Friday, March 31, 2006

I am an Astronaut

Listening to Emperor Tomato Ketchup by Stereolab

I am determined to make a mark via this blog. I know it will probably never happen but I have come up with an idea in the situationist spirit of 30 years since some arbitrary milestone in the history of Punk Rock. I do feel that the use of the phrase situationist by the pioneer punks of the day was probably not as rigorous as it could have been though that is probably in the self-referential spirit of the whole thing anyway. Feel free to tell me if the following idea is situationist or naff or somewhere in between. You are right in thinking that I have not read exactly what Wikipedia says about Situationism.

I read a short prose piece by someone who detailed why he should not be allowed to have kids because he would subvert society through them, causing them mental anguish along the way. I think it was only half serious – very worrying if it wasn’t. A sort of de-energised version follows – like a vaccine is the thing you are trying to protect against without the deadly payload. For a long time I have fed my daughter various phrases to shout in the playground, not that she remembers to do so very often but I like to think of her marching up and down shouting “Sinister – Dexter” or even the one she thought up to use on her own during her Suffragette phase “Votes For Women!” My next meme will be – Clap – Clap – Grabowski. Clap - Clap as an action with “Grabowski” shouted afterwards – like a football chant. I will try and persuade her to get the other children to shout this at the same time. If just one of you convinces a child to pass this around, we could soon have a new craze. This is what Tim and Graham shouted when they were at the world chess championships in the Goodies Kitten Kong episode. Go on! You know we can do it. And maybe we will have a few more kids picking up guitars and learning three chords. I know three! I can see the positions – no idea what they are called. Let’s call them A, B and C. That’s the truth! OMG! “Three Chords and the Truth” is a country album. Now the question is do I look like the original scream or like macordly culllkin in the Home Alone posters?

We did have a phase at school where the standard response to anything – question – statement – strange shaped vegetables was “Ooooh! Sponge”. I thought it was my brother who started this but he cannot remember it at all. I have no idea where it came from – it might well be filthy in the extreme as the school’s registered keeper of “art” magazines seemed to be the focus for it. For this reason it will not be passed on for Junior School appreciation.

Souvenir by OMD was a great self-referential record for me. Less than a second into it and I can place myself back in the sunny late summer of 1981, walking through the woods with a girl called Julie – not sure how we heard music out in the woods but the link is there. The words to it are just abstract additions that may give some insight into the state of mind of the person who wrote them but only to himself. I always get frustrated by the fact that people speak different languages and the further you get from home, the less able you are to pick out the emotional content because of various inflections used to convey meaning – so many Chinese words are pronounced the same way but by using different timbres and cadences, the same word conveys many different meanings. However, music seems universal. Regardless of the changes in scale, the different tunings and keys, it always seems possible to pick out at least the very highest level of emotion from a piece. I seem to remember that this was some part of the explanation of how the Star Trek universal translator worked but I may be wrong. Anyway – if by the slightest chance – Julie is reading this (I was the guy with the Rubik’s cube fascination and the green shirt which looked so punk * – I brought you Rock back from holiday), please tell me if you still like Souvenir.

I suppose we liked Enola Gay as well but that’s about the plane which dropped the atomic bomb, never a suitable romantic song though I did once hear it used as backing for a programme about Japan’s economy. Give the producer of that show a toffee.

* It was actually my old scout shirt. I took the badges off – all except the one for self-piercing.
Who Wants to be Ruth Lawrence?

Now if you could go back and redo some things, how far would it have to be? A certain amount of nostalgia has been bouncing around in my head recently which inevitably leads on to one or two moments I would rather forget. Any desire for an ability to undo things is really a request to erase the memory of certain things rather than to go back and actually undo them. The complexity of life and physics actually means that expunging even the most trivial of red-face moments has the potential to completely change a life. I regret not spending more time reading classic books when I was a lot younger. All that time spent out playing in streams, crawling along tunnels or climbing trees could have used for improvement. I have memories lit by flashes of lightning where I sit in some sunny, sixties library, turning the huge pages of art books and making copies of the pictures I like. I wasn’t the sportiest child at that age anyway but I did “get out” and come home to the lectures about how filthy I was. (The detergent companies seem to have realised that these dressing-downs are the enemy of sales and have succeeded in making such terrible behaviour completely acceptable – and well done I say). What would I be now had I concentrated on books and stayed in? I’m not sure I would have become a high-flyer – that takes super-intelligence and focus as well – just a prig (good Arthur Ransome type word).

All this noodling is pointless really. I am talking about personal things. Stephen fry makes the same point on a much bigger scale in Making History but although I enjoyed this, looking back it seems to be too sweeping in its affects. I suppose that even a tiny personal change to one’s life has the potential to bring down governments. Reading about the turbulent history of Europe in The Devil’s Doctor with its running them of apocalyptic change, I was struck with how sane things have become since then. We are so far removed in outlook and behaviour from the fear of sudden death through either illness or recalcitrance, that the fact that we are descended from these decapitators and burners and separated by only 400 years is quite sobering. Then again some of the perpetrators of the most recent European evil-doings are still alive – still young and having children. I have rambled but the point I wanted to make was that we can often think that the end of the World is imminent and then it all goes right and things settle down. Conversely, maybe some tiny event that seems trivial at the time will bring us to planetary obliteration in a second. I am thinking of the unlikely creation of a black hole in the lab maybe.

Strangely I am reminded of the profile of Allan Ahlberg that was on the Culture Show last night. He and his wife produced a wonderful picture book called Peepo! which details the world through the eyes of a small child. It is a cosy world of happy confusion and cheeky sisters. A first reading has you thinking how wonderful it all is. However a careful examination of the pictures shows you that it is set in wartime - the gas-masks, the Spitfires over the houses, the barrage balloons in the distance. The baby’s father is in fatigues and I always thought he was off to Home Guard duty but Ahlberg said last night that he was off back to the army which makes it so much more poignant. The baby is of course Ahlberg himself. No matter that the worst war ever is going on – the comfort of real people and the ceaseless blurring of both embarrassments and apocalypses keeps us from complete break down.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Classical Scat

This section is pre-apologised!

Back in the swing of The Devil’s Doctor now. We are up to Paracelsus’ involvement with Luther, not that they met, but this requires a “Lutheranism for Beginners” section which has been quite an eye-opener. My limited views on the great Christian Schism have fallen into seeing Catholicism as the old-guard, rooted in mysticism and the origins of Christianity with Luther as a new broom, using his rationality and decency to sweep away the excesses of the papacy and the local clergy. All this has been reversed. Of course there were excesses – with two Popes at one point that is an excess of one Pope – much un-celibate and immoral behaviour, but Luther was a mad, unswerving zealot who as far as I can see has been responsible for the extreme concentration on faith rather than rational discussion that we still see as excuse for stifling debate. He said that men should not understand – they should only believe. In best Scaryduck fashion, I can also reveal that much of Luther’s theology was a result of constipation – lots of his writings give in great scatological detail, accounts of Satan’s use of his chamber, leaving a foul stench for days. He also says that many of his revelations came to him on the privy. I have to add that these details are only in a footnote in the book – though maybe they should be in a footstool note. It is strange to think that some of the worst conflicts and behaviour committed in the name of religion could have been avoided had Luther had a better diet, though as my wife says, if there was no religion, people would find something else to fight over.

Paracelsus himself had a much more pragmatic view of the scriptures and seems to have dismissed most organised religious worship as irrelevant saying that most people, religious or lay, had not understood what they were trying to say. All this sounds very “hello clouds! Hello sky”, like looking for God in the hedgerows and under stones, a sort of Eastern interpretation but that fits with his medical views as well. I am amazed that this book has so much detail though so much of it is background, details of the political and religious state of play (not that there was much separation between the two then – there was the Papacy and The Holy Roman Empire but they are just two sides to the same coin). I am getting view of rationalism in transition with Paracelsus as border guard albeit a mad one. I see him a bit like Tom Baker’s Doctor Who, strange and unpredictable in day-to-day things but rational and dependable when needed.

I don’t remember Paracelsus being in The Ascent Of Man which is now for sale at £31 on Amazon. They are waiting for me to bite. There is an episode on BBC4 next week as part of their 1973 season if you would like a taster. I have just seen that they are also showing The Green Death story from Doctor Who which is listed as being “the one with the maggots”. I remember this well, partly for the maggots but probably also because it was the first time I took notice of a Doctor’s assistant as anything other than the screaming sides-person. If only I’d known about the Dalek pictures. There was a long preview of 1973 week after A for Andromeda which seemed to make that year as cool as Life on Mars did.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Waving to Elizabeth

I may never get back on my bike again. I suppose I should try though the loose pedal will need some work if indeed the old thing has not fallen apart at the back of the garage. It is dry in there so it may be possible to retrieve it undamaged. I used to cycle to school during the summers I was in the sixth form. Our school was tiny compared to most institutions these days, still is though the middle school has been merged by filling in the wonderful quad it used to have to fit in computer rooms and new stuff I’ve never seen. As well as being small (<400 pupils), it was also out in the sticks and took people from an area with a diameter of 20+ miles though maybe it was a very long ellipse rather than a circle. I was only 5 miles from the school and could leave bang on 3:45. The buses didn’t leave for twenty minutes after that which meant that I could be sitting on the cable box by the Church when our bus actually arrived. This seemed to impress a number of the kids on the bus who would actually wave – physical exertion always being able to breed popularity more than any intellectual ability. There were even a few slightly romantic gestures which made my day, though I didn’t dare delve into the seriousness of any of these even though some of them were from girls; I lived for studying of course. All this seems the coolest thing on earth to me and yet looking back at the pictures we all seem lost in the mire of dated seventies fashions and haircuts without any of coolness attached to such things a Life On Mars. The coy waves from the bus may make me want to go back but some of the vicious sneers on the faces of some of my classmates remind me of a certain rural reality. For some strange reason, the foyer of this building had the smell of our school corridors and a lot of this came back to me in that instant.

And all the books I should have been reading then, a list that haunts me, things I will never get around to, just like I will probably never get back on that bike; all those science books instead of ‘On the Road’. We were not cool, just sad and mired in trying to look cool. Even some of the ‘cool’ kids look strange, with pinched faces and sneers of dislike for everything. Or is that just normal attitude for teenagers? And yet so many of them I liked. I would love to speak to them again. There was strange magic in some of them. I was an outsider, born in town and brought up in town. Some of the kids came from families that had been in the same houses for generations and despite their liking for punk or Prog-Rock or Electronica, could tell you of things not far removed from witch bottles and fertility curses. I imagine the girls and their apple peel thrown over their shoulder, looking for the initial of some boy they liked, or scattering flour in the fire to make faces of future boyfriends. Maybe all this is just colouring and it never came to me when I moved back to town, but I told someone in a pub once where I came from and they evoked an image of deep magic and magnetic things drawing back leavers to the village. It gets me sometimes, even just seeing the hills; bringing on some desire to just lie down in the bushes, looking up at the empty sky, blue or grey, to just live on what the place provides. Winter would bring me out if this, grey water all around, getting in everywhere; wetting the floors and making the house seem cold and empty with even the high-banked fire failing to lift the darkness.

Witches and whiskey they were; Fairies and coy smiles, born of the Celts who made the fort on the hill. I bet you could trace through from the bones the students used to dig up all the way through to some of those kids, lost in that valley for years. And now we are scattered save for a few grown up to farm or inherit those old houses that just avoid the shadow of Ragged Stone Hill.

I’ll never get back on that bike.
The Mutual Dorsal Itch Removal Operatives

She hates this song you know. Oh sorry! Dizzy by Throwing Muses

It is apparently “Untrue”.

I have noticed that I am listening to whole albums at the moment after having been pointed at them by unexpected tracks coming up on the shuffle. I am sure that I have not heard 20% of the tracks on this PC even once. I just want to dance.

Was that Richard Dawkins daughter on University Challenge last night? She certainly looked like him and she is about the right age. Pity that St Hildas bombed against Manchester who didn’t even do the gentlemanly thing and let the women get a few in at the end. And so we switched over before the end in good time for A for Andromeda. This had a great claustrophobic atmosphere and despite it being based on an original by Fred Hoyle of the Steady State Theory (which always makes me worry pompously about his scientific credentials), was quite believable in terms of how the remote signal could be turned into a live, walking, talking human being. There was some fast editing which made it slightly disjointed – you cannot build a computer like that without contracting out – and a few points after the arrival of Andromeda herself which seemed a bit far-fetched. But hey – it was a drama, the acting was good, the sets were less gee-whizz than they could have been and the pace was almost right.

Maybe it tried to introduce a few ideas regarding the philosophy of the whole thing which were not developed as they should have been but we are not all scientists or thinkers. Anyway, Arthur C. Clarke did it better with the Conversations with Starglider in The Fountains of Paradise, though Andromeda did raise the question of why an alien intelligence would try to give us all this knowledge for free. (You can actually find the entire text of the conversations here.) Actually no! Starglider withheld knowledge that it considered damaging to humankind. I suppose the question is whether aliens who have developed technology to allow them to communicate or travel over the vast distances that must exist between any civilizations would also have developed the intelligence to totally rid themselves of the petty and limiting behaviour that makes intelligent entities think that behaviour that promotes the existence of the individual over the collective whole is better. Maths, logic, chaos theory applied to societies comes down on the side of long-term altruistic behaviour being better for survival. I really need to re-read The Selfish gene though who says Dawkins is right, not that he says things are in any way as simple as I have maybe suggested they are. Having said this, what if an alien society was so different that things we would find totally unacceptable, were the main trunk of survival?

I am now angry all over again about that teacher from The Learning Curve the other week, the upholder of traditional teaching methods over the holistic approach who complained about a discussion which resulted in the existence of aliens being raised in a project about space. This is a perfectly legitimate part of discussion which would fire any great scientists. We are all held back by the tank-tops who seem to have inherited the institutions which decide on how we are to be taught. We all start out cleverer than our teachers and they know it. The tragedy is that they succeed in beating this out of us.

Not literally in my case – I was once slippered for throwing curry powder, though the punishment was the humiliation rather than any pain inflicted.

Monday, March 27, 2006


Before you write I can be more bothered to write this sentence than I can to go and get the correct character to end the word Bronte. Not that anyone does anyway.

I had to go out to the car just now and all around were the sounds of birds, crows cawing absently, larks over the wall making very spring-like sounds and just the contrapuntal web of various other sounds. I like thinking about the wildlife; they have nothing to worry about because they do not know their own mortality. Survival is just an instinct and there is nothing outside the text of their lives. Anyway – very relaxing when all about is SQL and frames etc.

Trying to work out if some remastering and some extra noodling is enough justification to buy the new release of My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts. This is one of my favourite albums, probably one of the first really weird things I bought on recommendation of the cool people I started working with all those years ago. The vocal samples seem to have burned into my head over time. The one phrase “America is waiting for a message of some sort” doesn’t come from my memory; someone speaks it in to my ear.

I finally got up into attic yesterday, ostensibly to retrieve various BBC videos for my wife, more of which later. I did find an ‘extra’ photo album which along with some pictures of me in a Gallini T-shirt looking about 12, has many of my fellow students and co-workers from my placement with Bristol and West. I was going to scan them in last night to see if anyone recognised themselves. There is a picture of Gareth who I have been trying to locate for some time. I am shamed that I don’t remember his surname but he did divinity at Ox. Or Cam. and started me on Godel, Escher, Bach. Maybe pictures will be up tomorrow but with A for Andromeda on tonight that may not be possible. Anyway, back to the videos. These were the Bronte/Austen things from the early 80s. We started Jane Eyre yesterday and I had to bite my hands to get through the early excuse for child abuse perpetrated by Mr. Brocklehusrt, the nasty pastor who had the young Jane in the fiery pits of hell. We have reached the bit where she first meets Mr. Rochester who personifies the brute in black, the boot in the face. He thinks she is a fairy of some sort because he suspects she charmed his horse out from under him. I cannot tell through the over-acting, whether this is gentle teasing or a genuine belief in the little people. The long scene where Mr Rochester talks to Jane after arriving back at the house where she is Governess to his love child by a feckless French opera singer seems to be no more than Charlotte Bronte carrying out psycho-analysis on herself through the two main characters. Unfortunately it has veered in car-crash territory which means I will have to finish it now despite the hamming by Timothy Dalton. Why did I ever think he was a good James Bond?

Friday, March 24, 2006

It’s an Earth-Rod Earth-Rod, Earth-Rod

Listening to the sounds of the LEO Computers.

I finished A Computer Called LEO yesterday and was happy to see some links other than my old lecturer being involved. LEO computers was formed as a division of Lyons (of the tea-shops and ice-cream) but was eventually merged with the computer division of English Electric which happened to be part of Marconi. They later merged with other manufacturers under the supervision of the Government and the LEO staff became absorbed and subordinate to those from the other companies. The company became ICL which no longer exists with that name having turned into Fujitsu Services. I worked for Marconi though their business had moved on from mainframe computers by the time I got to them – actually they got to me because without moving desks I worked for – Deep Breath – Plessey, GEC-Plessey Telecommunications (GPT) and then Marconi. That great company no longer exists in this country, being split up into two parts one of which is called Telent and the other part which has become part of Ericsson. Not that it matters because I no longer work for either of them. There is another link which has to remain secret for the moment though it does involve the possibility that some of the people I work with actually saw a LEO machine.

The sad part is that like the whole Betamax/VHS thing, the LEO computers were better than those of the other manufacturers and yet did not become the market leaders. In addition the staff had a policy of higher integration with the client companies – a culture of consultancy and investigation rather than ship-it-out-and-forget-it. The sound-bite from the book would be that the management structure at LEO computers was task-based rather than role-based; there was a concentration on getting things done rather than getting things done by specific people. I am sure that management consultants would question the efficiency of this but left to themselves, this is what happens anyway.

It looks like we may go through the same issue with Blue-Ray/HD-DVD.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Oh Michael! Michael

A Ruddy Frame! That’s what!

My daughter requested Bolero as her bedtime music the other day so I made her a mix CD which has now got her into Brian Eno and Pooka along with The Balanescu Quartet’s version of Computer Love which she now keeps requesting because “it is violins and I want to play the violin”. I can’t wait!

I had a dream within a dream today. I first dreamed of a strange, underground cavern, lit in yellow, seemingly made of creamy wet rock which turned out to be bone dry. Turning a corner, I found myself facing a cafeteria integrated into the walls of the cave, empty but lit the same way. I don’t remember anything else, either pre or post but I do recall trying to describe this dream probably because I want to blog it. The question now is am I still in the dream trying to describe me describing the dream. Chuang Tzu has nothing on me.

For some reason, I was thinking about this on the way here this morning and the string of thought got me thinking about A Canterbury Tale while I overtook yet another wagon emblazoned with clichés both visual and verbal. It was for this food company and had the standard cheffy picture of our white-suited-and-hatted hero, holding up a plump pepper with one hand and gesturing to it meaningfully with the other. There he is on the website. I can only imagine that he is making some obscene comment about the comestible in question. The slogan of “Bringing Food To Life” is also meaningless in the extreme. I suppose they may be a very good company; many are. It’s just that the advertising that goes with everything these days seems to be at a low point. I wonder if the companies simply throw their marketing and advertising out to someone else and never bother about it. Private Eye has a regular list of “solutions”, a set of tag lines for companies where the “S” word has simply been inserted into a complex way of describing the company product. “Domestic Waste Management Solutions” for rubbish collection etc.

I seem to have got off the point. Contrast this empty mess of marketing with the gentle visit to the carpenter/wheelwright in A Canterbury Tale. I possibly thought of this because of the bucolic reverie that results from listening to Cider With Rosie. It is of course a pipe dream, to think of going back to those less-complex days and of course there is always what I call “The Rickets factor”. We have things a lot better these days in terms of our welfare. It is just that I suspect our mental welfare suffers because of this complexity. Downsizing has always looked attractive but is of course impractical. I actually grew up in a rural area though my urban origins were obvious to the locals, and winter was hard. In fact a lot of the time was boring despite my rosy view of it from this distance.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

That’s a Load of Hyperbolics

“Just put your feet down child, ‘cos you’re all grown up now.”

I am lost in Frames at the moment. I hate HTML frames and I apologise if you like them. Dot net knows nothing of frames and using them seems perverse. I have no option unfortunately.

I had a brainstorm this morning which for a moment convinced me that I could build my own rudimentary computer from egg boxes and the bits that Maplin throw out. When I had calmed down, I remembered the first computer I ever built. It was at school when we were taught how to use index cards with holes and slots as some sort of collation device. They were suspended inside a cornflake packet by knitting needles, each of which corresponded to a specific hole on the cards. Cards with slots conformed to the data that the corresponding hole described so they would let those cards fall when a trapdoor beneath them was opened. I extended this so that it could be used as a calculator to multiply 2 numbers (unless it was a square when ten cards would fall). I was really proud of that. I seem to have gone from then when everything was understandable to now when I know that even the most complex programming I do simply skims the surface of a collection of many technologies. As I said yesterday, I would love to be able to trace back from the high-level language statements I write every day, all the way down to the bits and bytes at the lowest levels. Let’s face it – there isn’t much to what happens - it’s just that there is a lot of it. Sorry! I said that yesterday as well.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Merr Christma Everybod

(sic again)

I found a set of unabridged tapes of Laurie Lee reading Cider with Rosie and As I Walked out One Midsummer Morning. It was in Help the Aged and was signed so I bought it to listen to in the car. I was worried that the author would not have the best voice for this but as befits the poetry of the book, his reading is shot through with feeling for the places and events he talks about. The box is signed by the way.
My dad tells me that he once heard Henry Williamson reading from Tarka the Otter and that he just didn’t have the voice for it, doing the whole thing in an indistinct monotone. I suppose that some of this could be down to nervousness; I am sure I would be the same. Anyway what do you expect of one of Mosley’s cronies? TS Eliot is only slightly better. My wife hates my impression of him reading Prufrock. You can hear it here yourself – TS Eliot, not me. There is an advert at the start so keep listening. Compare and contrast with Sylvia Plath who has the same intonation as Eliot though when just speaking she sounds uncannily like Loyd Grossman.

A poem from some time ago because I can’t write anything good at the moment.

This Numb Age

A Milestone,
a lichened,off-skew post,
flashed by me like a shadow,
not with direction,
just telling me
how far I’d come.

All those Bacchanalian girls,
called me from the screens,
or sirens, bell-like singers
waving, blank but happy
as the sun-set,
intellect evaporated
and my mind became
the gunk that made it,
dragged it from the sea
to make it think.

Here’s Scarlet,
a bleach-bombed
set-square for the
middle-aged and bored,
the blank and breathless
family man.

I am in the galleries
of twenty years ago,
made mad by boredom
and stupidity,
a blank (because it works),
black, aged critic,
dried-up and cynical
(because it always works.)

I would re-think,
push a lever here
to free the sluggish
thoughts of this, my
treacle mind,
and fly back,
to those days of heatwave,
where we sledged in summer,
over the hill like Marie
into the forest and the snow.
And Scarlet turns, Lithuanian,
a memory of Europe in her face,
to kiss the screen to grey.

I will filter all these words,
take them through the bushes
to the bottle-dumps
we found as children,
the festooned, secret places
where we lost money
and dowsed for water-pipes
amongst the rocks and trees.

And every line
wants to start the same way,
the world, the earth is mine,
spinning on my fingers,
every woman mine,
and every friend an equal,
in these underpasses,
the links to hospitals
and those we want to hide.

I photographed the clouds
with red and polarising filters,
made them darker,
as deep white against the sky
as any of my demons.
And Marie cried, across the road
from me, a cousin in those books,
the chief mind of New Jersey,
a princess long thrown
across the ocean,
a ballista bolt re-entered
in this gutted city.

And in her Latin,
I deciphered odd words,
felt the numbers
she discussed, as flowers
falling through the scented air
to me as message
and seduction.

This numb age,
makes me real.
This array of visions
is no more than shadows
on the wall
to prove the life outside
the cave is safety.
I pour water on the fire
and hear it
hissing into darkness.
I’d rather Have That Much Mars

A Computer Called Leo
is a wonderful book, full of background but not skimping on the detail of very early computers. The memory on the first British computers was in the form of a 5 foot long tube of mercury which was fed with a series of pulses representing the bytes to be stored. These pulses in the form of sound, took a defined length of time to pass down the entire tube and could then be fed back in to the start. In the EDSAC computer, these tubes gave it the equivalent of 2 KB which for those of us who first cut our teeth on the ZX81 seems quite generous. (Actually, that is not true. My first computer program was written out on coding sheets and typed in by nice people at the council offices. We received a print out of the results and a nice roll of paper tape with the code on it. I did have that first roll for ages but it seems to have gone missing). The tubes were originally used to filter out stationary objects in radar returns. If you take an incoming radar signal, delay it by a short time, feed it back into it’s own input, you can work out what part of the signal was there in the previous cycle and take it out. This removes things like trees, hills and large assemblages of nougat, leaving only moving stuff like falling whales and Messerschmitts. Of my two most intrepid aunts, the one who was in the WRAF and looked after teams of Radar operators and battle-plotters, actually worked with the guys who invented the mercury delay tubes. I never really asked her about her history but various things have come together. Freddie Williams who was instrumental in building the tubes for use in radar, worked at the Telecommunications Research Establishment in Malvern (where I come from) which possibly explains why my aunt came to be in Malvern as well. She also talked a lot about the Manchester computer experiments which by any definition were the first stored-program computers. The British obsession with secrecy probably gave the original award for this to the Americans. Both the radar stuff and the Colossus computers at Bletchley Park were lost in the OSA and indeed in the case of colossus, destroyed along with all their design notes. The last two Colossus machines were kept at GCHQ and were finally destroyed in the 60s. Interestingly, Public Key Encryption was invented at GCHQ years before Diffie-Hellman but was kept secret.

For some time now I have tried to follow some sort of basic course about the hardware of computers but never get the time. The fantastic thing about the first machines is that it is actually possible for one person to understand the whole thing. It’s a bit like a fractal; you might not be able to handle all or even more than a few of the numbers but the process by which the results are produced is simple enough to code in one page. The architecture of a basic computer is quite simple; it just brings together lots of simple parts to make a whole which can handle complex operations.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Stretch a Frog Today

Today’s entry is dedicated to all those who weren’t at the Manchester Free Trade Hall and are quite happy to admit it. They were all too busy at home practising herpetology.

Listening to Meds by Placebo

Some voice in my head told me to but this. Not sure why.

Empty days these days! Maybe it’s the music up there but something seems strange. It’s growing on me anyway, in a sort of resigned manner, regretful of what I’ve not done over the years. There is a lot I haven’t done which I should have.

I seem to oscillate over the edge of a boundary between the dark stuff that makes such albums as Meds and the light and sunny plains that make up the suburbs that I live in most of the time. The places most people live are just the local bits of a giant map of low buildings and rushing traffic. Sometimes we get those steamy days where the sun drives us all into shade and sometimes we get days of grey skies and rain. But mostly we get ‘no-weather’ days when commerce and education and leisure create an infra-sonic hum of activity that is all we can find to define our reasons for being here. Think about the effort humans have put into organising themselves to create these grids of roads and pipes and wires with all their pulsing layers of information, rushing from brain to brain via the bright and shiny conduits. What is it all for? At the blackest worst, we have no reason for being here beyond the accidents of evolution that have turned a few complex molecules into the machines that we are. If you want a positive spin on it then we are just here to dance and sing. Any more than that I cannot offer? We are not like Owen Meany (and if you do not know this book do not expect any further explanation from me) though maybe the conclusion offers some hope that we do have a purpose. The detail of the physics of our existence offers us no explanation, only diversion. Maybe one day, someone will link our machine bodies to our soul minds and in that link we will have all the spirit we will ever need. I have mentioned before that I think we may just keep understanding the complexities of both brain physics and the operation of the mind to an increasingly deep level, but that we will simply find that the complexities of both will simply retreat away into the distance, a fractal never quite ending and linking, an exponential tendency towards a zero we never get to. Maybe tending towards a Zeno we never get to.

I once bought a book of satire from the school book club. I was far too young for it though some of it was quite good. I haven’t seen it for years and wonder if it still exists somewhere under the old suitcases at my parents house, next to the ZX81 that my dad just found again. The book had many cartoons and one of them was an official looking man behind a desk talking to a cowed sub-ordinate. His speech bubble was full of elaborate copper-plate writing that was always just beyond comprehension. However, the speech bubble was in the shape of word ‘no’. Maybe not quite Newspeak I suppose but maybe a bastard son. It was the seventies when I bought the book and most of the content which I can recall seems to suggest that it was written in the sixties. It did have Little Boxes which was sung by Pete Seeger in 1962. The only other bit I can remember in any detail is the correspondence between someone pestered by computer-generated letter. The only bit I can remember is that the cards from the computer had "do not spindle or mutilate" written on them. What has just come back to me with some horror is that I read out one of these diatribes against the conventional in a school assembly some years later. I can’t actually remember which one it was but it was something designed to tease the staff. It is I suppose a plus for the teachers in that they did not veto this. Which sort of stuffs ‘Porla’, our resident punkette who took delight in pointing out my conventionality whenever she could. Where is she now? She only baited the staff with coloured hair and concealed safety pins. I won't say where she concealed them. Well Ok then! They were in her locker!

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Idel Beggars

(Sic there and throughout – what was the date yesterday?)

The chances of anything coming from Mars! What are the chances of that happening?

Steve Bell has surpassed himself though it seems such a simple comparison. I must dig out my copy. I find myself thinking of nineteen-eighty-four more and more these days. With reference to the assertion that to grow up you have to stop reading Private Eye I sometimes feel very childish because of these comparisons of Orwell’s books with the continual chipping away at common sense and decency that seems to be all around these days. I feel like a conspiracy theorist though I comfort myself with the view that most things that come into this category are the product of incompetence and lack of will rather than any concerted effort to get one over on the people. I suspect that this is more comforting than it first appears simply because incompetence in one thing generally leads to incompetence in covering it up. I see stock phrases and standard ripostes everywhere.

While not a fan of excessive development in the countryside, I was interested to see the response of planning officials to the request by Jimmy (of Jimmy’s Farm) for an expansion of his buildings. It seemed as if the officials had picked up a particular point in Government guidance and simply applied it in the way that suited them best. I realise that I only saw a snippet of the letter but they said that Jimmy’s plan “.. flies on (sic) the face .. “ of this guidance. Without further comment on the incorrect word in the phrase, surely the phrase itself is just too emotive to use in what should be a measured response. I can also not comment further on the rightness of the decision in full, but it seems that although we sometimes appear to be struggling in the face of an attitude which breeds mediocrity, we also find that many people simply do not know how they should behave in public dealings. I don’t just mean the rudeness apparently more evident in society according to Lynn Truss in “Talk to the Hand”, but a general willingness to do things which, although not illegal are certainly unethical. How many true socialists in the Labour Party (if there actually are any save for the likes of Peter Kilfoyle and Dennis Skinner) are horrified that so many members of this cabinet, (who campaigned against sleaze) are carrying out deals either personally or for the party, that would have seemed unacceptable in a libertarian Conservative government? It is just not the way to behave. Maybe we have always had our petty upholders of minor statutes, but sometimes I long for some pre-that’s-life-jobsworth-award consistency and simplicity from all levels of officialdom.

Do you sometimes think that all these BBC programmes that seem to concentrate of bad behaviour in society are part of a general Government information programme? Miscreant motorists, those in debt, drunks – they all seem to be designed to either shame us or to make us feel better that we don’t do such things. I liked A Life of Grime I suppose, though maybe that was because John Peel narrated it, but it still was a this-is-what’ll-happen-to-you piece of propaganda. It could have nothing to do with the Government; possibly the non-existent BBC governors just think that this is the way we should behave and the Government wants us all to be unthinking chavs. Aha! That’s it.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

I Feel That That Would Be Time-and-a-half!

Listening to :- Guess!

How many thoughts do you have in your head which you associate with various places? I am thinking specifically of bits of music which, when heard or thought about, always bring to mind a specific place, or person. I heard many pieces of music on the radio of the bus taking us to and from school. So much of the music between 1976 and 1982 brings to mind detailed pictures of the rural landscape out of the windows. These fields to be exact.

Don’t you want me? Brings to mind a curve of the road alongside the football pitch near Welland Court. Antmusic always means the roundabout by the bridge at Upton-Upon-Severn while Starship Trooper was first heard at the stop by Shelley Cheshire’s house. All this from Wogan as his show was all the bus driver would listen to. We were desperate for a switch to Radio 1 though I am sure that Terry once played something by XTC. I am probably thinking that Radio 2 was more MOR than it actually was. It was certainly more MOR than the bus driver who took delight in scraping the vehicle along the hedges as we went. Any open windows would catch whole branches which filled the bus with twigs.

I can remember when I first made prefect. I was never the most forceful teenager, not one to be respected but the waves of younger children waiting at the stop outside school parted to let us on the bus so we could make our dignified way to the back seats untroubled by the mad scramble. I suppose we should have been overseeing this enbussing madness but no one ever died. I also suspect that we were subject to waves of unseen of Harvey Smiths which then took precedence over the swivel gesture which would be used today. There is also a poem here, about the final walk home which you may be able to decipher.

The book on Failure is currently describing the American National Spelling Bee which I have always hated because of the whole personal what-if-I-get-it-wrong? thing. It also fails in its purpose by ignoring the meaning of the difficult words, simply being a test of memory, which seems like Newspeak at its worst. It seems that each stage of the Bee from school finals upwards is prefaced with the statement that no matter what the outcome is, everyone who takes part is a winner. The author makes the same point and of course you realise that the whole thing results in only one winner. Every other participant has lost, some with stoic grace and some with tears of Alice proportions. It strikes me as a signpost towards how education is going to be taught in future. And now we have them over here. I suppose as traumas go, being knocked out of a spelling bee is not towards the top of the list but it might send someone over the edge.

In some way connected to this, The Learning Curve on Radio 4 yesterday, discussed the concept of Opening Minds, where pupils are not taught specific subjects but given wider-ranging topics which then bring in elements of other disciplines. It chimes with my view that children should be taught how to learn rather than taught specific things. Two points were picked up by the opponent of such an approach. In the introductory piece, one pupil mentioned that sometimes the teachers learn something from the pupils; in fact she mentioned only one specific example. In another section, one of the teachers discussed planets, solar systems and galaxies with a child and then went on to suggest something about aliens. The traditionalist (well proponent of the current way of doing things), said that it would not be useful for children to be forever correcting teachers and that he thought the aliens suggestion gave an impression of ‘cartoon science’. I bet any good teacher would love the idea of learning stuff they didn’t know. I also know that many serious space scientists spend much time investigating the existence of aliens. There is even that famous equation from Frank Drake that gives an estimate of the number of civilizations actually out there: very serious stuff.
The Fabulous Crocodile Twins

… as Mrs. Malaprop should have known.

Listening to Jim and John by Ed and Lonnie Young – it’s older than my dad.

John Hegley has a poem which goes as follows :-


a poem about the town of my upbringing and the conflict between my working-class origins and the middle-class status conferred upon me by a university education.

I remember Luton
As I'm swallowing my crout'n

This always cracks me up but hearing it has reminded me of my own bathetic moment of class distinction from college days. We were required to hand in small reports at regular intervals that detailed our progress in group projects we were working on. One of these was returned to us after being passed around various members of the department. It was rather scruffy and above the title was a nasty, greeny-yellow smudge which might have been mistaken for something really horrible had it not been ringed with a scribbled note which read “Dr. Waters’ Avocado”. Not that we laughed at the time; this was in the days when students lived on baked beans in damp garrets and an avocado was something exotic, only found at Waitrose and those posh shops in Clifton. It was almost as if Dr. Waters was rubbing it in.

However, we must realise that Dr. Waters was the archetypal ascent from working class boy to academic-done-good. He had started in the IT department for Lyons Tea Shops and while lecturing us was still working as a consultant around the country if not the world. I bet you didn’t know that Lyons Tea Shops, the home of the Nippy, was at the vanguard of the use of commercial computers in this country. Well Sam Waters was in at the beginning, a cockney boy, I imagine in the mould of the school-leaver going straight into high-flying commerce. I have just seen that this book about the whole subject is available. I have also seen that a copy is available at the local library – I love the whole webby thing and this is one of the things what started it all. Gov!

I wouldn’t actually have put Dr. Waters down as an avocado man myself. Maybe it was some more noxious substance and they were just covering up the dastardly deed. Maybe we have been contaminated by some radioactive sludge that just happens to be greeny-yellow. He did have a wonderful line in stock phrases one of which was “It blew there socks off”. For the last lecture of the term, we arranged to bring in a spare pair of socks which we would throw at him when he said it. Maybe he had been tipped off but he did not use the phrase, which meant that one of us had to stand up and say “Thank you for a great lecture Dr. Waters. It really blew our socks off.” Cue barrage of Inter-lecture-room- ballistic-sockage. I would assume he has retired now. Maybe he is in the book. I was of course another 15 years before I managed to eat an avocado. Now I can’t get enough of them. There is of course another name to add to my list of good names for groups – Dr. Waters’ Avocado – though it might be better as the title of a Radio 4 afternoon play. Adrian Mole would love it.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Are You Extracting The Extract?

This is just wrong!

They want to muck about with everything these days.

And why do we need to replace Trident? It’s not as if we’ve ever used it. Or even Polaris for that matter. Oh! I see! That’s the point.

I was depressed by Fantabulosa! yesterday. I have read Kenneth Williams’ diaries and while they do contain some dark stuff, they were not as bleak as this excuse for some terrible sixties décor. This made me think about public and private views of famous people. Sylvia Plath’s mother was so upset by the stuff in her daughter’s writing that she released a whole book of mostly chatty letters between them specifically to dispel the darker view. Maybe not that chatty. Fantabulosa was certainly depressing to anyone without knowledge of the ending. I was in my ‘American Psycho’ mode – just watching to make sure the end was what I knew it should be – and I was continually thinking “What’s the bloody point?” It was a relief to get that over and done with. A waste of an evening, though the impression of Williams by Michael Sheen was spot on.
Listening to Karmacoma by Massive Attack

There are not many things that still get me really excited. Sometimes I might seem to be awed of my VB/Midi experiments but it is a momentary pleasure that evaporates when something is complete. I obviously used to get fired up about Christmas approaching but as my wife has pointed out, that is now just a remnant more along the lines of a welcome holiday in the dark part of the year rather than a small child’s excitement at the lights and presents. I once may have widened my eyes at Beatrice Dalle; had I lived in a large enough room I might even have been prompted to stick up that poster of 37 degrees le matin (though at the time I should have been concentrating on my single degree in four years). Now, despite Ms Dalle being only a few months younger than me, she seems like all the other forever-young actresses – a sort of forbidden and slightly shady icon for a (early) middle aged man.

However, waking up between Saturday and Sunday and hearing the snow against the window and realising that the room was lighter than it should normally be was enough to make me seven years old again. A good snowfall is the one thing that has not faded over the years. Of course it never lasts – we just get one good fall and then it turns to cold, wet mush in a day or two and that is a come-down of the highest order – far beyond the feeling a couple of days after Christmas when you realise it is time to return to work/School/Jail. I am cynical.

I am currently diverted from my heavyweight reading – The Devil's Doctor: Paracelsus and the World of Renaissance Magic and Science - by a book I found at the library called Utter Failure which should actually be monikered something along the lines of getting things into perspective. This is both interesting and funny. There is one whole chapter about the attempts on Everest which peaks (pun intended) with the successful attempt by Hillary and Tenzing. I am not sure if the Author’s brief dismissal of the current state of Britain as a land of skinheads, football hooligans and strip mines, is meant to be irony. Our own stereotype of Americans without an understanding of irony may be getting the better of me. There is also some reference to the British habit of installing puppet regimes which seems a bit much in light of recent events. However, the book was written in the early nineties which also explains and excuses the Author’s uncertainty about the future of such things as video phones etc. I should mention the Author’s name as he is a columnist for The Chicago Sun-Times and he is Neil Steinberg. It is a nice bit of synchronicity with the first article being about the kneecapping of science in the US. Can you believe that the FDA would really not approve a vaccine again the viruses which cause cervical cancer? The thought that a working AIDS vaccine may also be denied FDA approval is a horror too awful to imagine. You can write to the author if you like, maybe to undo the impression of us British as a bunch of buck-toothed, madmen descending either into unintelligent couch-potatodom or misguided reminiscence about our red-coated, empire-building past. I was fired enough to do just that last night after the hooligan paragraph but as usual my slacker past gets the better of me. Please don’t pretend to be a hooligan. I will hate you forever and come round and beat you up – unless of course you support Tranmere. Actually this should be Marine – must stick up for the local team.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Snow And Pianos

More snow than I have seen for twenty years here yesterday! It even drifted which made for a great walk early yesterday morning. Snow Angels were made by eldest and lots of it was eaten by youngest who is yet to show symptoms of any bead reaction. It was still snowing and blowing when we went out but within an hour of lunchtime it was losing its sharp edge and by the evening was just ice in a cold wind. There is still a lot of it on the ground but it’s no use for anything other than malicious ice-balls which are not encouraged in this household. Nice to be able to use the Beach/Snow setting on the camera though!

All this and the completion of at least one musical program, meaning I was able to get a version of Piano Phase working. Unfortunately, because Piano Phase requires an accurate phasing between two Midi channels, it has to have a continuous loop running to check the accuracy of the time – the difference between the lengths of each note is 0.005 of a second which requires deep interrogation of the PC clock. Unfortunately this means a 100% CPU utilisation (unless you have two processors). I am trying to work out how to reduce this. For normal timing, the 55ms resolution of the clock is fine. In addition to this, I have finally read up on how to use Windows API calls to access the MIDI channels correctly rather than having to rely on the MIDI control I downloaded. This means that I can produce an executable without having to rely on the installation of the control. I am a little miffed that the amount of code to do this was about one line for each function; the only advantage to the control was to avoid all that tedious mucking about in hyperspace – er .. sorry .. in hex. Unfortunately I only have the first part of the score to Piano Phase which is a 12-note bar. When this has been phased, a new 8 -note melody is substituted and then a final one, the length of which is unclear. Bearing in mind that this gives a maximum of 26 notes in the three bars, it seems a bit much to pay for the score. At least I have more of a chance with Six Pianos which I have bought. May post the Piano Phase executable but it will take everything you’ve got.

We finally got around to the final two episodes of To Serve Them All My Days which seemed to gloss over the complexities of the conclusion of the book, in a way that was a little disappointing. It was possible that Andrew Davies wanted more episodes to wrap it up and was turned down by the BBC because of the unknown appeal of such a thing. It was missing a certain sense of completeness that the book has, despite that ending in the middle of the Second World War.

The Mark Steel lecture on Descartes was very good.

Friday, March 10, 2006

TickCount! I Said TickCount!

Today’s entry contains revelations which you will either find charming or that will explain everything.

My wife has started taping Monk from afternoon TV. This detective show (replacing the dire Murder She wrote and the occasionally charming Diagnosis Murder) focuses on a detective with Obsessive Compulsive behaviour which of course makes him an excellent detective. Unfortunately for me, I can detect the reason for most of his hang-ups long before they are made obvious which makes we worry about me. Yesterday’s episode involved Monk’s Boss, the obligatory gruff sergeant (who in days gone by would always have given his star underling 24 hours to get a result) having to stay in the regimentally arranged flat that was the result of many hours of late-night cleaning. At one point, the sergeant was prompted by guilt over Monk being up until 3am cleaning, to vacuum the floor. After completion, Monk had to vacuum again because the lines of the vacuum wheels were not parallel with the walls. This was obvious to me.

There is a reason why this is obvious. This office has just been rewired which involved all the floor panels being lifted (a job I used to have to do many years ago – there is something relaxing about having your head down a hole in the floor surrounded by wires and various beeping and flashing boxes). The carpet tiles have not been replaced in their original positions and means that all the permanent grooves left by years of trolleys have been moved and do not line up. I am afraid that this really bugs me. I mean REALLY BUGS ME. In bad moments I have contemplated coming in very early to put them all straight.

Another of Monk’s kinks was revealed when his boss set the alarm for 7:53. Monk suggested that 8:00 was ‘a nice round number’. When asked how much it bugged him on a scale of 1 to 10, he replied ‘about an 8 – an eight-oh-oh’. The compromise was to set the alarm for 8:00 but to set the clock ahead seven minutes. THIS IS JUST WRONG - had to read a very boring book to get to sleep.

And then something so charming as to bring tears to the eyes; the one piece of furniture not at right-angles in this homage to ninety degrees was a coffee table which was closer to one end of the couch than the other. Attempts to straighten it were forcibly resisted without explanation. The final scene revealed a flashback – Monk and his wife (whose death apparently triggered his breakdown) were shown on the couch. She was reading and he was tired so she moved the table closer so she could rest her legs on it and Monk could put his head in her lap. I am filling up just thinking about it.

I don’t want you to think that I am that obsessive. I know that real obsessive-compulsive behaviour results in completely irrational thoughts along the lines of various inconsistencies in the world resulting in death if not rectified. My hang-ups are I hope, rooted in reality – things like locking doors and turning gas and water off. I don’t think that the lines in the carpet will cause anyone harm. They just don’t fit with an ordered view. Having children means that any real arrangement of things is just not possible. I always wonder how people with kids manage to keep their houses as pristine as they sometimes are but there may just be a frenzy of tidying up before visits. Or maybe they have a chaos cupboard like Monica in Friends.

Back to time! I once wrote a scheduler for batch jobs which used the Visual Basic Timer control. I have also used it to trigger sounds in my Steve Reich Simulator but the resolution is too low to be very accurate and tends to “swing” much more than is acceptable as human-feel. So I started using the GetTickCount function which has a much higher resolution. This week I decided to try and program in Piano Phase. This requires that the same pattern is repeated by two instruments but one is played increasingly out of phase with the other until various new melodies shine out of the Contrapuntal Web (may not be using the technical terms entirely accurately there but – hey – it sounds good). Unfortunately even the tick count is not of high enough frequency to resolve this so I have had to resort to peeking at the very depths of the processor clock cycle. I now have something which takes the 12 notes of the phrase and slowly moves them until it reaches synch again. I may post the actual executable though I want to do it in c# and without using the midi control currently in the VB program. API calls are required. Sapphire and Steel have been assigned!

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

The Ramblers Association

I love the rain. I may have told you before. Today was light when I left the house but it was a dark-blue-grey light from a sky intermittently throwing down showers and drizzle. I love the rain – I love being just out of the rain – I love walking in the rain and I love coming home from walking in the rain. Most of all I love the subdued light of early spring rain. The children seem to have inherited some of this and will sit with me on the doorstep during thunderstorms though youngest will get bored when restrained from throwing things down the back of the telly for more than a few minutes. My daughter however, seems to be able to stand in her window looking out over the wet back gardens for ages.

I used to live in a remote house on the edge of some common land which only had a dirt track connecting it to any main roads. The view from the front was off grass and weeping willows with the dusty/muddy track snaking across the little valley of the stream which ran across from the hills down to the river. Rainy days were great; the clouds would roll down off the hills like pastels being smudged over the picture until all you could just about see the trees on the edge on the next field. I can still hear the rain on my waterproofs as I walk across the common to get the bus. We always fantasise about getting enough money to make the current occupants of the house an offer they can’t refuse though they have made some ‘improvements’ to the house – like putting stairs up to the room on the end of the house. Part of the joy of having the play room was that the door was on the end wall but on the first floor. We had a ladder to get up to it and no other way in – a sort of safe tree house – not that it stopped us making real tree houses. Very cool inside – it had a huge Bulgarian propaganda poster which I had brought back from a skiing trip though I am not sure how unintentionally cool sit actually was. My dad was quite worried about it I’m sure but he never said anything. I suppose he realised that art had got the better of politics. There was an old record player with Horror movie themes – Jaws – Three Days of the Condor – The Exorcist, TV themes – Colditz – Black Beauty – Nationwide and an obligatory stereo demonstration record which we thought was great even though the record player was glorious mono – an old tin box as Mike Oldfield would have it. We are all cloth-eared nincompoops!

That Cloud Looks Like A Small Dachshund Called Colin

As you have probably worked out, this entry has been written in two parts. I was unable to post this morning and rather than make two posts, I am just carrying on. The sad news I have discovered between then and now is that Mr. Ivor Cutler has died. and mention of it in the office has revealed the additional news of the demise of John Junkin as well. They both had parts in Beatles films. Now my wife finds Ivor Cutler very strange but I’ve always quite liked the strange poems with their deadpan delivery. Strangely I am thinking of The Third Policeman as well. Like dreams you may have without them making you feel either uplifted or depressed, which is most of them for me I suppose.

The shuffle threw up two Japanese tracks in a row yesterday – something by Pizzicato Five and then the Japanese version of Blue Monday by The Times. Then the search I was doing for something regarding c#, threw up page after page of Japanese sites which had me wondering about some sort of conspiracy. Of course this is not synchronicity is it – just some random probability that does this. We all like patterns which is why kids will look for pictures in the clouds. Not just kids – I still do it and of course Kate Bush does. This is why I was struck by the strange similarity between someone’s aftershave and the almondy smell of Macaroons this morning. I have always thought that a certain level of decomposition produces the smell of almonds but I am loath to go and search to see if that is the case. (pause for a furtive bit of Googling). It is indeed true but these days we must also be aware that it is also the smell of cyanide gas. I should read all those Agatha Christie books.
Apparently in the living, the same smell can indicate liver problems – should I tell this person?

I think that is enough – I have no direction today.

Monday, March 06, 2006

The Cold Pigeons

Warning – spoiler for To Serve Them All My Days

Listening to a Radiophonic Workshop collection which my wife says sounds like someone pulling their ringlets and letting them spring back, but then again, the title of this entry is one step down from what she thinks is the name of The Arctic Monkeys.

My daughter had saved up a lot of money in order to buy various DVDs – Nanny McPhee being one of them. However, when we were out at the weekend, she frittered away a bit of it on various cheap and plastic items that are destined to clutter up the house and be thrown down the back of the Telly by youngest. When we were back on the Park-and-Ride bus I suggested that she needed to have a clear out and get rid of some things before any more was allowed in. Specifically, I said that she had to jettison some of the approximately 20 Barbie Dolls which fill one of her drawers in a way that suggests a scene from Team America which did not make the final cut. I said that she didn’t play with all the Barbies. There was an immediate and indignant response that she did, followed by a tense few seconds of folded-arms and pouting lips. Silence was eventually broken by “Well! I do play with the ones with heads!” Collapse of stout party!

I suspect that this may have something to do with her assertion that she is related to Royalty by virtue of her mother’s maiden name being the same as that of Mary Queen of Scots which suggests that a certain amount of the Barbie Noggin Lack is caused by re-enactment of said Queen’s demise. Oh to be seven again! Most of my play revolved around many Lego versions of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project and those little saucer-shaped submarines that Jacques Cousteau used to drive – er – pilot – er fly? I did of course pronounce the name of the great undersea explorer in the official Anglicised version of JACKQUEES Cousteau which probably caused my father as much merriment as my daughter’s pronouncement on doll heads. Good name for a band that – The Doll Heads – which of course takes us in one big circle back to the title of this entry.

I suppose that should be the end of it but there is more. Poor Charles Kay died on the telly in front of us twice this weekend. Well the first time he was just dead already – stiff as a board in the headmaster’s office in To Serve Them All My Days – more on that later – and secondly diving from the window of a burning house in - I apologise for this – Midsomer Murders. I know this sounds like “I need some advice about a friend” but it is my wife who watches them – honest!.

Anyway – back to TSTAMD – Kay played the nasty headmaster who was given the job over PJ and Carter – and died of a heart-attack after not being supported by the Governors over his feud with David. I seem to remember the few minutes when David picked up the body to “make him more comfortable” were quite shocking because they were the first time I had seen a supposedly dead body for an extended time on screen. It was much more shocking than any number of cowboys or soldiers actually falling to the floor after being hit. It was quite unusual for the time. We are immune to this now having seen many grizzly bodies laid out on slabs in various cop shows. Having said this, Jonathan Miller’s The Body In Question was shown around this time and I remember my dad switching over to that after watching the news headlines and seeing Dr Miller and a tame pathologist in the middle of a no-holds-barred autopsy. Despite marrying a doctor, my dad is extremely squeamish and I thought he was going to be sick. As it was, I was uncomfortable going to bed. We had been asked to watch the programme by our biology teacher and I think there were some complaints from some of my classmates. Weeds! It turns out as well, that the poor subject of the slicing and dicing was a tramp with no one to object to his posthumous TV fame. It was not like the bloodless autopsies that Channel four shows these days …. But I don’t think I should go there, remembering one of my few readers’ reaction to a short story by Chuck Palahniuk. Think nice thoughts – hello Clouds – hello sky!

Friday, March 03, 2006

I’ve Lost My Copy of The Third Policeman

Pretentious Listening of the day – Lloyd Cole and the Commotions - 1984-1989

I haven’t actually lost The Third Policeman – I gave it to someone in Bali who requested some English reading matter for his daughter. I had a choice between giving him Lake Wobegon Days, A Very Peculiar Practice or The old Flan O’Brien book. The Balinese guy was a Catholic and Lake Wobegon Days had a long section poking gentle fun at religion – a sort of laid-back tribute to Martin Luther complete with nailing of grievances to a door, I decided that it might strike the wrong note. I was not sure of being able to get another copy of A Very Peculiar Practice so that was out. I wonder what his daughter made of The Third Policeman? It is not for the casual reader – more for the masochistic pedant who loves books with more footnotes than main text.

It is cold this morning. The drive, accompanied by Holst and Pallestrina via the gentle medium of Morning on 3 was strange. The flat bits on the motorway looked like B&W pictures with a hint of sepia along the horizon. There was fog though it cleared leaving a layer of wispy clouds about 20 metres up which, speeding under in the car, gave the impression of high cloud moving unfeasibly fast, like the speeded-up landscape shots that all trendy documentaries seem to use as their Cliché-de-Jour. The Lancashire lowlands were fog-bound leaving Winter Hill looking like an island. Simon Armitage wrote a poem about living in the top of a transmitter after some sort of disaster leaves him as the last human. He still locks the door at night. I cannot remember if the transmitter is supposed to be the one on Winter Hill but it is the one I see when I read the poem. I once trailed up to the transmitter site from the car park, and took a photo of one of the cables which secures the mast to the ground. I seem to remember that you could go right up to the wire and bash it which I am sure I would have done if only to see if it made a note. In The Fountains Of Paradise (a book crying out for a film to be made of it), which describes the construction of a massive elevator linking the ground to synchronous orbit, there is mention of bashing the construction cables which link the satellite to the ground in order to produce a note.

I have run out of time.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Exit Strategy Number 1 – It Certainly Isn’t!

I've been making stupid, small mistakes all week. Not sure why but it's beginning to worry me.

I finished The Ghost Road and I am not sure how I feel about it. The moment of completion was spookily frightening and I was worried about getting to sleep but a few weeks of strange bed-times meant I was out in seconds. Next day brought a sort of uplifted feeling though the final chapter seemed to be neutral of any criticism of the war save for the 'shotvarvet' shouted by the dying soldier in the hospital; you will have to read the book to find out what it means.

I may be in limbo because of the strange mix of fact and fiction that is The Ghost Road. The final battle, days before they end of The First World War, involved real people, Wilfred Owen being the most famous, but I think the focus of the book was the fictional Billy Prior. I'm not even sure it was a horrifying as I was expecting but that may be because of the shrinks who had got at the evacuated men to make them go back to the front. Prior seemed to be a machine, emotions bubbling under the facade which made him say he would have been an idiot to have taken the desk job he was offered before he went back. I was expecting it to be a long way from the gentle limp and shake of David Powlett-Jones making his way from the Station to the School at the beginning of To Serve Them All My Days.

I have this weird excitement about the fact of the fighting in all these books but it is a sort of gung-ho pacifism that says such horrors are necessary at some stage in order for us to feel that they should never happen again. We should be thankful that the death of 100 British Soldiers is unacceptable to public opinion these days as opposed to the acceptance of hundreds of thousands of deaths less than 100 years ago; I would hope that our dear leader does not take any comfort from this. No comfort at all. One dead soldier as a result of any decision I made would be enough to put me in the shakes ward but then again I am not PM and do not want to be. Call me simplistic if you like but I know how I want the world to be.

On the subject of the death of British soldiers, this open letter to TB is in The Guardian. I wonder if he has read it.

The sky is so interesting at the moment. We had snow this morning and it came from fast-moving, dark clouds that seemed to connect the azimuth with the horizon, like paintings made with various colours of engine oil, lots of high-contrast billowing and weird sideways light from the sunrise. I know we don’t have high mountains, sweeping forests or vast and remote lakes but we do have interesting skies. And trees! The one thing that an Alien would find .. er … alien is the existence of trees - strange shapes, all a variant of the same basic pattern. Think about them for a while and they will be like the familiar word which repetition beats into strangeness. What is even stranger is the fact that they share so much of their design with us humans. We are all part of one big continuum.

Which because it reminds me of Richard Dawkins has reminded me of the discussion of memes which was on Thinking Allowed yesterday. One of the interviewees seemed to be dismissing the idea of memes (which is a tautology if ever there was one though I am sure he would have described it as more of an oxymoron). He was especially referring to the dismissal of religion as being almost a virus, a negative meme that causes so much trouble. He kept referring to the organisations behind various religions, seeming to think that the fact that many people join up to have the same view of the world is the fatal blow for the meme. I could not see the logical progression which makes the two ideas mutually exclusive. Firstly I could say that just because a million people do a stupid thing, it does not mean it is NOT a stupid thing. Secondly, I would put a reductionist interpretation on it and say that the small memes which go together to produce a more organised patter do not do themselves out of existence by doing so. The individual cells of a human being still exist and yet in 6 billion people, they still form the same basic pattern. Finally, joining together to form an organized religion does not mean that everyone thinks the same. See this Emo Philips joke.