Monday, 28 May 2007

The Laws of Mugs...

... the house rules governing the distribution of receptacles from which the tea is drunk.

The result of correctly applying the Laws of Mugs

I’d often wondered why Badger and Stray fail to drink tea when I make it. I don’t think it’s necessarily because I lack skill in assembling a reasonable mug of tea from its constituent ingredients. I have in fact been a practitioner of the noble art of “making the tea” in almost every organisation I have ever been a member of. I find it's great for increasing social cohesion, at least until you give someone the wrong mug. Fortunately, this is easy at work - we have around ten people in the office on any given day, and about fifty identical mugs. Making the tea is a doddle. There are no mug politics or complicated (verging on obsessive) laws to contend with. Home is a different matter...

There are three people in the house and, at the last muster, 11 mugs noted to be present in common circulation. Thus, without applying any rules or criteria, there are 990 combinations in which I could distribute mugs of tea between the three of us. 982 of those combinations would be wrong. Very, Very Wrong.

The characteristics of the eleven commonly-occuring mugs are provided in Table 1.

MugThicknessLip ?ShapeOwnerAssignment
KitKatThickNoStraightBadgerBadger 1
PinkThickYesNarrow BaseStrayBadger 2
FiftiesThickNoStraightStrayStray 1
Tea and ToastThinYesStraightStrayStray 2
DenbyUber-ThickYesBulbousWhy?Why? 1
SwirlyThickNoNarrow BaseWhy?Why? 2
SnowmanThinYesStraightWhy?Why? 3
100% (gold)ThickYesStraightStrayUnassigned
100% (yellow)ThickYesStraightStrayUnassigned
Great WhiteThickNoStraightStrayUnassigned
Small WhiteThinNoNarrow BaseStrayUnassigned

Table 1: The House Mugs

Disregarding myself and my mugs (the laws of which I know), from the remaining set of commonly-circulated mugs, there are 56 acceptable combinations of mugs for Badger and Stray, of which only 4 are acceptable, giving a new housemate only a 7% chance of stumbling across a correct outcome. It therefore seems a tad overdue that the Laws of Mugs were only explained to me today:

1) Stray drinks only from her own mugs;
2) Why? drinks only from her own mugs;
3) Badger drinks from a small set of thick mugs, which she may or may not own;
4) Stray values the stability of a mug - note that Pink mug has been given up to Badger as the base is of insufficient radius to provide Ruby-proofing;
5) White mugs and 100% mugs are not highly prized.

Thus: Badger drinks from the KitKat mug, or, if unavailable, the Pink mug. At a pinch, either white mugs would be OK. The 100% mugs might be OK, but would cause a feeling of unease. To add to the confusion, Stray doesn't care if someone else is drinking out of one of her mugs, provided she gets tea in one of her own preferred receptacles. However, she is fiecely protective of others' mugs and will, for example, berate the Badger for drinking from Swirly mug. I prefer the Denby mug but will drink tea from any mug (though now I understand the Laws, the KitKat mug is most certainly Out Of Bounds). I try to drink from the Swirly mug now and again - I received it as a present when I passed my viva and drinking from it makes me feel rather content, but if someone else want to drink from it (or the Denby mug for that matter), that is OK.

It may be worth noting that an outsider who is unfamilar with the Laws of Mugs and attempts to make tea has only a 0.8% chance of getting it right. Anyone visiting the house should therefore either bring with them a copy of this post, or leave the tea-making to the experts.

Sunday, 27 May 2007

The Pineapple of Disability

Having been a competent adult for nigh on, well, at least a few years now, I would have had trouble believing that I could find myself cripplingly disabled by something so seemingly innocuous as a pineapple*. I could, as I found out earlier today.

I bought the pineapple about a week ago. It had since sat in the kitchen, unmolested and was beginning to settle into its skin. I hesitated to do anything with it for two reasons:

1) I wasn’t in a pineapple mood;
2) I wasn’t sure what I was going to do to the pineapple.

Please don’t misunderstand me. There have several occasions in my life where I have taken a large kitchen knife to a pineapple, removed the skin, sliced the flesh and successfully eaten the fruit or used it in some food preparation (or else just frozen it in sticks – probably my favourite pineapple preparation). I just wasn’t sure how to articulate clearly and precisely what I was going to do, and without the vocabulary to describe my actions, I found myself paralysed, unable to approach or address the pineapple.

I never used to have difficulty with carrying out processes for which I had no clear verb with which to articulate my actions. On all previous occasions on which I have encountered a pineapple, I have dealt with the thing quickly and without issue. But today I could not bring myself to tackle this particular pineapple. Not until I had a verb which would describe to my satisfaction what I would do.

Stray suggested I should open the pineapple. This would have been fine had the pineapple been sitting in a tin. I can open tins. I can de-lid a tin. I can even, at a push, peel lids from tins. But the pineapple was not a tin. It was a pineapple. It didn’t have a well-defined entrance to open. I wasn’t going to open it. I suggested with some unease that I could peel it, or skin it. Or perhaps core it? This was looking like only a Google fight could resolve the issue.

I fought “open pineapple” and “peel pineapple”. Peel got 3520 hits. Open – 526. Could I shell the thing (156 hits)? Or maybe disembowel it (a big fat zero)? Core pineapple - 3300. Skin pineapple – 201. Dehusk? Zero. It looked like I would have to peel the pineapple. I wasn’t happy with that outcome.

Technology came to the rescue. We have a magic implement for removing edible bits of pineapple from their rind jackets. It’s a screw-type device, with a hollow core, the idea being that having sliced the crown (technical term for the sprouting green bit at the top) off the pineapple, you screw this thing in and through the pineapple, and pull out a pineapple slinky which you then slice and dice as you see fit. The reason I’m describing this two-piece plastic ensemble as magic when it’s clearly founded on very simple physical principles is because it de-disabled me. It abled me. Or should that be re-abled me? Enabled me? Whatever it did to me, I had an answer, a simple description of what I would do. Emboldened with the certainty of a verb, I went into the kitchen to unravel the pineapple.

*With the benefit of hindsight, I should have asked the all-knowing Google for a view on the contest, and would then have known that the pineapple would beat me. In a Google fight between “Pineapple” and “But Why?”, the pineapple won by 13.3 million to 8.8 million.

Friday, 25 May 2007

Who is Eric R. Pianka?

It appears I, alongside numerous others, am now "it". Stray has tagged me, rather unfortunately as Dr But Why? (more later...) to put my comfortable existence to one side and find out my deepest darkest needs.

Conceptually simple, the idea is to stick "[your name] needs" into Google and find out what it is that you're really missing. I tried my name, but it turns out I'm just not that needy. On the other hand, Dr But Why? has a range of interesting and hitherto unknown and quite unsuspected needs. Read on...

Dr But Why? needs:

  • to know Eric R. Pianka;
  • more serious involvement from a higher level of experienced business person;
  • a sermon on the Mount;
  • trainers to help them with everything from civil military training to combat training;
  • to be done;
  • to be pursued;
  • to understand the requirements which you are supposed to implement and the architecture which you are going to build to.

Erk! "Needs to be done"? Is that in the same way that one gets a dog or a cat "done"? I'm not sure I'm ready for that yet. "A sermon on the mount"? I've never been one for that religious stuff. "To be pursued", well, yes, that would be nice wouldn't it? Fresh flowers and boxes of chocolate are most welcome from all potential pursuers. "Requirements... and architecture..."? Sounds too much like work for me. And who is Eric R. Pianka?

Suppose I drop the formality and use my first name. I get the following results:

But needs:
  • to kick it up a notch;
  • new life;
  • work;
  • to shine in the crowded PPM market;
  • management talent;
  • polish;
  • fixing.

Sounds all very motivational poster, doesn't it? Management talent would be nice. Polish... as in the people or as in the liquid used to make things shiny? It's better than the bizarre needs of Dr But Why?...

Perhaps Why? would give better results?

Why? needs:
  • CityKicks and Why?;
  • constructive activities, physical exercise, and positive role models;
  • competition in the Polish power sector;
  • greenfood TCP/IP;
  • implicit instantion or an autotype keyword;
  • effective lobbyists in every state capitol, as well as Washington;
  • its own personality.

Why? needs its own personality? I think given the other needs that Why? has, my personality is highly likely to be unique.

Hrumph, it's started to rain. Looks like I shall stay "it" until we get to play outside again.

Thursday, 24 May 2007

Detail, detail

Flicking through my pictures from the weekend in Nimes, I was struck by some of the textures in the detail of the pictures. I'm not sure why I got so fixated by the details, perhaps now I'm more unwound I have more reserves of energy to get interested in detail again. Here are some of my favourites:

Bamboo. Lots of bamboo. This artistic arrangement of bamboo is a near perfect visualisation of a bad day at work!

More bamboo, this lot set free from its cage. We saw a LOT of bamboo...

Cool, refreshing water. Nigh on freezing water in the Cevennes mountains, north west of Nimes. My swim was most bracing.

Typical roof thatch in Saintes-Maries-de-la-mer.

Food from a stall in Aigues Mortes. Smelled wonderful.

These roof tiles near the central square in Nimes reminded me of an armadillo. Is it only me?

Tuesday, 22 May 2007

Nimes et environs

I'm all worded out from being back at work, so here are some images from a recent trip to visit a friend in Nimes.

Art, evidently

View from le Pont du Gard

Posh pads - Cevennes mountains

French cuisine (the quality of the meal is proportional to the number of dead things in it)

The canal, Nimes

Travelogue to follow...

Tuesday, 15 May 2007

Objects of desire

David (not Fred)

Anyone observing me in the evenings will have noticed that I've been rather distracted recently, spending a lot of time staring longingly into my laptop's glowing screen. Far from being under too much pressure at work (I have nothing chargeable at the moment), the reason for my extended goggle-eyeing is that I've have a new object of desire, cutting into my life as only an obsession can.

My current partner, Fred, and I have been together for nigh on 17 years. He's a Slovak, perhaps a bit loud, but well proportioned. I know every inch of his body intimately - the curves, hollows and textures. His voice is beautiful, clear and distinctive, rich and mellow. I love our music-making, too. Soft, slow and sensuous, or energetic and vigorous, Fred is a rather versatile partner, but he's not much cop at old-fashioned dances.

I've recently found myself looking at others, their bodies, backs, necks, ribs. In short, I'm on the lookout for a new partner. A new challenge, eagerly anticipating that first flush of intensity from a new relationship. The sense of exploration, discovering new responses I could never have imagined. Experimenting until we click and can work together in unison, extracting every possible synergy from our partnership.

I think Fred could probably guess I have a new interest, too. Certainly, all the signs are there. We see less of each other than once we did, and the intensity of our relationship has waned over the last ten years.

You might wonder what I'm looking for in my new partner. Colour is completely unimportant. Dark/light/ginger, it's immaterial. Age is important to me. If he's too old, chances are there's pre-existing damage from heavy usage, but too young doesn't feel right - scrawny necks are not attractive. I'm not too worried about the condition he's in, but a strong back, thicker, shorter neck, intact ribs and gently curved belly are high up the list of criteria. I guess about 200 years old would be ideal. Preferably without any cracks, but in that age range, I'm unlikely to have much hope of acquiring a pristine specimen at a price I can afford. In short, I'm looking for as authentic a baroque violin as I can get whilst still staying solvent, which means not requiring the attentions of a luthier.

Fred, my first love

Monday, 14 May 2007

First Impressions

In a post-prandial slump on the sofa last night with my housemates, I felt very much at home. I live in a bizarre house with two great and quirky housemates: Badger and Stray. I often find myself wondering just how I ended up living in a place like this, not to mention with people like them, and I remembered in a fleeting moment the sense of alarm I'd felt the first time I had sat down with these people. I thought I'd share...


I'd been living in a very nice, very civilised house in Farnham for 18 months or so. A two-bedroom modern terrace house, very Wimpey Home. Two parking spaces. Neat back garden. Flower pots outside the front door. Carpet. Central heating. All those good things one finds in houses. Nice housemate. Unfortunately for me, my housemate bought a flat in Leatherhead and moved out in December, and with only one tenant left to shift, the landlord (actually, a very nice chap) decided to sell up. I found out about my month's notice on the 28th December, when I was Oop Norf with my family for Christmas/New Year. I was going on holiday for a fortnight ten days later. It was not a great time to get a month's notice and start house hunting, essentially leaving me with two blocks of five days to find somewhere suitable to live.

I did some remote house hunting. Thanks to the magic of the internet, this is not too difficult. I fixed up a few viewings for the week before going away. I hoped I'd be in a position to go on holiday and not wonder about being temporarily homeless shortly after my return.

I viewed a few places (and potential housemates) in Guildford. They were not good. My objections were such as:

  • too pokey;
  • a bit grim;
  • nowhere to park;
  • no garden;
  • would be living with dullards;
  • too many people/too few showers; and
  • I can feel my skin crawling and I've been here for less than ten minutes.

This ruled out all the places viewed.

I'd exchanged a few emails with a couple of lasses who were looking for a third person to join them in their big house with lots of glass by the river, with compost bins, chickens, cats, a dog, etc. The house sounded like a cross between a hippy commune and a city farm to me. One of them doesn't drink, maybe a recovering alcoholic. They watch the footie, one drinks pints, and is a whiz on a playstation. Probably lesbians. No central heating. NO CENTRAL HEATING? These people were evidently not like my nice, civilised housemate with her new off-plan flat in Leatherhead. Having said that, it sounded like a really weird place and viewing it might give me a good story... On balance, I thought it was probably worth a visit.

Arrangements to view the house and its inhabitants were duly made, and touchy-feely emails sent with feeble jokes about lentils and vacuum cleaners. I pitched up in the middle of nowhere at 8pm on a cold hard night, having traversed a muddy section of woodland I never knew existed, only to be met by a massive, loudly-barking, mad boxer dog who appeared to be trying to eat my car, jumping up at the windows and leaving muddy paw prints on the glass. Its mildly terrifying-looking owner appeared from nowhere and was attempting to restrain it. I locked the car door until the beast (Ruby), now foaming at the mouth, was brought under control by owner, Stray. Instead of doing the only sensible thing of slamming my car into reverse and heading away before they had the time to identify me, my self-preservation skills deserted me and I stared in bewilderment and with a sinking heart at the house before me with overgrown vegetation encroaching upon the windows and obscuring the path to the front door. I had never seen an abode quite like it. I got out of the car and somewhat gingerly made my way over the tortured exposed roots and muddy ground to make the acquaintance of The Stray One. The mad dog, still foaming at the mouth, jumped up at me and branded my suit with her muddy paws and doggy slobber. Stray, the mad dog, and the prospect of shortly becoming homeless ushered me inside...

Stray took me on the obligatory guided tour of the chilly house. The room (my room?) looked pretty grim. Dusty, grubby and cramped were my first impressions, closely followed up by the thought that a tub of emulsion, a bit of bleach and a new inhabitant would probably see the room right. I was shown the bathroom with crazy, overly jolly sunburst yellow tiles from the seventies, the excessive number of other toilets and shower rooms (sufficient for all to have diarrhoea simultaneously...), the open plan lounge/diner with massive single glazed windows, marble floor and solitary wood stove to provide heat, the kitchen designed for short people with the oven big enough for an entire cow, the crazy hallway with shower room, dark room and bit of nothing room stuck on the side. It was a big house. Big enough to absorb three people and them all to have their own space even if they hate each other, I thought. And as an added bonus, there're three acres of woodland to enjoy in summer and productive vines. Joy.

Stray had just led me through the shower room/dark room/bit of nothing ensemble and was showing me the Octagon/spare lounge/home office room. It didn't matter. I had stopped absorbing information when I noticed the axe. It struck me that the current incumbent of the room I might occupy wasn't around. The wipe clean floors swarmed back into my head. The lack of heating to prevent tell-tale odours of decomposition. The oven big enough for a... Oh my. What sort of mortal danger had I got myself into here?

I sized Stray up. She had immediately struck me as the evil genius type. The factors in this assignment were:

  • Stray is about 5 ft nothing. Short people terrify me. I think it's because when I was that size, I was ten, and incapable of functioning as an adult. When people that small are capable beings, I immediately assume they have super intellects which they put to malign purposes.
  • Stray owns a dog the same size/weight as herself and evidently had some form of magical power to be able to control that thing.
  • Stray appeared to like the fact that there was no central heating. This woman was most certainly unhinged.

Having never met a Stray before, I had no mental model on which to construct a functioning human being containing these ingredients. I therefore reconciled these character traits by resorting to the warped and twisted world of the evil genius. One who knows how to wield an axe. Almost certainly a gifted killer.

Did I want to stay for some tea? "I'd love a cup." I was actually parched (I find that terror does tend to dry me out somewhat) and I thought it best not to arouse their suspicions that I might have guessed that housemate number three was lying in a shallow grave somewhere in the woods by bolting, screaming, out of the front door. The second deciding factor in staying for tea was that I had become so disoriented by the bizarre spiraling of the house and its unusual angles that I would in fact need an escort to find the door and my route to safety.

Perched precariously on the edge of the sofa and hugging my mug of tea in an effort to keep warm, I studied the housemates more closely.

Stray was beginning to confirm my suspicions. Bright. Interesting to talk to. Definitely with a streak of unhingedness. Scary. Though, on the off-chance that she wasn't actually evil and hadn't killed her housemate, we might get on alright.

The Badger worried me less. True, she twitched a bit on that first meeting, but that looked harmless enough, and I consoled myself with the thought that if she did turn dangerous, I was in a good position with my superior motor control to be victorious in any fight. Her head sat uneasily on her shoulders, somewhat too big for the slender frame below, and studiously directed towards the telly. The prospects for erudite conversations didn't seem great with that distant gazing and lots of silence, but then again, many are the nights when all I want to do is stare at a wall in silence and hope the customers and deadlines will leave me alone, so maybe that would be OK.

The bit that did worry me was the prospect of them working in tandem. Their combined body weight might pose a problem to me. Stray was the ringleader, there was no question of that. Badger was obviously the understudy. They evidently knew each other well. The house lay in a secluded location just perfect for murdering unsuspecting housemates. They had the weapon lying casually in the hallway, and the absence of housemate #3 did very little to reassure me.

Still, I was stuck between a rock and a hard place. After being shown around the cavernous place, drinking tea on my best behaviour and making polite conversations, I found myself saying "Great - when can I move in?" D'oh. I cursed myself for yet again having opened my mouth to make sounds of agreement when really what I meant was, "What! You must be joking - there's no central heating, the shower is designed for dwarfs, you're some freaking sort of evil genius, she's some sort of fruitcake living in another dimension, there's an axe in the hallway, and even if I leave this place under my own steam without being killed and used to heat the house and decided to live here, my expenditure on suits is going to rocket if this damned dog keeps attacking me like this!" But I had a holiday to go on and I didn't fancy the prospect of being homeless.

I was routed back to the front door. Safety. Freedom. I felt elated at having survived. I drove home over the Hog's Back with a million thoughts dancing through my head. Maybe they weren't homicidal weirdoes. Maybe they were just a bit odd. Maybe I'd be OK there....

I got home. Parked in my parking space. Made my way over the neat tarmac to the front door. Enjoyed the warm air rushing out to meet me. Ah, central heating - what a civilising influence it was. I hugged the radiator. Hmm, maybe I was just a bit odd, too. Maybe I would be OK there...

Sunday, 13 May 2007

Beautiful rain

The garden seems perkier after the weekend's deluge.

Saturday, 12 May 2007

Enter the Geek

In a former life...

I imagine being slapped across the face with a semi-defrosted wet haddock feels very much like receiving the pronouncement from my housemate, "You are SO a geek!"

I felt I ought to be offended:

  1. because the work "geek" has always carried extremely negative connotations, which I've never felt applied to me;
  2. My housemate is intensely special (and very lovely). Alongside her animal incarnation of Tourette's syndrome with accompanying motor tics, and belief that she is a badger, I wouldn't be at all surprised if she was a geek as well, and the phrase "Mr Pot, may I introduce you to Mrs Kettle?" had some applicability in this situation.

I was still reeling from the initial pronouncement when she rapidly followed up with "My all time favourite geek moment of yours was when you spent two hours on the Internet trying to find the lifetime of a fluorescent tube." I somewhat bewilderedly protested my innocence - I would never waste two hours of my life in so futile and pointless a pursuit. I'm far too busy living in the real world to spend a good portion of my leisure time doing that. And anyway, as it slowly dawned on me, on the one occasion when I may have done something very similar, it was for work and not for fun, and it took an hour and forty minutes and not two hours.

Hmm... perhaps I am a geek. I'd better find out what one of those is, and what it would mean for my future.

My understanding of "geek" is approximated by this description, "The ranks of geekdom are swelled with gamers, ravers, science fictions fans, punks, perverts, programmers, nerds, subgenii, and trekkies. These are people who did not go to their high school proms, and many would be offended by the suggestion that they should have even wanted to"[1]. Now that's not me. Further, I certainly don't identify with the associations with the wild men of carnivals and biting heads off live chickens or snakes. I've never done that, regardless of the timespan or animal considered.

So what sort of geek could I be?

I have some agreement with the Wikipedia suggestion that "a geek is an individual who is fascinated by knowledge and imagination, usually electronic or virtual in nature"[2]. I like knowledge and imagination, but despite being nominally an IT consultant and spending a hundred minutes of my life searching for the average lifetime of a fluorescent tube, I'm not that interested in life's ones and zeros, and I don't have much passion for the electronic or virtual. My current pet project is trying to assemble a reasonably baroque violin for under £100. Is that geeky?

Further down the Wiki article comes the definition: "A person who relates academic subjects to the real world outside of academic studies — for example, using multivariate calculus to calculate the volume of a cake at a party." Hmmm. That might be me. I do often find myself wondering how many trees I would need to plant to consume the CO2 I produce by respiring. It's inherently more enjoyable than working out how many trees I need to plant to sink my CO2 emissions in taking a short hop down to Nimes next weekend, probably because it's a fairly pointless exercise given my penchant for travel and the convenience of flying. And I enjoy thinking up new random interview questions for future victims, for example, "What would be the average rise in global sea level if the population of the UK went for a swim off Blackpool beach?", possibly followed up with something more practical such as "What would this mean for Denmark?".

It looks worryingly like I may be a geek after all. The article gets more damning with this next description, "A person with a devotion to something in a way that places him or her outside the mainstream. This could be due to the intensity, depth, or subject of their interest." I spent seven years at university studying chemistry and ended up with a PhD after three years of trying not to explode water droplets with lasers and getting unfeasibly interested in cleverly-bent bits of glass.

Damn it. I'm a geek.


Friday, 4 May 2007

Small things

I've recently had a lot of small bits of projects to finish off or tidy up, things which had been hanging around for a while and generally impeding any significant progress with anything. Yesterday, most of these annoying little things got resolved, and I've been making progress with my new project.

The sun was shining yesterday. At lunchtime, the office emptied and everyone bar our secretary headed down to the ponds in the park for a picnic and a bit of down time. It's not often that this happens, and when it does, it's a good opportunity to relax and deal with each other on a social level without the pressures of working getting in the way. It's a nice spot as well - scattered trees providing dappled shade, the manicured bowl formed by the ground giving shelter from the strong, cool breeze, and the low-rise, well spaced buildings do not much encroach on the pleasantness of the location.

After work, four of us headed down to our local, which happens to be the university sports bar, and which serves good local beers. We sat outside in the sun nursing our pints with the sun dipping and casting golden highlights on the leaves of the patio trees, intensifying the colours against the backdrop of the clear blue sky.

There was a caterpillar searching for food amongst the lichen growing on our table. I suppose the spilled ales provide ideal nutrition for a variety of green things.... Watching this thing make its way along the table, I was struck by three things:

1) It was amazingly flexible.

I used to be flexible...ish. I was actually rather jealous of the extreme deformability of the caterpillar, folding itself in half before clinging on with its back suckers and launching its front legs forwards.

2) It had suckers on its back feet.

Safely adhered to the table by its hind legs, this thing could lean out in all directions, supporting its own body weight and directing its freed body wherever it liked, spiraling into the air, and looking like it was having a bit of fun, and perhaps showing off a bit, enjoying all the attention we were paying to its fantastic design. How cool would it be to have suckers on our feet? We'd all be like spiderman. This little creature was a miniature super-hero!

3) It was lucky we hadn't accidently squashed it with our pints...

Tuesday, 1 May 2007


I love this time of year...