Monday, 29 December 2008

Oxy Morons: two examples

1) Economics
A right-wing economist explained that the market will correct itself without government intervention, which only makes things worse, so the banking system should have been left free to collapse: and then that the public should be saving more.

2) Politics
William Hague defended MPs' paid extra-parliamentary activities on the grounds that these kept them in touch with the real world outside Westminster: and then assured us that he was divesting himself of such interests as rapidly as he could manage.

Both from recent interviews on BBC Radio 4 lunchtime broadcasts.

Sunday, 21 December 2008

Thursday, 18 December 2008

A brilliant crossword clue

As an antidote to yesterday's dyslogistic logophobic rant, today's cryptic contained a 53-letter anagram clue, definition 'as the White Queen spoke', which comes out as: 'The rule is, jam to-morrow and jam yesterday - but never jam today.'

I know. Promise not to do it anymore.

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Bad crossword clue

This is going turn you all off, but I've got to get it off my chest.

Guardian cryptic, Tuesday, 10 down: 'Irregular notes, given European agreement, sound in the House of Lords?' (4)
Obviously, the answer is JAZZ. Get it?

Well, me neither. I stared at it for twenty minutes on Wednesday morning. So let me deconstruct it, explaining as I go why it's so bad:

The definition part is 'Irregular notes', which is meant to mean 'jazz'. That is inaccurate, presumptuous, and insulting to the twentieth century's second-greatest new art form.
'European agreement' translates, supposedly, to 'JA'. Does 'European' equate to 'German' in this compiler's mind?
'sound in the House of Lords' is apparently 'ZZ', i.e. they're all asleep. Tell that to the members of the last bastion of our democratic freedom!
Worst of all, this crap clue was what I call a 'clue to clues'. Unless you solve this one, forget the rest of the puzzle. Half a dozen others were cross-references ('man of 10') to jazz, (Oscar Peterson, Count Basie, Charlie Parker etc.) but completely unsolvable without the key link/definition. If the compiler chooses this irritating formulation, he really should make the entry clue at least penetrable. I'd suggest something like 'Hot or cool?' (4)

If you've got this far, I did warn you - you're gonna get rants.

The good news is that the Christmas tree is up and shining.

Friday, 12 December 2008

The most interesting thing I learnt today

The cardboard tubes in the middle of toilet rolls have serial numbers.

The two I spotted during housework this morning are 230304881542, and 230326280410.

What's going on?

Sunday, 7 December 2008

Orion

As soon as I'd learnt to read, my parents gave me the Children’s Encyclopaedia, which was assumed to contain the sum of human knowledge, or at least those parts deemed suitable for children’s consumption and comprehension. For some reason I latched on to Astronomy. I found out all about the Solar System, planets, important stars and constellations. The last were especially intriguing, especially how they’d been named, by the Ancients. Line drawings attempted to show how a particular group of stars could be made to look like a Crab, a Water-carrier or a Virgin. I couldn’t see it, either in theory or practice. The diagrams seemed fanciful and contrived, and I don’t recall ever being taken out at night to see the real thing – my parents didn’t operate that way.

Last night, around midnight, I got back from a fairly liquid dinner party and wandered out into the garden. It was a clear, crisp, star-filled night of a sort we don’t often get here in the Thames Valley. I looked up, and there he was – Orion! His arms and legs were akimbo, as if he was dancing. His famous shining belt was pulled tight round his tiny waist, and his widely spaced eyes sparkled with mischief. He looked like a leprechaun, hence presumably his name … Next time I see him I’m going to ask him if he’s really Irish.

One day I’m going to live someplace where you can see the whole bright sky rather than the murky little patch I get here; then maybe I’ll be able to work out whether that's a plough or a big bear, or just the saucepan it looks like.

Sunday, 30 November 2008

Short Story

I stumbled across this, from 1968, on a trawl through my archives this afternoon:

Two men were walking along a forest path late on a midwinter afternoon, in search of a particular village, when they came to a division of the way into three separate directions without any indications.
‘Which way should we go?’ said the first man.
‘There’s no sign of a sign to help us,’ said the second. They pondered for a while. ‘I know, let’s spin a stick, and we’ll follow whichever road it points to.’
There being no better plan, they each went off into the forest to find a suitable stick to spin.
‘I’ve found one!’ cried the first man. ‘So have I!’ cried the second. They met up and compared the two sticks.
‘I found mine first,’ said the first man.
‘Maybe, but mine is straighter.’
‘Which shall we spin, then?’
‘Mine!’
‘No, I think mine actually.’
By now it was beginning to get quite dark. Suddenly they saw that a stranger, warmly clad and bearing a lantern, had joined them.
‘Can I be of assistance?’ he asked them kindly. The two men explained their predicament.
The stranger thought for a while, toying with the two sticks as he pondered. At last, looking up, he smiled and said:
‘Yes. I come from the village you seek, and so can advise you with some certainty.’
‘Advise us, please,’ said the two men.
The stranger smiled again and raised one of the sticks like a wand.
‘This stick is surely the truer, and will spin beautifully.’
Thus saying he bade them a good evening and continued on his way.

Friday, 28 November 2008

Villette

Last week, desperate for something to read on a grey cold damp afternoon, and unwilling to haul myself into Waterstones to load up another forest of pulp, I trawled my bookshelves for something I felt like rereading or hadn't yet read, and, more or less at random, plucked out this Victorian novel. Ten pages in, I was hooked. A hundred, I found myself telling the people off for their unreasonable behaviour or applauding them for their startling unpredictabiliy.

You have to get past the Victorian novelist's language, of course. In this case, not hard. The dialogue is the way in. These people talk like kids today (in their own vernacular). I wanted to give an example, but, skimming, realised that I couldn't, because I know them and you don't. Just think sassy wit.

The discursive passages are harder, but often even more rewarding. Again, I was tempted to quote, but again, I can't, because they lose much of their strength outside the context - and that's their strength! No Dickensian preaching here - the insights grow out of the characters, and where they sit, at that moment, within the story. You never, never think 'hang on, author, you put that in'.

Most of all, the heroine (and narrator), Lucy Snowe. As she tells her story, you're whizzed between her feisty insecurity, her coolness under fire, her intrepid risk-taking, her girly wimpishness - without once feeling that there are any contradictions or inconsistencies. I'm in love with Lucy Snowe.

Actually, apparently this novel is largely autobiographical, arising from the author's unhappy experiences as a teacher in Belgium. So perhaps I'm in love with Charlotte Bronte.

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Christmas Shopping

I was going to go into town and blitz this on Friday, swallowing my fears about the expense; but now, obviously, I'll wait until Monday, when I can save two and a half pee on a pair of joke socks for my nephew.... If the idea behind the VAT holiday was to kick-start a pre-Christmas spending spree which would then save the global economy - well, it's not gonna work, is it?
I heard a much better idea on the radio the other day, which was: let's drop vouchers from helicopters.
Longer term, John Maynard Keynes, in the 1930s, suggested that the government should pay half of the unemployed workforce to go around the country burying pound notes, and the other half to dig them up again.

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

The Swell Season

Anyone who's seen the film 'Once' will know the two protagonists, who are also the lead players in this Irish music co-operative who played the Albert Hall to a nearly full house last night - Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova. (Anyone who hasn't seen the film should).

A great concert. After rather overlong support acts and two intervals, Hansard takes the stage, steps in front of (not behind!) the microphone and performs one of the key songs from 'Once' - just him and his guitar with no amplification, fills the Albert Hall with sound ... Brave man! And of course he has us in his palm after that. Marketa came on and they did a duet (with mics), then the rest of the band, then a two-hour show that seemed to last about thirty minutes.

For me, two highspots: a solo version by Glen of 'Astral Weeks' (the song, not the whole album!), at the end of which he made his guitar and voice sound like an orchestral thunderstorm - the floor in the stalls was actually trembling, and I reckon Albert and his Hall rose into the night air above Hyde Park. Secondly, a spoken intro where he explained that, if you see an insurmountable wall in front of you, one plan is to turn round and walk in the opposite direction - eventually (if you have the time and energy), you'll have walked all round the world and end up on the other side of that wall.

Sunday, 16 November 2008

Let's join the euro!

Will Hutton said this in today's Observer. I can't see any argument against it. The logically correct solution is that the world only needs one currency. Money is not a real entity. The reality is tangible goodies- food, drink, entertainment, exploration etc - and tangible input, which is work. Money is just the medium of exchange which, ultimately, enables the conversion of work into goodies; it's a bit like oil. Do we need so many different kinds of oil? And do we need to expend so much effort and danger into turning all these different sorts of the same thing into each other?

The Antiques Roadshow dumbdown

I used to love this progamme, mainly for the unexpected discoveries, the human stories, the esoteric analysis of valuable or worthless objects, the mind-blowing pricing (and of course the attractive women who sometimes hover in the background, making eye contact with the camera).

This week's episode has been widely trailed in the press as 'the first ever £1M discovery'. Naturally, you expect some nice bloke to have found a Ming vase or Lowry sketch in a skip or attic, or a granny to uncover the original manuscript of the declaration of the first world war - at any rate, something to engage the nerves.

Instead, what we got was a small bronze fake of Gormley's gormless chunk of rust, which turns out to be not even a prototype, but an advert! A million quid? I'd bid fifty for the scrap value. The Antiques Roadshow has finally blown its credibility with this one.

Thursday, 30 October 2008

Brandrossgate

Everyone I've spoken to agrees that it's sad that Russell Brand felt obliged to resign from his Radio 2 show. We'd much have preferred to see him nailed screaming to the wall through his own entrails, begging to be allowed to confess. As for Ross, if he does eventually get the boot after his twelve-week spell in purgatory (which let's not forget will include the entire Festive Season, ha) - well, his reported £18m salary, shared out among the BBC licence payers, comes to about 50p each . Not a lot. Hand that saving over to everyone who is prepared, under sworn affidavit, to opt out of ever seeing or hearing him again in their life - still not a lot. BUT: charge the £18m out to those who think he's worth it, on some kind of 'pay-as-you-puke' tariff - now I can see my licence fee tumbling!

The escalation of complaints, from the two people who actually listened on the day (I'm recklessly equating number of complainants to number of listeners here, seems reasonable to me) to the 35 million or whatever it's come to who read about it in the Mail, and then saw the reports of the Mail's report, then heard and saw the hand-wringing analysis on every TV/radio channel yet invented (and, for all I know a few billion websites, blogs and twitter streams), is, well, interestingly amusing.

But the real point has been missed. The real offence was to Andrew Sachs - the leaving of this filth on his answering machine. This really offensive action had been committed some time before the programme was broadcast, and days before the Mail and their hounddogs picked up the rancid scent - damage already done. Andrew has graciously, sensibly, waved this off. To my mind, that makes it a private concern.

As an update, Sunday 2 November, having spent the weekend talking to a broad cross-section, I can report the following:
The age divide, mooted by the press (kids vs. older people) - it doesn't exist. People from 18 to 75 are unanimous that this was plain objectionable, not funny.
Having said that, there seems to be a convergence between 'funny' and 'shocking'. I raised the scene in 'Pulp Fiction' where Marvin gets his head blown off by Vincent, and we laugh. Laughter is a convulsive response to the unexpected; that doesn't make the event funny, never mind humorous. We probably all remember incidents of bullying and mild torture, at school or later, which end in 'only having a laugh, mate'.
The 25 year old editor who allowed this locker-room bullying episode to be broadcast in the first place - has he/she been sacked yet? And how come the bumbling Mark Thompson allowed Lesley Douglas to walk the plank on his behalf? If 'drop from the top' is still the BBC culture, then he should have jumped. But that's stupid in every respect, even the Mail's.
Nobody now likes (or watches) Ross, a spent squib whose broadcasts are more and more tediously about himself, less and less about his guests (wouldn't know, haven't watched chatshows for years, not since Meg Ryan fabulously deconstructed the format against the corpse of Parkie ...)
Everyone hates Russell Brand.
Where did that video of Wossie and his smirky zomby come from? Must have been somewhere in the BEEB. Who videos Radio 2 programmes, FFSake??

Monday, 6 October 2008

The financial crisis

a) It's not financial, it's psychological. We're told by the media that the markets zig-zag up and down due to things called 'confidence', 'uncertainty' and sometimes 'panic'. Other nouns and adjectives are sometimes used, but not to labour the point, we are never, ever, given units of measurement. Aside from some commentator's opinion, how am I to tell whether these operands (confidence, panic, etc) have in fact risen or fallen over a significant period of time (confidinans? uncertainometers? panicons?), and what is the algorithm, precisely, which links these unmeasurable determinants to the value of my bank account and shareholdings and the price or availability of bread or cheese in the shop? Precisely, please, anyone who knows. Until anyone can quantify and define the logic of this stuff, I'm sticking with my theory, which is that the people whose decisions determine these outcomes - financial market traders - are in fact mad. In other words, they conduct their daily activities according to a pattern (behaviours determined by perceived information within an assumed framework of logic) which bears no relationship at all to the real world, such as you or me going down the shop to spend some money.
b) The mechanisms. No-one has commented on this yet. The liquidity crisis, i.e. the ability of banks to lend to each other to cover short-term positions, at LIBOR, is governed by the real time gross settlement (RTGS) system imposed by the Bank of England in the late 90s to protect against intraday bank failures like the Herstaddt case back in the seventies. In the UK (I assume similar set-ups exist elsewhere) each member of the inter-bank network (CHAPS) for wholesale payments has to demonstrate, per payment and within defined limits, that they have sufficient liquidity (cash or collateral) to cover that payment, right now. If not, the payment gets scheduled back and has to be resubmitted later.

I'm a long-retired ex-banker who hasn't kept up with this stuff at all; but it does cross my mind that an easy way for the BoE to kick-start the liquidity freeze would be simply to raise the RTGS threshold to infinity (minus one). That way, every interbank payment, for whatever reason, would be guaranteed, and the money would start to move around again.

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Mercury Music prize

I tipped Elbow months ago, long before they were even nominated! (Should have put something on.) I buy a lot of records, still, but this was one that really moved me in a seldom seen way. Congrats to them,and thanks to R&J for introducing me.
I'll watch out for next year's hot tip.

Thursday, 28 August 2008

The number you first thought of

I'm not sure which is worse - too many call centre options, or too few. In two recent cases, I was told to return something in the enclosed envelope, which of course was not enclosed. The organisations in question were HM Revenue and Customs, and my local Borough Council. So, I thought I'd phone up to get the address (the one at the top of the form is rarely advisable; most mail to most organisations has to be sent to some kind of centralised collection point, a kind of paper equivalent of a call centre or website designed to keep you as far away as possible from the person who actually knows the answer to your question - which in my case is 'what was printed on the front of the envelope you didn't send me?')

HRMC offer just three options, in one layer. The first two have to do with, respectively, queries about cut-off dates for tax returns, and queries about my tax code. The third is 'any other queries'. This should have warned me. I don't know about you, but I can, in theory (not in practice you understand, I'm not yet quite ready to explore this level of instant self-induced insanity), think of several thousand questions I might want to ask HMRC, over 90 per cent of which fall into the category 'any other queries'. Imagine the length of that queue!

Well, I did, for about thirteen minutes, whilst I was entreated to go to the website (which of course I had already tried), or to hold on because 'your call is important to us' or words to that effect, read out by a girl who had obviously been unlucky enough to be first in the office that Monday morning, after a rather good Sunday night. In the end, I sent the form (about how much tax I thought I'd paid last year, which presumably they already know given that they've got the money) to the address at the top of the form. God knows if they'll ever get it.

I'm tired now, so I'm not going to go into the details of my Borough Council's deeply layered equivalent (the numbers of options at each layer seem to follow some kind of perverse, slightly deviant Fibonacci sequence). By the time you get to the bottom of that kind of mine, you forget what you were digging for. In the end, I decided I didn't really want a resident's parking permit anyway.

Monday, 18 August 2008

Lot et Garonne

A Cezanne landscape, full of voluptuous curves, fields of sunflowers and corn and wildflower meadows and chateau surprises ... and raving kids, Katherine, Daniel, Tamu competing like insects for the tastiest flower or the wittiest words, who can push the boundary furthest? Hard work sometimes, joyful others.
The positives are full and obvious, so let me list the negatives: not enough pool (including volleyball, splash bombing, floating like sleeping ducks); totally inadequate excavation of the vinyl mine (how did we not get horizontal to Joe Walsh, nor dance to, well, anything really); no sing-songs at three a.m. ...
I'll put some pictures on here if I can work out how.

Tuesday, 29 July 2008

BP's profits

BP have just announced a huge increase in their profits over the last three months. According to today's BBC news report, they ascribe this to the rise in the 'wholesale' oil price, which is determined by 'market forces' that, by implication, they are unable to control or influence.
Hang on, BP. Leaving aside your disingenuous depiction of yourselves as hapless victims of this putative global or celestial invisible hand (you are in fact your own wholesale supplier, aren't you? otherwise what's all this Russian business about?) by your own analysis the maths don't add up. If your supplier puts up his price, you have two choices - either you pass this on to your consumer, resulting in unchanged profits, or you absorb it, resulting in decreased profits. There's no way that your profit can increase. Simple arithmetic.
I know that they will come up with a megaton of accountancy to explain how an increase in corporate profits is in no way related to a price increase to their ultimate customers (you and me): I say 'weasels'. They're ripping us off.

PS Sorry, did I say 'Ultimate'? That's BP's brand name for a new kind of slightly different petrol which was, a year ago, being marketed as saving me money at the pump. Really?

Thursday, 24 July 2008

Gordonsmouth

Sadly, not a fishing village on the Moray Firth, but an observation from our Leader's appearance at the Great British Bishops Protest March today (where were the fuzz, for G*d's sake?)

Seems he's had a facial expression makeover. That curious, oddly insecure sucking in of the lower lip whenever he needs to take breath has almost vanished (at least in the presence of Bishops), replaced by a faux-Churchillian jutting chin and firmly clamped jaws at the end of every sentence. Is this an image shift, or is he just getting ready for a fortnight in Southwold? Or a year on the stump?

Monday, 21 July 2008

Golf

Or Flog, as my mate Toni sometimes calls it.
I'm about to take it up again after a 3 year absence. First refresher lesson tomorrow, thanks Georgie. Meanwhile, to get my eye in, I watched about seven hours (over three days, c'mon) of the Open. So, from my expert perspective, a couple of insights:

What makes this game unique is that there is no 'level playing field'. Every course is different, which sets an infinite range of demands. Even within the same course, the difference between two blades of grass can make a difference, each of which calls in a slightly different skill set. Not to mention the wind. (Obviously, I'm not quite operating at this level just yet, this is theory, y'understand).

Luck comes into it too - but it's hard to slice the boundary between luck and skill. Harrington's second shot at the seventeenth on Sunday. The Beeb commentators were perplexed-what club's that? a fairway wood? what's he up to, should be playing safe at this point? then he hits it up onto the mound on the left, it pauses, making its mind up, then trickles down the hill to the green, hangs a left and brakes up about three feet from the hole ... Break down the skill/luck mix there for me please (if you haven't seen it, a) I'm sure you can Google it and b) you missed a great sporting finale - gawd, never thought I'd find myself writing that about Golf.)

Thursday, 10 July 2008

Jokes

These should be as nearly original, or at least unattributable, as possible. No overt filth please!

Here's a starter, wholly original to me I think, because I actually dreamt it, a few years ago:

Having had a minor invasion of mice, I bought a tin of rat poison, and read the instructions on the label. At the bottom, in small print, it said 'Rat Not Included.'

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

Printers

Dontcha just hate em?

My state of the art colour photo-quality Epson great big chunk of plastic refuses, under extreme duress, to print out a simple black and white email, on the grounds that it's run out of something called light cyan. The option of asking it to just use the black ink has apparently been withdrawn, or at least I can't find it in the murky depths of the menus.

Tomorrow, I'm off to PC World to find a disposable printer which only requires black ink, at let's say £5 a barrel ...

Monday, 7 July 2008

Intellectual vs Physical Property

I bought the much-vaunted new CD, Floating Point, by guitar hero John McLaughlin,so an instant revue - it's crap. Self-indulgent tuneless meanderings, with hyperactive percussion, and at all costs make your guitar sound like an electric piano or an alto sax or, well, anything but a guitar - doesn't he understand that if I want to hear Herbie Hancock or Wayne Shorter, I'll buy their records; what we want from guitarists is blasting unmistakeable guitar! Listen to your 1970s Mahavishvu stuff, John.

Anyway, end of rant. What triggered this post was a note on the (almost illegible) sleeve notes: 'This CD is the property of Mediastarz, Monaco and protected under International Copyright Laws'

No, sorry guys, this CD is the property of me. I gave HMV £12.99 for it - that gives me total rights and control over this chunk of variegated plastic. I think this also gives me the right to use it as I choose - scare birds, park my G&T on it, etc etc. Even listen to the music it contains ...

Which raises the real issue. If, as the undisputed owner of this object, I choose to allow other people to hear its content (not that I would, I like my friends), does this constitute breach of copyright? It's got to be 'no', hasn't it? I mean, someone happens to walk through the door while it's playing? I know that the rules have been written to allow for this kind of 'private' use of copyright material - but what if that person happens to walk through a virtual door 500 or 5,000 miles away, and happens to be accessing my iPhone (onto which I misguidedly downloaded this CD) at the time, and therefore happens to end up listening to whatever I am ...?

I've no idea whether that scenario is yet technologically possible (though if it isn't, it probably will be in about 45 minutes time); the point is that the idea that you can distinguish between 'intellectual property' and physical possession of the medium containing it is antiquated and doomed to destruction.

So, Mediastarz, come and collect your property, if you can find it, and if you dare.

Sunday, 6 July 2008

Our National Theatre

Last night I went with friends to the Cottesloe at the National Theatre on the South Bank, to see a delightful school competition-winning production, by my mate Pete, of a lovely little play called 'Peach Baby'. This isn't a review of the play, but of the venue.

What a squalid place! Finding the way in, from the stinking carpark through brutalist concrete walkways with virtually no signposting, was bad enough. Once we actually stumbled into the foyer of what should be #3 on the nation's list of theatrical pride (after the Olivier and the Lyttelton), it felt a bit like being back in the car park, plus a tacky overpriced pay bar and toilets which (I was told), made users nostalgic for the car park.

I saw a picture in the paper today of China's Grand National Theatre in Beijing, which has apparently been heavily criticised for its architecture. Obviously I haven't been there so can't directly compare (and the fact that its architect also did CdG airport in Paris doesn't entirely inspire confidence) - but nevertheless I can't help feeling I wouldn't mind doing a swap ...

London is currently, I'm told, the theatre capital of the world. Beijing is of course the current Olympic capital of the world. Compare and contrast in five years' time?

Thursday, 3 July 2008

Town Wardens in Worthing

You may have missed this one from BBC South Today, 6.30 today. A group of activists wandered around the town centre, taking photos of CCTV cameras to establish just how much of this stuff there was. A newly appointed (by the local council), bunch of thuggish looking blokes, called 'Town Wardens', set upon them, physically assaulted them and tried to confiscate their personal possessions (a megaphone, since you ask). A council official, subsequently interviewed, stated that this activity was because (I paraphrase), 'they have a right not to be photographed in public against their will'.

I'm not one to labour irony, so I'll cut to the more important chase - what exactly is a 'Town Warden', and what does he see as his powers, and by whom and under what auspices have these supposed powers been conferred? They looked just like urban vigilantes in threatening uniforms to me.

I don't live in Worthing (thank the Lord), but am nevertheless worried.