Not much more than a decade until the bus pass*

*assuming bus passes haven’t been abolished by then (see also a defence of bus passes here).



In which, in a post-academic-year reverie, I decide not to look forward, and try some looking back instead. So no surprise there, then.

The end of the academic year is always a slightly odd time in Universities. All in all, it is pretty quiet. Quiet in a noise-and-people on the streets around campus way (no students). Quiet in a no-dashing-about-like-a-maniac way (no need to rush to/between lectures/ lab classes/ tutorials). And quiet in a Marie Celeste kind of way (on any given day in July a fair fraction of my work colleagues are away at a conference somewhere).

All this quiet can make for a deal of dozing introspection, as you realise you have just completed another full year of University life. The ‘milestone’ nature of this then tends, inevitably, to lead you to recall the same milestone last time around.

The snag is that this comparison invariably reveals that, even if little else has changed, you are another year older.

Combined with the feeling that the passage of time speeds up relentlessly as you get older, this can be a bit of a downer. Or, put another way, the problem with these milestones is that they can become, well, millstones milestones.

Thus it can start to go from the mere whimsical musing of:

“Gosh – is that another year gone already?”

To the slightly less pleasant:

“Oh sh*t – another year gone. How the hell did I miss that?”

This year, said feeling is stronger than usual for me. The reasons is that I am closing in rapidly on one of those ‘symbolic’ birthdays that one dreads especially as one gets on a bit – you know, those ‘end of a decade’ type ones. If you can’t already guess which one, I can reveal that I was in fact born the very same week as the current President of the United States. We were even keeping pace for a while (sort of) when he was a junior faculty member, but he has since gone on to rather greater things, while I still have the exact same job, and job title, that I had in 1992.

Anyway, perhaps there is something about reaching mid-life (said he, with what you will recognise as uncharacteristic optimism) that triggers a need to look back and ponder the ways you spent your free time earlier on. In keeping with this, some people (like my parents, and me) find it hard to throw out personal ephemera, like letters, photographs, old school reports. tickets from epic family expeditions, and so on. For instance, I still have the US ‘Green Card’ issued for me in the late 60s, complete with picture of my seven year old self. But while one keeps the things, it is hard to connect with the past they speak to. As my mother said to me recently, in connection with such boxes of memorabilia and the memories they evoke:

“I almost don’t recognise that person that I was any more”.

This desire to try and understand one’s own personal history might partly explain why I have recently reacquired some sort of interest in chess, having hitherto not played a game, or even given it a thought, since I quit the game in 1979 in my late teens. I guess it could also be the periodic need, as one gets older, to prove to oneself that one’s brain can still adapt to something new (or at least ‘new old’). About a dozen years ago I took up Spanish classes for several years, probably for the latter reason. And I always admired my work colleague who, having been a committed grind ‘n’ bind and radioisotope type biochemist, went on Sabbatical and learned how to patch clamp when he was already past his 40th birthday.

Anyway, how has this re-embrace of the past been going? Well, results so far with chess are a mixture. I can still play, a bit, so my brain has not atrophied completely. Indeed, I played my first competitive game in 30+ years the other day (time limits and everything), and even managed to win.

That’s the good news.

The not-so-good news is that, after a few casual games with players of different playing strengths down at the local chess club, I can say that I now seem to play about as well as I did when I was 13 or 14.

So is that a cause for satisfaction, or more gloom?

I’m really not sure.

But it can be said that the chess club vaguely resembles a kind of pub with chess boards.

And that can’t be all bad.



Non-chess fanatics should stop reading here.

For the Steves 1 and 2, here is my first shot at a competitive club game from last week. Minimal annotation, as I think the three of us are the only interested parties.

Notes:  White gave away a pawn on move 8, but in return he got some good pressure on the a- and b-files against the Black Q-side pawns. I was trying not to advance the pawns early as I was worried about creating weak squares on b5 or b6, but ended up getting quite tied down. Even exchanges of several pairs of minor pieces didn’t free Black’s position. On move 18 I decided I had to play ..a5, rather against my will, as after 18…Qc7 19 Rb1 would threaten to capture on b6, and if 19…Rfb8 then 20 Ra6! renews the threat and ties Black up completely, with possibly Rb5 and c4 to follow.

20 Ra4?! threatens to put a R on c4, but better is almost certainly 20 Rab3 forcing 20..Rb8, and then 21 Rb5 followed by Qa4 and c4 with a total blockade of the pawns on the Q-side white squares. As played Black got in the freeing move 20…d5, but then went wrong with 22…Rc8 (22…Bc3! and if Rb4 moves then 23…a5) and REALLY wrong with the blunder 23…Qd6 (…de: has to be played first).

White’s big chance was to take on d5 on move 24. Instead, he got confused (we were both getting short of time, me slightly more than him) and blundered with both 24 Rb5 and 25 fe: (de: at least keeps the pawn, so that …Qd3 can be met by Ra3 or Rb3). The continuation White selected allowed Black’s Q in down the Q-file and also brought Black’s Bishop into the game to great effect.

The final error was 26 Bb6: ?? allowing 26…Rb6: ! If White recaptures with 27 Rb6: then …Bd4+ and mate next move, so White loses the Bishop and his position is hopeless.

J Haines (White) vs A Elliott (Black)         July 2011

1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 d6 3. Bc4 Nf6 4. d3 g6 5. 0-0 Bg7 6. Nc3 Nc6 7. a3 0-0 8. b4? cb: 9. ab: Nb4: 10 Be3 Nc6 11. Ra3 Bd7 12. Qb1 b6 13. Nd5 Nd5: 14. Bd5: e6 15. Bc6: Bc6: 16. Nd4 Qd7 17. Nc6: Qc6: 18. Qa2 a5 19. Rb1 Ra6 20. Ra4?! d5 21. f3? h5 22. R1b4 Rc8? 23. c4 Qd6? 24. Rb5? de: 25. fe:? Qd3: 26. Bb6:?? Rb6:! 27. Rba5: Bd4+ White resigns

About Austin

Middle-aged grouchy white male. Hair greying but hasn't all fallen out yet. Spreading waistline ill-concealed by baggy jumper.Semi-extinguished physiology researcher turned teacher. Known for never shutting up. Father of two children (aged 6 and 2) who try to out-talk him. Some would call that Karmic Revenge.
This entry was posted in Chess, Family business, Nerdishness, Procrastination, The Life Scientific, Universities. Bookmark the permalink.

27 Responses to Not much more than a decade until the bus pass*

  1. cromercrox says:

    Hah! I reach that millstone milestone next year, Austin, old chap. One wonders what one has done with it all, and whether one has done enough. To paraphrase Tom Lehrer, when Mozart was my age, he’d been dead for 12 years. The thing is, I no longer care. At least, not as much.

    A couple of years back I was walking past a new-ish block of flats in Cromer with my old friend Florence (not his real name), hard rockin’ bass player and all round good egg, then aged 51. We noticed that the flats were retirement properties strictly for the over-55’s. ‘Only four years to go, Flo’, I said – ‘ I wonder if the other residents would put up with your amplification?’

    • Austin says:

      Yes, I knew you were following fairly close behind me, Henry. Of course, a man who has written several books whilst simultaneously holding down a job and raising three kids might be able to claim plausibly to have done a fair bit.

      Re ageing rockers, some of them do seem to be pretty set to ‘rock it to the bath chair..’ but then again that is what the old blues guys did. I remember going to see John Lee Hooker play a thunderous gig at the Manchester Free Trade Hall in 1992. He did do the gig sitting down, but he was already 75 then, and I gather he was still touring when he died just shy of 84.

  2. @stephenemoss says:

    Austin – I myself successfully negotiated that millstone a couple of years ago. There’s nothing to it. Just close your eyes, hang on to something immovable, and hope for the best. But good news about the chess. I will have to work through the game on a real board when I get home, which reminds me that my annual subscription to chessworld is up for renewal. I have been wondering whether to let it slip as there seems to be less and less time to indulge these days.

    For me, the taking stock at this time of year doesn’t really happen. On the main UCL campus no doubt colleagues will be sensing that shift in mood that arrives as the students depart, but at our Institute, some two miles from the action, we rarely see an undergraduate. The passing seasons are marked only by the changing angle of the sun as it drifts between the high-rise tower blocks.

  3. Steve Caplan says:

    I’m only a couple years behind the curve on the milestone/millstone/moanstone…

    Summer here is as busy, or busier, with new students joining the lab, grants, papers, grant reviews and editorial work not letting up.

    As for the chess–great! I have taken a hiatus as I am avidly in final editorial stages of a second “LABLIT” novel, which I hope to soon try to begin the process of publishing.

    I will definitely look at the game this weekend. A quick glance , and I can note that I thought the “GEE FILE” would be more active in complaining about chess and moving the dialog towards scrabble!

    • Austin says:

      @Stephen & Steve

      I think the pattern of the academic year is more apparent in the Univ when you have a teaching-heavy ‘work profile’. In my younger days, when I did much more research than teaching, the main thing I used to notice once the students left town was that we could get a table in the bar for our “Friday lunchtime lab meeting’ even if we arrived at 12.30. During semester-time you would have to have someone there to bag a table by 11.55 at the latest. But apart from that it didn’t used to make too much difference to my work routine.

      The chess game isn’t anything to shout about, although anything where you get to finish with some kind of combination, however obvious, is a plus.

      @Stephen – I will try and identify something immovable to grab onto… Though with our being toid we must be out of the building we are currently in within weeks, and the University touting for volunteers for ERVS, there are less fixed points about than one might like! Anyway, if you read about someone in Manchester chaining themselves to the leg of an anti-vibration table, it is probably me.

  4. KristiV says:

    Austin – I’m a little bit older than you and the POTUS, so I am, even as I type this, teetering on the very brink of this millstone. Though I’ve never put much stock in millstones, since they seem rather numerically arbitrary. Anyway, I’m a bit “meh” about the non-event, as it will be just another average day at work: lab meeting, a bit of experimental work, course directors meeting, working on a review article, lecture preparation for the start of classes the following week. As long as I feel productive and useful, and my age- and wear-related medical problems can be corrected non-surgically and non-pharmaceutically, I figure I’m doing pretty well. If I compare myself to the people with whom I was in graduate school, I’m doing not too badly – certainly I didn’t turn out to be a star researcher or famous in any way, but I still publish a paper or two each year through collaborations, and that on top of a full-time teaching load in medical, dental, and graduate school courses. Could be better, could be worse. I’ve discovered that I’m not a very ambitious person.

    Also, if anyone at work implements some sort of humiliating millstone surprise, I will surgically remove their nodose ganglia, by way of the posterior cranial fossa.

    • Austin says:

      I’m impressed you manage to keep doing a couple of papers a year whilst doing all that teaching, Kristi. I am still “consulting’, I think would be the best way to put it, on research projects, but I don’t have much hands-on involvement these days. My non-teaching time now mostly goes on vaguely engagement-y or public science-oriented things (if one can count Physiology News as such). Though I am due to stop being editor there at the end of this year, which should free up some time.

      Ditto for me re ‘not very ambitious’, BTW. I have always felt it was about finding something interesting (and preferably varied) to think about or do.

      Also agreed re. the day. For some reason I felt more inclined to make a big party (or “parties”, indeed) out of my 40th. I might even wait and have a symbolic 50th bash once everyone is back at the Univ in September.

  5. cromercrox says:

    I will surgically remove their nodose ganglia, by way of the posterior cranial fossa

    Heh! That’ll larn ’em.

  6. I wish the main UCL campus were that quiet – currently we’re inundated with the usual crop of summer language students. It makes the canteen hell, as it’s clear the countries from which most of these boisterous youngsters originate do not indoctrinate their citizens in the art of queuing. And from empirical observations, they have never seen burgers in their life and are busy making up for lost time. The only lines that are free are is vegetarian option and the salad bar.

    Inside our building, there is a sense of tense forboding – our Quinquennial review happens on Monday. Wish us luck!

    • Austin says:

      Fingers crossed. And anything else cross-able.

    • KristiV says:

      The British invented the queue, probably while waiting to get into Stonehenge or some such place. They have since elevated it to a physical science and a full contact sport. Even those with a basic understanding of queuing rules and principles need some time to study and practice, before they can begin to attain the a-queue-ity of the natives.

      • Austin says:

        And isn’t it impressive that we exported the habit of proper queueing to anywhere else that we ever had colonial jurisdiction?

        Makes you proud to be British…

        • Cath@VWXYNot? says:

          Um, survivors of the scrums evident at some Vancouver bus stops beg to differ…

        • KristiV says:

          It’s not just the queuing, either … friends of mine who’ve lived in former colonial jurisdiction countries, whether in Asia, Africa, or the Caribbean, have all sorts of deeply-ingrained British habits, especially related to food, patterns of speech, table manners, sports, and, oddly, personal hygiene. I hadn’t realized it until I lived in London for several years. Somehow we Americans were immune to, or incapable of adopting, the ways of the Empire.

          • cromercrox says:

            Same with Israel. I remember a scrimmage for a bus in Tel Aviv when I was a student. It seems chaotic but there is a pattern to it. It goes like this.
            1. The bus screeches to a halt.
            2. The driver opens the doors.
            3. Everyone piles on at once.
            4. The driver shuts the doors.
            5. The bus departs with amazing speed.
            6. Only then does the driver start taking the fares.

          • Austin says:

            That is a bit reminiscent of the former London bus-riding habit in the days of the famed Routemaster bus, with entry platform and bus conductor. Nowadays, of course, driver-operated buses mean a queue on the pavement – though not in Israel, clearly! I quite like the idea of sticking to the old way, though I might worry about the road accident rate.

            I could wax lyrical about being able to jump on and off the Routemaster buses back in the day, but it would make me sound (even) old(er).

  7. Kristi, I’m dying to know what aspects of ‘personal hygiene’ you’re referring to…

  8. stephenemoss says:

    Austin – finally got to work through that chess game. Nice win. Certainly your opponent made one or two major blunders late in the game, and you suggested that time pressure was building. I am curious to know what time you were playing to. Until the final denouement it looked like a fairly cagey game on both sides. Makes me think I must get along to Muswell Hill chess club one of these days.

    • Cheers, Steve.

      Manchester Summer League rules, so an hour each for the first 30 moves, then add 15 mins each and (rapid) play to a finish. Anyway, pretty quick, though when I played school matches in the 70s (like the game in my April 1st spoof retirement post) we similarly used to play 30 moves in an hour, though no rapid finishes back then.

      I wasn’t recording move timings the other week (which I used to do sometimes in the old days, as per one of David Bronstein’s published recommendations), but I reckon that by move 20 I was down to under 15 min left for moves 21-30. He had a bit more time left, but after a longish think over moves 21-23 he was also into his last 15 min.

      When I was younger I was a passable player in time trouble, since I used to do most of my casual chess (e.g in the school lunch breaks) playing 5 min for the whole game or ‘instant move’ blitz. Doubt it would be as true now, cortical atrophy and all that. Not to mention ageing bladder.

  9. Steve Caplan says:

    I’m a very slow player, and almost always get in time trouble. For this reason I avoid having to deal with too many openings, including the Sicilian, as I always open with Queen’s Gambit. As black, I prefer Caro-Kann, as the subtle positional maneuvering limits the number of combinations, and are better for me as a slow player. So my comments on your game will probably be very amateurish.

    I couldn’t at all understand what white was doing with a3 followed by b4. That was a terrible couple moves that left him down a pawn for only the supposed advantage of opening up the a and b files.

    Instead of 21)…h5, which isn’t bad, you might have considered Bc3 as a good posting, with the backup move of retreating to the protected Bb4 afterwards

    Although he was clearly losing at this point, he could have had some play at 26) with Qd2.

    But, after his Bxb6 blunder, you nicely took advantage and finished things off! Great job!

    After looking at the game yesterday, I felt inclined to play a quick Blitz match online on

    I’m terrible at 5 min. games, and found myself throwing away a winning position. With a min. left, finding that the player also had about the same time, I noticed he was writing these nasty comments “I’ll beat you,” and “you’ll lose this, stupid”. I noticed that his “flag” was from Syria. I ramped up my speed and managed to win on time–and then wrote a little note that he needs to work both on his sportsmanship and his play. No further comments.

    That reminds me of another time, about a year ago, when I found myself playing against someone with an Iranian flag. On that online program, it was a 20 min. game, and every 30 sec. (when it was my move) he would try to claim victory on my disconnection from the net. It didn’t work, obviously. When he started to lose, he kept asking for a draw, which I refused. Then he asked to abort the game, and so on. Finally, when the game was over and I had won, do you know what he did? He asked for another game…

    • Chessplayers in person were always unfailingly polite ‘when I were a lad’ – though I may have been ‘sheltered’ by my youth. But in general I have the feeling (speaking as both the owner of two blogs and as a long-time online lurker AND commenter) that people find it a lot easier to be rude amid the distance and anonymity of the net.

      Having said that, some kinds of ‘real-world’ chess can get a bit verbally spicy, especially when money is involved. Think of the description of the money players in New York’s Washington Square Park in the early 80s that appears in Fred Waitzkin’s brilliant book Searching for Bobby Fischer.

    • Warning: Chess Geekery follows. Normal people look away now.

      Those seem sensible comments to me, Steve.

      White told me after the game that he simply didn’t see that 8. b4 blundered a pawn. I was pretty amazed by b4. I’d assumed he had played 7. a3 to give his Bc4 a flight square on a2 in case of …Na4. In fact, in a system where White plays Bc4 you would typically expect c3 and Nbd2 in order to support d3-d4.

      21. …Bc3 does look quite good. Indeed, I really should have got ..Bc3 in somewhere, as by then it was practically the only way of mobilising the Black a- and b-pawns. Obviously, the corollary of NOT moving the a-pawn (especially) earlier (e.g. by trying to play …a6 and …b5) is that Black HOPES to roll the pawns (esp. the a-pawn) up the board later once some of the pieces are off. But as it was, the pawns got terribly stuck.

      Along similar lines, although the general wisdom is to trade off as many pieces as possible when you are material ahead, I wonder whether I shouldn’t have kept my white-squared B on, e.g. by 16…Bd7 or …Bb7. I was a bit worried about White having a centralised N on d4, and maybe playing Nb5 and c4… but as was, the pawns got stuck with White blockading the White squares a4 and b5 in front of them, and without a white-squared Bishop I had no easy way to dislodge the blockaders.

      The reason I played 21..h5 was that I had been looking at variations earlier, with pins on the a- and b-files, where in some lines White had mating threats on the back rank with a R check and then Bh6. So I wanted to give the King a flight square. Also an easy sort of move to make when you are short of time.

      26 Qd2 would definitely be a move to keep fighting, though after …Qe4: White is in danger of running out of pawns!

  10. Alexandros says:

    Hi Austin,

    Very interesting blog-excellent work!

    Now,the chess-related comment.
    Brilliant game,nice win and a very stylish finish with Bd4+
    Of course 8.b4 loses a pawn but did you calculate anything about 8.b4 cxb4 9.axb4 Nxe4 I think Nxe4 is interesting…
    I liked your reply 20….d5.Very nice break,the ideal way to gain advantage in this position.I agree with the idea of 21…Bc3. After this, it is difficult for white to handle the position.
    Overall,your play was amazing with a few inaccuracies (Qd6?) but some very good moves.

  11. Frank says:

    I can report that there is life on the other side. But having scrambled up the slippery slope to 50 and traversed the small plateau up there, I am now discovering that there is a very steep slope sliding down past the mid-50s to … whatever comes next (it is too dark to see clearly).

    One of my coffee-break-buddies retired a couple of weeks ago aged 60. I took a week off for my birthday recently and it felt like a trial run for retirement – very relaxed, just taking things easy at home. I could get used to that lifestyle. But my official retirement age will be 67, I think, so it still seems like a long time to go. Damnit!

  12. @ Frank

    I guess my official shuffling-into-the-sunset age will be 66 – but in a University nowadays only Multi-mega-grant-owning Uber-Profs last that long. It will be a surprise if I am still working in a University in 5 years time (2 years time?), let alone 15+.

    Quick chessical note – played again last night, but this time against… a junior. Aargh!

    One is definitely on a hiding to nothing playing against 13-14 yr old kids, though I did manage to win – just when he had blocked all my threats and was on the point of equalising or even getting the advantage, he made one bad blunder.

    It is an odd feeling being the middle-aged geezer playing the kid, precisely the opposite of the scenario when I last played club chess in the late 1970s.

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