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Archive for January, 2017

This weekend, the Australian Open saw both Serena Williams and Roger Federer make tennis history. Serena beat her sister Venus to win her 23 Major title, meaning she has now won more Majors than any women in the Open era. The following day, Federer beat Rafa Nadal to win his 18th Major title, extending his lead over other men in tennis history. Both finals were like a throw-back to 10 years ago, no one would have imagined finals involving the Williams sisters and Federer and Nadal.

Sublime Serena

Anyone who has read my blogposts on tennis knows that I am a huge fan of Serena. However, I found myself hoping that her sister Venus would win on Saturday, a strange position to find myself. It’s not that I didn’t want Serena to win her 23 Major title, I did ver much. But, I also thought that this could be Venus’ last chance at a Major title, she seems much closer to retiring than her younger sister, partly because she battles with an auto-immune disease.

However, the fairytale of Venus winning was not to be; her younger sister overpowered her in two sets to take a well-deserved title and hence become the winner of an incredible 23 Major titles. This takes her clear of Steffi Graf, and so Serena is now the greatest woman tennis player in the Open era. Only Margaret Court has won more Majors, but she won hers during the time when tennis was not open, so one could argue (as I would), that Court was not playing against all of the best women players, some of whom had turned professional.

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Serena Williams won her 23 Major title, moving one clear of Steffi Graf and becoming the woman who has held most Major titles in the Open era. Only Margaret Court has held more, 24, but she won hers before tennis went open.

One of the many remarkable statistics about Serena is this is the 9th Major she has won since turning 30! This compares to Martina Navratilova, who won 18 Majors in total but only 3 after she turned 30. Serena shows no sign of slowing down, if she looks after her body there is no reason why she cannot carry on for another 2 or 3 years. Already, in my opinion, she has shown herself to be the greatest woman tennis player in history; but she would take great pleasure in not only passing Margaret Court’s 24 Majors, but obliterating it by winning 25 or more.

Federer vs Nadal – déjà vu!

After Serena v Venus on Saturday, on Sunday we had another trip down memory lane; a Federer v Nadal final. If you didn’t know it, you would have thought that you had been transported back to 2007! Both Federer and Nadal came into the Australian Open after very little competitive tennis, both having suffered injury riddled seasons in 2016. For Nadal this is nothing new, sadly his injuries have dogged his career in the last 3 to 4 years. But, for Federer to have an injury lay-off is something completely new to him. Ironically, the knee operation which forced his 6-month break from the tour was not sustained playing tennis, but instead by twisting his knee when he slipped in his bathroom running a bath for his children!

But, it looks like the freshness had done both a favour. With Djokovic going out in the second round,  and Murray in the third, the draw opened up for both men to make it to the final. A Federer v Nadal final is something that I am sure neither thought that they would see again in their careers.

It was a cracker of a match. Federer won the first set, Nadal the second. Federer cruised through the third (6-1), but Nadal came back to win the fourth. He even broke Federer in the first set of the fifth, and it looked like the writing was on the wall for Federer. But, at 3-2 down in the fifth, Federer raised his game, broke back to 3-3 and then won the next 3 games to take the final set 6-3.

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Federer beat Nadal in a thrilling 5-set match to win his 18 Major title. He now stands 4 clear of Nadal, and it is his first Major title since winning Wimbledon in July 2012.

Just like Serena, Federer showed once again why he is, arguably, the greatest tennis player the men’s game has ever seen. That is a highly contentious claim, and I would qualify it by saying that we really can’t compare eras. But, for my money, the only player from any era who could claim to be the greatest ever if it’s not Federer would be Rod Laver. Both Federer and Serena are 35; but contrary to Serena, Federer has only won two Majors since turning 30. I think Federer is closer to the end of his career than Serena, but if he manages his body and tournaments wisely I see no reason why he cannot win Wimbledon for a couple more years, he is still the finest natural grass court player around today.

Well done the oldies!!!

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At number 1 in Rolling Stone Magazine’s list of the 100 greatest Beatles songs is “A Day in the Life”. This song is the last track on the band’s seminal album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which is consistently rated the best album of all time by many different experts and lists. See, for example, my own blogpost about Rolling Stone’s greatest albums of all time, here.

It may come as a surprise to many of you that this is the song Rolling Stone Magazine have chosen to be the greatest Beatles song of them all. In some ways it surprises me. Although I like this song a lot (I would put it in my top 20 Beatles songs), there are others which I would put above it based on the assumed criteria which Rolling Stone Magazine have used to rate Beatles songs, which seem to me to be

  1. impact
  2. inventiveness and/or originality and
  3. just a great song

Based on these assumed three criteria, I would say that “I Want to Hold Your Hand” is clearly the song which had the biggest impact on the music world and on The Beatles, because it was their break-through song in the United States. No other song by The Beatles had such a profound effect on the course of popular music, or on the band’s own destiny.

In terms of inventiveness, I would say that, for example, “Tomorrow Never Knows” and “Strawberry Fields Forever” are more inventive songs than “A Day in the Life”. Yes, “A Day in the Life” is an inventive song, but there isn’t really anything in it that The Beatles had not already done in terms of studio techniques.

It is, definitely, a great song. No arguing with that, in my opinion. And it is one, if not the, last example of a collaboration between Lennon and McCartney. In fact, it is two unfinished songs stitched together. Lennon had composed a song based on some newspaper stories, real-life events and his recent experience of acting in the movie “How I Won the War”, but it didn’t have a middle-eight or chorus. McCartney had started on a very different type of song, a whimsical ditty based on his memories of going to school on the top deck of the bus. The band decided to put the two very different songs together, to create a masterpiece.

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At number 1 in Rolling Stone Magazine’s list of the 100 greatest Beatles songs is “A Day in the Life”

Here are the lyrics of “A Day in the Life”. There has been much speculation as to who the man was who blew his mind out in a car. Most experts seem to agree that it was socialite Tara Browne, who died at the tender age of 21 when he drove his Lotus Élan into the back of a parked van. The “4,000 holes in Blackburn, Lancashire” comes from a newspaper story which Lennon read about potholes in the roads in Lancashire. The line “Now they know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall” is just pure genius.

I read the news today, oh boy
About a lucky man who made the grade
And though the news was rather sad
Well, I just had to laugh
I saw the photograph

He blew his mind out in a car;
He didn’t notice that the lights had changed
A crowd of people stood and stared
They’d seen his face before
Nobody was really sure if he was from the House of Lords

I saw a film today, oh boy;
The English army had just won the war
A crowd of people turned away
But I just had to look
Having read the book

I’d love to turn you on

Woke up, fell out of bed
Dragged a comb across my head
Found my way downstairs and drank a cup
And looking up, I noticed I was late

Found my coat and grabbed my hat
Made the bus in seconds flat
Found my way upstairs and had a smoke
And somebody spoke and I went into a dream

Ah I read the news today, oh boy
Four thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire
And though the holes were rather small
They had to count them all
Now they know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall

I’d love to turn you on

Added to the lyrics which Lennon wrote is the beautifully haunting sound of his voice. With a little bit of echo, it floats in space. No one has a voice like John Lennon, it has a magical quality to it which is there in spades in this song. An ethereal, haunting quality to it. With lyrics like “I’d love to turn you on” and “…had a smoke….and went into a dream”, the song was banned from many radio stations for supposed references to drugs and getting high. Both Lennon and McCartney have denied that their lyrics had anything to do with drugs, and not long after this song they became fairly open about their drug taking, so had no reason to lie.

Thankfully, this hauntingly beautiful song is available on The Beatles’ official Vevo channel, so here is a link to it which will presumably not be removed. Enjoy!!

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A bit of a hullabaloo has broken out at Chelsea over a potential move by Diego Costa to China. According to reports circulating in the media (see e.g. here), the Chelsea striker has been offered some £30 million a year (about 34 million euros) to go and play for Tianjin Quanjian (no, I’ve never heard of them either). Already, the highest paid footballer in the World, Carlos Tevez, is playing in China. Clearly, China want to attract some of the World’s best football talent by paying them huge sums of money.

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Rumours are circulating that Diego Costa has been offered £30 million a year to move to play in China, leading to his falling out with Chelsea coach Antonio Conte.

Despite whatever problems are going on between Costa and Conti (it sounds like a double-act), Chelsea are still continuing to play sublimely under Conti. They beat Leicester City, the defending champions, 3-0 on Saturday, and are now sitting 7 points clear at the top of the Premier League. Manchester City continue their bad run of form; on Sunday they fell apart and were thrashed 4-0 by Everton. Liverpool and Manchester United both did Chelsea a favour by battling to a 1-1 draw. So, one has to ask, do Chelsea even need Costa to stay? If Conti feels not, he’ll be on his way to China sooner rather than later. 

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A number of people have been asking me over the last two or three weeks what the (very) bright object is in the evening sky. It is Venus, the brightest of all the planets. If you look towards the west (the same part of the sky as where the Sun has set) on any clear(ish) evening over the next two months, within a few hours of sunset, you should easily be able to see Venus.

Here is a diagram showing the evening sky for this evening (12 January 2017) as seen from Cardiff, and I have set it up to show the sky at 6pm. In Cardiff today the Sun sets at 16:29. Venus will not set until 20:51, nearly 3.5 hours after the Sun has set. This is why it is visible for such a long time after sunset.

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The western sky at 6pm as seen from Cardiff. Today the Sun will set in Cardiff at 4:29pm, with Venus not setting until 8:51pm. This is nearly 3.5 hours after sunset, and today is the day of maximum eastern elongation.

In fact, today (12 January) is the day when the time between the Sun setting and the time at which Venus sets is at its greatest. That is why I chose today to blog about Venus. This is called maximum eastern elongation, and it is shown in the diagram below.

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When the angle between a line from Earth to Venus and Venus to the Sun is a right angle, we have maximum elongation. As Venus is currently to the East of the Sun (rising after and setting after the Sun), it is today at maximum eastern elongation.

Venus will dominate the evening sky for another 6 weeks or so, although it will start setting closer and closer to the time of sunset now that we have passed maximum eastern elongation. It will swing in front of the Sun (something called inferior conjunction) on 25 March, so will be lost in the glow of the Sun for a few weeks before that. A few weeks after inferior conjunction, it will reappear as a morning object, becoming increasingly visible before sunrise as opposed to after sunset.

So, enjoy the wonderful sight of Venus in the evening sky over the next 6 weeks or so. And, if you can get hold of a pair of binoculars or a small telescope, you will see that Venus exhibits phases. Currently it is a quarter phase (half of it is illuminated), but as it approaches inferior conjunction it will become more and more crescent, but also appear to get larger in your viewing device (this cannot be seen with the naked eye). It was observations like these which enabled Galileo to show in 1610/1611 that Venus could not be orbiting the Earth, but that both Earth and Venus must be orbiting the Sun.

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As I write this blogpost, I am in Instanbul trying to get on a flight to Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso. I flew in to Istanbul on Friday, with my onward flight to Ouagadougou scheduled for Saturday evening (7th January). But, as we landed in Istanbul on Friday evening we realised that the city was being hit by heavy snow. In fact, the conditions on Friday evening were sufficiently bad that the pilot aborted his landing and took a second attempt to land.

Saturday I woke up to continued heavy snow. I tried to find out what was happening about my flight via the hotel where I was staying, but no information was forthcoming. So, I made my way to the airport, only to be met by utter chaos. Thousands of people were stranded at the airport, with nearly all outbound flights cancelled. I was instructed at the check-in desk to join a queue to get my ticket changed for the next available flight. This queue stretched at least 400 metres, and it took over 4 hours to reach the counter to get my flight re-booked.

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My 18:40 flight to Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso) was cancelled on Saturday, along with most other flights from Ataturk Airport.

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Nearly all flights out of Ataturk Airport on Saturday were cancelled due to two days of heavy snow in Istanbul.

I was told that there was no available flight the following day (Sunday), but that I was re-booked on the same flight to Ouagadougou on Monday evening (9th January). I was then told that Turkish Airlines would provide me with accommodation, and to join another queue down in the arrival area to be allocated my hotel. I then joined this second queue, about 250 metres long, and waited another 3 hours to reach the front of it.

In groups of 40-50 we were led outside into the driving snow, each of us carrying our luggage (which could not be dragged as there was too much snow on the ground), to a coach/bus which took us to a hotel. In all I spent about 8 hours on my feet queueing at the airport, with no information forthcoming from Turkish Airlines. They did come along the queue on two occasions with sandwiches and refreshments, but no tokens were given to use any of the food outlets at the airport.

On Saturday I was taken to the Best Western hotel in Istanbul. Everyone poured off the bus and then there was an almighty scrum at the reception to get rooms. I eventually got mine, by which time it was gone 11pm, and collapsed on my bed. We were told at reception, as we checked in, that a meal would be available in the restaurant, so despite my tiredness I went down to eat as I had barely eaten since breakfast.

I spent most of Sunday relaxing, trying to recover from the physical and emotional rigours of the previous day. Snow continued to fall throughout Saturday and Sunday, and it is clear that Istanbul is not really geared for coping with snow. I cannot criticise this too much, as cities in the Disunited Kingdom are not either, snow is such a rare event that it is not worth investing the money in too much snow clearing equipment. So, the roads near the hotel were not cleared, and neither were the pavements (sidewalks), making it impossible to walk around. I just decided to stay in the warm of the hotel and try to relax.

It was still snowing on Monday morning, by this time I would say about 15cm (6 inches) of snow had accumulated. In the morning I tried to find out whether my flight to Ouagadougou was going to be departing or not. Again, the hotel were not able to find out any information for me from Turkish Airlines. In addition, a promised shuttle bus to take we stranded passengers to the airport never materialised, so I had to get a taxi there, making sure I got a receipt which I will claim back from Turkish Airlines.

My initial impression when I got to Ataturk airport on Monday was that things looked more hopeful than they had on Saturday. Looking at the departure board, there were far fewer cancelled flights. So, in great expectation, I went to the check in desk. I was told that they did not know whether my flight would be leaving or not, and to go to a different desk to find out. I went to that desk, to be told that the system was down and they could not tell me either.

I then found a Turkish Airlines representative who was able to tell me that she felt there was a 90% chance that my flight would be cancelled. She gave me a piece of paper with a number for Turkish Airlines which I could call to reschedule/rebook my flight, instead of queuing as I had done on Saturday. As the queue was already as long as it had been on Saturday, I decided to accept her 90% probability and try to immediately join the queue to get yet another hotel for Monday night.

The queue for accommodation was as long as it had been on Saturday, so after about 3 hours of queuing I finally reached the front and got led to another waiting bus. Except, this bus was further from the terminal than the one that I had been led to on Saturday, and no snow had been cleared since Saturday, requiring me and others to carry heavy cases for about 300 metres through 15cm of snow. No help was provided by Turkish Airlines or the airport in getting our luggage to the buses. Luckily I was travelling alone, I cannot imagine how I would have managed it had I been travelling with young children, as I have done in the past, and as many were on Saturday.

Unlike on Saturday, on Monday I did not see anyone come around at any time with any sandwiches or refreshments. I was told by other passengers that most of the Turkish Airlines flights out of Ataturk on Monday had been cancelled. One guy that I spoke to had been delayed since Friday, so I guess he was in an even worse position than I was.

Once again we were whisked off in the bus, this time to a different hotel. We all piled out of the hotel, the Point Hotel Taksim, and stood in a queue waiting to check in. 30 minutes later we still had not advanced, so I went to the front of the queue to find out what was happening.

I was told by the lady at reception that the hotel had been given no notice by Turkish Airlines that we were being dropped off there, and that she was trying to call them to find out what was going on. Another 30 minute later and we found out that we had been dropped off at the wrong hotel, and that we should be at the Grand Öztanik Hotel “nearby”. When I asked how nearby, I was told “about 400 metres”. So, again we trudged off with our suitcases, unable to pull them due to all the snow on the ground, and made our way to the correct hotel, which indeed was about 400 metres away.

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The queue to check in at Point Hotel Taksim. We waited for an hour, only to find out that Turkish Airlines had dropped us off at the wrong hotel.

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We had to carry our luggage from the Point Hotel along this street to the Grand Öztanik Hotel, the correct hotel. Due to all the snow, it was impossible to pull our suitcases, they had to be carried the 300-400 metres between the two hotels.

 

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The snow outside the entrance to the Grand Öztanik Hotel

Again, I was thankful that I was not travelling with small children, or such a trek would have been very very difficult. I joined the now-familiar scrum at the reception, and got myself a room. By this time it was nearly 10pm, and I had arrived at the airport at 3pm. I had not had a chance to call Turkish Airlines to re-book my ticket, I decided to leave it until later the following day (today, Tuesday 10th January), when they MAY know what on earth is going on with their flights.

We were told as we checked in that food would be available, so again I resisted the need to collapse on my bed when I got to my room, and made my way down to get something to eat. I then collapsed into bed, and this morning (Tuesday) I have woken up to see that the snow has stopped. I still don’t know whether I will be on a flight to Ouagadougou today or whether I will have to wait some more days. I tried calling the number given to me on the piece of paper at the airport yesterday, but no one is answering.

As anyone who has read my blog will know, I have been lucky enough to do quite a lot of travelling. In the last few years I have typically been taking 8-10 international flights a year. So far I guess I have been very lucky as this is, as far as I can remember, the first time that I have been delayed in any major way. What has surprised me is how badly prepared Ataturk airport and Turkish Airlines have been for this eventuality. I cannot understand how a major international airport does not have decent snow clearing equipment, and for Turkish Airlines to be so unable to give any information on cancelled flights it appalling.

The flight which I am trying to catch to Ouagadougou is scheduled to leave Ataturk each time it flies at 18:40. The incoming flight from Ouagadougou arrives in the morning, so I find it hard to believe that Turkish Airlines cannot tell me by 9 or 10am whether the evening flight is likely to leave or not. Certainly they should be able to tell me by 2 or 3pm, and yet they have not been able to. They really need to get their act together, or people like myself will stop flying with them.

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Yesterday (Sunday 8th January), the Green Bay Packers (the Packers) beat the New York Giants 38-13 in the National Football Conference (NFC) wild-card playoffs. They will now play the Dallas Cowboys in the NFC Divisional playoff in Dallas. Why am I blogging about this, when I barely (if ever) mention American Football on my blog? It is because I lived in Wisconsin for 6 years (1995-2001) and am a big fan of not just the Packers but, in particular, their ownership model.

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The Packers beat the New York Giants 38-13 in yesterday’s (Sunday 8th January 2017) game at Lambeau Field. In American sports the away team is listed first, which is strange but that is the way it is.

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The Packers beat the Giants 38-13 yesterday (8th January 2017) at Lambeau Field.

Lambeau Field

I have been to Green Bay, it is a city of just over 100,000 people at the southern tip of Door Peninsula, which sticks out into Lake Michigan.Its population is the third largest in Wisconsin, after Milwaukee and Madison. I went to Green Bay in the summer of 1996 on my way to spend a week visiting the beautiful Door Peninsula. However, I have sadly never been to see a Packers’ game, nor have I even seen Lambeau Field in real life.

For the 6 years that I lived in Wisconsin I was based in Williams Bay, home of the University of Chicago’s Yerkes Observatory. This is quite a way away from Green Bay, as you can see from the map below. Sadly, this one trip to Door Peninsula was the only time I made it up to the northern parts of Wisconsin. My plans to visit Lake Superior never materialised, but hopefully one day I will get there.

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Green Bay is at the southern end of the Door Peninsula, which sticks out into Lake Michigan. The city has a population of just over 100,000 people. Williams Bay, home of Yerkes Observatory, is marked by the red circle.

The Packers use Lambeau Field to their advantage, or I should say that they use the weather at Lambeau Field to their advantage. In December and January it can often be -10C or colder during a game at Lambeau Field, which for teams from southern parts of the US presents a significant challenge. I am not sure what the temperature was during yesterday’s game against the New York Giants, but playing at Lambeau Field presents more or an advantage to the Packers than just playing in front of a home crowd. Packers fans pray for cold weather, particularly if they are up against a team from the balmier southern states.

Go Pack(ers) Go

Living in Williams Bay, I found that the local population seemed to be split 50/50 between Packers fans and Chicago Bears fans. I don’t think this had anything to do with the University of Chicago’s observatory being in Williams Bay, but more to do with Williams Bay being geographically slightly closer to Chicago than it is to Green Bay. So, why did I decide to support the Packers, and not the Bears?

One reason was that I was living in Wisconsin, so gravitated towards the only Wisconsin-based American Football team. But, the main reason was the Packers’ unique business model. It is the only franchise in the NFL (American football league) which is owned by the community and is run as a non-profit organisation. Yes, you read that correctly, the Packers is owned by the community, not by some rich individual or conglomerate. With so much money in professional sport these days, and so many owners only buying a team or franchise to make money, it is refreshing to see a successful professional sports team like the Packers thrive using an entirely different model.

Individuals can buy shares in the Packers, but those shares are sold for the same money for which they are bought. No individual can make a profit from owning Packers shares. You can read more about this refreshing business model here.

Next up for the Packers is an away match against the Dallas Cowboys in the Divisional Playoff, which will not be an easy game. I will be following the game, and should they win they will go on to compete in the Conference Championship. Win that, and they will be in the Super Bowl, which they have won four times, including the first two Super Bowls in 1966 and 1967 under legendary coach Vince Lombardi. GO PACK GO!!

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