Saturday, December 31, 2011

2011 - So Long, and Thanks for all the Fish


So it has come to that time of the year when we all try to simultaneously look forward and backwards - something that normally only owls and those reptiles with swivelly eyes can do.

I won't say it's been a good or bad year because barring complete disasters, all years have their highs and lows. Through nothing more than a fluke of nature I am fortunate enough to be living in a peaceful part of the world where life is good and disaster rarely, if ever, strikes. We are lucky enough to have little to worry about except what we can brew up in our strangely doom-laden imaginations. The solipsism of many affluent, healthy and comfortable  Westerners continues to bemuse me. Take a look at the rest of the world sometime and stop feeling so bloody sorry for yourself.

I've had one experience in 2011 I hope I never to have to repeat.  The slow, painful decline and death through illness of a close friend provoked emotions in me I had never experienced before. I have never wept at someone's bedside. I think I had come to terms with the inevitability of his death but I simply could not cope with watching someone I had known for so long in such desperate and hopeless circumstances. Knowing I could do nothing to help him was unbearable. He was the model of courage in adversity. I was hopeless.

On a lighter (and suddenly rather tactless) note, men like compiling 'top 20' lists and I am no exception. Here is my entirely arbitrary selection of top things from 2011 which I will think up as I go along.... 


Best Blog
A dead heat between nursemyra at The Gimcrack Hospital, Terra Shield at Raconteur-esque Scribblings and Saby at Booby Rants!. I fear we may have almost lost Saby to the Twittersphere (which I rarely visit) but her intermittent posts combining simmering rage and sparkling wit are always a pleasure to see.

An honourable mention goes to Gia at Mayor Gia who has the rare skill of being able to write brilliantly funny dialogue and combine it with great illustrations. Let's hope the zombie sluts don't get to her too soon.

Best TV Show
The Killing. With a little practice I may soon be able to swear fluently in Danish. Interesting to discover that the Danish for "f*cked up" is "furkerdairurrppp". Who'd have thought it. 

Best Dessert
Galette des Rois. I made this for my family at Christmas. It's French and much more complicated than the recipe suggests. I was relieved to see it turned out looking mostly like the illustration and tasted pretty damned good as well. Follow the suggestion and add pear segments pre-fried in butter. Kudos to me in the kitchen.  

Best Car
My old Audi A4 which clocked up 250,000 miles (402,000 Km) this year and shows no sign of failing me. I will replace you in the Spring....but I say that every year.  

Best Pop Video
Last Friday Night by Katy Perry. It's actually probably the only pop video I've watched this year. I really like the energy, vibrancy, colour and humour in this video. You can't help but smile all the way through it. Katy Perry is hot as well - with and without glasses. 




Best Consumer Product
The Canon EOS 60D digital SLR - mainly because I've just bought one. Expect blogposts in 2012 to have significantly more picture content.

Best Internet Retailer
I won't tell you their name but they sent me two Canon EOS 60D cameras and have billed me for only one. I 'phoned them up and told them of their mistake but they have so far failed to collect the second one. Where do I stand on this? Does it become mine after a certain amount of time?

Best Weather
The UK being buried in snow for a significant part of December 2010 and January 2011. Who can be so miserable as to not like snow? Where is your inner child? 

Best Holiday
A week in Scotland. More correctly, it was my only real holiday this year. Must improve on this in 2012. 

Best Friends
It might still possibly be the people I went to school with even though we are now scattered acrosss the globe. We met up over Christmas and regressed to being teenagers again (albeit teenagers who could spend freely and rather too over-indulgently at the bar). No oneupmanship. No envy. No baggage.  We were just pleased to see each other healthy and happy. 

Best Pub
The Grange Arms, Hornby, North Yorkshire. Where I invariably meet my best friends when our paths occasionally collide. Good beer is important, good company is essential. 

Best You Tube Video
This guy. Ha ha ha ha ha. Ho ho ho ho ho. La la la la la. Love the wig, the waves, the gestures...makes me want to live in seventies Soviet Russia.



Best Comeuppance
The ongoing evisceration of the UK tabloid press and their vulgar, voyeuristic, prurient, intrusive, judgemental, insensitive, manipulative, degrading and thankfully (finally proven), illegal reporting methods.


That's fourteen tops by my count - more than enough. Must go out and make something of the day. It's the last one we'll get in 2011 - if you hadn't noticed. Suggestions on other 'tops' are welcome if you'd like me to add to the list. Or how about some of your own?

I wish you and all your loved ones a happy, abundant and trouble-free 2012.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Bud is Back Meme



Thanks for the following meme go to Terra Shield at Raconteur-esque Scribblings who in turn found it at Sunday Stealings. I rather rashly said I would complete it myself even though I suspect I have precious little to tell. Who knows? Here goes...

1. Why did you sign up for writing your blog?

Blogging was in the news and I'd been following a few blogs. I was mildly envious at how well other people wrote and wondered if I could write anything worthwhile myself. I'm still wondering.

2. Why did you choose your blog's name? What does it mean?

It's a track from a Bonzo Dog Band compilation album which I was enjoying on the evening I signed up to Blogger. I have no particular liking (or disliking) for the track. I was just looking for an anonymous name. I have no aspirations to royalty...or scurf.

I've just looked for a defintion of scurf and I've found out one of its meanings is dandruff - blooarrgghh. I never knew this definition until today. Up until now the only defintion for scurf I knew was the tiny slivers and scraps of metal you get when using drills and similar metalworking tools.

3. Do you ever had another blog?

"Do you ever had.." No, this is as good as it gets.

4. What do you do online when you're not on your blog?

Surf aimlessly. Read other people's blogs. Read news. Nothing interactive.

5. How about when you're not on the computer?

Work in IT for a gigantic US software company (no, not that one). I sit at a computer all day so I guess, strictly speaking, this answer does not really apply.

Read paper books. I'm not an e-reader but I'm not averse to the idea either - see later comment about being a late adopter. I primarily read non-fiction.

Socialise - the usual stuff - drinking, eating with friends etc. Definitely not a clubber.

6. What do you wish people who read your blog knew about you?

Truly, the thought has never crossed my mind. As an individual, I hope they think I'm balanced, considered, mildly inquisitive and hopefully they think I have a sense of humour. I am mostly at ease with my online persona and I don't seek to create an online image other than what people might infer from what I write.

I think more about the people who read my blog because I really rather like the tiny group of people who are kind enough to read and comment.

7. What is your favorite community in the blogosphere?

The thought of being part of an online 'community' doesn't really appeal. The only online community I am part of is the rather loose group of bloggers I interact with.

8. What is your philosophy on your blog layout?

It's a bog-standard Blogger template. Very few adornments or personalisation. If somebody said it was difficult to read (font too small etc.) then I'd do something about it.

9. Tell me about your picture you use to represent you on your blog.

An evening on a beach in Peru from a memorable overlanding holiday I took.

10. Pick 3 random blogs from your blogroll and tell us about them.

I don’t really use or review my blogroll that often (must tidy it up). I follow quite a few blogs through Google Reader but I only comment regularly on a few of them. You know who you are I hope.

11. What features do you think your blog should have that it doesn't currently?

Frequency and more interesting content.

12. What do you consider the 10 most "telling" interests that we would infer from your blog persona?

I spend too much time on YouTube. I don’t by the way.

I watch too much TV. I probably do by the way.

I like films.

My work often bores me. If it didn’t I’d probably talk about it more.

I would like to travel more.

I like to cook.

I have a motorcycle. A Honda ST1300 Pan European.

I lack direction.

Procratination (yup, me as well Terra). Not exactly an "interest" though.

13. Do you have any unique interests that you have never shared before? What are they?

I play golf very badly. I enjoy the game but I am somewhat uncomfortable with way it sometimes presents itself to the wider world. It has an air of aloofness and elitism (in the UK) with which I do not wish to be associated.  

14. The best thing about blogging is all of the friends that you make, Beside from those folks, do you think your blog has fans?

My blog has a few followers who are kind enough to comment on my rather erratic posts. I am very fond of them.

15. What's your current obsession? What about it captures your imagination?

This evening my new camera arrived. A Canon EOS 60D - I’ve finally gone digital. That will keep me occupied for a while. I work in technology but I’m never an early adopter. I’m still on my first mobile ‘phone. I’m not a technophobe but I’m not in thrall to technology either. I appreciate mechanical things more than digital / electronics things.

16. What are you glad you did but haven't really had a chance to post about?

I have no idea.

17. How many people that first became a blog friend, have you met face to face?

I have never met anyone through blogging.

18. What don't you talk about here, either because it's too personal or because you don't have the energy?

Being eternally single.

My poor social skills.

19. What's a question that you'd love to answer?

I’m very uncomfortable talking about myself. The anonymity of a blog helps but it doesn’t make it easy. I’ve tried writing ‘personal’ blogposts but I very rarely complete them as the honesty embarrasses me.But feel free to ask and I'll really try.

20. Have you ever lost a blogging friendship and regretted it?

No.

21. Have you ever lost a blogging friendship and thought, “Was that overdue!”

No.

Tsunami

I will write a proper blogpost soon...I promise.

But for now, have a look at this...




Friday, December 16, 2011

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Fifty Unexplainable Black & White Photos



The title says it all.

Fifty Unexplainable Black & White Photos

Nursemyra - I challenge you to create one of your amusing narratives to make a coherent story that links them all.

For me, 12, 15 and 24 in particular seem to defy any sort of rational - or even irrational - explanation.

I think 44 may be trying to reproduce a famous Doppler Effect experiment.





Monday, December 05, 2011

Taekwondo


Way back at the start of the year I applied to be a volunteer at the 2012 London Olympics. This weekend I attended a test event - one of many that's been going on across London for some time. On Friday I attended an introduction/training day and on Saturday and Sunday I was a volunteer at the 'London Prepares' Taekwondo International Invitational

I knew almost nothing about taekwondo until this weekend. In the UK it’s very much a minority sport. On Friday evening I did some basic research on the rules so I would not spend the next two days being completely clueless because what I did know about taekwondo was that it is not a sport that is easily accessible to the casual observer. 

Taekwondo is a martial art and is the national sport of Korea. Bouts are short - typically only ten or so minutes including stoppages. There are three two minute rounds with a one minute break between rounds. Participants score points by hitting their opponents in the head or torso using their feet or using  punches to the body. Participants wear headguards and also leg and body protectors. There are sensors in the body protectors which automatically record a 'score' if a blow of sufficient force is made on the opponents body. Strikes to the head are scored by observing judges.


The skill is in the technique involved to make a scoring move. In that respect it is similar to Olympic boxing where the emphasis is also on technique and skill. It is not like professional boxing where the objective is to batter your opponent with the intention of knocking them out. In taekwondo injuries are relatively rare and knockouts almost non-existent. It’s not bloodthirsty but the action is fast and explosive.

It's a very regimented sport full of very formal gestures and acts. The participants bow to their coach before stepping on to the field of play. Opponents bow to each other before commencing a bout and again at the end. Match officials bow to each other before discussing a ruling. Respect for the officials and your opponent is acutely observed. In two days of competition I never saw a decision questioned by a participant however they do operate an extremely formal appeal process where the coach can request a video review of a contended point. This appeal process of course involves a lot of bowing.

A particularly generous gesture during one particular bout involved a participant being injured and unable to complete the bout. His opponent lifted him up and carried him off the field of play and back to his coach where he was then stretchered from the arena.

I was incredibly lucky in the volunteer role I was allocated. I could easily have been placed in a role where I was not even in the main arena. What I actually ended up doing was being one of four video camera operators positioned at the four corners of the competitive area. We had to operate the cameras which recorded the bout. If a scoring move was appealed by the coach during the bout, our footage was reviewed by the judges to check whether the appeal was valid and if so, the score would be adjusted. This is as close as you can get to the action without actually being a referee or contender. 

Taekwondo has both male and female categories. In this event (and I assume others like it) the women had an equal number of bouts as the men and their competition was every bit as enthralling, hotly contested and enthusiastically supported as the men's. This does not appear to be one of those sports where the women's version is seen as sub-standard to the men's. Isn’t that how it should be.

I’ve never been inclined towards any sort of sport like this and I dislike boxing intensely. I’ve always assumed martial arts are just for people who like hitting other people but I’ve become a bit of a taekwondo fan. It’s technical, disciplined and very skillful – my kind of sport – remember, I like cricket. 

The only thing that got to me was seeing the female competitors – young and attractive – arriving at the start of their bout looking all fresh faced and enthusiastic. Some ten minutes later a good few of them left exhausted, bewildered and dishevelled having just been kicked about the head several times by some steely-eyed Korean whirling dervish. My chivalrous side (if I have one) made me want to console them and remonstrate with the Korean and explain to her it was really not acceptable to strike a woman under any circumstances.




Thursday, December 01, 2011

Pants on Fire

I was sitting on the loo the other day - sorry to introduce you so abruptly to that idea but I can't think of a less direct way to start this blogpost - and just as I was finishing, I leaned forward to put my magazine down (please don't start -  guys always read on the loo). As I did so I looked down and saw the little label tag in the back of my underwear. A small tag but the print on it was in bold red capitals so I noticed. The tag said very clearly and unambiguously KEEP AWAY FROM FIRE.

I assumed initially it was some sort of drying guideline but then I started thinking. Isn't that a rather redundant statement to put in underwear these days? I'm not aware of anybody who still dries their clothes with the use of some sort of naked flame. At a pinch some people may use a gas fire but a gas fire is not really the raw inferno that I think is implied by the above warning. In fact I'm struggling to recall any time I or anyone I know has used any sort of open fire to dry clothes. Has anybody out there ever had their clothes catch fire using ANY drying process? As a child I once slightly melted a welly which got left too close to my grandparent's living room fire but that's the only time I can recall.

Perhaps, I thought, it's a warning not to stand too near a fire whilst wearing this underwear. I can't imagine what sort of grisly scenario the manufacturers are imagining but other warnings (such as the intense and painful heat) would tell you that you had spent too long next to an open fire long before your underwear caught alight.

This is 100% cotton underwear - not an especially easy substance to set fire to as far as In know. In the seventies with the strange popularity of synthetic fabrics dominating the market I could imagine clothing being more flammable than it is today - sometimes I think solely  through the static it could accumulate but I still don't think it was that easy to get (and importantly stay) alight.

Perhaps - and this is the only conclusion I can draw - it's a general warning to KEEP AWAY FROM FIRE and in fact has nothing to do with the properties of this particular brand of cotton underwear.


Monday, November 28, 2011

Ken Russell



The film director Ken Russell died over the weekend at the age of 84. His death in the UK has been rather upstaged by the death of a footballer. Events in and around football sadly have the ability to upstage other news events - they are frequently given far more prominence than they deserve. Whilst the footballer was a talented and, by all accounts, good man who died young in what sadly would appear to be a rather desperate state of mind, his lasting legacy will be little compared to that of Ken Russell.

Ken Russell made difficult films. Sometimes very difficult films. They would thoroughly test the viewers' patience - woebetide those who ventured into a cinema not knowing they were about to be visually assaulted. His films could be beautiful but they could equally be graphically shocking but whatever they did, they would almost always leave an impression. His most commercially successful films were probably Women in Love, The Boyfriend and Tommy.

In interview, his opinions were always forthright, unpredictable but always imaginative and with a hint of mischief. But he always delivered those opinions with a charm and a wit and a twinkle in his eye. You could not dislike Ken Russell even if you hated his work, and trust me, many people did. He was invariably more watchable than many of his films.

I remember him being interviewed on TV when he must have been well into his seventies. Dressed colourfully, the way no portly septugenarian would normally be, with his trademark shock of white hair, he ranged over numerous topics. It was apparent he was completely unshockable and still felt he had plenty more to deliver if only he could get the finance together and be allowed to realise another piece of outrageous but possibly impenetrable cinema.

He was talented and original and a true eccentric but you know what - I can't think of a single one of his films I particularly like but I what I do know is that nobody will make films like them ever again.


This is a nice tribute...




Friday, November 25, 2011

The Percontation Point

There have always been grammar fanatics who rant and rave about poor punctuation. A popular book out here a few years ago called Eats, Shoots and Leaves (The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation) seemed to reignite the debate. I didn't buy the book as I suspected it was only really preaching to the converted - people who wanted to be reassured that that they were already right. I might be wrong but that was the impression I got.

I try to get my punctuation right but only because I like to get it right (it's a nerdy challenge mostly) and I also think - certainly in business - presentation is just as important as content. Your message is wasted if your intended audience thinks "I'm not reading this crap - the guy can't even spell/punctuate correctly." This also applies to emails - I don't really like receiving slovenly written emails and I flinch if I reread one of my own and spot a mistake in it. I worry my intended readers will switch off as soon as they see the error. I may be out of touch on this. Many people say it is an informal medium and presentation is unimportant.

The view today in education it seems is that only content is important and poor spelling or punctuation can be ignored if the message is good. I don't buy this because when I was at school, our work, however good the content was, could be downgraded to being utterly worthless due to grammatical or spelling errors. You really did learn by your mistakes.

Anyway, this isn't really my point. All the above was just preamble. What I was wondering today when I read something was, should a rhetorical question have a question mark?**

"This car stinks doesn't it." or "This car stinks doesn't it?"

"You don't say." or "You don't say?"

"How much longer are we going to have to wait in this bloody queue." or "How much longer are we going to have to wait in this bloody queue?"

Not the best examples I grant you but anyway, a little brief research and I find this rhetorical question mark question has already been asked - 430 years ago to be precise.

In the 1580s* Henry Denham proposed the percontation point. A rhetorical question should be suffixed with a reversed question mark. The idea soon fell out of favour. I really rather like it and wish it could return.





 * 1580s somehow looks better as 1580's but there's no reason for the apostrophe.

** Personally speaking, in the absence of the return of the percontation point, I think rhetorical questions should be left without a question mark. 

*** A prize (yet to be decided) to the person who can find a spelling/punctuation error in the above blogpost.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Killing II

The Killing II has begun - the first two episodes of the new series aired last night on the consistently good BBC4 channel.

It looks every bit as good as the first series. Sarah Lund is back, looking as moody and tortured as ever complete with her chunky woollen garments and complicated private life. She's been teamed with a new co-detective called Strange which makes for some intermittently confusing subtitles - when answering the 'phone he announces "Strange here."

Blix, the granite faced police chief whose narrowed eyes never give anything away contines to deliver a wonderfully minimalist acting performance.

A new set of shifty politicians continue to double cross each other at every opportunity.

It is SO good.

http://kingofscurf.blogspot.com/2011/02/forbrydelsen-aka-killing.html

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Final Countdown

For all the talk of catastrophe and crisis and meltdown it is difficult to do anything other than look a little wryly at the current problems within the Eurozone (the seventeen countries that have adopted the Euro as their currency) and the consequences for the European Union (the larger body of twenty seven countries) as a whole. The situation is, in most part, out of our hands and any amount of wailing and gnashing of teeth and protesting will have little or no effect.

The EU was initally formed in 1958 and has since then steadily grown by adding new member states and increasing its powers within those states. What was initally intended  to be a group of nations which would relax trade laws and movement of peoples between each other in order to reduce bureaucracy has grown into an organisation that's ultimate objective is, loosely speaking, The United States of Europe. Some may disagree with that statement but it is the nature of bodies such as this that their role, functions, responsibilities and powers must always increase.

I am, loosely speaking, pro European. Trade barriers have always seemed to encourage apathy within the country that imposed them because they just created inefficient domestic monopolies. Trade barriers between adjoining countries also invariably just causes resentment and wherever possible, people do their best to find a way around them. Restricting the movement of people between countries that share enormous borders has always been difficult and created foolish constructs such as the Berlin Wall. Some sort of European integration has always made a lot of sense.

Problems have arisen because European governments (and it has to be said, the USA as well), borrowed money throughout a period which they told their people was an unprecedented boom. Even in the good times, many countries could not sell more than they bought but credit was cheap and easy to get and, as long as "growth" continued, the debts could be serviced. People were encouraged to borrow using the relentlessly increasing value of their homes as collateral, to buy (mostly imported) consumer goods and luxuries which fuelled the "boom" even more. In the case of Greece, a lot of money went into creating a massive and well-rewarded public sector. Those public sector employees who could retire on generous pensions in their fifties knew who to vote for. Their votes had been bought.

When it all started to unravel, politicians were happy when most of the blame was laid on the bankers as it conveniently deflected any blame from them, but it's become increasingly apparent politicians were responsible for many problems wherein some countries massively mismanaged their finances believing the good times would never end. The loose morals and sharp practice of the banking industry may have triggered the crisis but it was the already weak financial position and poor anticipation of governments to plan for such an eventuality which exacerbated the situation.

Individual countries have seen the fragility of their economic models thrown into sharp relief. In the UK we have increasingly relied on a service based economy - that means we don't really make anything any more. Call it a knowledge based economy if you want - we hope to rely on being smarter than other countries, selling them our services and intelligence rather than our manufacturing output and then with the income we raise, buying a significant amount of our manufactured goods, food and energy from countries who can produce them more cheaply than we can. In the case of the UK, a major part of that service based economy has been banking and financial services and despite political rhetoric that demonises bankers, the harsh reality is that we need them here and if we want them to stay we will have to provide a climate in which they believe they can thrive.

The Eurozone crisis has called into question not only the validity of the Euro but also the long term viability of the EU. It was never anticipated that countries within the EU would mismanage themselves in such a profligate and foolish manner that they could not sustain themself or service the debts they accumulated. EU economic integration may have had a  rulebook that said that certain economic conditions must be met by its member states but it did not anticipate that countries might simply break the rules.

It has been said that The EU has been responsible for maintaining peace in Europe for that last fifty or so years. That is a depressing thought and one which I simply do not buy. Some European countries were operating under dictatorships or military rule well into the seventies and the rest of Europe chose not to intervene. If that were to happen in an EU country now then the EU would probably want to get involved in a very physical and robust manner. As Europeans, we like to think we have been instrumental in helping to create an outbreak of democracy in some countries in the Middle East but the EU seems to see no contradiction in manipulating the ousting of the elected leaders of Greece and Italy and imposing unelected technocrats to hopefully sort out their problems.

The problem is also that questioning the intentions or future of the EU or the Euro is seen by some senior European politicians as unacceptable. Belief in the EU by some individuals  has reached the fervour of the religious fundamentalist - to them it is above criticism. So much of their intellectual capital is invested in the great European project that their futures are inexorably tied to it.  Any failure of the EU or the Euro would almost certainly hasten their downfall and they are therefore obliged to unflinchingly believe the solution to Europe's problem is only more integration and not less. The EU's ability to railroad elections in its favour show that it does not like its authority to be questioned.

Every day a new development changes the game. Bailout plans seem to last no more than a few weeks before they have to be rewritten and the bailout fund increased by more unimaginable sums. These bailout funds do not actually represent real money that the member states of the EU have to spend. It also has to be borrowed; we were hoping last week the Chinese would step in and underwrite it. They didn't.

It really is simply a matter of wait and see. How interesting.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Great Restaurant Reviews

I first saw the following critique of a restaurant in one of my favourite autobiographies - Freud Ego by Clement Freud (now priced I see on Amazon at a modest £175 and I have a signed copy!) I have since seen the review somewhere else but I can't quite remember where.

Here goes with the shortest, pithiest and without doubt funniest, restaurant review I have ever read.

"If the soup had been as warm as the champagne, the champagne as old as the chicken, and the chicken as plump as the waitress, then it would have been adequate."

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Lost Horizon


"Sometime in the future, you shall have the pleasure of meeting her..."

The clip that follows is from a 1973 film called Lost Horizon. It's about a group of Europeans whose plane crashes in the Himalayas and the survivors are rescued by the people of The Valley of the Blue Moon - some sort of weird clothing based cult as far as I can see. The film features three future Oscar winners, at least one other Oscar nominee and a Burt Bacharach soundtrack. What more could you want?

I especially enjoy the dancing at about 1:40 by a chap who appears to have just walked in on the set, dressed casually in a pink shirt and natty flares. I reckon with about five minutes of practice I could dance as well as that.

The film also features one of the greatest chat-up lines in movie history....

Him: Are you an American?
Her: No, Mongolian.
Him: You'll have to teach me the language some time.


(Sir) John Gielgud, Peter Finch and George Kennedy (the aformentioned Oscar winners), what on Earth were you thinking of?

But you know what...this song is peculiarly addictive...I think I want to see more of this film.

Now, sit back and enjoy, go full screen (double click on the clip) and volume right up please....



Friday, October 07, 2011

The Real Genius of Steve Jobs


Here's one of the more ill-thought out statements to have been uttered in the last few days following the sad death of Steve Jobs. 

"....it's hard to imagine a worlds(sic) without iPods, Pads, Phones etc etc."

No it's not. It is extremely easy to imagine a world without Apple products. You just have to visit the huge swathes of the planet where people don't spend their time salivating, slack-jawed at the window of their local Apple store. Only someone deeply embedded within their mostly self-imagined world of Apple would make such an indulgent statement. Some individuals (like our friend above) may be unable to imagine a world without their iPhone but billions of other people have no such problem. Most of the people of the world have to rely on the technology that is available to them at a price that they can afford.

When I have had a chance to use Apple products I've liked them. They are beguiling in their simplicity and elegance and that is their charm and their brilliance, but after that I didn't really feel they offered me significantly more than I could get from other products or at least, not sufficiently to justify the price tag. There's also the uncomfortable feeling that you're buying your way into some sort of clique. Whenever two Apple users meet, their conversation rather easily seems to turn to their gadgets and they are unlikely to emerge and re-enter normal society until they're separated from each other. I really don't want to run the risk of getting drawn into that sort of a conversation - maybe that's just me.


To go back to our friend's original statement, it is actually hard to imagine a world without computers, without telephones, but Steve Jobs did not invent either of these (despite what some people have claimed in recent days). He made exquisitely beautiful, tactile products with elegant interfaces that exploited those inventions. This was his genius and I hope he left enough of his psychological DNA in Apple that they continue to make them and thrive.

There should always a place in the world for people who can make something that is more than just brutally functional and Steve Jobs brilliantly proved that, but if Apple products were removed from the world today, telephony and computing would continue without so much as a hiccup because the brute horsepower that really runs those systems does not rely on Apple technology to perform.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Hot Hot Hot



Only in the UK could they seriously write in a news report that "...temperatures soared over 21 degrees (70f)"

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/road-and-rail-transport/8798983/Passengers-use-bottled-water-to-get-overheated-train-started.html

It reminds me of a UK newspaper headline that Alistair Cooke used to enjoy telling Americans...

"73 DEGREES AND NO RELIEF IN SIGHT"

That'll be just under 23 degrees C then.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Anarchy in the Ukelele

I went to see The Ukelele Orchestra of Great Britain last night.

It would be easy to dismiss them as a novelty act but they are far from it. These are real and talented musicians who obviously love their instruments. It's interesting to see that the ukelele comes in several forms (soprano, tenor, concert and others) and one of which, it has to be said, sounds and looks remarkably like an acoustic guitar disguising an electric bass which they called a bass ukelele.

They create brilliant and complex arrangements of mostly well known tunes, add some humour, some singing, some good old British eccentricity and just put on a great show.

I've never heard a better cover version of Anarchy in the UK by The Sex Pistols, as rearranged for eight ukeleles (or possibly seven ukeleles and an electric bass). They also did Life on Mars by David Bowie, Teenage Dirtbag, Le Freak by Chic, Pinball Wizard, Teenage Kicks, Smells like Teen Spirit, as well as some classical rearrangements. They did one piece by Saint-Saëns which was quite beautiful but I cannot find it online.

They've been going for 26 years and have toured the world so, as I said, this is no novelty act. One of the pleasures of watching them is the thirty or so seconds at the start of each piece where you just can't quite place the tune they're about to play and then the audience somehow collectively recognises it and everyone in the room smiles and laughs.

Check out their version of the spaghetti western classic, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, complete with vocal harmonising, which they also performed last night. Listen all the way through and trust me, you will be singing along by the end of it.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

More Herculean than Olympian

As London gears up for the Olympics - still almost a year to go yet it is more hyped than a syringe full of Mexican jumping beans - I heard this morning on the radio about a marathon competitor in the 1904 St. Louis Olympics.

Andarín (Felix) Carvajal was a postman from Cuba who lived his entire life in poverty despite being a celebrated amateur runner.



In order to get to the Olympics he begged on the streets of Havana for the price of his passage to New Orleans arriving there six months before the start of the games. Despite never having left his native country before, and speaking no English, he spent the next six months walking, running and hitchhiking the 600 miles (1000 kilometres) to St. Louis, sleeping rough along the way, labouring for money and living off fruit from the trees and whatever else he could find.

Arriving at the starting line and despite the 35 degree heat because of the 2:30pm start time, he was dressed in woollen trousers, a linen shirt, street shoes and a felt beret. There was brief delay where he was convinced to cut off most of the legs and sleeves to his clothing and the race began. It was run in brutally hot weather, over dusty roads, with horses and automobiles clearing the way and creating dust clouds. “He won the sympathy of the crowd in the stadium and raised his hat each time he passed the stand,” the St. Louis Republic reported.

As the race began, he took the lead but finally, overcome with hunger having not eaten for forty hours, he stopped to eat some apples from a tree which gave him a strong stomach ache. He still managed to recover and finally finished the race in fourth place. Hailed by the international press for his determination and amiable manner, he returned to Cuba a hero and resumed his mail route. He never appeared in international competition again.

Now that is the Olympian spirit.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Where I Live

I live in a little patch of North London called Crouch End. You can tell I like it because I use the affectionate term "patch" to describe it. This is what people in London do.

It's a quirky (there I go again with those terms of affection) little area which, because it lacks a tube station, means it's unheard of by many people in the rest of London.

Over the years the area has had a few brushes with fame. Stephen King wrote a short story called Crouch End after visiting a friend who lived locally portraying the area as a portal to some sort of demonic underworld. It was later dramatised for television.

We've had a few famous residents over the years and continue to retain a small smattering of mostly domestic celebrities.

One of my favourite ex-residents is Ho Chi Minh who was said to live here in the early 20th century during his time working in a London hotel. I'm not sure how much of his future political outlook was gained from his time here - not a great deal I suspect.

A locally famous and possibly apocryphal story concerns Bob Dylan. Bob, whilst on tour in the UK (Bob is always on tour) decides one day to go and visit his good friend Dave Stewart who had a recording studio in the area for many years. Bob gets into a taxi and tells the taxi driver to take him to an address on Crouch Hill but the taxi driver inadvertently takes him to an address on the similarly named Crouch End Hill. Bob knocks at the door and asks the woman who answers if Dave is at home. Coincidentally, a person called Dave (who is a big Bob Dylan fan) lives at the house but Bob is informed by the woman that Dave is not at home right now but he's welcome to come in and wait until Dave gets home. The woman is unaware of Bob's legendary and global stature and just assumes this is a friend of her son who has called by. Dave duly returns home and is informed by his mum that Bob Dylan is waiting for him in the front room and is currently having a cup of tea and a biscuit.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Hitch-22

I'm currently reading Hitch-22 - the autobiography of Christopher Hitchens. It's rather a heavy read at times but he's a serious man and an acute observer. The cons of ploughing through sections about student politics of the left are far outweighed by the pros of his other observations.

I'm just reading about his time as a budding journalist on London newspapers of the early seventies. The British press has been making the news as opposed to reporting it for some time here in the UK. The scandal of the UK wing of the Murdoch media empire hacking into the voicemail messages of absolutely anyone they could in an attempt to trawl up a story is well documented.

A particulary sordid aspect of this activity was that whilst those journalists were melodramatically reporting stories about child murder victims in their newspapers, they appeared to be simultaneously doing their utmost to hack into those same victims' mobile phone messages in at attempt to spice up their storyline.

Christopher Hitchens writes about the contempt and indifference of many journalists to the plight of people in stricken circumstances (this was over thirty years ago) and observes how compassion or sympathy for victims was rarely allowed to get in the way of a good story.

When visiting the homes of distressed families, journalists would travel in pairs. When invited in and courteously offered a cup of tea, one journalist would join the family member in the kitchen to "help" whilst the other journalist would rifle through the family possessions or try to steal photographs of the victim.

The unofficial motto of the foreign correspondents' desk, when travelling abroad to visit war-torn or other riven societies was "Anyone here that's been raped and speaks English?" Plus ca change it seems.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Evolution

There are three very common accusations that are repeatedly levelled against the theory of evolution. They're all fundamentally flawed accusations but they are used constantly in an attempt to discredit the theory. Two of the criticisms are even, strictly speaking correct, but that does not make them credible criticisms - it is simply a misunderstanding of terminology. The three accusations are as follows

  • It's just survival of the fittest
  • We're all descended from monkeys
  • It's only a theory

It's Just Survival of the Fittest


Survival of the fittest is a phrase that now tends to be avoided in science because it has become so widely misunderstood. It is most commonly interpreted as kill or be killed. The logical but flawed conclusion of kill or be killed is that if you are able to kill and live off another species then ultimately you will wipe that species out - that is most commonly understood to describe survival of the fittest.

Survival of the fittest however has a more nuanced definition than that. Survival of the fittest means the ability of a species to survive despite the existence of its predators. It is the ability to reproduce in sufficient numbers that you cannot be wiped out.

Consider the ant and the anteater. The anteater by definition, eat ants. It has done so for millions of years but it has so far failed to wipe out the ant population and in fact, the demise of the ant population would very quickly result in the corresponding demise of the anteater population. The anteater has no interest in eating all the ants in the world so there are none left and the ant has developed the ability to reproduce in sufficient numbers that it can continue to survive, despite relentlessly being eaten by anteaters. This makes the ant fit for survival and an excellent illustration of the phrase survival of the fittest. The ant is a very fit creature. As a species, it'll probably outlive us all.


We're All Descended from Monkeys


We're not. The theory of evolution states that we, and monkeys, share a common ancestor. It does not state that we are descended from a species that exists alongside us nor does it claim to know what that common ancestor is. That would be ridiculous.

The common ancestor the theory states we share has long since departed the planet and we have no idea what form it might have taken (we're probably talking primordial soup here) but there are sufficient similarities between us and other species to conclude that, despite our lack of absolute knowledge about that ancestor, we can still almost certainly conclude it was shared.


It's Only a Theory

Yes, that's correct. It is only a theory. But to dismiss it as simply being a set of ideas which have somehow gained a fashionable following which is what people are implying with this criticism is wrong. It fails to acknowledge the correct scientific definition of a theory.

A scientific theory is an idea which is constantly tested and whilst it may never be proven to be fact gains creedence over time the more it is tested with additional data. Many theories are accepted as fact despite science continuing to describe them as theories because science does not allow something to be described as fact unless it can be definitively and unquestionably proven as such. Theories simply become more credible as more and more data is pumped through them and the theory continues to hold up. It may however never be possible to prove a theory is fact because you may never have access to all the data.

Consider the following example. I choose to measure the height of all adult members of my family. The heights of these people are facts. I could, based on these facts, develop a theory that the average height of any adult person is five feet and six inches. That would be a poor theory (not enough data) but a theory nonetheless. I would need a lot more data to make it a plausible theory.

If I then measured all the people in my street I might refine my theory and state that the average height of any given adult person is five feet and five inches. I still could not describe this average height as a fact but I've just made it a more reliable theory. I could then measure all the people in London and I might still have the theory that the average height of any given person is five feet and five inches. The theory is looking better and better.

I could spend the rest of my life measuring people and come up with an incredibly accurate figure for the average height of any given person. That average figure would eventually reach a point where regardless of how much more data I fed into it, it would barely change. You might then be able to say this average figure is a fact, but in absolute scientific terms it would still be only a theory.

For my theory to be accepted as fact I would need to absolutely know the height of all people. I would need all the data. The theory of evolution has had a lot of data fed into it and continues to hold up but yes, it's still only a theory but after all this time and all this data, it's a bloody good one.

Friday, August 12, 2011

The Last Week in London


Well, it's been an interesting week. When the city you live in gets the kind of global news coverage that has recently been reserved for Cairo, Tripoli and Damascus the temptation is to comment and perhaps try to moderate the excesses of the global - and worse still, local - media. This is my modest attempt at some sort of perspective.

I'll try to avoid commenting on events elsewhere in the country which despite being related (in a copycat manner) to the events in London were in places I do not know well and therefore it would be inappropriate to comment.

The first thing to point out is we do not have a revolution on our hands which is how I believe events were portrayed in certain parts of the media around the world. What we had was certainly a civil disturbance on a significant scale that was initially and very tenuously motivated by the police shooting an individual in the course of his arrest. He had a loaded and functioning weapon which was not fired. Other details of this event are still unclear. It may be worth mentioning that UK police are not routinely armed. As far as I am aware, police only arm themselves if they expect to attend a scene where they believe they will encounter armed resistance.

London is a big city. Very big. What you saw on your tv screens were major and significant disturbances but these were generally contained within small pockets of the city as a whole. Within these areas a small but critical mass of individuals managed to outnumber the police to the point where they could pretty much roam with impunity and do whatsoever they pleased facing little or no resistance. This manifested itself in gangs of mostly teenagers and young men - but also women, attacking innocent bystanders, looting shops and setting fire to buildings and vehicles.

The looting of shops was comprehensive with small independent local businesses targetted as well as major multinational chain stores. Local people attacked their own area. There was no anti-capitalism angle to this looting. Shops were looted solely if they were expected to have goods of value within them. The prime targets were electrical goods, alcohol, tobacco and clothing. In one area, apparently the only shop to remain undamaged was a bookstore - go figure.

The initial media response was to attribute this behaviour to the inevitable tensions that build up in the deprived and non-affluent areas of a city that generally portrays itself to the outside world as overtly prosperous. Some people tried to defend the actions of those involved suggesting that they were a deprived underclass who had been excluded by society as a whole and were simply expressing their justifiable anger at their inability to share in the prosperity of London.

What quickly became apparent however was that whilst the earlier shooting may have been a trigger to riot, the subsequents looting and other criminal acts were the realisation of the mob that in sufficient numbers, the police could be easily outnumbered and therefore they could do as they pleased. Once word got around that it was open season on the local high street others joined in the looting. Whilst I suspect the majority of people involved were simply making the most of an opportunity to steal from shops without any police intervention, it was also apparent that certain sections of the group were also taking the opportunity to commit acts of violence and intimidation on any innocent individual that passed before them. This was and is the most worrying aspect of recent events. Violence directed at the police or state, whilst distasteful is I suppose understandable. Violence against innocent bystanders is not.

At time of writing this there have been about 1,600 arrests relating to these events. These people are currently being fast-tracked through the court system and prosecuted. What is becoming apparent is that whilst many are habitual offenders a small proportion are from a section of society that you would not normally expect to see before the magistrates. So far this has included a member of the teaching staff at a primary school, a graphical designer, an organic chef (who apparently decided to trash a budget chain restaurant), privately educated university graduates and bizarrely, a ballerina.

Most of the theft commited during these disturbances was opportunistic. The realisation by individuals that given the opportunity to steal and not be confronted doing it, a large number of people decided this was an acceptable thing to do. Underpinning this was a more sinister core of individuals who were intent on committing acts of violence and firestarting for the same reason - they were unchallenged.

There were five murders. As far as I can tell this was murder for the sake of it (if such a phrase makes sense). Innocent people going about their business finding themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time.

This is not over. There will be more events like this, perhaps not on the same scale, but they will definitely happen. A certain section of society realised this week how easy it is to organise and commit co-ordinated acts of mob crime. For every individual that was caught and prosecuted there will be ten people who got away with it and right now the people who got away with will have a new idea to ponder - crime, for the moment, pays. As I sit at home right now, 7:30pm on a Friday evening, I can hear police sirens in the distance.

These were not race riots. These were not anti-capital riots. There was no political justification. They were however - and this is a surprise to no-one except apparently politicians - a realisation that a large number of people in this city seem to have little or no hesitation in commiting crime simply if they think they can get away with it. It was mostly however motivated by that most basic of human failings - greed.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Propaganda


Don’t you just love German synth pop. They have taken something - pop music - that should be trivial and flighty and fun and turned it into some sort of existential angst. Only some po-faced Germans would try putting an Edgar Allan Poe poem to music. The German film director Fritz Lang was also an influence. Heavy. But you know what? They somehow managed to pull it off (sorry, this clip is rather long but I think, worth it).



I remember this band from the 80s when earnest music like this was seen as a cut above the rest - up on the intellectual high ground that Duran Duran and their like could not even dream to inhabit. New Order were up there as well. I also remember being extremely intrigued as a very young man by Claudia Brucken and also, but not quite as much by Susanne Freytag. Claudia could do things with a German accent that I didn't think possible - she could make it sound deeply sexy.

As a band, they burned briefly but brightly. Critically acclaimed, they rather imploded, managing to fall apart for more reasons than any other band I can recall - disagreements over performing live, artistic differences, personal differences, bad contracts with their record company, personal relationships that caused resentment among the band and many other reasons. The initial lineup lasted little more than 18 months.

Twenty five years on and looking back at some of their output, I still think their music stands up today, far better than most of what was produced in the eighties. I think/hope they had a sense of humour - they appeared to have a lot of fun making the video below. I dearly hope they weren't trying to make some sort of deep meaningful statement with it because that would almost certainly ruin my enjoyment.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Faster, Harder, Louder, Stronger...

It's not unusual for modern records to be based around a sample taken from an earlier song. This isn't altogether a bad thing. The original artiste gets a nice royalty and perhaps an unexpected boost to their pension and the new artiste gets a catchy little ditty on which to hang their own tune. It's a collaboration of sorts and the original artiste will usually have the right of veto if they do not approve of their original riff being exploited inappropriately. All good, nothing bad.

Of course sampling is most commonly used in more recent styles of music - techno, house, hip-hop, ambient, rap and the like. These style generally have a quicker tempo than the styles they are borrowing from. The result is invariably that the sample has to be adapted in order to fit the modern style.

When you spot a sample in a modern record you may recognise it but it's often interesting to go back to what is often the rather obscure original and you'll invariably find it's not quite how you remember it. The new artiste will have played around with it - added a backbeat, bumped up the tempo and other digital trickery. There's nothing new or particularly wrong with that either. You might recognise and think you remember the actual riff but on re-hearing the original you'll be surprised how different it actually was at the time.

I was reminded of this when listening to the following tunes. The first clip is from the new song, and the second clip is the original track that was sampled.

The original song stood up on its own quite well at the time but now sounds positively funereal - it actually sounds like it's been slowed down. It sounds wrong. If you go back to the first song you quickly realise that no-one could play the horn section at the speed it's now being reproduced but it sounds right.

Do we do everything so much faster these days? I guess we do. Let's slow it all down a bit.