Friday, May 28, 2010

... and I'm also an auditor

I no longer communicate. I market.

Coming up to 48 hours ago our team manager called us in for a meeting and told us we no longer work for the Head of Communications and Support. We now work for the Head of Business Development. Our manager is now Head of Marketing.

I - am - a - marketer. This will take time to get my braincells around.

So far I have to say my life has continued pretty much as normal. I still wish I didn't have such a good memory for 13-year-old Dilberts.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Wytham wandering

The purpose of trees is to provide blessed shade as you stroll along on a hot summer's afternoon. Any other purpose is useful but secondary. Put enough trees together and you get woods. Put the woods on a hill overlooking Oxford and you get Wytham Woods.

It's an access-controlled SSSI, and even though I don't think there are any reasonable bars to anyone getting a permit, it makes it just a bit more peaceful and remote than, say, Shotover (despite the best efforts of our friends from Brize Norton to bring a little low-level noise into our lives). Every now and again you turn a corner and suddenly find yourself with a panoramic view of the dreaming spires, and wish you'd brought the proper camera rather than just the phone.

The phone camera also failed to do full justice to the hitherto unknown pastime of caterpillar bungee-jumping.

That glowing blob is not a crack in space-time: it is in fact a small green caterpillar about 3cm in length, dangling in the middle of the road by a strand of silk so fine it seems to be levitating. Closer up:

And there were a lot of them. Whether they were trying to get down or up or just dangling to pass the time of day, I have no idea. However they do it at about face level so it's a good way of grabbing the attention of passers by.

Current reading is Avilion by Robert Holdstock, last of the Mythago Wood series, which gives all sorts of added resonances to walking through a piece of undisturbed ancient woodland, and makes you realise that living somewhere like this:

... could be a very bad idea indeed.

Bijou Arkette

And if you can't tell what it is just by looking, you're not my target readership.

While the rest of us were singing "Come down O love divine" with the pauses in all the wrong places, the kids were having fun. Compare it with the original assembly instructions:
10 "Have them make a chest of acacia wood—two and a half cubits long, a cubit and a half wide, and a cubit and a half high. 11 Overlay it with pure gold, both inside and out, and make a gold molding around it. 12 Cast four gold rings for it and fasten them to its four feet, with two rings on one side and two rings on the other. 13 Then make poles of acacia wood and overlay them with gold. 14 Insert the poles into the rings on the sides of the chest to carry it. 15 The poles are to remain in the rings of this ark; they are not to be removed. 16 Then put in the ark the Testimony, which I will give you.
Having the rings dangle freely on the poles misses the point a little, but we'll let it pass. The manual goes on to say:
17 "Make an atonement cover of pure gold—two and a half cubits long and a cubit and a half wide. 18 And make two cherubim out of hammered gold at the ends of the cover. 19 Make one cherub on one end and the second cherub on the other; make the cherubim of one piece with the cover, at the two ends. 20 The cherubim are to have their wings spread upward, overshadowing the cover with them. The cherubim are to face each other, looking toward the cover. 21 Place the cover on top of the ark and put in the ark the Testimony, which I will give you. 22 There, above the cover between the two cherubim that are over the ark of the Testimony, I will meet with you and give you all my commands for the Israelites."
Okay, there's only one cherub. This is a high-speed Ark of the Covenant for the modern age, with no time for that fancy wandering-in-the-wilderness-for-40-years malarkey. We intend to take the Promised Land before tea time and a backwards facing cherub wouldn't be aerodynamic.

Next week: advanced tent making.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

7-foot high hole in the wall

Our room, no windows, west facing view.

It's only been almost three years since we had to move out for our windows upgrade, but the weather was nice so we thought we would rush impetuously into it. The point of the upgrade was not just to restore our original sash windows and make them open-and-shuttable, but also to put in place a system that lets you easily remove the sashes from inside the building without recourse to ladders, scaffolding etc for purposes of cleaning or painting.

We didn't paint - will probably have to do so in another couple of years - but we did clean. Well, Best Beloved cleaned, I just held the windows upright for her. The system works! The outer beading unscrews and eventually comes away, needing a bit of encouragement if your painter three years ago wasn't quite as good at letting the paint dry before screwing it back in as you had hoped. The beading between the sashes just unplugs. The trick is to unfasten the windows from their cords whilst remembering that they are counterbalanced by heavy weights at the other end, so don't just let go or the cords will disappear into the walls and never be seen again. Window 1: an hour and a half from first screw out to last screw back in again. Window 2: 45 minutes. Windows 3 and 4 next Saturday, weather permitting.

Meanwhile here is y.t. striking a heroic pose in front of the south facing hole in the wall, gazing down on the puny mortals below who don't have removable windows and are thus to be pitied.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Dismal science

I am easily swayed by most kinds of economic arguments, which makes it easy to convince me of many things. The ones towards the extremes of the spectrum are easier to deal with (i.e. harder to convince me of); for instance I can generally pick holes in statements like:
  • if it moves, nationalise it
  • if it moves, privatise it
  • make all black people the private property of white people and don't pay them anything
  • start a war to create jobs and boost the economy
  • make the rich even richer so that their wealth will trickle down to the rest of us.
The further towards the middle ground, though, the harder it gets. Am I a Keynesian? Am I a monetarist? Goodness knows. (I do believe in feeding a cold, if that helps, but only because I see no point in multiplying personal misery when an easily obtained placebo is to hand.) Maybe I have some strange idea that human beings are way too complex for this kind of thing and the kind of theory that is appropriate on Monday afternoon may be completely out of touch come the circumstances of Tuesday morning.

But this guy seems to make sense, and I don't just say that as a public sector employee: "The only way to cut government debt is to increase government spending". Discuss; or, failing that, tell me where he's wrong.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Blandford fly for a white guy

Best Beloved's web diligence and some subsequent google-fu has revealed a likely culprit for the bites: Blandford Fly (not the beer). Looking at that and other / links shows a lot of matches. Small, black flies 2-3mm in length? Check (there were a lot them about). Oxfordshire? Check. Bites predominantly, indeed exclusively on lower legs? Check. Above all the descriptions of the bite sound about right, apart from the fact that I didn't feel anything until it was too late. Maybe weeding is such an itchy process anyway that I just tuned it out. Hmm: not disease carriers (good) but secondary infections are possible (bad) ...

For what it's worth the red patches are consolidating, shrinking a little and turning more purple. I spent most of yesterday tired and cold and was in bed by 9, which was probably a reaction to several gallons of toxin in my bloodstream but not quite enough to warrant taking time off work.

Apparently the biters would all have been female, requiring a blood meal before or after mating to produce hundreds of eggs. I've never before been swarmed by sex-crazed females and it's a shame that when it finally happens they all turn out to be insects, but I'm glad I could perform a service.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

The man, the legs

I am advised by my wife, arbiter of taste in these matters, that the blogosphere probably doesn't want a photo of my partially and patchily shaved legs. No accounting for it if you ask me, but for the time being I'll keep it to myself.

We weeded and we weeded good in yesterday's sunshine, filling a brown bin from empty. I wore shorts ... and meanwhile the local insect life indicated its opinion of this loss of habitat the way it knows best. Only at the end of the day did I look down and notice the machine gun like trails of holes in my shins and calfs, each with a little drop of blood attached. I thought this probably wasn't good. I was right.

Each bite - 16 at the last count, 6 on the left, 10 on the right - is now at least the size of a 10p piece, so that's at least £1.60 worth of bites, which is a heck of lot, I can tell you. (Update: with inflation, let's now say at least £2.00.) Hence the partial and patchy shaving - it's much easier to rub soothing unguent into smooth skin than into a forest of leg hair. I won't be wearing shorts again for a while. Fortunately the weather today seems to agree.

The good news is that despite all that close contact with plant life I didn't get a tickle or a sniffle, probably because all the histamines were rushing down past my knees.

Friday, May 14, 2010

So totally not Twilight

I'm interested to see that my good friend Sebastian Rook's Vampire Plagues series has apparently been repackaged as Vampire Dusk. This is quite a coincidence because there is already a quite successful series for children, also about vampires, currently available and named for a time of day. In fact, a time of day when the sun isn't quite shining. I'm sure that the merest possibility of any kind of association has never at any point crossed the mind of anyone at Scholastic.

Suspicion of bandwagon-jumping recedes further with even a cursory examination of the covers, which have gone from this:

... to this.

(Having a passing acquaintance with the text, I'm curious to know what happened to the second boy. The three heroes stick to the magic Harry-Ron-Hermione formula for pre-teen adventures of 2 boys to 1 girl [though there is a guest extra girl in the second book]. This is because boys only want to read about boys whereas girls will read about either gender: so, you get a boy for the boys, a girl for the girls, and another boy to make up for the girl. Sad but true.

Maybe he's on the back.)

To continue with the covers for the books I wrote the first three written by Sebastian:

Not only will you will discern a total absence of fruit, chess pieces and the like, but while the Twilight covers go out of their way to hide the fact that they are about a boy and a girl who have the dead hots for each other, Vampire Dusk advertises the total absence of sexual frisson by showing a couple of complete strangers who were photographed in the same room together one day, coincidentally whilst wearing sort of Victorian clothes. Also, by miniscule fractions, the boy's expression changes. A bit. So, really, about as far from Twilight as you can get.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

They do things different in Venezuela

Statements to the House? Tabling of Senate motions? Nah. From the Beeb:
"A gas platform has sunk in the Caribbean Sea off the coast of Venezuela, but the energy minister says it poses no risk to the environment.

President Hugo Chavez announced the incident via his account on the social networking site Twitter."

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Occasional recipes: chicken with brown things

I must credit Teresa Nielsen-Hayden with this one, but her version on Making Light provides three full meals. Here's how to make one meal for three people.

  • a couple of chicken breasts
  • 150g Israeli couscous. [I hadn't met this before but the grains are noticeably bigger than normal couscous. Couldn't find it in Tesco: Best Beloved had to get Mediterranean couscous from Waitrose. As I believe Israel is right next to the Mediterranean, this obviously sufficed.]
  • 1 onion
  • 1/2 cup chopped cashew nuts [well, whole cashew nuts zapped a couple of times in the food processor. Teresa goes for hazelnuts but, hey.]
  • 1 small handful mixed dried mushrooms
  • 1/2 cup dry sherry
Soak the mushrooms in a pint of boiling water for at least half an hour. Then chop them up, but keep the water they soaked in. Also make yourself two pints of stock: chicken or vegetable will do.

Lightly fry the couscous in oil to brown it. I've not done this before but Teresa said, so why not? Honestly can't tell if it made a difference, though ... Do likewise with the nuts. Also fry the onions. Chop up the chicken and brown well and good in oil.

Whether you do all this in series or parallel is a function of time, cooking utensils and oven top space. What matters is that at some point you have browned chicken, mushrooms, nuts and onions which you can bung altogether with the mushroom broth into a wok. Simmer on medium heat for 15 minutes. After 15 minutes, add the couscous and simmer for a further 15.

This is when you want that extra stock, because the couscous soaks up liquid like there's no tomorrow. In the remaining 15 minutes I got through the full 2 pints. I could maybe have simmered it a bit longer because it was only a little bit sloppy. But not very.

Teresa says season to taste while it’s simmering and suggests sage, oregano, basil, salt, pepper, and a pinch of smoked sweet paprika. I didn't use any of those because frankly the mushroom broth makes it strong and salty enough. However, shortly before it's done, add the dry sherry.

Wash down with red wine and Best Beloved's delicious lemon sponge layer pudding, but that recipe is not mine to share.

We'll probably think of a reason to celebrate the sixth anniversary too

What I love about (a) fandom and (b) the modern age is that you can casually bump into someone in Oxford that you last saw in Montreal 9 months ago without batting an eyelid, and then not have to waste time with catch-up chat because you've already read their blog anyway.

You can also have conversations like:
"Ben, have you met Geoff?" (That would be Geoff Ryman, founder member of the Mundane Movement, amongst his many other strengths.)

"Yes, I last saw him having breakfast at Résidences universitaires UQAM, 303 boulevard René-Lévesque Est, Montreal when we were both staying there in August, and I wondered if his choice of meal would trigger another mundane movement."
Maybe I didn't say that last bit. I said that we passed on the escalators in the convention centre.

The occasion being the fifth anniversary celebration of the Write Fantastic, a thoroughly deserved pat-on-the-back event in the Jacqueline du Pré Music Centre of St Hilda's College. The centre has a distressingly sports centre-like vibe, all modern brutalist bare brickwork and large plate glass windows. Thankfully it lacks the smell of chlorine, sweat and fear and instead has a rather nice, cosy auditorium for the panel sessions. The stage includes a small little statuette of du Pré + cello which I wanted to have on the panel sessions too, but was over-ruled.

Chaired by Juliet McKenna, "Politics and Genre - fantasy conservatism vs SF radicals" started (once Juliet had explained what it meant) with everyone rightly disagreeing with the perceived trope of "sf = cutting edge and incisive, fantasy = cosy", citing counter-examples, and then getting into the realities of how politics, economics and other real-world factors would be in various imagined worlds. En route discussion touched on the infinity slappability of the ever-whinging Starbuck, having separate kitchens for the winter and summer in parts of Canada, and the different points at which The Phantom Menace really lost it for various viewers. (For me: the bit where Liam Neeson's Konky Jonky or whatever he's called carefully explains to Anakin and his mum that even though he is a very powerful Jedi Knight and can do just about anything he likes, he can only take Anakin with him and his mum will have to stay behind as a slave because that's the only way the plot will work ... and they both calmly accept this.)

"Reflections on a life in writing" was meant to be me effortlessly moderating by pointing Chaz Brenchley, Liz Williams, Geoff Ryman and Ian Watson at the audience, pressing the "go" button and letting them entertain us with anecdotes of their writing careers. It was a bit harder than that because, again, no one was quite sure what the session title meant, but the audience seemed to be entertained anyway. Earlier, Kari Spelling had shared the fact that a reviewer once said her characterisation wasn't as good as Mercedes Lackey's. Now I was on stage I could trump this with the Amazon review that said the characterisation of His Majesty's Starship isn't as good as Rama II's. The audience's resident IP barrister offered to put me in touch with a few defamation experts that he knows.

So, good fun, the required level of silliness, seeing old faces, putting old names to new ones, and books to buy. And may I mention, cudos to the Cape of Good Hope pub on the corner of Cowley and Iffley Road for managing to serve the 50-odd guests who turned up without warning, mostly within the allocated 90 minute lunch break.

Friday, May 07, 2010

I for one welcome our web-literate overlords

42% to Evan Harris (Lib.Dem.), 42.3% to Nicola Blackwood (Con.). Oxford West & Abingdon goes to the Conservatives. That's democracy.

Let no one accuse this woman of being behind the times. Her up to the minute new-fangled web technology intertube thingy still says:

Am I unreasonable to expect a passable degree of web literacy among our elected representatives? Especially from those children born in 1979 who pretty well grew up with it? Or is this just sour grapes? Time will tell.

I'll be fair. I gather she was a gracious opponent at the recent hustings. Meanwhile, please will the media stop banging on about the utterly dispensable Lembit Opik losing his seat, just because he's the one with a silly name and lamentable personal life.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

I could just write this tomorrow and save the speculation

... but it's lunchtime on a cold, grey day and I have an hour to fill.

So, Ben's prediction for the election: whoever wins tomorrow, the losers will indulge in months if not years of navel-gazing trying to analyse their defeat, and produce a new winning strategy for the next election almost indistinguishable from the strategy that lost them this one. An interesting article by Ben Goldacre explains why. Studies show that people can be comprehensively owned by clear and incontrovertible evidence that is contrary to their beliefs, and not only continue to believe but actually have those beliefs confirmed (in their own minds) by the contradiction. It's now a scientifically observed phenomenon. (Scientific? Yes: it's a theory that offers an explanation for observed data and is independently testable and verifiable. Scientific.)

This also explains current behaviour as well as future. It explains why Labour continues to believe that the affairs of man can be micro-managed by legislation, despite an ever more lamentable catalogue of badly written laws: look after the letter of the law and the spirit takes care of itself. On second thoughts, just dispense with the spirit and make do with the ever-more badly written bit.

It explains why even if the Conservatives aren't quite the party of Norman "on your bike" Tebbit any more (and Cameron, I think, is genuinely trying to distance his party from that era), the spirit still lurks not far beneath the surface. "Phwah phwah phwah what you don't have a comfortable financial cushion to fall back on at any time phwah phwah how can you not be absolute master of your own destiny it's all your own fault you know phwah phwah phwah." And it explains how they can still be the party that can adopt a candidate who 'founded a church that tried to "cure" homosexuals by driving out their "demons" through prayer', and believe that a prospective MP with that on her CV is still in with a chance. If Sutton and Cheam is Conservative tomorrow morning it really can only be that the other candidates just didn't try hard enough.

(It would be fun to be a fly on the wall at one of her exorcisms.

Priest: "Be gone, demons of gayness!"
Demon 1: "Not in these shoes, girlfriend."
Demon 2: "Ooh, get you!"
Demon 3: "Nice frock ..."

In keeping with Goldacre's article, of course, failure to produce any demons at all will not dissuade people from trying.)

And it explains why a Lib-Dem government, or even a Lib-Dem-controlled balance of power, just wouldn't work, because they would consistently expect everyone to be sensible and rational and grown-up and they're not.

And all of this explains why I don't particularly want any of that lot to win, but am resigned to the fact that one of them will and I do hope it's not Labour.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Department of Oh Get Over Yourself You Big Tart

From the Beeb:
"A legal battle has begun in an attempt to stop prayers being said before a Devon council's meetings.

The National Secular Society (NSS) is seeking a judicial review over whether prayers said at Bideford Town Council breach human rights legislation."
No. They don't. Legislation, maybe, that being a purely artificial construct. Human rights, no.

The regime currently ruling Burma/Myanmar breaches human rights.

The Taliban breach human rights.

A town council that has voted, twice, to keep the prayers before its meetings start is not breaching human rights. You don't like it, turn up to meetings five minutes late. Or mutter "arse" when everyone mutters "amen". Or whatever. Exercise your own human rights in response. But stop whining when a democratic vote offends you.

And while I'm in full Tunbridge Wells mode, telling a teenager to pull his trousers up doesn't breach his human rights either. I'm reasonably certain my right not to have a human backside thrust into my face takes priority.

End of rant. Resume your lives.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

What to do on a bank holiday weekend

You could go on the Sarsen Trail, choosing either the 7 mile, 11 mile or 26 mile option. Any of these would involve getting up around 5am, probably earlier, and paying money for the privilege of walking through most of May's monthly rainfall and freezing temperatures across Salisbury Plain, admiring the beautiful views you would be getting on a clear, sunny, warm day. Depending on which of the above options you choose you could also get to hang around in the cold and wet for a minimum of one coach trip to take you back to your starting place. (That's the 7 miles, taking you back to Avebury. For the other two you park at Stonehenge and a coach takes you to the Avebury starting point. If you bail out at 11 miles then another coach brings you back to Stonehenge. And did I mention all this happens in the cold and wet?)

Or, you could not.

We didn't.

We went instead to the morning service at Sherborne Abbey, for no particular reason except that I haven't been to a service there since leaving school in 1983, and we had already budgeted mentally for getting up early (just not as penitentially early), and we could drive there in a warm, dry car through the rain and look at the sky to the west and think, hmm, it's probably still wet for the walkers. And a lovely sung eucharist service it was too, appealing to the senses of sight and sound. The choir were tuneful and skilled and didn't bang on too long with the set musical pieces; and, despite or perhaps because of five years of compulsory services there, I hadn't appreciated how lovely the abbey looks. A few centuries ago there was a fire which discoloured the sandstone to a pinkish-red. The place is now decorated with that in mind, subdued reds amidst all the usual ornamental bells and whistles of ecclesiastical architecture, and it works very nicely.

Also nice:
  • being dispensed the wine by Mr David "Billy" Smart, retd: former maths teacher whose rapid-fire Ulster-intonated mathematical pedagogy influenced a generation of boys and makes Tom Lehrer look a little slow, and a key influence in my own spiritual development.
  • seeing in the abbey newsletter that the old school is getting a lady chaplain.
Less nice was the pre-service chat a member of clergy had with the lady sitting behind us, who was obviously a regular. "So, how are you?" Well ..." And, unfortunately, she told him, in full symptomatic detail, for about 10 minutes, at the end of which Best Beloved whispered to me, "I don't want to take communion any more ..." She only went through with it after working out that we were sitting in front and so would get to the chalice first.

Then we ate our sandwiches in a layby on the A30 overlooking the Fovant regimental badges cut into a hillside, with the intent of using our temporarily bored-teenager-free window of opportunity to looking around Wilton House. This intention lasted as long as getting through the door of the ticket office and seeing this:


The point of Gift Aid is surely that it augments the price paid at no cost to yourself? So, they expect us taxpayers to pay slightly more than the already high basic rate for the privilege of augmenting their income even further? I think not. Besides, Best Beloved picked up a pamphlet for Mompesson House, only five minutes away and a fraction of the price, so we went round that instead. It's also a fraction of the size of Wilton House, but even though it belongs to a bygone age it retains the sense of actually being a home that real people lived in, once.

And did I mention how warm and dry all this was?