The Shipping Forecast

The Shipping Forecast with its steady and clear voice takes our imagination out to a ship that is clinging onto a cold grey sea.

"Forecast issued by the Met Office on behalf of the Maritime and Coast Guard Agency at 5:05 on the 6th September. The general synopsis at midnight Low 50 miles west of Bailey 979 expected Norwegian Sea 991 by midnight tonight. New low expected 125 miles west of Fitzroy 999 by same time. High Biscay 1025 dissipating The area forecasts for the next twenty four hours. Viking Southerly, veering southwesterly, 5 to 7 occasionally gale 8 at first. Moderate or rough, occasionally very rough for a time in north. Rain at first.Moderate or poor, becoming good. North Utsire, Southerly gale force 8 expected soon, Southerly, veering southwesterly, 5 to 7 occasionally gale 8 at first, Moderate or rough, occasionally very rough for a time in north, Rain at first. Moderate or poor, becoming good..."

The Air Ministry started broadcasting its weather shipping programme in 1924, using 13 maritime zones, twice daily on the Home Service. It was suspended during the Second World War, but was relaunched in 1949. Today the Shipping Forecast is produced by The Meterological Office and it’s broadcast four times throughout the day: 5:20 am, 12.01 pm, 5.45 pm and 00.48 am. Sailing By is a short piece of light music composed by Ronald Binge is used before the late forecast to give the helmsman time to tune in. When the late forecast is finished the National Anthem is played.

There are now 31 zones, which are given out in strict order, beginning at Viking in the north-east bordering Norway, and proceeding in a clockwise direction round the British Isles. Only seven areas survive from the original list: Forties, Humber, Dogger, Thames, Wight, Shannon and Hebrides. The last change to the zones was in 2002 when Finisterre became FitzRoy, which is name of the pioneering meteorologist Admiral Robert FitzRoy and who was captain of HMS Beagle on which Charles Darwin sailed to South America.

The forecast is full of precise technical terms that have to be decoded. For example, the terms ‘veering’ and ‘backing’ refer to the change in wind direction. When a wind is veering it is changing in a clockwise direction, whereas backing is anti-clockwise direction. Also, ‘variable’ means winds of less than force 4 that are changing by 90 degrees and ‘cyclonic’ means there will be considerable change.

The rhythmic, measured pace with which the Shipping Forecast is recorded has ensured that it is a as a cultural icon in the UK. Many artists have used it in their work, and it was prominent in Danny Boyle’s London 2012 Opening Ceremony. But it is best captured by the pen of Seamus Heaney in The Shipping Forecast:

Dogger, Rockall, Malin, Irish Sea:
Green, swift upsurges, North Atlantic flux
Conjured by that strong gale-warning voice,
Collapse into a sibilant penumbra.
Midnight and closedown. Sirens of the tundra,
Of eel-road, seal-road, keel-road, whale-road, raise
Their wind-compounded keen behind the baize
And drive the trawlers to the lee of Wicklow.
L’Etoile, Le Guillemot, La Belle Hélène
Nursed their bright names this morning in the bay
That toiled like mortar. It was marvellous
And actual, I said out loud, ‘A haven,’
The word deepening, clearing, like the sky
Elsewhere on Minches, Cromarty, The Faroes.

The Art Of Listening

Could sound be a form of art ?

Art is open to our own interpretation and it is based on our knowledge and experiences, in particular memories. Good art should be challenging and question our perceptions of both ourselves and the world that we inhabit, and even change them. Experiencing sound can have the same impact as pictures hanging in a gallery and over the years I have gathered a number of sounds, including songs, that have opened my ears to wider appreciation of of a sonic landscape.

Chris Watson, one of the world’s leading recorders of wildlife and natural phenomena, remains a constant source for going beyond sound. In the following clip entitled Winter, he creates the sonic environment of the Holy Island as it might have been experienced by St. Cuthbert in 700 A.D.( It is best to listen to this and all of the rest of the selected tracks through headphones or loudly through speakers ). Towards the end of the piece you can hear the distant ring of a prayer bell which pulls you through the space filled with the sound of the wildlife, and the cold wind, towards Holy Island and its spiritual life.

Sometimes a recording of the natural world captures more than was expected. On May 19 1942, three years into World War Two, the BBC was planning to broadcast the song of nightingales. During the recording they captured the sound of bombers flying overhead on their way to raids in Mannheim.

The nightingales song, which is part of their mating strategy, and signals the continuation of life, is juxtaposed with the drone of the bombers as they pass over on their deadly mission symbolises questions of life and death.


Stockhausen is regarded one of the greatest composers of the 20th century, but listening to any of his work for the first time it can seem incomprehensible: full of electronic squeaks, chopped up voices fading in and out, and no sign of a a melody. But perseverance can bring great rewards!

In Stockhuasen’s Gesang der Jünglinge ( Song of the Youths ), which is taken from the apocryphal Bible text “Song of the Three Youths in the Fiery Furnace”, in which youths are tossed into a fire by King Nebuchadnezzar, but are rescued by an angel due to their faith-based song, he explores the optimism and energy of youth.

It is interesting to note that this is one of Paul McCartney’s favourite pieces which influenced his early career.

Stockhausen’s influence can still be heard today. In Oneohtrix Point Never’s Chrome Country, a track with a title that could point to a landscape lacquered in mirror we hear a mix of sounds bursting with childlike voices, drifting through rapid piano sounds and builds to an organ sound which is like the triumphant end of a High Mass.

Of course the richness of the human voice to express something beyond music is beyond doubt. One of the best examples is Meredydd Evans, who was collector, editor, historian and performer of folk music of Wales written in the Welsh language. Although I am not a welsh speaker, in Robin Ddiog ( Lazy Robin ) in his voice we can ‘see’ the cheekiness a robin sitting inside a house and asking us to open the door slightly so that he can see the sea:

Sometimes a choir can catch a the strength of a community that goes beyond the everyday and in the Treorchy Welsh Male Voice Choir’s version of When I Survey The Wonderous Cross. I have never been down a mine but their deep, low voices seems to sweep up from its depths into the bright sunlight:

I find that the clips above, and many more that have not been included, go beyond their original purpose, whether it is the melody and harmony of a song or recording the detail of natural world, to catch something that is difficult to express - is that art ?

Counting on A&E

The closest I have got to experiencing the demands on Accident and Emergency (A&E) of a hospital is watching the TV series MASH, but recently I was right in the middle of it!

Waiting for attention I was interested in the way that the staff were managing the wide range of medical problems that were rolling through the door. There were: people holding limbs in great pain, a head covered in sticking plasters, two to three people bright red and coughing, a queue of wheel chairs with a legs in plaster, and somebody hobbling around in too much pain to sit down. In the background Ambulances were rushing in and trollies were rattling along corridors. All of this activity is, in a management sense, ‘unplanned’ e.g. people could arrive at A&E anytime of the day or night with a wide range of problems. I started to wonder how a typical A&E is organised and operates to manage the situation and to meet the 4 hour waiting target.

A few days later I was waiting in another queue this time in my local coffee shop. As I slowly moved along I did a quick sum1 to work out how long I would have to wait and came up with the following calculation:

(4 customers) x (1 min/customer) = 4 minutes.

If the queue had been longer then I would have waited longer. Or if there had been more staff serving then the quicker the service and the shorter the waiting time. To apply the same approach to A&E I took some statistics from the data published monthly on A&E performance where the average number of people attending A&E per hour is approximately 12 / hour ( on average there are 8,500 people attending A&E for each hospital in NHS England per month ). I also assumed that a typical A&E department can manage 10 cases per hour then the using the same approach as a the coffee shop I calculated:

(12 A&E attendees ) x ( 6 minutes per attendees ) = 72 minutes or approximately 1 hour

which was close to my experience in A&E. The calculation confirms what we would expect: if the A&E department’s capacity was increased by adding more doctors and nurses then the waiting time would reduce. Similarly if the number of people attending A&E was reduced then the waiting time reduces.

Of course the calculation is too simplistic to be applied to the complex operation of an A&E Department because it assumes average quantities. But trying to answer the question: Why can it not be applied ? - highlights some of the underlying factors that are adding to the complexity of its operation.

Starting with the average arrival rate of A&E attendees, A&E statistics show that there is a wide variability during a typical week. For example Monday is the busiest day at A&E with attendance 13% above the daily average and also 13% above the next - busiest day, Sunday. Also, in 2013/14, 24% of A&E attendances arrived by ambulance or helicopter who require immediate attention. All of this starts to show the variability in the arrival rate of people requiring medical attention.

Similarly the wide range of patient’s medical problems will affect an A&E department’s capacity to manage their diagnosis and subsequent treatment. For example if there was a major emergency situation, say a train crash or a flu epidemic, then the capacity of A&E would be overloaded. Another area is diagnosing the medical condition. For example 3% of patients attending A&E have severe life threatening conditions and must be seen immediately. Also, if about 40% of attendees are not seen within an an hour of arrival at A&E their condition could deteriorate to life threatening.

There are many more factors affecting the performance of A&E for example the well publicised bed blocking and transfer to social care which can increase the time seen by the doctors and nurses. Other factors are not so obvious for example the impact of weather - when average daily temperatures hit 20°C compared with 5°C, trips to A&E rise by nearly 20%. However, very cold weather does also cause longer waits.

Although the assumption of using average quantities to describe the operation of A&E is over simplistic, asking the question “why do the assumptions break down ?” can gives a better understanding of the underlying factors that contribute to its performance. Based on my experience, the way that the staff manage the range of the medical problems that come through the doors of A&E is much more impressive than the TV characters Hawkeye and Trapper John!

1. More formally the calculation is an example of Little's Law which states that the long-term average number of customers in a stable system L is equal to the long-term average effective arrival rate, λ, multiplied by the average time a customer spends in the system, W. For a different and more detailed discussion on the application of Little's Law to staffing levels in A&E see: Little’s Law: The Science Behind Proper Staffing

Being Creative With A Bear And Honey

Over the years I have been involved in group sessions to develop solutions to business problems but when I heard about a session using a bear I had to find out more.

Many years ago the Pacific Power and Light (PP&L), now Pacific Power, had a problem with ice building up on the power cables which supplied their customers in the Cascade Mountains. During the autumn and spring the build up of ice on the cables could over stress the lines causing them to break. The normal solution was for a linesman to climb the towers and shake the power line. It was a very dangerous job with a high chance of the linesman falling off the towers.

There had been many attempts to come up with a solution but the company was struggling, so they turned to a professional facilitator who suggested that a diverse group be assembled to look at the problem. A group was assembled that included the linesmen, supervisors, accountants and people from the mail room.

Over a coffee break one of the linesmen recounted the story of how he come across a black bear who was not happy that he was trespassing on his territory and ended up chasing him for over a mile. To try and stimulate the group, the facilitator retold the story. One person suggested that training the bears to climb the poles to shake the ice off the lines. Ideas followed about how they could be tempted with pots of honey placed on top of the poles. Elaine Camper picks up the story: “.. one of the more senior, more sarcastic linemen said, ‘You know all those fancy helicopters those fat cats in the front office fly around in all the time? Why don’t we grab one of those and fly from pole to pole placing the honey pots on top just after an ice storm. That way the honey will be there when we need it, and, besides, it will do those fat executives some good to walk for a change.’

Still another period of laughter followed. Then one of the secretaries spoke for the first time. ‘I was a nurse’s aide in Vietnam. I saw many injured soldiers arrive at the field hospital by helicopter. The down wash from the helicopter blades was amazing. Dust would fly everywhere. It was almost blinding. I wonder if we just flew the helicopter over the power lines at low altitude, would the down wash from those blades be sufficient to shake the lines and knock the ice off?’

This time there was no laughter - just silence. She had come up with an answer. By valuing diversity and by encouraging divergent thinking, the resource had enabled the group to come up with a possible solution to a problem all wanted solved.”

There are a number of lessons from this story that can be applied to any group session for developing solutions to business problems. The fist step is to design the group session with an aim in mind. In the case of PP&L the aim was to find a way to knock ice off the power lines without using linesmen and at a tolerable cost. Next step is pull together enough people with different backgrounds, either professionally or it could include people with non-business experience. With a diverse group it will produce many different perspectives of the problem and could result in a radically different solution. The final part of the design must include enough time for people to relax and have fun which will let the ideas flow.

The problem to be solved must be described in simples terms, so that it is easily understood by a diverse group of people, therefore it needs to be devoid of any technical terms. The importance of the problem needs to be emphasised. In the case of the ice forming on the power lines apart from the linesman going out into bad weather, with the potential of falling off the power transmission towers, meeting up with a bear in a bad mood adds to the health problems!

Now the tricky bit. Managing different groups of people in a meeting is very difficult. For example people with a technical background will immediately start work on designing a solution, which will leave the rest of the group behind. For the session to be successful many voices need to be heard therefore those on the periphery must always be brought into the discussion. It is important that the facilitator works around the groups of people that huddle around the coffee machine during the breaks to pick up on little stories and feed them back into the meeting. All participants need to be encouraged to throw off their inhibitions and be creative in their contributions to the session.

After the session a criteria must be developed to assess all of the ideas, even if there is one that is head and shoulders above the rest. The criteria can be used to rank the ideas so that if the obvious solution doesn’t work then there are other solutions to investigate. A good record of the session must be kept so that every solution is captured just in case they need to be returned too, for example if there is a change in technology that makes one of the ideas more viable. It is important to follow up with the participants of the session, thanking them for their contribution, and letting them know how the solution is progressing towards implementation.

The group session was a success and PP&L used a helicopter to blow the ice off the power cables. It is a solution that many other companies around the world have adopted and improved. But if they hadn’t found a bear during a coffee break then they may never have found the helicopter.

See the attached video for a helicopter blowing snow and ice off a power line using a steam hose:

Fly Fishing On Prescription

Watching the line whispering through the morning light and softly landing on the lake, balancing between hope and tension. Fly fishing is an art that creates its own poetry but what does it do for my health ?

Fly fishing is trying to trick a fish, normally trout or salmon, into taking something that is made to look like a fly. The skill is to place an artificial fly in front of a trout at the point where it is hungry enough to wrap its mouth around it. Sounds simple but after many years of trying to outwit one of the wildest animals on the planet they are still ahead on cunning.

After a days fishing I feel much better both physically and mentally. This feeling is supported by studies which have shown the benefits from standing in the fresh air are: a reduction in exposure to pollution, boosting the immune system, increase in energy and is a source of Vitamin D which increases the protection from bone problems, heart disease, diabetics etc. Also, because the trout usually are aware of what I am up to they quickly move away and I have to follow. All this walking has been shown to help fight dementia, cut the risk of dying from cancer, and helps improve heart muscles. Another benefit is from walking on rough and slippery surface on the edge of a lake where it has been shown that it aids balance and coordination . Then there is the cast and re-cast which is the balletic movement of the arm, rod and flick of the line out across the water which apart from keeping muscles strong gets the heart beating. And finally the wrestle with the fish when it pulls and tugs on the line after it has taken the fly, although it isn’t High Intensity Training my heart is usually beating hard against my ribs.

Apart from the physical benefits there are mental health benefits from fly fishing. Watching for movement of the fly, or just trying to spot a trout, requires lots of concentration, and although there are no studies about the effect of concentration on benefits for mental health, most fisherman that I chat to report that their worries are shut out by watching for the twitch of the fly. Another aspect is the reduction in stress. In a 2009 study by a team of researchers from the University of Southern Maine, the University of Utah, and the VA in Salt Lake City they found that combat veterans had significant reductions in stress and post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms and improvements in sleep quality after participating in fly fishing.

I would add to the list of benefits from fly fishing is the activity of learning. And there is lots to learn: understanding how fish live, the impact of weather on their feeding, casting technique, tying flies, etc. which is an ongoing process. Studies have shown that learning new skills can improves mental wellbeing in particular learning can boost self-confidence and self-esteem, build a sense of purpose, and help connect with other people.

On the surface there may appear to be many barriers to fly fishing. For example, the world of fly fishing may look like a totally male-dominated activity, however there is a long legacy of female anglers. Women have been involved in angling in one way or another for many centuries. Dame Juliana Verna wrote a book called Treatise on the Angle published in 1497. In recent times Joan Wulff who pioneered casting techniques is still fishing at 89. There are many more women revolutionising fly fishing as well as increasing numbers of women’s clubs for example Angling Clubs, fly fishing women, and a successful health initiative Casting for Recovery whose mission “is to enhance the quality of women with breast cancer through a unique retreat program that combines breast cancer education and peer support with the therapeutic sport of fly fishing.” Age is no barrier either, with initiatives such as Fishing for schools and The Prince Albert Angling Society Junior Section and at the other end of the age spectrum there are courses run my Age UK.

For many people contemplating fly fishing a big question looms - what do I do when I catch the fish ? do I have to kill it ? No. The vast majority of fish are returned to the water, and because of their experience of being caught, are even more aware of strange looking flies and more difficult to catch. Unhooking a fish must be one of the great experiences as you hold a wild animal for a few seconds before letting it go back into its own world.

Of course weather is an issue. On a bright spring morning standing on a lakeside it could be something straight out of a Constable painting. But it can be wet and windy. However with the proper clothing you can carry on fishing which makes the end of the day cup of tea and piece of cake even more delicious. Or you can do what I do which is shelter in below a tree and wait for the rain clouds to pass over; spending the time thinking about my next tactic to catch that trout!

Cost can be an issue but for a few hundred pound a rod, line and a box of flies can get you started. It is important to add to the list some form of glasses to protect your eyes from an erratic fly during casting and some head gear to protect from the sun, or in my case, a fly sticking in my head. However, there is one thing that is a must and that is proper training for casting. A few hours with an accredited trainer can make sure that bad habits are not adopted.

In summary there are lots of health benefits from fly fishing. Therefore my call to the medical professionals is that instead of reaching for a programme of drugs, or activities with strange sounding names, why not prescribe some fly fishing for long term health benefits?