Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Power to the Vectra

A few weeks ago I became aware of a strange noise my car was making as it went round corners. Just a loud whir that you couldn't hear over the music. In very short order, the whir came a grinding drone and the drone became a constant background noise from the moment you turned the engine on.

It was swiftly diagnosed by the fine folk of Bellingers as air in the power steering mechanism. A new pipe, a refill, a couple of hundred quid on the Mastercard and that was that.

Except that it's started again, and the car's return trip to Bellingers is now booked in for tomorrow.

Power steering is all very well but I've driven estate cars before that didn't have it, and suffered no grievous harm. They still went round corners. Twentieth century society got by for decades without it. Okay, their cars knocked a whopping great hole in the ozone layer, but they could still steer. And in the good old days of horse drawn carts, if a horse made a funny grinding noise as it went round corners then that was the next season's dog meat bill taken care of.

Why exactly do we have power steering?

(And thinks: if I can get the garage to certify the likely cause of this leak was transporting four teenage males to Banbury and back for paintballing, can I bill the church?)

Monday, November 28, 2005

Allegedly transvestite sportsman RIP

I'm indebted to m'former learned colleague Justin Ruffles for putting the death of George Best into some kind of perspective. And Mr Ruffles, I should point out, is quite the fan of the game. Meanwhile m'other former learned colleague Joella asks a pertinent question about liver no. 2.

I think the only significance for me is that George Best was (indirectly) my introduction to the music of Andrew Lloyd Webber -- faint praise at best -- and the first footballer whose name I knew. I knew there was this thing called football and things called teams that people supported. Oh, and boys at school who wore strange pullover shirts with coloured patterns on them. Bit by bit it all fell into place. And from somewhere I learned that the greatest of all these footballers was called George Best. I clung onto that bit of trivia and milked it for every ounce -- and we are talking ounces -- of street cred I could wring out of it, the same way I officially supported Chelsea because (again) they were the first team name that I learned, only this time we're talking about street cred by the microgram. Until finally I just gave up and decided I was the only one in step by not being remotely interested in the bloody game, an attitude I retain to this day. Nowadays I even have to have Chelsea pointed out to me.

One thing I will concede for our celebrity footballers is that their talent is genuine. Frankly, anyone with a figure you could stick a pin through and a so-so voice could be a Spice Girl, while being able to Bend It Like Beckham is not something you can fake.

Meanwhile I leave you with a little ditty based upon a football chant of my youth:

Georgie Best
What a prat
Killed himself by boozing
And now that is that

Fun facts about porcupines

All I knew about porcupines before today was that they are spiky and King Solomon had a lot of them. Thanks to Wikipedia I now know a lot more.

You know the old joke -- how do porcupines make love? Turns out the traditional answer (very carefully) is incorrect. Instead, male porcupines urinate on the female to soften the spines. I would prefer to say it with chocolates and roses, but may consider this method in extremis.

Wikipedia also tells me "Fishers sometimes successfully attack porcupines by biting their faces." My boss is often found on the river bank in his spare time and this makes me see him in an entirely new light.

And finally, there are Old World porcupines (which presumably Solomon had) and New World porcupines, which spend most of their time in trees. The Old World ones separated from the hystricognaths about 30 million years ago, presumably because they couldn't pronounce hystricognaths. I mean, they're rodents, and those enlarged front teeth must be the devil. When the New World porcupines separated from the hystricognaths isn't recorded. Possibly they took to the trees when the hystricognaths came looking.

So there you are -- some fun facts and a revised punchline to an old joke. Your lunch time is complete.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

CO2 powered weapons are no match for the power of the Force

Sad and geeky, I know. What can I say? The boys made me do it.

Anyway, the snow held off, we paintballed and we paintballed good. I wore my trusty leather jacket beneath the camo and it worked for the couple of shots I received to the upper body area. Most of the shots I got were straight in the face and splatted on the visor, which is strangely pleasing in a macho sort of way.

- Siward: Had he his hurts before?
- Ross: Ay, on the front.
- Siward: Why then, God's soldier be he!
(Macbeth, Act V, Scene VII)

Embarrassingly I was first to be shot in the first game. Even more embarrassingly, it was a lower body shot from a range of about 10 feet, through just two layers of clothing, and it hit about an inch away from denying the future Mrs Ben any lasting marital satisfaction. I now have what looks like a hickey on my inner thigh, which should serve as a conversation starter if it looks like talk is hitting a lull.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Roma et Augustus vivat

Rome was a highly civilised place with carefully defined rights and laws for different kinds of people that made the republic a quite bearable place to be for 400 years. If you weren't a slave, and very often if you were. That's twice as long as the American republic has so far managed, and it had slavery for all of that time. Go figure. Of course, I wouldn't want to go and live in the Rome of 2000 years ago now, but if a freak wormhole event took me back to that time, there could be worse places.

Those laws weren't much good if a future Emperor and his thuggish bodyguard decided to torture and murder you in a sewer for sleeping with thuggish bodyguard's best friend's wife, but those are the breaks.

Yes, I watched Rome last night. And have every episode so far. And will doubtless continue. It's fun.

Young Octavian is the star of the show and also a prime example of why we shouldn't take it too seriously. The real item's mother was an exemplar of Roman matronly virtue and he was never referred to as Octavian in his lifetime -- he was Octavius, after his father, until later historians decided otherwise. But at least this way we all get to know who he is.

He's played by a teen actor called Max Pirkis, who was the one-armed midshipman in Master & Commander, now a few inches taller and deeper voiced. He was the moral heart of that film; here he is the centre of gravity. As he grows, so will events come to centre more and more about him. Uncle Julius will bring down the republic, but it will take Octavian, as the Emperor Augustus, to perpetuate the mighty empire we've all come to love. Meanwhile, like Octavian, we take a seat and watch events unfurl about him. Last night was a leap forward, as for the first time we see him leaving the maternal home, doing things on his own initiative, and being a right ruthless machiavellian little brute while he's about it. One day he will have to stand up to Mark Antony, 20 years his senior. I can already believe he will do that.

Octavian was 18 when Caesar died; he had to march to Rome to claim his inheritance, knowing that he would either end up as boss, or dead. And modern teenagers worry about spots and GCSEs. That's the great triumph of Rome. It gives us recogniseable human beings with recogniseable human nature that we can relate to, and it makes them as alien as creatures from another world.

(Caesar's name became the title for future Emperors and gives as words like Kaiser and Tsar. What would it have been like if Pompey had won? And what would Portsmouth now call themselves?)

Caesar himself is played brilliantly by Ciaran Hinds, though the actor playing his slave Posca may have been a better choice as the real JC was similarly challenged in the follicle department. My only hangup is that his slightly dry voice and his way of looking at you askance make me think of Peter Cook. Specifically, Peter Cook playing Richard III in The Black Adder. Nowhere was this more evident than a couple of weeks ago with Caesar making grand speeches to rouse the hearts of his men. "Let Pompey's genitals be hung upon a tree in Rutland!" As Caesar probably didn't say, but probably should have.

Accountancy for bankers 101

That last mini-rant about the Jobcentre seems to have opened up a seam of unarticulated resentment, but that's what blogs are for, eh?

So here's a story about the time I took a pile of coins into NatWest in the hope they could change them for something of equal value but more portable. Like, a banknote. First question: are you a customer? Well, no, but I don't want to do anything involving bank accounts, just change some cash for some more cash ...

We can't do that unless you're a customer.

We could have passed my pile of coin of the realm, legal tender in any part of the UK, back and forth about five times in the time it took to explain. I expect the explanation alone cost them a lot more than the effort of changing coins for a note. But here's the gist of it. These guardians of the nation's currency are convinced it costs them money to open a drawer, take some money out and put some back in.

They are of course incorrect, so for the benefit of any bankers reading, let me make it simple.

Janet has five one pound coins. See Janet's coins:

£1 £1 £1 £1 £1
= £5 total

John has a five pound note. See John's note:

= £5 total

Janet gives her coins to John. John gives his note to Janet. Now see John's coins:

£1 £1 £1 £1 £1
= £5 total

Now see Janet's note:

= £5 total

Can you see that neither of them has lost or gained anything by this transaction?

Janet can.

John can.

Can you?

Your call is important to us

This is sheer spite on my part but there's a certain thrill in hearing the shortcomings of Jobcentre Plus being exposed on national news this morning. In this case it's their computerised calling centre. In my case it was the rules concerning the self-employed. In both cases it's skilled, helpful people doing a job that many saints would turn down as too stressful, being let down by the crap they are expected to work with.

My company went under, I was reduced to 15 freelance hours per week at £13/hour. Not really enough for any more than scraping by, especially when you have a mortgage and loan to pay off. But said mortgage and loan were insured, so that if I hit hard times, payments could continue. All I needed was to get a monthly certificate signed for each by the Jobcentre, to say that I was claiming ...

I already knew that because I had at least 10p in my pocket there was no earthly way I was actually going to get any money out of HMG in return for my diligently paid taxes and national insurance. Absurd idea! But at least I could claim, and the Jobcentre could say I was claiming, and they would sign my bits of paper and that would be the mortgage and loan taken care of for another month. Right?

First obstacle was that I was due to go abroad on a scheduled, paid-for trip while my initial claim was being processed. If I did that, I was warned, the claim would be cancelled and I would have to reclaim once I got back. This is apparently a measure taken in light of all those people who fleece the state for thousands of pounds and go off to live the high life in Benidorm. God knows how they do it. So I'll let you into a little secret. I didn't tell them I had gone abroad. They are welcome to sue me for every penny they didn't pay.

For the first couple of months (while the claim was being processed) it worked -- I signed on, got my bits of paper signed, and in the meantime (I really should add) was genuinely looking for work. Then my claim got processed and came back as refused, because I worked more than 15 hours a week, so was ineligible to claim anything.

3 hours a day, 5 days a week somehow worked out at more than 15 hours. "Maybe it averages out at more than 15 ..." someone said vaguely, using an obscure form of calculus in which the average is able to be more than the total. And oh, the fun and joy I had from that, trying to get a real live human being to explain it to me. To do that, they had to squeeze an answer out of the computer themselves, which is easier said than done. But eventually someone managed and explained it in words of one syllable, which is what was needed. You see, this freelance work meant I was self-em-ploy-ed. And if you're self-em-ploy-ed then the time you take tra-vell-ing to and from work is ad-ded to the time you spend work-ing. In my case this was an hour's travel every day. So, 20 hours per week! How dared I even show my face at the Jobcentre door?

I could go on -- like, the way their most useful suggestion, visit Connexions which was just down the street (and isn't just for teenagers, though I had always assumed it was) -- came after six months, when it should have been suggested on Day 1. But I won't. That was the personal failing of one individual; my larger problems stemmed from the fact that they have to work with one of the sillier laws on the UK statute books, designed purely to keep the claims figures down and not actually help anyone. It's not their fault.

Connexions, by the way, were marvellous and their service included an in-depth critique of how my CV was all wrong. So I redesigned it and within a month I had my present job. Which I got by filling out the standard company application form. No CV needed. Poo.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow but only after Saturday please

When it hails so hard you can hear it over the headphones, you know it's hailing with attitude. Checked the BBC web site for weather and saw that no snow is forecast -- forgot to check for hail. The reason it's all of such interest is I'm taking a group of teenagers paintballing in Banbury on Saturday, which is great fun but a notoriously outdoor sport.

I have my old leather jacket, which is both warm and as kevlar where paintballs are concerned. Found a drawback to this at the last paintballing session in July, when I got so warm my visor steamed up and even the good old scuba trick -- gob in it -- didn't work. Only solution was to remove jacket and expose my delicate torso to the possibility of bruising. Fortunately everyone else was fogging up too, so if you got hit it was just bad luck more than malice. But looking at the forecasts, I don't see overheating being a problem this time.

Still, after Saturday I have no outdoor pursuits planned other than the usual this side of Christmas. So if the snow can just hold off for 48 hours, that would be great. Actually, if it can make 49 hours, that should cover the return trip too.

The Doubting Meme

Always such a thrill to start a new book and find that you're enjoying it straight off. My new read, begun last night, is Alistair McGrath's Dawkins' God: Genes, Memes and the Meaning of Life. It's well written and it's exactly the kind of book the world needs -- someone with a similar intellect and scientific background to Dawkins who can respond meaningfully to some of his, let's say, more simplistic or downright inaccurate warblings.

I have a huge respect for Dawkins based on the books I've read - The Selfish Gene, The Blind Watchmaker and Climbing Mount Improbable. His account of the sheer science involved in evolution cannot be bettered, and whenever I've devised an alien race in my head I've always had one eye mentally on Mr D so that, in my own head, I can account for how this race came to be. But I have always been frustrated by his evident conviction that the leap he makes from these facts to a QED denial of the existence of God has some form of logical basis -- mostly because whatever he holds up as "Christianity" bears so little resemblance to the Christianity I know.

I'm sure he's not making it up -- I suspect his notion of Christianity is genuine within his own head and is based on the dead, moribund type taught in his youth by a complacent Church of England. It just seems sad that, having rightly rejected that, he doesn't bother to look a little further and see what else might be on offer. It's like rejecting the whole rich field of science fiction because of a particularly bad episode of Trek. But of course, to do that you would have to want to do that, which he clearly doesn't. My suspicion is that those who want to be atheists will be; those who don't, won't. Atheists often have good reason, up to a point, rejecting religion for very Christian reasons -- disgust at hypocrisy, rejection of pointless ritual, wanting to live in the present rather than the past. But that only works up to a certain point because for every bad example of Christians there are many more good ones out there. The only really honest reason for being an atheist is to say "I just don't believe it."

An example in point. In one of the above mentioned titles -- and I have to confess I forget which -- Dawkins says that the church condemns Doubting Thomas for, well, doubting, when in fact he was asking perfectly valid questions. Well, maybe, but not any church I've been to recently, where questions are positively encouraged on the basis that the truth of God will withstand any kind of scrutiny. Again, perhaps the church of Dawkins' childhood was like that. It was an unviable meme which lost out against the much more viable meme of honest questioning. Someone should tell him, but I doubt he would listen.

Sadly such memes are still alive and well in other areas of the church, leading to the intellectual anaesthesia of creation science etc etc etc. Rather than just say "I believe ..." they have to contrive reasons where none exist for believing. Which is kind of sad.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Falling averages

There comes that moment in your relationship with any new computer when you lose a game of Freecell. No matter how well you do after that, your average will never again be 100%. Damn damn damn damn damn.

Same sort of thing today. Last week, the first postage-paid customer satisfaction postcard to be returned from our latest mailing gave the document in question 5/5. It gets no better than that. But a postcard received today for the same document merely gave it 4/5. One of the 1800 people to whom it was mailed thinks it's only quite good. The swine.

Silly conversation of the day: a suggestion from a colleague that skyscrapers be built on hydraulic jacks, so that when a rival building beats it in height, yours can simply be jacked up a few further feet. In the same way, if a hijacked aircraft is detected in its vicinity, you let the jacks down and the aircraft misses. Same principle as Marineville, where the entire building was lowered into a bunker whenever battlestations sounded -- like all the best Gerry Anderson, a tad over-engineered. It would be a lot easier to just have the headquarters in a bunker -- unless (my hypothesis), due to planning restrictions, Marineville had to keep the same skyline as whatever earlier building it replaced, so they had to do it that way.

Sudden flashback by way of subject of terrorism to one of the more annoying times I've been badly edited. I used to write a monthly column intended to contrive humour from the content of various websites, usually where no humour was intended. One such website displayed results of a scientific survey showing that with the decline of air travel immediately following 9/11, even for a few days, the amount of vapour in the atmosphere from aircraft exhaust dropped noticeably. Important stuff, but because it was meant to be humorous I finished with what I thought a suitably flippant punchline. See if you can spot the subtle difference between what I wrote:

"Osama Bin Laden isn't usually credited as an eco-warrior, but maybe the beard should have been a clue."

- and their edited version:

"You have to wonder who can make scientific capital out of a tragedy like that."

My but aren't we righteous?

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Charity Channel

Guess who's visiting the canteen this week? Here's a clue on the right.

All part of Children in Need. Apparently there'll be a Dalek turning up on Friday which you can pet in return for a donation. I doubt I'll partake of the offer. I already have a photo of me with a Dalek, and a Cyberman (see top of page), and I have Tom Baker's autograph. Twice. So I feel no further need to prove my sad fanboy credentials.

CiN is a worthy cause and I will probably donate. But honestly, is it any worthier than ... let's see ... cancer research deaf people blind people starving people paraplegic people thalidomide victims forces veterans diseased donkeys? Actually, it is worthier than diseased donkeys but then so are the rest. And where is all the media hoo-hah about them?

What we need is a Charity Channel -- non-stop wall to wall 24/7 endless charity broadcasts for those who like this sort of thing. They could still be the slick polished multimedia telethons that we know and love from CiN and Comic Relief -- but they wouldn't forcibly take up an evening's viewing and no one who didn't want to would cringe at the sight of worthies like Andrew Marr and Michael Buerk trying to be hip and with it. I mean, Michael Buerk! -- the man whose reporting of the Ethiopian famine inspired Band Aid, who was expelled from South Africa for his anti-apartheid reporting ... It breaks your heart.

The Charity Channel would be a bit like having a dedicated channel for TV sport -- those who want to suffer, I mean watch, can and the rest of us can get on with our lives, giving money where it seems like a good idea. And by the way, does anyone else share my suspicion that a charity which blows its funds on pens and free keyrings may have its priorities wrong?

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

I bet he's never even been to Liverpool

Apparently the new line-up for "Help, My Career's at a Dead End and I have Insufficient Native Talent to Resurrect It" has been announced. Annoyingly, I've actually heard of some of the people and even have to admit some of them may have a smidgin of native talent etc. Unlike most if not all previous contestants -- the ones I've heard of, anyway -- it might actually be quite interesting to talk to some of them. Jimmy Osmond, world's most famous teeny Mormon? I'm sure we could chat for hours.

Still no intention of watching the show, though. The embargo continues on anything with "Celebrity" in the title, at least until we get Celebrity Execution, Celebrity Autopsy and Celebrity Stargate: SG-1.

The English language badly needs a word that means what Celebrity used to.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

The Hatless Ones

Very exciting - first post to my first blog.

For absolutely no reason I can think of I have been renewing my acquaintance with Men Without Hats, Canadian masters of bilingual synth-pop from the early 1980s. The wonders of downloading music, I tell you. Consider this from the track "I got the message" on their album "Rhythm of Youth":
I got the message and the message is proof
There really is a thing they call the rhythm of youth
It will pick you up and it will make you wiggle this way
Et c'est facile a dire and it's easy to say.
For you, maybe. But strangely the song goes on:
They got a thing they call the rhythm of life
It says to settle down and get a dog and a wife
And everybody's doing it all over the land
Oh oui je ne comprends pas, yes I don't understand.
And why should you? Surely the two notions are incompatible: rhythm of youth and rhythm of life, yet the song clearly equates the two. The way both excerpts are sung at exactly the same tempo and with exactly the same emphasis shows that they are clearly part and parcel of the same bigger picture. MWH are making a searing statement about the universality of the life experience, or possibly, what happens to your mind if it snows too much during a Canadian winter and you don't go outside for months.

Note also the utility of bilingualism. Who needs to fill in with nonsense words to make a line scan or to force a rhyme when you can just drop into another language? Men Without Hats, we salute you.