Seasonal traditions

The current time of year is rich in traditions: I presume because we, like our ancestors before us, need something to help us through the short, dark days of winter.  One such tradition is to bemoan how early Christmas now starts – a tradition which predates Christmas itself, though in ancient Rome it was Saturnalia which seem to start earlier each year.  It seems that if you steal a festival and re-brand it for your aggressively proselytising  new religion, you may also acquire its problems along with the (perhaps) more desirable feasting and gift-giving elements.

Since I was first brought forth upon this verdant globe, I have spent Christmas with my family.  Initially, I was offered little choice in the matter – precocious indeed is the baby or toddler who is able to make and execute alternative arrangements – but I have continued in this manner long after I could do something else.  Partly this must be force of habit, partly my complete failure to come up with an alternative but I think mostly because it is good to come together as a family with a common purpose from time-to-time.  Since my nephew arrived on the scene, we are joined by someone who understands (one of) the true meaning(s) of Christmas.  Was I really ever that excited about the contents of a parcel?  Or about the idea of a cracker?  From this distance in time, it is hard to believe that I was ever so excitable (well, at such modest provocation, anyway) – but then again, was I really such an odd child that I viewed December 25 with cool detachment?  I’m guessing not, though I did used to respond to the question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” with the unhelpful and somewhat unambitious response “Alive” – so perhaps I was.

As well as the Saturnalian feasting and gift-giving, we also usually try and fit in some sort of family game on Christmas Day.  This year we played Articulate! (for Kids) which was great fun.  I had my worries given the age-range of the participants and the noun-blindness which afflicts older members, but it was surprisingly close fought.  As folk try to describe a word against the clock (or mini egg timer, for the avoidance of doubt the timer was mini, rather than the egg), secrets can inadvertently be blurted out – let’s just say that my brother-in-law would appear to use a rather unexpected item of bathroom furniture for washing.  Actually, a number of recent events have reminded me how much fun board (and similar) games can be – one was remembering Fluxx, a card game I one saw played and which my nephew is now old enough to play. I think this is enormous fun as the game changes itself as you play, and as we all know I love a bit of recursion (me and Alonzo Church).  An article in The Guardian led me back to Will Wheaton and his YouTube channel where he and chums play tabletop games and it would seem that there are lot of rather entertaining games out there, including an even more complicated version of Fluxx called Star(r) Fluxx – which we may tackle once we have mastered the basic version.  It looks like the Art House cafe here in Southampton has a board games night and I think I may have to start going – as it can be quite tricky to play these games alone (or against a wall).

On Boxing Day, weather permitting, some sort of modest walk is called for – to burn off a few tens of the many thousands of recently consumed calories.  In recent years this has tended to involve the bracing promenade at Bexhill.  I like to include the consumption of a sea-front ice-cream as part of this ritual – though this year, no other promenader seemed willing to join me.  Lightweights!

As I don’t live with my family – for that way lies madness (or more madness at any rate) – tradition requires me to travel.  In my many carless years, this was done by train – but as recent users of Kings Cross have found, this is not without its problems – so in recent years I have used my car.  In fact, nearly 50% of my current vehicle’s road miles have come from the last four years of Christmas-based driving.  Driving home for Christmas isn’t too bad (despite what Chris Rea would have you believe) as the roads are very quiet which makes the experience as close to pleasant as driving gets in these traffic-afflicted Isles.  The driving also necessitates my annual purchase of petrol, which traditionally falls on Boxing Day as I journey homeward, and involves me guessing on which side of my car the petrol filler cap lies (this year I guessed correctly, it is on the passenger’s side and so no embarrassing repositioning of the car or desperate stretching of the hose was required for once).

To help the journey pass more pleasantly, I listen to the radio (some of it previously preserved in the form of podcasts).  Shaun Keaveny delivered me to my family and a combination of items from Radio 4 took me home – we had comedy, history and semiotics.  I also had the latest edition of In Our Time, entitled “Truth” – nothing like a little late night philosophy to make the miles just fly by.  This programme demonstrated that though Melvin can appear several sheets to the wind on occasion, he is still a more responsible broadcaster than me: I would have been unable to resist uttering the words, “The truth? You can’t handle the truth” at some point during the show had I been at the helm.

Being away for Christmas means that it does end rather abruptly when you return home, there are none of the traditional seasonal leftovers to gorge on in the lull before the New Year.  What I do have to gorge on after my return home are the televisual and radio treats I missed while away – and this year, as so often, the majority of the treats were on the wireless.  Not only the triumphant end to John Finnemore’s brilliant Cabin Pressure (I know he is probably a tad young for this, but I’m starting the campaign for JF as National Treasure now) but also a dramatisation of Good Omens along with a whole stack of other seasonal Radio 4 treats.

This year, as I have guests joining me in a modest consecration to the god Janus, the flat does have a mildly festive air with a few Pagan symbols festooning my “tree” (which at other times of the year holds postcards: in this house a I do like to “sweat” my assets!).  And given the Hatton blood (from my paternal grandmother’s family) that courses through my veins, the change of year should be massively over-catered – no-one leaves my home with soft arteries – so there is some hope of left-overs come the end of the week.   In the meantime, I must devote myself to menu planning, cooking and appeasing the Lares (or, if you prefer, overcoming local entropy) to ensure that all is ready for the new latty’s first overnighting guests – very bold!

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Carving the crest of the technology wave

The reader should not imagine me poised with chisel and hammer in hand (well, unless that floats your boat in which case, given the season, feel free to indulge yourself), but I instead use the word “carving” in its surf-slang sense.  I have noted before the disparity between mundane (even dull) activities and the verbs used to described them, but “surfing” the web must take the biscuit.  It also seems to involve some pretty serious mixing of metaphors – I know of a diving-bell spider, but none that actually surfs (though YouTube – purveyor of cat videos and youthful “sensations” to toffs and gentry – does include spiderlings kite-surfing, with some fairly substantial stretching of the definition).   Still, if we going to appropriate some of the “cool” of surfing when we are sitting at our laptop clicking on links, then let’s go the whole hog.

I like to think of myself as reasonably tech-savvy, though long gone are my days of coding in Z80 or 6502 machine code.  I feel modern IT folk have grown lazy with incredibly powerful processors coupled to heaps of memory and storage, in my day you had to fit it into 16K which certainly kept your code compact (if undocumented and hard to debug).  Nevertheless, the ghost of Ned Ludd does haunt the emergent processes assumed to arise somewhere in the wetware between my ears.  As a result, the vast majority of the reading material, music, TV and movie content which I own exists primarily in the form of physical media.  To create an analogy with economics, I have yet to move far from the gold standard.

Recent events have caused me to dip my figurative toe rather further into the virtual waters and begin to accept content without any traditional physical presence.  Downsizing as I moved to Southampton has rather brought home to me how much space physical media consume – indeed, most of my library still languishes in a storage unit a good 5 minute hike from my home.  It is also becoming increasingly difficult to acquire physical versions of some movies and TV series.  Finally, it is convenient to be able to carry more of one’s entertainment library to make happier the growing portion of my life whiled away in airports or on rail-replacement bus services – and I am a chap who likes to travel light and the combined state of even a very large number of NAND gates is really very light indeed.

So, of late I have started to acquire movies and TV series through iTunes – I was unable to find any supplier who I was convinced paid an appropriate level of tax to HMRC, so went with convenience on the Mac in lieu of civic virtue.  Despite the foibles of iTunes, the process is pretty painless and the content plays back very nicely on the Mac and via a £15 cable on my TV (more expensive options are available).  I now have a modest library of entertainment I can use on the go, which along with the iPlayer and a whole set of podcasts, has made my recent business travel rather more pleasant than it might have been.  What the world still lacks is the ability to download radio programmes using the iPlayer, we radio buffs remain second-class citizens in this culture dominated by the visual (whereas, we – the cognoscenti – know that the pictures are better on the radio).

Despite this leap into the future (OK, recent past), most of my viewable content remains on silvery discs of various forms.  Earlier in the week, I was watching one of these and – for some reason – paid slightly more attention than normal to all the legal warnings that proceed such a viewing (warnings which are pleasingly absent from the iTunes equivalent).  These referred to the content of the DVD in question as “this cinematograph”.  Ahoy-hoy, I thought.  Have I stumbled upon a rare Edwardian DVD, no doubt delivered from the States by autogyro?  It would seem not as IMDB is convinced that Donnie Darko was not produced until 2001, making an Edwardian DVD copy doubly unlikely – though as the film is based around some fairly odd temporal mechanics it can’t be entirely ruled out. I think William of Ockham would prefer the assumption that the legal warning had been written by an Edwardian and not updated since before the talkies caught on.  The cinematograph was invented in 1890s and UK legislation referencing it dates back to 1909, though even in these Isles this must surely have been largely superseded by now?  One of the unions involved in cinema and allied trades, BECTU, founded in 1991 retained the word in its name (but this strikes me as a nod to history, one of its components being the ACTT, which was founded in 1933).  So, I think it is perhaps time for the film industry and dust off its terms and conditions and give them a much needed update.  I do wonder if this Edwardian terminology explains why unauthorised sharing of content is referred to as “piracy”?  Rather than referring to pirates, perhaps footpads (or feetpad?) would be more in keeping? – if nothing else, it clearly removes any romantic associations from the activity (though I strongly suspect any romance attached to piracy was nothing to do with added anyone involved).

Musically too, I have embraced streaming – an activity I had previously reserved for times of a heavy cold or more severe rhinitis.  Streaming music services have not enjoyed wholly positive publicity, but I decided that low as the payments to artists were they were higher than from the radio and certainly better than nothing (which, frankly, was the alternative).  For me at least, streaming acts as a music discovery (or re-discovery) service which can lead to buying music which might otherwise have had to wait another decade or two for its purchase.  I have also started using it as an alternative to fishing a CD out of the other room – which is a new new feather in my cap-of-laziness™ and definitely bonus (if very modest) income for the musicians.  I am rather enjoying access to quite so much music on demand – it means I’m willing to try stuff, rather than just relying on it to turn up on the radio (which was the old method), which should expand my musical taste.  I have yet to stream away from the home – but as much of such free time is spent in the wilds of Surrey and Hampshire where a mobile phone signal is rarely found, this is not entirely my fault (I also worry about the drain on the all-too-finite battery resources of the modern smartphone).  I have been using Spotify (a myriad other options are available) and find the quality of its sound more than sufficient for the quality of my ears.  I do have a few tracks which use FLAC (which is supposed to be better), but I fear without an upgrade to my own auditory equipment it would be difficult to justify the additional cost and storage requirements.  I know scientists have grown a human ear on a mouse, but I don’t recall anything praising the fidelity of its sonic performance nor its ready availability for those with sub-standard auricular appendages (as well as poor sonic performance, mine are also entirely useless for retaining in-ear headphones) – so I suspect I may have to make do with the current equipment for a while yet.

So, despite aspirations to curmudgeon-hood, I find my life drifting inexorably into the twenty-first century.  If I continue at my current pace, by the time I retire I may be able to fit into a studio flat – and need little AV equipment beyond my laptop and a decent pair of headphones.  I think this is probably a good thing – as long as nothing happens to the laptop!

It’s a wrap!

I am finally ready (more-or-less) for the forthcoming Winterval, with the last of the parcels wrapped.  I do, to an extent (basically the extent that requires little or no exertion on my part), attempt to avoid the more obvious stereotypes of the modern man – but I find I am very poor at wrapping.  This is particularly distressing given the hours I devoted to squares of coloured paper and the instructions of Roger Harbin as a child.  Sadly, despite my knowledge of the mountain, valley and squash folds I seem unable to apply my origami skills to the wrapping of even the most cuboid of presents (and I do focus on cuboid gifts – if any reader wants a ball, then they would be advised to seek elsewhere for satisfaction). Either wrapping paper is too thick and/or stiff (oh, er, missus) or it is the attempt to encase another object which throws me – or that is my theory.

Last Christmas, no-one gave me their heart (OK, they may have done and I failed to notice) but I did buy a roll of rather stylish, mostly silver wrapping paper.  Worried that this would be insufficient I acquired another roll: just-in-case.  The original roll was more than adequate to Christmas 2013 and has now also dealt with Christmas 2014 and shows promising signs of also covering next year’s seasonal wrapping needs.  I have no idea how many metres of wrapping paper I acquired on this roll, but I begin to suspect it may have been sufficient to wrap a small moon (or large space station – which would certainly help keep X-wing fighters out of the vents).  Having discovered another two rolls of seasonal paper in storage (marked “Bedding”) last week, I think I may have enough wrapping paper to see me out.  I think I now have a new ambition, to live long enough to run out of wrapping paper!

In other Kwanzaa-related news, I have now watched the Muppet Christmas Carol, been to a very fine carol concert – at which I even had a chance to sing, though sadly no Adeste Fideles this year – and watched a BBC4 documentary on winter art.  So, this is about as festive as I am going to be – if you like, you can imagine me jingling something (I’m not, but feel free to imagine it).  As I have visitors coming for the New Year, I might even put up some decorations – I’m virtually Santa!  If you have not yet exhausted your imagination, you might like to think about three hydroxyl groups and a mirror.  OK, as it’s Christmas I’ll help you out : HO-HO-HO- (but don’t expect this sort of spoon-feeding at other times of year).

I’m metablog the eighth, I am, I am.

It struck me that the ever popular metablog strand has not seen any content for a while: two-and-a-half years according to WordPress.  As I’m sure the worldwide howls of protest about this omission will be reaching me momentarily, I decided to act now and throw this hastily prepared and ill thought-out example into the breach.

As I believe was traditional, I will start with the unexpected geographical popularity of a post.  Our ex-colonies over the Atlantic seem to be drawn to Crossrail (a rant where I get cross about the railways in these isles) like cats to the eponymous nip – but for the life of me I cannot see the attraction to those from the US of A.  Maybe it is the novelty value of railways of any form that draws them in?

Whilst on the topic of transport, I can report that my plan to retain a cleaner, redder car has been a success.  Eight weeks in and the car remains almost pristine (the strawberry car) in its new resting place – sadly, it hasn’t moved in that period but another trip to the tip is in the offing and the annual Christmas excursion to see the family (mine, rather than its).

Since eating the flesh of the wascally wabbit last weekend, I fear I may have been possessed by the ghost of Elmer Fudd.  Earlier in the week I found myself reading the label on a bottle of apple juice as wusset (though did avoid saying egwemont wusset).  This infection is spreading, earlier today I found myself saying bwamwey.

I am relieved to report that my lottery prediction was almost entirely inaccurate, though I did get the Bonus Ball spot on!  (If anyone fancies a punt on number 27 tonight, then be my guest).  I can return to my pre-existing beliefs in probability, coincidence and the rather duff nature of the Met Office’s take on the likelihood of precipitation.

I have been forced to further embrace the spirit of Christmas, despite the very real urge to resist the peer pressure.  I have had my first (and second) mince pie of 2014 and more-or-less finished my Christmas shopping without too much pain (and no need to resort to physical violence – still, you can’t have everything!).  Last night, I even went to the Brightside PT Christmas bash – which was fun, though people didn’t engage with the games as much as they might.  I have re-watched Arthur Christmas and I rather think tonight it will be turn of the Muppet Christmas Carol as I attempt to stoke the embers of Christmas spirit within.  I think my inner Scrooge is on the wane.

Spurred on by the success of the Snow Queen, I have even been to another family-friendly play.  As work took me to London on Thursday, I decided to use the opportunity (and funded rail ticket) to enjoy some evening fun and plumped for Treasure Island at the National Theatre.  This choice was driven by its handy location next Waterloo station (good for a relatively early night) but also the somewhat inexplicable availability of a single seat in the centre of the 3rd row for a mere £15 (when all around it seats were £50).  The seat was as close to perfect as one can find at the Olivier, and also allowed a very fast exit in the interval allowing me to nab an ice-cream, despite the substantial numbers of (slower moving) children (and their paying parents).  The production was wonderful and loads of fun – better even than the Muppet version of the tale.  The set (or sets, to be honest) were amazing – there must be vast caverns under the Olivier to store and manoeuvre it all – and there were sword-fights, blood and gore (for the kiddies), laughs galore, an animatronic parrot, far more female characters than Robert Louis Stephenson wrote and a cheese-obsessed Tom Gunn.  What more could anyone seek from a night out?  I think there is a lot more theatrical potential in cheese than is widely realised, should any playwrights happen to be reading..

So, readers can now imagine me as a tinsel be-decked Elmer Fudd with a shiny red car (albeit one without unearned – or wanted – millions of pounds).  It won’t be entirely accurate, but is certainly more festive than the last inaccurate image I offered.

Beating the odds

I have had to travel outdoors on three separate occasions today, each in a separate hour of the day.  On each occasion the Met Office had suggested the probability of rain was <5% (which is as unlikely as they will ever admit rain to be in these temperate, maritime lands).  On each occasion, I was rained upon.  Given that the Met Office had the opportunity to revise their estimates after each bout of rain, but left them unchanged I am going to assume that there was no cross-correlation between the three incidents of rain.  So, today I have already beaten odds of 8000-1 – and probably much greater than that as the probability of rain could have been a lot less than 5%.

Part of me likes to think that the clustering of extreme events around me makes it a good time to buy a lottery ticket.  The lapsed mathematician within tells that part that this is arrant nonsense, the “system” has no memory and there is no reason to believe that becoming unexpectedly damp correlates in the slightest degree with the (presumably) random choice of plastic balls.  However, if anyone (of a less rational or more hopeful bent) is interested my pick for the next National Lottery draw is: 33, 35, 37, 39, 46 and 48 (Bonus Ball 1).  If anyone chooses these numbers and, as a result, becomes insanely wealthy I shall expect a modest cut!

Incidentally, if those numbers do win big at the next draw (whenever that is) I may have to rethink the whole basis of my life.  At the very least it would be deeply disturbing…

Unexpected descriptions of the author

The title might equally have said “inaccurate” as you will see.  I try to live by the Delphic maxim to “Know Thyself” and as this blog has oft noted, I live both alone and with an idiot.  Like everyone else (I assume), I am occasionally dazzled by my own genius – but this feeling is quickly replaced as my default stupidity re-asserts control.

I have as recently as the last month been referred to as “young man” by someone who was not obvious mentally or optically deficient nor in imminent hopes of an express communication from Her Majesty.  I like to imagine this is down to my boyish good looks (well, I like to imagine that I could imagine that), but fear it may have more to do with my childish demeanour.

A while back, a friend – who knows me reasonably well – asked me the following question: “When did you realise you had an extraordinary mind?”.  I admit I struggled to furnish them with any sort of answer, though like to imagine that I blushed modestly (maybe even coquettishly).  If there is one thing a maths degree, the 27 years thereafter and writing this blog has taught me then it is that I have a very pedestrian mind.  At best, I have a half decent memory and have managed to maintain a curiosity about the world around me – which helps to keep the contents of my memory topped up with new pieces of useless information.

A few months ago, a chap approached me in the gym and asked me how I managed to be so “super-fit”.  I will admit that he was somewhat more stricken in both years and girth than I am (and seemed to have put his whites and reds into the same wash), however, I am a country mile from super-fit.  Trying to be a gymnast in my late 40s, I do sometimes watch real gymnasts who would merit this label – and my level of fitness is a very very long way away.  I suppose I am probably fitter than your average bear (of 48), and would certainly by willing to pilfer some dainties from an unguarded picker-nick basket (if the opportunity arose) – but that is as close as I get.

This very morn, when the mercury was still cowering under the duvet with its electric blanket on, I cycled across town to the gym.  I did this, as is my wont (unless it is very wet), in shorts – as this means one less item of clothing to put on and remove and means that I can forego the cycle clip (which can bite into my calves).  Whilst waiting at one of the many traffic lights that Southampton affords the traveller, a youth scampered across the road by me.  His gaze seemed drawn to my lallies – catching as they were the gloom of the morning sun obscured by cloud – and he called out “You are a lad” [his emphasis], grinning broadly before he continued to scamper across the road (in a manner which would have horrified Tufty) before entering the nearby Police Station.  He didn’t strike me as a PC or brief, so may perhaps have been a local scally – though one, I like to imagine, with a heart of gold.  I’ve never really thought of myself as a lad – even when I was age-appropriate to the epithet (and would a true lad use the word “epithet”?) – but this compliment (however misplaced), from one who should probably know, buoyed me up on a chilly morn.

So, if I were to believe others, I could start to see myself as a hyper-intelligent, lad-hunk.   They do say “See yourself as others see you” – but in this case I should probably pass.  Luckily, all the while that reflective surfaces and even a modicum of self-awareness remain available to me I shall continue to recognise myself as a middle-aged, clumsy idiot – which is a lot closer to the Delphic truth (and not a tripod seat in sight).

Theatrical lessons

Last week, I rather rashly enjoyed evenings of culture on three separate (and worse, consecutive) school nights.  This, in itself, taught me the valuable (if fairly obvious) lesson that I really don’t have the stamina for this degree of fun – however, this is not either of the two lessons I plan to bore you with this e’en (as I’m writing.  You may like to read this post during an evening yourself to reproduce some of the appropriate ambience).

The third night of culture involved some of Vivaldi’s lesser known sacred B-sides, which was enjoyable but did not generate any particular insights in this particular member of the audience.  The two earlier nights were spent at the theatre and each did generate a lesson which will help to guide me in what remains of my time on earth.

On Tuesday night, I managed to blag a free ticket to the press night of the Nuffield Theatre’s production for Christmas (not a panto).  OK, blag is probably not the right word – as a supporter of the theatre, the free ticket was one of my perks – but blagging sounds so much more exciting.  The production was a version of The Snow Queen and was very entertaining: a great success with the middle-aged man demographic (as represented by the author), but I believe the much younger folk present had fun too.   Without the free ticket, I probably would’t have gone – thinking myself too old and lacking a convenient child to provide a fig-leaf of plausibility – but that would have been my loss.

Talking of being too old, Southampton’s other theatre – the Mayflower – is staging a more traditional (for the 21st century) pantomime in Cinderella.  In this production, Buttons – a role based on a Victorian page-boy – is being played by Brian Conley – a man somewhat older than I am.  This means it is not too late for me to give my own Buttons, or indeed Romeo or other juvenile lead on stage.  All I need now are a few acting lessons… (and to finish – or indeed start – writing my panto).

Anyway, to pick up the narrative thread once more, I had a lovely time at the Nuffield.  As well as the play, I was invited to the pre- and post-show drinks and nibbles which were great fun.  I could talk to theatrical people about the theatre (rather than merely harangue readers of this blog) and acquired heaps of recommendations for productions to go and see (all I need now is some extra hours in the day).  However, the primary lesson came during the interval, when I discovered that it is very much more time-consuming to obtain an ice-cream when a significant portion of the audience is under 10.  I’m more used to the situation where most of the audience is over 70, when it usually takes 60 seconds-or-less (or fewer if you believe time to be discrete rather than continuous, and there is some theoretical support for a granular reading of spacetime).  As a result, I had a beer in the interval (a bottle of Flack Manor’s Flack Catcher, since you ask) as the queue at the bar was correspondingly shorter than normal.  Never let it be said that I cannot adapt to changing circumstances.  I was slightly worried that the lack of calories (though beer does, of course contain calories of the soi-disant empty kind) would leave me struggling on the cycle ride home, but luckily the post-play nibbles came to the rescue.

The following day I had to visit Woking for “the man”.  In an attempt to salvage something from the day, I decided to continue on into London after my wage-slavery was over to visit the Finborough Theatre.  Here, I discovered the importance of being au-fait with the fixture list of the Premier League.  The Finborough is (I assume) reasonably near the ground of Chelsea Football Club, and as a result the tube to Earls Court, streets around same and Finborough Arms pub (which is also the entrance and foyer to the theatre) were heaving with (mostly) men with more blue-and-white clothing than is entirely usual.  I think for a more restful pre-theatrical interlude, I will try and avoid visiting at such a time in future – which means I shall have to pay at least a little attention to the rather curious world of professional football, a modest ethnographic study (if you will).  Anyway, ascending the stairs from the heat and tumult of the pub to the cool and peace of the theatre above was most welcome.  The play, Silent Planet by Eve Leigh, was excellent – a work looking at the nature of freedom and captivity and the importance of books and stories.

I hope these hard-won lessons will be of value to at least some of the readers of GofaDM – but if not, I can’t honestly say I’ll be losing any sleep over the fact.