I spent yesterday traversing almost the entire width of the UK by train.  This was a largely trouble-free experience, though there was some uncertainty involved between Birmingham and Shrewsbury where the front and rear two cars of my train were briefly in a sort of super-position.  The waveform “collapsed” at Shrewsbury, where two additional “cars” were attached, and I found myself in the correct portion of the train (which had been the front two on arrival, but became the rear two on departure – Shrewsbury acting like a mirror if you are a through train).

This journey left me pondering (not for the first time) the rather curious choice of language employed on the railways.

  • Why do “guards” (or whatever corporate title such folk are given today) refer to the next station stop?  Surely one of the s-words is redundant?  Both would only be required if they announced stations where we will not be stopping, or stops we will be making which do not involve a station – but, I have never heard either of these “events” being announced.
  • When listing the stopping points (stations) of a service, what does the word “only” mean when appended to the list?  I once thought it suggested the train was “limited stop” or somewhat express, and would not be stopping at all possible stations, but “only” is used even when every possible station is to be visited.  Is it perhaps a guarantee of no delays?  Even if a signal is red, unless this is at one of the named stations, this train will take its chances and just keep on going regardless?  Perhaps the word “only” is the signal for the passengers (sorry, customers) to check the wording of their life insurance prior to boarding?
  • Can you have impersonal belongings?  If so, I presume you are at liberty to leave them on the train when you disembark.

The final few yards of the first segment of my journey did leave me wondering if the guard was being sponsored by our destination (or the subject of a bet with a friend or colleague).  As we approached Birmingham New Street (not one of the network’s finer termini) the guard managed to name-check the station no less than eight (8!) times in little more than 60 seconds.  To be honest, once arrived the station made little effort to conceal its identity – and as we were all forced to disembark, if it wasn’t what you were hoping for I don’t think that 60 seconds notice would have been much help (unless it gave affected passengers time to go to their mental “safe place”).

Still, linguistic quirks aside, I still think that rail is the best option for travel beyond the range of a comfortable cycle journey.  It allows one to sleep, drink and read a book (among many other things) – all of which seem to be actively discouraged when driving…

Brevity Levity

Tomorrow, GofaDM is off on its hols to one of the Celtic fringes of this fair land.  Yes, the guiding intelligence(?) behind this blog will be packing a few treasured belongings into a spotted handkerchief and taking the morning train (I have a reservation in the first box car) off to the land of his fathers, look you, boyo.  OK, I’m not going to Bangor (and certainly not Maine), but Barmouth is fairly close and does actually possess a railway station – though lacks the song reference from Roger Miller (how very remiss of him – not even a shout-out for Abermaw).

Wales does tend to be rather communication-technology challenged – but this blog takes its responsibilities seriously and will try and continue from the Principality.  I can’t promise you the sort of searing travel insights to be found on Matathewsiasms – well, I could, but I fear it would only lead to later disappointment (and as a consultant I know the importance of managing expectations downwards) – but only more of the same old rubbish that you have come to know and, presumably, tolerate (or perhaps you are using this blog as a penance?).

As a back-up plan, I have established an account on Twitter (StuartFfoulkes) so that if all else fails I can “tweet” as I believe the modern vernacular would have it.  Yes, I have become a Twit (as I believe the users of Twitter are known) for the third time – obviously, I was already a twit in at least two other senses of that grouping of letters.

Now, I recognise this may be a juxtaposition too far – how can I, a man who has only very rarely managed to précis his thoughts down to 140 words hope to function within a world where you are limited to 140 characters?  Well, a chap in Latvia managed to get a Great Tit to use Twitter (I believe his process involved bacon fat, but having only finite examples of Parus Major to hand – as opposed to bush – produced only gibberish).  If a garden bird can manage it, surely it cannot be wholly beyond me.  I guess only time will tell, but I think things could get ugly…

I do know of at least one place in Wales with wi-fi access – and, luckily, it is one of my favourite places in the whole world.  In the Gwynedd town of Dolgellau lies T H Roberts: once upon a time it was an old fashioned ironmongers – and normally I would deplore the loss of such – but I can forgive its loss to the mongery of iron as it has been transformed into a very friendly cafe, with wi-fi access and more importantly truly excellent cakes!

I fear my vacational timing may be inopportune as summer seems to be coming to an end (there was definitely an autumnal nip in the air as I cycled home from a concert last night), but if Wales delivers on its promise of extensive precipitation then I will be forced to take the advice of Marie Antoinette and “eat cake” rather than that of Julie Andrews and “climb every mountain” (I have a related response to wet weather in Ireland, I find a decent bar and drink Guinness until either (a) it stops raining or (b) I stop caring).  As a result, the author’s weight on his return will be good indicator of climatic conditions whilst away (though, I’d still advise use of a rain gauge for any scientific work).  For interested parties, my departure weight is 12st 10lb (clothed) with an estimated 10% body fat (though I think this latter value should be viewed with some scepticism).

Hwyl fawr! (for now)

Morality Tale

Today’s story concerns a once great sportsman who has fallen on hard times as his life moves into its final years.  He is living in a small flat in an anonymous town, and his one joy in life is a shelf on which are displayed all the medals and trophies from his earlier, illustrious career.  Then, one day, disaster strikes and the shelf collapses – though luckily the sporting memorabilia suffers little damage.

Our hero takes this as a sign and decides to sell his momentos.  The sale nets a surprisingly large amount of money, many tens of thousands of pounds, but rather than keeping the proceeds and improving his lifestyle, our hero gives all the money to charity. Truly, an act of shelf-less generosity.

The inspiration for this improving tale came to me as I lay in agony while my masseur did something unspeakable to my IT bands (part of my leg, rather than my PC) and I noticed the two screws projecting forlornly out of the wall, bereft of shelf.  “Let’s share this pain with others”, thought I – and so now I have!

They’re living among us!

Many external threats to full employment have been identified over the years.

Computers were supposed to lead to a life of leisure for us all and, I suppose you do rarely see a typing pool these days.  However, in my (admittedly limited) personal experience, computers have generated more work (and, indeed, paper – another work-based evil they promised to eradicate) than any other invention in human history.  Worse, we have somehow been persuaded to willingly carry the wretched devices with us – though I still tend to leave my mobile phone at home or have it (accidentally) switched to silent so that it cannot disturb my leisure-time equanimity.

Immigration has always been, and is still, blamed for loss of employment – though I suspect the data may not entirely support this position if properly analysed by a disinterested party.  It seems that people make the effort to come here from abroad and find work, and then rub salt into the wound by often doing their jobs better than the locals.  I’ve always thought immigration was a planning issue – which would help to explain why successive governments have, for centuries, made such a hash of it.  It always seems that proper planning is anathema to governments of all flavours (as opposed to piss-poor planning which is like catnip to the political classes), and they would certainly never be caught implementing something which had been properly tested to check whether it was effective.

However, the latest threat to full employment would seem to come from within – it seems that many of us could soon be replaced by members of order Rodentia (and, as we “know” we are never more than eight feet from one of these).  I read yesterday of the heroRAT project, which uses rats to save lives – clearing landmines and screening for TB in Africa at this stage (though, in this country we have already seen their move into the less heroic field of television presentation and the “saving” of TVam).

The founder of this project (a Belgian Buddhist monk) notes that rats make excellent labourers as they enjoy repetitive tasks, are highly intelligent and are small and lightweight – great for transport to site and working in places that larger, heavier humans would find rather tricky.  They take nine months training from birth to being productive members of society, at a time when most humans are still a drain on societal resources, and are certainly a very long way from being economically productive (even before Lord Shaftesbury, 9 month olds would not have made decent chimney-cleaning fodder).  I should imagine rats’ salary demands would be very modest and it would certainly be pretty straightforward to grow the workforce if demand picks-up.  Rats also only live for 9 years (or thereabouts) and so as a workforce they should not contribute negatively to the forthcoming pensions time-bomb (cut the blue wire, says I).

At this stage, the heroRAT project is using the African giant pouched rat (which I assume comes with pockets) but this is only because they are very common where they are working – there should be no problem using our own indigenous rats as new members of the workforce.  It would be easy to see this as a threat, with rats taking our jobs leading to soaring unemployment and the breakdown of society.  Given that the rats are already living here (and probably out-number us) we can’t really send them home (whatever some politicians will try and tell you) – they’re already home, and most will have called the UK home for more generations than most of its human residents.  No, I say we should embrace this rodent revolution!  With so much work done by our ratty friends (and at such modest cost) perhaps the long promised leisure society can finally be delivered. Obviously, there is a risk that the rats will eventually take over the levers of power and become our masters – but, that will take ages (and by then I’ll be buried ‘neath the clay or have been used to heat a local swimming pool), so for now let us eat, drink and be merry!

Breaking leg…

…wear news.

For many years, I have not been in weekly receipt of a free local “news”paper (perhaps down to buying a new home) but this situation has now changed.  Each Thursday, I take reluctant delivery of the Cambridge News and Crier (though who the lachrymose individual might be is not made clear) which proudly boasts that it is “Free weekly newspaper of the year in the East of England”.

This week’s front page lead (actually, the only story on the front page) relates the harrowing tale of a local lad who has been forced to endure warmer-than-wanted legs as a result of his school’s banning of shorts (the leg wear, rather than the drink – though, as the child is only 12, I presume this is also banned).  To alleviate his distress, he has taken to wearing a skirt – on the grounds that some of his fellow pupils (the girls and any immigrant Scots, I assume) are permitted this luxury.

At the risk of sounding my age, they don’t know they’re born these days!

When I was a lad, I went to school throughout the year in shorts (trudging, thus attired, through the deep Kentish snows of the 1970s) up to the age of eleven.  This was not a school policy, but that of my mother.  As a child I used to fall over quite a lot (so, not much has changed there – except the cause) and my mother reasoned that my knees would mend and my trousers wouldn’t.  The switch to secondary school – with its stricter uniform policy – brought some relief as I was then compelled to wear long trousers.  The requirement for long trousers obtained throughout the year and, being the inmate of an all boys school, the skirt option really wasn’t available.  However, it wasn’t all overheating in my teenage years – when we played football or hockey the teams were distinguished by the members of one team wearing coloured “bibs”.  Well, that was the theory, but as a result of funding issues (I assume that was the cause, though it could just have been sadism) there were not enough bibs – and so one team had to play in “skins”, i.e. naked from the waist up.  Football and hockey were only played in winter, and often in driving rain as I recall – but it never did me any (lasting) harm.

In some ways, the enforced experience of extremes of temperature has proved beneficial in my later life.  I think my childhood rather over-loaded my body’s temperature sensing ability, and as a result when I later moved to Newcastle (the one upon Tyne, and the best – beware imitations) I was well able to fit in with the locals and go throughout the winter wearing minimal clothing (to be brutally frank, I often found myself wearing less than the locals).

I’m not quite as good in heat, but did still manage to give an all day training course, suited and booted, in a London basement office with no opening windows or air-conditioning, when the outside temperature was 38ºC with 100% humidity.  Worse, I was sharing this office with a projector, 4 desktop PCs (not mini-constables) and three Italians.  I did warn the Italians that the office would be hot and they should dress appropriately, but for some reason they assumed I was joking about the lack of cooling and dressed for style (way too much wool) rather than comfort.  Let’s just say, it was very hot in that room and the PCs weren’t the only things humming!  But, we survived – and, at least one of us was able to spin the straw of that day’s suffering into blogging gold (yes, I am the electronic answer to Rumplestiltskin – though I reckon my name would have been even harder to guess)!

I do worry that, in some ways, we are making childhood too easy for our young people and the real world is going to come as a terrible shock (as it did to my Italian friends) when (and, if – let’s face it, I’m still resisting) they grow up.

Pitching a TV Show: The First Attempt

I was shaving this morning, properly, with a blade – actually with 4 blades, though I’m still too scared to switch the vibration option on (I fear a blood bath, or blood sink: as previously established I’m not a big fan of the bath) – and whilst noting that the bathroom sink could do with a clean, came up with a wizard new TV show idea.

I think this idea would be best for a channel like five or Bravo, and could provide a new vehicle for Danny Dyer or Ross Kemp.  The series would be entitled, “Britain’s Hardest Water”, and would involve the presenter looking at tap-water around the country and getting it to demonstrate just how “hard” it is.

Incidentally, tap water provides a nice counter to the traditional north-south stereotyping, whereby the south is generally consider ‘soft’ in all ways.  Trust me, Cambridge tap water is seriously hard – it’s basically liquid marble.

Strange Teutonic Vegetables

I read in today’s Grauniad of a shift in energy policy by Germany, spear-headed by their leader – Angela Merkel.  Germany, as is well-known, is the frequent victim of major earthquakes followed by tidal waves sweeping in from the Baltic and so, in the light of recent, tragic events in Japan, closure of their nuclear power stations will be accelerated – rather than delayed as previously planned.

This leaves a bit of a gap to be filled in their electricity supply – well, that or sitting in the dark – and Ms Merkel’s preferred option is wind power, especially off-shore.  This is not universally popular, as evidenced by the fact that the Germans refer to wind turbines by the rather disparaging sobriquet of “asparagus”.  Now, more astute readers may have deduced that I have a fondness for asparagus – but the vegetable that I eat looks nothing like a wind turbine.  I can only assume that German asparagus is very different from our local cultivar – it must be a rather strange-looking, bladed vegetable.

This story also contained the best bit of re-branding I’ve seen for a long time.  New transmission lines – those lines of transmission towers (or pylons to the uninitiated) and wires that stride across the countryside, normally to a storm of protest and disapprobation – are being referred to as “eco highways”.  These are needed to move power from the north – where the shore and thus, wind is (or soon, will be) – to the south – where the nuclear power is (or soon, was).  I think it remains to be seen if our Teutonic cousins fall for this cunning piece of marketing…

Drip, drip, drop

Today’s title would better describe the total rainfall for April 2011, rather than being part of the rather saccharine word picture for a little April shower (as is more traditional).  It would seem that April was the 11th driest month (of any flavour) in the last 100 years – it seems Cambridge has had less than 5mm of rain since the start of April.

This level of dryness takes me back to October 1978 which was similarly, astoundingly dry – and when I was the principal factotum for the Weather Club at the Kentish Secondary Modern school I was then attending.  I think this was partly because I lived very close to school – and thus our Stevenson screen – and perhaps also because I was the club’s only member (or only active one) other than Mr Woollard who ran it.  It was my daily checking of the school rain gauge that demonstrated the autumnal drought, and which led to the start of my media career.  Somehow, the story was picked up by BBC Radio Kent and I was subjected to an in-depth interview.  But this was such a major story that it was too big to stay in Kent, and later I was whisked from a biology lesson to be interviewed for BBC Radio 1.  This was long before Radio 1 was cool – if, indeed, it is now – and when it had a kid’s strand on a Saturday morning to which my exclusive meteorology-based piece belonged.

In subsequent years, my radio career has rather stalled.  I’ve had a few emails read out on Wake up to Wogan, and appeared on both 209 Radio and BBC Radio Cambridgeshire talking about tennis – I know, who’d have thought: me being interviewed about sport?!  In the latter of these live radio appearances (my earlier, pre-teen radio career was recorded), I correctly predicted the results of both the mens’ and ladies’ singles finals at Wimbledon – so if any readers are interested in my top betting tips, I am available at my normal consultancy rates.

However, that stroll down memory lane – pleasant though it may have been – is rather closely related to a digression (probably too closely to marry).  In fact, I was inspired to write about rainfall – or rather its absence – by a number of recent events.

Last night I was at a concert given by a piano and ‘cello combo (OK, given by their players – but without the stringed devices it would have been reduced to mime or humming).  A splendid programme included Estampes by Claude Debussy – which I am sure you know is divided (like Gaul – cis-Alpine, trans-Alpine and Unmitigated) into three parts, the last of which is entitled “Jardins sous la pluie”.  This reminded me of the recent severe lack of pluie which my garden has found itself beneath – so bad have things become that (a) I may have to retract a previous post and admit that Sawston does have a semi-arid climate and (b) actually pay for water to irrigate my crops.

The news yesterday reported that a European satellite, which goes by the rather dismal monicker of SOMS, can tell how much water there is in soils across Europe by examining microwave emissions – and apparently, they are dry (I know, I should have warned you before making such a shocking and unexpected assertion).  Apparently, the earth (in common with the ancient universe and a small box in my kitchen) emits microwaves – and the quantity varies depending on how moist my garden is.  Could there be some way to tie into this satellite, so that in my absence my tubs and cash crops could be watered automatically?  I feel ESA may have missed a trick here.

My final observation relates to the Met Office here in good ole Blighty.  In normal climatic (i.e. wet, grey and miserable) conditions, their five day forecast invariably shows the 5th day as dry and sunny.  The Met Office is part of the Ministry of Defence, and I think that in order to reduce civil unrest they have instructions to provide a beacon of hope as part of their forecast (they assume everyone will have forgotten the promised improvement by the time it fails to arrive).  Interestingly, in these drier times the 5th day of their forecast always seems to promise rain – though once again, it never seems to be delivered.  I can only assume that their instructions have been changed to reduce the risk of armed insurrection by worried gardeners and farmers… (These people have easy access to rakes, hoes and other sharp or pointed tools, and I doubt our ever diminishing army or police could hope to contain them if they rose in open rebellion).

However, as I’m on holiday next week – I’d quite like Wales (at least) to remain subject to drought conditions for a little while longer…

Speak to the Hand

In a recent post, I made mention of Arthur Darvill and how satisfying I found his name.  I also drew parallels between the character he plays in Doctor Who and myself – but have realised I missed out an important element of shared history.  Not only do Mr Darvill and I share a rather similar physiognomy, but we both worked with a glove puppet when younger.  Not just any glove puppet, but the same glove puppet!  (For the sake of clarity, it wasn’t the same physical puppet – he worked with the original and I merely with a cheap copy.)

In his early career as an actor, Arthur spent a while as the straight-man to Sooty (and, presumably to Sweep and Sue as well).  This position I had always assumed to be an inherited title, passing down through the Corbett male line – but presumably something interrupted the smooth operation of primogeniture.

My own role as Sooty’s side-kick had a rather different genesis which I should perhaps describe.  Previous posts have covered my time spent as a secretary: not of the, “Please take down a memo Miss Jones” school but rather the chap (or chapess, but I was always the chap) to whom fell the lot of taking the minutes of various meetings.  Back in the days of the Electricity Pool – a much less dangerous concept than it may first appear as the Pool involved no actual water – I was the technical secretary (this is to a secretary as a bit part actor is to an extra – you get a speaking part) to various working groups.  These groups were beavering away to deliver Phase 4 of the Pool Rules – and before you ask, we had already covered no diving, bombing or heavy petting in the first three phases.  Phase 4 was to have been (it never did arrive – well not in this universe, but perhaps somewhere parallel, where dodgy facial hair is prevalent, it was implemented) such a huge leap forward(!?) that it required many working groups – with issues that could not readily be allocated to a named group, placed under the purview of the Odds and Ends (née Sods) Working Group at which I recorded the minutes for an ungrateful posterity.

At one particular O&EWG meeting, I found myself standing at a flip chart, the rich, alcoholic aroma of marker pens filling my nose (which might help explain what happened next), re-arranging a particularly thorny piece of legal drafting using de Morgan’s Laws. Apparently, my fellow group members – and more obviously, the legal profession – were not as familiar with formal logic (and some of its more basic results) as our hero. Becoming frustrated with the incomprehension radiating at me from the room, I arranged my right hand as though it were a sock-less sock puppet, placed it by my ear and moved it as though the puppet were talking.  I then began a possibly ill-advised sentence, “What’s that Sooty,…” before going on to impugn my audience for its failure to understand.  (I think I chose Sooty because of his silent nature: a character who I could impersonate without taxing my very limited ventriloquial skills).

Somehow my career survived and some weeks later I came into possession of a Sooty glove puppet (so much more satisfying than a virtual sock) which, for reasons now lost in the mists of time (but possibly as a result of over-indulgence with marker pens), I began bringing to all O&EWG meetings.  Sooty would always appear as present in the minutes – he was one of the only people never to send a substitute – and would act as enforcer for the Chairman.  As a glove puppet, Sooty could say anything to anyone in a meeting (he would merely silently whisper into the Chairman’s ear, who would then pass on the words of flaxen, ursine wisdom).  Added to this, no-one was willing to go down in the minutes arguing with a puppet, even without the fear of what he might achieve using his wand and the words, “Izzy, wizzy, let’s get busy” (though to be honest, this mostly only involved a Corbett – or Darvill – getting wet as far as I can remember).  As a result, pointless discussions and arguments could be quickly ended and the O&EWG was an extremely productive little organisation.

In our world, with its ever growing number of meetings, few (if any) of which are productive, I wonder if it is time to make my puppet as chairman (or chairman’s aide) strategy available (at a fee, obviously) to the wider world?  The puppet doesn’t have to be Sooty, though I think silent characters are best – so perhaps new careers beckon for Fingermouse and Mr Punch’s nemesis, the crocodile, as well.

Discount Diatribe

My little car had a trip out today, for the first time since February!  Whilst the weather was more than good enough to cycle, arriving at the car repairers with my bike would not have been entirely helpful, so I had to drive.  Luckily, I still seem to remember how to do it – I could even work the clutch – so hopefully the very minor damage to the front bumper inflicted by a reversing French family will soon be restored to its original, pristine state.

Whilst on my way to the wilds of northern Cambridge, I passed an advertisement which I presume its makers believe indicates bargains ahoy, but which is of a form that always irritates me.  On previous occasions, I have been forced to seethe quietly to myself – but now I have an outlet for my annoyance.  Yes, dear reader, it’s you.

The sign today had the text “Always up to 60% off” inscribed upon its surface, but very similar slogans have been used for years by many retailers.  What this sign does is to place a limit on the amount of discount available from the retailer in question, i.e. it says that nothing in their emporium ever has a discount of greater than 60% (and that is all it says).  If no sign existed, then prices could have any amount of discount – 70%, 90% even 100%.  The sign does not preclude some or all items being for sale at many times their normal price.

Given that such advertisements actually limit the bargains which a shopper might find, I am forced to conclude that either they are an attempt to discourage business or that the slogan writers do not understand what they are saying.  A far more compelling offering would be “Always at least 60% off” – though this may adversely affect the viability of the store over time.  However, given the long-term use of such slogans it may be that they work.  Perhaps I should open a store and suggest that it “always has up to 100% off” (which provides no more information that a blank sheet of paper, unless you consider that negative prices are possible) and then charge double the normal price for everything. They (not sure who “they” are) do say you will never lose money betting on human stupidity, so perhaps my scheme will lead me to untold riches – though, to be honest I really have no idea what I would do with untold riches.  Nor did we cover in degree level Mathematics what magnitude of riches “untold” represents – perhaps it is related to the measurement problem in quantum physics, as soon as you look at your bank statement and are thus “told” the level of your riches, then you no longer have untold riches?  Should I aim for, the equally ill-defined, riches beyond the dreams of avarice instead?