Wednesday, 29 August 2007

After the nuclear holocaust

My top three survivor predictions are:

1) Cockroaches: This is a classic. They've been scuttling across the planet for 300 million years now, and are showing no signs of being eradicated. They're number one on my list of survivor predictions.
2) The half jar of sundried tomatoes which has lived in the fridge for at least twelve months without the slightest hint of decomposition or consumption: It may be a case of premature extrapolation, but I confidently predict they will survive the end of the world. This may be without merits, as I assume they will provide a tasty and nutritious snack for any mutated cockroaches with opposable thumbs that can get the jar open.
3) Noel Edmonds: Having survived a whole series of crass and ridiculous shows and still having something resembling a career, Noel is the ultimate survivor. He might get a bit bored of eating nothing but sun-dried tomatoes, but I suspect he'll get along well with the 'roaches. They can't be worse companions than Mr Blobby...

Any advance on the cockroaches, anyone?

Monday, 20 August 2007

"Hello? Is that But Why? It's God here... I'm just on a train..."

I had a bit of a run-in with The Almighty this morning. There I was, sitting on the train as it made its way out of Woking, minding my own business, reading a book in a content, slightly sleepy, undemanding-of-conversations-with-the-Supreme-Being, atheist kind of way, when my consciousness was stirred by something that didn't quite sound right. I replayed the last string of words I'd heard in my head to work out what was wrong...

"Good morning. This is your God speaking."

Yes, that was definitely what I'd just heard. Every word mapped, in that order, to the memory of the previous communication. If that was so, it appeared my God was speaking to me. I now knew what was wrong - being a committed atheist, this was a little disconcerting. Still, I sat a bit straighter and started paying attention - you never know when it might be useful to adopt a more flexible posture on these matters. I cast a glance at my fellow commuters. They weren't responding, so I assumed it was only me that God was talking to.

It seemed a bit odd that God should choose to have a word in my ear when I was buried in a book - I'm not receptive to The Good News at the best of times, and The Omniscient One should have known that they'd get short shrift interrupting my reading. I was also beginning to regret thinking I could get away with that pair of socks with the holes in the heels which don't show above the shoeline. Still, I could do nothing to change that now. I wondered what God wanted - my book wobbled a little in my hands as I strained for what I hoped would be some more impressive pearls of wisdom. I didn't have to wait long...

"I am currently in Coach 8 of this twelve coach train."

Well, OK. That may be factually correct, but I was hoping for something a little more sage... Still, you are God. You choose to be on a train. That's fine. Whatever floats your boat, though I'd always thought that if I ever made it to the status of a deity, I'd inhabit somewhere a bit more salubrious. Atop a cloud, perhaps, or on a mountain overlooking the ocean. Somewhere with a decent view. Certainly not on the 9:03 to London Waterloo on a Monday morning. And further, I would pick a slightly more polished accent, rather than sounding like I'd just got out of bed and couldn't be bothered to articulate my words. This was beginning to seem a little unlikely, and all rather disappointing for that magical moment of the first time God spoke to me.

I was just running those communications with The Almighty through my head again - after all, they might be important. I was glad I did - the penny dropped:

"Good morning. This is your Guard speaking. I am currently in Coach 8 of this twelve coach train."

Ahhhh, that made more sense. I wasn't having delusions after all. And god certainly hadn't put in a personal appearance on my way to work when I was wearing a pair of holey socks. Good. What a relief...

As if that wasn't disturbing enough, I can report that speech impediments in train guards are spreading. Coming on the back of this morning's misrepresentation of the holy one, when the guard apologised for "the crap conditions on this train", I wondered if I might be hearing things. But no, the other commuteniks had heard it too, and were discussing if he really had apologised for the crap conditions. To make things easier for us, he thoughtfully repeated his message. "On behalf of South West Trains, I would like to apologise for the crap conditions on this train. There are a few seats still available in the rearmost carriage."

I think he was probably saying "cramped"...

Saturday, 18 August 2007

Some words

I commute. I am a commuter. It is how I now identify myself at parties.

"...and what is it that you do?"
"I am a commuter."

It's not really a lie, but a half truth. It sounds better than telling the truth, which is that I currently help the public sector fritter away your tax cash in return for getting mine back with a slice of yours, too. I've observed that the latter response doesn't help me to make new friends, which is why I go in for the half-truths.

There appear to be four activities which are popular with commuters whilst in the act of commuting:
  • sleeping, with or without added dribbling;
  • reading;
  • listening to music;
  • staring vacantly into space (presumably whilst having some form of thought process).

Combinations of most of the above are possible and can be observed in commuters between the hours of 7am and 9am, or between 4pm and 7pm.

I choose to read. I find that people who appear to be reading look less gormless than the average commuter. Where possible, I prefer to appear to be something other than gormless. Moreover, I choose to read books. They are better suited than newspapers to the environment of the packed commuter train, and I find they are quite useful in preventing my becoming a victim of dribble-inducing sleep.

I've read some good books recently:

Half of a Yellow Sun Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
I loved this wonderfully textured book, with its believable characters and witty observation, and it's written in handy commute-sized chunks - altogether a most satisfying tome for a commuter.

The Bonesetter's Daughter Amy Tan
Slow, unremarkable, almost ponderous start, which transforms into a gripping and sensitive read, all the more effective for the effort investing in wading through the treacle of everyday life to get there. By making the very ordinary and mundane such a large part of the book, the question "Just how many of the occurrences I dismiss as boring and mundane are the thinly veiled other face of the remarkable, painful and raw" is begged. All a bit thought-provoking for the commute.

The Interpretation of Murder Jed Rubenfeld
Sadly, this wasn't one of the good ones. Interesting, intriguing at times, and then ludicrous. Increasingly ludicrous. And only ludicrous. Having finished this book, as time goes by I feel more and more cheated for having spent precious time reading what had the potential to be great, but ended up as a collection of overly manipulated characters in a forced and contorted plot. It ended up in a dizzy mess after spo much early promise. Most disappointing...

Dublin Edward Rutherfurd
Massive. Doorstop. Of. A. Book. For some reason, I found this difficult to get into. Or maybe it's just a bit daunting for the daily commute and better suited to a day or two on the beach. Family/historical sagas - I love all of that stuff.

The Lovely Bones Alice Sebold
Clever. Nice. Sweet. Enjoyable. This is a bit odd, considering that the book is written in the voice of a dismembered child. The ending is a bit light and facile, but by then I needed something to smile about, and a packed tube isn't quite the place to find yourself reduced to floods of tears ten minutes before a meeting with a new customer.

The Kite Runner Khaled Hosseini
Amazing and beautiful. I can't quite place why it is special, but I'd certainly recommend it. Well-observed, realistic sense of location, feasible plot, and a surprizingly satisfying yet open finish. I almost had to prize this book out of my hands when I arrived at work each day, it's that good.

Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood Oliver Sacks
Reminded me why I love science. Also instilled in me new seeds of doubts for having decided a few years ago to take the money and run from science and all those things I enjoyed. Also made me wonder what I'd have ended up like if my interest in science had been nurtured from early childhood. I suspect I'd be verging on being a brilliant scientist and altogether socially misfitted. In fact, I would probably have become one of those people for whom their employment is a form of care in the community*. This book is also a good commute read at the moment because the monotone front cover clearly marked me as a non-reader of Harry Potter. However, I do worry slightly that given the levels of hype, non-knowledge of Harry Potter may one day become a criminal offence punishable by death.

Wasting Police Time PC David Copperfield
One of those books that makes me want to tear my hair out for a multitude of reasons, mainly due to the exposure of ludicrous wastes of time and public money. Such illiberal views. Fancy suggesting, in this day and age, that the purpose of policing is to keep the goodies safe and catch the baddies. Also has some dangerous ideas including the locking up of criminals. A bit too illiberal for me (being of the guardian-reading persuasion), but interesting background from another part of the public sector.

Lots of Home Office publications and work-related documents
I don't intend to talk about these, not least because whilst being frightfully necessary, they are as dull as ditchwater.

On the reading pile for the next few months are:
The Contortionist's Handbook Craig Clevenger
Kuhn Vs Popper: The Struggle for the Soul of Science Steve Fuller
Suite Francaise Irene Nemirovski
Fermat's Last Theorem Simon Singh
The Gift of Rain Tan Twang Eng
A Thousand Splendid Suns Khaled Hosseini
The Language of God: A Scientist Preserves Evidence for Belief Francis Collins
The Tiger in the Attic Edith Milton
The Master and Margarita Mikhail Bulgakov
A Short History of Tractors in Ukranian Marina Lewycka
The Ptolemies Book One: The House of the Eagle Duncan Sprott

I'm almost, almost looking forward to the commute...

*Last year, I was told by a gentleman who worked at the Council for the Central Laboratory of the Research Councils (CCLRC, now defunct) that it was inadvisable to take any action which would put any of their scientists out of work, because their employment in government-funded research was essentially a form of care in the community for the academically useful but socially crippled. Casting my mind over some of the scientists I know, I was tempted to concede he may have had a point...

Wednesday, 15 August 2007

The conversations you only have with certain people

There are conversations which I have had recently which could only ever have been held with certain of my friends, acquaintances and other beings. To illustrate my point, here are some transcripts of typical recent conversations. Some may have been slightly paraphrased, but the essence of their being remains true. Your guesses, please, to the identities of the following non-Me characters:

X: Sex, sex, sex, sex. And more sex. And did I mention sex?
Me: My ears! My poor little ears!
X: Sorry, geek.

Me: Look Y, it's going to rather difficult to cost these options if they don't yet exist.
Y: They do exist.
Me: Where? Can you show them to me or explain what they're going to look like?
Y: Well, they're like trains.
Me: They are like trains? Really? How? Could you explain that to me, please?
Y: You can get different types of trains, but they all go to Clapham Junction from here. They might carry different numbers of passengers, but until that bridge is completely finished, we can't get to the battle. So now can you cost those options?
Me: It's nothing like a train, is it? It's like, we're trying to help these guys to articulate what they want to do and justify it. It's nothing to do with trains, ravines, or going to war. And I can't generate a remotely believable estimate of what it's going to cost to do something if you can't explain to me what it is that we're going to do. If it was a train, that'd be fine. I can find out how much they cost, but it's not a train, is it?
Y: Hey, hey, hey... Calm down.
Me: I'm perfectly calm. I'm just trying to explain my position that I cannot cost what you cannot describe, and without costs, we have no business case, and we're supposed to be writing a business case in six weeks, and if that's not going to happen, we need to expose that as early as possible.
Y: I think it shows something about our respective stages of life that you're on your fifth coffee and getting wound up about these trains which are going to the same place though perhaps at different speeds, whilst I'm drinking hot chocolate. Have you tried yoga?
Me: Yes. I have. And I have enjoyed yoga. I don't think it's entirely appropriate for the environment in which we find ourselves at the moment and right now, kick-boxing has a greater appeal.
Y: Perhaps I can explain it differently. It's like a car...
Me: Give me strength...
Z: Send t'buggah t'Yorksher and we'll fix that rubbish....

Me: Owt on the box?
A: I don't know... I know, "Deal or No Deal?"
Me: Superb. Why not?
Some time later
A: Aaah - she's got box 22. It's the 250, I bet.
Me: Well, you have a one in twenty-two chance of being right.
A: There's always a big number in box 21 or 22.
Me: No... there... isn't...
A: Yes there is. That guy last week, he had box 21 and he dealt at 26k. if he'd held on, he had 100k in his box. See, they should listen to me. Then they'd WIN.
Me: I can feel my brain dribbling slowly out of my ear.
A: Skkechew. Cheshuuuuuum. Sorry.

Me: B? Yo, B!
A long gap ensues whilst B's brain slows down sufficiently to enable answering the mundane or the bleeding obvious
B: Yeah...?
Me: That bloody dog's stolen the bread again.
B: F*ck. We should do something about that.
Me: Like kill the dog?
B: It's an option, but I was thinking more of stopping the dog from being able to reach the bread.
Me: Yeah. Our problem is that the relative sizes of dog, which is big, and height of counter, which is low, enable the dog to get the bread off the counter, so I reckon our choices for the solution are: a) reduce the height of the dog, which can be achieved by either changing the dog for a shorter one or adapting the current dog so it can no longer reach the bread, for example making it shorter by removing its lower limbs; b) cripple the current dog by removing a couple of legs; or c) increase the height of the worksurface so that the unmodified dog can no longer reach the bread.
B: Hmmm... I think you might be slightly overengineering the solution. I was thinking more along the lines of a breadbin.
Me: Well, I don't think it solves the real problem of the dog/counter height problem.
B: But it'll work.
Me: Damned practicality - no elegance....

C: Dood! I bought D from Amazon and it has the gayest cover in existence. You could have warned me...
Me: Moron. Amazon has images. I have zero sympathy for you.
C: Speaking of images, are there any photos of the lesbianism?
Me: Have you no work to do?

E: Hey, nice blog. Come visit my website so I can flog you some T-shirts.
Me: Thanks. No.

F: Breakfast time!
Me: What time is it? looks at clock 6am!? Go away - I'm trying to sleep.
F: Give me breakfast.
Me: No.
F: You WILL give me breakfast or I'll make sure you're awake...
Me: Sod off.
F: Lick, lick, nibble. BITE.
Me: Pain searing through my right nipple Owwwwwwwwwwwwuuuuch!
F: Now flying through the air OK, OK, I'll try someone else...
Me: Gibbering slightly in a state of shock Did that really happen? Eeeew - that's SO wrong...

Me: Right, tea. Where's my sodding mug?
G: There it is.
Me: Excellent. Good, Tea bag. Mug. Kettle... water. Need water.
G: Singing badly in the background Fire is the devil's only friend... dah dah daaa da dah. And as I...
Me: Has that bloody thing boiled yet? Milk... milk. Need the..
G: Milk? Here.
Me: Excellent, excellent. Food. Need some breakfast. Toast...
G: Bread.
Me: Excellent... Makes toast. Eats toast What time... crap. Is it raining? Runs out of the house.
G: I need an umbrella. Where did I leave my umbrella?
Me: Commuting well and truly sucks.
G: I hate commuting.

Me: ...and there's this WET SPOT MACHINE.
Me: Really.
Me: OK, I'll see if I can get a picture.
H: Oh yes! We need pictures. It is clear that regardless of how sexy or otherwise this WET SPOT MACHINE is, we need pictures of the WET SPOT MACHINE.
Me: But, But... I'll look like a train spotter.
H: Tough. You'll just have to look like a train spotter. We need pictures.
Me: OK folks. WET SPOT MACHINE. In pictures.
H: WET SPOT MACHINE!!!!!! My life is complete.
Me: Please believe me when I say I'm not a train spotter...

Answers on a postcard, please.

Sunday, 12 August 2007

More momentos

My week has provided me with a number of souvenirs in the form of small injuries or discomforts of one sort or another. I am currently nursing them and feeling sorry for myself. Here's why:

Item 1: Sharp pains on top of right foot.
I think I collected whatever is causing these in making a rapid descent of 21 flights of steps. For some reason, I thought it would be more fun than taking the lift at the end of the day.

Item 2: Tight and sore quadriceps.
I know how this happened. These were initially caused through my decision, following a particularly lardy canteen lunch, to work off some of the acquired lard by climbing the steps to the 20th floor. In time-honoured "act in haste, repent at leisure" fashion, I didn't notice any pain (except that from the lactic acid build up) until the next day. Ouch, indeed. My butt also hurts a lot

Item 3: Slight dizziness.
Partially due to the unchanging clockwise spiraling of the staircase, and partly through not being quite as fit as once I was. By the 15th floor, I was feeling rather undone.

Item 4: Bruising to centre of forehead.
Caused by repeatedly banging my head against the wall. It numbs the pain otherwise felt at being at work.

Item 5: Morning grogginess.
A side-effect of the anti-histamine dose I take most evenings in response to sharing my blood supply with the local mossies via their proboscises and an assortment of other (unidentified) biting insects.

Item 6: Blisters on fingers of right hand.
Caused by carrying a violin case in sweaty palms on a stinking hot day to Stoke Newington and back in aid of finding a snug and suitable case for my new pride and joy.

Item 7: Abrasion and bruising below left knee. 12 small circular bruises around front inner quarter of thigh. Numerous small abrasions to forearms.
Ah yes. These were caused by carrying some sizable and weighty concrete blocks from one end of our 'garden' (by-word for torturous entanglement of ecologically diverse and varied-habitat-providing unkempt vegetation) to the other, in aid of chicken-run building endeavours. I tried carrying them at chest height but found it made breathing difficult. The abrasion could probably have been avoided had I not have chosen to wear shorts for this task and instead donned more suitable clothing.

Item 8: At lest 15 allergic reactions to various insects' bites.
Again, this may be something to do with choosing to wear shorts, short sleeves and an open neck whilst performing manual labour at dusk in a swamp-like 'garden'. I'd like to think that one day I will learn to choose more suitable clothing under similar circumstances.

Item 9: Blisters on palate.
These were caused by my over-enthusiasm to consume pain au chocolat and other freshly baked (from frozen) pastries whilst watching football, drinking coffee and failing miserably to make a dent in the Guardian crossword.

Item 10: Pain across rib cage.
Due to falling asleep face down in the sun today on thinly-cushioned concrete following yesterday's exertions, and my front profile not remotely tessellating with the ground.

I wonder what next week has in store?

Thursday, 9 August 2007

A souvenier from nowhere in particular

Badger was given some biscuits the other day. Shortbreads from Lindisfarne, they were. Not that the biscuits originated from Lindisfarne, you understand, but the box was decorated with pretty pictures of Lindisfarne. The biscuits were enjoyable to eat. This surprised me. I had expected them to resemble souvenir fudge in their gastronomic qualities...

Souvenir fudge - the ubiquitous fudge box from Cornwall, or Norfolk, or St Andrew's, or York, or... etc. It seems that wherever one goes, the same box of fudge can be bought - the one with the thin card sleeve and paper cover with a picture of the relevant location stuck on the front. Now, if the fudge such boxes contained was actually nice fudge, it would make a pretty good present. But has anyone ever received one of these boxes of fudge and appreciated the fudge for its inherent fudgeness, rather than because it shows evidence that you entered Auntie Linda's thoughts at least once whilst she was away? I suspect not. It might have been nice fudge once, perhaps, but one little nibble will reveal the certainty that it's been sitting on a shelf next to the generic jewellery and plastic dinosaurs for months before Auntie Linda bought it, and upwards of a year before that in a box in the back room of that godforsaken tat shop that time forgot in a godforsaken minor tourist spot. And it tastes like it. If it was good fudge, it wouldn't wind me up so much. But it's not, is it?

It doesn't stop at fudge. If it did, I wouldn't still be ranting. It's shortbread, too. And toffee. And rock. That horrible bright pink rock with the name of the location all the way through. It gets everywhere, carried to new and unassuming tourist destinations like a parasitic freeloader on the tourist trade. Absolutely, without exception, everywhere. I bet you now that when the first space tourists return from Mars, they'll bring some rock back. And an assortment of sodding shortbread, no doubt...

OK, I'm all ranted out. Now, would anyone like one of these lovely toffees I've just received from Barrow-In-Furness?

Sunday, 5 August 2007

Found it!!

In years gone by, I would have committed this poem to memory. With my increasing reliance on the belief that I can find almost every piece of information in the public domain online, I now remember only the titles of poems, or the odd line or phrase. Without these clues, Google is useless. I am lost. Lost.

Hence, I have spent countless* hours over the last month or so searching for one particular Primo Levi poem. Having now found it somewhere and remembered why I was so desperate to find it (despite this version relying on DIY punctuation, the rawness of anger and streaks of bitterness that I've not found in any of Levi's other writings are blazingly clear), I've linked it below so I can find it more easily when I'm away from my bookmarks and forget all its words so you can read it, too.

Song of Those Who Died in Vain

*Certainly more than the nearly two hours I spent searching for the average lifetime of compact fluorescent tubes, and probably more than the time I invested in trying to find a satisfying reason for why alphabets arrange their letters in the same order, give or take the odd letter. Is this another Prize Geek Moment I've notched up?

Those who blog, I salute you.

A theatre. Me on stage in a posh frock having scrubbed up for the occasion, my glamorous assistant by my side with names and citations on cards. All those here gathered in black tie. I take the microphone to begin.

My Lords, Ladies and Gentlemen: without further ado, I present to you the recipients of this year's Courageous Blogger Award:

Pixie, Stray, and Badger. My brutal paraphrasing could not do justice to their postings, you will have to visit the brave bloggers in person to discover more.

The Thoughtful Blogger award goes to:

Gary: For kindly offering to deal with one of my problems in the most practical of manners, for his daily production of considered masterpieces, and for gifting to the world, amongst others, the magnificent story of The Three Poos;
Anna MR: For being full of thoughts which spill out of her head and into her blog. And for being thoughtful.

If all you special people wander over to Writer's Review to collect your awards, I'd be most obliged. There is unfortunately no red carpet, or champagne. And I think you may also find you've in effect been tagged...


I should also like to salute Julie, who on Friday became Dr Julie, and despite my being present at her post-thesis-viva celebrations, has since informed me that she's a doctor in person, on the phone and on IM. Dr Julie, you are A DOCTOR.