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.