Banana Welding

As I prepared my breakfast this morning, I noticed that my bananas were ripening and gaining the traditional dark freckles. This process is quite interesting (apologies to Stephen Fry) and a banana can be used to ripen other fruit, tomatoes being the classic example. Ripeness is transmitted from fruit-to-fruit (OK, strictly speaking, from herb to fruit) through the emission of the gas ethyne (which may be known to older readers as acetylene).

Acetylene (in conjunction with oxygen) is famously used for welding and cutting – and I found myself wondering how many bananas I would need to perform a basic weld.

Thinking further, and recognising the rather explosive nature of ethyne, I began to worry about the safety of my fruit bowl. On a larger scale, if a banana boat were delayed in transit such that its contents began to ripen would there be a risk of it being blown to kingdom come? Are banana warehouse workers required to avoid sparks or naked flames?

The explosion risk from custard powder is well known. I’m now starting to think that banana custard could be the world’s most dangerous dessert. I can’t understand why this hasn’t been front page news in the Daily Mail – middle England has the right to be terrified.

Fountain

A couple of weeks ago I was in Geneva – I know, get me! It’s not even the first time I’d been to Europe (or indeed, beyond my home continent).

One thing I noticed in Geneva – and have observed across much of northern Europe – is the quite splendid design of the urinals. Whilst not (perhaps) ready-made art, they function well and entirely without splash back from the porcelain to the legs of your trousers. This suggests that designing a pissoir which leaves your trousers dry is entirely within the scope of current human technological achievement. As a result, I found myself wondering why the UK is so utterly bereft of such well-designed aids to masculine micturation.

I am forced to assume that Armitage Shanks is a front for some vast Dry Cleaning industry conspiracy – a conspiracy which has been successfully resisted by our cousins across the North Sea.

The Curse of the Sibyl

As I have alluded to before, my day job requires me to predict the future like a modern day sibyl.  In these modern times, I am no longer required to check fresh poultry entrails, inhale volcanic vapours whilst sitting atop a tripod or prepare and over-interpret detailed star charts.  Instead, the “gift” comes from within – through an admixture of relentless logic and pure guesswork.

Whilst the soothsayers of old could leave the future behind them when they clocked off, putting away the gizzards, tripod, tea leaves or cards, I carry the future with me into my home life.  At its simplest, I find myself regularly dating cheques in the distant future – however, there are also more disturbing consequences of a mind rather weakly anchored to the present.

Police procedurals or detective dramas can be all too predictable as a little knowledge of basic narrative structure allied to some forecasting ability makes it all to easy to predict who done it (and the likely twists needed to keep the denouement at bay until the allotted running time is up).  More worryingly, I find myself applying the same principles to crime stories in the news – an arena in which narrative convention is rarely properly served.

This evening, I found myself (inadvertently) using my second sight to anticipate punchlines coming up in The Now Show – and then feeling both strangely pleased, and slightly disappointed, when the skit or joke developed in the expected fashion.

However, the most alarming incidence occurred in my working life a few years back.  In an earlier phase of my job sequence (aka my career) I spent a lot of time going to long committee meetings (10 hours was not at all unusual) and taking the minutes (whilst the hours were taken from me – ah, the cruel irony).  As you might imagine, this was not always totally stimulating and I developed a number of strategies to entertain myself (of which more, perhaps, in later posts).  Perhaps the most basic was to use the lacunae between moments of interest to study the other committee members (I think perhaps I am a frustrated anthropologist).  Over time, I was able to construct quite effective internal representations of my fellows and began to find their actions somewhat predictable.

In a moment of madness, I decided to write the minutes before the meeting began.  I then took this “draft” and a PC (by which I mean a computer rather than an officer of the law, though that might also have been fun) to the meeting (a mere 5 or 6 hour session as I recall) to make any necessary adjustments during the meeting.  As it transpired, almost nothing needed to be changed and everyone behaved as predicted, I had only to add a couple of items of Any Other Business which I had failed to foresee.  I was then able scamper upstairs (to a nearby printer), print the minutes and hand them out as people were leaving the meeting.  I never did this again, I scared myself too much – I think it may have slightly alarmed everyone else as I clearly had typed virtually nothing over the preceding hours.  How did he do it?

On that day, I decided that in future I should only use my gift for evil – never frivolously.

Festival Accretion Inequality

Given the current season, my mind was drawn to consider the extraneous material that seems to accrete around religious festivals.  A festival is, of course, just a feast day – but given the rather limited number of days in the year and the plethora of Saints, I presume every day could be considered a feast day.  In an attempt to limit my scope for rambling, I will limit myself to the two largest Christian festivals: Christmas and Easter.

Easter is timed to steal the thunder from the pre-existing Pagan fertility festival of Eostre.  This may have been named for the eponymous goddess, though the only mention of her comes from the Venerable Bede, whose journalistic integrity is in some doubt.

Beyond the name, the only obvious non-Christian accretion to Easter would seem to be an egg-laying rabbit (or possibly hare).  Regardless of the chosen member of the Genus Lepus, the laying of eggs would seem to require the intervention of some mad geneticist. However, both eggs and rabbits do smack of fertility which may suggest some reference back to Eostre.  Rather a limited set of accretions I think you will agree.

When we come to Christmas, however, the accretions are astonishingly extensive.  As with Easter, it is timed to usurp Pagan celebrations – this time of the winter solstice. This would suggest that the timing was decided at some distance from the Equator, where (to be brutally frank) the solstice is rather a non-event.

It would seem that our interest in holly, ivy, mistletoe and pine trees refers back to this older festival and the desire to see something green in the depths of winter – this presumably pre-dated the airfreighting of avocados and Kenyan “French”beans to our shores.  Mistletoe has huge Pagan significance, apparently signifying the divine male essence – presumably any readers of the distaff persuasion would point to its parasitic nature in support of this claim.

Added to the Christmas tree we have a whole range of baubles and trinkets, tinsel and (usually) a winged human figure at its apogee.   Whilst a star or angel has some link to the original Christmas story, I can only assume the fairy some how snuck in with Santa’s elves.

Santa Claus evolved (or perhaps was intelligently designed) from St Nicholas or possibly Basil – both of Greek extraction and once resident in Asia Minor.  He may also have some connection to Odin – though I don’t recall the red suit and bulging sack from the last time I sat through the Ring Cycle.  However, the nibelungen could perhaps have become Santa’s elves – they did manage to forge at least one gold ring (only 4 more to go plus sundry birds et al).

St Nick was a busy chap – leaving coins in people’s shoes (apparently charity rather than practical joke), producing wheat without the whole tedious business of arable farming and pre-empting William Ewart Gladstone by saving young ladies from a life on the game.  Oddly, his current chimney bothering antics seem to be derived from his shoe-based investment strategy.

The North Pole and reindeer mythological additions seem to be North American – though surely, elk or caribou would be more geographically sound.  Wonderfully, in Sweden santa used to arrive on a special Christmas goat – a tradition I think we should embrace in these financially straightened times.  With reindeer came the sleigh – again, a major saving for the Xmas goat option – and with the sleigh, the bells.  These bells have now reached a degree of seasonal ubiquity that approaches immanence – any piece of music can instantly be made seasonal by the addition of sleigh bells.  If historically accurate, the level of noise pollution during the winter months in the Scandinavia of yore must have been appalling.

The Christmas card was clearly a cunning marketing wheeze by the early Victorian Post Office.  Their subject matter spans the full range from the Pagan and Christian Festivals to extracts from the I-Spy Book of Winter.

So many accretions, and I haven’t even started on the food.  Large birds with small brassicas seem important (this does seem worryingly like a double entendre now I see it in print) – in some sort of alternative universe (such a popular narrative device in Star Trek, where it was flagged to the audience through the judicious use of a goatee beard) do they perhaps eat a quail or poussin with a cauliflower or January King perhaps?  The marketing departments of the dried fruit business should have received some pretty decent bonuses in days of yore.  Not only do their wares appear in mincemeat and pies, but in the Christmas pudding and cake too – they cover every meal and the snacks too!

So, the big question I have is, why has Christmas acquired so many more accretions over the years than Easter?  I suppose it has, at least nominally, roughly 30 years more history – but I don’t think anyone was developing tinsel or boiling sprouts in the early years of the first century AD.  I wonder if it is just that people had nothing much else to do in winter than develop ever more surreal myths.  Any better ideas?

[Aren’t we all glad I avoided rambling?!]

IT Vocabulary

At the start of what I laughably call my career, but might more honestly refer to as a sequence of jobs, I had only two objectives. These were to work neither in accounts nor IT – I have been rather successful in the former aim but have at times sailed rather close to working in IT.

As a result of my exposure to the world of IT, I have had reason to ponder its choice of vocabulary. In my experience, working with computers is an essentially sedentary pursuit with little beyond the fingers and hands getting much in the way of a work-out. Perhaps it is in an attempt to compensate for the relative dullness of their drab, wretched lives that people in IT tend to use such exciting words to describe what they do.

Rather than starting a piece of software, I find people tend to treat it like a condemned prisoner and “execute code” or like the face of Helen and a thousand ships they might “launch an app” or most prosaically get a cardiovascular work-out by “running a program”.

People are no calmer when choosing to finish with their software, recalcitrant programmes are “killed” or “terminated” as though the user were some sort of geek assassin.

Even the modern computer keyboard offers the – largely undelivered – promise of “Escape”.

Everyone “surfs” the web – mere browsing can never compete. Even the names of the browsers encourage us to feel like Captain Cook or Dr Livingstone as we use Explorer or Safari.

Looking at a single hardware manufacturer (Dell), even the products have overly exciting names – the Blade, the Streak (I presume a reference to speed rather than nudity) and, my personal favourite, the Inspiron. I guess that the Inspiron must be the gauge boson which carries the Inspiration field (the analogue of the photon for the electromagnetic field). The ancient Greeks had inspiration delivered by the muse in guise of fire, but in today’s scientific world it is good to see this has been placed on a solid theoretical footing. I eagerly await the first evidence of an Inspiron from the LHC at which time it can take its rightful place in the Standard Model.

O’erweening self importance

Of late, I have been distressed to find myself waiting in spaces where Sky News is playing. I am astounded that they have not been sued for breach of copyright by Chris Morris. I had thought that “The Day Today” was a satire or parody – but the folk at Sky would seem to have taken it as an instruction manual. Indeed, they would seem to have gone even further over the top than did the estimable Mr Morris – the graphical cut-scenes, the fanfares and the CGI workspace in which the newsreaders are placed.  Truly, satire is very hard to pull off in the 21st century when it is so rapidly overtaken by real life.

Excessive optimism?

I recently had cause to buy a Pay-As-You-Go (PAYG) mobile phone, which is not something I do terribly often and I found that the purchase process was surprisingly long-winded. As I was twiddling my thumbs, I found myself recalling a scene in the recent movie “The Bourne Ultimatum” in which our eponymous hero buys a PAYG phone on Waterloo station. This process took a matter of seconds and did not appear to involve any specialist spy-related skills.

Before you object and suggest my ability to separate fact and fiction has been eroded even further than usual, I should make clear that I do realise that The Bourne Ultimatum is a work of fiction and was not intended as a documentary or “how-to” guide. However, I had clearly not realised the degree of artistic licence that this small scene involved – had it occurred in the real world, I fear the film would have ended well before the first reel was over (though it would have been quite a long and tedious first reel).

The actual process takes nearly 15 minutes, including the laborious completion of paperwork by hand – not quite the bleeding edge of technology I might have anticipated. Part of this process required the written transposition of the serial number of the SIM card to paper.

I was amazed to discover that the serial number has 19 digits, this would mean that it could uniquely identify 10 to the power of 19 different SIM cards. This is an awful lot of SIMs – the world has a population of around 6 billion with forecasts that it might reach 14 billion by 2100 (that is – roughly – 10 to the power of 10 people). This means that there are enough SIM card serial numbers available for every man, woman or child on earth to get through some one billion SIM cards (each) during their lifetime. I know some people have several mobile phones, and others are terribly careless – but this still seems a lot of headroom to me.

Do the mobile phone companies have some expectation of an unprecedented population explosion, beyond even Malthus’s worst nightmares? Or are they about to start marketing their wares to a new audience? Termites perhaps? Or some similarly numerous species? I’m not sure I’m that happy for Phylum Athropoda to have access to modern telecommunications. To be honest, I’m far from convinced that the networks can handle it – especially, if our insect friends get into on-line social networking (Bee-bo anyone? Chitter perhaps?).