John Barleycorn Must Die

I find it simply amazing that, one thousand years ago, people were drinking excellent beer and singing this fantastic song and that even now, one thousand years later, beer is still excellent and the song is still fantastic.


There were three men came out of the west
Their fortunes for to try,
And these three men made a solemn vow
John Barleycorn must die.


They’ve ploughed, they’ve sown, they’ve harrowed him in
Threw clods upon his head,
And these three men made a solemn vow
John Barleycorn was dead.

John Barleycorn is the personification of beer and/or barley and the three men from the west killed him and buried him in the ground.


They let him lie for a very long time
Till the rains from Heaven did fall,
And little Sir John sprung up his head
And so amazed them all.


They’ve let him stand till Midsummer’s day,
Till he looked both pale and wan.
And little Sir John’s grown a long, long beard
And so become a man.

But John Barleycorn springs back to life and grows strong again… until the men cut him down and make sure that he is really dead this time.

They’ve hired men with the scythes so sharp,
To cut him off at the knee,
They’ve rolled him and tied him by the waist,
Serving him most barbarously.


They’ve hired men with the sharp pitchforks,
Who pricked him through the heart
And the loader, he has served him worse than that,
For he’s bound him to the cart.


They’ve wheeled him around and around a field,
Till they came unto a barn,
And there they made a solemn oath
On poor John Barleycorn

They grind up him up to make beer giving John Barleycorn the chance to get his revenge on those three men from the west.


They’ve hired men with the crab-tree sticks,
To cut him skin from bone,
And the miller, he has served him worse than that,
For he’s ground him between two stones.


And little Sir John and the nut brown bowl
And his brandy in the glass
And little Sir John and the nut brown bowl
Proved the strongest man at last


The huntsman, he can’t hunt the fox
Nor so loudly to blow his horn,
And the tinker, he can’t mend kettle nor pots
without a little barley corn

The earliest surviving written record is from the sixteenth century but there is evidence that the song and the story is much older – like this twelfth century pub in Hampshire.


I spent a very pleasant day listening to every version I could find – from Martin Carthy to Paul Weller via Billy Bragg and Jethro Tull and The Fairport Convention and many, many more. The best version by far is by Traffic but they each have their own charms.

Turn up the volume and raise a glass to that ancient hero.

John Barleycorn Must Die. Album by Traffic

Long live John Barleycorn!

Whose side are you on?

After reading a biography of Einstein, I became convinced that Einstein was not an atheist but a deist. He was offended when atheists claimed him as one of their own.

But I am offended on Einstein’s behalf when religious people claim him too, so I was happy to see the letter quoted widely this week in which he said…

“For me the Jewish religion like all others is an incarnation of the most childish superstitions. And the Jewish people to whom I gladly belong and with whose mentality I have a deep affinity have no different quality for me than all other people. As far as my experience goes, they are no better than other human groups, although they are protected from the worst cancers by a lack of power. Otherwise I cannot see anything ‘chosen’ about them.”

I think that resolves that discussion.

Next up – the founding fathers were deeply Christian.

For whom?

I just read Alan Kay’s Early History of Smalltalk. It was timely for me because Brian Marick’s mention of the New Math put me in auto-rant mode on how schools optimize for students who are unlikely to excel in the subjects they are being taught.

One of the themes of Alan Kay’s sparkling career has been to try to make computers accessible to children as a learning tool and his history is full of little anecdotes about how he would teach Smalltalk to twelve year-olds and they would spontaneously invent stuff.

What was so wonderful about this idea were the myriad of children’s projects that could spring off the humble boxes. And some of the earliest were tools! This was when we got really excited. For example, Marion Goldeen’s (12 yrs old) painting system was a full-fledged tool. A few years later, so was Susan Hamet’s (12 yrs old) OOP illustration system (with a design that was like the MacDraw to come). Two more were Bruce Horn’s (15 yrs old) music score capture system and Steve Ptz’s (15 yrs old) circuit design system. Looking back, this could be called another example in computer science of the “early success syndrome.”

I get the impression though that Kay thought of this as a failure as he was looking to revolutionize education as a whole rather than train the next generation of super-geniuses (like himself).

The successes were real, but they weren’t as general as we thought. They wouldn’t extend into the future as strongly as we hoped. The children were chosen from the Palo Alto schools (hardly an average background) and we tended to be much more excited about the successes than the difficulties. In part, that we were seeing was the “hack phenomenon,” that, for any given pursuit, a particular 5% of the population will jump into it naturally, while the 80% or so who can learn it in time do not find it at all natural.

I wonder how he feels now when he looks back?

Alan Kay, along with his team at Xerox Parc, invented a huge chunk of the technology that has made modern computing successful.  But computers have still not had much impact on the way kids are taught. When they are not used as glorified textbooks, they are used to teach PowerPoint skills and word-processing.

I wonder if he would have had more success if he had optimized for the kids who are excited about computers? The sweet spot for his glorious Squeak seems to me to be kids who find joy in creating and exploring. I wonder what would have happened if he had stuck with that 5% who jumped in naturally instead of trying to satisfy a broader audience? (If someone runs into him, can you ask him for me?)

The rest of Kay’s paper is well worth a read. It’s inspirational despite its underlying theme of if only they had listened to us. He was telling his bosses at Xerox in 1971 that

In the 1990’s there will be millions of personal computers. They will be the size of notebooks of today, have high-resolution flat-screen reflective display.s, weigh less than ten pounds, have ten to twenty times the computing and storage capacity of an Alto. Let’s call them Dynabooks.

The purchase price will be about that of a color television set of the era, although most of the machines will be given away by manufacturers who will be marketing the content rather than the container of personal computing.

He talks a lot about education and about constructionist ideas and about how schools didn’t teach real world skills.

The general topic was education and it was the first time I heard Marvin Minsky speak. He put forth a terrific diatribe against traditional education methods, and from him I heard the ideas of Piaget and Papert for the first time. Marvin’s talk was about how we think about complex situations and why schools are really bad places to learn these skills. He didn’t have to make any claims about computer+kids to make his point. It was clear that education and learning had to be rethought in the light of 20th century cognitive psychology and how good thinkers really think.

He ends on a sad note

When it was hard to do anything whether good or bad, enough time was taken so that the result was usually good. Now we can make things almost trivially, especially in software, but most of the designs are trivial as well. This is inverse vandalism: the making of things because you can. Couple this to even less sophisticated buyers and you have generated an exploitation marketplace similar to that set up for teenagers. A counter to this is to generate enormous disatisfaction with one’s designs using the entire history of human art as a standard and goal. Then the trick is to decouple the disatisfaction from self worth–otherwise it is either too depressing or one stops too soon with trivial results.

Not sure whether he is advocating that we compare our efforts with the entire history of human art and become inevitably dissatisfied or to go ahead and compare and be happy anyway.

Some more heroes

I think I blogged before about how I am going to have a wall of heroes ifnwhen I get my own study ifnwhen we get our nice house.

I started planning this about twenty years ago. I am gonna have a B&W portrait of each of my heroes. G started me off on my collection a while back, but Albert is still rolled up in a tube. I’ll get the rest someday. Now that I can draw, I might even do them myself.

Paul Graham just wrote an essay about his heroes and his criteria are earily similar to mine

This is a list of people who’ve influenced me, not people who would have if I understood their work.

His list has no overlap with my list though but it’s still a good list.

Flamboyant Genius – a little bit flawed – never in a modest mood

When I said that Crick was a flawed, flamboyant genius, I was guessing really. Pretty good guess, it turns out, as Matt Ridley’s fascinating mini-biography makes vividly clear.

Let’s get the flaws out of the way first. What I had in mind first time around was his total disdain for the institutions of religion and monarchy but, on reflection, I think he really deserves respect for standing up for what he believed in at potentially great cost to his career.

There are a bunch of interesting anecodotes about his antipathy to organized religion—Crick makes Richard Dawkins look like the Archbishop of Canterbury—but my favourite episode occurred when Crick was offered a founding fellowship of Churchill College. The college was being founded in honour of Winston Churchill as a specifically scientific college in an attempt to imitate the success of MIT. Crick had initially refused the fellowship because the college planned to add a chapel (the initial plan did not include one) and Crick thought a chapel had no place in a place of science. He was persuaded to change his mind because it was considered unlikely that the college would ever raise the funds to build the chapel. Crick became a fellow.crick photo

Shortly after that, one Timothy Beaumont donated the entire cost of the chapel and the foundations were dug before the fellows even got to have a say. Crick resigned immediately and sent a letter of resignation to Winston Churchill. He received the following reply:

I was sorry to learn that you have resigned from Churchill College, and am puzzled by your reason. The money for the chapel was provided specifically for that purpose by Mr Beaumont and not taken from general college funds. A chapel, whatever one’s views on religion, is an amenity which many of those who live in the College may enjoy, and none need enter it unless they wish.

Crick sent this reply:

To make my position a little clearer I enclose a cheque for ten guineas to open the Churchill College Hetairae [courtesans] fund. My hope is that it will eventually be possible to build permanent accommodation within the College, to house a carefully chosen collection of young ladies in the charge of a suitable Madam who, once the institution has become traditional, will doubtless be provided, without offense, with dining rights at the High Table.

Such a building will, I feel confident, be an amenity which many who live in Cambridge will enjoy very much, and yet the institution need not be compulsory and none need enter it unless they wish. Moreover it would be open (conscience permitting) not merely to members of the Church of England, but also to Catholics, Non-Conformists, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Zen Buddhists and even atheists and agnostics such as myself.

The trustees may feel my offer of ten guineas to be a joke in rather poor taste. But that is exactly my view of the proposal of the Trustees to build a chapel, after the middle of the 20th century, in a new college and in particular one with a special emphasis on science. Naturally some members of the college will be Christian, at least for the next decade or so, but I do not see why the college should tacitly endorse their beliefs by providing them with special facilities. The churches in town, it has been said, are half-empty. Let them go there. It will be no further than they have to go for their lectures.

Even a joke in poor taste can be enjoyed, but I regret that my enjoyment of it has entailed my resignation from the college, which bears your illustrious name.

The chapel was eventually built outside of college grounds.

Crick refused to attend weddings, funerals and baptisms in church but suggested that, if humanism were to take off it would need its own rituals, anticipating Kev and Jeff’s House of Death by 40 years. I think Francis Crick would have appreciated a sad, silent clown.

There is another great story which has a broke, father-of-three, Francis Crick writing to Jim Watson to request—and being refused—Watson’s blessing for a show about the double helix on BBC Radio:

Do you still feel you can’t allow the Third Programme Broadcast? I’ve yet to find anyone who would object to it, and things have cooled down a bit now. Also, it would bring in $50 to $100 which at the moment I could do with.

Watson refused his blessing:

If you need the money that bad, go ahead. Needless to say, I should not think any higher of you and shall have good reason to avoid any further collaboration with you.

Crick graciously declined to do the broadcast but this episode was perhaps in the back of his mind when he and Watson had their great falling out over the latter’s The Double Helix (Amazon, here I come again). Crick did everything he could to try to suppress Watson’s book which (I am told…still waiting for delivery) is written as much as a warts-and-all autobiography as an account of the science that led to the breakthroughs with DNA that won them their Nobel Prize. Crick succeeded in getting Harvard Press to refuse to publish it and, after its eventual publication, bore a grudge for several years.

But, as Julio suggested, none of that rises to the level of ‘flawed’. But flaws, sadly, there are. In the 70s, Crick was very outspoken on such contentious topics as eugenics, population control and race. He made suggestions that seem outrageous now (and, presumably, then) such as forced sterilization, social experiments on twins (who would be subject to madatory separation at birth) and a form of licensing to discourage breeding among the genetically unfit.

I won’t spend too much time on Crick’s flamboyance. Just open the book at any page to read of the parties at his residence, The Golden Helix (at one party in particular, guests were handed a sketchpad and required to provide a sketch of the nude life model in the foyer) or of his reckless yachting adventures or his eccentric choice of friends including one who would habitually use Crick’s name whenever he was arrested (often) or picking up women on foreign beaches (all the time).


The book is ultimately, of course, about Crick’s genius which seems almost unfathomable. Consider a man who quit his well-paying job to enter academia but could not decide whether to first solve the secret of life or whether to explain the nature of consciousness. With the double helix well-documented and the DNA code cracked Crick still found time, at the age of 60 to start work on the second problem. Sadly, time ran out for Francis Crick in 2004. I am sure he would have cracked that one too if he had only started a little earlier.

One day, when I am rich, I will have a house with a study and on the walls of that study will be the portraits of all my heroes. Francis Crick will be up there with Bob, George, Winston and the others.

Another Flawed Flamboyant Genius

The NY Times reviewed Matt Ridley’s biography of Francis Crick today. He is an interesting character.

Crick refused to meet the queen when she visited Cambridge’s new Laboratory of Molecular Biology because he disapproved of royalty, and he declined a knighthood. He deeply disliked religion, saying once that Christianity was all right between consenting adults but should not be taught to children.

I like Matt Ridley’s writing (Genome is outstanding) and I am fascinated by men like Crick. How can you not like a man who invented a mine for blowing up minesweepers?

But that obstacle overcome, his devices worked splendidly, sinking more than 100 Sperrbrechers and stripping German waters of their defenses.

Amazon, here I come.

Play Beautiful !

A couple of years of ago, Beckham left ManU for Real Madrid and, a few days later someone new showed up wearing the No7 shirt. “Who is that?”, I wondered.

Within about 3 minutes, I said “I think we got the better end of the deal here. This guy is much better than Beckham”. This guy was Cristiano Ronaldo. Ronaldo is one of those rare geniuses that appears every now and again and, like most of his predecessors (Best, Bowles, Hoddle, Marsh, Cantona, Maradonna), he is flawed.

I love watching players like Ronaldo. If there is a single category of player that is my very favourite kind it is Flawed Flamboyant Genius. You can go a whole lifetime without having a Flawed Flamboyant Genius on your team. It seems that most fans – and many managers – don’t like Flamboyant Geniuses so I am rather fortunate that my team – ManU – rather likes having them around. Right now I am in the incredibly lucky position of watching two of them every week – for Rooney is a Flawed Flamboyant Genius too – and I love them both. Rooney is slightly ahead in the Genius department but Ronaldo has Flamboyance streaming from every pore and is therefore my favourite player of the two.

Julio blogged yesterday about how all the England fans boo’d him during the Germany and France games – he was extremely unpopular in England even before the world cup. What Ronaldo did during the England/Portugal game was no different to what Rooney would have done had the roles been reversed. It is terrible and sad that Ronaldo will be forever blamed for knocking England out of the world cup and ridiculous too. Ronaldo bears no responsibility for the red card. Rooney got sent off all on his own.

I hope beyond hope that Ferguson is able to work his magic and keep Ronaldo at ManU but, even if he does, this year will be extremely difficult for him.

Eric Cantona – my second favourite flawed flamboyant genius (and bearer of a red No7) of all time – had a series of commercials during this world cup entitled “Joga Bonito” and he ended each one saying

Play Beautiful!

If Ronaldo is forced out of England because of petty spite, the beautiful game will have lost a little of its beauty and that will be a great shame.