Friday, 28 December 2007

Her Majesty's Christmas Broadcast to the Commonwealth, and How to Survive it

This year, we did not watch The Queen's Christmas Broadcast to the Commonwealth at 3pm on Christmas Day.

We did not watch The Queen's Christmas Broadcast.

My family has a long and turbulent history of watching The Queen's Christmas Broadcast. As we are more or less equally divided between laissez-faire monarchists and those with republican sympathies, the 3pm post-turkey-fest TV had previously resembled something of a fault line, running through an
otherwise harmonious and stress-free day, threatening to expose fundamental divisions in ideologies, which it inevitably succeeded in doing.

Recently, we had overcome this problem, with the invention of Queen's Speech Bingo.

Not Valid for Queen's Speech Bingo

I will give a brief overview of the rules here:

  1. Each person declares their intention to play or not to play;
  2. Those playing individually write a list of topics which they believe Queenie will cover in her monologue;
  3. No conferring;
  4. All players watch Her Majesty's Address;
  5. During the broadcast, players must cheer if one of their listed topics is mentioned, and must boo if Queen Liz is talking on a matter not on their lists;
  6. Players keep track of which items on their list have been mentioned;
  7. Following the conclusion of the Address, players score their predictions as follows: One point for each topic on their list which Lillibet spoke about; Minus one point for each item on their list which was not mentioned;
  8. Players declare their scores and must make their lists available to all other players for scrutiny;
  9. Once a winner has been declared, they may nominate any Christmas attendee (regardless of status as family, friend or hanger-on) to perform The Ceremony of The Christmas Dinner Washing Up*.

It is a wonderful, wonderful game. It finally enabled the whole family to sit together with shared fuzziness of mind to join in a harmless game to decide the washing up.

It was a wonderful, wonderful game, before there were snippets of The Address appearing on news programmes prior to the event, mainly because it's fifty years since this thing was first broadcast on the tellybox, and Her Maj is now making the whole thing available on YouTube. All our careful work in formulating a mechanism through which the entire family could watch The Queen's Address to the Nation without having an argument (other than over trivial matters such as scoring) have now come to nought. I blame the advance of technology.

This year, we did not watch The Queen's Christmas Broadcast.


*Note that regardless of the nominee, this task generally falls to the person least inebriated and most able to contend safely with post-dinner hazards including 15lb of left-overs and sharp knives, and who has a working knowledge of dishwasher usage.

Monday, 17 December 2007

Community communications

Having spectacularly failed to meet a chap with whom I reputedly share a front door despite having been here a month, it is reassuring to see signs of recent human activity in the local area. It appears I'm not the only person who got annoyed by the pooch poo - I stumbled across this message heading down to Putney:

In a similar vein, here's a polite request from a restaurant to an unwelcome diner:

It is reassuring to see signs of recent human activity in the local area, even if the only signs are vandalism and open letters to thieves.

Thursday, 13 December 2007

To me, aged thirteen

Rob C invited me to provide a bit of advice to the thirteen year old But Why?

By special request, here is my missive to myself.

Hello. HELLO...

Look, just put the bloody book down and pay attention, will you? Thanks. And by the way, your tearing-the-margins-off-the-books-you-read-and-eating-them-behaviour is probably a sign that there's something lacking in your diet. I'll not suggest that you get it checked out cos you'd ignore me anyway, and frankly seeing as you've found your own solution to the problem, there's no immediate need for additional action. Pay attention to that remark, as there's a clue there for your future... And may I say how very proud I am of the fact that you're choosing to ignore me. You're thirteen. It's exactly what you should be doing. So I'll just put these words here on the off chance that you ever get sick of the books, the music or the football, and don't bury yourself in the affairs of the day or fighting whatever new cause has gripped your imagination, and pick up this letter. Oh, and note that it wouldn't hurt to not re-read books. The storyline isn't going to change.

I do wish you'd read this epistle, but I know you didn't, cos I didn't, and I'm you, so these words will go unheeded. And hence, it doesn't matter if I give the plot away a little. By the way, you're not stubborn, you're just deeply idealistic and also enjoy winning. This is fantastic. Unfortunately, people are right when they say you'll grow out of the idealism one day. Yes, I know you don't believe me, and on reflection, I wouldn't want you to believe this. Forget I mentioned it. Other than that, nothing bad happens in the next fifteen years. Temporary setbacks rear their head now and again, but you do make it to the ripe old age of 28 in one piece, albeit with a few scars and arguably a little wiser from the odd experience which didn't seem too great at the time.

So, back to this advice that you're going to ignore and re-dispense to your younger self in fifteen years' time. Where shall I start? How about health? You're a bit reckless with yours. You'll break your arm shortly, perhaps next year, at the start of a footie training day. That cracking noise you'll hear is your radius snapping cleanly in two pieces. It's not something you imagined. Strapping the wrist up and playing outfield for another four hours will not be the smartest plan you've ever hatched and it'll hurt. A lot. But, regardless, you'll carry on playing football for the rest of the day. It's perhaps an early indication that later in your life when you discover rowing, you'll really enjoy being in control of the pain of training.

Grandad Why?'ll get sick in a couple of years' time. You won't notice, as you hardly ever see him and haven't got enough familiarity with him to spot the trend. Your dad will, and he'll ask you to take a couple of pictures of the two of them outside your home. Grandad Why? dies shortly afterwards and they will be the last pictures you'll have of him. So try to hold the bloody camera still - my memories of him are blurry enough as it is... In later years, you'll wonder why you never sat down with him and asked him about his war experiences, his memories of his parents, or of the Kindertransport. Or even how he managed to grow such huge marrows/carrots/cauliflowers/beans/etc. You missed a chance there, kid.

You'll go through a year or two when you give all the outward signs of thinking that the purpose of a Friday and Saturday is to drink until you throw up, have a haggis throwing competition, have to find an impromptu ladies' loo somewhere along the route home, or all of the above. The people you do all these things with are good friends now and in the future, and (though I'm not sure I understand why) you really enjoy this at the time. Fortunately, you'll have plenty photos and an abundance of anecdotal evidence in lieu of the memories you obliterated in beer on a mercifully small number of occasions.

You'll have a year off after finishing school and it'll be the best thing you do for a long while (I have to keep reminding myself that you think a year is a long time). Just in case you are reading this, I implore you not to go white water rafting, or if you do, try not to inhale large quantities of the Zambezi. It's a bad plan and will affect you for a long, long time. You'll also get a really horrible infection in your head. If you could remember to de-gunk as much pus as possible before getting on the bus from Dar Es Salaam to Lilongwe, it'll prevent you from projectile pus-ing onto the lady on the seat in front when you rub your tired eyes. Failing that, if you could practise the Swahili to explain the situation before it occurs, it might make things a little more pleasant for the rest of the journey. At the time of writing, the infection does not appear to have done you any lasting harm.

You go to uni. You have a fantastic time, but you'll spend the first year not realising that far from struggling with the material, you're a damned good chemist, so there's really no need for the first year blues. Having said that, you emerge from your first year older, wiser and with a distinction, a scholarship and a posher gown. You then spend too much time rowing and in the company of gentlemen for a scholar, and a year later, you're not a scholar anymore. So my advice would be to not buy the gown and concentrate on the rowing and relationships. So you actually did pretty well there. Oh, I almost forgot. You'll play cricket and finally come to appreciate something of the game. Perhaps I should have advised you earlier to take an interest in cricket. It is a superb way to pass a Sunday....

You do a PhD. You love the research, but not the human environment. It makes you realise that the people you work with are more important to you than the work you do. You hadn't noticed this before because you had the amazing good fortune to be surrounded by extremely lovely, able, intelligent and socially ept people. Another three years of being a student is an expensive way to learn this. It'd be far better from that point of view had you have read this letter I'm writing and avoided the frustration and pain, but you'll have a wonderful love affair with lasers and optical phenomena, and you subsequently appreciate nature differently, such that in the years to come when you're no longer working in science, every glimpse of fog, the iridescence of a butterfly, reflections in puddles or barcode scanner will tighten the strings of nostalgia. Sometimes you stare at the reflections in the Thames in awe, and you still think it's kind of neat how the sky is blue.

You also watch the 2005 Ashes series with your Dad. Surprised? I bet. You didn't think he'd make it to fifty, did you? Oh ye of little faith. Oh, and yes, you are still an atheist and fiercely proud of it. What else? Oh yes - you really should have bought a digital camera before you went to Japan. You're a muppet, sometimes...

So now you're a consultant, but today you've spent the entire day sitting in a meeting taking minutes. Easy money, yes. Professionally satisfying and good news for the public purse? No. It's days like this more than any other which make me suspect that you'll... no, let me correct that - I'll return to science again. For the time being, then, you/I work in the public sector, interact with civil servants and lay some foundations for a career in case we need one. I don't love the work, but my colleagues are a fantastic bunch, and it nicely covers the bills. For a while, I lived with small people who suggested I should blog, and I did, because my instincts are still to try everything at least once, and usually twice, even if I hate it the first time, because that might have been a fluke and I might otherwise be missing out on something. I'm glad that bit of you is still alive and kicking in me... By the way, that same desire to not miss out also means that I didn't always get as much sleep as I should have done - that recklessness with health is sadly also still alive and kicking. I should get a grip on that some day, though I suspect it wont be until I've done some serious and irreparable damage.

A blog buddy recently suggested that I write a letter to you, despite knowing full well that the thirteen year old me will never read it (you and I didn't have t'internet back then...) That what this was: a letter from me to you about the transition between us.

It's only as I finish the letter that I realise it would have been a good idea and perhaps the more valuable exercise had you have written from your idealistic, thirteen year old self to me now.


Post Script Writing this reminded me of a journal entry I made sitting on a large rock in Tanzania when I was 18, where I pondered what I would be doing in ten years' time. I really ought to read it now...

Monday, 10 December 2007

I'm fine, thankyou. Can I go home now?

Trousers' recent post has got me worried. I'm convinced I'd never be let out in the event of finding myself mistakenly admitted to the care of a psychiatric hospital. For those of you yet to meet me, please don't get the wrong impression - I'm not stark raving bonkers. Having said that, I've learned over time that I do occasionally have thought processes which other people find unusual, to say the least.

Here's an example from this evening: On the way home from training I got rather annoyed at the excessive quantity of dog poo littering the Thames path. It's not an easy substance to see in the dark, and it's unpleasant, and I'd rather people put it in the pup poo bins provided. It was cropping up with alarming regularity, and being of the non-littering persuasion, and also being more of a cat person, I was getting A Bit Pissed Off with those people who couldn't be bothered to take a bag with them whilst walking Rover to relocate their precious mutt's excreta to the nearest (and liberally supplied) dog doo bin.

So far, so good, I would think. It's probably not too different from experiences you yourself may have had. However, the Geek in me wasn't satisfied with this observation. Oh no. Not precise enough. It needed more information. The Geek in me was compelled to measure.

Hence, having got home, I am now in a position where, should I so choose, I could report that along the stretch of the path from the rowing club to my home, the furthest it is possible to walk without encountering doggy doo is 46 paces.

But I won't report that, because other people might think it's A Bit Odd to measure the spacing in strides between incidences of dog poo. In fact, it's exactly the sort of behaviour which I think would prevent me from ever being discharged from the hypothetical psychiatric unit I find myself accidentally consigned to. So I will instead keep it to myself, and not mention this remarkable little observation to anyone, and continue to exude the impression that I'm a well-balanced and thoroughly normal person. [Those who know me, stop laughing.]

Of course, I may be completely wrong, and it may be exactly what you found yourself doing the last time you were out walking in town. If that's the case, do let me know...

Thursday, 6 December 2007

Altered Perceptions

This is erging

The building in which my rowing club is based is used by a number of clubs and groups. I have seen various yoga and pilates classes taking place on the upper floors, whilst us sweaty rowers inhabit the sheds outdoors, and the gym and changing facilities below ground. It adds to the feeling of entering the bowels of hell prior to a weights or erg session. It might as well be written over the doorway to the weights room "Abandon hope, all ye who enter here."

Tuesday's training session was not looking promising. Forty-five minutes of erging effort beckoned, I was dehydrated to begin with (silly me), and there was no music in the gym.

Music is vitally important to an erg. It has been suggested that there should be separate records for erging with and without music. In much the same way that track and field events have to be set under conditions with legal windspeeds for records to stand, it is felt that the presence of music assists physical performance on the ergs. This is largely because successful erging is all in the mind. With a bit of technique and fitness, mental strength and an ability to trust the voice in your head which assures you that, despite momentarily wishing you could die just to put an end to the effort, you will survive, you won't throw up, lose control of your bowels, or black out, not before you've got that personal best, or all this pain will have been for nowt, Zilch, so dig deep and make yourself proud. C'MON!

Ahem. I digress. The point I was going to make before that last sentence took over is that once you've got a bit of fitness and technique, controlling the internal cox/coach is probably the factor with the most impact on performance.

That's where music comes in useful. It provides a focus which isn't a physical sensation, reduces the need to concentrate on pain, and makes listening to the internal cox a little bit easier. But there was no music. Only the song of the erg, the swish of the flywheel, the glide of the seat up the slide, the drive, my breathing, and occasional expletive or exhortation to greater levels of efforts. I had to stop that last one when the beginners showed up - they get a bit nervous when they find sweat-drenched seniors talking to themselves. And quite right too - all that energy spent talking could more usefully be spent erging. But I digress. Again.

So, without the music, I had to find other methods of distraction. I watched the beginners for a while. Did mental arithmetic on my split times, times elapsed, time remaining, projected distance. I liked the look of the projected distance - 100m further than last week's erg. Good. Improvement. C'MON!

As time ticked away and I started to believe that I would make it through to the end of the piece, almost certainly wouldn't die, and would probably not throw up, I took a bit more interest in my surroundings. The weights/ergs room is a deeply blue/grey sort of place. It often looks rather fuzzy, both from the fine mist of condensed sweat hanging in the air, and from the impairment in ability to focus that a session in the gym brings on. However, one thing that wasn't fuzzy was the thumping in my head. No, wait. Not in my head. Over my head. That didn't sound like yoga. Nor pilates. In fact, it sounded like a herd of elephants doing high-impact aerobics. Then again, I might have begun imagining things. I often lose track of time. Perhaps hallucinations are just the next stage of erg mentality.

The elephants provided my backing track for the rest of piece.

Much later, I had done it. Finished. And kept control of my bowels. And improved. That felt Good. I stretched, (that felt good, particularly all those stretches which can be completed by lying in various sprawling positions on the ground), changed into dry kit, and headed out into the mild evening. As I emerged up the steps to ground level, I saw the herd of elephants. It was a sight for sore eyes, indeed. It wasn't quite what I expected to see on the banks of the Thames. Then again, it wasn't actually a herd of elephants (not that a herd of elephants would have been a more reasonable sight). It was in fact a collection of about twenty grown men, in gym kit, leaping around, waving sticks and occasionally beating the sticks together, accompanied by an accordion. Yes, it was a troop of Morris Dancers, enjoying the mildness of the night and taking the opportunity to practise al fresco. What sight of a Tuesday evening could be more reasonable than a bunch of grown men jumping in the air, dancing around each other to the strains of the accordion and wielding big sticks, illuminated by sodium street lamps? But of course...

Normally I'd be wondering why people partake in such pointless and futile activities as morris dancing, but having just finished an erg, I didn't feel in a position physically, mentally or morally to question the wisdom of morris dancing.

Monday, 3 December 2007

Interview criteria

I'd just returned to my desk this morning when a programme colleague asked whether I could do him a favour and help him interview candidates for a job on the programme. I've had a bit of experience in interviewing people, have little difficulty in holding down a decent conversation, and given a CV, a job description, and access to the customer's HR policy, and with a bit of preparation time I'd have no difficulties. I replied in the affirmative. He said, "Good, because the first one is arriving in five minutes and the guy who was supposed to be leading the interviews is off sick."

"Oh... OK. Do you have a CV for this person? What's the role? Are there Terms of Reference? Guidance for interviewers?" Me and my big mouth. I have five minutes to prep for the interview so I don't look like an idiot. Great. At least there are Terms of Reference, so I have some criteria to interview against.

The interviewee arrives. She's five minutes late, by which time I've read the CV, read the terms of reference, and cobbled together a few questions to ask. It's time to don a jacket, a smile, the better of my two accents, and waltz along to the interview room.

We get through the introductions and onto the interview proper. There is no warm-up. My colleague launches into competency questions, ticking off answers against his criteria. As reserve interviewer, I don't feel too obliged to ask many questions. I make a few notes, pick up on a few things the interviewee has mentioned, and, given an opportunity, ask her to talk me through her CV. She talks well. In sentences. Which have capital letters, full stops, and which I suspect she has run a spellcheck on before enunciating. The interview being for an administrative and programme office role, these are all very good signs. I find out more about her through this approach than from her responses to my colleague's more direct "Have you got any experience of taking minutes?" approach, most of which could be answered with brief recourse to the candidate's CV. My usual approach is to give an interviewee sufficient rope for a multitude of purposes and see whether they choose to hang themselves or not. I tend to like the types who examine the rope for a few moments and return it with some questions of their own.

A few more "How would you go about organising a meeting?" questions later, my colleague's parting prod of "What do you understand by Equal Opportunities and Diversity?" was a little off-beat and surprizing. I shouldn't have been surprized. This organisation takes its obligations to equal opportunities and diversity seriously. For example, last week, the programme team was congratulated on its gender mix but criticised for its performance in "the racial dimension". What precisely is the programme supposed to do about this? Should I volunteer to change race? From White, British to White, Other, or perhaps to Does not wish not disclose?

I suspect there's little the programme can do, beyond ensuring that any White, Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASPs) recruited to the programme in future can provide a decent answer to the question "What do you understand by Equal Opportunities and Diversity?" I don't know what a model answer sounds like, but I hope it was what this lass gave. She sounded like she could do the job, had a good attitude and would get on well with the team. I suspect she'll be offered the job. It's just a pity that, as a non-WASP and given the recent criticism, many people will automatically assume she's been recruited to improve our racial dimension.

Thursday, 29 November 2007

Building blocks of A Good Day

Last Wednesday was A Good Day. Perhaps even A Very Good Day.

First thing, woke to the sound of my alarm (actually John Humphrys' dulcet tones). I was refreshed, had slept well, and on attempting to move discovered I was as stiff as a corpse following the previous evening's strength training exploits. It had been a long time since I woke with the realisation that I had Done Something Requiring Effort the previous day. It really is a most satisfying and affirming pain. I do commend it to you all.

Then my commute to work. On foot. (I remembered the days of commuting by train when the concept of a twenty minute walk to work seemed like a such a good idea. I had neglected to build into my blueprint of this new commute the pain which rowing in my newly discovered free time would add to the journey. D'oh.) I must have resembled a crippled kangaroo, full of energy but unable to stretch sufficiently to make walking with a normal gait a realistic ambition. I limped and groaned my way to work, the stiffness gradually receding, with the result that I was doing a quite reasonable impression of a fully mobile person by the time I rolled up at work.

Breakfast, 8:30 am, 30th floor revolving restaurant. Good company. Enjoyable, pleasant and useful conversation (only partially work-related). Bright sunshine streaming in through the windows. Two waiters to a table of four. No-one else in the restaurant. Sufficient time was spent resting on my posterior for all that lovely stiffness to seep back into my legs, where it lodged itself resolutely for the rest of the day. Did I mention breakfast? That was damned good, too. Particularly the fruit salad/yogurts/honey/mixed nuts construction. And plenty water. Just what I needed.

Lunchtime, and the rigmarole of collecting a parking permit from Fulham Town Hall. I discovered that the tube station is thoughtfully positioned directly opposite said Town Hall. Almost as if someone had had the foresight to realise that busy office working types would one day need to collect parking permits in their lunch hour. The process of getting the permit was easy, almost efficient - right down to the availability of a free photocopier for all those last minute photocopies of log books and driving licences that may have been forgotten.

Afternoon. Catch up with the team and find out what's going on in advance of management types returning next week. For once, there's a fairly consistent story emerging. It might just be an embryonic sign of hope that the programme ducks are being brought into a row.

Evening. Jog (or a close approximation to a jog) to the boathouse for a long erg. I was pleased to discover four things:

  1. I had regained the range of movement necessary to erg;
  2. Despite being out of training, I scraped together a respectable split for the duration of the piece;
  3. My new skincare routine of applying surgical spirits twice a day is keeping my palms blister-free. It does make me smell something of an alcoholic, which I doubt is a great thing for my reputation;
  4. I did my periodic table countdown over the (estimated) last hundred strokes. It's a great distraction from the pain. For a bonus, this time I didn't forget Actinium, Thorium, Protactinium, Uranium, Neptunium and Plutonium.

Late evening. Collect car. Get slightly disorientated on the way back and manage to cross the Thames four times, despite starting and finishing my journey on the same bank of the river. I discovered new and exciting things I never knew existed, including a bright pink stone lion. (It make have been a stone-coloured lion illuminated by pink light, but the effect is much the same. Where the beast is located, or how to get there, I have no idea. Perhaps I'll happen across it again in a similar fit of disorientation...?) My car is now parked only a short stagger from the front door. I have missed it. It is odd how London makes the simplest things (e.g. parking a car) unbelievably complicated.

Night. Food. Water. Lots of water. Hot shower. I was lucky to catch the last ten minutes of the England match, thus not even missing anything of any consequence.

Finally sleep. Eight hours of uninterrupted sleep, broken only by the dulcet tones of Mr Humphrys, and the knowledge that any attempt to move would be resisted by every sinew in my body.

Thursday, 22 November 2007

Unopposed words

Unopposed words, by which I mean those words which would on cursory inspection appear to have an opposite but which actually do not, are a source of amusement for me. For an example, consider the word dismantle. By comparison to other words beginning with dis-, e.g. disassemble, disappear, you might expect its opposite to be remantle. But it isn't. And, whilst I might be able to assemble a bookcase, or appear at a particular location, I cannot for the life of me mantle flatpack furniture, however extensive my experience with a screwdriver and hammer.

I've often thought that our language makes it difficult for things to go well, and stacks the odds against us. Why, for example, can someone be inept but not ept? Why can't I be couth, and am instead constrained by language to be uncouth? Why can't I be prostrained instead of constrained? My work can be awful but not awless. I might get distraught at a bereavement, but will never be traught at a birth. You might think my comments are inane, but here again, they are forced into inanity, however much I would like to write ane words, it is impossible for me to achieve this. And I shall never be gormful. And nor shall you.

I was thinking about these unopposed words the other day, and started making a list of examples. It was extensive. I could think of many words portraying negative concepts which did not have a positive counterpart, but very few which were the other way around. In fact, I found only one. Wonderful...



On reflection, there are many unopposed words which have positive connotations. Hurrah for freedom of speech, and long may it continue.

Sunday, 18 November 2007

Shocked and appalled

I would love to hear a convincing argument supporting the action taken against a man who has become something of a cause célèbre having been found simulating a sexual act with a bicycle. Assuming the facts presented in this story are true, I am left flabbergasted and extremely disturbed by the implications for personal liberty.

If you can't spare two minutes to read the story, here is a quick overview of the facts* presented:

  • Man lives in hostel.
  • Man is in his bedroom in the hostel.
  • Man has locked the door.
  • Man is using his bicycle in his locked bedroom for the purposes of sexual gratification.
  • Cleaners use a master key to unlock the door to Man's room.
  • Cleaners see Man using bicycle for the purposes of sexual gratification, are shocked, tell their manager, who involves the police.

The conclusion of the police action beggars belief:

Man has been convicted of a sexually aggravated breach of the peace by conducting himself in a disorderly manner and simulating sex. He has been sentenced to three years' probation and placed on the Sex Offenders Register.

Let's have a quick recap: This chap has been using an inanimate possession in a private location behind a locked door to give himself pleasure. Having been happened across by two people, his actions are then considered not only illegal (why?), but considered sufficiently serious for him to be on the Sex Offender's Register. His actions might well be considered a bit odd, bizarre, and perhaps suggest that he needs a bit of guidance to find better sex surrogates, but they don't seem to require intervention by the state (unless the state is intent on taking seriously its hitherto unknown obligation to protect inanimate bicycles from pedalphiles... On second thoughts, I shouldn't jest. This isn't a laughing matter.)

In fairness to the Sheriff, it appears that once Man pleaded guilty to the charges, the Sheriff was unable to consider the fact that this occurred in what most of us (any legal eagles out there want to pitch in?) would consider to be a private place, and that Man took reasonable precautions against being disturbed by locking the door. However, I fail to see why it was considered in the public interest for this case taken to pursued and taken to court in the first place. Truth be told, I am shocked and appalled by the invasion of Man's privacy.

I would like to think that should I wish to use an inanimate object owned by myself for whatever purpose which does not harm others or myself, this should not be illegal, however ill-suited the object might at first glance seem for the purposes to which it is put. It makes me wonder what I might be doing which leads me to inadvertently break the law, and whether there's an idiot's guide to what is and isn't legal. It's not at all obvious to me.

*I have no way of verifying these, so will take as read that the reports are accurate.

Wednesday, 14 November 2007

Landfill 1: Wombles 1 (Landfill win 5:4 after penalties)

Moving house inevitably generates a lot of rubbish for disposal, and my recent move was no exception. It also uncovers a number of items which strictly speaking aren't rubbish, but which can't be left in the house and which you have no desire to move with you, and this being a Sunday, you are unable to donate to your local charity shop or leave out for recycling. Such things are sadly destined to find their way to landfill.

Such was the fate of a disowned, rusting can opener. It did not belong to us, perhaps left hiding at the back of a cupboard by a previous tenant, or perhaps even left behind by the builders after finishing off their Spam and beers. Who knows? Without an owner, it was consigned to the refuse sack for a future of propping up the topsoil.

Or so we thought. However, moving house also uncovers fundamental differences in philosophy between the "I can live without it - chuck/sell/donate/get rid of it" school of thought and the "better not get rid of it, it might come in useful one day following the nuclear holocaust" school of thought. Moments following disposal, an adherent of the latter school, no doubt horrified at the prospect of a perfectly good can/bottle opener being thoughtlessly discarded to a future of slow oxidation and biodegradation, had retrieved it from the sack. It was in a perfectly usable condition, but we all have can openers with better functionality and which looked less likely to be harbouring Clostridium tetani, yet to wantonly re-discard the thing seemed a little, well, decadent.

As previously intimated, moving house exposes divisions and also brings difficult decisions. Rusty yet serviceable can openers fall into the pile of stuff classified as "collateral damage". The unwanted opener was returned to the rubbish sack in a swift, cloak-and-dagger style operation, as soon as the wannabe Womble was out of sight. Though glad to have got rid of the damned thing, I had a sneaking suspicion that the wanton disposal of usable implements was bound to come back to haunt me eventually.

It didn't take long.

All last week I had been opening the fridge door, parched after a long day of work (i.e. days of sitting in meetings whilst occasionally gently cajoling people towards my point of view) to find bottles of very lovely and enticing beers sitting teasingly at eye-level, chilled and just waiting to be drunk. Ready to drink, that is, but for want of an implement to remove the bottle tops. The image of the rusty can opener danced before my eyes, as did images of landfill sites being pored over by hordes of Wombles, triumphantly waving their rusty yet serviceable finds.

After a week of pathetically hunting through boxes for a bottle opener, I eventually succumbed to the need for instant beer and searched instead for alternative implements with bottle opening features. Exposed (trendy?) brickwork in the kitchen looked promising, but the mortar left no exposed edges suitable to open the bottle on. The granite worksurface looked like the sort of the thing the landlord probably would rather not have crown scratches on, the table likewise. The forks were too rounded and broad to get under the crown to prise off. I eventually found a small and fittingly rusty flat-heat screwdriver, which worked perfectly.

A beer later, I felt completely vindicated by the decision to chuck. Two beers later, my mental film reel of the goading Womble wielding a rusty can opener was replaced by a scene of Womble carnage - thousands of Wombles lying dead or dying on landfill, fatally stabbed or mortally wounded courtesy of the rusty can opener and its C. tetani population. I didn't think a third beer was required...

On another matter, I have no idea why on earth I thought a late night and a couple of beers was excellent preparation for spending four hours rowing on the Tideway early the following morning. Three days later, everything still hurts.

Saturday, 10 November 2007

Retiring, but not shy

I learned this morning that the headmaster of my old school is to retire.

I have fond memories of school. It was a comprehensive whose intake sliced through the city geographically and socio-economically, and provided a secure and supportive melting pot in which to work through and emerge from the tribulations of teenhood. Political awareness was encouraged, with staff being comfortable to espouse their political views. It was not uncommon for staff and students to be found discussing the issues of the day during breaks or lunchtime. I have no doubt that the headmaster was the cornerstone of the school's success in this role.

He was an inspirational leader, and despite being subjected by his students to some taxing moments, including explaining to the local press why hundreds of his students had refused to attend lessons for the day and had instead "gone on strike", and having to calm the panic that rapidly spread throughout the school after a student welcomed one of his gun-brandishing friends into the building, I recall him never acting in a manner that was anything other than professional. This did not constrain his personality or generosity of spirit. One moment particularly stands out.

He was leading an assembly on the theme of "Heroes". This would have been around 1996, Nelson Mandela had been elected president of South Africa a couple of years previously, in the country's first democratic election.

The head read from "Long Walk to Freedom". I cannot remember the excerpt he chose, other than it speaking of the injustice and indecency to which Mandela and fellow prisoners were subjected. I only recall being completely absorbed by the presence of this man who was prepared to expose to several hundred teenagers something which mattered deeply to him. He welled up as he read, his voice cracked, the tears flowed. I remember the shared sense of disbelief amongst the students that the head, who needed to command the respect of hundreds of teenagers, would be prepared to stand alone on a stage and cry in order to convey to the assembled masses the strength of his belief in the qualities he was conveying. I doubt there are many people who would be prepared to put themselves in such a position. Had any other teacher have attempted this, I suspect they would have been the butt of jokes for the remainder of our school years.

It was enormously impressive, a single incident in which my understanding and ideas of authority and leadership underwent a paradigm shift, when having authority did not require an aura of invulnerability, superior strength, intellect, or power.

I wish him a long and happy retirement.

Thursday, 8 November 2007

Rambling without moving

Following Pixie's example, I took the opportunity to ramble my ego through the alphabet.

Absolutes: The older I get, the fewer of these there seem to be.
Bacon Butty: Manna from heaven?
Caroline: The boat I won blades in. She was beautiful. So smooth and sleek. She's probably now being used by novices and being crashed into the bank with alarming regularity but, when I knew her, she was divine.
Difference: A quality I find intriguing.
Evolution: I think I subscribe to this, but the emotion of despair I find rather confusing to fit into the grand scheme of things.
Fluid: How I describe the political environment at work.
Goat: Animals which never fail to make me smile. I mean, how unlikely are they?
Hanoi: Could be my favourite city, if I have such a thing.
Iridescence: Beauty by diffraction.
Jam: Tomorrow. Have patience and enjoy the journey.
Knees: Things with many scars. After my college medical, the nurse glanced down at them. She said, "Them's ugly knees, ent they??" I had to agree.
Lamb: Favourite thing to stew.
Minefield: Bad place to work in.
No: I do not wish to register my Oyster card. I would not like my picture touching in and out of every journey to be matched to my name, address and credit card details.
Osteoporosis: Something I would very much like to avoid.
Praseodymium: A fantastic name for an element. Or a cat, come to think of it.
Quarry: What I lived in until recently.
River: What I now live by. What passes for "open space". Where sport should be conducted.
Superb: I say this a lot.
Travel: Something I want to do more of.
University: The home of seven wonderful years.
Verily: A much under-used word.
Water: Still the most fascinating substance I've ever encountered.
Xenon: A good shoot 'em up game. And a noble gas.
Yellow: The colour of my all-time favourite bit of cycling kit, which makes me look a bit like a giant daffodil. It is very cheery and I do rather love it.
Zebra: Something they have hanging on the wall at a restaurant I ate in last week. I think it is also on the menu. I had the antelope instead.

This has been a thoroughly pointless and most enjoyable exercise which I heartily commend to you all.

Monday, 5 November 2007

Getting wet

Two rivers, two minutes from two very different homes. I have found myself unexpectedly submerged in both, but that's about all they have in common.

The Wey

This stretch of the Wey is about 800m long, and two minutes from yesterday's home. There's not that much in the way of river traffic, the odd passing duck perhaps, and the occasional swan. In summer, there are usually a few narrowboats moored along the length we ironically call "the straight", but at the time of the day inhabited by rowers, they're usually stationary and emitting wonderful, promising smells of bacon and eggs. There are only a couple of places wide enough to spin the boat in, but seeing as there's only 800 rowable metres of river, spinning happens every few minutes, anyway. It is rather picturesque, but not much cop for rowing. Not that I was doing much of that, having chosen to spend my leisure time sitting on my posterior on cramped trains. Reading. Getting lardy. Commuting. Not making an awful lot of use of having a river two minutes from home.

Today, I'm living two minutes from here:

The Thames

Miles of river, and (being now located twenty minutes' walk from work) pots of leisure time to row (or, at a pinch, read) in. It's not quite as pretty as the Wey, and smells less inviting, and has greater risk of colliding with misplaced and confused whales, but I'm rather excited about the combination of having proper water to row on and the necessary time to row in.

Thursday, 1 November 2007

Is it possible... miss commuting?

A couple of days ago, I wouldn't have thought so, yet today I found myself questioning whether I'll still be churning through books after I no longer spend hours every day commuting.

I was also most tickled by the guard on the train back from Wimbledon this evening, who took it upon himself to request politely "Would passengers please stay awake at all times during your journeys, as having to get a taxi at this time of night is very costly. Again, would all passengers please endeavour to remain awake at all times. Thankyou."

Bless 'im.

Monday, 29 October 2007

Demob happiness

Everything about today's commute went wrong. Trains from Portsmouth had been cancelled due to over-running engineering works. The train that eventually put in an appearance at Guildford was packed. I spent the next half an hour trying to read Harry Potter whilst not sitting on the rather put-out gentleman who seemed to think that just because he'd been on the train early enough to get a seat, that somehow entitled him to a premium amount of personal space. But anyhow, a most unpleasant journey it was. For once, I was heartily pleased to see Clapham Junction loom out of the mist. But the connecting train wasn't there. So I was late to work. Again. Coming home, my first train was late. I subsequently missed the connecting train. My second train seemed to get lost in the short shuffle from Waterloo to Clapham, turning up half an hour late, and I then missed the connection at Woking. I eventually got home two and a half hours after leaving work. It's a distance of 25 miles as the crow flies. That's an average speed of 10 miles an hour. Pitiful, isn't it?

For once, though, I didn't actually care. I was taking a perverse enjoyment in the lateness of the trains and the extreme rubbishness of the commute. You see, I've found somewhere to live that is within walking distance of work, and I'm moving this weekend. This means I have only eight more rubbish commutes (and five in which I need to complete Harry Potter prior to the Inaugural Meeting of the Inapub Bookclub on Thursday). I am enormously pleased. And, whilst it's hardly a pleasant walk, being a little over a mile along a traffic-choked main road, it will be wonderful after five months of commuting. In fact, I can't wait to move. I will have evenings again. I can set my alarm clock later than 7am. Later than 8am. If I'm having a bad day, later than 9am. And have heating. And, with a minute's walk to the river, it's entirely possible I can row again, as well*. In fact, I might even get to the stage of not actively loathing everything about London with the sort of passion only possible in someone who has been brought up with the unshakable conviction that it is right and proper to flee from the South East to Yorkshire in search of a better quality of life. I might even enjoy doing London things.

But it's possible that I might just the teensiest bit miss living in a crazy house in scary woodland with suspected axe-murdering pseudo midgets, a feline ginger sex-pest, a poorly toilet-trained siamese bully and a larceny-loving overgrown lap dog...


*Having checked my nearest rowing clubs, it turns out that the captain of the women's squad at the club a mile from the new pad is someone I used to row with in a former life. Rowing is a small, small world.

Saturday, 27 October 2007


Having rather unfortunately written my car off a few weeks ago in a misunderstanding with the laws of physics, I needed to indulge in a spot of car hunting. I was somewhat horrified to discover (upon having contorted my frame into a Fiesta which at first sight looked alright) that my long gangly arms do not fit sufficiently within the confines of the car to be able to turn the steering wheel, assuming that, like the rest of the population, I prefer to drive my car with the door closed. The sales lass, who I think may have been a bit new, unhelpfully suggested I leave the window permanently open to provide a bit of elbow room. Hello? This is the UK. It gets cold here. I drive long distances. I do not fancy zipping along the M1 at 2am with the window open in January. No thanks. Not being amenable to the adaptation suggestion, I therefore find myself in the position of having been designed out of owning one of the UK's most popular small cars. I feel something of an outcast, snubbed and ignored.

I was relating this in an idle and increasingly silly conversation with Stray the other day, in which I was complaining bitterly about having been disbarred from owning a popular car by virtue of being been well-fed and having a pair of (originally) tall parents and conditions conducive to growth, including plenty open space for me to "grow into". It occurred to me that perhaps had my parents taken measures to control my growth, for example, by stopping feeding me, or giving me some understanding that there were situations in which being a bit taller might be a disadvantage, I might be less gangly than I am today. There was some strand of logic to this, which if I recall rightly, goes as follows...

Goldfish in a tiny pond stay tiny. Given a bigger home, they turn into sharks, or grow a bit bigger, something like that. (I was never particularly good at biology.) This may also work with people. I grew up in Yorkshire, with plenty space at home and around the city. I got fed with the expectation of growing. I grew to be a decent, perhaps excessive size for a human, and could probably have made a half-capable coal miner. Stray, on the other hand, did most of her growing in an area which is noted rather more for the density of its population than for its vast tracts of open space. She is rather beautifully adapted for life in a metropolis, fits into public transport with no legroom issues, could squeeze into the spaces between commuters on the tube, and at a pinch, could probably slot into an overhead luggage rack. Open spaces appear larger, streets feel less claustrophobic, and yet she still has sufficient height to reach the oyster card readers. This all seems a bit too handy to be an accident. I wondered if there might actually be more to out respective adaptation to our environments. So perhaps if you don't get exposed to vast open spaces on a regular basis and have a calorific intake in keeping with the expectation of being small, you stay small. Perhaps Stray isn't a genetic mutant. Is it possible that she was Bonsai-ed through growing up in an overcrowded (read underspaced) city?

This might not be as ridiculous as it sounds. Take Japan, the home of Bonsai. Japan needs to Bonsai trees because it doesn't have enough space for proper trees such as giant redwoods, oaks, or even the humble beech. There's barely enough living space for its population (at least in the bits of the country geologically suitable for development), and consequently homes are compact (estate agent speak for small). This is the nation who came up with the concept of the capsule hotel, otherwise described as a chest of drawers in which people can sleep off the worst excesses of their night out without the wife finding out. They have lots of people, not much space, and the obvious answer to prevent stress from overcrowding is to make everyone smaller. Have you been to Japan? They have effectively Bonsai-ed the entire nation...

There's also evidence of the reverse effect. Think Scandinavia. Lots of space. Loads of herring protein. Not many people. The result? Tall people. Or, for a further example, Canada. Masses of open space. Plenty moose to eat. Big abodes. Massive, hulking people.

I think a sufficient case has been made for further study of this phenomenon to be justified, and am considering the uses to which this knowledge could be put. Following the rationale of my earlier post in which I made the case for a selective breeding programme to reduce the average size of a person, it occurs to me that we can take the next step and encourage the minaturisation of the selectively-bred short people by bonsai-ing them.

And for the rest of the weekend, I'm off house-hunting in the capital, where I shall no doubt find myself wishing to be rather smaller than I presently am. Mind, if moving to a gardenless shoebox means the turd of commuting is removed from my life (at least in its present changing-trains-at-Clapham-Junction form), and if the place comes with some form of heating, I'll be ecstatic.

Wednesday, 24 October 2007

The Difference

In this case, the difference between Scientists and Normal People.

Yesterday I spent the day talking quality. That time of year had come when we needed to expose our records and documentation to the quality auditor (a very exciting man by the name of Bernard), and provide sufficient evidence that not only does our quality management system rock the big quality stick*, we actually follow the rules we created. As you can imagine, it was a high-adrenaline and fun-filled seven hours, culminating in the observation by the auditor that our system was good enough to beguile anyone*.

So one way or another, I had an excess of creativity needing an outlet. This usually manifests itself in idle and wandering thoughts. For example, it occurred to me that the reason Bounty bars (the chocolate-covered coconut confection) come in two pieces is probably that, were it a single item, the chocolate covering would be insufficient to support the weight of the crumbly coconut filling if a consumer chose to hold the bar by one end, with the bar oriented horizontally. What I had always supposed was just an arty design may well be a necessity given the thickness of the product's chocolate coating.

As a second example, inspired by my observation that whilst my nostrils point downwards, Ruby (the dog) is the owner of a fine nose with nostrils pointing forwards. I wondered whether this (front-facing nostrils) might be a better design. Were I designing a human from scratch, I think I'd probably put my chemical sensors on the back of my hands. The advantages of this design over the usual facial location are that:

  • It would be much easier than craning over items to get a good sniff;
  • On packed tubes and trains, you could just put your nostrils in your pockets, keeping them well away from stale armpits. This would be a vast improvement. One could go further and invest in pleasant-smelling items for pockets (e.g. herbs), such that tube journeys could potentially smell good. Either way, freeing up the nostrils to be rapidly relocated strikes me as a being A Good Thing.

Stray commented that it's not exactly normal behaviour to spend one's leisure time thinking about the material properties of popular confectionery and whether the design of successful products is optimal. I have a niggling concern that she may be right. Regardless, I was reminded of The Difference, one of my favourite cartoons from the genius at xkcd. Go have a look. Go on.

I was am a scientist. I identify with the need to repeat the experiment, to establish a pattern, and perhaps later to understand it. A single observation would never be enough for me. I would electrocute myself once more, and perhaps a third time for good measure. Not because I particularly enjoy inflicting pain on myself (despite my erging exploits, good description here, btw), just to check that the world does indeed react in a consistent manner to being 'prodded' in a particular way. And then I might try to repeat the experiment with/on an independent observer. Again, this is not because I particularly relish inflicting pain on others, far from it.

Having said that, were Bernard around, I might consider a special investigation into the effects of applying high voltage across auditors...

*These items are direct quotations from the day. Oh, we had fun...

Saturday, 20 October 2007

Simple Question

Which direction is she spinning in? (Click image for animated version...)

Answers on a postcard, please.

Image shamelessly borrowed from this article in The Herald Sun.

Thursday, 18 October 2007


I feel I am regressing. My routine here has been to:

  • Wake early;
  • Go to the gym;
  • Have a large breakfast;
  • Work;
  • Have a large lunch;
  • Work;
  • Eat fruit;
  • Go to the gym;
  • Work;
  • Have a large dinner;
  • Work;
  • Go to the bar;
  • Sleep.
Repeat cycle each week day.

It's just like being a student again... Well, OK, there may be a few minor differences. As a student I spent more time at the gym, or actually rowing on real water instead of beating a machine, spent less time at work, slightly more time playing cards with my neighbour, and usually managed to squeeze in a takeaway from Ahmed* between the bar and getting ample sleep. My conclusion is that even the perk parts of working for a living do not stand comparison with being a student.

Does anyone out there need a spare research student...?

*Ahmed was the purveyor of the finest kebabs in the city. All hail the Special Chips.

Tuesday, 16 October 2007

A date with an erg

This is an erg*:

It's a standard bit of kit for rowers, used particularly heavily in winter months when insufficient daylight prevents us from getting out on the water and we need something else to approximiate rowing on. I have a love-hate relationship with these things. I have sweated on them. Set personal bests on them. Achieved on them. Recited the periodic table on them (forwards, backwards and both up and down groups), not because I'm a complete nerd, but because for some reason I was required to learn it for my university exams. I have worked off hangovers on them. Vomited on them. Blacked out on them. Replaced the pain of being dumped with the physical torture of them. Failed on them. I have collapsed off them, I have cursed them and I have feared them. Ergs have caused me much pain since my first acquaintance with them a decade ago.

Rowing on water, particularly in crew boats, demands attention to detail, a never-ending quest for the perfect stroke - a balletic interplay of balance, timing and the controlled application of explosive force. Erging, by contrast, has had much of the complexity designed out of the motion, particularly with the removal of the need for fine dynamic balance, and provides an almost perfect environment to unleash one's base and ugly competitive streak. In addition, rowing on water is subject to unpredictability borne of the whims of Nature, including flooding, strong currents, high winds, choppy waters. Erging provides reproducible conditions. A poor performance cannot be blamed on conditions. Illness notwithstanding, everything is within my own control. I may have been weak. I may have given in. I can't blame a poor performance on bad weather. And good performances are not down to luck.

I think you have to be a particular type of person to be seduced by the concept that you can be solely in control of your own performance. It suggests, perhaps requires, a level of arrogance that I would find unpalatable in others, but which I con myself into believing is a virtue. A mantra we bandied around a lot in college was "Pain is temporary. Disappointment lasts forever."** The subtext is that you make a choice to accept disappointment if you fail to choose sufficient pain.

What with commuting, I haven't erged recently. In fact, before Sunday, I think it may be a good five months since I applied myself to one of these monsters. But I have missed them terribly. I miss the sense of having actually worked for something***.

I was therefore rather delighted to discover four rowing machines in the gym here, but it was with some trepidation that I approached an erg on Sunday, recalling the sickness generally felt after a session. I did a pick drill to start off (standard rowing warm-up exercise and handy for re-establishing technique), a couple of minutes light rowing, then a power test - three strokes to build intensity then five strokes at maximum power and speed. Unsurprizingly, my maximum power was a bit lot lower than the last time I did one of these tests. And it seemed to take a lot more out of me, as well. Suddenly the concept of just doing half an hour on the erg seemed rather more daunting than it had a few minutes previously.

Instead, I did a 2km erg. My personal best is a respectable-ish 7:27. I managed 7:58. There are persons of pensionable age with better test scores than that. That 2km test erg hurt a lot. Discovering that I could barely beat a lady old enough to be my grandmother hurts rather more. Next time, I would do better, be in more pain, not be so weak. Dammit - it was this sort of resolution to improve that got me hooked on erging in the first place.

I did a half hour this evening. It hurt after five minutes. I found myself reciting the periodic table, as much to numb the boredom and block the pain as anything else. Or at least I tried to recite it, but discovered I could no longer do this****. But I did manage to "empty the tank", or thoroughly exhaust myself, so was roundly chuffed. It also made me feel entitled to indulge in the soft cheeses at dinner.

Anyway, I must get to bed. I need my beauty sleep in advance of a date with an erg tomorrow...


*An erg is actually a unit of energy. The machine is more correctly called an ergometer, but back in my student days, it was a waste of life to use four syllables when one would do the job.

**We had others, too. "Bleed through your eyes", "Feel your bones crack", "Nurture the pain", "A bit of pain never hurt anyone", and so on, but I feel a bit self-conscious shouting those ones to myself whilst erging.

***Don't get me wrong, I work. I have a job. I participate in meetings and wave my arms in a reasonably effective fashion. But I fail to accept that sitting on one's posterior for vast chunks of the day can be 'work'. I'm not sure what I would call it instead, but 'work' suggests some expenditure of energy is required, in the 'work is the integral of force with respect to displacement' definition.

****This resulted in my taking ten minutes earlier this evening to sketch the thing out on paper. I cannot recall six elements (rare earths, admittedly, but still something I should remember. I am disturbed (take that in what sense you will)).

Sunday, 14 October 2007

Back to school

As part of my ongoing education in matters consulting, for the next five days I am on a residential course learning about Managing Successful Programmes (sounds a barrel of laughs, doesn't it?). Exam-success-dependent, I shall end up as a Managing Successful Programmes Practitioner (MSPP - though I would have been keener to do the course if they made the acronym something like MSP-ACE (Accredited Consultant Expert), or STRAPLINE (STRAtegic Practitioner of Leading INstitutional Evolution), or CATWOMAN* (one for you to try at home...).

Acronyms** aside (which incidentally from my past experience seems to be the central plank of any programme, project or initiative (that's PPI to those in the know)), I'd be keen to find out what these successful programmes are. I've never worked on a successful programme. I'd like to, but it's unlikely ever to happen. Organisations, at least the public sector organisations I find myself working in, tend not to employ consultants when everything is hunky-dory, as we cost too much and if it ain't broken, the last thing on anyone's mind is to make a change. Or to do anything. At all. On the other hand, if it's broken, call in the consultants, pay them for a while and then wind down the programme and Hey-Presto, we have a scapegoat. It's all part of the service.

So, having established that I'm never likely to see a programme which is successful, I'd better learn how to make unsuccessful programmes less broken. So, I'd actually like to be on a course that teaches me how to fix underperforming programmes. But I'm 'Here' now, so I'll get on with whatever's on the agenda.


'Here' is a Grade II listed manor house in Oxfordshire. The building is, from the outside, rather lovely. Having got as far as inside, I am now rather disturbed. One of my first observations was that I had to pass an initiative test just to find the (unsigned) reception. My second observation was that the reception appeared to be staffed by a giant genetic hybrid - half gnome, half squirrel. It made the process of checking in not quite as smooth as I would have liked.

'Here' has rather dated decor. The stuffed deer hanging precariously from a wall is a little out of keeping with current social tastes. However, in perfect keeping with the deer is that which passes for the bar, and which is lovingly entitled "The Gun Room". The main house is overwhelmed by dark, wooden interiors, and it parades that reassuringly authentic though rather offputting musty smell. Air conditioning has obviously not made it as far as 'Here'. And I'm convinced I'll stumble across a stuffed tiger at some point...

And then there was dinner. My starter, the Pink Duck Salad with Orange and Spinach did contain exactly that. And also croutons, which were fine. And chunks of parmesan, which was less so. However, it was the sweet chilli sauce which really killed it. The fish course appeared to have missed the attentions of the fillet knife. I spent most of the time trying to discreetly remove bits of haddock skeleton from between my teeth. I've found in the past that this is rarely the best way to ingratiate oneself with new acquaintances.

The steak, well... There's well done, there's medium, there's rare, there's raw, there's still chewing the cud, and then there's so rare I'm unsure whether its actually been born. I have a slight suspicion I may have been served up an uncooked bovine fetus. In an extremely uncharacteristic act of food squeamishness, I didn't eat very much of the 'steak'.

Dessert was to die for... I mean, it was good. Properly good. Rum-truffle-chocolate-mousse-with-gooey-lovely-clotted-cream-sort-of-good. Yum.

After dessert, I'm willing to recommend this place to anyone, provided they have no sense of smell and don't find infanticide on a plate too offputting... Now I'm off to discover the gym facilities. I may be some time in working off the chocolate mousse...

*Catwoman is on the mind at the moment. I have a half-colleague (same programme, different employers) who keeps suggesting I turn up to work in a Catwoman costume. I don't have a problem with this, as we both see it as a bit of a laugh, but following a conversation with another half-colleague who overheard, it seems that others find it unacceptable. Is it me - should this be a problem? Or are some people just desperate to stab this guy in the back and get him done for sexual harrassment??

**I wrote a paper a few months ago and had been careful to follow the rather precise house style of the organisation I was working in. Amongst other things, this included a requirement to write each acronym in full on the first appearance in the text, to include it in the table of acronyms and abbreviations and to use the acronym form on all subsequent occurrences. Having taken great pains to do this, I appeared to exasperate a reviewer (an employee of said organisation), who was no doubt very familiar with the house style. Following my introduction of "...the Transition Environmental Map (TEM)", she had written, "Why does everything need a TLA?" Not having previously come across the use of TLA in this organisation, I checked the corporate dictionary, glossary, acronym list and searched for other occurrences on the intranet. It didn't appear anywhere. It was only several days later that I recalled a previous use of TLA as the acronym for "Three Letter Acronym". The irony...

Perhaps they're smarter than they first appear...

I took the trouble to watch the pigeons at Clapham Junction*.

I pitched up at about half-nine on Friday morning. I had just missed my connecting train, and were it not for the pigeons, the platform would have been empty.

The two pigeons were having a rather pleasant time, it seemed - scratching around for bits of flaky pastry from croissants, sausage rolls, pain au chocolate... all standard commuting breakfast items. They had plenty to be getting on with, cleaning up after the rush-hour commuters. And to keep them healthy, the occasional kind-hearted commuter had thrown them an apple core. As people oozed out of the footbridge and underpass onto the platform, the pigeons contentedly waddled further towards the edges of the platform, eventually heading beyond the barriers which prevent the commuters from straying into any regions for which they have no need of entry, keeping the pigeons safe from the feet of the otherwise absorbed commuters.

At some point, the density of commuters on the platform got too much for the pigeons and they sought refuge from the heaving masses by perching above them on the roof joists. This was the point at which I became rather jealous of the pigeons. Not only do commuters bring them tasty morsels every morning and evening (and, I presume, throughout the day as well), they also present them with fairly static targets on which to crap from a great height.

Yes, I think life would be pretty good as a Clapham Junction Pigeon. They have a choice of nine platform roof structures to fly between if they need a change of scenery or bit of exercise, and with at least 120 trains an hour and associated commuters, they should get a different course served up twice a minute. All of this and the luxury of a roof over their heads. And, of course, they almost certainly indulge in a bit of schadenfreude. At 7am, they stare down at the bleary-eyed Mr Jones on his way to ten hours in a god-forsaken office, eyeing up the coffee and pastry he bought for a fiver, the discarded remnants of which they will lay claim to once the train has collected its cargo. At 6pm**, Mr Jones returns with a coffee and the sandwich he bought for lunch but didn't get time to eat to feed the pigeons once more and provide them with something to aim at when all that food gets too much for them to contain.

I, meanwhile, follow Mr Jones onto the train heading for the office and wonder whether, perhaps, maybe, it could be ventured to suggest that the pigeons are having a pretty good time at our not inconsiderable expense...?


*For those of you who have never had the pleasure, Clapham Junction is Britain's busiest railway station. Wikipedia tells me that there are about 125 trains an hour passing through the station at off-peak times, distributed between 16 platforms (numbered 2 to 17).

**Bearing in mind it takes Mr Jones half an hour to get to work from this point and the same time on the return journey.

Thursday, 11 October 2007


Trousers has for some time been Bloggen ein totes Pferd. I hadn't fully appreciated the depths of blogging despair which the gentle Trousers had seen fit to plumb, until he used valuable space on his equine-scented blog to present me with an award. I am now officially a maker of smiles. Fancy that: me - a jack-of-all-trades public sector parasite consultant, making people smile. Well, I never! I'm pleased to be able to make someone, somewhere smile.

It seems that it is obligatory to make a speech, so mine is below. Please note that to fulfil the conditions of the award, I am wearing a posh frock as I write, on stage and blubbing uncontrollably.

OK, so I've cheated a bit. Instead of delivering a speech of flowing prose, I thought I'd make a list. Hence, I present all the things which I can recall have made me smile today:
  1. The scent of the lillies on the air when I got up this morning;
  2. The cobwebs heavy with raindrops which spanned the railings alongside the footpath to the station;
  3. The near perfect timing of the walk to the station to have just sufficient time to buy a ticket and jog to the platform before the train arrived;
  4. The wonderful turns of phrase in the book I'm currently reading;
  5. The scones in the canteen being warm and making an excellent and tasty substitute breakfast;
  6. My opinion seriously counting at work;
  7. The fantastically terrible pink tie sported by a colleague;
  8. Having an idea which was valued by the same colleague (for whom I have a great deal of professional respect);
  9. My opinion counting again at work (twice in one day - this is a record for this programme);
  10. Arriving home to find a meal ready and waiting;
  11. This post.

So, no prizes for guessing that the prize for making me smile goes to Casdok.


P.S. Discovery of the day: Stray appeared to be trying to excavate her ear, complaining of a painful pimple located deep inside the vessel. Having previously suffered a similar affliction myself, I was of course full of sympathy, and helpfully suggested that cutting the ear off would probably be the most effective way of relieving the pain. Could this be the reason for Van Gogh's self-amputation?

Monday, 8 October 2007

Trying times

The woman sat next to me on the tube this evening was apparently enjoying some amazingly potent cheese and onion flavoured chewing gum. The assault on my olfactory sensors was made all the worse by her inability to keep her mouth closed whilst chewing. The otherwise short journey to Wimbledon has never seemed so arduous...

Saturday, 6 October 2007

All the lovely gifts...

After writing off my car last weekend, I have received:

  • One week off work;
  • A tub of Extremely Chocolatey mini chocolate roll things;
  • A box of Fair Trade filter coffee things;
  • Two tins of posh soup;
  • Some rather nice and posh toffee chocolate biscuits;
  • Two boxes of oaty, fruity things masquerading as biscuits;
  • A box of chocolates;
  • A free lunch;
  • Lots of lovely hugs and kisses;
  • Loads of offers of "Anything I can do...";
  • A beautiful bouquet of lilies.

And they're hugely, hugely appreciated.

Newly discovered...

Without further ado, my discoveries of the week:

  1. When a motorcyclist appears out of the blue to headbutt your windscreen at high velocity, it really is very much like it looks on the advert*;
  2. Even under conditions of shock, my concerns are attuned primarily to ensuring the laws of physics have been maintained rather than ensuring the well-being of my fellow homo sapiens. Rather worryingly, after the collision, my first thoughts were along the lines of "It looks like a motorcyclist has just wrapped himself around my car... and disappeared. How on earth did that happen?" rather than something along the lines of "I wonder whether that chap is badly hurt?";
  3. When a young and spotty estate agent turns up late to a viewing, then leaves me to wander around in the rain whilst he shows the property to the other interested parties (who also showed up half an hour late) and does not see fit to apologise, I become disproportionately incensed by people who can't keep appointments and don't see fit to give you the courtesy of a call to let you know they'll be late;
  4. Estate agents are quite possibly a separate species from the rest of us (but refer to Point 8);
  5. If you put a hundred people and a room and make them dance for two hours, the room becomes very hot and sweaty and rather unpleasant. This is particularly true after 9pm when the doors of the facility have to remain closed to prevent any wayward strains reaching the delicate ears of the local residents;
  6. Some of my colleagues really do care about my well-being;
  7. Cops are really rather good at doing an interesting mix of practicality and understanding - a cop friend making a home visit brought me biscuits, chocolate, and alcohol to cheer me up after writing off my car in afore-mentioned motorcycle incident and, because she'd been warned my house had no heating, also brought two tins of soup in case I needed something hot and warming. Awwwww....;
  8. Used car sales types share only 70% of their DNA with the rest of humanity. The rest of it appears to be common to woodlice, snakes, and other things that shelter under stones;
  9. Power steering and central locking is all rather nice, isn't it?

Next week I hope to discover many less shocking, incensing and expensive things...

*No motorcyclists were seriously harmed in the making of this post

Thursday, 27 September 2007

The future's bright... and small

I have alluded in previous posts to how my life is over-run with small things. It really is. I live with short people. On the Midget-Human-Giant spectrum, Stray is marginally taller than a legal midget (and thus a super-midget, verging on the sub-human). Badger is short for a human but rather tall for a badger, lying in the sub-human to human zone. (I suppose there is a clue in the species...) I am most certainly not short - nudging on 6ft, give or take, depending on how long it's been since I got out of bed, and the height of my heels. I fall somewhere between super-human and sub-giant territory.

I like being tall. I like the fact that, more often than not, my nostrils are well clear of other people's armpits on packed tubes and trains. This is usually a good thing, except when I find myself 'facing' under-heighted men whose heads are closer to my chest than the normal rules of decorum would allow. I also like the fact that the grey hairs which are beginning to sprout on the top of my head are out of sight of most other people.

I've observed aspects of being short which are less than ideal. Stray can barely reach the pedals in her car. This strikes me as A Thing Which Is Not Good.

I am tall enough to be able to reach a clothes lines strung high enough to hang bedlinen from without it engaging with passing dogs without having to jump and catch the line at full stretch.

I might be tempted to feel slightly superior, but I am instead rather jealous of my semi-pint housemates (see, I have to insult them at every opportunity to get over the sense of inadequacy caused my unnecessary height, mass and volume.)

Here's why:

  • They buy children's clothes and pay no VAT;
  • The loss of human functionality incurred on shrinking a human appears to be extremely nonlinear in favour of the midgets;
  • They fit in a normal size bed without feet hanging out the end or head crushed against the headboard;
  • They can live in tiny spaces and not get claustrophobic;
  • They can't see the dust on top of the fridge;
  • They can walk through the 'garden' without danger of being decapitated by low-hanging vines and other vegetation of horizontally-orientated growth;
  • They can walk on the roof without fear of it collapsing;
  • They have oodles of leg room on even the most cramped of commuter trains;
  • They weigh less, consume less fuel to transport, and require less food to sustain, being inherently more ecologically sustainable;
  • They are less likely to damage extraneous limbs or graze knuckles when climbing up stairs;
  • They have less far to fall;
  • They look sort of sweet, in the way that the next iteration of unfeasibly small laptops and mobiles look sweet.

Damn them...

On the other hand:
  • I do not have to perform minor athletic miracles every time I hang out my washing;
  • I can fully utilise top shelves;
  • My arms are sufficiently long to be able to put duvet covers on duvets unaided;
  • I can usually reach the loo roll, regardless of the ingenuity of the last visitor to the facility in replacing it after use;
  • I can see over the counter at the chippy;
  • And over the dashboard of my car;
  • People do not feel the need to tell me when they have encountered someone shorter than me.

On balance, though, I think the short people have it. They're certainly better for the planet. Perhaps a selective breeding programme should be established in the interests of a sustainable future...

Thursday, 20 September 2007

Pixie's posers

Over at the blog of the same name, Prada Pixie posed some questions. I've answered them.



1. What is your all time favourite book, from childhood, as an adult?
The BFG. I don't think I have an all-time favourite adult book. I think I lost the ability to form opinions when I came into prolonged contact with civil servants.

2. All time favourite movie as above?
All movies were terrifying as a child (the cinema was dark and contained odd people), and now, well, I don't know. Amelie was sweet.

3. Favourite type of chocolate, and how much of it do you eat a week?
Green & Black's Maya Gold. Maybe a bar every other month.

4. Favourite drink, non alcoholic and alcoholic?
Tea. Beer.

5. Where is your all time best holiday destination?
The inner reaches of my imagination. I go there many times a day during my micro-holidays. So much more fun than being holed up in an office, and so much quicker to get to than anywhere requiring a visit to Heathrow....

6. Where is your dream holiday destination?
I quite fancy crossing the Atlantic by Tall Ship. That's not really a destination, though, is it? I'll conveniently ignore that and hope no-one noticed... Oops, did I say that out loud??

7. Which is the best Beatles track of all time?
I am the Nerd God Walrus. Evidently.

8. What are you most proud of having achieved (having children doesn't count)
Winning Blades in Eights with lots of my family around for the celebrations.

9. What would you want for your last supper ever?(assuming it's food you like now and not liquidized mush when you are 90!)
Lamb stew like my mum and her mum (and probably every female ancestor) make/made it.

10.How old were you when you had your first snog, name of snoggee if you dare?
5. Ben Fenwick.

11.Do you have an unfulfilled ambition?
Yes. More than one.

12.If so what is it?
Well, probably the most pressing one is to get more leisure time.

13.What yer gonna do about achieving it?
Retire. But not for a while.

14.Describe the outfit that best describes you as you are.
No outfit. Really. Bare skin, all the way.

15.If you were on Desert Island Discs which one piece of music would you want to keep?
Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings. The essential melancholy to my sanguinity.

16. And what would the luxury item be, as in no use at all, on a desert island?
My violin together with all its accompanying gubbins and violin-friendly conditions.

17. Outside of your partner, Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Beyonce Knowles, J-lo who do you fantasise about?
Hmm. Sir Thomas More was a bit of a hero, but rather difficult to fantasise about due to separation of head from body and five hundred years removal.... Oh, OK. A tall, dark handsome gentleman who I refuse to name.

18.Describe the contents of your purse/wallet, i.e. receipts/ bus tickets/ plastic you never use/ and if you're lucky enough money. (English use of the word purse here).
Library cards for my alma mater, a photocopier card for the Radcliffe Science Library, a credit card, debit card, driver's licence, ye olde donor card, half-used book of postage stamps, four days of expenses receipts, list of telephone extensions for my colleagues, probably a few reward cards, some coins, etc.

19.Outside of the family what item would you save from the inferno?
Are housemates items? I'd probably save them. One over each shoulder. They can't weigh that much... Assuming they managed to get themselves out, I'd take my fiddle.

20.How much would you like me to stop now?
This much.

Tuesday, 18 September 2007

Geek? Nerd? or Supreme Nerd God?

Heck. It's true. I now am not only a Geek. I am a Nerd, too. In fact, I am The Supreme Nerd God. This doesn't fit well with my atheism...

DJ very kindly left a challenge on her blog. I appear to be the nerdiest person in the universe.

I am nerdier than 100% of all people. Are you a nerd? Click here to find out!

No, really. No-one has a higher Nerd Score.

And I answered all those questions honestly, too. Somebody please Help Me....


Post Script

Having suspended my belief for long enough to pretent to accept that the pigeon IS naked (I would have said so were it plucked, but it isn't and this caused me no end of existential angst: "if I cannot accept the pigeon to be naked, can I truly be a nerd?"), I can now reveal my nerdotype: says I'm a Cool Nerd Queen. What are you? Click here!

I feel compromised on the subject of pigeon nudity...

Sunday, 16 September 2007

Great Auntie Nellie would have had a fit...

...But first, I would like to thank Pixie for the rather splendid "Nice Matters" award. It adds a much-needed dash of pink to my blog. I will make some nominations when I find the criteria (anyone know what these are??)

It reminds me of Great Auntie Nellie's crocheted pillowcase. She probably wouldn't have grown flowers in a shoe. Far too practical for that.

Back to Auntie Nellie and the fit I suppose she would have had. It was a strange sequence of events...

I was leaving a perfectly innocent comment on Pixie's blog (a journal which regularly causes my ears to turn a funny shade of crimson), which just so happened to require the use of the past participle of "crochet". As a quick check on usage, I typed "crocheted" into Google. It rapidly appeared that "crocheted" did indeed appear to be in common usage (or as common as you'll find for a handicraft which is on the endangered list). I finished my comment and published it and was just closing some tabs when I noticed, not very far down the results, something which caught my eye:

For your own safety and comfort, prudes, the easily offended, young children, people who look like young children but aren't, people who think they are badgers, badgers who think they are people, and those allergic to acrylic fibres should look away now.

Badger, that includes you. Read no further. I'll post something more Badger-friendly soon.

--- home of the crocheted vulva and other vagina ...
I make and sell crocheted vulvas. My website does not contain nudity (aside from a single artist's rendering of female anatomy) ... - 2k - Cached - Similar pages


Well, that was a search result not to be ignored. Having just got back from a weekend at the Hotel Parental where I feel that I somewhat abused the facilities (free board and lodgings for myself and a couple of Swiss, home grown plums, car washed, and a date and walnut loaf thrown in for free), I feel the need to get a present for my mother. Being a sexual health professional, I thought she might find a crocheted vulva useful as a teaching aid for the young and impressionable. Well, OK, that was the best excuse I could think of for having a good poke around the site. With boggling mind, I set about a thorough investigation.  In so doing, I learned that somewhere in the world, someone makes muff muffs and assorted, hand-crocheted genitalia-themed novelties. It is possible to make a living from muffs like these??

Girls, I implore you all (and my mother would no doubt do likewise) to keep it clean...

I am Spartacus

With thanks to trousers' recent post for prompting this memory.

Way back when I was just finishing my school days, a bunch of chums were thinking about how to make our final school assembly memorable. One lad, Tim, was rather keen on recreating the "I am Spartacus" scene. He had carefully gauged support for this idea, found that it was generally positive, and had lined up in the region of ten people with an agreed order to follow his kick off to the proceedings. Other people had confirmed that they would contribute if Tim led the way. It was hoped that the rest of year who were not in the know of what would happen would get the idea and spontaneously join in, until the whole year group had identified themselves as Spartacus in a glorious show of unity and solidarity, concepts which were strongly encouraged at my school.

How it would appear...

It promised to be a rather splendid and jolly caper. Our school assembly hall was an impressive thing with seating for, I would think, about 400 people. It had a balcony which swept from one side to the other in a graceful curve, and which would make the perfect location for a recreation of the famous scene. Picture it from the perspective of the teachers at the front of the hall - shout upon shout of "I am Spartacus", emanating from the fine body of students assembled in front and above them as they stood up to be counted. It would be memorable, indeed. The general consensus was that this would be a good and harmless giggle, and for the most part, we were good and harmless students.

The day finally came. A few hundred people were assembled in the hall. I had spent most of the assembly glancing at Tim (who had worn his red jacket making him easy to pick out from the gathered masses) and his line-up of cronies, not wanting to miss the moment that would be talked of for years to come, and would put our year on a par with those present for the famous flour assembly, forever remembered in the collective consciousness of the school and which still causes teachers there to glance nervously at the grille above their heads before speaking*.

By very nearly the end of what appeared at first sight to be a dull and totally forgettable assembly in which the teachers present no doubt said all the right sorts of things about moving on to a new stage in life and wishing us all good luck in our A level exams, there was a slight pause as one teacher finished his oratory and another one shuffled into place to begin, adopting his traditional posture of staring fixedly at his shoes with his fists jammed into his pockets.

A sharp intake of breath was heard. Then a flurry of activity, followed by the cry, "I AM SPARTACUS". Across the balcony, Tim was standing with his chest puffed out, arms flung wide and with a triumphant, if slightly wild, look in his eyes. All heads turned. In the few seconds of perfect silence that followed (which I recall passed almost excruciatingly slowly) Tim's expression metamorphosed into relief at having got this game started, then expectation for his number two to declare his hand, then hope, then beseeching, followed by disbelief, and after maybe a second of silence had passed following his declaration of Spartacus-ness, his face settled into something between fear, embarassment and regret, as he realised that his number 2 would not in fact be declaring himself to be Spartacus, nor would anyone else, and he was left standing up, alone, the centre of attention, and looking rather silly. With all eyes in the hall now fixed on him, Tim had nothing more to say. He looked down to the stage to find the teachers staring up at him with that expression of disapproving non-surprize which teachers do so well. Thinking quickly of how to rescue the situation, Tim followed up his outburst with a rather sheepish "Er, thankyou..." and hastily resumed his seat. Thus the exercise to recreate one of the most famous scenes in cinematic history had reached a hasty and premature conclusion.


Total silence.

We all feared for Tim, almost able to hear the cogs whirring away in the headmaster's head, rapidly considering how best to respond to this disruption, to establish authority and punish the offender. Perhaps rather fortunately for Tim, the response was taken out of his hands.

Hesitantly at first then, as it became evident that no immediate coup de grace would be delivered from the stage, uncontrollably, the silence cracked into laughter. Lots of laughter. Massive fits and gales of laughter from everyone in the room. Everyone, except for Tim, whose face had gone the same colour as his jacket. The laughter continued for perhaps a couple of minutes, until we collectively realised the need to breathe. Once the last smatterings of laughter had died down, the assembly then continued without any reference to what had just occurred, continuing as it had begun, in totally forgettable fashion.

Spartacus never quite made it into the collective consciousness of the school, but thanks to Tim, those who were present still remember their last assembly.

*The famous flour assembly in which a bag of flour was suspended above the grille over the heads of the speakers' platform during a speech day. A candle was lit under a length of string supporting the bag shortly before the speech day started, allowing the perpetrators to watch the fine floury dust shower the speakers from the hall and escape the hastily organised search that followed.