enough, then people would shop somewhere else.

The entire point of the above story is that things actually used to be efficient, eco-friendly, customer orientated and really rather simple; whilst not necessarily engineering to be any of those.

Today, to achieve much the same, we are required to drive our car to a shopping centre, pay for parking, pick up our own goods in the volumes and weights which the manufacturers decide should be available. We wheel our own trolleys, pay for our plastic packages which will shortly find themselves wrapped around some poor turtle or migratory sea bird. We will have to set up on line accounts, credit cards, banking apps, snap scans and more. We will burn fossil fuels, waste time and all too often stand in a long queue simply to pay for the goods which we have harvested from the shelves through our own labours, and then, on arriving home celebrate the wonders of modern efficiency.

Image result for Inside tescos image
Is modern shopping really efficient?

It is a con, this isn’t efficient or convenient, answering the door when poor old sweating Derek arrives with your stuff is efficient. Nipping down the road once a week to pay your account is efficient, and purchasing items in the volumes one requires is efficient. We have lost the plot.

What has brought these reminiscences to mind? The recent and near continuous battle against absolutely shocking and inefficient customer service (more like lack thereof).

Plans to travel have recently been laid waste by various governmental lockdowns related to this damnable Covid virus and the interventions made as a result. That there are problems and restrictions on travel is understandable, that one cannot reach your booking agent through any means: telephone, email, or on-line chat (we are here to help you), have proven to be entirely fruitless.

In the time it has taken to try to manage my booking, Derek Inch could have delivered, by pedal power alone, half a Southern Right whale, carefully weighed out into crisp paper packets, and two hundredweight of washed potatoes.

Websites seem to offer the illusion of convenience, efficiency and modernity, but actually generally fail on all counts. The “Contact Us” button would be better named the “We have your money now F*** Off” button.

We have become so enamored with the idea of on-line efficiency that we continue to imagine it exists in the face of overwhelming evidence that it doesn’t. These glossy electronic pages promise far more than they deliver and I suspect far more than any entity actually means for them to deliver.

Take for example a recent and protracted expedition into the on-line world of customer service I undertook on behalf of my mother-in-law. (Let’s call her that for sake of simplicity).


S
he purchased a Fitbit gadget, a “Versa 3” for herself; she is a remarkably motivated and fit over 70 swimmer, in better shape than the majority of school leavers and takes a great interest in her well-being, diet and weight, not to mention her swimming abilities. (she holds a number of SA records, just so that you know)

This gadget isn’t what I would call inexpensive, more expensive still when she finds out that having purchased this item, she then needed a newer and smarter smart phone for it to connect to. She was still however determined, and eventually after much messing about the “Fitbit” “Synced” with her new phone and could give her all manner of data about how far she had walked, swam or whatever.

Then it fell off the nightstand and the glass cracked, an accident for sure, but again one has to ask the question, how a “fitness smart watch” designed, one would presume for active people, would be damaged so easily. That notwithstanding, she, and then I, set about finding where we could have the unit effectively repaired. The answer: (I don’t wish to draw out the tension and have your smart watch beeping as a result of your raised blood pressure), is that you can’t. That’s it, the final word, the official mandate of the manufacturer and distributor of this expensive piece of crap.

But to reach that point I dredged through Fitbit websites, endless flash images of sexy people looking cool with this latest “lifestyle must have” piece of crap strapped to them. I searched through pages to find “contact us” buttons which would then refer me to FAQ’s which would then tell me all that they wished me to know about how wonderful this thing was and failed to answer any query I might have.

I was diverted to the “Fitbit community”: apparently there are quite a few hapless idiots who have been convinced of the merits of this overpriced bit of pointless and fragile technology.

I suppose it isn’t good business to put a FAQ on your corporate website that suggests that “we don’t do repairs, we don’t offer spares, our warranty isn’t worth a cup of warm spit and it really is a laugh that you paid so much money for something we had manufactured in China (quite possibly by displaced Uighur labour) for a couple of dollars. But it does look sexy doesn’t it?

Unperturbed I followed my quest; King Arthur would have found the Holy Grail twice over with the same amount of effort, and I finally managed to locate a +27 telephone number for “customer services”. (+27 is the international dialing code for South Africa, the current home country of myself and my “mother-in-law”)

The number told me “we are currently closed please phone back during office hours”, which was odd because it was office hours, the website said 9.00 to 5.00 and I was within those parameters.

Suspicious I thought, but I tried again later, and at least the call was answered, albeit by an electronic voice.

Now I realise that this is already a lengthy tale, but I need to digress to ask; who is this woman? The woman that many American based and some other companies use on their telephone systems. She sounds as though she has Covid throat and has recently swallowed a small rodent together with the squeaker from a dog toy. She is apparently trained to tell you to F*** off in the most professional manner possible and I have encountered her previously in businesses as diverse as the US Postal Service, US Internal Revenue Service and others.

The only highlight so far, in a troublesome day, was to realise that, somewhere out there, some poor bastard woke up with this squeaking amazon and probably has to listen to her all day..

Image result for Cartoon image man with gun to head

Anyway I digress; eventually, having at squeaky’s instruction, pressed 4, 1, 4, etc squeaky suggested that she would put me in touch with one of the “Fitbit Advocates”. That is a really nice touch, “Advocate” I already knew I was heading down the “we don’t give a shit” rabbit hole, only companies trying to hide something refer to their customer service staff as “advocates”. It is like those who ask “how can I make your day golden?”, which to me suggests that they are about to piss all over me, and that usually proves to be exactly the case. I was put on hold listening to some canned electronic music. I had time to ponder at this point and already realized that the chances of this going well were on a par with those of a diabetic, obese and comatose Covid victim in a rural hospital.

Eventually the answer came “Hello, how may I assist you?”, I think that was what he said, the international call crackle and the distinct accent made communications tricky and had me immediately (although unsurprisingly) realise that I wasn’t speaking to anyone with a +27 international dialing code.

Curious by nature I enquired as to the geographical whereabouts of this particular “advocate”, to which the reply was Columbia. “Fucking Colombia”, how was someone, currently interrupting their important international drug deal in Columbia, going to advise me where I could get a smart watch repaired in South Africa? Well of course they couldn’t, the official response was “We don’t repair covers for our smart watches”. That was it, “we don’t”, not “we can’t”, not “there are currently no spares available”, not “under covid restrictions we are unable to assist”, Just “we don’t”, and with that I say “FUCK YOU” Fitbit.

I can’t help thinking that should my mother have been able to purchase a “Fitbit” from Bate’s Grocers and encountered a similar issue, Mr Bate, having answered the phone without the intervention of Squeaky or for that matter a geographically distant “advocate”, would have simply said “don’t worry Mrs Rolston, drop it at the shop and I will have Derek bring the repaired unit around to your house on the bike this afternoon, no charge”..

I am going to make a simple observation, companies who don’t offer any sort of repair, who don’t answer their phones, who employ “Squeaky” to do their dirty work and Columbians to provide the mirage of customer care, don’t deserve your money. Those companies who manufacture in China whilst using “American pricing” don’t deserve your business.  (according to a Google check, Fitbit are looking at pulling out of China, “to avoid tariffs”.) 

If you want to check your heart rate put your finger on your radial pulse. Not only will it be quite effective and inexpensive but it isn’t going to further raise your blood pressure.