Sunday, December 10, 2017

Snow on a Sunday

Photo: Mrs. Commuter

Here's something not seen in these parts for a long time. I've been trawling the archives and it was seven years ago that I last saw fit to write about snowfall here in beautiful Ruislip. That was the horrible winter of 2010, which began with a cold snap in the last week of November and seemed to go on right through Christmas. The worst day was Saturday 18th December when we had about six inches in a very short time and there were the amazing pictures of aircraft stuck at Heathrow unable to move or even to allow their stranded passengers to debark.

This morning we awoke to about an inch of the white stuff and with a forecast of more to come all day. As you can see, it looks pretty in our back garden but is not particularly serious. We seem to be at the edge of the storm - a family member just a few miles north of here reports four inches - but there are reports of very bad conditions in the Midlands.

And for our regular readers [Do me a favour! Ed] here is this morning's status update for the Tube. Guess what? All the exposed lines in North and West London are snookered. Ah, happy days. I wonder what tomorrow's rush hour will be like?

Saturday, December 09, 2017

The Sheer Nastiness of the Brexiteers

A chance remark by one-time leader of the Conservative Party, Iain Duncan Smith, irritated me enormously this afternoon. Speaking after the first substantive deal in the long process to extricate the UK from membership of the EU, he said "They blinked first".

This innocuous comment has a huge undertone. For Smith and his ilk, the EU is something to be beaten, to get one over on, to face down and defeat. They reason that if it's good for the EU it must be bad for Britain.  Like the economists of the late 19c, convinced that no further significant technical progress in anything was likely, they see everything as entirely static - if one country is to do better, it can only do so because someone else is doing worse.

I wonder if when Smith, say, takes his car in for a service and is quoted a flat fee, does he rub his hands with glee afterwards and think "I certainly put one over on that garage mechanic, I would happily have paid £5 more" whilst the mechanic thinks "Wow what a  mug, I charged him £3 more than Juggins down the road would have done?". Or could it be that Smith is happy for someone who knows what they are doing to fix his car and the person doing the fixing is happy to be paid for it. In other words, that both parties emerge better off from the trade?

 Britain needs a strong and peaceful Europe and they need us. We should be working closely together towards a common end - the maintenance of societies which live under law, at peace with their neighbours and creating a sustainable prosperity (although I am increasingly doubtful if this latter can be achieved given our current technologies and the increasing despoliation of the biosphere).  The  "all foreigners are only out to get us and deserve a good kicking" attitudes of some in positions of power, given what we need to achieve through the negotiations, is like someone storming out of a tennis club that they have been a member of for many years, saying how stupid and ghastly all the other members are, and then demanding the right to play on the courts anyway but without paying for them. It ain't gonna work, Iain.

Friday, December 08, 2017

A Bit of a Conundrum

The digital currency Bitcoin made headlines this week as its price soared to some $17,000, having started the year at $1,000. Fine if you own a few, baffling for those who do not. It has some real value for making micro-payments - those payments that are so small that the normal channels are far too costly to use. For example, if I bought a book from someone in France who was not a commercial seller, the price might be €3 but it would cost at least €30 to make a bank payment and there is no alternative other than mailing the cash and hoping the postman won't spot it. A payment by Bitcoin would cost nothing extra.

As the number of times I make such payments is very small (the last time was having to reimburse a French hospital a few years ago when I fell suddenly and briefly ill on holiday, but it wasn't worth claiming on insurance) I have no use for Bitcoin but continue to be baffled by why anybody would buy into it at the current price. It has no legitimate backing whatsoever, there is no protection from fraud, nothing to stop the mysterious and anonymous inventor from making a change that instantly devalues the currency and above all, it is not legal tender anywhere. It cannot be used to pay debts unless the other party agrees, whereas a legal currency must be accepted. So the only way to unload your stash is to find someone else who will take them. The moment all potential buyers shrink back, if only for a few hours of trading, the value could plummet towards zero.

Plenty of sober voices have warned of the perils of speculating in such a weakly bound commodity. History is rife with examples of people rushing in to buy objects of no discernable value with the certainty that, come what may, they will be able to sell out and make a profit. From the tulip mania in 17c Holland to the South Sea Bubble of 1720, from the Railway Mania in the 1840s to the Wall Street Crash and onto the Dotcom boom, "investors" in such cases always fail to grasp that what they are buying is only valuable as long as others are also buying and there is nothing whatsoever that says this will continue to be the case. And equally "analysts" are always drawing graphs that show lines going upwards and therefore projecting that they must continue to go upwards.

Bitcoin may founder or it may flourish - it is a great boon to criminals who can make anonymous payments with it - but what is certain is that a lot of people will get their fingers burned, and when they sit around on street corners, with a few miserable coins in a hat and placards reading "Victim of Bitcoin hype", the rest of us will stroll on, wry smiles playing about our lips.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Spot the Difference

I was very excited to receive a letter from my good friends at Barclaycard this morning. Had I won two tickets to the annual dinner and dance? Alas, no, it was yet another missive about how they are creating a "ring-fenced" bank, simultaneously telling me how important it is and that it will make not a jot of difference to my day-to-day banking experience. Included was another yawn-inducing notification:
We're making important changes to your minimum monthly payments
I glanced over the next paragraph, as one does whilst readying the left hand to scrunch the whole thing up prior to filing it in the recycling bag but my attention was arrested by the following:
See below to get an idea of how these changes affect your account
If your standard balance was £100.00 your minimum payment would've been £5.00. Based on the new calculation and the below assumptions the minimum payment for this balance would be £5.00
Clearly I am missing something here. The important changes, so vitally important that they bothered to put "would've" instead of "would have" (nice saving of an entire printed character there, give yourselves another £1m bonus all round, boys), are going to increase my minimum payment (assuming I only spent a measly £100 in a month, which quite frankly is hardly going to keep Mrs. Commuter in the style she aspires to) by a whopping 0.00%, correct to 2 sig.fig. Or, to put it another way, the important changes are not going to make any difference at all. Why couldn't (sorry, could not) they have said that? Or could not someone have had the basic sense to realise that, because there is a minimum repayment of £5,  the change (which is an increase from 2.0% to 2.25%)  only affect people whose balance is  in excess of £222.22. You see how I did that? £5 / 0.0225. An easy job for my desktop calculator.

My piece is now written, the letter is on its way to its rendezvous with a landfill site but before I lay down my pen I should note that another business communication reached me this morning. I changed car insurers recently; the jilted party has now written a sad little note asking me why I no longer love them and please would I get in touch, they promise to be nicer this time, honest. What a waste of money - I called them a month ago and told them I was going. They'll have to do a lot better if they want to win me back - a nice big box of chocs will do for a start.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Dr Commuter Advises... the England Cricket Team

Source: BBC Website

Thank you for your enquiry Jonathan. I assume it is a question although it does appear in the form of a categorical statement in the rendering reproduced above. The Ashes is, as many of us know, a series of cricket matches played between teams representing England and Australia. The side that wins the most in any one series is declared the winner of the "The Ashes" and goes on to spray large quantities of sparkling wines over one another.

In my opinion the England team can certainly win the Ashes. What they must do is to score more runs than their opposition and to take more wickets. In this way they will have a larger score of runs at the end of each game and if they take all of the wickets as well then they will be adjudged the winners and may commence to spray sparkling wine, albeit not in the same liberal quantities as they are permitted to use should they win the entire series.They will win the entire series if they manage to follow this prescription in sufficient games.

If you have any questions for Dr. Commuter,  do contact us at the usual address. 

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Lines on the Departure of Robert Mugabe

Editor's note: It is customary, when penning a ditty to mark a significant occasion of someone, to find suitable rhymes with their name.This produces a pleasing piece of doggerel. The following effort has made every effort to observe this rule but readers must be aware that it is not easy to match English words to a Zimbabewean surname and we hope they will make due allowances

The crowds were milling in the street
Was it to see the derby?
What brought them out despite the heat
T'was to see off R Mugabe.

The military strutted up and down
As if enjoying a barbie.
But graver business brought them to town;
To chuck out R Mugabe.

The market stalls had fish and meat,
Lettuces and kohl rabi.
And eager buyers flocked to eat
Ignoring R Mugabe.

Then ZanuPF gathered, all
Going rhubarbe, rhubarbe
And made the long awaited call
To ditch one R Mugabe.

Chasing the Ratings

Recently I renewed my annual motor insurance. As is sadly so often the case these days, this process required ditching my previous provider because they had hiked up the premium massively for no obvious reason; a few minutes online and I had a quote from someone else. This is not only more than £100 cheaper than the quote from my current provider, it was less than I had been charged last year. It would not surprise me if the same thing happens next year.

And that, you might be thinking, is surely that. One buys motor insurance, one puts the policies away (or in today's case, downloads the documents) and the matter is closed until the first frosts of next winter announce that the festive season of insurance renewals is with us once again. Alas, there is always a postscript. My old provider has cold-shouldered me and no doubt crossed me off their Christmas card list but the new one is keen to further our acquaintance. They have asked me to rate their product. Apparently this will help other customers.

I can go to a restaurant, eat an enjoyable meal and give them a high rating. I can buy an electrical product that fails to do what it claims to do and give it a low rating. But how on earth do I rate an insurance policy? We are not talking about how easy it was to chat to them over the phone because I did the whole business online. Nor about the key feature of any insurance policy - what happens when you make a claim. We are talking about how I rate the product itself and it doesn't even come into effect for another ten days.I am baffled as to how to proceed. Something sarcastic on the following lines perhaps?

A lovely little policy, although clause 14.b is rather obscure and I didn't like the sour notes emitted from clause 18.d(2), albeit that the exclusion of liability for acts of aliens from the Planet Tharg added a delightful touch of levity. My partner enjoyed the cover for the towing of caravans less than 35 cwt. The typeface used for the small print was well-chosen. I can definitely see this policy lasting the full twelve months.  4 stars


Saturday, November 11, 2017

(Un)Silent Witness

Some stories demand to read. Such was the case with this gem concerning a police suspect who, during a routine interview at the station, declined to answer his interlocutor with speech but used an entirely different orifice to emit sounds. The policeman shut his notebook, opened a window and terminated proceedings.

That this took place in Kansas (albeit not the state but the town of the same name in Missouri) adds a certain piquancy.

"Aunt Em, Aunt Em, that terrible noise, that rushing wind, is it ... is it a twister?"
"Hush child, it's just one of the farmhands making, er, comments, to the cops"

Whether the successor to the highly acclaimed Breaking Bad will be called Breaking Wind is not yet clear.

Friday, November 10, 2017


Every unit of measurement has its technical definition (such as a second being so many billions of vibrations of a caesium atom) and its everyday definition (large areas being so many times the size of Wales, smaller areas being so many football pitches). The world of consumer technology is not exempt. The technical definition of broadband speed is the number of bits per second that information can be transmitted but the man in the street doesn't hold with that. The benchmark of  internet access speed is how long it takes to download a high-definition film.

A nice example of this usage is in today's papers with the announcement by big player Vodafone of very fast broadband facilities coming soon to selected UK cities. How do we know how fast it will be? It will enable the downloading of films to be achieved in a few minutes instead the current average of half-an-hour. And this is where I start scratching my head. Because it is not just film-as-measurement that is the problem, it is film-as-justification. The reason why this upgrading of communications infrastructure matters, apparently, is so that consumers can download films faster. And I have to ask - does it really matter?

The film market may be very big. But I have the impression that huge numbers of people choose to watch them on very small screens, smartphones, tablets and the like. So all that high definition is utterly wasted. I sometimes watch films or TV on my 24" monitor and the picture quality is outstanding and this is from standard definition stuff (the files of which are less than a quarter the size of high-definition versions). And why does it matter if some kid has to wait an extra half an hour to begin watching, even assuming they do start watching the moment the download is ended? Suppose they were going to a cinema to see the same film - it might take them half an hour just to get there, then there's the queue to pay, the queue for popcorn and the interminable bloody adverts and trailers before the film begins. This is all regarded as perfectly in order and does not detract from the popularity of film-going. But apparently it is appallingly backward for anyone to have to wait a trivial amount of time once they have decided to see a film on their own device.

Now there are some good reasons for upgrading the speed of internet communications. The article I cite mentions transmission of CT scans between medical facilities. Businesses need to have rapid communications of data. But as long as the film speed standard holds then it is very hard to take the need for faster broadband seriously. I couldn't care less if it takes a few minutes or a few hours to download a game (such as the amazing Skyrim, which has been taking up most of my gaming hours in the past few years) because like any rational human being I can think and plan and find other things to do during the download (such as doing it overnight). And the idea that I, as a general consumer of broadband, may find myself paying more for it in future, so that some spotty herbert can get Alien Bloodbath IV ("This time the blood is even more bloody than last time") a little bit quicker than he could previously, does not make my heart sing on this bright but chilly November morning.

[Oh dear, I think I must have missed Alien Bloodbaths I to III. Were they any good, do you know? Ed]

Thursday, November 09, 2017

Return of the Grauniad

Regular readers, should there be any, of these musings will be aware that I often quote from The Guardian newspaper. This is because I subscribe to it. Consequently that august organ of the press knows my address.

Imagine my surprise then to receive an email from said paper apologising for sending me another email that, they say, was sent by mistake because it relates to a competition open only to UK residents. My surprise was compounded in that I never received the original email.

There may be something sinister going on here, though I cannot quite see what. Or we are back to the modern equivalent of the glorious days of Garudian misprints, a regular source of hilarity in other popular journals during the 1960s (and 70s and probably well into the 90s). They erred by not sending me the first email and erred again by telling me that I no longer appear in the very country to which they nonetheless faithfully mail my subscription vouchers each quarter.

I now eagerly await a third email apologising for the second and explaining that as I am indeed eligible to join the competition, that the closing date was last Friday, and that only non-subscribers resident in Antarctica are eligible to enter. 

Friday, November 03, 2017

Having The Builders In

Few structures on Earth have inspired as many, and as widely diverse, theories about their construction than the Pyramids of Egypt. Scientific interest in them dates back to the turn of the 19c with the French expedition under Napoleon and yet experts (and plenty of non-experts) continue to find new information and to promulgate their own ideas about how and why they were built. Today we have something tangible (or perhaps I should say non-tangible) to add to the story, for a huge space has been detected in the middle of the Great Pyramid.

For those of who believe in the scientific method, (as opposed to the "Aliens did it" school of nutters), it is very satisfying that this finding came about through the application of hard science - in this instance using detectors to measure the frequency of muons (high energy and highly unstable fundamental particles) as they tore through the Pyramid interacting with the stable atoms of which it is composed. More of them got through in one part than in the rest, the giveaway sign that there was far less solid matter for them to collide with.

Until cameras can be inserted into the void, which appears to be above the Great Gallery that leads to the King's Chamber in the very heart of the Pyramid, it is not possible to say much more about it but there is no reason why one should not speculate.  So purely in the interests of science here is the likely explanation.

Scene: The Giza plateau approx 4,500 years ago. The Pharoah Khufu reclines under a shade contemplating the empty sands of the desert. Before him kneels a man holding a papyrus inscribed with many geometrical symbols.
Pharoah:  How goes your work, oh Imhotep my architect? Have the gods inspired you? Can you truly construct the magnificent mausoleum that will house my immortal spirit and thus defend Egypt for ever?
Imhoteop: Pretty good, pretty good your highness. The lads have put in an extra shift, managed to get the plans finished. Here, take a shufti
Pharoah: I see you have allowed for the chamber leading to my tomb, even as we spoke.
Imhotep: Yeah, yeah, it's all there, bit tricky working out how to put a bloody great gallery right in the middle of the pyramid without the roof falling in but a few extra bits of four by two, bit of stone to cover up them and it should look fine.
Pharoah: You have accomplished much. However my priests assure me that there is much that must accompany me to the afterlife. Many chariots, statues, vases, fine clothes and jars of wine, and all the treasures of my many conquests.
Imhotep: Yes.... it's always the same when you're moving house, isn't it, so much gear you suddenly realise that you've got stashed away and there are never enough camels when it comes to it.
Pharoah:  Where then, oh servant of the gods, whose very life hangs upon the merest flick of my finger, shall I store for eternity the necessary objects for my sustenance?
Imhotep: Well, seeing as how you put it that way, highness, perhaps me and the lads could put in a sort of loft conversion for you, knock out a bit in the middle, make good, few quick hieroglyphics to make it look nice, say five bags of gold for the lot, VAT not included?
Pharoah: Four bags including VAT. Or shall I summon my executioner?
Imhotep: Alright blimey, Four bags then. I'd better be getting on with it
Pharoah: Let it be so. And now, as Memphis United are playing away to Thebes Academicals, we shall take our leave.


Saturday, October 28, 2017

Tinkling in the Goal Mouth

One of the more bizarre moments from today's sporting fixtures was undeniably to be found in the National League North football match between Bradford Park Avenue and Salford City. There are various reasons for a referee to send a player off, including a deliberate foul on an opponent with a clear chance to score, dangerous play and showing flagrant disrespect to the officials. But what on earth was going on in the Salford goal area towards the end of this match?

Tweets posted on Twitter this afternoon - Image manipulated a bit in order to fit onto this web page

Possibilities include:

  • Too freely imbibing of the half-time tea. They serve it pretty strong up north, I believe.
  • The play was so exciting the goalie couldn't cope.
  • There was a really dry bit of turf at the side of the goal line that was really distressing him.
  • It was for a bet.
  • He was marking his territory.
  • There was some badinage with the Bradford supporters massed behind his goal and somehow the phrase 'taking the piss' got taken literally
  • Upset by taunts about him leaking goals, he decided to show he could leak something else
And so on. If you have any further suggestions do please write in to the Editor. He has no interest in sport and it will really wind him up.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Windows 10 - The Curse of the Error Message

I switched my pc on this afternoon, knowing that when it shut down a couple of days ago there were updates being installed, so I expected to receive the message that duly appeared to inform me that the completion of the process was taking place. Alas, having whizzed through the last ten per cent of installs it then mournfully put up the banner of failure
We couldn't complete the updates. Undoing changes. Don't turn off your computer
I have never had this one before. I did not turn off the computer but waited for a few minutes until a reboot. Then it told me it was applying updates again, then once more that they had failed. And it rebooted again. But this time the system started up normally.

After some minutes the little box at the bottom that warns if there are system messages came to life (was it shy, or waiting for me to calm down?) to tell me that the updates had failed and I should click for further information. Well, you know me, I'm a sucker for this sort of thing. So I clicked, and waited, and eventually up came more info telling me about a raft of successful system updates made a few days ago. And not a word about a failure.

So now I am baffled. What was it that failed to update? Will I get this all over again the next time I reboot? Why does the system tell me there are problems but not what the problems were or what the updates were that it was trying to install? Is this a game devised by some cunning mastermind at Microsoft HQ to see how many abusive emails they can receive?

Whilst waiting for the reboot processes to complete I checked out the internet on another device to see what others thought about this warning message. Depressingly, most of the so-called Microsoft Professionals advised making changes in Windows. None of them seemed to realised that a PC that is rebooting itself does not load Windows in a form that the user can manipulate, or alternatively that if Windows does load then the reboot issue has gone away (albeit it may return).

I hope I will not have to return to this topic.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Gone Fishing

A hard couple of days doing essential maintenance on the aquatic part of the estate [pond out the back: Ed]. Twenty years ago we put in a couple of baskets of snakegrass and of irises. Since then they have grown and spread, creating huge rootballs and great dollops of smelly mud, each generation of plants dying back to form a new layer of mulch for the next. Almost imperceptibly the plants had taken over more than half of the surface area and their weight was such that it was impossible to shift them. It was time to act.

Yesterday we managed to cut through the soft mud and remove it, piece by piece, until with some careful levering of a spade the rootballs could be freed and lifted. To my surprise the baskets were still there - I had assumed they must have rotted away long ago. Today we finished the job of clearing up and tomorrow I aim to take all the debris to the dump.

The final job is to put the fish back. They are slippery little blighters. Once we began cutting into the vegetation, the pond rapidly filled with filthy water and it was necessary to remove the fish. But because they hide under the plants, these had to be cleared first. This meant the water was so full of mud that nothing could be seen and the only way to catch the fish was to trawl around with a net or a bucket then inspect the contents as they were emptied. One by one, as I poured water into the drains, a flopping little body would emerge for me to decant into a fresh holding tank. I think I got them all in the end but I won't know for sure until they go back in.

We have been very fortunate with the weather. Last week we holidayed in the Black Forest (and very beautiful it was too) with average temperatures in the low teens. This weekend in the UK we are in the high teens, it hasn't rained and a touch of the low twenties is promised for Monday.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Ryanair - Still Toxic after all these Years

Almost exactly four years after I commented critically on low-cost airline Ryanair's hatred of its customers, a fresh storm has hit the company. It seems that the holiday rosters of its pilots were switched so recklessly that the airline had to cancel thousands of flights this autumn. This screwed up the plans of people who had booked tickets with holidays or other travel arrangements in mind. The airline blithely assumed it didn't matter if hotel bookings or precious holiday days were lost.  Ryanair attempted to refuse the compensation required by law (whilst apologising profusely for PR purposes) then said they would pay full compensation, including the costs of finding alternative flights. Now the latest reports show it is still in denial and still attempting to screw its customers, especially those who it misinformed about their rights in the first place.

One might say that anyone who choose to fly with this sort of carrier must take the risk of being treated as expendable. But if you buy a ticket and pay upfront then you are entitled to fulfilment of that contract by the supplier. I am so glad that I no longer fly for business and don't have to fly when I go on holiday. This industry, or at least some of it, is not fit for purpose.

Poor old Spotify

For those ignorant of such things, Spotify is a website that permits users to play music directly from their internet-enabled devices. There is a large catalogue from which to choose. If one wishes to keep the music then it must be purchased. There are plenty of other such websites but I single out this one because it is one of the very few that I have used from time to time, and because today I received a plaintive little email from them displaying this desperate plea:

Apologies if you find this hard to read but this is exactly how it was sent. I suppose people who spend all day listening to pop music don't know much about image design.  Anyway, let us examine the contents forensically.

"It's been a while...".  No greeting. No "Dear Ramblings" or, if they wanted to be more formal "Dear Mr Commuter (Ruislip)". Instead they give me a phrase without a subject. What has been a while? How long is a while?

We then move from this unsubstantiated assertion to the baffling "So we made you a throwback playlist...". If they had said "So here is a gift voucher that you can spend in the retailer of your choice; please, please spend more time browsing our website" then this would definitely have grabbed my attention. I don't know what a throwback playlist is. Every single piece of music I (and, I suspect, you) own was recorded at some time in the past. At what point is a track sufficiently old to be dubbed as a throwback? Does anyone on Spotify even realise that there is a huge body of work produced in the past five centuries that is regularly performed? Clearly not, because for these dumbos the pieces included in this unwanted playlist are tracks from about twenty or thirty years ago.

The suggestion that I might have memories for works by a-ha and Eurythmics shows once again the inadequacies of data mining and prevalence of stupidity over thought processes in consumer websites. Spotify know the sort of thing I have browsed in the past. They also therefore know the sort of thing in which I have not the slightest interest, and pop songs of the past thirty years feature pretty damn high in this list.

And so we come to the summing up. Will I "love" their "throwback playlist"?  Here are the possible answers and you, dear reader, may select the one you feel is most appropriate.

  • No
  • No, no, a thousand times no
  • Do you really think I can be arsed even to look at their stupid list, never mind actually listen to it?
  • Er, that's about it, one of the above should be sufficient

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Across the Alps

Mrs. C. and I enjoyed a week in Piedmont recently, with a heavy (and I mean that in more than one sense) emphasis on the gastronomic delights of this beautiful region. As usual we travelled by train and this in turn meant an overnight stop in Lyon, following a fearfully early start in order to catch the only Eurostar that goes directly from London to Marseilles (thereby cutting out the usual faffing about trying to cross Paris). Our hotel was placed almost directly outside the main train station in Lyon and what could be more natural than to picture some of the highly modernist trams that serviced the area.

After Lyon we took the train to Turin, a wonderful journey cutting directly through the Alps and on to  four nights in Cuneo sampling what must be one of the finest cuisines in the world  (with an enormous emphasis on local production and rigorous standards) and then two nights in Turin, a city previously unknown to us. Unlike other Italian cities of its size, Turin is amazingly well-ordered, and easy to navigate. The whole centre (with only a few exceptions) comprises handsome buildings of some 5 floors in height, laid out on a regular grid system so precise that one can stand at the gates of the Royal Palace and look down through piazza after piazza to the equally imposing railway station 1km away. It has a large number of pedestrian only areas and many miles of porticos - wide streets with arched arcades running on both sides in Renaissance style. And it also has a tram system, but unlike those in Lyon, the impression is of a hotch-potch of styles that suggests either a devotion to preservation or a lack of cash. 

Perceptive readers will spot the that the two trams on the right, one rather old-fashioned in appearance, the other modern, are both working the no. 13 route. It's rather refreshing compared to the Underground where every train on each line is identical pretty well all of the time. Alas we were not able to ride any of them so as to determine which was the more comfortable.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

The Morality of Ledgers

BBC Radio 4's flagship news programme, Today, devoted this morning's output to the question of how digital technologies are changing the way we live. They marvelled at developments in artificial intelligence, the proliferation of start-ups and the speed at which traditional jobs were disappearing. There was a plethora of modernity and technospeak, but I was greatly heartened - and dismayed - at the phrase used by one of the experts. Leslie Berlin said, in the context of the impact of Silicon Valley and the developments of which she approves

... all of this has to be put on the good side of the ledger

 Writing as someone who learned their craft back in the days when ledgers meant ledgers - thick volumes in weighty black binders containing bookkeeping entries which we auditors used to embellish with curious ticks, curls and marks, sometimes in green ink, sometimes in purple - and which survive only on the dusty shelves of Museums of Accountancy - it is indeed life affirming to think that this word still carries a meaning for the modern entrepreneur, though what the younger listeners to Today (if there are any) made of her imagery I have no idea. She did not invoke the usual discussion so dear to us accounting veterans as to whether the ledger should be laid out facing or sideways on to the window, nor the best way to remove the stains left by chocolate biscuits, nor the fierce, sometimes violent, altercations about the most appropriate colour for ticking up a calculated balance the third year running (having already used the traditional green and purple pens in previous years).

Pleased as I was to hear that ledgers, and all that they stand for, are still in vogue with the highest of hi-tech trend-setters, I was not in any way chuffed at all at the wanton ignorance displayed by the words 'good side'. Ledgers do not have good or bad sides. They are repositories of information and how that information is processed is up to the person perusing it. The problem, I think, lies with the commonly misunderstood words 'debit' and 'credit'; these are technical terms used in bookkeeping and imply no moral virtues and 'credit' is the prime culprit because it has at least three utterly different meanings;
  • Credit (accounting expression): an entry made in the ledger on the side nearest the window, an entry that is not a debit
  • Credit (expression of social approbation) "It was to Don's credit that he he acknowledged that he was the audit clerk who had dropped the chocolate biscuit onto line 34 of the ledger thereby obliterating the entry referring to the sale of 14 widgets at £1 13/6d (gross)"
  • Credit (measure of financial standing or believability) "Would you credit it, that sodding bookie has refused to give me any more credit?"
So there are no good or bad sides, just as people who talk about things being "on the credit side of the balance sheet" know not of which they speak. Perhaps the concept of souls being weighed in the balance on judgement day has something to do with it. But surely even the gods, these days, use computerised systems to keep track of who is worthy and who is going into the land of perpetual twilight; although one imagines meeting Anubis, the fearsome jackal-headed god who, as he goes to measure your sins against a mere feather, says wearily "I'm sorry, the computer's running very slowly today, can you come back in a thousand years?" That's the thing about ledgers - they may be obscured by chocolate but at least they don't need to be taken offline, virus-checked and rebooted at regular intervals.

Friday, September 01, 2017

Desperately Seeking Sydni

As I have written recently, I joined Facebook in order to keep in touch with a small group interested in the products of the computer software company from which, many years ago, I drew a regular wage packet. I do nothing whatsoever other than read the messages and now and then pop in a pithy comment of my own, none of which are likely to end up in the forthcoming slim volume provisionally entitled The Wit and Wisdom of A Commuter (Ruislip). So you may imagine my surprise when I received an email from Facebook (apparently) which featured a small picture of a young lady of a certain physical attractiveness disporting herself upon a chaise longue in her undergarments*. The accompanying text said no more than
Sydni Bau wants to be friends with you on Facebook
and invited me to click a link to commence this relationship.

To someone of my advanced years it is undeniably fascinating that this hitherto unknown female should have such sufficient confidence in our reaching an understanding that she is happy to share with me those things that ladies normally reserve for a much better acquaintance. But I failed to click on the button and, as Facebook does not give you the option of rejecting the offer, I simply ignored it. No doubt Mr Zuckerberg and his minions will start harassing me to say I have invitations outstanding but if that is how they wish to waste their time, who am I to interfere?  I don't suppose they get much fun these days.

The reason I have abstained from that tempting little blue button is simple. I Googled Sydni Bau, figuring that someone like that, who (if we are to speak frankly) appears to put it about a bit, must be known to others - New Scotland Yard if nothing else - and also because the idea of anyone, male or female, calling themselves Sydni has an alluring quality all of its own. Nobody of that name turned up. One or two Sydnis did, none of whom were Baus, but I also learned that it is defined on the Urban Dictionary website as a "Silly or goofy girl."

Anyway, dear Sydni, if you happen to read this, do get in touch again and this time give me some tangible reason for being friends. I'm happily married, you know, and so we need to find some more suitable mutual interests. A love of stupid names perhaps?

* The Editor wishes to point out that copies of the photograph may be obtained upon request. It will be supplied in a plain brown email and marked "Paving Stone Monthly" to avoid embarrassment.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Bakers and Breaks

The all-new, improved, Great British Bake-Off began its seventh series last night having moved from the BBC to Channel 4. One new judge, two new presenters and otherwise exactly the same as before - twelve pleasant and normal people demonstrating their skills and not one of whom whooped, high-fived or had an emotional backstory causing tears and sympathetic hugs while the cameras gloated - and some splendid cakes to be admired. Same tent, same setting, same awful weather raging outside and identical format.

Except, that being on commercial television, there were ad breaks. C4 decided to keep the content roughly as before and so had to stretch running time by fifteen minutes. I can't recall this being done for anything else; we are used to brilliant shows running for nearly thirty minutes on radio moving to TV and being butchered to less than 24 minutes of content (example: Harry Hill who used the time on radio to develop wonderful running gags that vanished when he transferred to the box).

Advertisers must have thought that this was a great way to show off their products. But in the Commuter household the response was what it always is - the moment the programme ident appears at the bottom of the screen to signify the end of a segment, the remote control is raised and the mute button pressed. Even then some ads were painful to watch - literally. Ebay had a sequence in which the screen changed background colour repeatedly; glimpsed from the corner of the eye this made a stroboscopic effect akin to glimpsing the sun through the trees whilst moving at high speed. Yuck. Presumably nobody connected with Ebay bothers to watch. This "viewer" moved his head further to one side and thereby ignored everything happening on the screen until his more tolerant wife nudged him to restore the sound.

Watching ads without the sound, other than those with genuinely irritating flashing screens, is a slightly surreal experience. "There's that bloke with the beard" you say1 "I wonder what he's on about? If I had a beard would I get more offers of work? Oh look, here's a very sincere and twinkly-eyed man in a nice sweater leaning forward ever so slightly to share his wisdom, or something. What can he be on about? and how many ever-so-slightly less sincere and twinkly-eyed actors did they audition before deciding he was the right man for the knitware?2 Ah, a young person in a white coat pointing at something. Fascinating, really fascinating.  Oh, there's a car. Driven on utterly empty city streets. By a young man with a beard. Who ever would have expected that, certainly never seen that before in an ad, what fantastic imagination these creative chaps have, I do hope they get loads of awards. And there's that comedian I used to like, but am now rather sick of, poncing about on a cruise ship and pretending to be just another paying passenger, that must get him a BAFTA or my name's not Merridew Withers"3

It is vitally important to keep the sound off. Nothing these people say is of the slightest interest given that it is all written by admen. It is equally important to indulge in these speculations because it drives away the message that the ad is trying to implant in your brain and puts your own thoughts in there instead, and I want to keep it that way.

We seem to have wandered off the GBBO but there isn't much more to say about it. I fear that the subject of advertisements, their rotting effect on the brain and the need to combat them with constant cynicism and derision is one that will remain with us.

1. Alright, I say it
2. Or does he have to supply his own jumper? Is there a clothing allowance for this or does his agent negotiate it all as part of the fee? These are the sort of questions that some sort of hard-hitting documentary ought to be addressing.
3. No it's not.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

How dumb is TripAdvisor (again)?

I've written about them before and may, sadly, have to do so again because I see no improvement. Before I deliver this morning's little blast of invective, here are some facts to mull over:

  • Fact. Every review I have put on to the aforesaid website has been of somewhere in the UK or in relatively close parts of Europe
  • Fact. Every journey upon which I have embarked in the past eight years has been facilitated [Nice choice of pretentious words: Ed] by car, coach or by train. I began submitting reviews to TA in April 2014.
  • Fact. TA have never bothered to ask me how I reached those places subject to my expert analysis and therefore has no right to reach any conclusions about the mode of transport.
Good. Now we have established the foundations, we can build the structure. Consider this email that arrived still hot and steaming into my in-tray this morning:

The answers to their questions are as follows:
  • How was your flight? There was no flight, dumbo and why do you assume I flew in the first place?
  • Can you help again by sharing advice on flights you've taken? Delighted to. Based partly on my experiences in the past but mainly on what I learn from others today, flying is horrible, airports treat passengers in a disgusting and shamelessly commercial way, the security (100ml of a fluid good, 101ml some sort of risk) is a joke and the way that people can be casually bumped off flights they have paid for well in advance something that should be outlawed. My advice, which I gladly share with anyone idiotic enough to wish to fly, is Just Say No.
  • Where will you fly next? Up to Heaven to meet my maker and his pals [Or her pals. Can't be too careful these days: Ed] when the Glorious Day Of Judgement sounds, followed by the long Glorious Evening Of Hanging About On Some Clouds and the even longer Glorious Night Of Watching Celestial TV Because There's Nothing Else To Do Up Here.
I don't think I'll bother submitting a review for this last one. I don't want to spoil the destination by having loads of others going there.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

AI or AS?

Artificial intelligence may well be the future but they will have to weed out the artificial stupids first. Consider the following email, not the first of its type, received here at Ramblings Towers this morning from a sender claiming to be in Belmont, California.

Want to simplify your multi-location phone administration?  

It asks me in the subject. Yes sure, if I had a multi-location phone administration system no doubt I would be looking to simplify it, but why I would wait until some chancer happens to email me about it is something to be pondered. Anyway, let us move on to the first couple of lines of the epistle.

Hi Thomas,

Because Bristow has multiple locations I wanted to follow up on my last email about your phone system.

There's nobody here called Thomas. And Bristow is a cartoon character about whom I have created an extensive and award-winning1 website. So what is going on? The program that has generated this spam email has grazed my website, found the first name on it and assumed that this must be a business. It is hard to think that someone writing code to support a mass spam-out to potential business customers could have come up with anything stupider. I assume it is a program, rather than some bored intern trying to flick through a long list of names from a directory or some such, because it would be apparent to any human, even an intern in California, that my website does not relate to a business. And that there is nobody called Thomas referred to in it. And that my real email address is displayed fairly prominently, so they couldn't even get that right.

I don't think I will take up the kind offer to phone them tomorrow, especially as they have not offered to accept the cost of the call. Perhaps if they offered some extra incentives then we might consider which of our many locations (bedroom, study, living room) could successfully leverage2 a new phone system. How about an all-expenses paid trip to San Francisco for myself, Mrs. Commuter and Thomas? But if they insist we can leave him behind to look after our many locations.

1.  Bound to get one sooner or later so this is not as inaccurate as some may think
2. You simply have to insert this awful word into any business conversation with an American if you wish to be taken seriously. 

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Brian Aldiss

Very sad to note the death yesterday of Brian Aldiss, one of the finest writers of science fiction this country, indeed the world, has seen. When I first began reading SF, back in the 1960s, he was already a star. His Helliconia trilogy is the best extended piece of SF I have read, not just imagining alien civilisations on a planet in a binary star system with immensely long seasons and a complex biochemistry that has adapted to them, but in creating believable and sympathetic characters. And in Report on Probability A he achieved the equivalent of Waiting for Godot - a story in which almost nothing at all happens but which is compelling reading right up to the puzzling end with a single laconic line that makes you question everything that has gone before.

To a generation believing that Star Wars is the epitome of SF, Aldiss may be unknown. But I would take any one of his books against the entire output of Hollywood in this genre any day.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

The Limits of Belief

 Words change their meaning all the time in modern English. I found the misuse of one of them in the strapline of a petfood company advertising in the "colour" supplement of my weekend paper. It reads

Royal Canin: Incredible in every detail
I have nothing whatsoever to say about the products of this enterprise. My pets comprise an unruly fellowship of eight goldfish who from time to time oblige me by surfacing from the inky depths of the waters on my estate [pond out the back: Ed] to consume some of the foul-smelling stuff I buy once a year to feed them with and I get the little pot from another supplier. But I digress. Consider the statement "incredible in every detail". What do you think they wish us to understand?
Incredible means not credible, unbelievable, outside the realms of possibility. It does not mean (or at any rate, should not mean) wonderful, brilliant, inspiring, boundary-pushing, 'gosh I wish I could do that' although these are perhaps the meanings the admen might hope we would attribute to it. Nor does it mean something that would be ok to post on Instagram and forget about within seconds, even though it seems some do indeed use it in this fashion. If you tell me something and I say "That's incredible", then I mean that I do not accept your statement. Thus;

"Darling, sorry I'm late, there was a traffic jam" is a fair statement.
"Darling, sorry I'm late, the bus hit a tree and it took thirty minutes for a replacement" is also fair.
"Darling, it's so exciting, I was abducted by space aliens, taken to a mothership and forced to drink four vodka martinis before they released me with a message for the leaders of Mankind" is incredible. Not in the sense of "wow, awesome dude" as our American cousins would perhaps have it. Incredible as in lacking any sense of believability, rubbish, a plain lie.

And so we turn back to the petfood vendors with whom we started. Every thing about this company is not believable, according to its publicists. Its claims about the value of its products. Its mission statements. The ingredients. Perhaps even the contents of its annual financial accounts. They have made it plain as can be - incredible in every detail. Not to be trusted or indeed to have any credence put upon them. Could this be their prawn sandwich moment?

Friday, August 11, 2017

New Look

I've chosen a new theme for this blog. The old one has been in use for a very long time. Maybe I'll revert to it or perhaps try something else. The Editor will be happy to receive any comments [Anything at all, really, don't be shy, I've very little else to do these days: Ed]

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Eating out the Caveman way

A compelling story in today's paper confirms that our Ice Age ancestors really did put human flesh on the menu. The bones found in Gough's Cave, Somerset, have been unmistakably cut up and defleshed deliberately.

Naturally archeologists and anthropologists will study all the evidence intensely and try to understand whether cannibalism was endemic at this time or a reaction to extreme conditions. The carvings found on the bones introduce, inevitably, the 'ritual' aspect. But there is another aspect of the whole affair that may be more relevant to the rest of us. If people were gathering to eat each other at this place, then surely they did it elsewhere, and were aware of the existence of other such places. And so they must have surely considered where was the best place to get a bellyful of the neighbours. Extensive and original research conducted for Ramblings has unearthed the following document, believed to have been nailed to a tree as part of the TravelCounsellor oracle much used in the early Stone Age.

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Sparrow Renaissance

Nearly ten years ago I was bemoaning the virtual disappearance of the sparrow from our gardens. Recently I have noticed a few from time to time. This summer they are back in force; a little gang of them has taken to swarming in our rose bushes and shrubs and chirping their little heads off prior to swooping around the ground pecking away at whatever they can find. I took a quick snap, unfortunately it had to be through the window so it is not quite as sharp as I would like.

Friday, August 04, 2017

Khan: We Said build Great Wall, Not Demolish it

from our own correspondent who, having finally fled Karakorum, is hiding out in Shanghai awaiting a fast junk to anywhere

An astonishing rumour was spreading last night through the bazaars in Karakorum that the main pledge given by President Ghengis Khan to the Golden Horde that helped secure his election last year was utterly and completely misinterpreted. At the time Khan was said to have declared, to rousing cheers from many tribesmen wielding scimitars,

We're gonna knock down that wall that stops us riding into China and doing what the hell we want, and the goddam Chinese can pay for the lot, we've had it up to here with paddy fields and writing and that **** philosophy - all that true Mongols want is to ride around on horses slaughtering people and we're gonna do that all the way up to the kingdom of the Khmer going one way and the the Kingdom of the Franks going the other.

Certain parchments being read to bemused goat-herders at the Gate of the Foreign Devils seem to contradict these words. The parchments are said to be transcripts of a meeting between Khan and Chinese Emperor Bing at the Summer Palace in Beijing three months ago. The key passage reads

The Emperor, inspired by the benevolence and wisdom of the gods, enquired graciously if the President intended the militaristic threats against the Kingdom of Heaven. The President said he had been entirely misquoted, that it was fake news and that what he really said was that anything the Chinese wanted was all right by him, but not to tell anyone until the election was over. The Emperor condescended to nod and smile, inscrutably.

No word was available from the President's spokesman because the post remains unfilled following the execution of every available candidate.

[This will be the final despatch from the Mongol Empire unless we can find anyone stupid enough  with the right credentials to be appointed to the Court of the Great Khan. Which, quite frankly, seems pretty unlikely: Ed]

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

Khan: I'll Slaughter Them All If I Have To

From our own correspondent hiding under the bed in Karakorum

It is becoming increasingly difficult to report on the doings. and even the very constitution, of  recently-elected President Ghengis Khan's inner circle of Advisors. According to a goat-herder in the Karakorum market place the leader of the Scar-Mouthed tribe has been honoured. This report was immediately contradicted by a water seller near the East Gate who thought that Khan had declared the Scar-Mouths to be heretics and in league with the devils of the Gobi. There have been sightings of the ghost of the previous spokesman Zarn ("the slicer") Spicer going "Woo Woo" a lot. It has also been suggested that the President's son, Ghengis Jr, has been replaced by a glove puppet and that nobody can tell the difference.

Another casualty of the turmoil is the noble Prince Re-bus who has spent much of the past six months working on the Golden Horde's long term plan to conquer the entire world within thirty days or less. Associates of the Prince have been seen loading up camels and speeding off toward Kashgar. It is not known what has become of the Prince and seasoned observers have begun investigating the dung-hills in a manner that is becoming all too familiar.

Speaking to a delegation of the Ulan Baator Archery Club who were promoting "Why work for a living when you can make someone else do it at the point of a bow Week", Khan said "The Prince was the finest public servant that the Horde could have wished for. And that Scar-Mouthed chap, he was the finest, if not finer. They worked for me, right, so they must be the all-time best. But, you know, they were black-hearted enemies of the Great Mongolian People, in league with many bad spirits and anyone who delivers their heads on a plate will be rewarded. Gosh, it's hot in here, I'm going to have a long rest, wake me up if the Chinese start attacking the city."

In other news, the Horde has been engaged in a fierce stand-off on the remote western frontier against the Kazakhs. A Kazakh on horseback is believed to have ridden up to the frontier post and made an offensive gesture. The Horde officer on duty then made the same gesture back. Tension remains very high. The officer has been quoted as saying "If they give me the finger again then they will have crossed a red line and we will not hesitate in giving them the finger back. In fact, I am authorised to give them two fingers. That's how seriously we take this matter". Appeals for calm from the Moghul Emperor and the Serene Republic of Venice have failed so far.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

The Wonderful World of PR

This blog frequently highlights the disconnects between corporate PR and legalese on the one hand and the real world on the other. Here is a satisfying example of the genre, courtesy of Easyjet whose flight from Nice to Luton today was delayed by 13 hours. The news story has focussed on the apparent punching of a passenger by an airport worker but I spotted this at the bottom of the column in which the eyewitness (and delayed passenger) Arabella Arkwright crosses swords with a faceless spokesperson.

The airline apologised for the delay to the flight because of a “technical issue with the aircraft”. Arkwright said passengers were not told what was wrong with the aircraft or how long the delay would be, but easyJet said passengers were provided with updates and refreshment vouchers.

If you are seriously delayed whilst travelling the only thing you care about is knowing when you can get back on the move. Everything else is flannel. Isn't it wonderful that the airline automatically claims that passengers were given "updates" when it is clear that they had no idea what was going on?  And isn't it easy to imagine how this all played out back in Easyjet HQ?

Scene: The PR office in Easyjet HQ. A few harassed staffers working the phones. Enter Taz1, an intern

Taz:  Gosh it's a bit frantic in here today. What's going on, guys?
PRperson: Spot of bother on the Nice flight. Nothing to worry about. It's only been delayed 13 hours. Could you handle it for me? Just put out an update and keep the mugs passengers happy.
Taz: Yes, love to but what should I say? Do we know when the flight will leave?
PRperson: Do me a favour. It'll go when it's ready and that's all they need to know.
Taz: Oh. Shall I say what the reason is so at least they understand it from our viewpoint?
PRperson: I haven't the faintest idea what the reason is. Nobody does. That's the airline business. We just tell them it's down to technical problems. Give them a refreshment voucher every three hours, that's their lot."
Taz:  OK, got it. And I'll tell the press that we have kept them fully updated while I'm at it.
PRperson: That's it kid. I think you may have a future in customer relations.

 1 Yes,it's him again

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Khan: No Place in Horde for Brunettes

From our own correspondent, with a slight twitch and not sleeping so well these days, in Karakorum

Recently elected President Ghengis Khan has surprised observers with an off-the-cuff statement whilst meeting with some of his top generals. Khan asked about recruitment and seemed taken aback to learn that some of the tribesmen joining his army had black hair.

"It's the Golden Horde, right?" he is said to have yelled into the faces of his impassive staff "Not the Black Horde. Not the White Horde. We don't want these dark-haired scum cluttering up the camel trains and distracting the archers. We don't have the medical facilities to treat them. We want Golden men for the Golden Horde, period"

When it was pointed out that every man in Mongolia was black-haired, Khan paused a moment before saying decisively "We're all doing a great job, the greatest job ever done in the history of this empire and now I'm going into my yurt for a lie-down". His staff then continued to do whatever it was they were doing before.

Electrifying the Roads

The announcement by the Government of a ban on new diesel and petrol motor vehicles in 2040 is a welcome step toward the cleaning up of the filthy atmosphere on our roads. It raises a huge number of questions, including whether it applies to lorries, buses and other large vehicles, how we will generate the electric power needed and whether battery technology will up to the job (and skates over the environmental costs of making the batteries in the first place); but anyone who has ever been stuck behind a vehicle belching out oily black smoke will be happy to see the phasing out of this dead-end in technological development.

Leaving aside the question of whether I should put my Hyundai i30 into storage for the next fifty years so that I can bring it out to The Antiques Roadshow to admiring gasps and "I know you want to keep it in the family but if you were to take it to auction it would raise at least a million pounds", it opens up a whole new way of living. I assume that there will be no significant differences in the price of a recharge no matter where in the country you obtain it (apart from the extra 15% when on the motorway, naturally). We shall no longer cruise the highways in search of petrol stations, each displaying the price of a litre in giant illuminated letters. We shall no longer have conversations on the lines of the following:

"There's one - oh, it's 115.9"
"Still better than 118.9 at that one we just passed"
"But it's on the wrong side of the road - I'm sure there's a cheaper one somewhere over there"
"That's five we've gone past since we came off the motorway. How much petrol is there left?"
"Dont worry, the gauge shows empty long before it really is empty ... Hey, there's a sign through those trees"
"That's the other side of the railway."
"OK, straight up this dual carriageway then. Must be something round here ... ah, there's one that's closed down ... hey, there we are, 114.9, fantastic, I'll pull in ... oh sod it, look at that queue. Shall I turn round?"
"You mean go all the way back and pay a penny more?"
"You're right, we can save enough to buy half a Toblerone if we fill up here ...not too long to wait now, this past hour has really flashed by ... ah, they've just run out. Oh, well, it's only a few miles back.."
"Why is the car juddering to a halt?"
"Umm...yes, that is a good question".

Or will there be differentiated brands of electricity with massive advertising campaigns telling us things like "Zippo power puts more volts in your cathodes" or "Zoppo power ramps up the amps" or maybe "Zuppo power - reassuringly expensive electricity". Will competing suppliers give away glasses or dangling furry tails like in the good old days? Will knowledgable drivers prop up the bars at golf clubs arguing about which brand generates the most miles-per-kilowatt?

We shall (if we live long enough) see.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Khan Shock; Spicer - Missing, Presumed Disembowelled

from our own correspondent (because no-one else will take him), in Karakorum

President Ghengis Khan's beleaguered press secretary, Zarn ("the slicer") Spicer, is no longer in his post as the spokesman for the recently-elected supreme head of the Mongolian Hordes. Sources close to the administration are saying that his inability to distinguish truth from lies may have led to his downfall as. it is suggested, he made the mistake of advising the President to tell the truth on his strained relationship with the Emperor of China.

Spicer has not been seen in the bazaars of the city for some while, prompting a search of the dung-heaps for any of his limbs that may have been removed from his body. This task is hampered by the considerable number of unclaimed body parts that once belonged to other officials associated with the Khan administration.

The President was quoted as saying "He (Spicer) was the finest public servant that Mongolia has ever had, but hey, that bastard sure had a big mouth and he never knew when to close it. Well, I've fixed that little problem for him".

Rumours that the President was seeking for a replacement as his official spokesman led to a mass stampede on the road to Samarkhand of highly placed tribesmen who have all suddenly been called away on urgent family business. The President is reported to be unfazed. "Get me one of those head Lamas from Tibet", he is quoted as ordering his staff "The ones with the Yellow Hats, they look really great and what's more those guys know how to keep their traps shut. If they don't say nothin' then nobody can say I lied, right?".

Meanwhile the administration is continuing the attempt to repeal the Mongolian health care plan and replace it with "Khancare", a scheme by which any tribesmen reporting sick will be flayed, boiled and thrown over a cliff. "If a man is ill then he has incurred the wrath of the gods", the President said at a gathering to celebrate his 117th day in office "And I, as the instrument of the divine, will give him the treatment he richly deserves".

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Just as it happened

My morning paper chose to print what can only be described as a "puff" on behalf of the forthcoming Channel 4 TV series Great British Bake-Off. This will be the first series since its production company moved from the BBC. There has been much speculation about how it will work out with reduced time due to adverts and 3 (out of 4) new presenters.

My wife has been an avid fan from the very first episode of series 1; I have watched most of them. So of course we are wondering how it will change. However, it was the choice of words used by Channel 4's "creative boss" Jay Hunt that made me pause whilst halfway through a piece of toast (with honey) as I flipped through the paper over breakfast. These are the very words:

“I happened to be down at the tent a few weeks ago...

So the person who secured the contract for the most popular show on terrestrial TV, and who's job and perhaps entire career may be on the line, just "happened" to be visiting whilst filming was going on. Presumably she was really supposed to be doing something else. I wonder how it came about?

Scene: The Office of Head of Creativity at C4.
enter Taz, an intern
Taz:  Right, now Miss Hunt has a key meeting at 10 to discuss the annual outing to Southend, then a lunchtime with the Northampton Nudist Club to discuss filming their AGM and after that there's the 'Trump: My Struggle' docupic to discuss with Legal. It's going to be a busy day. I hope there are no interruptions.
enter Miss Hunt
Hunt: Morning Taz. Busy day today. I hope there are no interruptions. What's up first?
Taz: I've got out the Southend file, Miss Hunt
Phone rings
Hunt: Yes? What? Oh hello Auntie. Yes I'm fine. You and Uncle Martin? Oh dear, you've run out of washing up powder. You'd like me to get some?  Of course Auntie. I'll be over soon". replaces phone Sorry Taz, cancel everything, I've got to go to Worcester.
Taz: Of course

Scene: A roadside in rural England. Hunt stands by her car. The bonnet is open and steam is being emitted.

Hunt (on mobile): Hello AA? I've broken down. Yes, in the middle of rural England. Well how should I know, near a field with cows, alright? About three hours? Fine. ends call Now what shall I do? Oh my word, over there in that field. That's the tent. The Bake Off tent. What an amazing coincidence, I hadn't the slightest idea where they actually filmed it. And today just happens to be a day for filming. How utterly incredible. I know, I'll wander over and see what's going on....


Is that creative enough? I have a fairly flexible window to discuss a screen treatment.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Khan denies all knowledge of secret dealings

From our own correspondent in Karakorum (still desperately hoping for the posting to the Moghul Empire as promised)

President Ghengis Khan has denied any knowledge of a secret treaty with the Emperor of China said to have been negotiated by his son, Genghis Jr.  The treaty, widely announced by street criers in Beijing, has large swathes of the Mongolian border ceded to Chinese control in return for an annual caravan laden with silks, porcelain and fireworks to be transported directly to the President's pleasure palace, Xanadu.

"I didn't know nothing" the President is said to have claimed whilst attending the annual Stoning of the Rationalists convention in downtown Karakorum "My son, he is a good boy and he wouldn't do nothing to harm the interests of the great Mongolian people, at least not unless there was something really worthwhile in it for him". The President later revised his statement and insisted that the last word had been "them" and that anyone claiming otherwise was spreading false news, fake rumours and anti-Mongolian propaganda.

The President's spokesman, Zarn "the slicer" Spicer, added "Anyone saying anything at all about this might find themselves wondering why their tongue is no longer connected to the back of their mouths.  Just saying. "

Monday, July 10, 2017

The Undiscovered Country

Our 20th wedding anniversary is in September and we’d like a city break. Venice is pricey and we don’t fancy Paris. Is there an undiscovered UK town or city we should consider
 A reader's question submitted, and answered by other readers, in my morning paper. They really shouldn't make it so easy for me ...

From a journal found floating near London Bridge. 1772.

May 13th. Their Lordships of the Admiralty, having commanded me to search for places as yet unknown, I gathered my expedition in London and prepared to venture upon the waters. We know so little of the country into which we are bound. What may we find when we sail east of Richmond?

May 14th. We departed from the landing stage at Whitehall by boat. A brisk easterly assisted the oarsmen and we made camp near Hampton Court. Surely some magnificent ancient monarch lived in this great palace? We may never know.

May 15th. Departed at dawn. There are no maps of the river beyond this point. Much heartened to see the grand villas of the local chiefs at a place called Hen-Lee, as they call it in their barbarous tongue. Despatched Lt. Carter to treat with them.
Later: Carter rejoined us bearing a strange foodstuff that the natives gave him, a white spongy substance contained within a sac bearing mysterious printed letters. Dr. Armitage, our natural philosopher, studied it for some while and declared the first word thereon to be translatable as "Mother's" but the remainder eluded him. We carefully sampled this comestible, found it to be digestible though lacking in flavour, and have named it "doughfruit".

May 16th. Truly we are, by God's grace, entering unknown waters. A cluster of native houses to the north, set amidst towering reeds, we have named Reeding and claimed it for his majesty. Some tell of a fording place further west suitable for leading oxen across but surely this is mere rumour and legend. Armitage says we should nonetheless steer toward this mythical oxenford and so I have resolved.

May 18th. We can no longer understand the local dialect and must resort to sign language. The commonest symbol of the proud tribesmen is to wave two extended fingers at us - we offer all we pass this sign and it never fails to evoke a similar response.

May 20th. God, this is a dreadful place. We have found nothing to eat for a civilised Englishman, not a croissant nor latte to be had, only the awful doughfruit, though some of the natives do scorch it over a fire first and eat it still smoking greased with butter - we would sooner starve than submit to such barbarism. Carter says the men are unhappy to be so far from the known worlds and I begin to think we may fail in our mission.

May 24th. Confined by rain to our rough shelter by the banks. We can go no further. I commend our souls to God in the knowledge that we have at least done our duty. I shall entrust this journal to our last (empty) bottle of Chateau Latour '67 and hope the great river will bear it back to our people.
Captain Jas. Cork.

Friday, July 07, 2017

Getting the Parts

There is a story this morning that a US philanthropic organisation is angry that Alec Baldwin was cast to play the lead in a film about a blind person. Disabled actors are severely under-represented on film and TV compared to the number of suitable roles, and equally most roles are automatically assumed to be for fully abled actors although they could in many cases be played by those with a disability. The organisation
called it “disability as a costume” and compared the casting to so-called blackface, where white actors play black characters.

Somehow this story delivers two distinct messages. On the face of it, there is a case that any chance for disabled actors to portray themselves accurately should be made available to them and one feels that the campaigners have a point. And yet, consider where all this might lead... Here some possible stories for tomorrow's Arts & Culture section.

Criminals outraged about casting for new 'Oliver'

Mr 'Fingers' Morgan, spokesman for the Thieves Guild of London, has hit out at the producers of the revival of Oliver to be brought back to the West End soon. "Why is a qualified pickpocket not being considered as the Artful Dodger?" he demanded "My son, f'rinstance, has just got out of the Scrubs where his portrayal of the Tin Man in Wizard of Oz was described by no less a critic than GBH specialist Ron 'The Grinder' Karpov as 'bloody brilliant, specially when he nicked the professor's watch'. Yet he didn't get invited to audition. It's just sheer discrimination."

Surgeon struck off for "reckless" amputations

The BMC has struck off Dr Hartly Harrow for amputating five legs just below the knee when there were no medical reasons for the operations. Harrow said "This is typical of our judgemental society. Out of work actors, desperate to get cast in Moby Dick, came to me for help and I assisted their pitiful calls for help. Why am I being pilloried? ". The BMC said "This has all got to stop. We are currently investigating a curiously high number of one-handed actors auditioning for Peter Pan and there's a man in Bristol who claims he can get anyone a part in Treasure Island as Blind Pew after a  two minute consultation with him and his corkscrew."

Prince Charles to lead in Charles III - "One is jolly apprehensive"

The stage production of the recent BBC TV drama Charles III, due to open in Hull in October, will star the "only man qualified to play the lead" according to the producers. Prince Charles auditioned and claimed that not selecting him would be "blatant anti-royal discrimination" and that if he did get the part "MBEs would be going at the next birthday honours, alright?". He has not bothered to attend any rehearsals on the grounds that "One does actually know the job having understudied it for forty years".

...  and so on. I'd better stop.

Tuesday, July 04, 2017

Software with the Brains Removed - Google Maps

I use Google Maps a lot. Today, as usual, I wanted to check the local traffic. Google knows my home location because I have set it up - nonetheless it agitated about "location services" not being switched on. Given that I use a domestic PC and am not therefore actually moving about (apart from a little sideways motion in my swivel chair) Google does not need to know this. There is an option to allow access or not, but not to say, once and for all, that it is irrelevant, that they already know my home location and that is where I am and there is no need to try to use wifi or network addresses to pin it down any further.

After that, perhaps because my mouse cursor was resting on a street a few blocks away, Google Maps popped up a message asking if this was my place of work. I had the options of saying that it was or that I would let them know later. I did not have the option of saying that I have no place of work, or that my work is based at home.

It's not that hard to think through all of the reasonable ways that Maps might be used but Google doesn't seem to be bothered to do so.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Heat and Fire

Europe is sweltering in the traditional late-June heatwave and even here in beautiful Ruislip we have 31c with several days of it still to come. The rich smell of barbecues is drifting along the breeze. Recent summers have tended to be disappointing but this one has already delivered a long sunny spell and now, in UK terms, some real heat and little prospect of a set of traditional thunderstorms to ruin it.

Alas, there is far less satisfaction to be had than might have been the case. We woke on Wednesday to hear the hideous news that an entire tower block of flats in Kensington had been consumed by fire, with 58 confirmed deaths so far and many residents missing. Normally such fires spread gradually either up or down but this one spread so fast in both directions that the whole block was quickly ablaze and no possible rescue could take place for the hapless folk trapped inside. A public inquiry will establish what happened but it seems that cheap cladding, rather than slightly more costly fire-proof cladding, was the reason that it spread so fast. That this should happen in the richest borough in London speaks volumes for our divided society.

A more natural type of disaster, but just as devastating, began yesterday in northern Portugal and is still on-going, Temperatures in Iberia have topped 40c and massive forest fires have overwhelmed the emergency services, spreading so fast that many died in their cars trying to escape.

The downbeat public mood was made visible in the Trooping the Colour ceremony yesterday to mark the Queen's official birthday. The crowd that flocked down the Mall to join the royals as the RAF flypast thundered overhead at 1:00pm was noticeably down on recent events.

All this amidst the chaos of a Government that has thrown away its majority and must now cobble together some sort of policy. These are troubling times, my friends.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Thank you, Facebook, and goodbye

I have never used facebook (except years ago under a false name for reasons connected with my job). Recently I wished to join one specialist group and created a new profile under my real name. No problems getting in, other than:

  • FB insists on my address being Ruislip, Slough.
  • It refuses to recognise the "high" school I went to (it requires selection from a list, the school is not in the list and it won't let me add it)
  • It persistently changed the dates of my various jobs forcing me to re-enter them several times to get it right.
But today I am told for "security reasons" I must send them a photo of myself and the account is disabled.

I have done absolutely nothing with this account other than connect to the group I mentioned above. They have not told me what the security reasons are. They have no way of knowing if the new photo I sent is really of me because I only uploaded one other selfie before and both could be of someone else.  I registered my mobile with them but they have not bothered to use it to help to verify my account.

I don't need this frustration.

Friday, June 09, 2017

Election 2017: Is Mrs May bonkers or just daft?

Prime Minister Theresa May is widely reported as having said that, following her wilful destruction of her party's majority in the House of Commons, that she would now govern with the aid of "her friends" (The DUP) and then said "Let's get to work". The "work" is the Brexit negotiations.

Nobody asked you to call the election. Nobody is preventing you from getting to work. You were at work before, were you not?

A less deluded person might have mused that maybe the mood in the country should be taken into account. But no, somehow the votes cast last night are irrelevant. The only thing that appears to matter is the votes cast in the referendum a year ago. Those votes are sacrosanct. The wishes of the electors now are not.

And politicians wonder why they are often regarded with contempt.

Election 2017: The Fickleness of Fate

After the election nobody wanted, the result that nobody expected. The nation rejected "strong and stable" Theresa May, snubbed "Another Independence vote, mebbe" Nicola Sturgeon, gave a resounding two fingers to UKIP and hesitantly moved a little toward the distinctly non-strident Labour and its hitherto much-derided leader Jeremy Corbyn.

May's gamble - calling a snap election to achieve a strong majority in the House of Commons - has failed. The Tories have lost 12 seats overall, despite some significant gains in Scotland (up 12 seats). There should have been a swing to the Tories against both UKIP and Labour, based on their incumbency and the presidential nature of May's campaign. But packing the cabinet with Brexiteers who projected a "We won the referendum so we can do anything we like" attitude has backfired badly.

The results in Scotland, where both Labour and LibDems recovered seats swept up by the SNP last time, makes the overall picture harder to interpret but it does seem to fair to suggest that voters are split 50:50 between broad right and broad left in England & Wales and more tilted to the broad left (including SNP) in Scotland. This strengthens the hand of the Remainer /Soft Brexiteers. However, with Brexit negotiations due to start in 10 days and a weak government about to be take shape (minority Tory propped up by the DUP according to this morning's news reports), the UK is in a febrile state. Will this make the outcome worse, with the government unable to make any compromises and unable to make any deals for fear of plunging itself into turmoil?

Just as in those dramatic days in 2010, we now face a period of intense horse-trading, bluffs, personality clashes and individual bids for power. Will a tired and undoubtedly shaken Mrs May (no matter what she might attempt to portray in public) have the strength to see it through? We will find out very soon.

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

London Bridge and the Election

Mrs Commuter and I escaped the election for a blissful week of cruising down the Rhine and into the Main, visiting several spectacular medieval towns in the "Franconia" region of Bavaria. Alas, we could not escape the terrible news of another terrorist attack on London; in a copycat of the Westminster Bridge attack, a group of lunatics attacked people near Borough market and killed eight before the police got them.

The pressure on politicians to make instant reactions is overwhelming. Today it seems that the Conservatives would like to ditch some of the human rights laws and have longer prison sentences; their inability to understand that the attackers do not care about prison is deeply worrying. This is the same party that is proposing to cut the budget allocated to the police.

On our return we found another A4 flyer from the Green party, a leaflet from the LibDems (who continue to make Brexit the key issue) and no less than two colourful leaflets featuring Brexit betrayer B. Johnson. His slogan "standing with Theresa May" may well send shivers down the spine of the PM when she reflects on how he supported his dear and faithful friend Dave.

The election is tomorrow and we shall be glad to be shot of it, to be honest [I thought we were always honest: Ed]. How this country negotiates a new future with the EU remains the single most important political choice and I don't have the slightest idea what the options are, not least because so much depends on the other 27 member states who are themselves considering their positions. This country will presumably opt for "strong and stable" (and she never panics, at least not too much, well,okay a bit, well, quite a lot really but no worse than anyone else would) Mrs May in the same way that Germans have put their trust in "mutti" [Angela Merkel:Ed]. Labour will have another bitter period of in-fighting and I look forward to UKIP splitting into "Continuity", "Real" and "Original" factions who can spend the next five years denouncing each other.

Or will Jeremy Corbyn confound the polls (and this columnist) by winning?

 Anyway, returning to the holidays theme with which I started, it's been a long time since I put up a tram photo. Here is one in Wurzburg where an inattentive tourist is about to get a nasty shock (it's ok, she was not struck)

Sunday, May 28, 2017

De Rerum Congegnites

A lavish two page advertisment in the colour supplement to my weekend paper, paid for by Virgin TV, has introduced me to a brand new giant on the massive-brainbox scene. Never mind intense speculations about the cause of the Universe, the meaning of truth and the underlying rules of mathematics, this is a philosopher for the twenty-first century with a logic that defys all criticism. The towering intellect in question is one Ella Williamson, hitherto unknown to me, possibly because she appears to ply her trade on morning television at a time when some of us are still in bed. And this is the nub of her interpetration of the world.

My philosophy is that gadgets should be easy to use, make life better or, in some instances, save you money or keep track of your usage

I think it was Descartes who established the fundamental principle of things
 There are two types of things. Everything divides naturally into one of these two types. Things that are nice but too expensive and things that are not so nice 1

and Bertrand Russell, in a technically ferocious appendix to the Principia went further

If x, being the quotient of desirability, is less than y, the perceived value of the device or gizmo in question, then, if z is the propensity to waste one's hard-earned cash and k the likeliehood of being arsed to do anything about it, it follows, trivially, that should x/y>{k...k0}.log z/(x^y)=z!!k, that the object will be purchased but remain unused in its box until the wife throws it out in the next round of spring-cleaning. 2
However, Williamson's tenet, or axiom, that gadgets should be easy to use or make life better is revolutionary. Who knew? I always thought that a gadget should come with an undecipherable manual (albeit in twenty languages), that the cardboard box it comes in should break no matter how carefully you try to open it, that the power button should be as close as physically possible to the operating buttons (so that you turn it off instead of doing what it was you wanted to do), that any cables and power supplies should be unique to the gadget, forcing the accumulation of drawer-fulls of such stuff and that the manufacturer will in any case produce an updated version that makes your recent purchase obsolete shortly after you finally understand to use it. And therefore my philosphy was one of resignation and despair at the sheer alien nature of the universe.

I was wrong. Hitherto I shall be a loyal follower of the Williamson Thesis. I shall expect gadgets to be easy and life-enhancing. It is a tough faith to keep. I hope I can prove myself worthy.

1. Les choses qui sont jolies, Paris, 1678
2. pp832-3 (I have cut out the lengthy digression about the best colour for a fitness watch strap)
3. Pedants may quibble about the word 'congegnites' that adorns the title of this piece. I tasked the Editor to find a Latin word for gadget; he claims there isn't one but there is an Italian word 'Congegno'. OK?

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Election 2017: 4 - After the bomb

Out on the campaign trail the Manchester bombing is forcing a change of agendas. Jeremy Corbyn's speech suggesting that British involvement in foreign wars makes us a target of terrorism is both superficially true and yet entirely misses the point. The UK would be a target anyway because we have a free media which will report all such actions, giving the terrorists the publicity they are desperate to have. Our values are fundamentally opposed to theirs, especially on the equal treatment of women and men, freedom of religion and the creation of laws and Government through democratic participation. This is why terrorist attacks are indiscriminate and why they will have no significant effect - everyone who lives in this country is potentially a target and therefore everyone, bar the deranged, will continue to defy them.

On a different note, a single sheet of paper from the Green party informs me austerity will be ended, all cuts reversed and loads of money will be available for everything, apart from HS2. This last promise has a genuine local appeal although the accompanying illustration - of Frays Fields in Uxbridge - may or may not represent an area under threat if the proposal to put the railway in a tunnel up to the Colne goes ahead.

As with the Labour leaflet received yesterday, there is nothing to make me sympathetic to the candidate himself because it doesn't tell me why he wishes to become an MP.