Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Laptop dancing

This is a bonding exercise with my stepson. We're sitting about five feet apart in the living room tapping away on our laptops. And I'm doing it wirelessly.

His is/was a pretty decent nearish state of the art 16th birthday present. Mine is a retired company laptop with a small crack in the lid bound together by brown parcel tape (which I removed to see exactly that it was meant to be holding together). This is mostly an exercise to acquaint myself with the keyboard and layout. It's pretty good for writing on. Better than the desktop ornament, anyway. I'm pretty certain Best Beloved is on the main machine in our room as I write this. We have finally achieved the goal of all twenty first century families, each of us being on his or her own separate computer and not talking to anyone else.

When the firm announced one of its periodic purges of no longer maintained equipment, I put myself down for a laptop on the offchance. I thought I could do with a typewriter to replace my 10-year-old, much loved but essentially defunct IBM Thinkpad (which I bought with money received for His Majesty's Starship. A true writer's laptop.). This came with hard disk wiped and a copy of Windows XP - nothing else. Then Bonusbarn pointed out we have some wireless adapters knocking around and I thought why not?

And so, apropos of nothing, I thought I would share my thoughts on the saga of our Home Secretary and her avant garde art movie loving husband. First off, it's pretty clear what happened. She gets phone, TV and everything as a package from a single firm, as do we. She gets a monthly bill stating everything, as do we. It runs to several pages but that's just the way it's laid out. The bill includes movies watched. So far the biggest surprise we've had is that Bonusbarn watched Pulp Fiction at 2 in the morning over halfterm (we've since tightened up the parental controls). Ms Smith must wish she shared the experience. Anyway, she's a busy women. She can't remember the last time she manually went through the phone bill. She Has People Who Do That. She threw the pile of paper at a People and said "that's the bill, deal with it." And sadly they did.

What absolutely no one seems to be obsessing on is that somewhere in the House of Commons is a mole leaking paperwork like this to the papers. That is a disgrace and this person must be hunted down and destroyed. Though it's probably not a priority in the House of Speaker Martin, where the historic privileges of our elected representatives that were literally won in blood are secondary to who gets to wear the nice robes.

Also worrying is that the national domestic budget is in the hands of a woman who can't check her phone bill. Not even to weed out the business calls. I'm sure she racks up a hefty phone bill in the course of her duties, and naturally it should be claimed as an expense, but I can't believe every single call was work-related. Or maybe she just makes domestic calls from her sister's flat.

I would have liked to call this post "the porn ultimatum" but sadly the Sun got there first. I don't often say this to the Sun, but, nice one.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Ada plus One

Yesterday, 24 March, was the first ever Ada Lovelace Day. This is what happens when I don't keep my ear to the ground.

Ada, as I'm sure you already knew (I did - hah!) was the daughter of Lord Byron who because of her work with Charles Babbage is often credited as being the first programmer. From the day's official website:
"Ada Lovelace Day is an international day of blogging to draw attention to women excelling in technology.

Women's contributions often go unacknowledged, their innovations seldom mentioned, their faces rarely recognised. We want you to tell the world about these unsung heroines. Entrepreneurs, innovators, sysadmins, programmers, designers, games developers, hardware experts, tech journalists, tech consultants. The list of tech-related careers is endless."
What an excellent idea. Thanks to Pennski for bringing it to my attention.

I won't blog at length on the general awesomeness of anyone, (a) because I don't generally and (b) because I'd feel the need to ask permission and that takes time. But I will mention a few (by no means all; omission from this list implies absolutely nothing) of the several IT-related women I have known. In alphabetical order to avoid any hint of favouritism or bias:
  • Joella, former colleague, who was a reporter and then editor on Information World Review. This means that for >50% of the 1990s she and her lovely but somewhat vague editor were the totality of UK-based IT reporting. (Correct me if I'm wrong, Jo ...) She also, more recently, introduced me to the blogging concept.
  • L, former colleague, now working for Oxford Uni. Twenty years before we met she was working for Locomotive Software, proof reading their manuals, which would include the manuals that came with my Amstrad PCW all those years ago. I think that's where she met her husband. She now programs Javascripty sort of stuff.
  • S, head of my division but I'm not crawling. Now responsible for heading communications and customer support on a 40Gbit/s optical network that links every university in the country, she started here in the mid eighties when it was basically two cans and a bit of string.
  • T, fellow writer, longest acquaintance of all the above, bisexual witch and freelance IT consultant. See where a degree in theology from Durham can get you?
Next year I may mention some others ...

Monday, March 23, 2009


I just wanted to preserve my own copy of this.

It's HMS Victory. And it's floating.

From a very senior relative's photo album, dated 18 July 1914.

So that's why I don't deflect compasses

To give blood you have to have 13.5 somethings per something in your iron count. I have 13.3. Put another way, when they take the drop of blood they drop it into a tube full of blue liquid and it has to sink within 15 seconds. Mine floats.

I'm assured I'm not anaemic but still ... Must be just one of those things. My diet hasn't changed and I haven't been ill. Maybe I've always been just at the upper end of the 15 seconds. So, plenty of lean red meat, pulses and brown bread required. And less tea, which blocks iron take-up, apparently.

Nah, stuff that.

UPDATE: Best Beloved comments that this is obviously what lay behind all those floating witch trials. They weren't rejecting the water of their baptism, they were just severely anaemic.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

To the Tower!

Here's a useful tip. If you're going to a Sunday morning service in the Chapel of St Peter Ad Vincula within the Tower of London, and provided you're pre-booked in (or just plain convincing, smartly dressed and clearly not a terrorist) you can get in for free. See, there is a plus side to an established state religion. Of course, it's probably best that you actually go to the service after that if only to establish some cred.

Or, in today's case, to attend (arriving five minutes late due to a crash [not ours] on the M4 and having to awaken a slumbering teenager at 7.30am on a Sunday) the christening of Junior Nephew in the same building that has previously seen the christening of his sister and brother and the marriage of his parents. This is a chapel royal and they do it ... differently to Christ Church on Long Furlong.

The medals worn by the vicar on his robes are the first clue (six of them, one with bar and a mention-in-despatches). The robes themselves are another. As the service progressed I had cause to discover (and feel quite pleased that) I can still mumble my way through the Venite, the Te Deum and the Jubilate, all in 1662 English. And I can safely say that the highly spiritual meditative aid that starts "Oh it's great great brill brill wicked wicked skill skill to have a friend in Jesus" has never rattled these particular rafters.

The rafters are however rattled by a marvellous choir who can hit their notes so perfectly that the sound just seems to come out of the air around you. We finished, as you would only expect, with the National Anthem and the final verse of "Eternal father strong to save"-
Oh Trinity of love and power
Our brethren shield in danger's hour.
From rock and tempest, fire and foe
Protect them wheresoe'r they go.
Thus ever more shall rise to thee
Glad hymns of praise from land sea.
In case this all seems a little overpowering, it's also worth mentioning that the choir master has a pony tail, he looks (from behind) like the lead singer of the Commitments, and at my niece's christening four years ago he played "The wheels on the bus" on the chapel organ for the benefit and delight of Senior Nephew.

Sometimes it's good to take a break, eh?

On previous occasions we've taken the opportunity to see the Crown Jewels, but not this time as the queue was winding around the block and there's some things even chapelgoers can't jump. As I recall they have a conveyor belt down either side to carry the tourists past, thus preventing build-ups of gawkers which is a very good idea. With only a small effort you can make the perceptual shift that you are standing still and it's the Crown Jewels that are gliding past, like a very expensive edition of the Generation Game. "A priceless diamond. An orb. A sceptre. A cuddly toy ..."

Then we repaired to Zizzis in St Katherine's Dock for lunch, where I had the seafood risotto "with a hint of chili". I would say more than a hint - it gave me several harsh nudges, a couple of curt requests and at one point it was outright barking orders at me. Very nice. I'm loath to admit to any good coming out of the Thatcher era at all, but sheer honesty often forces me to admit that quite a lot did and one of these things is the renovation of the Docklands. If a building has to be one thing or the other, would you rather an Italian restaurant with a slightly experimental menu or a mouldering warehouse that's no good to anyone except rats? Not a hard choice to make.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Occasional recipes: Marilyn Monroe's Chicken Cacciatore

I have no idea if this really is Marilyn Monroe's recipe (or variation hereon), but why would iON Oxford Tube, the Oxford Tube's inflight magazine, lie to me? Anyway, this comes from page 21 of issue 3, apparently winter 2009, though I'd have said in March 2009 that's impossible and winter 2008 was probably what they meant.

Anyhoo. They say/ [I say]:
  • 4 chicken quarters [or 2 drumsticks each]
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • crashed black pepper and salt
  • 1 yellow pepper, sliced
  • 1 small chopped onion
  • 2 cloves chopped garlic [um, 5, I think it was]
  • 1 glass dry white wine. [A glass? Just what the heck is a glass in official terms of measurement? I dunno, so I gave it exactly one wine glass full and it seemed to work.]
  • 2 tbsp white wine vinegar
  • 1 cup chicken stock. [Cup? See remark about glasses of white wine. Best Beloved suggested about half a pint and again it seemed to work.]
  • 1/2 tsp crumbled oregano [omitted in favour of lemon thyme, that being what we had to hand]
  • 2 bay leaves [simply omitted]
  • 1 cup finely chopped mushrooms [here we go again ... I just went with my judgement of what looked like a good quantity]
  • 1 can peeled tomatoes, juice reserved [whatever that means. I put the whole lot in and, you guessed it, it seemed to work]
  • 2 tbsp fresh, torn basil leaves [see bay leaves above]
  • 1 tbsp slivered black olives [I don't think I've ever had a slivered olive in my life. Black olives! Whole! Lots of them!]
  • 3 anchovy fillets [a tin from Tesco has more than 3 and did fine]
  • freshly grated parmesan [so much nicer than the pre-ground type you get in sprinkler cans which smells of sick]
Season the chicken with blackpepper and salt. Heat olive oil unilt a haze forms over it, then saute the chicken until skin goes golden brown. Transfer onto a plate.

[I know from experience that this will just fill the kitchen with chickeny olive oily smoke. Instead I roast the chicken pieces for 30 mins at gas mark 5. Meanwhile ...]

Saute the yellow pepper, add onion and garlic and cook for 8-10 minutes [more like 5]. Add the vinegar to deglaze the pan, then add the white wine and boil until the jucie is reduced to about 1/4 glass. Add black pepper, pour in chicken stock, turn down to low, add tomatoes and half their juice [or, as I say, the whole lot], oregano, bay leaf, half the basil [if you're having any of this] and the mushrooms.

Return the chicken to the pan, cover, reduce heat and simmer for 30 mins. Transfer the chicken onto a plate.

To the sauce add the black olives, remaining basil and anchovies. Stir and cook for two minutes. Spoon over the chicken and sprinkle with parmesan. Serve with buttered spaghetti.

[Now, at this point I want to know why I have never heard of buttered spaghetti before. Where has it been all my life? Just think of it. Roll the words around on your tongue. Buttered ... spaghetti. It's spaghetti, and it's buttered. Got that? Buttered spaghetti. I have just done you a greater favour than you can possibly imagine.]

And, wow. If Norma Jean was in the habit of cooking that little lot up then she wasn't half as dumb as she appeared. It's rich, make no mistake, but with a range of flavours jostling for attention and each one pointing out to you what an utterly fabulous meal this is. Go to it, people.

And remember, buttered spaghetti.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

To your scattered quizzes go

I am:
Philip José Farmer
This prolific author brings surprising depths to he-man adventure tales, and broke science fiction's prudery barrier.

Which science fiction writer are you?

There are worse things than to be the creator of Riverworld, though I'm not aware myself of having broken any prudery barriers. Having got this result I redid the quiz trying to make myself as obnoxiously right wing and then as utterly loveable as possible. The former, surprise surprise, got Robert Heinlein, the latter James Tiptree Jr. So, should anyone else be tempted to try this, those are the ends of the spectrum you'll find yourself somewhere on.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Bonanza with bubbles

- is my manager's unkind assessment of the titles to Barrier Reef.

Reader, I cannot speak highly enough of this show. It captured my imagination in the early 70s and still has it to this day. It was an Australian series about a marine science unit based on an old sailing ship that had been significantly upgraded into a high-tech floating laboratory. It must have been pretty high-budget for a kids' show. The extensive underwater scenes really were shot underwater, and the two jet boats that come thundering towards the viewer in the opening bars of the title sequence really are thundering towards the viewer. Most of it was shot on location - the scenes on board ship, even below decks, were shot on board ship. The title music is just as stirring as the Thunderbirds march and I've been able to hum it ever since.

I enjoy, or at least am interested in, old ships, computers, scuba diving, science and the sea. I can probably trace all those back to this show.

Barrier Reef was produced by the same company that made Skippy. It seems grossly unfair that that stupid wallaby gets the lasting fame and Barrier Reef has faded beyond even the reach of DVD re-releases. How hard would it be? I'll do without the usual cast interviews, value added features and easter eggs. Just stick the eps on disk and I'll watch them end to end. And pay for it. Who could ask more?

Two things I learn as an adult watching the closing titles that evaded me as a child. Three things. Among the things I learn are: (1) without the music it would be pretty dull. (2) I bet that boat's under power. (3) There's a key change I'd forgotten. For the opening titles, Bonusbarn comments that that's the most useless submarine he's ever seen.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Smugness lost and regained

Lost: Just as I was looking forward to another session of doing immeasurable good for very little personal loss, the National Blood Service tell me I can't give blood platelets and be a blood donor. It's one register or the other. I'm sure that's the first time they've mentioned it, and since they signed me up for the platelets at a donor session you'd think they could have worked it out. But no. When I phoned today to postpone tomorrow's session, and mentioned I'm giving blood next week, the lady reacted as if I'd said I wanted to come round and have her on the spot. One of them had to go, and as giving platelets requires a trip into the JR and blood requires popping round the corner from the office, it wasn't a hard choice to make.

Regained: Firefox crashed on me (irritating) immediately followed by the automatic Apple Crash Reporter (quite amusing). Even more amusing, the latter caused a window to pop up asking if I wanted to relaunch Crash Reporter. I did, and it told me you can't run Crash Reporter directly, you have to wait for something to crash first. "Quis reportiet ipsos reporter?" I thought to myself with bilingual classically inclined cleverness, and resolved to spend the rest of the day pointing out the badly designed native Mac software to anyone who'll listen, and a few who won't.

Monday, March 09, 2009

How do you turn a bird into a soul singer?

You microwave it until its bill withers, arf. I thought of labelling this post "Not your average white band" but the Bill Withers joke beat it by a margin.

The magic of photography manages to make this look like a smoke filled jazz lair rather than the eminently respectable and entirely smoke-free Charles Maude Room of Abingdon School. Though the rows of politely attentive audience might also be a clue. This represents, though I say it myself, a really quite good recovery job via Photoshop on a picture taken in a dim room by my phone on Saturday night.

Young Michael S, second band member from the left and playing bass, is a pupil at said school and has a close relative suffering from Addison's Disease. And so, completely off his own bat, he arranged an evening of jazz and funk at the school to raise money for the relevant charity. He was ably assisted by a friend from church on keyboard, a friend of the friend from church on drums, and teachers on trumpet, sax and guitar. The sax teacher has apparently played with Manfred Mann, though whether that is the original group, the Earth Band or the individual I do not know.

And flipping good it was too: two hours of tunes by people I know or know of (Hoagy Carmichael, Gershwin, the Average White Band, Mr Withers) and people I don't. A great time had by all and, I hope, lots of money raised. If Mike can keep going like that non-stop for a two hour gig, despite being the youngest in the band by a good 10 years, then great things lie in store for him. He was at primary school with Bonusbarn. I'm posting this now to register the fact, when he's famous, that we knew him first ...

Thursday, March 05, 2009

A tale of fire and water

Recently finished, and hugely enjoyed, Pompeii by Robert Harris.

In a book set in Roman times, about Pompeii, you think you have a shrewd idea what's going to happen. So it came as a pleasant surprise to find most of the novel is in fact about water. Marcus Attilius is engineer in charge of the aqueduct that feeds water to most of the Bay of Naples region. The water supply unaccountably fails one hot day in August 79AD and he has to find out why.

The reader already has a pretty shrewd idea why, and it's no great surprise that, yes, the aqueduct has been blocked by earthquake activity near the base of Vesuvius. It's easily dealt with. But in the process of his enquiries Attilius stumbles across intrigue, fraud and skullduggery that would make quite a decent novel on its own.

Yes, the reader is thinking, all very good but sooner or later that volcano's gonna blow and press the reset button. Which it does, but in a way that still manages to continue the story so far quite logically. Each chapter starts with a paragraph or two from a modern text on volcanology, so we the readers understand what's happening even if the Romans don't, and it's all quite seamless. One of Attilius's niggles is what happened to his predecessor, who looms over the novel without ever actually appearing alive. Turns out the guy was a native of Siciliy, from near Etna, and was about the only person in the whole of Campania with an idea of what was about to happen.

And when the volcano does blow, it's terrifying. You see how the Romans must have felt. First, they had no idea Vesuvius was a volcano at all (the Greek historian Strabo, who had obviously been up there, described the top as a flat plain - no crater like today. You could stand up there with no idea the mountain was hollow). When it blew, around midday, the clouds of ash blotted out the sun and brought a premature night to the land. When the final pyroclastic flows came, burying Herculaneum and Pompeii completely, that really was at night so it would have been twice as dark as before, with visibility through the ash just a few feet. All they would have seen were the faint glows of light tumbling down the sides of the mountain. The first couple of these, from the point of view of the Pompeiians, go from right to left, east to west, and take out Herculaneum. The next just seem to get bigger and bigger, coming right at the town ...

You're on the edge of your seat, I tell you. And what makes this vision of volcanic hell doubly powerful is that Harris has been so good at describing the contrasts. The pre-eruption paradise of hot sun, vineyards, crystal clear water from the aqueduct, and the well-ordered civilisation of the empire that collapses into local chaos.

Another point that struck me - and amused me - was that Attilius reports direct to a guy in Rome who reports direct to the Emperor. A couple of times he is able to play on this fact and bypass all local politics, vested interests etc. The aqueduct itself, the mighty Aqua Augusta, was built by direct order of Augustus. That well known bunch of commies the ancient Romans had absolutely no problem with the idea that a vital resource like water operates under centralised state control. Privatise it? Don't be ridiculous! They would have laughed.

Okay, we don't have slaves or gladiators and we know a thing or two about volcanoes now. But it's just possible we may have lost something too ...

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Lost soles

They look like something on the seabed picked out by the lights of a submersible, but these shoes have a story. I suppose any shoes you've owned for at least six years would accumulate experience but I like to think these ones are special.

I forget if I acquired them specifically for my first ever trip to the USA in 2002 but I know I was wearing them at the time. So, these shoes have traversed the North American continent. They have felt the waves of the Pacific slap the boards beneath them as they stood on Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco. They have trod the baking hot dirt of the Cahokia Mounds in Illinois. They have been up the Empire State Building and the Washington Monument, they have walked the length of the National Mall and they have stood in reverent silence before the giant statue of Abraham Lincoln in his Memorial.

They only survived this long by taking a cunning sideways step a few years ago into being my indoor shoes. They have a strange fleecy lining that stops them getting too warm in hot weather but keeps them nicely warm when it's cold. Even so they really were getting past it and made the fundamental mistake of becoming uncomfortable to wear, due to the split soles on either side. Overconfidence, perhaps? So they have, with all due respect and ceremony, been consigned to the kitchen bin. I will probably never see them again. If I do, I'll know something has gone badly wrong, probably in the kitchen.

I don't know if it's meaningful to tell a new pair of shoes that they must fill a big pair of, um, shoes, but that's what I'd tell their replacements if I could and it was.

Who, me?

"I am pleased to inform you that today, March 4, 2008 Emerald Who's Who for Executives and Professionals has selected you as potential candidate into our organization to represent Didcot, Oxfordshire, United Kingdom. Your professional experience with Great Big Network Ltd as Technical Editor has been recognized and has qualified you to possibly be included. Emerald Who's Who is the authority for professional networking and recognition in virtually every industry across the globe."
My colleague N asks why I get emails like this when he just gets spammed by Vistaprint. I tell him a man is known by the company he keeps. I'm awed that my experience has been recognised by such an august body, even if they plainly assume my five years of service have also stripped me of all critical discernment. Thankfully, I still retain the ability to recognise at least three grammatical errors in the above - and also to spot that they spell the name of Great Big Network Ltd wrong.

Let's not go anywhere near the idea that I might want to represent Didcot. At anything.

But let's not be sourpusses either. There is no charge for inclusion and they kindly send me the link by which I can enter my own details. So, to be selected into Emerald Who's Who to represent wherever you live, just go to http://www.ewwep.com/signup.asp?ID=SXEUR.80.120.030409

Monday, March 02, 2009

A necessary correction

I've met a few reasonably well known and/or important people in my time. Most of them are of an authorial persuasion. I have been recognised by Philip Pullman and I've sat opposite Terry Pratchett at dinner. Of a non-authorial nature, the great and the good of Northern Ireland used to pass through our dinner parties with monotonous regularity. One I particularly remember included the Northern Ireland Minister and the Chief Constable of the RUC, whose jokes were judged so off colour by Mrs Minister that she threw a wobbly and demanded to be taken home (whereupon Chief Constable apologised profusely to my mother, who said that's okay and could he possibly finish the joke?).

But all this was as a clanging bell on Saturday when I got to meet Michael Green. Michael Green! One of the greatest Christian apologists of all time! (And no, that doesn't mean he keeps saying sorry for it.) I was reading his books when I was a kid. I can't remember anything about them, mind you, but I know they're there. They're like the hidden foundations of a mighty building. You don't need to know what they look like.

And I was bursting with pride, not because of meeting him, but because he came into the church, and he greeted my lovely wife by name, and she introduced him to me.

And then ...

He was leading a seminar on the general topic of "how to share your faith without sounding stupid or putting people off". Well, that might as well have been the title. Someone asks why you're a believer? He suggested a number of non-jargony, non-judgemental responses. One of which was to cite the fact (his word, not mine) the fact of intelligent design in creation.

Oh, Michael, what went wrong?

You could cite the fact of a widespread perception of intelligent design. That would present no problem. Others may disagree but you've got your talking point. And I must hasten to add he's of an entirely different intellectual order to the Sarah Palin brigade; I don't see him raising any controversy about whether or not to teach it alongside evolution in science classes.

But, fact? No. It was like he was ticking Richard Dawkins's boxes. "Something as complex as an eye ..." St Dawkins has shown, quite convincingly, in his epistles unto The Blind Watchmaker and Climbing Mount Improbable, that actually something as complex as an eye can evolve. And to show that the Blessed Richard isn't just mouthing theory, St David of Attenborough the other day on TV actually showed examples of animals with light-sensing organs that are, we could say, eyes at different stages of evolution.

My position? Well, we're working our way through the final series of The West Wing on DVD. To quote Congressman Santos, "I believe in God and I believe he's intelligent". Later in the same episode he defines his position with a few well chosen words that wouldn't be news to any Christian at my church but which apparently takes the American media by storm:
"Intelligent Design is not a scientific theory. It's a religious belief and our constitution does not allow for the teaching of religion in our public schools.... Evolution is not perfect, It doesn't answer every question but it is based on scientific facts. Facts that can be predicted, tested and proven. Intelligent Design asks theological questions. I'm sure that many of us would agree that at the beginning of all that begetting something begun. What was that something?"
(quote half-inched from The West Wing wiki)

No, my faith isn't left in tattered shreds. The Blessed Richard is impeccable on biology but in areas outside his self-taught expertise, including the whole vast arena of theological discourse, he is so gloriously, wonderfully wrong that Mr Green still wins by several thousand points.

I just dock a few.