Sunday, 29 March 2009

Some guys have all the luck, some guys get all the breaks!

And the answer to yesterday's little puzzle? It's amazing what a little peroxide and some 'attitude' can do for a woman. May I please present Ms Deborah Harry! The proverbial 'drink on a stick'.

The very stuff of dreams!Now it's not too hard to work out exactly what Ms Harry had going for her. If fronting one of the best of the new wave bands was not enough to get you noticed, that pout and those cheekbones sure as hell would. The penchant for little or no underwear might have helped too :) I well remember the first gig, must have been sometime after Parallel Lines, staring gobsmacked at this 'wild child' cavorting about in the shortest of skirts, blisfully unaware that she too was long out of her teens.

Oh to have been in New York, at cbgb's, before the transition to skinny ties and too large sunglasses. Last saw Blondie on the No Exit tour about 10 years ago (I think), still cooking! And, now, at 64, she still has it! Not in looks so much (the face lift kinda spoils it now, at least for me) but for that smile and the look in her eyes when she smiles; the US should appoint her as their Ambassador to Russia, even Putin would cave into that!

In order to divert myself from thoughts it is unwise to have when you're running low on tissues, I watched Memphis Belle again (that's the 90's movie not the Wyler documentary from 1944, although I ended up watching that as well afterwards). Now I must confess to finding it a 'worthy' film but one which invariably I watch for one scene only. When Eric Stoltz's character reads (as if it were his own) W B Yeats' poem "An Irish Airman Forsees His Death". Within the context of both the film plot thread and the dialogue, it is so apposite and never fails to move. But then actors schooled in Shakespeare, Racine have always been masters at poetry readings. The very nature of their craft allows them an insight into cadence, rythmn, intonation denied to us ordinary mortals. Witness Richard Burton and 'Under Milk Wood'. Only the poet is generally better (who else) as anyone who's attended a reading by Roger McGough will testify.

Thank you to (the late) Robert Palmer for the blog title. And Chris Stein (guitarist and co-founder of Blondie and long time partner of said Ms Harry), you b**tard! :)

Friday, 27 March 2009

Tanks, Big Guns and a Mystery Girl

I came across an interesting story a couple of days ago, although the story itself is quite old. In Bermondsey, an area of London just across the Thames from the City of London and Docklands, on a patch of waste ground, there is a decommissioned T-34 Soviet era tank used in the suppression of the Czechs in 1968.

What on earth would something like that be doing in Bermondsey? Well, this is how the story goes....How much is true, how much urban myth and how much outright lies is now difficult to disentangle, it is now a part of local 'folklore', but whatever the mix, it still makes a good story!

A property developer, Russel Gray, some 13 years ago, bought a small plot of derelict land on the corner of Mandela Way in Bermondsey, South East London. The land is, like as not, one of those 'holes' Hitler made in trying to bomb the docklands, see. Being a property developer, Mr Gray made a planning application to the local Council (Southwark) to build some flats/apartments. Unfortunately for Mr Gray, his speculative land acquisition led to naught. The Council turned down his application! Somewhat hacked off by this, so the story goes, Mr Gray found a dealer in Kent who had in his possession said Russian T-34 which had been used as a prop in Sir Ian McKellan's version of Shakespeare's Richard the Third and was willing to sell for £7,000. Mr Gray decided to buy it as a present for his seven year old son!

Mr Gray made an offer and at the same time made another planning application to site a 'tank' on said plot of now useless land. Mr Gray maintains that the Council thought he meant a septic tank or other storage type tank and they duly granted permission. The tank, suitably decommissioned, was duly installed and sits surrounded by weeds with its gun pointing in the general direction of the Council offices.............allegedly:)

This is all so deliciously subversive that one can't help but think there is a considerable amount of the 'shaggy dog' story in it but nonetheless this tank remains!

While we're on the subject of photographs, I came across an old photograph of someone who, in her day, was the cause of the most frenzied, frenetic, prolonged and widespread mass 'spanking the monkey' the world had ever seen. From San Fransisco in the west to Moscow in the east, countless adolescent males dove under the sheets, New Musical Express clasped in one hand, Kleenex in the other and dreamed of heaven in her arms, amongst other things. So, for today's competition, who is this? Answers on a postcard to the usual address.

If you don't know the photograph then a little lateral thinking is required to correctly home in on the subject!

I'll reveal all (well not quite all) tomorrow.

Monday, 23 March 2009

24 March! Celebrate! It's Ada Lovelace Day!

Who? I hear the world exclaim! Ada? No-one's called Ada! Well my aunt was and so was the lovely The Right Honourable the Countess of Lovelace, daughter of Lord Byron, although she was christened Augusta Ada (after Byron's half sister Augusta Leigh - thank you Wiki, I hope you're right!)

So why should we celebrate? Well, despite the period she was born into, she was born in 1815, the year of the Battle of Waterloo (when Napoleon was defeated by a pair of boots and a Prussian general who missed his train from Berlin), she was, and is now widely credited with being, the first computer programmer!

"Oh come!" I hear you say. "The 1830/40s? Computers hadn't been invented! Steve Jobs was just the faintest twinkle in his great-great-great grandfather's eye and Bill Gates was only 9. How could she possibly code for something that was 100 years in the future?" (Yes, a mere hundred years, the 'Bletchly Bombe', based on a Polish design I think, was probably the first real computer and was used to de-encrypt 'Enigma' messages sent by the German High Command during the second world war.) So how can she be deemed the first 'nerd'.

She was very interested in, and good at, mathematics and was good friends with Charles Babbage, he of 'analytical/differential engines' fame! That's how!

She led a relatively privileged, if illness plagued, life. (Can illness plague you? After all plague is an illness. Can you illnessise an illness? English can be so tricky sometimes! Makes you wonder how Keats ever managed it. Or Byron, for that matter. Although there are advantages to being great; you get to write the rules that the rest of us have to follow.) However one of her great joys, and talents, was mathematics at which she excelled. She was called 'the Enchantress of Numbers' by Babbage, well at least according to Wiki, which we'll have to trust as I don't have the time or the inclination to go milling around in the writings of some pompous, if quite bright, middle class Victorian bloke, even if he doesn't appear to be quite the male chauvinist pig that most Victorians with the appropriate appendage were.

The reason she is credited with being the 'Mother of all Geeks' is that she wrote a self-penned appendix to a memoir, which she herself translated from the Italian, which explained in great detail how Babbage's proposed 'Analytical Engine' , the subject of the memoir, could calculate Bernouli numbers.

Bernouli numbers?

You'll need to go look at Wiki - it looks suspiciously like calculus to me and I don't do calculus!

So, if Babbage is credited with being the 'inventor' of the computer (analogue 'tis true but....) and , by and large, he is, then Ada must be the first programmer, no?

I must confess now that this is one of those 'invented' days. It has, as far as I can see, no relation to Ada's life in any significant way but was devised by Suw Charman-Anderson as a way of promoting women in IT. This is a problem in the UK; few women enter 'computing' at degree level, a few hundred at most, although can you blame them? It is unfortunately a self perpetuating cycle. Women perceive IT as a male dominated profession, populated by World of Warcraft playing geeks with the social skills of a tree (it is) and so do not enter it, which of course merely perpetuates the male dominance. She has, according to the report I read, a thousand bloggers pledged to blog about a woman in technology on 24 March. Well, I'm not being left out, here's 1001! There's only so many conversations you can have about whether being a druid is good for the soul!

Me? I'm all for more women in IT. It's way too closed. While the image of the pizza guzzling, game playing, socially clueless geek may be stereotypical, it is nonetheless not entirely inaccurate (quote: "Who needs women when you have the internet!"). A feminine perspective would I think be quite nice. (It would also avoid needing to look at the fat slob across the desk, dribbling over the latest bit torrent of Angelina Jolie's breasts while stuffing a Big Mac/Quarter Pounder/large Pizza down his ever open maw:)

There is, isn't there always(?), a sad postscipt to this. Ada Lovelace died at the age of 36, a victim of uterine cancer and over-enthusiastic 'blood letting' in an attempt to treat it - how could they have been so stupid? Galen has much to answer for! What might her incisive and mathematical mind have gone on to achieve? In the words of Billy Joel: "Only the good die young!" (Which is actually the only reason I'm still around!)

A slightly more optimistic postscript is the email I received this morning. Verbatim as follows:

"Hi MG

I'm about 150-200km from the Shelving Zone* and have managed to hack a machine at the 'McMurdo Sound' Station. I last saw Fricka about 4 weeks ago, so hopefully the rendezvous will go as planned. I really would hate to have to make the journey without her, especially as Havelock will not be with us this year. It will be strange not to have him to whinge at, I think. I hope Cozy makes it too. We can compare bellies - I am soooooooo fat! Perhaps it's my age. I had a quick look at the posts this year, not content, just volume. Thanks mate!

PS Can you look out some Gary Glitter and make it available. You know what I mean :)

The Penguin

PS Put IT back the way it was!

* Shelving Zone - where the penguins come ashore.

And yes, I know what the Glitter reference is. Hopefully I can find it.

Sunday, 22 March 2009

Number Thirteen, high level cisterns and SPAM

I discovered an odd, very odd, coincidence today. While verifying my princely UK Lottery win of £10.00 (I'm off to the Bahamas next week to start my retirement:), I decided to look at the frequency with which individual balls (49 of them) come out of the drum. Guess which one has the lowest score, ie appears least frequently? Yep, thirteen! Spooky, no? And don't mock! I don't generally gamble but..........I'm only doing what banks do :) And I, at least for now, can afford to lose! Unlike BoA, Citicorp, Lehman Brothers et al.

"You can write magnificent books to teach children like mine about a better day-- well, at least it sounds better."

It does doesn't it? Childhood seen through the rose tinted spectacles of nostalgia now and innocence then. Most people, unless they were abused or subject to real poverty or hardship of the 'going hungry all the time' variety generally have fond memories of their childhood. In some ways it's to be expected, we all have a habit of screening off, conveniently forgetting, the bad bits unless they were bad enough to traumatise at the time and even then, the resilience of the child's mind can often, over time, come to terms with what would be much more difficult for an adult to deal with. Less introspection and to a large degree responsibility at the time and the high degree of plasticity in the developing brain allow the child to abandon 'painful' neural pathways and create new ones in a way which seems much easier for them than for an adult.

Even the minor hardships don't seem quite so bad when I look back on them. Getting up at 2am in the morning, wrapping your overcoat around you, creeping downstairs, out of the back door, down the little side return and taking a leak behind a door that was (deliberately) six inches too short at the top and bottom, while the wind howled and (in 1963) the snow lay thick on the ground and you had to stand on tip toe to reach the chain, which you pulled, to flush the high level cistern. It was a rotten inconvenience, it took ages to get warm again, but as a small child, everyone I knew did the same thing. It was only later when I joined the ranks of middle class kids, did I realise that you could actually have the toilet inside the house! And some people did!

So ubiquitous were the high level cisterns and their chain operated levers that even to this day 'pulling the chain' is the accepted term for flushing a toilet in these parts, even though 99% of cisterns are now lever or button operated. In a way it's funny because ever since I moved into my little Edwardian flat, built only a few years after the house I lived in as a child, I have wanted a high level cistern with a chain to pull. It just seems so right! However as they want 3 times the price of a low level cistern for a china high level one (the only kind they now make) I guess I'll stick with my water efficient low level one. Greener, anyhow.

And SPAM? Or worse, brawn! Little chopped up pieces of un-named parts of a pig suspended in some gelatinous substance that tasted even worse than the bits of chopped up pig unmentionables but was cheaper than SPAM (which was just more finely ground pig unmentionables without the jelly) and so was generally in the tea-time sandwiches on the day before pay day. It was SPAM the rest of the time, unless for a treat we got banana sandwiches. Corned beef for 'high tea' on Sunday and real ham, generally only at Christmas! The British working class was eating processed 'muck' long before the Big Mac or KFC arrived on these shores. Why do you think we were so susceptible? It was further compounded by the great British tradition of over boiling vegetables, passed down the generations from mother to daughter, of ensuring that what came out of the pot was as soft and nutrient free as it was possible for a cabbage or a carrot to be. Even peas were processed out of a tin! No wonder I'm stunted! I wasn't fed properly!

Just kidding, ma!

And heating? I have become so accustomed to central heating over the years that is an effort to remember what it was like to be cold most the time, night time trips to the toilet notwithstanding. In the early days, we had one coal fire, in the back room and that was it. Play in your bedroom? Not in bloody winter, you didn't, unless you wanted frostbite. We migrated to a single gas fire by the time I was about 8 years old I think but it was trying to heat 224 cubic metres of air in the face of enormous competition from single glazed, ill fitting, Victorian, sash windows along one wall. Even the curtains at the windows didn't help, they'd billow out at the bottom in the airstream and the foot above the floor would like as not be 20 degrees colder than the upper part of the room. No, the only way to keep warm was to lie in front of the fire on your stomach and then get moaned at for the red marks adorning your legs :)

But then there were compensations. No constant parental worrying about abduction or abuse when the kids went off to the park with their mates. A simple "don't talk to strangers" was all that was needed to ensure compliance. I well remember the early evening a car pulled alongside me, I was ten or so, no doubt they wanted to ask directions. I did not stop to find out, I ran so fast home (about a mile and a half) that I practically collapsed on the doorstep.

No worrying about gangs of 8 year olds, high on glue, roaming the streets, disembowelling your first born for the fun of it. No off licences selling alcohol to the way under aged.

No worrying about whether little Pauline in the next street was going to get 'knocked up' playing doctors and nurses because your idiot of a son had finally worked out what the drawings in the public lavatories were all about. Actually, my mother never had to worry on that score; I was seventeen before a friend told me that you didn't stick your finger in their ear to make babies, although since he didn't actually tell me what you did do, I was really none the wiser and it was some years before I realised that God had equipped me with a true multi-function device, a natural Swiss Army Knife.

But in truth, the best of all? We had hope! Forged in the heat of Harold Wilson's technological revolution, accustomed to relatively full employment, a rapidly changing society, we could look forward to a productive, modestly affluent existence where all we had to do was work hard and the things our parents never enjoyed would be ours, even the under achievers. I think I detect that dwindling among large chunks of the population in recent years. No wonder we're nostalgic. Don't they deserve the same chances we were given?

Thursday, 19 March 2009

Cometh the hour, cometh the tally man!

I re-read the last post today and for the sake of completeness I should point out that I have neither a 'walk in refrigerator' nor a 62" plasma TV - I have NO TV - and I haven't sat behind the wheel of a car in 20 years - horrid, horrid things! If the good Lord had intended us to get about that way he would have given us axles instead of ankles!

I don't quite know why I went down this particular track today, probably something to do with the global financial crisis. "Crisis? What crisis?" I hear Citicorp, BoA, Fannie/Freddie, HBoS, Lloyds, collectively exclaim. WE've got pots of (government - YOUR) money and we're doing fine, thank you! Our balance sheets are looking so much better since you pumped in those billions of Matabele Jumbo Beads (current exchange rate 1 MJB = $1, £0.55, €0.89 and falling) but we're still not lending :) After all, there's dividends to pay and we mustn't disappoint out shareholders!

The track I went down was the community 'savings and loans', the 'tally man' (septic knuckles :) Now these were such a feature of my childhood, and yet, outside of loan sharks, do they still exist? I grew up in era before credit cards; an era when whole swathes of the population had no bank account; when getting access to money you didn't have was actually quite difficult and usually involved my father in a little 'creative stock taking' (usually translated as 'theft' in English).

Every week, I would toddle (literally) on my little 'reins' to a gloomy and depressing Church Hall and would wait patiently on those awful tubular steel and canvas chairs while my mother queued amongst, perhaps, 100 others to hand over £1 perhaps £2, seldom more, to the man seated at a table. He would dutifully enter the amounts in the wee, red book my mother clutched in her hand and would copy the entries in his big, red, leather bound ledger. And then in June or July, we would pay in the £1 and withdraw £50, a 'loan' to pay for the family holiday. There was only one rule, and nobody defaulted, all loans had to cleared by 31st December. No carry over! If you didn't get your balance into credit or at least zero by year end, you couldn't play the following year.

I do not know if interest was ever charged on these loans - I was far too young to be a banker - but I suspect, if it was, I think it would have been very low - the moneylenders would after all gain interest at prevailing rate on all the 'savings' on deposit. While I have no doubt that the people who ran this scheme made a handsome profit, I have a soft spot for them. Without this community savings and loan my mother would never have been able to have afforded the £93 (1966 prices) it cost to kit me out for grammar school! And no, we didn't go on holiday that year!

And the 'Tally Men'? Do they still exist? They were essentially 'travelling salemen' employed by a local department store who would go from door to door with useful 'household items', saucepans, plates, cutlery, that sort of thing. They usually had a nice line in sales patter and would persuade the unsuspecting householder that they really did need a new set of saucepans now but could spread the payments over a number a weeks. In one sense, everybody won. The store shifted more units than they otherwise would have done, probably at a higher price too, to cover the cost of the 'instalment plan', and the householder got a relatively painless way of buying cheaper items for which credit was not generally available but which they could not afford to pay for outright.

So why was the Tally Man (so called because he kept a 'tally' of payments made in the ubiquitous 'little book') known as 'septic knuckles'? You have to remember all this is from an era when spending money on anything but essentials was simply impossible and door chimes or bells were unheard of outside of the affluent, chattering classes. So visitors banged on the door. If you'd had a not particularly good week, then the children, in this case me, would be told not to answer the door on particular evenings (the days the tally man would call). As a result, they would be banging on doors constantly, often all evening, as householder after householder resolutely refused to open the door.......because they couldn't pay. After all that, there was needless to say a certain degree of 'scraping' around the knuckle area :)

It's funny writing this because in many ways it's hard to imagine that people I might converse with, or work with, on a regular basis, would have no direct knowledge of this. Of outside lavatories, no plumbed in bath (bath-times were a 'tin' - galvanised zinc - bath, hauled out from under the stairs and placed in front of the parlour fire and filled with endless saucepans of boiling water), hauling coal from the coal shed in the garden, running your washing through a mangle, chicken as a treat not as a staple, television screens no bigger than a laptop (but a box the size of a fridge), most times smaller. It's another era but one that seems more suited to a pre-war, Great Depression, era not a booming post war UK economy.

Perhaps our grandchildren will tell their children of the time when the internet was just a lot of text and a few videos not the immersive, virtual reality they inhabit with the same sense of "have we really come so far in such a short time?" It took 10,000 years of cultural evolution to get to Babbage's 'Difference Engine'. It's taken 20 years to get from a way of sharing research papers using 'Mosaic' to Twitter and blogs like these.

No wonder the older we get, the more we can't cope with it all! So why do I go along with it?

I've been playing with computers as part of my job for over 20 years (I remember when hard drives did not exist outside of mainframes, although I don't go so far back to when they didn't exist at all!) but I engage because this is doing what I remember doing as a child, only on paper, with a pencil.

"Dear Auntie Eva,

Thank you for your lovely birthday present. We have been doing a lot in school recently, especially with paints and things. I am sending you a picture that I drew for Mr Russell, my teacher, of a Roman in a toga. I got a reward card!


It's not so different is it? Except you don't need to keep sharpening the pencil!

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Intellectual Masturbation? A useful past-time?

I was directed here today and a nice uplifting post it was, especially in the current climate. We lag behind the US in many respects and, at the moment at least, we seem to be far less into whatever recession, depression, is on the horizon, or staring us down the throat, than our erstwhile colonists, although it will undoubtedly be with us here all too quickly.

A tale of resurgent hope is only too gratifying when faced with adversity but what does it really mean? The tale, of a man losing everything in the dot com bubble, building himself up again is, true, reassuring but he built himself up the first time; is it not to be expected that he can do it again? Is that not what 'achievers' do? Is that not why, after every recession, economies 'bounce back'? If you were prepared to risk all, work tirelessly to forge something for yourself the first time, then only a little hope is required for you to engage a second time or a third. After all the risks are no greater, are they? And what do you have to lose? Nothing! That is, after all, all you have. As a result, I didn't quite have the tear in my eye that other 'commentators' seemed to have on reading that post.

I sit in a room typing this, surrounded by words. Books, myriads of books, that go back to my adolescence. Books that I bought long years ago and still buy. Faded, yellowed by sunlight and nicotine. Am I any the less if these are gone? Yes, but they can be replaced. The words exist in other forms. True, their physical absence will diminish me, in many ways. No longer will I be able to 'pull' 'Charley Barley' from the shelf and marvel at a painter's skill I can never match. No more will Bertrand Russell on Leibnitz or Dick on QED enlighten my life. But the memories of the words, the images, will remain as long as I live this life, nothing else is as important. No? The material 'book' is immaterial, no?

And the music? I thought that life would not, could not, be of any value without the music. The sound. And yet, even without the physical sound, the music was in my head. While I covet my hi- fi with all my heart, the Wagner, Vivaldi, Bach, Black Sabbath, Nils Lofgren, John Coltrane can survive not being played. I can just hear them in my head!

And so where does that leave us? Material 'things' are just that! Physical manifestations of a desire to interact. (Here I leave aside the 'Walk in refrigerator', the 62" plasma screen on the wall for the rugby, the sports car that does 0-60mph in as much time as it takes to soil your underwear, and all that ilk)

You see, all this material possession is just another route to interacting with people. Often long dead people, but people nonetheless. And that is all that is ever required to sustain you through crises such as these. A distant smile from a kindly soul, a kind word in adversity, an arm around your shoulder when the world has collapsed and the light has been extinguished from the end of the tunnel and all that beckons is oblivion. We shrink from the contact (me more than most :) but it is, in the end, all there is. Everything else is, in the words of the Elven Princess, "intellectual masturbation".

Friday, 13 March 2009

We, wee, wee-wee and WEEE

On the whole I think I have a relatively adult sense of humour and tend to prefer humour that makes me smile, a knowing smile, because I've got the point, or a little chuckle, and I don't on the whole tend to laugh out loud. However today was a little different.

Now this post assumes that you know what the first three words in the title refer to, you may even know the fourth, but that isn't really important at the moment because I'm going to explain it to you anyway :). What's important is that you know the other meaning to 'wee' and by extension 'wee-wee' which isn't 'small' :) If you don't, you're not going to get this at all!

Now WEEE is an acronym for Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment and is a set of instructions issued by the European Union on how to safely dispose of said equipment in an environmentally friendly way which each of the member states had then to enact their own law to comply with. It places legal obligations on manufacturers and suppliers of electrical and electronic equipment to arrange for its disposal in a responsible fashion. This usually means sending it to China where it gets chopped up, burnt thus causing untold damage to their environment but not to ours; well at least not yet. Not that it was necessarily the intention of WEEE to cause China to be buried under a mountain of silicon and plastic but capitalism has a habit of finding the cheapest option round any 'inconvenient' legislation.

Now this is known as the 'WEEE Directive' - you can see where this is going, can't you?

Now I don't usually resort to 'scatological' humour, well not much :), but I was reading a company's WEEE policy document today and it absolutely creased me up. I could not stop laughing. I was completely doubled up in my own private little hysteria. I mean what is the WEEE Directive? Is it an instruction TO WEEE? Or perhaps the direction of said WEEE after the instruction TO WEEE has been complied with (downwards for women, everywhere else but, for men?). And what are we to make of the following from a real policy document?

"By joining the Valpak scheme we are contributing to the establishment of a network of Designated Collection Facilities (DCFs) where consumers may dispose of their WEEE free of charge for treatment and recycling."

Pardon? Are we now expected to transport our own WEEE to the centres? Will the Valpak scheme provide transportation containers for our WEEE? Will local authorities offer to collect our WEEE on a weekly basis as a social service? And how will we store it in the meantime? In our normal recycling crates? Or will we get a box especially for WEEE?

"As a consequence of our membership of the Valpak scheme, we will not accept returns of household WEEE itself and cannot accept WEEE returns for recycling"

Why? Are they concerned about being swamped in a tidal wave of WEEE? Far more WEEE than they can handle? Why is the burden always placed on the consumer to dispose of their own WEEE? Surely a little help from those making fat profits from the selling of WEEE is to be expected.

"...all WEEE that you volunteer for recycling will be specifically collected and treated by designated local waste facility centres and by licensed WEEE compliance centres."

What on earth is a WEEE compliance centre? Is this to ensure your WEEE is compliant? Or that your WEEE is disposed of in a compliant fashion? Or perhaps that your WEEE was originally produced in a compliant fashion? What if your WEEE wasn't produced in a compliant fashion? What if your WEEE contains more toxic substances than WEEE compliant centres can handle? Will your WEEE be refused? And if it's refused, how will you dispose of your WEEE if the WEEE compliant centres refuse it? Will you have to resort to fly-tipping? Disposing of your WEEE on street corners? Parks? Local hypermarket car parks? A neighbour's garden?

I suspect that in the end, a whole underground network will evolve as enterprising 'entrepreneurs' (often translated in English as 'crooks'), seeing an opportunity for a fast buck, start advertising to dispose of any WEEE that the compliant centres won't handle. "For only £100, we will collect and dispose of your undisposable WEEE!" "Can't get rid of your WEEE? Refused by all the major centres? Call free on 0800 123 1234 for a free quotation. WE dispose of WEEE no-one else will touch! Call today!"

Of course it will all end up in a giant super tanker en route to China, possibly with a vain hope that it will be hi-jacked by pirates, but nonetheless destined to be dumped in the Yangtse!

In the end, this whole directive was the product of a drunken night in some Brussels bar; cooked up by a bunch of English ex-public schoolboys, confident that their Belgian, French and German counterparts would never get the joke!

They were right!

So, thanks guys!

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

The gall, the Gaul, de Gaulle and Flanders & Swann

For some reason, I started singing this to myself tonight on the walk from the office to the tube station. For the tune, unless you can work it out from the scan and the allusions, you need to hear this


This old man, he played one,
He played knick-knack at Verdun.
Cognac, Armagnac, Burgundy and Beaune,
This old man came rolling home.

This old man, World War Two,
He told Churchill what to do,
Free French General, Crosses of Lorraine.
He came rolling home again.

This old man, he played trois,
Vive la France, la France c’est moi.
Gimcrack governments, call me if you please,

This old man, he played four,
Choose de Gaulle or civil war!
Come back president, govern by decree,
Referendum, oui, oui, oui!

This old man, he played five,
France is safe, I’m still alive!
Plastique Pompidou, sing the Marseillaise
Algerie n'est pas francaise!

This old man, he played six,
France and England, they don't mix.
Eyetie*, Benelux, Germany and me,
That's my market recipe.

This old man, sept et huit,
NATO give me back my fleet!
Mwah, Mwah, Adenhauer, ratified in Bonn,
One old man goes on and on.

This old man, nine and ten,
He'll play Nick** till God knows when.
Cognac, Armangnac, Burgundy and Beaune
This old man thinks he’s Saint Joan!

(c) Michael Flanders and Donald Swann

* These were less politically correct times. Eyetie = Italian. It was used purely to make the line scan

** In the only text version I could find, this is spelt ‘knick’ as in ‘knick-knack’ but I think it’s a reference to ‘Old Nick’ – an old English term for the Devil.

Now at their best, as here, Flanders and Swann are, should be, a national treasure. Writing in a style more akin to the long dead age of 'English Music Hall', they captured a spirit of the times which was almost unsurpassed. The song was written in 1963, after the first exclusion of Britain from the European Economic Community (later the European Union). We were too far in bed with the Americans to warrant inclusion in Europe. I well remember the second time we tried. The headline in the 'Daily Mirror' (a red top - tabloid) was 'De Gaulle says "Non!"' In 72 point! Well he would, wouldn't he?

For more info about the background to the song go here.

One can just imagine the pair, musing over possible ideas, when Flanders (the lyricist) says to Swann(the pianist) : "I once had a whim and I had to obey it, to buy a French horn in a second-hand shop. I polished it up and I started to play it, in spite of the neighbours who begged me to stop" "Do you think we could do that to Mozart's 4th Horn Concerto?"

"No problemo!"

So they did! And called it 'An ill wind'!

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Deathmøle and Jumpers

If you haven't got your sound up and speakers on, get them up, now!

No, not the wee Malkies but something that so reminded me of my adolescence, sitting in my wee bedroom noodling, headphones plugged into my amp. If only we'd had Garage Band then, not just an old Sony 4 track open reel. It's a multi-tracked Jeph Jacques, author of the 'questionable content comic' - in which the band Deathmøle feature. While a bit derivative, it reminds me of early Joe Satriani, it seems to me not half bad for a copyright free, downloadable mp3 from a comic writer. Obviously Jeph just likes showing off his not tiny 'talent'! And Hannelore Ellicott-Chatham is really cooking on drums! So, you ready? Deathmøle. Click 'Play'

I'm afraid the post might seem a little contentious today. I have no desire to hurt anybody's feelings nor open wounds best left closed but something happened yesterday morning that I don't really understand. Perhaps someone, anyone, can explain or enlighten me?

I made my usual trip to the tube station only to find it closed. I questioned one of the station attendants and discovered that the line was closed from the south terminus for about 10 stations and the service was suspended until further notice. "Why?" "Someone under a train at the next station. "

During the rush hour it can be sometimes a little 'hairy' on the tube platform with people jostling for position so as to be able to launch themselves at the doors when they open and join in what is usually a frantic scramble to gain the last empty seats and avoid strap-hanging all the way to the city. It is not a pretty sight, every man (and woman) for themselves but it's a way of life here. And sometimes accidents do happen, in all the overcrowding and jostling. It's one of the reasons I always travel as the rush hour subsides, the train is not usually full for at least 5 0r 6 stops after the terminus, ergo no mad scrambles where I get on and therefore little possibility of mishap.

So one has to conclude that this was most likely a 'jumper'. If colliding with the front of a moving train only just at the beginning of its braking doesn't get you, the electrified rail probably will. It may not have been but it happens so often that in all probability it was suicide. What I don't understand is why people kill themselves this way.

Previous posts will have, I hope, demonstrated that I am not unaware of both the events and states of mind which can drive an individual towards ending their own life. The feelings of desperation, that nothing you can do can change how you feel or what's happened to you. How the thought of more of the same is so debilitating that the only possible end to it is to consign your conscienceness to the ever waiting and soft, gentle hands of oblivion. Many of us have been there, bought the T-Shirt but..........

Why in God's, or anyone's, name would you subject an innocent victim to the trauma of your decision? What makes you choose not to drop a few months' supply of Mogadon, slit your wrists, eat rat poison, after having written to the police, first class, with the keys to your flat telling them of your intentions the day you carry them out, so they'll recover the body before it starts to decompose and smell.

Why does it have to be public?

And the driver of the train?

What must he/she feel?

It's not his/her fault! He/she can do nothing about it but..........

Think how YOU would feel? You've just KILLED someone! The thing you are in control of has just KILLED someone! Another human being!

My mother once told me of an event that happened when I was very young. My father was driving a truck when a child ran out from behind a car into the road almost immediately in front of him. Needless to say the truck hit the child, there was no time to brake, and killed him/her - my mother wasn't too sure of the sex. How would YOU feel?

My father never spoke of it. (So I can guess how HE felt about it! There was NOTHING he could do - unless Superman - but YOU've DONE it nonetheless)

So why can't these disturbed, fucked up individuals learn to be just a little more considerate! I would be! Or are they SO fucked up?

Saturday, 7 March 2009

Time is an illusion, lunchtime doubly so..........

Is it?

Interesting thing time. Is it an illusion? Or does the flow, arrow of time in any physical sense exist? Or is it just inside our heads? A way of applying a pattern to the random fluttering of the wings of the universe? A pattern which we perceive but is, in truth, just that. A perception.

It seems real. Once an action has occured it seems impossible for it to 'unoccur'. Impossible for the universe to roll itself back to that bifurcation and reiterate down another possible path. It is impossible for us to perceive the multiple possibilities inherent in each quantum event, only one of the infinite possibilities is ever presented to us. Only one 'collapse of the wave function'. Why? What is it that prevents us from seeing each and every tiny forking of the path that the universe takes on the infinite roads to oblivion? Why do we only see the one we're on?

Feynman once postulated, taking the time invariance of quantum mechanical theory as his cue, that a positron (a 'positively' charged electron) is simply a normal electron moving 'backwards' in time. Because of the nature of quantum theory, that whichever way you do the sums, it matters not a jot whether 't' is 't' or '-t', except that with '-t' the charge is 'reversed', it is as valid an explanation of a positron as stating it is a 'seperate' 'particle'. In fact, Feynman, in explaining his diagrams and the resulting 'sum over histories' solutions to QED makes it very clear that you have to take into account the possibility that an electron goes backwards in time, emits a photon, moves forward in time and then absorbs a photon. The same photon? So, at a quantum level at least, time travel is theoretically possible. And yet, beyond that, once we scale up to our macrocosmic level, the level of what our brains perceive, and analyse, and rationalise, it seems impossible.

The desire to go back, reinvent what we are, what we have done, what we have said is rooted deep in our conscienceness. The idea that in some way we could change the present by manipulating the past just as we change the future by manipulating the present. And yet were it possible, we would already have done it but still the present is unchanged. It is the seeming paradox, which turns out not to be a paradox at all. You cannot travel back and murder your grandfather, the act is excluded by your very existence in the present.

Michael Moorcock (I think) once wrote a short story set hundreds of years in the future about 'time travel tours'. Tours back to famous events in history. The individuals are briefed on the exact circumstances, as they are known, so as not to influence in any way the unfolding events as they are known to the future. The central character chooses AD32/3 and witnesses the entrance of Christ into Jerusalem. He is there when Jesus is arrested and is part of the crowd when Christ is paraded, with Barabbas, before the baying mob, ecce homo. Only when he notices the subtle physical changes wrought on homo sapiens by the long years of evolution does he realise that the screaming mob are all time tourists!

So, in a very real sense, there is no linear passage of time, from there to here to where ever; past present and future are all so tightly bound together that it really doesn't matter whether time travel is possible or not. Either way, the present would be as it is and can be nothing else.

In the end the present is all we have, have had or will have. Beyond that only our memories and our hopes can provide comfort.

Thank you to the late, lamented Douglas Adams for the title and for perhaps the most quotable book in the history of the universe, the Hitch-hikers Guide to the Galaxy!

Thursday, 5 March 2009

The coming of the wee malkies

July 2013 update - This is one of my most 'hit' posts, so for completeness, because that's what I think people are searching for, the poem is at the end of this post.

Now I don't know about anyone else, and I'm probably just a reactionary old fart who just can't keep pace, but I find people who shorten my name really annoying; for possibly the same reason that I find text messaging using 'c u l8er' type language and bl**dy Twitter annoying. Even my assistant finds Twitter horrible and he's a typical 'anything new and I'll use it' kind of guy.

I suppose it's a little like one of the penguin's first posts, the one about debasing language; it just irritates me that what is so rich and expressive is reduced down to the equivalent of Neanderthal-like grunts, "mammoth goooood", "aim at danglee bits", "work evry time". (Apologies to any Neanderthals reading this but, seriously, you never really got the hang of expressive communication, did you? Isn't that why we're all over the planet and you're confined to tiny enclaves in the Himalayas?) As opposed to: "Yes, I too like mammoth meat but they're very big and the males can be dangerous. We find that if you aim your spear at the large ovoids hanging between the legs below the tail then you will have, in general, more success than if you aim at the flanks, which simply seems to annoy them." (Thank you Gary Larson and the Far Side)

Now I'm fairly certain that my parents didn't name me in full cogniscience of where the name comes from, its associations with Scottish royalty and the Shakespearean connections nor how it's supposed to be pronounced (Mollcomm) but nonetheless reducing it to 'Mal' or 'Malc' just seems lazy in the extreme and does actually irritate me no end. The usual punishment is to be the target for a lobbed OED, all twenty volumes! I think, at root, it probably has more to do with those 'shortenings' sounding like diminutives and me being somewhat diminutive :) It's a pride thing. Would it ever be anything else? :)

Now a good few years ago, not long after I first joined the actual working class, instead of merely being a junior non-working member of it, a particular individual took great delight in calling me 'Malcy' Now she was a little like I imagine some of Harriet Beecher Stowe's characters to be. A very rounded frame:) She was just 'winding me up', she could see what was behind my eyes every time she said it (tho' as the Virginian would like, always with a smile). After a couple of months, it intensified; she started calling me 'Malcy Babes'. At this point I'm tuning my ears out of circuit, I was new and it seemed silly to react as I would later do; with firm admonishments not to repeat the diminuation.

Well, I came across this the other day when a Scot, who'd been reminded of it, asked: "Have you ever been called Malky?" and then explained why he was asking the question. It's this poem, 'The Coming of the wee Malkies' which he'd been reminded of - it's very popular with Scottish children, dealing as it does with 'anti social' behaviour so beloved of male children old enough to cause mischief but not quite old enough to know what causing real damage or injury would be.

It's written in Glaswegian dialect and so will take me some time to work out what it means :) Some I can do, I used to live with a Scot whose sister was married to an unintelligible, outside Glasgow, Glaswegian, so I have a little understanding but I will have to ask around for a few, I think. But it made me think. I am going to have to learn this poem by heart and store it in one of those 'permanent memory pods' in my brain. Just so that I can start reciting it in a broad, cod Scottish accent. It seems to me the perfect rejoinder to 'Malcy', especially as it's completely unintelligble to your average English speaking person. Oh, if only I had this all those years ago! Where were you Stephen Mulrine when I needed you the most!

There's a wee side text to this. Over the past month, my employer's been running a 'voluntary severance' drive; that's redundancy by another name. The deadline for applications is midnight tomorrow. (Why voluntary severance? Why not redundancy? Well, management think it will be cheaper. They don't have to stay in line with the formal agreements. Us? Our agreement has a 'maximum' for redundancy. We think we'll get a better deal if we play 'severance'. And they have agreed to the latter. Oh, if I wasn't so busy, I'd be enjoying myself so much! It's been a long time since I've done this. It has its downside, viz last year, but it has it ups too! And we just got one! Partial climb down on staffing levels. Oh so gratifying!)

Anyways, I'm having lunch with an old 'mucker'; someone I used to deal with at Apple before the suits took over. We are spotted, for the second time in a week. I go into the garden for a cigarette and immediately the question is asked: "Are you going for voluntary severance?" "My business, not yours." "It's just that's twice in a week, you've met with 'K'." I smile :) "We're putting together a scheme to pull pennies per member per direct debit extract and redirect them to another account. Should get a few bob!"

About an hour later, one of the parties involved in the garden discussion comes to my office and indicates that he is troubled by my non commital reply. Why? "Because if you go, we almost certainly could not replace you with anybody remotely so good." I thought that those words, coming from a more senior individual, was the ONLY 'encouragement' I've ever had there. I told him to go tell it to management! Oh I thanked him profusely for the kind words as well! So what do you do?

Your colleagues, if pushed, might deem you the best since sliced bread. The people who control policy, budgets etc don't. You're just an IT bullshitter.

Me, I'm going with colleagues!

(Stephen Mulrine)
Haw missis, whit'll ye dae when the wee Malkies come,
If they dreep doon affy the wash-hoose dyke,
An pit the hems oan the sterrheid light,
An play wee heidies oan the clean close wa,
Missis, whit'll ye dae?

Whit'll ye dae when the wee Malkies come,
If they chap yir door an choke yir drains,
An caw the feet fae yir sapsy weans,
An tummle thur wulkies through yir sheets,
An tim thur ahes oot in the street,
Missis, whit'll ye dae?

Whit'll ye dae when the wee Malkies come,
If they chuck thur screwtaps doon the pan,
An stick the heid oan the sanitry man,
When ye hear thum shauchlin doon yir loaby,
Chanting, "Wee Malkies! The gemme's a bogey!"
Haw, missis, whit'll ye dae?

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Suicide is painless......

We’re all a little proud, no? Most of us think we’re not bad human beings. Ok, we have our off days but generally we aim to be nice to our fellows and generally apologise when we’re not and try to make up for it in some way, however fatuous the end result turns out to be. Flowers and chocolates never cut it guys, whatever they say, you should have learnt that by now! :)

Well yesterday I came across something that actually for a few moments set me right back on my heels. Such an outpouring of spleen, vitriol and acid, sprayed with the knowing hands of someone used to storming fortresses with Mauser machine pistols in both hands, changing magazines with their teeth and drop kicking hand grenades into bunkers in between; a one person re-enactment of the Normandy landings, complete with real explosions! No mercy. And for some reason, probably a good one if I could articulate it, was the thought I might, in part, be responsible. Knocks the pride a bit, does that! How did I do that? If I did. Which I now think I didn’t. All I did, as I usually do, was pour a little oil on the fire.

Needless to say, the empathy gland kicked in a while later and unfortunately, dear reader, led me down tracks I seldom walk, to places I try to avoid, thoughts I do not wish to have. One of the tracks bought up the ‘S’ word. No, not shopping, that is a far worse hell then I can ever imagine hell being. Eight hours looking for winter boots, none of which you buy:) and all I want is a beer :) The things we do for love, ay?

So, 10 or 12 years ago, I’m asked to leave. She will not apologise and I cannot forgive the lack of apology. If you get it wrong, you say you are sorry. If you don’t accept that then there CAN be no bond (and no, it wasn’t about shopping! :) So there I am. Nowhere to live, still paying half the mortgage (legal obligation) and she has all the money; a settlement is a longish way down the line. I end up in a six feet square of space at my parents (thanks Pop!) unable to afford anything else.

After about 6 months my minimal share of joint resources comes through and oh, is she so grateful for how much I’ve bent over backwards to ensure she keeps the lion’s share :) After a couple of months, I find a suitable property, very seventies DIY but habitable. Nearly 12 months after the fateful day, I finally have somewhere to live again, that’s mine.

I almost immediately start gutting the kitchen (horrible!). For about 6 weeks I’m living with no appliances, all in the lounge unwrapped; no floor in the kitchen, hopping from joist to joist to get to the loo; no furniture bar a sofa from my niece (can’t afford it) in the lounge with said appliances and living on pizza because there’s no gas supply in the right place for the cooker, no pots and pans anyway! Nor cutlery. Nor cups. Nor plates. :) Oh alright, a mug and a glass (half pint) :(

So, finally after six weeks of unmitigated hell, I’m standing on my new kitchen floor, looking at my new (my) hand made kitchen complete with appliances and thinking “what that cupboard needs is more than a cast iron wok in it” and “perhaps I should buy some real food now” So off I went and equipped my little kitchen with all the tools of the trade I sometimes think I’d have liked to have entered, catering, cooking.

One room at least is habitable! And I can stop phoning out for pizza! So I cook a meal. I cannot now remember what it was. Probably monkfish or lambs liver in paprika and red wine or Moroccan lamb, things I’m good at. (If anybody’s throwing up over the prospect of offal in red wine, don’t! The trick is to ‘flash fry’ it in thin strips, a few minutes. Too many people, my mother included, cook it for far too long. Oh, stuffed baked hearts are nice too. Not too keen, me, on lungs (lights) though.)

And then about 10:00pm something strange happens. I am walking back from my half empty lounge and I look down at the little step that separates the rear half of my flat from the front and I sit down next to the phone and I weep. I weep as I have never wept before and I do not know why. I have no idea why I am crying, I should be happy; I have a functioning kitchen. I can cook. No more pizza! But I’m not.

Eventually I rise, I walk into my kitchen and through into the bathroom. And I run a bath. Returning to the kitchen, I use the butcher’s steel to re-sharpen my chef’s knife and return it to the butcher’s block. The Romans had an adage. ‘the most painless’, a gentle slide into oblivion they say, you don’t even feel the cuts when they are made under water.

I returned to my little stair.

And I wept again.

Five times I walked, from the little stair to the butcher’s block, picked up the knife and walked to the bathroom but then back to my little stair.

And still I wept.

At 12:30am it was too late to phone anyone I knew. I had experienced the late night phone call from someone who ‘wanted to talk’. I was not going to subject anyone I liked or cared for to that! So I phoned the Samaritans. (A suicide help charity)

They were brilliant, very professional! Except they gave me everything I didn’t want to hear. Lots of consolation, lots of “she ‘s a bit of a bitch” lots of “she’s just trying to hurt you” but no “excuse me, you are being a wanker! Get a grip! A hold on your life!” to quote, “pull your bloody socks up!”

So I ended up being angry with the person who was supposed to be helping me?

Yep! And it worked! I was so angry with him that I stopped being angry with her!

I think it's great when you get resolution.