Sunday, December 29, 2019

101 Things #41 - Scary Stuff

I'm not afraid of death. I just don't want to be there when it happens.
Woody Allen.

It is unusual to commence one of these pieces in my continuing series of anti-bucket-list items, 101 Things I Refuse To Do Before I Die, with a quote. It was chosen because it perfectly encapsulates my response to the irritating proposal, found on the Personal Excellence website that one should

Conquer your biggest fear.

At first glance this sounds perfectly in tune with the self-improvement, you too can be a star, will-power is all you need, sentiments of our consumer-centred age. Afraid of something? Ridiculous! Conquer it. Go on, conquer it. Get it well and truly conquered.

The reason why I will not be attempting to conquer my biggest fear (or fears) is that they are genuinely frightening and genuinely possible and that they cannot be "conquered". These include:
  • The risk of the Earth being struck by an asteroid or comet.
  • The risk of a nearby (in cosmic terms) supernova flooding us with deadly gamma-ray radiation.
  •  The impact of climate change.
  • The continuing violence of extremists towards anyone remotely different from them.
  • The chance of developing a crippling or terminal disease, or having a devastating accident; worse still, having that happen to Mrs C.

Nobody "conquers" concerns about such events of such fundamental importance and to which we have no defence. I conclude that, for this to be a meaningful bucket-list objective, and therefore one I can cheerfully scorn to do, it must not really be our "biggest" fear but our most immediately pressing and yet utterly trivial fears that are to be vanquished.

There are plenty of irrational fears - stepping on cracks in the pavement, walking under ladders, encountering the wrong number of animals or birds - and no doubt some can be so heightened that sufferers may be unable to leave their homes or lead any form of normal life. And there are fears well-founded in our animal brains - fear of the dark, of snakes or spiders, of strangers - that we may wish to be subjugate. Although we know that, in reality, they are not going to hurt us, you cannot utterly rule out that they might.

These fears, however, are too generic, too ordinary. Let us focus on the really silly fears, the ones that we can safely try to conquer, if we could care less about doing so. Fears along the following lines:
  • Reaching for the last cheese cracker in the packet and finding it broken 
  • Running out of change at the cafe and having to humbly submit a £50 note to pay for a £1.30 coffee.
  •  Dropping a sweet down the back of my seat in the car and - no matter how hard I run my fingers into the cracks and underneath - not finding it, and knowing that when I finally do it will be a half-melted sticky lump. 
  • Completely forgetting my neighbour's name just as I encounter them in the road and they greet me by my name. 
  • Racing up the stairs to catch a train, just missing it and then realising that a problem down the line means there will be no more for at least an hour. 
  • Hearing an odd noise at night, knowing that the house is locked up and it's bound to be just the radiators cooling - or is it? 

These are the very stuff of life, the catalysts that get our adrenaline pumping and our instincts heightened, without in any way imperilling us. The sheer pleasure of actually catching that train, or finding that sweet, of realising that the odd sound was actually Mrs C turning over in bed - without the fear in the first place there would not be the sense of calm and serenity that accompanies a threat successfully averted.

Only someone blind to the world would wish to "conquer" such apprehensions. If we did so, then many of life's smaller pleasures would vanish. Why would we care so much about, say, the sports team that we support winning a game, if we did not also dread the prospect of defeat? Thus I regard it as ludicrous to try to ignore the real and major fears that we all have and suffocating to wave away the little ones that make up the warp and weft of everyday life. As to the everyday fear that this column will one day cease to be supported by the generous embrace of Google - I can only hope and pray that you, my loyal readers, will stand by me in that day of disaster.

[The Keep the Ramblings Going At All Costs Fund is open for donations at the usual address. Thanks. Ed]

Thursday, December 26, 2019

101 Things #40 - Pick Up That Star

The Internet is dominated by Americans and naturally many of the ideas for bucket-lists emanate from the New World. Today the item selected for a little light derision could only have been dreamed up on the other side of the Atlantic, but be that as it may, it is a worthy addition to my anti-bucket-list compendium, 101 Things I Refuse To Do Before I Die. The Fully Lived website thinks it a good idea to

Become a small-town sheriff.

I beg to differ.

We don't have sheriffs in England any more (I think there may be some survivors in Scotland). Here, of course, we automatically associate it with nasty, sneering men in Nottingham and forget that the origin of the word - Shire Reeve - simply denotes a local official.

[Boring factual bit follows] In the US it is normal for towns and counties to elect a sheriff and it is a real job, with crime prevention, public order and administration of court orders at its heart, though the powers of a sheriff vary from state to state and from town to town so it is hard to generalise. The tenure of office is four years. A sheriff may be the equivalent of the chief of police, or he may have authority in all areas of the county that do not have incorporated towns with their own police departments. [End of boring factual bit]

What do we here in the UK know (or think we know) about sheriffs? We all grew up watching westerns about brave men with tin stars who faced down innumerable bad guys in the main street of a one-horse town. We cheered on modern anti-heroes like Burt Reynolds or the Dukes of Hazard who easily outwitted the lumbering, gum-chewing, pistol-packing stooges of the corrupt mayor. We all know, thanks to Hollywood, that there are two types of sheriff: one is usually to be found lurking behind a billboard on the freeway in a police cruiser, munching doughnuts and waiting to catch anyone doing more than 1 mph over the limit; the other is an honest, hard-drinking, disrespectful loner for whom the law is all that matters and who, in the end, always gets his man (often having to go the big city to do it).

So, whether you go for the boring factual bit or the popular image, why would anyone (Americans included), want to be a sheriff just to tick it off a bucket-list? Maybe you fancy the idea of getting free coffee from every diner on the highway or of sidling up to some punk and drawling "Better haul your ass over the county line, stranger"? Perhaps you tingle at the thought of the DA telling you it's time to take off the kid gloves and load up the ol' pump-action shotgun? Or do you just want to be able to wear a cowboy hat as part of your job?

Note that the proposal is to do your sheriffing [Surely that is not a word? Ed] in a small town. That makes a sort of sense, as big towns probably have more regular police forces and are less likely to employ sheriffs, and even more sense when you remember that big towns are where you are going to get the drug cartels, the murders and the muggers. The small town, with its single road junction marked by one blinking traffic light, its General Store and white-washed chapel, its cluster of outlying wood-framed houses and just a couple of gas stations on the road to the interstate, that's where you want to be, all right. Where you can walk down Main Street, accept an apple pie here and a cheery greeting there, and go into your office, put your boots up on the beat-up old desk and wonder when the town drunk is going to be sober enough for you to let him out of the one jail cell in the corner. Trouble with all this is, do you really want to spend four years hitching up your pants on the street corner waiting for someone, just one person, please dear God, just one reckless driver to run the red light so you can bellow "Sheriff! Stop right there buddy"?

I do not find any of this sufficient inducement to leave family and home behind, try to get a Green Card and then hit on a suitable town to offer my services at the next election. Hell, I'll get my hide whupped by the incumbent sure as eggs are eggs.1

1. sounds better in a Texan accent.

Saturday, December 21, 2019

101 Things #39 - Toothbrushes galore

We are all collectors, are we not? Some go for pottery, some for dolls, some for beer mats or computer games. I myself collect rejection slips (little writer's joke there). Therefore, as I consider ideas for inclusion in my still unaccountably expanding, anti-bucket-list 101 Things I Refuse To Do Before I Die, I am certainly not going to have a go at the activity of collecting. It is a fine way to have fun, learn and perhaps become an authority on your chosen subject.

What, however, appears to be an utterly daft suggestion is to

Collect 100 toothbrushes. 

I found this on the bucket-list ideas on and I have no intention whatsoever of even beginning to contemplate going about it. Or so I thought when I began considering my approach to what seemed like an easy piece of derision.

All pics: Amazon
We all what a toothbrush looks like. Here's one, for example. We've all, at some time, bought or been given one. We rip away the packaging and discard it. We place the brush in a handy spot in the bathroom and at appropriate times smear it with paste and let rip inside our mouths.

At first sight it seemed that there was little more to say and it was self-evidently pointless collecting any other than those needed to do a job, and those in turn would be discarded once the bristles started splaying out in all directions. Of course one could keep pristine versions inside their little cardboard and cellophane wrappers, perhaps collect loads and hang on a rack just like in the shops; I would, I think, class such behaviour as bordering on the pathological and, if showed one such set by a proud owner, find myself picking up my phone and pretending I have just had an text urgently requiring my presence in the next county.

And then I began to have second thoughts.

Here is another brush. It does exactly the same job as the first but it has a different shape, the head is not angled, the bristles seem coarser and have a different colour and the handle is very different and possibly made of wood rather than plastic. Gosh. Can toothbrushes actually be interesting? Is there a case for seeking out variations so that they can displayed as an illustration of human ingenuity and crafting skills?

It wasn't long after that I had third thoughts. These things are still toothbrushes. If you hang them on the walls it will look weird, inside or outside their wrappers. One could, perhaps, invest in an antique set of drawers, the ones that are very shallow so you get lots of them, and then fill them with carefully labelled brushes and you could slide out one drawer at a time to gloat over the way the light catches the plastic .... You see where I am going with this? It begins to seem that the only way to make any sense of this bucket-list item is to embellish it with all the trappings of serious collecting, the way one might display rare old coins or items of ancient pottery.

 But, coming back to reality, let us remind ourselves that the vast majority of toothbrushes look something like this. How much pleasure can one really derive from contemplating this object and then, with a sinking heart, remind oneself that there are 99 pretty well the same bar some trivial differences.

 I was on the point of concluding this piece, having, it seemed, got it back on track when I had fourth thoughts (and believe me, reader, these are the strangest yet in connection with this topic).

Had I got it all wrong? Anyone could go into a chemist and buy a toothbrush to add to the collection. Hell, you could probably buy ten or twenty different ones in one shopping trip. Where's the challenge in that?  Why on earth would the brainy folk behind UpJourney have suggested it? This leaves us with two fascinating possibilities for making this collection interesting.
  1. Collect unusual variants only. Each one must be made of a different substance for the handle and the bristles to any other. Platinum handles. Ivory. Papier-maché. Moon-rock. Brushes made from hairs hand-cut from a Javanese tiger and cured on the naked thighs of the virgins of Cochin, or spun from the whiskers of walruses, or carbon fibres made using nano-technology. If you have the funds you could bid for one of the fabulous Fabergé brushes given to the Tsar in 1902 and 1903 (before he suggested, politely, that an Easter egg might be more fun).
  2. Collect used toothbrushes and, before you go "Yeeurgh, how gross", let me add the magic words "belonging to celebrities" -
  • A brush casually discarded by Jimi Hendrix just before going on stage at the Isle of Wight in 1970. 
  • A wooden and badger-hair Merridew & Withers "No 8 special" found near one of Jack the Ripper's victims. 
  • The very brush Washington dropped into the Delaware during that crossing.
    And why stop there?  
  • Seek out the very shop in Transylvania wherein Count Dracula found the wherewithal to clean his fangs and those of some of his pet werewolves.
  • If the Topkapi Museum in Istanbul can display, shamelessly, the "Staff of Moses" and the "Sword of David", then why not the brush, still in its wrapper with the label saying "Sale - only 2 shekels" with which Judas gave his gnashers a quick once-over before that fatal meeting with the Romans? 
  • And, somewhere underneath Glastonbury, I bet we could unearth the very gentleman's grooming kit lost by Merlin (which is why he is always depicted looking so unkempt and with stained teeth). 

Maybe there are some who would scour the world for toothbrushes made of coral, or with heads designed by wise old elders in the Upper Amazon, or with a built-in microprocessor that tells your mobile phone the state of each tooth and they mount their favourites over the mantle-piece and polish them up on Sundays. Perhaps, in some side alley off the Portobello Road, a furtive little man might beckon you over and open his coat to reveal a toothbrush thought to have been used by Princess Diana.  There may be much to fascinate collectors who take either, or indeed both, of the above paths.

I've had fifth thoughts. This is becoming rather silly. I see no point in a drawerful of fanciful brushes and I don't regard celebrity stuff as worth having. I shall not be joining the ranks of collectors. I am giving this one the brush-off.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

101 Things #38 - Read All About It, and I Mean All

As I add to my coming-on-nicely now, thank you, anti-bucket list that I cunningly call 101 Things I Refuse To Do Before I Die, I normally cover those topics others might well wish to include on their bucket lists, but which I find odd, or ludicrous, or just not anything I'd want to do. This is not one of those topics. Today we review the proposal found in the Huffington Post website to

Read a newspaper from cover to cover

and quite frankly I'm a bit taken aback. This one fall into the "Uh, run that by me again, dude" category of pointless non-achievements and probably is in line for a podium position.

Read a newspaper from cover to cover? Is that a thing? In the 21st century? Does anybody do that for real? I suppose we need to whip out the old analysis scalpel and peel away at the hidden logic here.

 What is meant by "newspaper" for a start? They are all on-line these days. They don't actually have covers. You have to navigate through menus, and give them permission to install cookies on your computer and click away the annoying pop-up ads, and given that articles from days or weeks before may still all be on-line (if you scroll down enough), you can be there a hell of a long time.

You could choose one of the "local" papers, like the ones we get in this part of London. If you restrict yourself to strictly local affairs you might get through it fairly fast but how many times do you want to read headlines like "Local man speaks out", "Shop to close", "Shop to open", "Local sports team plays another local sports team" or similar?

In the US they probably associate this cover to cover business with those great lumps of main sections, sports sections, arts bits, business stuff, comic section, women's pages, special reports, lifestyle supplements. small ads, house ads, etc etc that comprise the New York Times, the LA Times and similar. Oh, I forgot the pull-out TV supplement. And the "infotainment" sections. [OK, point made: Ed].

Just carrying one of these bricks around burns about 1,000 calories an hour. You don't read through them, you flip through at high speed, picking out the odd headline here or the interesting picture there. Does anyone seriously read through everything? If you did, would you be proud about it afterwards or regard it as an unforgivable waste of time?

In Britain it is not quite so bad but the serious daily press can still comprise plenty of pages, and the Sundays a lot more. Maybe we are intended to select something lighter, like the Daily Star, a paper best examined when you've got to the end of the chips it's been wrapped around. By "best" I mean if you've half an hour to the next bus, your phone battery has died and you've already read the front and back of the credit cards in your wallet, twice. The problem here is that, if you are a regular Star reader, then you will know that nobody actually reads it; they just look at the pictures and make the expected comments to show oneness with the rest of the lads:-  "Cor, she's a talented young lady", that sort of thing. But actually looking at the words, and getting an adult to help you with the longer ones, hardly seems much of an achievement. And if you are not a regular then you will almost certainly have chucked it away the moment you savoured that final chip.

Surely, if you're going to impress your peers, or want something solid to chat about to the angel escorting you upwards on the day your bucket-listing comes to an unexpectedly early end, it has to be one of the big papers, and now we are back to having to wade through acres of adverts and reviews of books you are not going to buy (or read if your aunt gives it to you for Christmas) and accounts of sporting encounters for games that bore you rigid played by teams you have never heard of.

I'm not saying this task cannot be done. By all means slam it on your bucket list . But reading a paper cover to cover is something people (mainly men, I suspect) did in earlier times when there was bugger all else to do (women usually had plenty to do, thanks to all the lazy blokes pretending to be stuck into their newspapers). In the age of the internet and rolling 24 hour TV news it really should not be a thing any more, and even if it is, I am certainly not going to bother.

Monday, December 16, 2019

Election 2019 - The man who didn't lose

Following the general election in which his party secured less than 33% of the votes of British electors, the still-there-but-apparently-going-soon leader Jeremy Corbyn has claimed that he won all along really. His party may have lost 42 seats to the Conservatives but Corbyn clearly believes that he triumphed, winning the arguments and the love and admiration of the British people as well. All those people who, when canvassed, said that he was the biggest reason why they could not support Labour, well they were on his side all along, weren't they? They were just joshing, playing the old pretend-to-vote-for-someone-else game to the hilt.

Mr Corbyn is expected to visit Buckingham Palace in the near future to kiss hands with the Queen, prior to taking office as prime minister, receiving the Nobel prize for all-round brilliance, supervising peace negotiations in Korea and launching Britain's bid to host the 2030 World Cup, the 2032 Olympics and the Eurovision Song Contest. At least, that's what he believes.

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101 Things #37 - Follow that Nomad

When you reach the end of your long, and no doubt illustrious life, what will you look back on with pleasure? What will make you smile contentedly as you avert your eyes from the sight of your heirs scrabbling around in your desk for your will, the keys to your safe and the diamonds (Ah, you didn't think I knew about those, did you?).

I can tell you one thing that would give me no particular pleasure at all, an idea that I feel compelled to include in my anti-bucket list 101 Things I Refuse To Do Before I Die, and it is the odd suggestion to be found on the bucket list of the Aussie on the road website to

Meet real Gypsies.

Those old Romany caravans, eh? Trundling gracefully down quiet country lanes, each pulled by a gentle old horse, brightly painted and with buckets clanking where they are tied to the rear opening doors. A handful of ivory skinned, dark eyed folk walk alongside, singing songs in an ancient tongue, whittling carved sticks as they go, free and untrammelled by the cares of us urban wage-slaves. Fragrant smoke arises from their evening campfires as they tell time-worn tales and wide-eyed children look on.

Or perhaps you imagine a mysterious tent at the edge of a fairground. Mystic symbols cover the entrance and a sign proclaims it to be the haunt of a lady with the surname of Lee, seventh daughter of a seventh daughter of a long line of Lees,  who has supplied her knowledge of the arcane arts to the crowned heads of Europe and who, for just a few pieces of silver (OK, maybe a fiver) will consult the crystals, the cards and the spirits to give you knowledge about yourself that will transform your life.

Ah, we have a snag here. These are not the "real" Gypsies. Maybe they don't have them in Australia and distance creates romance. The caravan-dwellers of cherished memory have largely vanished. The fairground fortune-tellers are just people who travel with fairgrounds.

The real Gypsies live in poverty on the fringes of society in Eastern Europe, mainly. They suffer from discrimination at school and at work. They move wherever they can find temporary work and must face the hostility of the settled population, a hostility based on nationalism and religious differences. On a holiday that took us through Romania, Bulgaria and Serbia some years ago Mrs C. and I were struck by the frequency with which the local guides, without any prompting, assured our tour group that there was no Gypsy problem in their country. This came across that they were only too aware of problems and were keen we should not know about it or ask any embarrassing questions.

The idea therefore, to seek out some of these people so that a bucket list item can ticked off is rather repugnant. It smacks of going to the lunatic asylum to poke fun at the wretches in straight-jackets, as used to be the case two hundred years ago here in civilised England. No doubt selfies would be taken, earrings admired and little children patted on the head. And then it's on to the next bucket list objective and we can leave them behind to the mercy of the local authorities.

 It's interesting to ponder what our mates from Oz meant by "real". They did not have a suggestion to "Meet real Mexicans" (always look under the sombrero for the label) or "Hang out with genuine card-carrying Belgians" (Make sure they have hand-made lace shirts on).

Did they wish to warn off their readers about the large number of fake Gypsies, who, for a modest fee, will flash their white teeth whilst your cameras click away? Perhaps they mean the guys who used to go house to house selling clothes pegs (We don't see them any more)? Or maybe the louts, better known as Travellers, who swarm into our fields and public car parks, create incidents of threatening behaviour and dump mounds of rubbish behind when they get moved on by the police? I certainly wouldn't wish to meet any of those either.

Perhaps they should have added a warning "Ask to see a certificate of authenticity before meeting any one posing as a Gypsy. Beware of imitations. Your bucket list cannot be ticked until you have irrefutable proof of 100% Romany birth going back at least ten generations." However, let us not over-egg this pudding. I'm not going to go out of my way to meet any, and I'm sure none of them will be making tracks for beautiful Ruislip so they can shake me warmly by the hand whilst a friend whips out the camera, so let's just call it quits, OK?

Friday, December 13, 2019

Election 2019 - The Aftermath

A Conservative landslide, Labour humiliation and the leader out, LibDems marginalised and the leader out, "British Lion Roars" according to the Daily Express.

And yet - in England the Conservatives won only 47.2% of the vote. Across the UK, 43.6%. The nation as a whole did not endorse the government of our local mp B. Johnson.

In Scotland the result apparently justifies fresh calls for a referendum on independence but the SNP secured just 45% of the vote and manifestly do not have a mandate for it.

Funny business, politics.

I also noted that apparently Labour had sent "hundreds" of supporters to my constituency, Uxbridge and Ruislip South. What on earth were they doing? If each knocked on just 50 doors a day over a three day period that would be a minimum of 30,000 dwellings comprising the whole of the constituency. Nobody knocked on my door, I saw none of them in the street, there is not a single Labour poster to be seen (actually damn few for any party) and even yesterday, in Uxbridge town centre, they were invisible. That has to be the least effectual canvassing in electoral history. Not that a decent effort would have made any difference, of course.

We now have a government with enough support to enable it to pass its legislative programme but whether they have the faintest idea what they actually want to achieve is anybody's guess, since the only concrete ideas so far to emerge is the mantra "Get Brexit Done" with all the negotiations still to be done, and "supporting" the NHS which the Conservatives have happily run down in the past ten years.

However if one good thing came out of the election it was the sudden elimination of the Ulster DUP from the national scene. No longer does the government need to rely on their handful of seats ( now reduced by a couple including their leader at Westminster). This may well be a significant step toward the reunification of Ireland because the Conservatives have nothing to lose by abandoning Ulster behind a new customs barrier. Equally, having been wiped out in Scotland they may feel the same way about the Union. We shall see.

101 Things #36 - Let Us Go Fourth

It is a great honour you do me. Really, I am flattered to have been asked. I know that to be included in the select group, who have already attained this ultimate recognition of their talents, is to have reached a pinnacle and I am humbled to be counted amongst their company. Nonetheless I fear that I must decline and shall, perforce, add your request to my anti-bucket list 101 Things I Refuse To Do Before I Die by putting aside any notion that I might

Exhibit my work on the Fourth Plinth.

A word of explanation. Trafalgar Square, at the south-eastern edge of London's fashionable West End is home to the National Gallery, a couple of High Commissions, some tacky souvenir shops, St Martin in the Fields church (and useful cafe), lots of disaffected pigeons and, of course, the pillar upon which stands a statue of Admiral Lord Nelson. Surrounding this column are three statues (on plinths) and one empty plinth.

The Fourth Plinth as it was

For reasons we need not go into, the Victorians, who built the square, never found a suitable subject for the last statue (having rejected, wisely, the original idea of William IV) and the plinth stood untenanted until fairly recently. Eminent artists are now invited to make use of it for short-term exhibitions.

All this being so, you may well be wondering why I intend to be absent when the roll-call of exhibitors is read. I shall explain.

The most recent commission, due for 2020, is to be Heather Phillipson's exhibit "The End". This is described as
A dollop of whipped cream with an assortment of toppings: a cherry, a fly, and a drone. The drone will film passers-by and display them on an attached screen. 
 If your minds are now going into that slightly unfocussed state which denotes the start of a good boggling, maybe a picture will help (obviously this is a model)

Pic. Heather Phillipson and James O. Jenkins / Independent

In the words of the artist it speaks to
 extremes of shared experience, from commemorations and celebrations to mass protests, all while being observed by a drone’s camera
 If you wish to delve further into the symbolism of this piece do please click on the link above (because you won't learn any more about it here).

Naturally, I was tempted to offer some of my oeuvres (good word that, you can include any old tat hanging about at the back of your shed if you call it an oeuvre); for example:
  • The End of the Beginning: A giant biscuit wrapper, torn in half, with crumbs scattered around the base in the shape of a child waving her arms, to symbolise the importance of climate change. 
  • Silent Movie: A statue in the form of a traditional mime, beret, black and white striped top and white face, with a loudspeaker concealed in the mouth playing the music of 1928. This symbolises the transition from silent movies to talkies and has the added advantage that no royalties need be paid. It is hoped that real mimes will be at large in the square to annoy the hell out of everyone.
  • Is It Art?: A provocative display of thirty metres of 6 inch gas piping, coiled around a dead tree. The temptation of Eve or just some stuff found on a derelict building site? You decide. 
  • The Beginning of the End: A few biscuit crumbs on a plate, a smear of chocolate and a damp tea spoon. Symbolises the completion of another satisfying tea break. Nothing else.
  • Double or quits: A sculpture the exact shape, size and appearance of the plinth to be mounted on top of it.  Dedicated to the unsung heroes of heroic statuary, the plinth-builders.

On reflection, I have decided that I cannot compete with Ms Phillipson's vision. It's the drone bit that does it for me. She appears to have created the world's largest and most pointless selfie-machine. Had I thought of it first it might have been a different story ...

I shall retreat to my shed and brood and meanwhile, if you want my advice on the Fourth Plinth, why not remove it, dig a hole in the ground equal in size and shape to it, and drop in it some of the politicians whose recklessness and ignorance has driven a wedge between the UK and its European allies?

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

101 Things #35 - Easy Money

A bucket list can include tasks so easy they can be accomplished almost at once - The popular "Tell someone you love them" for example. Others take planning, such as exotic foreign holidays but are still straightforward to schedule. And now and then you find something so jaw-droppingly stupid as a bucket list item that it automatically goes straight into the anti-bucket list I am steadily compiling, 101 Things I Refuse To Do Before I Die.

Today we make derisive comments about the suggestion on Tomas Lau's website that you should aim to

Build a multimillion dollar business empire.

You heard it right. A multimillion dollar business empire. From scratch, presumably as indicated by the word "build". With the same eagerness with which you will take a selfie at the Taj Mahal (tick), eat escargots in Paris (tick) or get sufficiently drunk to engage in a karaoke session (tick), you can wake up tomorrow and get down to it, building. It may take a little while to get there but it's on your bucket list so you're going to do it. Right?

I assume that the 'multimillion' refers to the value of the business rather than the turnover, that is, a business you could sell for at least two million dollars. A million dollars may not be what it used to be, but it's still a fair whack. Look at all the struggling would-be millionaires on Dragons' Den [A popular TV show for rich people to humiliate less rich people: Ed], for example. A tiny handful will make it, the rest are going to struggle to stay solvent let alone grow a substantial business. And when you hear their stories you realise that they work tirelessly and fully focussed on the business. Some have turned in good jobs to set up for themselves. They work all hours. They take low pay or none. They may mortgage their houses to provide working capital.

This is not a bucket-list whim - it is a total lifestyle. Obviously, I have reached the stage in life where I don't need to do this and I no longer have the energy or the mental strength required. Even if this were not the case, it still seems all wrong to have this is a bucket list item. The sort of person who might succeed and then say "Right, done it, the business is doing well, so I'll tick it off the list and jack it all in so I can start ticking off some other items" is not the sort of person who will ever build that business in the first place.

Sunday, December 08, 2019

If this is Art then I'm a banana

You may have noticed that each of these little musings has a tag - a handy way to find all the posts of a particular type - and these are helpfully listed at the right hand side of the web page. Today's offering is so bizarre that it almost requires a category of its own. I have allocated it to 'Just stupid' but really it needs to go under 'Unbelievably stupid, how can humans be so stupid?'.

I have commented on art now and then in these columns. I have defined what I take to be 'good' art. I have utter scorn and derision for those who claim to be artists because they say they are, as opposed to those who actually create art. You can therefore imagine my response to the following story

Pic: The Guardian

A bloke, who claims to be an artist, takes things that others have made, or harvested, and sticks them on gallery walls and gets the credit for being a brilliant artist because nobody in the entire history of the human race has ever looked at any of these things before, or something. His latest exploit was to stick a banana on a wall and sell it.  After a few days of gently rotting under the glare of the lights another "artist" ate it. Everyone in the art world swooned with aesthetic delight, told themselves how simply marvellous it was and held their hands out for cheques signed by buffoons with money and leaking brains.

Oh yes, and the moron who bought the banana (though he did not eat it) was given a "certificate" to prove that he is still the owner of whatever it is that may be thought to remain. I think we need Lewis Carroll to explain the metaphysics of this one.

It is almost impossible to satirise this story. It is its own self-parody. If man eats a banana in the street, he is just a hungry bloke. If he eats it in an art gallery, he is an artist. If a bloke hides in his shed, he is just a strange bloke. If he gets himself buried under a street, he is an artist. On that basis  I demand a Turner prize because, only the other day, I stooped in the street to retie a loose shoelace as part of a performance I call "Man with loose shoelace" (sadly the vast, cheering crowd that this emotional and inspiring baring of my soul deserved was strangely absent).

In any case, everyone has got this banana business utterly wrong. There is a wonderful, inspiring, transcendent piece of art hidden in plain sight, and everyone has missed it. The placing of that piece of duct tape, the choice of that subtle yet so revealing grey colour, the imperceptible angle as it bends across the banana, the hint of an upturned edge - here is true artistry, here is talent, here is a nice little earner for handymen who even now will be rushing to their nearest branch of Screwfix to stock up on 50m rolls, canvases and those little red dots that you stick on the bottom to show you have found another mug sold it.


Art Lovers! The Ramblings Gallery announces its Winter Season.
  • A man will eat a mince pie each Sunday at 4:05pm.
  • See the daily putting out of the milk bottles (times vary, check with website)
  • Demonstrations of advanced use of the tumble dryer by special guest artist-in-residence Mrs C.
  • Sightings of the 8:27 Metropolitan Line to Baker Street (stopping at all stations)
  • Certificate written in genuine crayon to all participants
Terms and conditions apply, especially the one that says that no money can be refunded should some or all of the events in the winter season fail to take place. But you will get a certificate to say you have been apprised of the T & Cs for a very reasonable small extra charge.

Saturday, December 07, 2019

Election 2019 - Super Saturday

The last week of the campaign and no less than four election leaflets were thrust through my letter box this morning. The only one received in the preceding week was from Labour (No idea about Brexit); today we had the LibDems (stop Brexit), UKIP (even more Brexit), the Labour party candidate for Ruislip-Northwood (easy mistake to make as the constituency boundary is just a few doors up the road) and a very strange one from one William Tobin,  a UK citizen living in France who is unable to vote here but is able to stand (almost certainly stop Brexit).

Everyone is going to put more money into the NHS and schools and fight for local issues (apart from the incumbent whose inability to keep promises is now legendary in these parts) and there is little else to choose between them, although the UKIP candidate includes "sack liar politicians" as one of his themes. I wonder if this is anything at all to do with dear Nigel, the man who leads a party but who is not actually bothering to stand in case it interferes with his career as a loony right wing pundit in the USA.

In other news, a leading diplomat at our American embassy has resigned because she is no longer able to peddle the government line about how wonderful Brexit will be and the incumbent in our constituency continues to parrot the phrase "Get Brexit done" as an alternative to answering any questions.

As Woody Allen put it in his piece "My speech to the graduates"
More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.

101 Things #34 - Dreaming of Urumqi

As I grow my collection of pieces detailing achievements I shall glory in never completing, indeed, never even bothering to attempt in the first place, a collection which has come to be known as 101 Things I Refuse To Do Before I Die, I find that travel pieces form a important section. For many the lure of travel is irresistible. Roaming the world, experiencing wonderful sights, widening one's horizons - the bucket lists of others are full of suggestions as to where to go, what to see, what to eat (and the quickest way to the border for some of the trickier destinations).

Whilst I have no great desire to do much travel, I cannot deny that, in my youth, I too cherished dreams of exploration and discovery. Some wish to go further and settle in some chosen spot for a while, immersing themselves in the culture and experiencing life as if they were born there. This always sounds at lot more glamorous than it really is, and the more divergent the culture of the locals and that of their visitor, the harder it becomes. Of course, to some bucket-listers the harder it is, the more desirable. Today we are considering, and turning down flat, the suggestion found on Pick Your Goals to

Live the life of the locals in Xinjiang.

In 1936 Peter Fleming, brother of the now more famous Ian, a sort of occasional roving correspondent for The Times, wandered all over the far east. His account of his epic journey (and here the adjective is not an exaggeration) from Beijing to Srinagar on the frontier of British India was published as News From Tartary and a thundering good read it is too.

 Much of the way Fleming, and his gallant travelling companion, the Swiss writer Ella Maillart, relied on whatever transport was around as they crossed the endless spaces of China's western provinces. Here the deserts, swamps and high icy peaks forced reliance on camels, mules or feet. Fleming met people for whom China was more a concept than a country, and who following tribal customs that were many centuries old, owed allegiance to local chiefs or warlords. Their travels were mostly set in the province then known as Sinkiang, now Xinjiang ("the new province"), acquired late in China's history and at that time subject to rebellions and much intrigue from Russian communists.

 I read this book in my late teens and I have it still on my shelves. You can see now why I might have been drawn to the same region. Well, not any more, thank you. China has become a heavily militarised society, the minorities in the west are watched with suspicion and ghastly concrete cities are replacing the small settlements precariously perched amidst the wilderness. Furthermore, I speak no Chinese of any form, found the food in Tibet (which I visited in 1986) none too palatable and do not wish to sample it or anything like it ever again, and the endless discomforts in which Fleming revelled - the dirt, the dust, the heat - do not appeal.

 Xinjiang has a population of about 22 million. This is tiny compared to China as a whole but it easily covers the largest area. Consequently the population is spread very thinly, in a rugged and semi-desert terrain, making for a culture that fosters independence and self-reliance. Most of them are Uighurs from the Turkic peoples, linked to those of the other central Asian states, but distinct from the Han Chinese who comprise the vast majority of the Chinese people.

The Uighurs are Muslim, as are other peoples in the neighbouring countries to the west, and have a long history of resisting Chinese rule, with both religion and ethnic loyalties as reasons for conflict. China has been tightening its grip on Xinjiang for some time and there is evidence of serious brutalities that resemble those of the Nazis and the Khmer Rouge - see this current story in The Independent, for example.

What, then, does it mean to "live like the locals" in this part of the world. Do you speak the language? The local languages in Xinjiang are being suppressed; increasingly only Chinese is permitted. Are you a Muslim? Will you be praying like the locals? Are you prepared to be picked up off the streets by police and taken to a "re-education centre"? Have you got any experience in tending flocks of animals as they wander across the barren plains? Or do you see yourself running a small stall in a bazaar? How about being a long-distance lorry driver or a miner? Everything you say or write on your phone will be monitored, of course.

By all means visit such places and soak up, what to us living comfortably in the west, is an exotic lifestyle, but don't kid yourself that you really know what it is to live like a local. This applies to plenty of other places in the world, of course. It is a form of cultural imperialism, for those of us fortunate enough to be able to live freely and to afford to travel, that we have the temerity to believe that we could really know what it is like to be born and brought up in a very different part of the world. Moreover this is just a bucket-list idea, something to be done for a short time before you go home. Pity the hapless locals who have no such freedom; they are not going to be turning up in your town any day now asking for temporary jobs and mangling your language.

So you can breathe a little easier, good folk of Urumqi and environs. You are not about to be deluged with sarcastic pieces about extensive delays on the number 12 bus from Kaziwanzhen to the Xinhua South Road residential district, nor about the billboards with the horrible advertising slogan "Chop, chop, buy Lee's Chop Sticks today". I am staying right here to go on sticking it to my own people instead.


Readers! Have you ever thought of living like a local in beautiful Ruislip? This dream can be within your grasp.

Apply today for the Ramblings Course, a set of learning modules that will enable you to blend in and become readily accepted.
  • Discover the correct distance to stand behind the person at the front of the ATM queue 
  • Join the locals in marvelling at the annual flooding of the Victoria Road underpass at Ruislip Manor station 
  • Savour the authentic local cuisine as you choose from Indian, Italian, Chinese, Thai or Jamaican fast food outlets
  • Play the dangerous sport of "just parking on the double yellow while I dash into the chemists" the way the locals do. 
  • Learn to tut-tut when the "minor" delays on the tube result in a twenty five minute gap in service. 
Don't delay - apply today. Our team is waiting to take your call. [If you mean me, I'm busy:Ed]

Terms and Conditions apply but we're not allowed to share them with non-locals, sorry.

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.

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 ....