Wednesday, December 04, 2019

101 Things #33 - Professing ignorance

When people compile bucket lists of all the things they'd like to do before they die (or reach 30, or some arbitrary age), they tend to choose those items that, once essayed, can be done fairly quickly and definitively. For example, visiting the Grand Canyon. You go to the South Rim (or North if you like things a bit quieter), lean over, try and keep your lunch down and tick it off. You've done it.

It's always a little strange trying to deconstruct things that must be done over a much longer time frame and where you can never be quite sure that you've finished. Let us review a proposal on the Lifelot website, where amongst many recommendations suggested as worthy ambitions, we find the notion to
Try a profession in a different field.
 

This one definitely goes straight into my bucket list reject compilation 101 Things I Refuse To Do Before I Die and does not even pass Go or collect £200 on the way. Perhaps the suggestion is tongue-in-cheek, casually jotted down to make up the numbers. I can't tell.

Do people really consider "trying" a new profession something worth doing in it's own right? I can see the point if you have been struggling for years with your chosen path, go home with headaches after trying to understand what the hell is going on, react in bafflement at articles in the trade journal, blench when you look at the questions in the exam papers, have been told in no uncertain terms by your bosses that they see more aptitude in your waste-paper basket than they do in you - yes, you should jack it all in and follow a different path, thank you for calling, that will be £250 plus VAT and do call in again at Ramblings Careers Advisory Service.

In all other cases we are dealing with someone set up in, and progressing, in a profession. (They must already be in one or the suggestion to try one in a different field makes no sense.) But why give up what you are already invested in? Professions are not like sweet shops - you don't pop in for some peppermint lumps one day and chocolate drops the following week. They need full time attention and a lot of diligent study. I know - I qualified for one many years ago and it was a lot of hard work and loss of much free time to get that precious bit of paper at the end. Having done all that, the incentive to shrug, pick up a phone book and stick in a pin to find a new occupation was not there.

In any case how do you go about this trial (or should that be try-on?)? Do you roll up at day 1 on the Medical School and chat to the kindly old admissions registrar in this way?

"Tell me Mr Smith, why do you wish to become a doctor?"

"Well, I've done a couple of weeks of engineering and couldn't get on with the slide rule, spent a day with a Lego set at the architects college but then I thought I'd have a bash at doing the old curing bit, you know, sticking needles in and setting the odd broken limb."

 "And what makes you think you are cut out for medicine? Does it run in your family?"

 "Not as such, but I do have a toy stethoscope, I got it from my nephew's junior doctor kit"

 "Ah, excellent, I think we can find a place for you ...."

And the minefield concealed beneath that innocuous "Try". [sarcasm mode on] Yeah, sure, you can join the Army for a few days, just to see if you like shooting people. You can whiz up to the International Space Station for lunch and then come back for a afternoon leading prayers at a nearby cathedral. Why not run the financial affairs of your country for a bit, they're always looking for help at the Treasury. And there's nothing like nipping down to the cells at the Old Bailey and seeing if you can get Krusher McNasty off a GBH in a new record time. [mode off]

No, it doesnt go like that, does it? You need the right qualifications to apply. You need to convince employers to take you on and train you. And you need big shoulders to shove aside all the other dingbats who are queueing up outside the admissions office trying to tick one off their own bucket lists. It may take months or years before you know if you will succeed. Obviously, I am not in need of a job change, having retired from one some time ago. But even if I was it would be a serious decision and not done just to get me over the line in the bucket list race. In short, even if I was in that fluid state of starting out on a career, I still would reject point-blank the notion of starting one and then "trying" another.

Sunday, December 01, 2019

101 Things #32 - Big Brother is Listening to You

When I was a teenager in the 1960s the world was an exciting place. We were promised dazzling advances in technology, usually to occur no later than the year 2000. That year seemed an immense distance away and therefore the promises appeared credible .Everyone would travel by personal jetpack. We would hang wafer thin televisions on the wall. We would open the pod bay doors in our spaceships by speaking to them (OK, 2001 for that one).

In the late 1990s voice recognition software became a commercial product. I tested out the leading product of the day, Dragon Dictate. This required at least fifteen minutes of dictation for it to recognise your voice and then, after considerable processing (and frequent crashes), one might begin dictating. The results were poor. So many errors were made you spent more time correcting them than if you had typed everything in from the start. I once spent an amazingly frustrating half hour teaching it a simple word - something like "hello" which every time I spoke would turn out something like "March". I would type in the word. I would say it several times, loud and clear and in standard English. I would start the dictation, say "hello" and watch in disbelief as it printed "March". I did not recommend that my firm buy it.

Now we have moved on apace. Computers can recognise what you are saying. They don't even need training. And a new breed of gadget, the voice assistant ("VA") is taking its place in our homes. Whether supplied by Google, Microsoft, Amazon or Apple (and there's bound to be more), it comes as a little box that sits quietly waiting to be woken up when you utter the trigger phrase and then your command is processed, whether it be to turn off the lights, play a music track or order groceries.

 This has been a much longer introduction than usual to one of these little pieces but I thought it useful to put in context the reason why I am adding to my slowly growing list of things not to do, 101 Things I Refuse To Do Before I Die, any notion that I should

Acquire a Voice Assistant .


The future, as seen from that rose-tinted 1960s viewpoint was benign. We would be in control, selecting the products we wished, preserving our privacy and rights. Sadly there was always going to be a great deal more to it than that.

VA technology is big technology. To process thousands, maybe millions of simultaneous voice commands, requires seriously big infrastructure and highly sophisticated software. The back end systems that can interpret what someone says, turn it into a set of instructions, send those to a warehouse and have a delivery made promptly are awesome feats of human ingenuity. It takes very large organisations to make it work and once you have a big organisation you have enormous problems of accountability. "Commercial reasons" can be cited for a blanket of secrecy about everything. The people at the top become remote from the vast majority of their employees and may lose control over the direction of research and the practical implementation of changes to technology and working practices.

Echo Dot
pic: Amazon

I have no interest in bringing one of these sinister little boxes into my home. It is a matter of trust. Some of the suppliers in this business may make money from supplying goods that are ordered from them, others must do it via advertising or some other means, but all the time whenever we speak we are giving them our data.

Data is valuable. Suppliers may not gloat openly about the willingness of the public to hand over personal details in the way that Mark Zuckerberg once did, speaking about his fellow students, when he set up Facebook, but they collect as much as they can all the same. We, the consumers, have virtually no idea what they are collecting, how they are processing it and, crucially, who they are selling it on to.

Consider also how a VA works. It must be on all the time, waiting to hear that trigger phrase. Therefore every sound it hears has to be processed. It is not the same as you switching it on and then speaking. We are assured that until the phrase is heard nothing untoward is done; we have no idea if this is true. Earlier this year Apple was embarrassed at revelations about what its support staff were doing with recordings they were supposed to listening to only for quality assurance purposes, as reported, for example, in The Guardian.

When you have one of these devices and you use for it everyday purposes, the supplier gets to know what times you get up and when you go to bed, what you like to eat, what you listen to, what you read, who your friends are, what your views are ... you can't help it, it will either hear these things directly through the commands you give or interpret them through your general pattern of behaviour.

I am not particularly paranoid about this as I realise that all this data is only really useful when aggregated with thousands of other bits of data, but, nonetheless, I see no reason why I should be handing any of it over when I don't know what they are doing with it and I don't believe the assurances issued by the corporate PR people a) because they wouldn't know what the tech guys are doing and b) because the Apple case shows that these companies are starting from a position of owning your data and only caring about misuse when they are found out.

So I will not be adding a VA to the gadgets in the Ramblings household. I shall switch my lights on and off the old fashioned way using the tried and tested one finger click technique. I shall read from my own library (printed and digital). I shall use TV, radio and (yes) the internet to garner news but not from one proprietary source. And Mrs Commuter and I will continue to shop where we can see and check what we are buying (and bring the goods back same day, not have to hang around waiting for a delivery). Thank you Siri, Alexa, Cortana and the rest of you smooth-tongued "female" robots, it's a case of don't call me 'cause I'm certainly not going to be calling you.

Update
I wrote this piece a while back and on the very day I reviewed it for publication came across a very detailed piece in The Guardian, written by an ex-Amazon techie, on precisely the points I discuss above. One of the most amusing, albeit unintentional, quotes is from an Amazon spokesperson who says
“Customer trust is at the centre of everything we do and we take customer privacy very seriously...."
No. Making money and keeping Jeff Bezos as the world's richest man is at the centre of everything Amazon does. When the Board meet, the first item on the agenda is not "How have we enhanced customer privacy this month?" It is "What are our earnings for the last quarter and how is the next quarter looking?".  Possibly the last item may concern privacy and trust but they'll probably be running late and will hold it over to the next meeting ....

Saturday, November 30, 2019

No Accents Please, We're British

I learn that our overcrowded financial sector is to be stressed with the addition of yet another "digital" bank, only with one of the silliest names yet discovered. Competing with "Monzo" and "Revolut", the clearly bored-with-everything wizzkids at RBS are to launch a business called Bó.


Pic: Guardian 29/11/19
 Bó. How do you pronounce it? It cannot be the same as Bo on its own because in that case there would no point in having the accent. Is it meant to send a bit like Beau? Or the sound you make by slightly pursing your lips and trying to be a little bit French? Perhaps a hint of cockney, a link to Bow Bell, a way to forge a link to young people?

Presumably they first came up with plain and simple Bo. Yes, they thought, just two letters, we'll save a fortune on that expensive signage outside our branches (assuming we ever open any) and certainly on letterheads and business cards. And then an older and wiser banker, sitting at the back of the launch meeting at which all the youngsters were whooping and high-fiving, would have raised his hand tentatively and pointed out that once upon a time B.O. was something you most definitely did not want to be associated with. (Find out why by watching this ancient TV ad  and thanks very much to Mackenzie Rough for posting it).

I suppose someone by this time had registered the webdomains and so on, and they were stuck with those two letters so the only solution was the addition of an accent.

I wonder how many of their customers will ever bother to type that accent? I had to go through the hoops to get it into this column since Blogger does not support accents directly. I found it in the character set in Microsoft Word but a simple cut and paste produced some 200 redundant lines of rubbish html that Word insists on generating in any copy operation, so I copied it into a third programme, a simple text editor, and from there to the column you are now reading. I am not going to go through that palaver again, thank you very much.

Anyway, let me rivet the denizens of Threadneedle Street with a revelation of my own. I am about to launch a digital bank called Peep and if RBS would like to consider a merger in due course, I think I can come up with the perfect name for the new venture.

Friday, November 29, 2019

101 Things #31 - Sweet Smell of Success

A bucket list should be ambitious. It should pose a challenge. Some effort, physical, mental or financial should be involved for one to achieve that state of satisfaction that comes with, well, that comes with, erm, bear with me, that comes with achievement. [Note to Ed. Can we find a better ending for this sentence, please?]

It is not the same when you are compiling the definitive list of things you do not want to do and will not do, the list I call 101 Things I Refuse To Do Before I Die. Manifestly some of the items on the list are not really things I could do even if I wanted to. But that is not the point. Who knows what may happen in the future? Let me today focus on one of these, probably unattainable anyway, feats that I will not let happen even if they could. I will not, as recommended by Science of People.com, 1

Create my own perfume range.


In some ways this one is easier than you may think. If you watched The Apprentice (UK version) in 2014 you will have seen the candidates tasked with making fragrances in programme 3, and all they did was faff about smelling from various test tubes and then mixing them up until they had something that seemed reasonable. So that's the technical side out the way. Of course the most important effort has be put into marketing. Once perfume ranges were made by perfumers, people who knew about making perfume. Now they are made, or at least marketed, by people who simply happen to be well known. Female pop singers. Film actors. Retired footballers. Anyone can do it. Have some talented people design the packaging, fill up the bottles with the stuff you've made earlier and you're good to go.

 Now for the key part - the name. We have Opium from Yves Saint Laurent and Poison from Dior, I give you:-

Pure Strychnine from Ramblings of Ruislip (est. 2019).

 It's easy to imagine the voice-over as the camera pans over a young lady walking silkily past a throng of gawping male admirers in dinner jackets, possibly in a fashionable night club2.

"They'll be choking at your feet. They'll be writhing in pure agony. You'll take all their breath away, quite literally, when you use Pure Strychnine"

You see what I did there? Out of nothing I have fabricated an utterly convincing new perfume based on nothing more than a concept for an ad - just like every other perfume launched by celebrities. This is why I have utter disdain for the industry and this is why I refuse to have anything more to to do with it.

Special note to perfume makers 
If you think my Pure Strychnine concept is pretty damn amazing then, look, don't worry too much about the harsh words above, it's just a blog, OK? Get in touch and let's see if we can sort out a quick licensing deal.

Footnote:
1. In fairness, this website merely proposes that you should make your own perfume. But where's the fun in that? It's the choosing of the name and the packaging and the ad campaign, that's what it's all about, surely?
2. They do still wear formal evening dress in fashionable night clubs, don't they? I know standards are slipping everywhere but still ....

Thursday, November 28, 2019

Dr. Commuter helps out ... the BBC #2

Dr. Commuter writes:  Once more our favourite public service broadcaster has sought my assistance in dealing with a weighty matter. This time the stumper is a tricky financial question.

Pic: BBC Website published today
There is really nothing much to this. A billion pounds is simply one thousand heaps of one million pounds and I'm sure many of us will have some of those stacked up in our back rooms. Or, to put it another way, a million heaps of one thousand pounds each, the sort of amount we can so easily spend on a night out without really thinking about it.

I sense that for some of you this may not be enough to solve the problem. That is because you are thinking about this in the old fashioned way of imagining a huge pile of banknotes or even one pound coins stacked impossibly high. But here is another much simpler approach. No tottering heaps of paper or great towers of metal that make it impossible to open your door. Just one little piece of paper thus:

Pic: Finder.Com


If this is still a trifle overwhelming, write out a cheque for, say, one hundred pounds. Send it to me so that you can have the full experience of watching the funds leave your bank account and migrate to another. Then repeat, oh, say ten million times, and you will now surely grasp exactly what a billion pounds is as you look forlornly out of the windows at the debtors prison to which your financial ineptitude has consigned you.

*-*-*-*

If you have any troubling questions about money, Dr .Commuter may be consulted, subject to some utterly trivial terms and conditions that you really don't need to worry about, such as handing over fees in used notes in black bin liners, the use of numbered Swiss bank accounts and the passwords to any Bitcoin wallets that you may have lying about in your online cupboards. Special terms for billionaires needing help counting their stashes. Please do not ask for credit as a refusal is a damn certainty followed by lots of jeering.

Monday, November 25, 2019

101 Things #30 - The King is Dead

As I draw up my anti-bucket list, 101 Things I Refuse To Do Before I Die, it is often that I must confront head-on the cherished dreams of others. There is no desire to hurt or to score cheap points at anyone else's expense1. It is simply that, sometimes, what is obviously a wonderful day out and the ambition of a lifetime to you would drive me round the twist with frustration and boredom.

Pop music is, well, popular, as you might say, and visiting places associated with its practitioners is an enjoyable outing for their fans. Thus, one of the most popular venues for those keen to get a little closer to their idols is that mansion that used to be the home of one EA Presley. Huffington Post, amongst others, endorses a visit. Naturally I am totally determined, under no circumstances, to

Go to Graceland and pay homage to the King.


It is time for a confession. I did not and do not like the music of Elvis. I was a child during his rock'n'roll era in the 1950s and the pop music of that era went straight over my head. It was all performed by adults for adults (as it seemed to me) and I couldn't understand it. Like any normal eight year-old boy, I found the references to holding hands with, and kissing, girls baffling. Americanisms might have been in a foreign language. People sang about Rocking Around The Clock but they never explained what "rocking" was. And what was behind the Green Door, by the way? Did anyone ever find out?2.

I was a teenager in the sixties, that legendary time when all the excitement came from what we nowadays like to call popular beat combos3, and Elvis' style seemed out of date and out of touch. He was a singer. He did not write songs or arrange the music or play the instruments. All this was presented to him. He interpreted the songs in an inimitable and highly influential style, sure, but if the music doesn't move you then no amount of hip-swinging gyrations from the man at the microphone are going to make any difference.

People may call him the King but I am not one of his subjects. Bob Dylan is more deserving of the title if we talking about the influence of one performer upon an entire genre. But I wouldn't want to see his old home town or anywhere he lives either. The music is what matters. So I won't be paying homage (and a minimum of $41) to see exactly where Elvis cooked his cheeseburgers, or to gawp at his hair gel containers or his vast collection of leather jackets. I shall not be checking in to Heartbreak Hotel to ease my Wooden Heart, no matter what the Suspicious Minds might think. [Enough of the smartsy references, already: Ed] If this be treason then I shall plead the urgings of my conscience. Vive la Republique!

Footnotes:
1. This statement is totally sincere and must be taken at face value. Ignore everything else you have heard or read on this matter. This is the operative statement and all the others are inoperative.
2. [No: Ed]
3. Alright, I like to use this phrase, I appreciate that you probably do not.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Election 2019 - Here's Boris

My piece a day or two ago, suggesting that the incumbent in Uxbridge & South Ruislip was elsewhere, has been rendered obsolete. I am indebted for this tweet (and to @RuislipManor who retweeted it to me) showing the great man enthralling a vast cheering crowd somewhere in Eastcote, on the eastern borders of his constituency.


A shame that, for technical reasons, the shots of the vast cheering crowd, displaying the "fantastic optimism" for which we are justly famed in this part of the world, are not available on this clip. Cynics might suggest that Mr J was in fact orating to an empty street but I couldn't possibly comment.

Yesterday also saw the first sighting of canvassers. My eye was caught by a flurry of activity right outside my house. I peeped through the net curtains and watched about ten people, each sporting a blue rosette, earnestly consulting clipboards and giving each directions. I assume they were canvassers - they might have been rosette salespeople, working for some ghastly multi-level marketing scheme where each buys rosettes from the person above them in the chain and tries to flog them on but this can probably be safely discarded. No, I think they were Conservative party supporters.

I mentally rehearsed some of the questions I might put, should any be brave enough to essay my drive and ring the bell, especially the one about the man who was going to die in front of the bulldozers at Heathrow right up to the point that he changed his mind; they must have got wind of this because the whole lot suddenly stormed up the road and disappeared in the general direction of the Ruislip woods and the posh houses that surround them. I suppose they might get a warmer welcome there.

Saturday, November 23, 2019

101 Things #29 - Danish Comfort

Settle back into your favourite armchair, snuggle into an old fleecy cardigan and sip some hot tea as I explain why today's entry on my non-achievers bucket list, 101 Things I Refuse To Do Before I Die, is the biggest thing in Denmark (apart from the Carlsberg brewery) and why I stout-heartedly refuse to

Embrace Hygge.


A few years ago you couldn't move for people going on about feng shui, moving their toilets out of their living rooms to bring good luck [That always works, you know: Ed] and paying consultants to tell them solemnly that because their yin and yang were out of balance with the cosmic auras, it would be necessary for quite a lot of money to change hands.

When I started work in London some considerable time ago, no man would sport any facial jewellery, not even the smallest ear stud. Today it is unexceptional to find plastic rings stuck into ear lobes, or staples above the eyebrows. 

Fashions come and go. Feng shui may be on the way down; bolts through the lips on the way up. When you have had long experience of such evanescent trends, it is easier to ignore the pressure of social media and public hysteria over the next one.

One of the more recent fashions was a Danish pastime known as hygge. Hygge was presented as some sort of spiritual revolution in how to live, embraced instantly by magazine columnists overjoyed to have new content to fill their pages and by all who wished to be seen at the forefront of novelty. We were told that adherents outnumbered ordinary Danes by two to one, that 5 million people round the world were signing up each day and that anyone not totally familiar with the theory and practice of hygge would, within a few months, find themselves a social outcast, divorced, jobless and fit only for admission to a secure hospital of the type with bars on the windows. [I don't recall all of these details, is there any truth to them? Ed].

Before we can go any further let us settle on how to say this peculiar (to English-speakers) word. According to CountryLiving.com it is "hoo-gaa". That's a bit of a googly right from the start. I always thought it was "higgy" (and I bet you did too). Hoo-gaa is what rows of sinister orientals in kung-fu films chant as a sort of war cry, when about to go (one at a time) into a ludicrously speeded-up unarmed combat sequence against the lone hero, who stands impassively as he despatches them with a quick chop here and a kick to the nadgers there. You probably recall Mel Gibson as Robert the Bruce Lee in some of them.

Now we know how to say it (and do try to do so without chuckling), what is it? Thanks to sites like CountryLiving, I learn that is a philosophy that transforms and brings happiness. It

encompasses a feeling of cozy contentment and well-being through enjoying the simple things in life. If you've ever enjoyed reading a book indoors on a rainy Sunday or a cup of hot cocoa on a snow day, you've experienced hygge without even knowing it. 
 Yes, I have done these things. I have read books indoors and out, on trains and in waiting rooms and at the back of rehearsal rooms. I have read them in the rain (rain outside, me inside, you understand) or when the sunlight is blistering bright, on Tuesdays and on Fridays too. Yes, I have had a cup of hot cocoa on a snowy day, not to mention a biscuit and slice of very acceptable cake. I've had cocoa on days when it wasn't snowing at all. One or two might have been on Sundays, I'm not sure if that counts or disqualifies me.

 It's not all just about lazing about. Oh, perhaps it is though. Here's a bit more from CountryLiving on how to create those cosy vibes that are the essence of hygge.
 In Denmark that might mean pastries, meatballs, and copious amounts of coffee, but in America you might want to pour yourself a warm drink, dig up your grandma's chicken pot pie recipe, or spend a weekend afternoon baking your favorite chocolate cake
I suppose we could translate the last bit into British
... in Britain you might want to pour yourself a hot cup of tea, watch another repeat of Midsomer Murders on telly and spend the weekend eating any old cake that happens to be in the house whilst screaming at the cat to stop bringing dead birds into the kitchen.

Is that it? Is that what all the hype is about? Essentially it seems to mean telling non-Danes to do stuff they would do anyway, and the happiness it brings is to the rash of authors of "little books of" and the like whose lives are certainly transformed when large sums of money move in their direction (see Feng Shui, op.cit.).

Did you notice the smug claim in the quote above: 'you've experienced hygge without even knowing it'? By exactly the same token I hereby declare that I am the founder of scromblekag, an ancient form of wisdom emanating from the eastern part of Ruislip. If you have ever cursed the delays on the trains and compensated for it, internally, by wishing a murrain upon those who have chosen to divert your normal service elsewhere, then you too have experienced scromblekag without even knowing it. Now is the time for you to buy my "Extremely small but reassuringly expensive book of scromblekag", sign up for the correspondence course (You will experience top quality scromblekag when you see the terms and conditions) and start spreading the word (even sillier words are available at a very reasonable price).

Obviously I am going to go on doing what I did before. I refuse to have my everyday lifestyle appropriated by a fashion or to have to consult anyone before deciding that being comfortable is better than being uncomfortable. When the craze has died down, like all such trends before it, those of us who like wearing old jumpers, sitting around the sofa and carefully pondering the next choice of biscuit will still be here and you know what? - We don't give a toss what this lifestyle is called. Scromblekag to the lot of them!

Friday, November 22, 2019

Election 2019 - The Calm before the Other Calm

There is very little to report as the general election campaign begins to gear up for the big day. Nationally, the parties are all promising to spend loads of cash and to do things they never did when they were in government. Locally, only the Green party has managed to match the flyer that the Conservatives dropped off some ten days ago; their leaflet is clearly in favour of the environment and then their candidate woffles so badly on Brexit
Has our democracy failed us? This cannot go unanswered.
that I am left wondering how this helps. The party wishes to have another vote but does not say what would happen if the country splits more or less evenly. The rest is wishful thinking.

There have been no sightings of our local MP, one B. Johnson, but I suppose he has more important things to do such as being photographed staring blankly at machinery in factories or kissing babies in a town centre as is traditional at these times.

Nigel Farage (who, utterly inexplicably and not in the least down to the fast vanishing vote for his party, is not actually standing as a candidate anywhere) was interviewed this morning on the Today programme on BBC Radio 4. I don't know what he said because my hand somehow slipped onto the off switch just as he started and then I seemed to forget where it was. Oh, dear. I suppose I could catch up with it on the internet but, would you credit it, I seem to have forgotten how to do that as well.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

101 Things #28 - Dangerous Bathing

Normally, as I select items for my anti-bucket list 101 Things I Refuse To Do Before I Die there is one feature of the suggestion from which I recoil. But in today's example there are two (with a third one cunningly hidden) so it was very easy for me to reject the notion proposed by Conde Nast Traveler that I should

Go swimming with sharks.


I can see why people might wish to swim with dolphins. Dolphins are intelligent, sociable, playful, enjoy interacting with humans and revel as much in hurtling out of the water as they do in effortlessly powering in it. They can also be nasty little sadists when given the chance to knock some hapless smaller animal about but who are we humans to judge?

Sharks are different. They exist to hunt and kill and appear to do little else. If a shipwrecked mariner sees dolphins swimming about his raft he may rejoice of their company. When a fin breaks the surface and circles, he pulls his feet well back, grips his oar tightly and prepares to do battle.

Why swim with them? Inside a cage, to have them eyeing you and up down and maybe batter away at it? Or swim free and spend all your time looking over your shoulder and hoping, really hoping very hard, that they've all just had a really enormous lunch and are simply out for a little light exercise to help it go down?


Pic: Seeker.com

I don't swim and don't enjoy being submerged. I certainly don't relish going anywhere near an omnivorous animal loaded with teeth like this. I might get a thrill from being so close to them and having their cold eyes giving me the once-over but what's in it for the shark? Is it considering how much of a struggle I might put up and whether it can get me unwrapped without getting too much swimsuit caught up in its teeth?



Now, we've got the swimming as one unwanted feature and the sharks as the second. What of the third, you ask? [Go on, ask, it'll make him feel better to know someone is taking an interest: Ed]. It is that, to get to anywhere where one can swim with sharks, it would be necessary to fly. Conde Nast themselves suggest Fiji, the Maldives, Mexico, the Bahamas, Australia or South Africa. Great, guys, thanks a million, assuming I did want to mix it with some of nature's toughest predators, I first have to run the gauntlet of airport security, endure the agony of a cramped economy seat for hours and then pay for an expensive holiday. How much carbon will be emitted to satisfy this whim for an adrenaline rush? Never mind other gases that might be emitted if one of these sods gets too close with jaws agape.

This activity definitely is one I'm happy not to have on my check list when the nice social workers in the care home ask me to reminisce.



Wednesday, November 20, 2019

101 Things #27 - The Man on the Ladder

There are many occupations that one might follow. Some require years of study and a genuine aptitude; others not much more than can-do attitude and a determination to work really hard to succeed. Numbered mainly amongst the latter is a job that has never tempted me and nor shall it in the limited time that remains. It is a worthy addition to my anti-bucket list, 101 Things I Refuse To Do Before I Die. No matter what may befall, I shall not

Become a decorator.


I have nothing against decorators. Indeed, I have relied upon them to paint, wallpaper, plaster and carpent my house from time to time. [Are you sure about this? Is there no other verb for what a carpenter does? I'll look it up: Ed] Standing well back, I admire the deft flicking of the brushes, the slopping on of paste, the confident selection of the right tool first time from a well stocked toolbox and the effortless swigging down of tea (three sugars, thanks love). They crouch down to snip off a millimetre of excess paper here and shave a flake off a sticking door there. And, sooner or later, they bring out ladders and planks and up they go into the dizzying heights above my head as they work on ceilings and that yawning gap on the wrong side of the bannisters on the first floor landing.

We have reached the crux of the matter. A decorator must be good on ladders. He must be able to stand reaching up with both hands free, balancing perilously on the top step of the ladder, blithely ignoring the chasm beneath. His hand remains steady and his feet firmly in place. Looking down presents no difficulty. His vision does not swim, nor is he gripped by visions of trembling, losing his balance, and toppling off the step to plunge, limbs flailing, to the unforgiving floor.

 If he has an assistant, that worthy is not to be found providing a heavy boot on the bottom tread to guarantee stability and the top of a head to be clutched for support. He will be elsewhere, mixing the paint, fetching up the tea (those biscuits were lovely, thanks again) or idling half in, half out of the van with the radio on and a blissful fag on the go. Untroubled by the prospect of a future poised above stairwells or leaning precariously out of windows, he contemplates nothing more bothersome than the runners in the 2:35 at Catterick.

This is where decorating and I part company. Up those ladders I refuse to go. More than two steps high, my hands falter, legs begin shaking and strange notions enter the brain. All my attention is given to remaining in place. Any movement, such as the extension of the arm to paint a wall, is forbidden; it would ruin my balance and all would be lost. Merely contemplating going higher induces a state of mild panic in which freezing in place is the only solution until at last one can stretch a foot backwards to return to normality on the lower rungs.

For similar reasons I have declined to become a circus trapeze or high wire artist, have allowed others to claim prime contracts in the demolition of industrial chimneys and, with regret, have never gone into mountaineering. These careers are somewhat precarious, in more than one sense. Decorating, however, is solid and can be done without excessive travelling or upfront financial investment (We've all got some old paint brushes in the garage, after all, it only needs a bit of turps to get them fairly usable). It is easy to begin - one need but print up a few flyers and pop them through one's neighbours' letter-boxes, and then sit back and wait for the phone to ring. Just up my street is a decorator and he is very much in demand. I could take on the clients he is too busy to oblige, couldn't I? And I'd be cheaper.

So I could easily have this on my bucket list of things to do, if it were not for the blasted ladders. There is no getting around it. Decorating is for others and I must resolutely refuse to be tempted into it, no matter how many offers to print really cheap flyers come my way.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Making a Tidy Profit

We are beset with election fever, the climate and ecological crises and the imminence of Christmas (sorry, it is #Christmas according to a mysterious advert on Twitter by Twitter which urges me to do something because 'my customers are preparing for it' or some similar rubbish), but the story of the day seems to be the one filed from Tokyo about a woman whose simple but powerful message must surely inspire us all.



Pic: Netflix, reproduced from The Guardian

It seems that Ms Kondo is extremely famous and important because she is the only person on the planet who knows how to tidy things up. Years of study and research, often going against all received wisdom, resulted in her unique message - "Throw out what you do not use, or at least don't think you are likely to need in the next twenty years or so, better be on the safe side". She has attracted millions of devotees who meet in parks all across Japan to engage in ceremonial rituals of hurling unwanted vases into giant wicker baskets whilst chanting "Out, out, out!". The typical Japanese home now looks like this:

Pic: TheAmericanGenius.com
but many followers would go further if they could and remove the floor and windows, so as to reach what they describe as "Decluttered heaven". For those on the extremist wing this is not purist enough; they would dispose of the walls as well so as to remove all temptation to put shelves up.

However, the fuss today is not about chucking stuff out but about buying loads of fresh tat to put in its place and, surprise surprise, Kondo wants all that replacement garbage to be the stuff that she herself is selling. Well, well. I never once in a million years would have seen that one coming. [Scarcasm, right? Ed]

The technique for putting stuff into bins is called the KonMari method. Mari from the ancient Japanese word for "Tidy" and Kon from - well, we all know it's a con, don't we?

Saturday, November 16, 2019

101 Things #26 - Living in the Past

Are you terminally gullible? Do you hold that any idea nobody can explain or substantiate must therefore be true? Have you got nothing else to do this afternoon? If all this is you then you should certainly add to your lifetime bucket list an idea propounded by the Pick your goals website to

Get a past life regression session


and while you are handing over your credit card details, I shall be adding this inane suggestion to my anti-bucket list 101 Things I Refuse To Do Before I Die.

Perhaps you believe that you (and what is understood by "you" in this context is a very slippery concept indeed) were someone else previously, and that when they died "they" in some sense became the "you" that was to born later on, and that the identity of this spiritual ancestor can be ascertained by consulting someone in a dimly lit consulting room with a big notice on the wall saying "No money refunded".

How does that work, then? What is the link between the dead and yourself? Is it anything physical, made of molecules and subject to the known laws of our universe? Or a mysterious "soul" that you just know is there (because you are deeply spiritual, aren't you) and so it must be true and how that soul survives after one death to influence the mind of another person is a detail that can be safely skipped over.

It's always fascinating to see the number of people who were important in a past life; there must be hundreds or thousands of reborn Cleopatras, for example. And they all speak perfect English too, these spirits who inhabit our minds. Remarkable that, does it mean that when you die your soul has to go to some sort of language school in the afterlife so that, when it is your turn to pop into the mind of a newly-born, you will be all set to go?

What of the overwhelmingly vast majority of ordinary folk who have lived and died without record over the past few hundred thousand years? Do they live again? Is our fascination with elephants the result of a dim memory of frying up a tasty mammoth steak by a campfire long ago? Do our fast bowlers at cricket relive the moment when Ug, the caveman, hurled a flint at the head of Ug, the other caveman (not very big on imagination when it came to names, these cavemen)? As a pole-vaulter springs herself elegantly 6 metres into the air, is she channelling the gleeful thoughts of an ape-like being flying through the jungle and contemptuously dropping unwanted bits of fruit on the heads of the plodding beasts far below?

You will gathered by now that I do not believe in reincarnation or the transmigration of souls or anything remotely similar. Our brains and minds are an integral part of our bodies and die when our bodies die. Now, it may be that in the future the complete state of a brain can be downloaded and stored to a computer and that our personalities will continue to exist, in a digital sense, when activated. But that still is not in any sense the same as having a past life. It would be a continuation of the present life.

Consequently I can only feel contempt for anyone offering past life regression sessions. Like all the mediums and fortune-tellers of yore, they feed off the clues given to them by their victims clients. Tell them you feel a bit Slavic and guess what? The blood of the Romanovs runs in your veins. Enjoy music? Welcome back to earth, Wolfgang Amadeus. Nothing they say can be contradicted. If they tell you that in a past life you were Napoleon then how can you disprove it?

Of course, I happen to know that you were not Napoleon because (whisper it), I am. My genius smashed the Russians and Austrians at Austerlitz. I was the man who remade the map of Europe and who modernised the laws of France. Get your filthy hands of my tricorne hat, I shall need that when I saddle up and ride out to impose EU membership on all who stand in my way, Ha Ha, Vive L'Empereur!

Friday, November 15, 2019

Election 2019 - The Candidates Step Forward

Living as I do in the prime minister's constituency of Uxbridge and South Ruislip we can expect a fair amount of media attention over the next few weeks. Which will make a contrast to the past ten days in which just one measly leaflet (for Boris) came through my letterbox.

The pace has certainly quickened today thanks to this announcement of the candidates on Twitter



Two members of the aristocracy are gracing us with their presence. I'm impressed. I shall definitely give one of them my vote, unless I don't. And that's a promise. Guaranteed.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Dr. Commuter helps out ... baffled Colgate users

Dr. Commuter writes: There are many deeply troubling questions that confront us in our daily lives. Is there a God? Does my partner still love me? Are there severe delays on the train, again? We doctors call this class of problem "The stumpers". And a worthy candidate to join them is that posed by an advertisement for a well known brand of toothpaste. Going directly to the heart of the matter it demands to know "Are you totally ready""


This question is undoubtedly of great philosophical significance and it is not easy to do it justice within the limited confines of this column. Many have questioned their state of readiness, since it is hard to assess this until the situation for which one is preparing has come about. For example, a tiddlywinks competitor may feel that he is ready for a challenge but when he sees his opponent confidently winking away he may find his own confidence diminishing.

We face a far greater problem as we dissect the meaning, if any, of this question for the crux of the issue is the interpretation of "totally". Are we totally ready? How would we know? Must we take an examination to find out? Is this something that a smart computer app could assess? How in any case could we be sure that, in all conceivable circumstances, we were ready, unless we undergo  each of them and this would take many more lifetimes than any of us has at our disposal (not to mention an inordinate amount of toothpaste, we would be utterly sick of the taste of it long before the end of the exhaustive testing process).

It is surely better for our peace of mind that we put aside thoughts of "total" readiness as belonging to a class of problem that we doctors call "Stupid ideas dreamed up by admen", ignore the product being advertised and remove an unnecessary source of stress from our lives.

101 Things #25 - Housebuild

One of the more outlandish bucket list suggestions found on the internet, that we will dissect today in our series 101 Things I Refuse To Do Before I Die  comes from Pick Your Goals, where they suggest that I should

Build My Own House.
  Obviously this is not going to happen. It was never going to happen. I have lived nearly all my life in London, have been in full time employment for all of it up to my retirement a few years ago and have few skills in architecture, design, building, carpentry, electrics, plumbing, roofing and interior decoration. Why on earth would I wish to dedicate myself to the enormous task of building a house?

There are people who do build their homes. They have lots of time, enough funds and sufficient know-how. They usually build them in secluded country areas. Here, in beautiful Ruislip, land is very expensive, there are building regulations that tell you the standards needed for residential use and planning regulations that determine where you can build, what it can look like and how big. It can be done, certainly, but as I would like to have a few stress-free years, it is not going to be me that starts the long process of local construction.

Of course it is much easier in the United States where this idea originates. Land is cheap and easy to find (if you are happy to live in semi-desert or in the decaying spaces around the rust-belt cities). Construction techniques are simpler too, with wooden frame houses being the norm in a great many places. You don't need to build an upstairs if you've got lots of space to spread out, though a basement is a good idea.Yet to do it oneself is still a massive task and is bound to involve hiring people to do the heavy lifting and digging.

I suppose by "build" could be meant that you design the house and then get others to do the actual construction. That always used to be understood when you heard about someone having a house built; it really meant they paid for it to be built from scratch. Just doing the pure design might be fun, up to a point. Using computer software to lay out the rooms, colour in the wallpaper and place furniture here and there is a clever way to see what it would look like. On the other hand any fool can mess about with a design app - the architecture still has to work - the walls have got to support the load placed on them, the layout has to be sensible for whoever is going to live there - and you still have to get someone to build it.

Some bucket-list ideas are inspirational and achievable. I don't think this one is, certainly not for the vast majority of people, and on this occasion I am happy to be part of the majority.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

101 Things #24 - Stomping those Grapes

Some of the activities that I am reviewing for my anti-bucket list 101 Things I Refuse To Do Before I Die are self-evidently rather hard or uncomfortable to attempt; some are pretty easy to do and it may therefore seem a bit churlish of me to single them out for rejection. An idea posited by Popsugar probably falls into the latter category, however the suggestion one should

Stomp on grapes to make wine  

is one I more than happy to roll up and drop in a bin marked "rubbish ideas".

I have already dismissed as ludicrous the idea of making my own wine so we need not examine any other part of the process than the one under discussion. And since we are obviously not considering stomping on our own grapes it follows that we must be asked to turn up somewhere else to do the deed.

There are no vineyards near to beautiful Ruislip but there are a growing number in southern and western England as the climate is becoming more favourable for viniculture. I have not heard that any of them encourage people to wander up, remove their shoes and socks, roll up their trousers and wade in. Nor does this practice appear particularly prevalent abroad where the grapes normally go into large vats to be pressed with maximum efficiency and hygiene. I don't know if loads of folk with purple-stained legs are regularly spotted in places near to where the correspondent at Popsugar lives, of course, but it's of no concern as I have no expectations of ever being there, and even if I am, will almost certainly not be there at grape-stomping time, and even if I am will not bother to do it.

According to Wikipedia the practice of crushing grapes with bare feet survives only as part of a recreational or cultural activity at festivals. It's a tourist thing, in fact. It doesn't matter if any wine is made because it's all done as part of people having fun. Trouble is, it's not much of a bucket-list item, is it - just going to a festival and joining a few drunks in a barrel of grapes? Would you really want to look back on that as they serve you tea in the Sunny Dene Retirement Home for Aged Over-Achievers and think "Yes, beating the crap out of that little bunch of grapes was definitely a real highlight of my life"? No, I don't think so. I don't want to damage my already damaged foot. I don't want to skid around in a puddle of grape juice. I'd rather sip a nice Shiraz knowing that a trudging of sweaty, veruka-ridden and fungally-infected feet has been nowhere near it.

-%-%-
You may have noticed that in the final sentence of the little diatribe above, I used the phrase "a trudging of feet". There is, it seems, no collective noun for feet. We have parliaments of owls, glarings of cats and murmurations of starlings but if you have a group of people and wish to refer to their lower extremities then you are stuck. Until now, because I have just invented the word trudging (and am in process of applying for a patent, so don't even think about nicking it, OK?) to do that very job.

Readers! If you have clever new words to describe groups of things for which there is no currently existing word, then why not send them in to us. The best will be showcased in a glittering awards ceremony and the winner will receive a splendid accolade in these very columns. Probably. If we think it's worth it.

A Befoggment of Terms and a Borefest of Conditions apply, naturally, but as one of them is that the T&C's must remain secret until revealed, we cannot tell you what they are. Sorry. [Apart from the secrecy one which has now been revealed: Ed]

Saturday, November 09, 2019

Dr. Commuter advises ... Confused Guardian Readers

Dr. Commuter writes: Tricky business, eating. It is not surprising that many people turn to the media for help. Even a left-wing, artsy-poncy, lost-cause-supporting newspaper like the Guardian (I only take it for its excellent coverage of transgender ice-hockey in Bolivia) can get roped in, as the following snippet from today's paper illustrates.




There is a standard way to eat which we doctors call the "Stuff it in your gob" method. Select a small piece of food, insert it gently into your mouth, chew for a while and then swallow when ready. Repeat until either
  • it has all gone and you can have your pudding; or 
  • you have had enough and must push your plate away while saying lightly to your host "Simply delicious as always but I really shouldn't have stuffed myself with doughnuts before coming over here"
This technique works for a wide range of foodstuffs including ham, and even Spanish ham. We really must lose these old prejudices about foreign food. Plenty of people live abroad and eat the local food without showing any particularly bad symptoms.  There is no reason to think that Spanish ham is worse than our home-reared varieties.

Of course, simply eating a piece by itself is only the beginning. Why not enjoy a sophisticated dish? Try it on toast, for example. Heat some bread in a toaster or under a grill until crisp and brown (but not burnt!), apply butter or similar to taste and then carefully place a slice of ham on top. (Important: not underneath, it can make things very messy). Then raise to your mouth, bite off a portion and continue as explained above.

Now you are comfortable with the basics we can move on to the advanced stages. Spanish ham with eggs, Spanish ham with chips, Spanish ham with sausage and beans - the possibilities are limited only by your imagination. How about a Spanish ham sandwich, a truly delightful Anglo/Iberian combination. For this you will need either two slices of bread (toasted if you wish) or a roll that can be sliced half open. Place some ham inside, add salad garnish and a sauce of your choice, close up the sandwich or roll and take a tasty mouthful. Or place inside your briefcase and enjoy it later in a quiet moment during that brain-numbingly dull PowerPoint presentation at the regional sales conference at Darlington.

That should be enough to start you off on your own journey of discovery. Be confident. The next time you are out shopping in Lidl or wherever, stride up to the deli counter, rap on the counter and say loudly "Some Spanish ham if you please". Take your purchase home and consume in any of the ways we have already discussed then relax in the warming glow of contentment that you have mastered the tricky art of how to eat Spanish ham.

=&=&=&=

If you are baffled by any unusual food of foreign origin - Dutch pancakes, French onions, Portuguese Man'o'war, Scottish shortbread - do please write to Dr. Commuter at the usual address. Terms and conditions not only apply but will be vigorously enforced. You have been warned.


Friday, November 08, 2019

101 Things #23 - Britain by Foot

My ongoing series 101 Things I Refuse To Do Before I Die, is mainly things I could do if I chose but refuse so to do. Sometimes it is necessary to dispose of typical bucket-list ideas on simpler grounds. If you were to ask me why I will not, ever,

Walk or cycle from Lands End to John O'Groats

the answer is easy: I do not have the stamina.

There have been great books about this long walk. John Hillaby's Journey Through Britain, which I bought soon after it was published in 1968, was one I read and reread. Even then Hillaby was warning about the steady encroachment of the urban and industrial onto the rural; things can hardly have improved since. Britain nonetheless has plenty of wonderful open spaces and I can only regret that advancing years and some difficulties with my feet rule me out of such a trip.

 Even if I were fully fit, I think it would remain a pipe-dream [Do we still have pipe dreams. Should that read vape-dream? Ed]. Much of the trip is unrelenting slog. At the end you can wearily tick it off your bucket list, sure, but all you have really done is walked (or cycled) quite a lot. I walk and cycle a bit anyway. Coming home knackered after 8 miles traipsing through the local woods around beautiful Ruislip is a sufficient achievement.

I have to admit that this is one bucket list item I would have been proud to have done in the past but right now it is one to be binned.

Tuesday, November 05, 2019

101 Things #22 - Voting Against

We continue to add more bile-laden pieces to this set of anti-bucket list material that comprises 101 Things I Refuse To Do Before I Die   and this piece was started during the final few days before Boris Johnson's absolute, die-in-a-ditch, cast-iron guarantee that Britain would leave the EU on 31 October. For the benefit of historians let us note that Britain did not leave on that date, Parliament having prevented the Government from stupidly going ahead without a deal and without proper scrutiny of the "deal" Mr Johnson claimed to have negotiated.

Instead of leaving, Britain must now undergo a General Election which could well return a hung Parliament and pave the way for months more of chaos and flailing around at Westminster. Perhaps I should restate that: Instead of remaining in the EU, or at least having a straight referendum so that the people can decide if the deal negotiated on their behalf by a minority government is acceptable, we have the hope that Parliament will continue to represent the broad views of all Britons rather than a sect of believers in something they have failed to deliver.

I have commented a number of times on the politics behind the Referendum of 2016 and will keep today's polemic to a minimum. In the light of the way that campaign was conducted, the strategy of the Leavers since and their failure to realise that the peace and prosperity of all of Europe matter deeply to this country, it is easy for me to declare that I will not

Vote for a Brexiteer


Politics tends to be one side stating its case and then refusing to hear or engage with the other side and Brexit has been poisonously dividing the country for way too long. I guess we will have to go through with it. That does not mean I can give forgive the lies or the lack of vision of those whose childish view of the world is that we can only go up if someone else goes down.

By "Vote" I do not mean just in General Elections. I mean local elections, Mayoral elections, elections to the pub darts team and to the football club sub-committee that organises the annual pro-celebrity charity tiddlywinks tournament and pie-eating contest. Right across the board. This will not, of course, have the slightest impact on the Brexit decision or anything else, probably, but it will certainly make me feel a tiny bit happier.

Monday, November 04, 2019

Election 2019 - Boris opens the scoring

The first election leaflet to drop gracefully through our letter box came yesterday.  It was a short one, featuring our well-known MP and occasional Prime Minister, Johnson, B. He appeared in some fifteen pictures inside featuring various locations around the constituency, including one taken outside the very chemist that Mrs C. and I frequent.

Boris made just three simple pledges
  1. To respect the views of his constituents: a sort of meta-pledge this, a promise to make promises but, given that this is the man who was going to lie down in front of the bulldozers should Heathrow be expanded, and who then ensured he was out of the country when Parliament voted on it, it is hard to give this one the slightest credence.
  2. To put more police on the streets.
  3. To get Hillingdon Hospital rebuilt.
Not a single mention of Brexit or any aspect of Conservative party policy.

I shall await the offerings of the other candidates.

Saturday, November 02, 2019

Your next service is due at 20mb

I was a little surprised to receive an email from BT today announcing some sort of training scheme, as my learning days are long past me and they really ought to know that, but I let my eyes slip down the first paragraph until they stopped, inevitably at the bit marked in bold.

We've launched Skills for Tomorrow, a free digital skills programme to help you and 10 million people across the UK go beyond limits and reach their full potential. We've teamed up with amazing partners, like LinkedIn Learning and Google Digital Garage...
 There was quite a lot more but I am afraid I was unable to proceed any further.


Scene: The Ruislip Digital Garage, in the back alley near Abattoir Road. A young woman, clutching a printout, enters nervously. A man in overalls emerges from the office, tucking his fag behind his ear.

Man: "Morning, darling, what can I do for you?"
Woman: "It's this code. There's something wrong, it doesn't run at all smoothly. Can you take a look at it?"
M: "Let's see here." sucks teeth "Umm, yeah, cor, who wrote this subroutine then? See that incomplete tag? And that function's been deprecated, yeah, must be version 2.4 and you should be on 3.9 by now."
W:  " Oh dear, that doesn't sound too good, but it normally works fine. "
M:  "Have your code regularly checked, do you, love?"
W:  "My husband usually has a look but he's been too busy lately. I did try putting in a recurring do-while loop here but it throws out an exception error in line 220"
M:  "Yeah, bound to do that, this is one of the problems with version 2.4 you see, cor, we get loads of them in here. Don't worry, we'll knock up a few quick algorithms, swap out the reference library for a new one and clean up those REMs while we're at it. Should have it working by next Tuesday"
W:  " That's wonderful. Will be it very expensive?"
M:  "Well, let's see, update version, new lib, algo swap out, a few test runs on the sandbox ... about a hundred and fifty, alright?"
W:   "Thank you so much. I'll leave it with you then"
M:   "Yeah, ta, see you later." She goes.  He has a draw on his fag and chucks the printout into the pending tray "Another one. Money for old rope, this lark"

101 Things #21 - Of Ends and Endings

My list of 101 Things I Refuse To Do Before I Die is not just about places to avoid or activities to shun. There are also cultural trends to deplore and resist. One of them, much used in "discussions" on social media irritates me so much I firmly intend never to

Use the phrase "End of"

One of the current uses for this conversation stopper is in the endless debate over Brexit and its most frequent form goes along these lines:

"The people voted for Brexit. Get on with it. End of"

"End of" does not just signify the completion of the comment. It is an intensely arrogant statement. The words are meant to say there is nothing more to be discussed, my argument is utterly infallible and nothing you say is of the slightest relevance. There is no need for me to add anything because, as Rik Mayall used to say - "A - I said it and everything I say is interesting per se; and B - well there's no need for B because the A was so great"

In the case of Brexit any questions over, say, the border in Ireland or the political rights of Britons living in the EU are swept aside as unimportant. If you query the many statements made during the referendum about how easy it would be get a trade deal there is a sullen silence. The magic phrase "End of" can be invoked at any time to shut down dissent much as the medieval church could end any awkward questions with the accusation of heresy.

Of course it is not just key political questions that are stifled at birth in this way.
"I think that winger was offside"
"Yeah? No, he wasn't. End of"

You can't talk properly to people who respond in this way. Sadly, you have already had to listen to their viewpoint before they hit you with their knock-out blow; if you had known they were going to be such total dorks then you could have walked away at the start.

Perhaps one could reopen a shutdown argument thusly

"Climate change is caused by too many polar bears melting the ice. End of"
"No, you are utterly wrong and moronic to boot. Beginning of"

but I doubt if this will catch on. The only solution is to ignore them. At least they have stymied themselves because, once they declare a subject closed, then they cannot reopen it. That's about it for this topic. End of.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

101 Things #20 - The Road Trip

Here is a quite popular item on the bucket list of many and perfect for inclusion in my own anti-list, 101 Things I Refuse To Do Before I Die. For example, we find on Lifehack the suggestion that you should

Go on a road trip

and I have no hesitation in affirming that I have not the slightest intention of doing so. Here's why.

The Myth
Scene: Somewhere in the western United States
The long straight open road, with a vast landscape rolling away in all directions. It's hot.The occasional truck thunders by in the opposite direction. You and your half-dozing companion pass through townships where the old folk sit on rockers and the gas is still delivered by an attendant. Radio stations flicker in and out of range. With a roar, a dozen gleaming motorcyclists pass you. The county sheriff hides behind a huge billboard hunting speeders but you're wise to his tricks. As dusk falls, you pull into a friendly motel, head on down to the nearby bar for a cool one and then on for a steak dinner at the diner.

Thelma and Louise plan their escape at the next table. Philip Marlowe is making discreet enquiries from the taciturn barman and a folded $20 bill changes hands. Jack Kerouac sits on a bar stool nursing a bourbon. William Burroughs and his attorney can be heard stumbling around outside looking for their stash. The door slams open and Clint Eastwood is framed against the last of the sunset, giving a little nod as he scans the room, chewing an unlit cheroot.

You turn to your companion
"Shall we stick around for a while?"
"That's cool, dude. And then we'll push on"
"Anywhere in particular?"
"Nope. We'll just hit the road and see..."

The Reality
Scene: A busy 'A' road somewhere in Britain
"Darling, did you pack the raincoats, it's getting very dark and the weather forecast says floods are expected"
"I thought you did! I was trying to make you some sandwiches, you know the motorway services are closed"
"Damn. Oh, those bloody lorries overtaking, this road is becoming a nightmare, why didn't you find me a better route?"
"I used the satnav, didn't I? It's your fault for buying a cheap one. You should never have thrown out that atlas"
"Was that the sign for the turnoff? Can hardly see now through the rain. Oh, you sod, see that darling? That bloody van cut right in front. And he gave me two fingers."
"Well, don't drive so slowly then. When are we going to get there, my back's getting sore"
"Umm, maybe another couple of hours. There might be road works on the B348"
"And you're sure they got our reservation?"
"Well, I think so, only their website crashed on the last bit while I was giving them our credit card details"
"Oh, marvellous! When we finally get there, if we do get there, we'll be standing around while they say they've never heard of you but there's a nice little B & B ten miles down the road but we better hurry because they lock and bolt the doors at 8pm. Honestly, who in their right minds does a motoring holiday in England these days?"


Need I say more?

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Back to the Hustings

Governments floundering without majority support, febrile calls for elections; major policy decisions stymied by many conflicting views; the hope that an election will sort it out - are we in Belgium,  Italy or Israel? No. We are in Britain and the days of looking wonderingly at chaos in other countries are well and truly over.

The Conservatives have cast off many supporters in the hope of retaining the rest; the Brexit party snaps at their heels. Labour still seems unclear whether to stick to its principles or chase the votes of its traditional supporters. Support for other parties is growing but they will still be minorities in what could well be another hung parliament.

Today we are likely to see agreement on holding a General Election (Under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act this is required whereas in the old days all that was needed was for the Prime Minister to take the short drive to advise the Queen that he could no longer lead an administration). Opposition parties always claim to be longing for an election but until recently Labour has been rather coy and without its consent Parliament could not be dissolved. That consent is, it seems, about to be given.

As has become traditional this column will endeavour to convey a sense of how it all feels to the ordinary commuter (or ex-commuter) in the street. We begin being fairly confused about the way ahead and it is entirely credible that in some six weeks time we will be even more so.

101 Things #19 - Piercings

Loads of the items on the bucket lists that people aspire to do before they die are unexceptional - travelling to exotic places or eating great food, for example. Today, unfortunately, I need to deal with a fashion trend that, let us not mince our words here, I find revolting. I am therefore very happy to add to my list of 101 Things I Refuse To Do Before I Die the idea suggested by a correspondent on Bucketlist that I should

Get a piercing
 

Of course, you might say, this is a fashion trend for the young. If they wish to permanently disfigure themselves, run the risk of infection and damage to their ears, noses, cheeks or whatever, that is their privilege. And so it is. But one sees metal and plastic stuck into the features of people of all ages. We'll have no reverse discrimination here - if piercings are a bucket list item then I am going to defy the fashionistas.

Ears have been pierced for earrings for centuries but this practice, restricted to a very small hole in the redundant flap of skin that is the lobe, is not what is meant by "piercing". Rings in noses; pins the size of nails impaled through cheeks; staples surrounding the eyes; bolts through the tongue - this is what your aspiring piercee1 wants. The more shocking the better. The idea is that heads should turn. If stomachs turn as well then that is a bonus.

Like tattoos, a practice I am ambivalent about, the process seems for many to be addictive. You put a huge hole in your earlobes to have a small drainpipe inserted and people notice you, but then others have it done so you don't stand out any more. So you ram a ring big enough to tie a small dog to through your nose and that attracts attention, but it starts to fade so it's down to Screwfix for a gross of nails, a couple of awls and a bolt-gun - nothing else will do but that you carry enough metal stuffed into your nut to make it feasible to offer it to mobile phone operators as a radio mast.

You may be disbelieving. Have a gander at these fine fellows and remember, each of them started out saying "I'll just have teeny little stud where nobody will ever see"

All pictures found on Pinterest and assumed public domain

I must admit that if the fellow at the top left were in the vicinity I would find it hard to restrain myself from rapping his ring sharply against his chin and shouting "Hello, is anyone in?". The one at the top right looks like he would be happiest tied up in a corner of the back yard. As to number three, what one earth does he do if he gets an itch near his top lip? He'd break his nails trying to scratch it.

I am afraid that when I look at piercings my thoughts turn to the practical questions. How do you blow your nose and what happens when you get a heavy cold? How long does it take to be cleared by security when you go through an airport scanner and all the alarms go off at once? How much does it hurt if you pull a jumper over your head and one of the pins catches in it? Do you find yourself irresistibly drawn to large magnets?

I don't claim to have an especially beautiful face [Fair enough: Ed] and it certainly would not be improved by sticking anything into it.

Footnote:
1. This must be a word, surely? [No, sorry: Ed]

Saturday, October 26, 2019

101 Things #18 - Laughfest

Sorry for the strange title but this item in my continuing series 101 Things I Refuse To Do Before I Die, is based on something spotted on the Spaghetti Traveler website. It was too long easily to truncate. Here it is in full:

Laugh the whole day at the Edinburgh Festival
 
First a declaration of interest. I have been to Edinburgh at Festival time more than once. So it is not the idea of going to join the milling throngs on Princes Street that I am rejecting. I may well revisit one day. What I am refusing to try to do, point-blank, is to spend a whole day laughing there.

 I assume that by "Festival" Mr Spaghetti Traveller (or whatever their real name is) means the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the anarchic and grossly swollen offshoot of the original (and still going strong) Festival proper. There is precious little comedy in the main Festival and plenty of time during the day when there is nothing taking place, so too much laughing as you hang around the Queen's Hall waiting for Brunnhilde to burn to death in Gotterdamerung will probably see you discreetly whisked away by the men in white coats. But is it really possible to spend an entire day laughing as you make your way wearily from one Fringe venue to another, jostling past the fire-eaters and the jugglers and the mime artists and the desperate performers handing round flyers for shows nobody will attend? Will you really laugh as you watch two men and a glove puppet portray the Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire in forty eight minutes? A snigger as the East Solihull Players do Hamlet in Welsh? A few hearty chortles as a nervous stand-up fluffs a couple of gags about Brexit and how his flat-sharing mate is on drugs?

There's loads of good stuff at the Fringe, of course, but given that there can be 56,000 performances over 24 days - that's 2,300 odd each day, or up to 150 an hour, each lasting up to an hour, how on earth do you choose the most risible where hilarity will definitely prevail? No good waiting till the Fringe has begun and then reading the reviews because by then the really funny ones that everyone loves will be sold out. No, you have to take a chance well in advance on what you think will be the most amusing, or simply choose at random on the day from the many that will have seats available. I know. I've been there, done that; though obviously not with the aim of laughing non-stop from the moment the remains of breakfast are being wiped off my tie to that final stagger back through the dark streets to a cold apartment.

You can now understand why I can say that the idea of arranging matters to provide the continuous chuckling that underpins this bucket list is so ludicrous. It cannot be done. You have to find a bit of time for lunch and dinner. You have to find quite a lot of time to make your way around Edinburgh. You might wish to break up the jollity with time out for a tea-break or a pint. What you cannot do is go directly from one gig to the next laughing all the way (unless you do it in a one-horse open sleigh, obviously). In any case there is way more to the Fringe than comedy. What a shame to turn your back on the huge number of other events.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Utterly Pointless Scare of the Day

I like to keep up to date with computer related news, a hangover from the days when it was necessary as part of my job. Thus it was that a headline in the Daily Express (a newspaper I only take for its excellent Princess Diana coverage) caught my attention. The story was about problems with an update to Windows 10. This is itself of interest since I run that operating system. I skimmed down it and was then taken aback to read the following:

And if that wasn’t bad enough, the latest Windows 10 update is also breaking a bevy of 16-bit apps written in Visual Basic 3, which can be revived after the update is uninstalled. If you rely on applications powered by Visual Basic 3 for your day-to-day, it’s probably worth steering clear of the latest software for the time being.

I read this a couple of times, tried to get my mind out of boggling mode and looked again. The words were still there. The Express is concerned about people who use 16 bit applications (or programmes, as we would have called them) written in the Visual Basic 3 programming language and who are running them 'for day to day', whatever that means, on a computer which has Windows 10 as its operating system.

Visual Basic was introduced around 1991. At the time Windows 2, then Windows 3 were in common use. Many of us made serious use of  Windows 3.1 but with the introduction of Windows 95 all serious programmes were rewritten to take advantage of its 32 bit architecture. Windows 10, like its predecessors 8 and 7, is a 64 bit system. These numbers really matter. The step from 16 to 32 and then 64 bit computing enormously increases the speed and capability of software.

It is possible to run 16 bit programmes on a 64 bit computer (by running them in 'emulation' mode) but I defy the Express to find anyone, anyone at all, in the entire world, who does so for 'day to day'. Maybe for running stuff of historic interest perhaps or to amuse students of software architecture. Visual Basic apps tended to be databases, information systems or programmes used by business that anyone taking seriously would certainly update regularly. VB itself was regularly updated until version 6 in 1998; after that the software ceased to be backwardly compatible.

So now you can see why those amazing words 'And if that wasn't bad enough ....' are utterly ludicrous, as if people hit by other bugs in Windows 10 updates are also going to be hit by the breaking of software written 25 years ago, an huge amount of time in terms of the speed of computing development. I'm struggling to find an analogy. Maybe the Express could run the following scare stories:

  • Starting handle owners hit as new models of cars 'just don't need them'
  • Blank telegram form stockists 'may have to ditch the lot' say experts
  • Red flag makers facing ruin following repeal of The Locomotive Act 1865
  • Confectioners 'baffled and dismayed' at yet another change in the naming of Marathon/Snickers
  • DVDs do not work on gramophones shock
  • Pensioners bemoan loss of in-house gas lighting. "I always enjoyed going round with a taper and taking the risk of blowing myself up" claims granny of eight.
That's me done for the night, this story can go to press. I'm going to have one last go at trying to make my steam pump fit inside the Toyota.

101 Things #17 - Lethal Fish Supper

Humans are omnivores (if we wish to be) and most of us eat a wide range of foods. Some like to eat anything digestible and the more dangerous, the better. Naturally, these foods make it on to bucket lists of things to eat before you die. I, in turn, have no wish to put myself in the position that one of these will be the last thing I do eat before I die and hence have added to my own anti-bucket list 101 Things I Refuse To Do Before I Die
 
Eat Fugu

as, for example, enthusiastically discussed on the website Soranews24.

The fugu fish (also known as the puffer fish) is an unpleasant little bastard (if I may use unparliamentary language for a moment) and stores a vicious poison called tetrodotoxin in its internal organs. Eating the fish in a restaurant that has taken insufficient care to remove all traces of these is asking for paralysis and asphyxiation, plus some other side effects, one of which is the realisation that you are likely to be leaving the restaurant without settling your bill and therefore debt collectors will start sending your executors dunning letters; nor will you be able to leave a tip but perhaps under the circumstances the waiters will understand.

Preparing and eating the fish yourself is suicide. Naturally the Japanese, aspects of whose culture will always baffle those of us brought up in Europe, are fascinated by eating fugu and taking the risk, some even deliberately ingesting tiny amounts of the poison to experience the thrill of, well, dying, I suppose. For the rest of us - let this story "Family dinner of deadly pufferfish" be a sobering reminder.

Tasty looking or what?
Pic: Daily Express


 Funnily enough, people who have tasted fugu, as served by those chefs licenced to serve it*, tend to say it doesn't taste of much anyway. It is served, like all sushi dishes, raw.

I think I can happily pass up the chance of blowing up my digestive system and, anyway, I don't much care for sushi. I mean, if you're going to serve me something toxic, let's at least have it hot, with chips.

-&-&-

 *Chefs wishing to serve fugu must serve a three year apprenticeship and pass exams. One of the possible consequences of failing the exam is said to be death (Of the examiner or the student, I wonder?). How do they manage during tutorials? Perhaps they do them side by side with people taking the examinations to join the Japan Ambulance Service and one or two doing the rigorous Advanced Undertaking course.