Thursday, 28 June 2007

I can't believe I said that...

I sometimes feel that some of the hoops I help customers jump through are a bit pointless and vacuous, but even so, there was no excuse for my response to a request today to produce a programme vision statement to a short deadline.

I said words to the effect of:

Not a problem - we're consultants. Verbal diarrhoea is our bread and butter...

I feel very, very dirty today. Does anyone have a chrysalis I can crawl into as a consultant and walk out of into an occupation with more inherent meaning?

Tuesday, 26 June 2007

Making the most of train travel

After a long day at work mostly sitting on my posterior, the last thing I want for the journey home is more sitting on my bum. I had a few idle moments on the way home today, and without a book to distract me, I found plenty time to study the possibilities for a bit of post work exercise presented by the interior design of the South West Trains service to Portsmouth Harbour. So, without further ado, I present to you:

Dr But Why's New Guide to Training

1: Stand, don't sit. This is a basic exercise for beginners and develops the balance skills required for some of the more advanced exercises.

2: Chin-ups. Use the parcel shelves as a handy chin-up bar. This is best accomplished if you position yourself between rows of seats which face each other, which provide plenty room to stand in between sets.

3: Dips. Use empty seats for support. Great for the triceps.

4: If you feel the need for additional bicep burn, use the poles in the vestibule area as a handy prop for a "work to failure" exercise*. Hold the pole with one hand. Stand with your feet close to the pole. Slowly lean away from the pole until the arm connecting your shoulder to the pole is at about 90 degrees. Stay like that for as long as it takes. (In the interests of public comfort, you should probably give up before the pain causes a torrent of obscenities to emerge from your mouth.) Repeat with the other arm.

5: Sit ups. Ignore the rule about not putting your feet on the seats. Do it anyway and tell the guard who tries to admonish you that it's only the backs of your heels on the seat, and not the sole of your shoe. If they really give you grief, remove your shoes before doing this**.

6: Press-ups. Easy. Stick to the vestibule area and you shouldn't be bothered by too many people. Remember to do sets only whilst the train is in motion as doing these when approaching a station can cause injury.

7: Don't forgot to stretch afterwards. The vestibule areas (which I believe were called "corridors" in years gone by) provide useful floorspace for various stretching postures.

8: (Advanced practitioners only) Martial arts. Well, in fact, any form of self-defence is a good idea against those people who've come to take you away.

So there you have it. The next time you're bored on a train and wondering why you never get any time to exercise, dig out this handy guide to a healthier lifestyle.

*I used to derive an unseemly pleasure from these sorts of things in my former life as a rower (that's "rower", pronounced "masochist").

** Only if you have pleasantly perfumed pods. I once cleared an entire carriage by removing my shoes. I was 19, in Zimbabwe and one of the worst sorts of unwashed backpackers you could hope to encounter. I also hadn't removed my boots in over three days, and my socks had been through the magic, dry, detergent-free washing machine that is rucksack storage a few too many times. I rapidly redeveloped normal personal hygiene practises on my return to the UK.

Thursday, 21 June 2007

Bad days

For some reason, despite the fact that nothing terribly bad has happened today, I am having a bad day. A few trivial annoyances have occurred, as have some good things, but the badness of my mood is completely disproportionate to the happenings of the day. This is totally silly and irrational so I'm going to relate them in order to prove that to myself and put them to bed.

**Warning. Very dull post. Reading on is recommended only for those needing a cure for chronic insomnia.**

Trivial annoyance 1: I somehow overlooked having my breakfast this morning, and as soon as it occurred to me that eating would be a good thing, I realised I had about three minutes in which to get myself dressed and be on my way to the train station like a good little pendulum, erm, I mean commuter. (Forgive me, I'm getting ahead of myself. More on the pointlessness of the commute later. I bet you can't wait...)

Trivial annoyance 2: The train I get daily to work was cancelled. This is quite a bad thing and means either sitting at the station for another half hour (not too bad as I'm reading a great book) or jumping on a train heading in approximately the right direction and trying to judge which route is the best idea today.

Trivial annoyance 3: The train before the one I usually catch was sufficiently delayed that I might have caught it, had it not have been packed when it showed up at the station. Despite wishing I could join the ranks of the miserable-looking people inside, I and many others were unable to squeeze ourselves into the train. For a moment, I wondered why we have no equivalent of the station staff who shove extra passengers onto the Tokyo metro, and felt rather affronted that I would be unable to stand all the way to Waterloo pressed uncomfortably close to someone else's armpit/chest/groin/halitosis, but only for a very fleeting moment. Then I reconciled myself to the thought of reading some more.

Trivial annoyance 4: The following train was cancelled.

Good thing 1: I had time to pick up a baguette for breakfast. Mmm, Chinese chicken before 9am. Yummy….

Trivial annoyance 5: The train I finally got on stopped at every piddling little station between Guildford and Waterloo. This would take a long time. I would get to work about an hour later than I should. Then I had a minor brainwave: get off at Wimbledon and take the tube.

Good thing 2: No shortage of seats on uber-slow train. Good for reading.

Trivial annoyance 6: At Wimbledon, I discover the District line was broken, as in no-body knew when the next train would arrive or where it would go to. Not even the whizzy little information boards would give me a clue. I joined the collection of equally-spaced, lost-looking commuters facing towards the platforms and felt a bit pissed off.

Good thing 3: I read more book.

Good thing 4: Train arrived eventually. I got a seat. I read more.

Trivial annoyance 7: When I finally got to work, I had to put the book down. Damn - two hours of book later, I'm really into it! Worse, the people at work I needed to speak to weren't there, and if it wasn't for a set of jobsworthy rules, I could have achieved everything I've done today from home. Bummer.

Trivial annoyance 8: Work is frustrating. I will spare the sorry details.

Good thing 5: Lunch was nice...

Trivial annoyance 9: That man REALLY winds me up.

Trivial annoyance 10: I have no internet access. I can't check out the best trains to get home quickly. It's already 6:20, and despite the very cool views from the office, I'm sick of staring at the never-ending sprawl of London. I want to go home. I'm practically stamping my feet...

Good thing 6: I check my hours for the week and my terms and it turns out that I don't actually have to work 7.5 hours per day, provided I clock up 37.5 each week. Hooray. I'm out in a flash.

Trivial annoyance 11: The first of my trains home is delayed by 15 minutes. Arse.

Good thing 7: Waiting at the station means more book. Hello again. Now, where was I...? And it’s not raining.

Trivial annoyance 12: The train arrives and is packed. But not so packed that I can't squeeze on if I consent to having a bad armpit stretched over my nose. Eeeew. No room to read, and feeling a bit nauseous...

Good thing 8: It is a short journey.

Good thing 9: Next train has seats. Book time.

Trivial annoyance 13: Seeing the suited corporate clones snoozing on the train is not attractive. They look so depressed and pointless. They probably do this every day - get up, commute, work, commute, sleep, and have no leisure time. I suspect if I closed my eyes, I would look like these people, too. What a depressing thought.

Trivial annoyance 14: No seats on next train. But there is space to stand and read so that becomes:

Good thing 10: More book.

Trivial annoyance 15: Despite being home, I can't yet have a beer or two and forget the inconveniences of the day, because I'm expecting a colleague to call round to collect a paper. This causes more bad mood. So much bad mood, that I'm too busy being in a bad mood to think about doing anything productive or useful such as fixing some dinner. But hey, sod it, if I get hungry enough I'll find something - there are plenty eggs.

Good thing 11: Stray and Badger magically assemble dinner. Housemates are fantastic.

Good thing 12: Neither housemate is showing signs of being an axe murderer. To be on the safe side, if I do happen to go quiet at any point in the coming months and the police make enquiries, please direct them to the earlier post containing an axe-murderer theme.

Trivial annoyance 16: Colleague calls round at some time past 9pm. Almost bedtime, in fact. I have to recount details of work, which I was hoping I would have forgotten about by that point in a merry state of alcoholic fuzz.

There. By no means a terrible day. Nothing awful happened, or anything particularly bad. Lots of good things have happened. It's just been pointless and frustrating and wasteful.

Trivial annoyance 17: Writing all this has made me realise how pointless and wasteful and frustrating my day has been. And mainly how pointless and wasteful and frustrating it is for me to be so annoyed by it.

Good thing 13: I feel better for having inflicted a dreary description of the good and bad things that happened in a pointless day on someone else*. Thanks. And now I'm off to bed.

*I'm worried this may be an early sign of having sadistic tendencies.

Sunday, 17 June 2007

Devolution of the bean bag - the powerful forces of rampant consumerism

Consumer Heaven?

Earlier this week, I attended a consultation at which some time was spent discussing the effects of rampant consumerism and its effect on quality of life. On Thursday, I went to the BBC Good Food/Good Homes/Gardeners' World Summer Festival, otherwise known as Rampant Consumerism Is Us.

Three massive NEC halls were given over to selling all sorts of things for which very few people could possibly have a need or, in a sober moment, a want. To accommodate the overspill, a massive marquee had been erected in the grounds and stalls spewed out of both the halls and the marquee to guzzle up almost every available patch of land. Despite the rain, the event was packed.

I was at the show primarily to have a day out with my mother and secondarily to gorge myself on food and drink tasting opportunities. I love trying different foods. Sausages. Olives. Chocolate. Yum. Ginger/Sun-dried tomato/garlic stuff. Nougat. I bought some nougat. I don't have a sweet tooth, but this stuff was seriously, seriously good. Gooey good. Softly, enticingly good. By the end of the afternoon, I also had pockets bulging with Canderel sugar-free chocolate which I picked up in a state of slight fuzziness brought on by too many alcoholic samples. Hic. I wasn't the only one. The hordes of people gathered around wine stands bore an uneasy resemblance to swarms of flies and freshly dead meat. It was not a particularly edifying sight.

Having sated my need for novel food items, my attention (or what was left of it after the sampling session) turned to other attractions. I was looking forward to gawping at the pretty plants and flowers, and if I'm honest, I was intrigued as to what one might find in a Good Homes exhibition. Top quality bricks and mortar, perhaps? Happy families galore? Well, no. What one finds, amongst other things, is branded bean bags costing £200, which had thoughtfully been provided in a chill out area for those consumers who were weary of leg and/or fuzzy of mind.

£200? For a bean bag? I can feel a rant brewing...

Bean bags used to be fairly simple things - sacks of material approximately half filled with polystyrene beads, allowing the bag to adopt the conformation required by any object pressed into it. This function makes them rather comfortable things to sit/lie/sprawl on. Manufacturing a bean bag is not difficult - a couple of slabs of material, a suitable filling and a sewing machine equipped with sufficient thread to hold it all together is pretty much all which is required. Those of you who took the advanced textile class at school might consider adding a zip opening, and if you are thinking of ever washing your new creation, putting the beads inside a cotton/similar liner bag inside the cover material is a jolly good idea which saves a lot of emptying and refilling of poly beads.

Anyone who has enjoyed the wonders of bean bags will realise that things get spilled on them. Things such as: wine (red and white), beer, pizza, spaghetti, chinese, balti, etc. It is therefore incredibly handy that most beanbags come with an inner liner that contains the thousands of poly beads whilst the outer cover can be removed and chucked in the washing machine following inevitable mishaps. This is one of the very few clever things about most bean bags. Their form follows their function - better make it easy to get them washed. If that means having a bag-in-a-bag, so be it. The £200 sack of poly beads I sank into was extremely comfortable and satisfyingly sturdy. It would be a nice thing to have at home. But... it costs £200 and despite this, conspicuously lacks the inner liner bag. Should I feel the need to purchase one of these, use it and spill curry or beer on it, I would want to wash the cover. This would entail laboriously emptying the little beads into some other bag/container, washing the cover, and transfering all the little beads back once the cover was clean and shiny again. This is extremely unclever and inelegant. In fact, it's a complete waste of life which could be avoided by having a small amount of additional thought and work in the design/manufacture process.

Mind you, I suppose it could be argued that having spent £200 on a bean bag, you might be more careful about where you eat your takeaway and not run the risk of chicken vindaloo coming into contact with the precious mother of all bean bags. In fact, if I'd have splashed out £200 on a bean bag, I'd be avoiding lounging on it whilst having a beer and curry. I'd probably put it inside a glass case to be admired from a safe distance far from risk of accidental staining. This priciest of bean bags is not only an evolutionary throwback, but also unfit by virtue of its primitive engineering and overblown price tag for the purposes to which bean bags are traditionally put. The only thing I can find to say in its favour is that by removing £200 from the people daft enough to be buying these bean bags, they might possibly prevent them from being able to indulge the makers of the singing toilet seats, massage chairs or indoor-only bamboo elephant sculptures who prey on the rampant consumer.

Sigh. End of rant. Just don't get me started on the patio heaters, concept picture frames, hot tubs and showers which not only take your temperature and adjust the water mix accordingly, they also sing you lullabies if they sense you're a little stressed. Now if you'll excuse me, I feel the need to sprawl on the sofa.

Friday, 15 June 2007

Memorable utterance of the week

Overheard on Tuesday:

Everyone loves a generalisation now and again...


Sunday, 10 June 2007

Bicycle races are coming your way...

*Warning - this post contains images of non-sexualised nudity*

On an innocent trip to London to see Mousetrap (Agatha Christie's record-breaking play and a thoroughly enjoyable show which I can heartily recommend), I was hovering outside St Martin’s Theatre waiting for a friend when I became aware of a happy sounding racket overpowering the general traffic noise which had forced itself into acceptance as background noise. The hum of the engines faded away as the whistles, whoops, horns and bells got louder. Ever curious, I wandered towards the source of the noise and was rather surprised to see processing past what looked like about a thousand joyous-looking cyclists in various stages of life, beauty and undress.

It was a little unexpected and struck me as being exotic even for central London, which I gather is slightly less reserved than Guildford; I wanted to know more - what it was all about and why all these people had gathered with their bikes, stripped off and were cycling through London with police escorts, whistles and bells and colourful body paint. One of the more senior participants was handing out leaflets as he cycled past at a sedate pace. Find out more here. What a great idea!

Saturday, 9 June 2007

Liwvi rh rnkligzmg...

When I was four, and just freshly started on the road of formal education, I was presented with a large sheet of paper, a brush and an array of brightly coloured paints. My task was to paint a picture to take home. So I did. I painted a series of lines, as parallel as I could manage, using every colour of poster paint available to me, in the order in which they appeared on the table, from top to bottom and left to right. The order was important. My painting had the order. Therefore it was really, really good. That much was obvious to my young, little brain.

As I recall, my mother was less impressed with my artistic enterprises. I can recall my confusion and disappointment at her response when I proudly showed her my creation of a series of apparently random, not-very-parallel lines. She gently suggested I should try some flowers or people next time*. I didn't then have the vocabulary to articulate that it wasn't supposed to be a picture of something, but instead represented the (on reflection, probably completely arbitrary) order in which the paints had been put on the table, so instead, I resorted to feeling confused, somewhat flummoxed and rather frustrated that she didn't understand the significance. The order was important. Flowers and people didn't have the order or pattern. They were chaotic and messy. Therefore the lines were better. She didn’t understand that. Order is important.

I was reminded of this last weekend when, stuck in traffic with a friend, it occurred to me that alphabetical order was rather arbitrary and meaningless. If I so wished, I could re-arrange the alphabet and, other than upsetting a lot of librarians and other people who like to file things in arbitrary orders, it wouldn't make much difference to anything.

This realization disturbed me greatly. I'd accepted the concept of the alphabet having an order. All the languages I’ve ever tried to learn (e.g. English, French, German, Swahili, Spanish, Italian) came with an alphabet which, give or take a few letters, came in the same order as the Greek alphabet. Despite the widespread acceptance of this alphabetical order, it does not appear to possess any innate order, in the sense that the series of numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, …, has order. C is no larger than B. It is no more a consonant. Alphabetical order might be better described as alphabetical disorder. Vowels and consonants appear randomly scattered throughout the alphabet. Alphabetical order - what order? What rationale is there for the order in which the letters appear??

Years ago I would probably have gone to the library and done battle with the Dewey decimal system (incidentally, did you know it has its own blog? Riveting stuff!) to find an answer, and would probably have been disappointed. Now, of course, I turn to the trusty steed that is the internet to enlighten me. I asked Google. I scoured Wikipedia. I suffered information overload which, whilst learning about the International Phonetic Alphabet and the origin of Arabic numerals is all very interesting, a couple of hours later still didn’t quite answer my questions**. I assume there must be a reason why someone first put those letters in that order and called it the alphabet (alpha, beta…) If there is a neat, concise reason why the Greeks and their alphabetically-minded predecessors ordered their letters in that way, no-one appears to be sharing it with the world at large. Is it a conspiracy?

*Being twenty-something years older, I can now appreciate that a painting of flowers would have looked better on the kitchen wall, and am less bewildered by my mother's response. I think I finally obliged a few years later and painted some sunflowers. I also got slightly less concerned about order and now live in a happy state of choas.

**Yes, I realize this is another fine example of a geek moment.

Wednesday, 6 June 2007

Tagged. Like a criminal...

Damn. Tagged again. I must learn either to hang around the teachers at break time or to run faster the next time they are coming. Inflation appears to taking effect, no longer are bloggy friends satisfied with three things or five things…

Following being tagged by my KindaBlue friend, I present:

Eight things you never wanted to know about me

  1. When I was nineteen, I had a bite on my forehead which got infected. My head was so full of pus that I couldn’t open my eyes. The pressure caused by the buildup of pus was such that my head would spontaneously degunk in projectile fashion. Yuk.

  2. As a very small child, I got rather confused between the Green Giant (the jolly fellow who sells tinned peas and sweetcorn) and God. They started with the same letter, they were both sort of big, and they both lived in a land I couldn’t see. Isn’t it obvious that I thought they were one and the same?

  3. I have a grand total of zero qualifications relevant to my occupation. I have also received a vastly expensive education at the expense of the taxpayer, with a PhD collecting dust in the further reaches of my mind. One day, I intend to use some of that knowledge I have carefully stored.

  4. Cycling back home the morning after a university ball, wearing a rather elegant dress with a somewhat risqué slit up the thigh, I was accosted by some dirty old men who slurred at me words to the effect of “I can see your knickers.” I was pleased to be able to respond to them that I very much doubted that they could, as I wasn’t wearing any. Ah, to be young…

  5. I really do not like frogs (the amphibians, not the cheese and onion flavoured nation). My dislike stems from treading in my bare feet on an unidentified and squelchy amphibian which had until that point been contentedly camouflaged on an extremely tasteful brown carpet in the family home. I was two years old. I can still vividly remember the sensation. As a direct consequence of that experience, I wholeheartedly encourage people to have frogs’ legs whenever they get the opportunity.

  6. My travel companion and I stripped off in a Peruvian desert to enjoy the fresh air and sunshine, having seen not a soul apart from each other all day. We had just put out clothes back on when a taxi load of Americans (all of whom were fully clothed) appeared from behind a rock.

  7. As a young chemist, I had to memorise the periodic table, as my university did not provide them in exams. I used to revise mine forwards, backwards and up and down groups, one element to every stroke on the ergo (rowing machine). If I missed an element, I started again at the beginning. I got extremely fit. I also eventually learned the damned thing. I can still scribble it out today, six years on from my exams.

  8. Little me had once declared that “Brothers are a waste of a good pregnancy.” In fact, little me had pretty much decided that males were a bit redundant, and I was well into my teens before I learned that women did not in fact control the universe. The evidence in favour of my hypothesis was:
    • The Queen (who was on telly a lot) was a woman, and she was in charge of doing all the fun bits of running the country like opening new sports facilities;
    • The Prime Minister was a woman, and she had to do all the boring bits of running the country, like sorting out new wars for us to fight and dealing with her minions of men. When she stood down, they were going to let a man be the Prime Minister. I wondered if the country would survive…;
    • The teachers at school were all women;
    • My mother was in charge at home. My father was and still is around, but for many years, he seemed a bit like a luxury item and I wasn’t quite sure what the point of him was.

There. Does this damned thing get mutated as it gets passed around from blogger to blogger? Well, I tag the Badger to reveal the eight things she'd explain about herself to an alien who she was meeting for the first time.

Tuesday, 5 June 2007

Bunny a la Gran - in pictures

Vegetarians, the squeamish or those who think rabbits make good pets may wish to look away now....

I like rabbits. There's something very comforting about having a rabbit that swells with the security of cosy family life.

When my mother was a young child, her family had a pet rabbit. It apparently was none too friendly a thing, and as with many rodent/small children combinations, the novelty of the animal wore off, leaving my grandmother the job of feeding and watering the creature, and cleaning out its hutch. Her kids (my mother and uncle) infrequently took their turn in the task. One day, the kids had gone to tend to the rabbit and found it had gone. They asked their mum what had happened - where had the rabbit gone? She answered bluntly, "We ate it, don't you remember, last Friday?"

Apparently, that fated morning, the rabbit had rather ungratefully and also rather stupidly given my gran a vicious nibble as she tried to feed it. This being the post-war era and my gran being nothing if not practical, she had sweetly asked the nice postman if he would be so kind as to wring the rabbit's neck, thus solving the problem of having to feed the vicious rabbit and also putting an end to any uncertainty as to what to put in the pot for dinner.

As I was saying, I like rabbit, and it reminds me of my family, and my gran in particular. I'd like to think she would have enjoyed coming round for a bunny dinner last night. If I ever write a family cookbook, rabbit stew would figure prominently. 

The raw material:

A representative of the same species after Badger's pal Len spotted it:

Len's bunny, suitably butchered, browning nicely on the stove:

The pot-ready bunny, waiting patiently for its carrots, onions and celery:

The finished article - Bunny a la Gran. Very tasty it was, too - grateful thanks to Len.

Sunday, 3 June 2007

An apology...

I should like to apologise sincerely to the person who asked Google for "information+pineapple-preparation", was poorly-directed here, and subsequently ended up getting lost in the depths of my inarticulate ramblings on last week's failure to undress a pineapple until I had found a suitably descriptive verb.

I am most awfully sorry. You probably had better things to be doing than trawling through my collected ramblings (though evidently they did not include the preparation of pineapple).

I now feel a rather heavy burden of responsibility not to add to the wealth of useless information to be trawled in future searches. It reminds me a piece of advice I was once given:

If you can't improve on the silence, keep your mouth shut.

I've always been terrible at taking advice...