Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Keep Your Wig On, Pablo

One shouldn't laugh at serious crime but I think we can make an exception for the Colombian gentleman who took somewhat too literally his boss's instructions to "keep it under your hat". Attempting to smuggle about a pound of cocaine into Barcelona, he stuck it in a bag on his head then, realising this would be fairly easy to spot even for the sleepiest of customs men just about to go for a siesta, he hit on the cunning plan of buying an unfeasibly large wig to hide it. This plan worked brilliantly up to the point that he boarded the plane and drew attention to himself by acting nervously. On arrival they must have drawn him politely aside and asked if he had anything to declare, other than the ludicrous rug that we see here, courtesy of the Evening Standard

"Nada, nothing officer" he must have stammered.
"I see sir. Are you sure? You're not a supporter of that eighteenth century English political party, what were they called, it's on the tip of my tongue, ah yes, the Whigs, by any chance?"
"No no, I swear on my life of my donkey"
"Was the flight alright sir? No, er, hairy moments?"
"It was fine, thanks be to God. May I go now?"
"Yes, I expect you'll be wanting to get ahead of things sir. Oh, just one thing ... it's a bit warm in here, I'll turn the fan on. Oh dear, sir, I appear to have dislodged your gentleman's grooming accessory....."

And this was the result.

The man, his drugs and his wig are now helping police with their enquiries.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Keeping in Touch

A nice little brochure arrives in the post. It announces a new retirement home opening in Harrow and hopes I may be interested. Yes, I am of that age group that is automatically assumed to be interested in such matters. Idly I scan through it and my eye is caught by the following part of the sales blurb:

... and the telephone point in both the main bedroom and living room means you're always connected

Have the vendors not heard of this remarkable new invention called, if my memory fails me not, wireless? Do they not realise that only one telephone point per household is required if that said household has a modern telephone set with wireless handsets? But wait, surely I have missed something, bear with me, oh yes, I know, there's this brand new invention all the young people are talking about called mobile phones. With one of these in your pocket you are connected no matter where you might be in your home, or (and this is the clever bit) out of it.

I think I can dimly see the logic of the designers of these flats. "Old people are so ignorant of technology" they tell each other between gaps in their Powerpoint presentations "They barely realise that starter handles are no longer needed to get a motor vehicle going. Show them a gramophone and they marvel at how the orchestra has been shrunk to fit into that funnel thing you stick your ear in. They all have just the one phone plugged into the hallway and when it rings everyone in the family rushes down to answer it, just like in those wonderful old TV sitcoms they watch all day while waiting for the wrestling to come on. They'll fall over their Zimmer frames in amazement when we tell them they get two telephone points in our flats."

I am sorely tempted to phone up for an appointment and ask them about provision for stabling the horses, the maid's quarters, if the flats have a back entrance marked "Tradesmen" and where I will be keeping my coal, all the while going "Speak up young man, all you young people mumble so much". They've obviously got a mental picture of me and I do hate to disappoint.

Friday, June 28, 2019


June can be a miserable month in the UK or it can be splendid. Or indeed, both. This week has verged towards the jolly nice end of the spectrum with settled blue skies and temperatures nicely in the mid 20s. However tomorrow we are promised a real heatwave and maybe something closer to 33 - we shall see*. In any case it will all be back to normal on Sunday.

It's a different story in continental Europe where a horrible burst of scorching weather has erupted from the Sahara and blasted intolerable heat from Portugal to Germany. Records are being set, with 45c in southern France today, for example. Looking back through the archives of this very column I see several instances that are similar (such as this one from 2 years ago and this from 2016) but this year is the worst yet. We seem to be getting away rather lightly with it.

Here is the temperature map on the BBC which I hope they won't mind me pinching republishing.

The colours make it look rather friendly but those deep reds are temperatures up and over 40. By contrast it is only (only!) 36c in Cairo and a rather pleasant 33c in Timbuktu. And spare a thought for firefighters in Catalonia, trying to combat forest fires whilst wearing all that heavy protective gear.

*update on Saturday. Yup, we got 34c in West London, the hottest part of the UK. The dryness of the air made it a little more tolerable than it otherwise might have been. And there were severe delays on the Metropolitan Line during the hottest part of the afternoon. Ah, it's good to see the old traditions being observed.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Once more the chugging of pistons ...

Six years ago the Metropolitan Railway celebrated 150 years of operations. Steam trains hauling vintage carriages delighted our eyes. This past weekend it was the turn of younger sibling District to reach that venerable age and as usual we had the pleasure of watching the old trains once again.

Metropolitan number 1 was fortuitously saved from the wreckers yards when London Underground (shame on them) were trying to get rid of it some 50 years ago. It was built at the turn of the 19th century to haul the express services from Baker Street to Aylesbury, and beyond to Verney Junction. It led a preserved train of "Chesham" set carriages dating from 1890 and had the electric locomotive Sarah Siddons at the back in case a bit of extra puff was needed.

I loved the driver's enjoyment of his role - he waved nicely to us as he passed - and his bowler hat, waistcoat and red scarf.

The introduction of new signalling systems on the Underground means that there may be no more such runs (unless maybe they stick a modern S stock carriage at the front, which would totally ruin the effect). Indeed, this particular journey only went from Ealing to High Street Ken before turning round, so not a lot of real smoke would have got into the tunnels.

Quaint though the train may be to our eyes, a hundred years ago people really did commute into central London from way out in the countryside in just such a way.

Friday, June 21, 2019

Now we are 5

As each development in technology, over Man's long history, has moved from the conceptual to the implementation so, one can easily imagine, there would always be the same bemusement and scepticism. For example, consider the day that someone, perhaps lying on their back after a hard day's gathering in the late stone age and contemplating the smooth boulders in the stream nearby, thought "Hmm, I bet those would roll nicely, wonder if we could improve on them". And then, later that day, having to persuade his jeering friends that, yes, there was some real practical advantage to moving a dead mammoth on some little round stones rather than the traditional way of shoving it on to a sledge and letting the women pull it.

So it must be with the tech wizards of today. They pore over circuit designs and blueprints, millions of lines of computer code and tiny electronic components and think "Hmm, if we connected this bit to that bit and put a few micro-volts through it, it would be really cool, right?". And then they look out of the window of their glass towers over the teeming masses below and think "But how the hell are we going to convince those dumbos to buy it?"

Today we are at one of those fascinating moments. Today it is possible to buy a smartphone with 5G capability and to connect to a network (in a few cities, for now) that offers it.  Today, as I learn in The Guardian, you can at last achieve the undoubted Holy Grail of technology, download a movie in seconds using 5G.

The "download a movie in seconds" test has been one of these memes that haunt the smartphone age. Every time there is an improvement in network and processor speeds then the only thing that anyone can think about as to why it matters is how fast a movie can be sent from server to phone. You still have to watch it in real time, of course, but that small point is clearly irrelevant. Like a child screaming "I want it now" as it passes a sweet shop, the movie-consumer is, it seems, motivated only by the transfer time.

There are those of us, and, I suspect, perhaps a very large number, who actually don't care about either watching movies on our phones or, if we do like to watch, are not that bothered if it takes a few minutes or seconds to acquire them, or even if you have to set it up to download overnight (just like we did back in the dark ages of the internet for almost everything, all those centuries decades a few years back). We don't admire and use this technology to watch bloody movies. We use our phones to keep in touch, to check on transport and the weather, to look things up or just follow the news. Yes, once we all have 5G no doubt we will become used to it and start taking it for granted. But it is hard right now to summon up any excitement. And as to paying £60 a month plus for the right to download a film, that I will never have the patience to watch, a bit faster than I can do now ... well, let us return to our chums squatting over their roast mammoth and idly rolling roundish stones up and down the banks of the river.
"This, what do you want to call it, wheel thingie? I mean, it rolls around sure but what it's actually for?" ponders Og.
"What's it for?" replies Ug, sucking out the last of the marrow-bone and tossing it for the kids to fight over "Dunno. But tell you what, my old son - we could paint a totemic design on the side, sort of black and white pattern, be pleasing to the gods that will".
The light of inspiration reaches Og's shaggy-browed eyes. "You mean - a go faster sticker?"
"Yeah. And we could have races, you know, see which one hits the water first."
"With valuable prizes for the winner"
"Got it in one. And as this is my very first formulation of this vitally important idea, I'm going to call it - formulation one racing. Which I now own, by the way,"

I am now eagerly awaiting the arrival of 6G. A system so fast, so clever, so well-attuned to our needs that it will stream the movies straight into our brains for us to watch at our leisure later.  The fact that 99.99% of them will be worthless American dross need not concern us. It certainly doesn't seem to bother anyone wandering London right now marvelling at how fast they can download them.