Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Is there coursework?

I try not to channel surf. As far as I'm concerned, you decide what you want to watch, you watch it, and you turn it off.

Should you occasionally lapse, you apparently run the risk of accidentally catching a few minutes of Channel 4's Sex Education Show, Tuesday night, 8pm, and if that doesn't cure you of the habit then nothing will. In this one, a class of kids were being shown pictures of Kelly Osborne, Chris Martin and Daniel Radcliffe, and being invited to guess at what age they lost their virginities. The correct answer was then revealed to a breathless world.

Wow. Is it actually written into their contract, do you think, that having Done the Deed our modern day teen idols are then obliged to make a public disclosure? Or if not public, then at least to Channel 4's researchers? Is there a register somewhere? Maybe a web page?

And no, I'm not revealing the answers.

I believe the point was to show young people that, look, you don't need to rip your pants off the moment you hit puberty and it is acceptable to wait a couple of days. It might have failed in that regard. Still, cudos to Chris Martin for (a) at least managing to last until he was out of his teens and (b) for not being famous at the time (based on the fact that "Trouble" came out in 2000 - oh dear lord, I can't believe I'm making this mental calculation. Stop it stop it stop it) and therefore possibly succeeding on the grounds of, I dunno, personality or even, who knows, a bit of affection and respect and mutual liking.

I can safely say Mr Martin's school didn't have classes like that - at least, it didn't 12 years earlier when I was there.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Set the controls for the heart of the sun

Is this the best job, in (or off) the world, ever?

About midday today a space ship will crash / has crashed into the Pacific.

Six months ago the Jules Verne space truck ferried a load of cargo up to the International Space Station. It has been docked there ever since, slowly filling up with the ISS’s rubbish. Now it will take its final plunge, overseen by the European Space Agency’s freighter control centre in Toulouse.

This means there is someone in France, right now, whose job is to crash spaceships.

Who is this person, and why isn’t it me?

Minus, not Vimes. Plus, not Nobby

Your result for The Which Discworld Character Am I Test...

Captain Carrot

# You scored 90% on intelligence, higher than 65% of your peers.
# You scored 59% on morality, higher than 51% of your peers.
# You scored 78% on strength, higher than 90% of your peers.

You are an intriguing character. Good hearted, incredibly strong, and a headful of information that makes that Jeopardy guy look like a bar trivia hack. No one knows what to make of a six-foot tall dwarf who dates a werewolf, and may be the true heir to the throne of Ankh-Morpork. But you can make everyone get along, and are a born leader.

Take The Which Discworld Character Am I Test at HelloQuizzy

[Ben's note: can I just point out that whoever devised this test spells "Captain" "Captian". I couldn't really let that go uncorrected.]

Thursday, September 25, 2008

What are words worth?

I've always thought I was reasonably good at words. Not Shakespeare, not Paula Nancy Millstone Jennings - somewhere in between. Never a main flavour in the great cooking pot of literature, but perhaps a small spice near the edge that adds minutely to the overall taste.

But no more. How can I hold a candle to - how can I even live on the same continent as - the composer of this masterpiece?
"A key problem in the academic field of dance is how to capture and document the incremental development of ideas and their material manifestation in the creative process within practice-led research. In improvisational, embodied investigation, the mode of engagement is generative, pre-verbal, intuitive, experiential and fluid. This militates against types of cognitive engagement necessary for analysis, critique and reflection. The problem is most acute in the context of dance: however it is pertinent to all arts-based disciplines. This project is predicated on dialogic processes between dance and e-Science and the fluidity of concepts as they transverse the two domains, making use of recent advances in the visualisation and representation of spatio-temporal structures and discourse."
If you want to know more - how it ends, whether the boy gets the girl - it's the first paragraph of a research description here.

I will now retire to a small monastery and consider an alternative career. I've always fancied myself as a bit of a pop star if I ever learned the guitar properly. Maybe a bit like Roger Waters but without the ego or the whining.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

We must learn to weather the weather, whether we like it or not

The BBC weather site has had a revamp. Apart from new pretty pictures it now tells you where your weather is coming from. I entered the postcode for work, OX11, and was told I was getting Reading's forecast, that being the nearest available for that code. Reading is 25 miles away.

I entered the postcode for Abingdon, OX14, and was told I was getting the weather for, well, Abingdon. Which is 7 miles away.

For the record, the weather in far-off Abingdon is scheduled to be:
  • 10:00 light showers, 14 degrees
  • 13:00 light showers, 15 degrees
  • 16:00 cloudy, 15 degrees
We Readingites are getting:
  • 10:00 cloudy, 14 degrees
  • 13:00 light rain, 15 degrees
  • 16:00 cloudy, 14 degrees
I think I'd rather be in Abingdon. I work indoors, so the light showers won't affect me, and it'll be marginally warmer when I go home.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The needle returns to the start of the song

"A two-day auction of art by Damien Hirst has set a new record for a sale dedicated to one artist of £111m," says the BBC.
"Are you telling us that Ankh-Morpork is bankrupt?" said Downey.

"Of course [said Vetinari]. While, at the same time, full of rich people."
- Terry Pratchett, Jingo
Or as Del Amitri put it:
... and computer terminals report some gains
On the values of copper and tin
While American businessmen snap up Van Goghs
For the price of a hospital wing
- Del Amitri, "Nothing ever happens"
In fact that's such a good song that I'll play it now, to take my mind off the depressing conviction that something is horribly wrong.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Cattle 1, Bloated Plutocrats 0

We've all seen those trains, haven't we, where personal space in second class, or whatever we call it nowadays , is so minimal that you're exchanging particles at a quantum level with your neighbour and the first class contains endless vistas of empty seats stretching all the way to your destination?

So how satisfying was it to hear the following announcement on today's 18.00 from Paddington to Didcot, paraphrased from memory:
"First Great Western is very sorry to inform passengers in the first class carriages that we will be unable to provide a tea service until after Reading. This is because there are so many passengers standing in the lump-it carriages that we are unable to get the trolley through to you while the train is in motion. If you are in need of refreshment and can't wait, please come to the buffet car."
Brothers and sisters, it starts here.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

You lisp and wear strange suits

Well, a rather touching little interlude in my normal Sunday morning routine today.

My childhood Sundays were blighted in interesting ways by formal, garrison-based moderately high suit-wearing CofE church attendance. What made all the difference around the age of 15-16 was some positive, helpful youth outreach at school. Some grown-ups who had already been there and done that themselves took the time out to show how (a) it can all actually be relevant to life in the modern world, (b) it's not all about following the list of Do Nots and beating yourself up when you Do, and (c) it can actually be fun. And as I always like to give back, or pay it forward, or whatever, I've now been a youth worker with teenagers for so long that any child who had been born during my first meeting can now legally marry.

That's at the present church. Take it back a bit further to my previous church and any child born during my first meeting there can now vote.

I throttled back a little when I got married - suddenly I could think of other things to do with my spare time - but this summer I formally handed in my notice for good. It's been great fun and I've seen some pretty superior examples of teendom through to adulthood. The earlier examples are now older than I was when I started. But there comes a time when you really feel you've done it all, enthusiasm becomes ever harder to muster, and anyway it's time to get out before my reputation is dragged down by any real failures.

I was forewarned and so expected to be Surprised during the service this morning by some kind of public vote of thanks. They went a bit further than that. Quite apart from the Youth Pastor presenting me with a bottle of bubbly, it turned out a Family Fortunes-type quiz had been arranged on my behalf, with me as the special subject. Apparently, for example, a lot of people decided my favourite book of the Bible would be Leviticus. I guessed Song of Songs. Put it this way - we had a reading from the latter at our wedding. We did not have a reading from Leviticus.
"[Shellfish] shall be even an abomination unto you; ye shall not eat of their flesh, but ye shall have their carcases in abomination."

And what I will most be remembered for, apparently, is the introduction of Shakespearean insults into our meetings.

This was a simple little game devised, if memory serves, to illustrate the principle of forgiveness. The rules are dead easy and require access only to a good source of insults. I forget which one I used but there are plenty of websites out there that will generate Shakespearean insults for you. Accept no forgeries, though: some just use Shakespearean language to make insults up. I hold that if it was good enough for Shakespeare then it's good enough for us, so only use a website with the real stuff. This one, for example.

Once you have generated a good number, write each one on a card. The game can now begin.

The first player draws a card and insults the victim of his choice from among the other players. The victim throws a pair of dice.
  • Even number: victim forgives the insult. Insulter discards insult. Games moves on clockwise from the insulter.
  • Odd number: victim doesn't forgive. Insulter gives the insult to the victim, draws a new card and insults someone else (never the same victim twice running, or at all if possible in one go). Keep going until an insult is forgiven.
  • Double: regardless of outcome (even or odd as described above), game moves on clockwise after that insult.
The game continues until all insults have been drawn. The loser is the one with the most unforgiven insults.

The point? (All good church youth activities have one.) It ends much more quickly if the insults are forgiven straight up.

There, I make my bequest to the world. Feel free to adapt or modify in any way you like. And for anyone wondering, the title of this post comes from "As You Like It".

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Share the pain

With a heavy heart I report that circumstances have forced me to make the following formal request to my manager.
"Dear R,

To increase my ability to interoperate with N’s work and to maximise conformity in the department, may I request that my computer be switched to an Apple.



I hope my choice of words silently expresses my feelings on the matter.

N joined us a year ago on condition he would get a Mac. And he's very good with it; but he will go and design stuff with all those fancy Apple fonts that I can't match. Meaning I can't work on it myself.

And R has now upgraded changed over himself. He has had a full 24 hours with his Apple and not yet head-butted the screen. I am really out of excuses.

The phrase "glorified Fisher-Price activity centres for adults" continues to come to mind.

At least the version of Office I'll be getting - I've checked - still looks like the old type. I take consolation where I can.


Charlton Heston, eh?

Your result for Reincarnation Placement Exam...

Deep Space Explorer

Hmm... You're a tough one to place. Your answers indicate that you like technology and education. You enjoy intrigue, adventure and chaos. You're fine with hard work and civilization. This all bodes well for an interesting, adventurous life.

What makes it difficult, however, is that you don't seem to be much of a 'people person.'

If you were more of a people person, we would have commissioned you aboard the Starship Enterprise. But since you don't care much for the complications of dealing with your fellow man... we have another deep-space mission, more tailored for your tastes... a way for you to enjoy the benefits of high-tech civilization without having to put up with civilization itself. Let's set you up to pursue the solo career of a deep space explorer. You can go ahead and hibernate through the boring parts of your mission, and not worry so much about being a few decades out of touch with your fellows by the time you get home. In fact, you pretty much don't have to deal with people at all, but you can still enjoy a high-flying adventure of a life. Far, far away from the madding crowd, you get to play with your scientific instruments, serve your glorious civilization, and do interesting things with strange discoveries in exotic places.

The career might work out all right. Look what it did for Charlton Heston.

Take Reincarnation Placement Exam at HelloQuizzy

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Jackie Collins with metaphors

Well, thank goodness that's over.

For the last few weeks I've been slogging my way through Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead. Why? asked a colleague when I mentioned this. Well, why indeed.

Curiosity, I suppose, the same reason I read Mark Twain – I read a lot of American fiction and Ayn Rand is referenced in a lot of it. The Fountainhead was the philosophical bible of far too large a chunk of the post-war generation, mostly Americans. And of course there is the Simpsons episode where Marge gets a part in the musical version of 'A Streetcar Named Desire' and so Maggie has to be put into the Ayn Rand School for Tots. And I got it cheap in a secondhand shop – I wouldn't pay full whack for it, dear Lord no – so why not?

It's not exactly a story of Everyman – every key character is, if not a multi-millionaire then at least independently wealthy. If we were actually expected to take it seriously then it would just be preposterous, a relatively bonk-free bonkbuster along the lines of yer average Jackie Collins (who I'm probably grossly misrepresenting as I've never read her stuff). But by the cunning deployment of metaphors you find you actually can take it seriously. Almost. This isn't meant to be how the world of architecture actually is; it's idealised in a way that is meant to reflect how things should be out here in reality.

The hero is Howard Roark, a maverick, uncompromising modernist architect. He designs modern buildings with modern materials; stark, unadorned, each perfectly matched to its environment. The architectural establishment refuses to take him seriously as 'everyone knows' the only way to make a decent building is to add classical Greek pillars and Renaissance frills to it. After all, if buildings weren't meant to be made like that then why did the ancient Greek and the Renaissance architects do it that way?

The antagonist is Ellsworth Toohey, not an architect at all but a self-appointed architectural expert who holds the architectural community in thrall through his newspaper column and his behind-the-scenes Machiavellian manoeuvring. Appalled at creativity he will never be able to share, he instead applies his whole being to dragging everything down to his own level so that he can rule supreme. 'Don't set out to raze all shrines,' he advises. 'Enshrine mediocrity and the shrines are razed.'

Toohey I actually found the most recognisable real-life character. I can think of at least newspaper columnist who is his direct spiritual descendent. In Toohey's ideal world no one will dare hold an independent opinion for fear of what their neighbour will think. Everything must be referenced to a self-appointed expert in some field or another; 'X says that ...' 'Y believes ...', where X and Y themselves are just the media darlings of the moment who bring absolutely nothing except their artificial fame to the party.

Yes, there are plenty of real-life Tooheys out here – but the great thing, of course, is that they have no power. They can be ignored with perfect confidence and the sun still comes up the next morning. X says, Y believes – but who cares? To a certain extent that happens in the novel too. Toohey asks Roark to say exactly what he thinks of him and Roark replies, with genuine puzzlement, 'but I don't think of you.' But Roark is very much the exception. Roark's way or Toohey's way – that is the basis of the novel.

There is also little to argue about in Roark's general philosophy, which is: be what you're good at, do what satisfies and fulfils you, and if you can make money from it then even better. He doesn't design buildings because he fulfils a social function, or because the nation needs more buildings, or because he gets paid well for it. He does it because he enjoys it, and the fact that he's paid for the job is nice. This is pretty well why I write books.

Burt Roark is also what in real life you'd call a prima donna whose mother didn't spank him enough. His buildings must be built exactly as he designed them – they must not be altered or augmented in any way at all. He holds to this principle even though it costs him jobs and for a while he has to work as a manual labourer in a quarry to make ends meet. This, Rand is in no doubt, is exactly the right attitude, whether in metaphor or reality. Metaphorically it's dubious and in real life someone just needs to slap him about a bit and tell him to get a grip. I'm betting Rand's manuscript for the novel wasn't published exactly as she wrote it; there would have been copy editors and proof readers. (Or, given the number of typos in the book, maybe it was; which itself just makes my point.)

To wrap the book up, Rand gives us a practical demo of what she's been preaching for the last billion pages. Roark designs a building project which is added to by lesser talented architects. Because it no longer matches his perfect vision, he dynamites it – having made sure no one is actually going to get hurt – and then argues in court that he had the perfect right to do so because he created it and he can take it away. And guess what, he gets off.

It's also worth mentioning that when they first meet, Roark essentially rapes the woman who becomes his wife. She even uses the word herself. But she forgives him because he is so obviously perfect and has a right to her.

Draw your own conclusions.

Rand's philosophy is that you're either/or. You're either a creator, giving something unique and new to the world, in which case you are perfect and untouchable; or you're a second hander, a parasite off the creators. Rand wrote the novel during WW2, a time when it really should have been clear that uncritically following one man's perfect vision is not always best.

In his courtroom speech, Roark is proud of living in America, a country that enshrines the right to the pursuit of happiness. Astonishingly, that is actually a manmade right and not a natural one; and America was also built on the fact that one man can have way too much power and actively needs input from others to control it. There are no checks and balances in Rand's philosophy. What prevents Roark from just knocking out philosophically perfect but uninhabitable buildings? From creating another Bull Ring or Brunswick Centre? Only the notion that Roark, being perfect, does everything well, and such buildings would not be 'well'. But who decides 'well'? Guess what, Rand does.

Nor is there a concept that maybe you can be a creator in some ways but quite happily a second hander in others. If I write a book then I try to make it all my own. Later the same day I might cook a meal by happily following someone else's recipe, maybe even (the ultimate Rand evil) mixing and matching a bit from other recipes too. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I am a post-modern cook. And proud of it.

I also wonder how much Rand knew about human biology. Did she know that our very DNA contains viral additions millions of years old that serve no useful purpose? That our bodies are full of archaic leftovers from older forms that don't actually do anything?

Let's cut a long story short, and wish Rand had too. She's spot on about the importance of bursts of creative energy from people like Roark; but it's the committee approach that then carries things forward and perpetuates them, leavened by individuals to keep life fresh and interesting.

I doubt I'll try Atlas Shrugged, even if I do find it going cheap in a secondhand shop.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Open letter to Microsoft

Dear Morons,

Office 2007 sucks to three decimal places.

Now, I will concede that (apparently) the new version can do all kinds of clever things. That's what your marketing people tell us, anyway, and I can't think of any instance in the past when they've made overblown claims with no factual basis. No, really.

But you've gone the extra mile and made it look different. The official view is that everything is now arranged much more logically and is easier to find, spread out in full view over various ribbons. But WHY??

I even concede that one interface is pretty well like another, and if this is what it had looked like 15 years ago when I started using Windows then I wouldn't have batted an eyelid. In fact I would be as irritated as I am now if you had suddenly started to use a strange system of drop-down menus for the latest release. But here's the rub. In those 15 years I've picked up the basics of Office pretty well. I know its strengths and I know its weaknesses. I know exactly how much I can achieve with it and I know - I knew - how to achieve it without even thinking about it.

And no, I'm not going to quietly unlearn 15 years of experience just because you lot think I should. It's your job to keep up with me, not vice versa. At my level of usership you haven't made a single improvement with your mindless tinkering.

Even this wouldn't be an issue if you could have an option to display the old menus. You even do this with Windows, kindly giving us the option of New SuperDuper Windows Look or Classic Windows look. Why not do the same for Office?

This is actually possible, a quick Google tells me: there is an add-on that I can purchase that will bring back the old menus. But I don't want to pay for what should come for free, and if I did I very much doubt IT Support would install it for me. (You may guess from mention of IT Support that this is a work-based problem. Home runs Office 97 just fine, thanks very much, and has no intention of changing.)

Fiddling with software is a bit like the age of consent at 16. Just because you can doesn't mean you should.


PS anyone leaving a comment that even hints at the existence of OpenOffice will receive a cold, hard stare.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Without our stories or our songs / How will we know where we come from?

I'm not a natural folk music fan but a year or so ago, late one night on Radio 2 as I drove from somewhere to somewhere, I caught some lyrics that spoke to me.
... And a minister said his vision of hell
Is three folk singers in a pub near Wells [*]
Well, I've got a vision of urban sprawl
There's pubs where no-one ever sings at all
And everyone stares at a great big screen
Overpaid soccer stars, prancing teens [**]
Australian soap, American rap
Estuary English, baseball caps
And we learn to be ashamed before we walk
Of the way we look, and the way we talk
Without our stories or our songs
How will we know where we come from?
I've lost St. George in the Union Jack
It's my flag too and I want it back
(* Have to admit I may be with the minister on this one, but I accept the spirit of the song.)
(** Why do you blush and shuffle your feet, Ladygrove in Didcot? Boundary House in Abingdon? I may be looking at you but I’m thinking of plenty others.)

And I thought no more about it, until today's dose of the Life and Opinions of Andrew Rilstone actually included the video from whence it came. I can now reveal – because I've found out myself – that the lyrics, and the title of this post, are from "Roots" by Show of Hands. Here are the lyrics; here's the video.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Occasional recipes: chicken fricassee

This one really was a pleasant surprise. Though it's reasonably lengthy, everything is quite sequential with no sudden surprises like "now add in the mushrooms that you marinaded for 24 hours earlier". Also, because a fricassee is a white stew, the instructions were heavy on not letting anything burn or even get brown. I was mostly successful.

So, from The Cook's Recipe Collection:
  • 60g butter
  • 3 chicken legs, skinned [to serve 4, they say 1.4 kg chicken quartered & skinned]
  • 570ml / 1 pint chicken stock
  • grated rind and juice of 1/2 lemon
  • 1 bouquet garni [had no idea what this was so just added chopped lemon thyme at the required moment]
  • 12-16 button onions
  • 340g mushrooms, whole or chopped if large
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 90ml double cream
  • 3 tbsps milk (optional) [which is as well because I forgot]
  • 2 tbsps chopped fresh parsley
  • lemon slices to garnish [also optional/forgotten]

Melt 45g of the butter and cook the chicken (one piece at a time if necessary) until no longer pink. Don't let it get brown. When sufficiently cooked, remove from pan and set aside.

Stir the flour into the butter bit by bit over a low heat, stirring continuously, until it's all a pale straw colour. Remove pan from heat and gradually stir in the stock. When all blended smoothly, add lemon rind and juice. Return to heat and bring to boil, whisking constantly. Simmer for 1 minute.

Return the chicken to the pan and add the bouquet garni [if you've worked out what one of those is; just add the thyme if not]. The sauce should almost cover the chicken [so I added a further 1/3pint of stock]. Bring to the poil, cover pan and simmer for 40 minutes.

Melt remaining button in a pan, add the onions, cover and cook gently for 10 minutes. Don't let them brown! Remove onions with a slotted spoon [i.e. leaving the juice behind] and add to the chicken. Cook the mushrooms in the remaining butter and add to the chicken 10 minutes before the end.

Transfer chicken to a serving plate and remove the bouquet garni. Recipe then says to skim the sauce of any fat and boil to reduce by half; Ben says there's not much fat and it's already quite thick enough.

Blend the egg yolks and cream together and whisk in several spoonfuls of the hot sauce. Return the mixture to the remaining sauce and cook gently for 2-3 minutes. Stir constantly and don't let it boil. If it is very thick, add the milk [ah, that's what I didn't do]. Stir in the parsley.

At this point Ben's serving style takes over: plonk a bed of couscous on each plate, put a piece of chicken on top of it, and spoon the sauce over. Or you can do what the book says: put the chicken pieces in a serving dish and spoon the sauce over it.

Serves four if you do it their way, three quite comfortably if you do it mine.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

A poor deluded moonstruck dimwit with less idea of reality than a day-old chick

... is just one of the nice turns of phrase to come out of Philip Pullman's address at the weekend to the Society of Authors' Conference in Cambridge. Read it yourself to see exactly who he was speaking about.

A clue is that he was talking about the age banding of books, which has been mentioned briefly here before. His contention - and he gets no argument from me - is that age banding is just a symptom of a much wider spread illness of our modern world.