Friday, October 30, 2009

The Mole had been working very hard all the morning ...

I have a case of seborrheic keratosis. Before you exclaim "you filthy beast!" or "serves you right", it's another way of saying what looks like a mole suddenly appeared one day, but it's all right, the condition is benign and temporary. It's also part of growing old, which sadly isn't temporary and invariably fatal, but that's the long-term prognosis.

I discovered the mole simply by scratching my abdomen one day and there it was, with a slight drop of blood where my nail caught it. "It's been traumatised," said the doctor examining it. Well, I'm sorry but how did it think I felt? And I refuse to apologise to uninvited guests on my skin.

So, could be worse, as this guy could attest:

Fulminant acute colitis following a self-administered hydrofluoric acid enema.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

No one but the pure in heart can find

  • Or, for the benefit of the search engines, "How to change the default search engine in Firefox".

Have you ever known someone reasonably well, got on okay, even ventured beyond that into a rewarding friendship ... but every now and then you find a hangup in their lives that just defies all rational explanation?

Like convincing Firefox that you'd like it to use as a search engine rather than So easy, surely? And not likely to be a rare requirement: so, something Mozilla would have slipped in right up front. They are friendly and cuddly and not Microsoft so they love you and want to make your life easy in every way. Except that they don't and frankly they have no intention of doing so.

First, and most obvious, option - click on the little arrow in the search box that lists the search engines available, click on "Manage Search Engines" and change the Google URL. Except that you can't.

Okay ... why not, in an amusingly ironic Zen-type way, use Google to solve the problem? Enter a search term like "change default search engine in Firefox". And we're away.

The first option has an excitingly hack feel to it: it tells you to locate the file GOOGLE.XML in the folder C:\Program Files\Mozilla Firefox\searchplugins and change every instance of to Fine, easy, except that it doesn't work. Firefox still defaults to

Second option, and this one comes from Mozilla so it must be right! Type "about.config" in the URL bar, then type "keyword.url" in the filter box. Right click on the keyword.url option that appears below it and change the url in the pop-up box to Fine, easy, doesn't work either.

Third option: go to This is a page that lets you select a brand new search engine (which, for the purposes of this argument, Google UK is). You're presented with a variety of search boxes but hey, you're clever. You tell it to search for Google in the UK ... easy, right?

Well, no, because what pops up is every instance of a Google UK-based search page. Universities, companies ... they all use the thing. You don't want to make any of them the default search engine. But, go back to that search page and this time ignore the search boxes - click on "2. Google" in the list of popular domains below. Now you get a list of every country-specific Google page in the world and this time - right at the end, of course, since that's where U is in the alphabet, above only Uruguay, Venezuela and South Africa - you get the Holy Grail, Google UK. Do I want to install it? Yes! Oh, yes! Do I want to start using it right away? Hit me with it, baby!

If Galahad had used computers, he'd feel like I do now.

Friday, October 23, 2009

For he himself has said it, and it's greatly to his credit

I didn't watch Nick Griffin on Question Time but I'm relieved to get the general feeling, from those who did, that he didn't exactly emerge victorious. I'm still in two minds as to whether the whole thing should have gone ahead. Con: his odious ilk deserve no publicity or credibility, implied or other, whatsoever. Pro: no one ever became a fascist (or indeed communist) out of perversity: when people vote that way of their own volition it's in response to genuinely felt needs that the mainstream politicians are not addressing. Its not enough for the mainstreamers to dismiss these concerns as "oh, that's just fascism". If Mr Griffin could puncture a little mainstream complacency then the show was right to go ahead.

I don't know if Mr Griffin is familiar with Daniel Defoe's poem "The True-Born Englishman". I certainly wasn't until a friend drew my attention to it this morning. (Mr G and I must have similar reading tastes as we've both read Mein Kampf; rather, I did dip into it for an A-level project. I bought my copy, 1930s edition, at a secondhand shop in Aldershot, home of the British army. I will now cancel this train of thought.)

Even back in 1703 it's refreshing to see that Mr Defore had no truck with any ludicrous notion of racial purity within these isles of ours. The poem is a long one so I shall quote selectively from the transcript made available at
... The Romans first with Julius Caesar came,
Including all the nations of that name,
Gauls, Greeks, and Lombards, and, by computation,
Auxiliaries or slaves of every nation.
With Hengist, Saxons; Danes with Sueno came,
In search of plunder, not in search of fame.
Scots, Picts, and Irish from the Hibernian shore,
And conquering William brought the Normans o'er.
All these their barbarous offspring left behind,
The dregs of armies, they of all mankind;
Blended with Britons, who before were here,
Of whom the Welsh ha' blessed the character.
From this amphibious ill-born mob began
That vain ill-natured thing, an Englishman.
He continues, dryly:
The customs, surnames, languages, and manners
Of all these nations are their own explainers:
Whose relics are so lasting and so strong,
They ha' left a shibboleth upon our tongue,
By which with easy search you may distinguish
Your Roman-Saxon-Danish-Norman English.
Not even the flower of our glorious aristocracy goes untouched:
And here begins our ancient pedigree,
That so exalts our poor nobility:
'Tis that from some French trooper they derive,
Who with the Norman bastard did arrive
Here's the bit that Mr Griffin should memorise:
These are the heroes that despise the Dutch,
And rail at new-come foreigners so much,
Forgetting that themselves are all derived
From the most scoundrel race that ever lived;
A horrid crowd of rambling thieves and drones,
Who ransacked kingdoms and dispeopled towns,
The Pict and painted Briton, treacherous Scot,
By hunger, theft, and rapine hither brought;
Norwegian pirates, buccaneering Danes,
Whose red-haired offspring everywhere remains,
Who, joined with Norman-French, compound the breed
From whence your true-born Englishmen proceed.

Thus from a mixture of all kinds began,
That heterogeneous thing an Englishman;
In eager rapes and furious lust begot,
Betwixt a painted Briton and a Scot;
Whose gendering offspring quickly learned to bow,
And yoke their heifers to the Roman plough;
From whence a mongrel half-bred race there came,
With neither name nor nation, speech nor fame;
In whose hot veins new mixtures quickly ran,
Infused betwixt a Saxon and a Dane;
While their rank daughters, to their parents just,
Received all nations with promiscuous lust.
This nauseous brood directly did contain
The well-extracted brood of Englishmen.


A true-born Englishman's a contradiction,
In speech an irony, in fact a fiction;
A banter made to be a test of fools,
Which those that use it justly ridicules;
A metaphor invented to express
A man akin to all the universe.
And finally, a bit of philosophical concluding with which it's hard to argue, even though I can see Jerry Springer reciting it at the end of one of his shows:
Could but our ancestors retrieve the fate,
And see their offspring thus degenerate;
How we contend for birth and names unknown,
And build on their past actions, not our own;
They'd cancel records, and their tombs deface,
And openly disown the vile degenerate race:
For fame of families is all a cheat,
'Tis personal virtue only makes us great.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Highland and Lowland memory

It's a bottle of Glenfiddich. The brown thing strapped to the bottom is a free 500Mb memory stick containing a charming little Flash animation all about the history of the distillery. The wooden casing is stamped "made from a geniune Glenfiddich oak cask". It's the cutest blend of Scottish ancient and modern I've seen since being at a wedding in Edinburgh where a guest took a mobile phone out of his sporran.

At the same wedding, I recall going to the bar for a whisky and being asked if Famous Grouse was okay. To which my reply was, roughly translated from the Sassenach, "no it flaming well isn't. I'm in Scotland. Give me something with far too many vowels that isn't pronounced remotely like you spell it."

I know, there's a very close congruence between the spelling and the pronunciation of Glenfiddich, but I didn't get it from Scotland, I got it from the offie in Ock Street, Abingdon.

Strings attached

Alastair Reynolds posts some musings about the roll-out of the Ares 1-X. (How does it stay up, for goodness sake? It looks like someone balancing a pencil on their finger.) He also engages in some speculation about what the world would be like if Gerry Anderson were in charge of human spaceflight. Like, for instance, the rocket wouldn't roll out; the assembly building would instead roll back. Yes, if there's a way to over-engineer a problem, our Gerry will find it.

Rather, if I may smugly outgeek correct Al (who once trounced me in an informal test of knowledge about prog rock drummers) it would be Derek Meddings or Mike Trim who would find the way, they being the ones who designed the fantastic vehicles that made Gerry famous. But for the sake of argument we will use the umbrella term "Anderson" to describe the milieu.

I actually think they did have a hand in some of the Soviet space designs, like their prospective moon rocket the N1. It looks like an upturned cornetto because the Russkies didn't have the industrial base to build five massive engines as used by the Saturn V. Instead they had to pack in 30 much smaller engines, so the base of the rocket had to make room for them all. The fact that all four of the N1s that actually left the launchpad managed to blow up before first stage separation also has a distinctly Anderson feel to it, doesn't it?

In the Anderson world, anything resembling a Health & Safety executive was strangled by red tape at birth and no one ever invented the fuse. These two facts alone mean that a cloud-piercing skyscraper can be brought down by a small fire in the basement. On the other hand, we wouldn't have had to wait years for the A380. Okay, a couple might crash mysteriously in the development phase but hey, there's always another fresh off the production line. So we can assume that all that spared H&S effort went into enhanced R&D, which included an aesthetic element sadly missing from modern design bureaux. All in all, quite a reasonable payoff.

There would be a strange dissonance between very clunky hardware (all tapes and rackety nosies) running extremely powerful software, not to mention an advanced degree of miniaturisation that enables satellite phones with full video to be hidden in watches, power compacts etc. The roads would be a lot safer because no one would dare erupt into road rage when there's the possibility the object of your rage will sprout hidden machine guns and blow you to pieces. There would be no fuss over a third runway for Heathrow, or anything like that, because heavy planes the size of a 747 can take off vertically (or, failing that, off a short ramp).

At the family level, the high degree of personal automation would make us all very quickly clinically obese: why come through to the dining room for tea when you can be carried there by a chute hidden behind a picture in the wall? On the plus side, if your child's a snotty brat then simply implant a new personality. And think of the saving on driving lessons or indeed any form of education. No, it's not abuse, really.

Overall I think the world would be a happier place. International terrorism would be a thing of the past: how successful would 9/11 have been if the twin towers could simply duck? And even if someone did smuggle a bomb onto a plane it would be handily labelled "bomb", so quickly dealt with.

As long as we don't have to wear the clothes. That's all I ask.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

All those moments will be lost in time

Bonusbarn stuck his head round our door.

"I'm watching Blade Runner. Why have you never told me about this film?"

I'm a proud, proud stepfather.

Monday, October 12, 2009

One on a scooter, beeping his hooter

What better way to celebrate the season of giving than to give to those less well off than you? Thus the premise of Operation Christmas Child: stuff a shoebox full of the right sort of goodies and send it off.

The right sort not including, according to the approved list:
  • war related items (toy guns, soldiers or knives of any kind).
  • novels. Novels?? I can't give novels? What sort of crappy Christmas are you wishing on these poor souls? Ah well, I suppose there's always anthologies. Or poetry collections. Or books of rugby songs. Picture or puzzle books are permitted. I wonder where the dividing line lies. Would the Pop-Up War & Peace be permitted?
  • anything of a political nature. Well, that's probably included under novels.
As guidance for the kind of thing you can give, it helpfully suggests: "For boys trucks and cars, for girls dolls, clip on earrings etc."

Okay, okay, it's easy to sneer and a great deal of good and joy could come out of this. But there's always the sneaking suspicion that outreach like this is a step forward immediately followed by a shuffle back. The interesting blend of gender stereotyped political correctness is (I know) for administrative ease to maximise the number of gifts that actually reach someone ... but as we've already got this far in imposing our western cultural Christmas values on other nations, why deprive them of the annual Christmas "what were they thinking / it's what I've always wanted, thanks" treat that we enjoy so much?

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Bringing it one step closer

And so it came to pass that a sleepy teenager was crowbarred into the car at 8am on a Saturday morning and driven by his equally sleepy stepfather to the University of the West of England for an open day. The teenager was able to sleep for most of the way down the M4.

"I've read it all on the web, I don't need to see it ..."

Though even he ultimately admitted he was glad he went.

Accommodation Lady couldn't handle the complexities of interrupting a Powerpoint presentation to show a filmclip off a DVD. Eventually a parent in the audience had to show her how. She got the filmclip running and immediately (for some reason) clicked on the Powerpoint in the background, which of course came to the front and blanked out the filmclip. I have never before heard such tragic two syllable desolation as her squeaked "oh no!"

I fancied I detected a stirring of interest next to me when she got to the university's Student Village: "en suite and wireless internet." I was not wrong.

The course of interest is joint honours in Criminology and Media & Cultural Studies (i.e. watching lots of CSI). Criminology Lady was faced with a roomful of about 100 assorted parents and would-be students. She would wander vaguely around with a pile of about five brochures to hand out, get rid of them all, notice with a start of surprise that there were still some other people who didn't have one, and get another five out of the box at the back of the room. I got hold of one before my pension became due by standing in front of her and not moving until she pressed one into my hands.

The Media Dudes scored the most points with a bit of two-way banter, an interesting presentation and just giving the impression of being guys you could get on with. One had a pigtail and had to be gently coaxed away from getting into a Mac vs Windows dialogue with a parent in a public meeting. (Perhaps he could have a useful word or two with Accommodation Lady?) Definitely a score, anyway.

The course would be at UWE's St Matthias campus, a pleasantly period (I'm guessing Victorian or early C20) place with sixties add-ons, apparently known as the Harry Potter Campus. Across the valley and the other side of the M32 is UWE's main Frenchay campus, sitting gleaming at the top of its hill like mighty Diaspar. That's where the Student Village is, and at some time in the next three years the course will move over there so that's where Bonusbarn will end up. So I took him on a drive around it, also showing him the offices of my ultimate masters, HEFCE (who provide the dosh) and JISC (who pass it on to us).

"They're on a university campus. You're in a science park. Why aren't you in charge of them?"

We tried to drive into the city centre. On a Saturday? I hear distant laughter from any readers who have actually met Bristol. Quite why someone decided to build the M32 on stilts through some quite pleasant pre-war suburbs, injecting traffic directly into the heart of the city, I don't know. He had to take my word for it that once you're through the tangled spaghetti of traffic lanes winding past the feet of concrete monstrosities, it's quite pleasant in there. He's probably taking a year out and he has friends who will be there next year, so they can show him round in due course.

It's quite possible I was present at the precise moment when Bonusbarn began to think seriously about being a student. Cor.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Ode to Abingdon traffic

  • In honour of the experience of sitting in a 20 minute traffic queue because effing Ock Street is closed due to effing Abingdon fair; eventually giving up, parking in Hermitage Road and walking home.
  • To the tune of "Africa", with apologies to Toto.
I hear the fair echoing tonight
The music of the rides' bass syncopation.
The traffic's backed up to the lights
On the road that comes into town from Drayton.
It only lasts another day
I might just make it home by then, it's true.
The glowing clock digits seem to say
Hurry home, your dinner's waiting for you.

[duh, de-duh-duh duh]

Did Bonusbarn put the sausages on when asked?
Or has he forgotten the job with which he's been tasked?
I hate the traffic in Abingdon
I hate the traffic in Abingdon
(repeat to fade)
Now treat yourself with the original. Typical portentous 80s video, musical masterpiece.

Monday, October 05, 2009

The good news is your eBay package has arrived

"That has nothing to do with the bad news," I added on the phone to my wife, "but it might soften the blow ..."

Earlier I got a call at work from Bonusbarn around midday. Praise the Lord that made us for sixth form timetables and free periods.

"Minor problem. We've got a leak."

"Oh, crud. Where?"

"Water's coming through the ceiling into the living room. Should I move some stuff out?"


"Is that water I can hear behind you?"

"Uh, yes."

"I'm coming home."

It could have been so much worse ...

The gauchos refitting the kitchen in the flat above (which traditionally provides us with entertainment of this kind) had capped a pipe which then uncapped itself. Their foreman lamented, "I only left them alone for a couple of minutes!" But it mostly dripped down the walls of the living room or through a few fracture zones in the plaster, like the light fittings: the sound I could hear was it dripping into the buckets that Bonusbarn had already put in place. It had avoided the TV and the computer altogether. The sofas got wet, but not catastrophically; ditto the carpet, but it's a rug rather than fitted with waterproof wood-effect vinyl beneath, so we could lift it up. Tomorrow the penitent foreman delivers a dehumidifier and that should undo 95% of the damage.

The lightswitch was buzzing so I've removed the fuse for the main lights, and until the room is dehumidified we're existing on lights that plug into sockets. We still have hot water and the shower. What effect this has had on the book collection ... well, I'm resigned to that. If anything got wet it's nothing that can't be replaced.

And the biggest plus of all is the calm and sensible way Bonusbarn acted on his own. If he's ever faced with a structural failure in his future home, he'll find it much less terrifying with this experience under his belt. The boy done good.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

We the undersigned think child abusers should get away with it

An online petition demands the immediate release of Roman Polanski. It has some frighteningly recognisable names on it. Also Woody Allen, which shouldn't really surprise anyone.


What is wrong with these morons? He had sex with a 13 year old girl. Accounts vary, covering all points on a spectrum between "he drugged her" and "she was willing bit of jailbait gagging for it," but the basic fact is undeniable. Over 30 years later, the girl is now in her 40s ... and about the same age he was at the time.

Thirty years is certainly a long time. But lest you find your righteous zeal wavering, today's news also reports the guilty pleas of three people, one of them a nursery worker, involved in creating and distributing child porn. And if they'd got away with it until 2039, that would make it okay?

The gist of the petition is "we all love Roman, it was a long time ago, he's very talented don'cha know and film festivals should be above this sort of thing. Signed, lots of luvvies."

Terry Gilliam? Tilda Swinton?? What were you thinking?

The only names that don't surprise me - apart from Mr Allen - are several crew members from Polanski's latest which has now been left in limbo. Sadly this is an adaptation of Robert Harris's The Ghost, which is a film that badly needs to be made. We may just have to live with that.

One opinion I've overheard is that, since he's in Switzerland, the judges should petition for his immediate transfer to Dignitas. Hmm.