I have seen the future

Well, a tiny fragment of it!

I find myself (once again) in the Athens of the North – not as a result of a rather convenient abduction, but by booking (and then taking) a flight with FlyBe. This does spare my Facebook friends from the usual flurry of activity occasioned by the traditional long train ride – but leaving at short notice, flying was vastly cheaper (and faster) than the surface options.

Flying from Southampton is surprisingly painless – the airport is a short bus ride from home and formalities at the airport can be completed in a matter of seconds. There is also no long queue (or, indeed, any queue) of planes waiting to depart ahead of you and so my flight departed (and arrived) well ahead of schedule. Sadly, for the economics of FlyBe, the plane was mostly empty and so we were allowed to spread out from our default positions (all packed together over the wings), but for the first time in my flying experience this spreading out was constrained by the passenger weight-distribution in our Dash-8 (basically, we could all move nearer the back of the plane, but not even a single row forward – presumably to avoid the aircraft face-planting on the Southampton tarmac).

This more rapid (if less green) route north meant that I could have breakfast, a serious gym session, shower and lunch in the south and still be in Edinburgh for leisured consumption of emergency cake in the Filmhouse cafe followed by the 18:00 screening of the Skeleton Twins (great fun, despite roughly four attempted suicides – on screen, not amongst the audience) at the Cameo. Whilst I realise this capability has existing for many years, it still seems like a form of magic to me – though not, in fact, the vision of the future to which the title refers.

Talking of the Cameo, can I thoroughly recommend Cameo 2 to GofaDM readers. It is quite unlike any cinema I’ve visited before, it has a large and very wide screen but only three (3!) rows of seats. I think it may be (almost) the perfect cinema – why are all others narrow but deep, when wide and shallow is so much better? But, no even this is not the future.

After the film, I went to Tuk-Tuk, the only known source for the finest (IMO), if least authentic, naan in the world – I refer, of course, to the cheese naan. Forget your peshwari or keema, cheese is the filling that naan was invented for!

OK, I’ve teased you for long enough – now to the future bit. I am staying with a friend and he has been upgrading a number of rooms in his house (and is partway through a major extension). My room has been refurbished and as part of this work, the mains sockets have been replaced. As well as the usual two 3-pin mains sockets, there are also two USB charging ports provided – what a delight for the traveller and how practical in almost any modern home. The number of devices which need a USB power feed, but end up using a whole 3-pin mains socket leads to the proliferation of multi-plug adapters and extension cables in every home. It’s like having four sockets in the space for two and would be a boon for the foreign visitor (but also the local) as you need to carry far fewer plugs/plug adaptors with you. It could even lead to fewer hurt feet, with fewer currently unused 3-pin plugs lying inverted waiting to punish the unwary, barefoot pedestrian. The campaign for this to become the standard for all homes starts here!

Cine M&A

M&A, for those who have been spared exposure to this particular abbreviation, stands for Mergers and Acquisitions.  This is very much the civil partnership of the corporate world: a place I do have to visit de temps en temps.  In a merger the marriage is somewhat mutual, whereas for an acquisition a shotgun tends to be involved – as I understand matters.

In a typical M&A scenario, a small company which does one thing well is taken over by a larger entity which may do many things with almost any level of competence (including none at all).  The combined entity is briefly larger, but almost immediately what remains of the small company ceases doing its one thing well.  The entity then contracts and may enter slow, but terminal decline or may later be re-born.   (I believe this process may be linked to the “creative destruction” on which capitalism seems to depend – it takes out both a large company and a small successful one, opening up new ecological niches to be exploited).  My sense is that M&A activity is nearly always bad news for the employees, customers and shareholders of both companies – but does benefit a range of corporate lawyers, bankers and a few senior managers.  Since the shareholders have to agree to both M and A, such people do seem to fit my favourite definition of insanity, viz doing the same thing but expecting a different outcome, very snugly.  I would also have thought that the senior managers may well be open to accusations of failing in their fiduciary duty by permitting such activity to occur as I had thought they were supposed to protect shareholder value.  In related “news”, it may just be me and some sort of selection bias or availability error in operation (or, indeed, poor journalistic standards), but whenever a captain of industry makes any pronouncement reported by the media, they do give the very convincing impression of being complete dunderheads (and should never be allowed to speak in public).  If so, the plan to promote such folk to a position where they can do less harm may be back-firing spectacularly for the UK plc.

OK, so “M&A” covered we now move on to the “cine” in our title.  I am a fairly frequent movie-goer and usually frequent my local art house fleapit (for the avoidance of doubt, I have never knowingly encountered a flea on these excursions) and in both Cambridge and Southampton, this has been a Picturehouse cinema.  A while back, Picturehouse was bought by Cineworld, a large chain of more mainstream cinemas – as with most M&A activity, it is quite hard to see why.  Some hope of economies of scale perhaps?  Megalomania? Mind-altering drugs?

When my local Picturehouse does not show a film that I want to see, then it has generally been to Cineworld that I have taken my film-going pound (or several).  So, I have some familiarity with both chains as a customer, I have no idea what it is like as an employee  – though those at Picturehouse do generally seem to be more invested in the process than their cousins at Cineworld (or may just be better actors).  In the last week, I have been to both – which in Southampton are situated pretty close to each other – and there is quite a contrast in the customer experience.  At the Harbour Lights (the local Picturehouse), you have a fairly small lobby with comfy seating (and a balcony overlooking the marina), fairly decent food offerings but the screens are modest in size, though you do get comfy, reclining seats on quite a steep rake and carpeted floors.  At Cineworld, the lobby is much larger but with standard cinema food (which doesn’t appeal to me at all) and nowhere comfy to sit.  The screens are much bigger, but the seats less comfy on a shallow rake and the floors are clearly designed to be wipe-clean.

As a sidebar, I do wonder why standard cinema cuisine is so awful – and generally rather noisy to eat?  Is the typical cinema-goer so hidebound by tradition that they insist on popcorn, nachos covered in a rubbery substance simulating cheese (badly) and fizzy pop?  I can’t believe I am alone in finding such offerings unappealing.  So much of the UK has a vibrant food culture, why has none of this made it into the mainstream cinema?  Anyway, given their proximity, if I have to visit the Cineworld I acquire my food and drink from the Harbour Lights (and it would seem that I am not alone).  However, this option is not available everywhere and one feels that mainstream cinema is missing out on a lot of potential income from that portion of the audience still blessed with functioning tastebuds.

Sidebar over, and I am now ready to merge the two parts of the title together.  As a customer, the change of ownership of Picturehouse has been mostly hidden – except for worries about the Arts Picturehouse in Cambridge, following the rather baffling opinion by the Competition and Mergers Authority that its presence in the same town as a Cineworld would harm competition.  (Given they have segmented the audience very successfully, are more than a mile apart, and both have to compete with a local MyVue this seems far less of an issue than, for example, the situation in Southampton where they are little more than 100 yards apart.)  However, a few weeks ago this situation changed as one of the primary curses of any M or A struck: I refer, of course, to the attempt to marry the IT systems.  The old Picturehouse website disappeared to be be replaced by a new one – well a new stop-gap one, the new one won’t be ready for some months (not entirely clear what the thinking was here, as it’s usually not a good plan to dispose of the old version of something when the replacement is still some months away).  This new website is decidedly clunky (though more modern-looking), and on launch did not allow you to see what films were showing or book tickets – though it could have been worse, for some cinemas it did show film times: the wrong film times.  It has also affected all the internal systems, so you cannot currently buy food or drink with a credit card: which these days does feel deliciously subversive as cash transactions are so much harder for the authorities to trace.  But, the staff have most of my sympathy: I only have to deal with the new IT once a week (or so), they have to fight their way around it every day – and in the knowledge that it will be changing again.  I also very much doubt that they are receiving extra money to deal with this hassle, and one cannot really tip at the cinema (well not in the UK, the US may well be different, as I believe there is no situation where tipping is inappropriate in our former colony).

And now for sidebar number 2 – on the topic of major IT implementations.  Both the news and personal experience would suggest that any major IT implementation will be a disaster – and yet, companies and governments continue to indulge in this very expensive luxury.  Why?  I (myself) take the view that once your employer starts to implement SAP, it is time to dust off your curriculum vitae and seek pastures new.  (I’m sure SAP is not unique in this respect, but for me it is very much the “poster-child”).

So, in conclusion, I can only hope that matters at Picturehouse will sort themselves out – despite the poor omens and/or odds – and that I will continue to be able to enjoy better food and comfy seating while at the movies.  Perhaps, I should also offer to take any overly stressed member of their staff out for a commiseratory (which I insist is a word, despite WordPress’s doubts) beer?  (Though, I might need to limit the geographical and temporal scope of this offer, if I am to avoid bankruptcy).

Roads scholar

I have often been accused of being superficial – mostly (perhaps entirely) by me, but then again who else is forced to endure quite so much of my company? – and this post may reinforce that view as it will focus entirely on the surface of things (the things being roads in this case).

As a cyclist, I experience roads in a much more direct way than the mere motorist – I see them at close range and the lack of suspension on my vehicle (and, for that matter, my backside) means that I feel their surface imperfections in a very physical way.  However, this is an everyday occurrence, so you might wonder why I choose to explore this topic now.  There have been a couple of recent cues:

  • Just before Christmas the government announced it was going to provide money to fix 18 million potholes.  It struck me that if they started from my flat, this money would be exhausted within a mile – and so seemed woefully inadequate for the entire country.
  • On a recent episode of The Unbelievable Truth, one of the “improbable” truths was that a new set of roadworks starts every 10.5 seconds – as a regular roads user this was improbable, but because 10.5 seconds seemed far too long a gap.

Given my very close, physical relationship with the road surface and my tendency to traverse the same routes on a regular basis, I can watch some roads deteriorate in real time.  Often, I can predict where the road will deteriorate: though this requires little skill beyond vague recall of the erosion-based content of the O-level Geography course and, in particular, the segment on glaciation and the work of freeze-thaw action and plucking.  As so often, the possession of O-level Geography means that my understanding of important issues relating to the country’s critical infrastructure seems vastly greater than those charged with its planning and management.

It seems that macadam goes back to the 1830s, and its use in combination with tar to the 1850s, but tarmac as we know it today was only patented in 1901 – nevertheless, as a species, we have had more than a century of experience in its application and maintenance.  Given how far our skill in other areas has advanced in this timeframe, our current performance with tarmac seems all-the-more disappointing.  It strikes me that there are two major causes of premature failure of our roads – well, there is one over-riding cause of damage which is heavy vehicles using them, if we only allowed bikes and pedestrians to use them (despite the obesity crisis) they would last a great deal longer.  This point brings me to a matter of public policy that always puzzles me: in most of our major cities, it is more expensive (and difficult) to leave a vehicle at rest (harming neither the road nor the environment) as a result of parking fees and restrictions than it is to continuously driving it around (despite the cost of fuel).  Surely, we should be encouraging folk to park their vehicles at every possible opportunity: air quality would improve, roads would last longer (and fewer would be needed) and the nation would become fitter, reducing the funding needs of the NHS.  Let’s forget charging for parking and vigorously enforcing payment and restrictions, let people park however they want on the roads (except on bus routes, where any mis-parked vehicles would be destroyed without warning in uncontrolled explosions) – this would quickly make driving anywhere almost impossible and push people out of their cars and onto their feet or public transport.  Perhaps even pay people to park their cars, rather than charging them.  I like to think this is a policy so left-field that even the Greens and UKIP have yet to adopt it!

Anyway, let’s return to my two main causes of premature ageing in roads.  Firstly, we have subsidence.  This suggests EITHER that the UK is much more geologically active then we have been led to believe and that fracking is the least of our problems OR that the road’s foundations have been inadequately prepared.  Given that roads built by the Romans and Incas – in much more tectonically-exciting regions – remain substantially intact in many places, I’m inclined to suspect modern roads are not properly built in the first place.

The second major problem is shoddy repairs.  These are not repairs to wear-and-tear on the roads, but following the all too regular digging of holes in the road to access the goodies that lie beneath.  Now, I have seen pictures of cities before utilities went underground, so I’m pretty sure we do not want to return to those dark and untidy days.  However, the frequency with which the utilities beneath our streets need to be exhumed suggests something is awry with the way they are installed or maintained.  Still, the frequency of such excavations, while irritating, is not the problem but rather the poor quality of the re-instatement work.  If this is inspected at all, I must assume it is before anything heavier than a feather is allowed to drive across the “repair” and is done with the aid of a box brownie, situated somewhere near the orbit or Saturn and which has had its lens liberally smeared with vaseline.  Often these repairs fail to survive as much as a week.  Given that road upkeep is generally funded from the public purse, this situation would seem to represent a major subsidy being granted to private companies.  I would suggest that detailed records need to be kept of those responsible for every piece of reinstatement work and if any issue with that work arises within 10 (say) years, then they should be required to pay for its resolution and a very hefty fine on top.  If there is a worry, given the fast-paced nature of modern capitalism, that the company may no longer exist in 10 years, then they should be required to post sufficient collateral to cover future claims.  This should produce a major saving to the public purse, produce better roads and create a whole new market for risk management products focused around road repairs.

Of course, tarmac is not the only covering chosen for our roads.  Here in Southampton, grey brick pavers seem rather popular.  These can look very attractive (for a while), but seem to suffer from even more rapid deterioration that does tarmac – and are, I assume, much more expensive to fix.  As they are damaged, they create lots of sharp edges that protrude into the roadway, adding an exciting trip hazard for cyclists and pedestrians (and I assume, the chance for brick-related damage to the vulnerable underside of motor vehicles).  Despite their short-lived aesthetic benefits, I think I would have to question the practical sense of using brick pavers on any road subject to heavy vehicular traffic, e.g. buses or lorries, which since the advent of the satnav can be pretty much any road (however minor) not protected by bollards.

With roads, as with so much else, policy and decisions seem to be made by those who have never used (or indeed even seen) the object of their deliberations.  Also, once again, the benefits of O-level Geography are made plain for all to see – perhaps it is time we stopped mocking geography teachers for the leather patches on the jacket elbows and promoted them to senior positions in government and the civil service?  (For the avoidance of doubt, GofaDM is not being sponsored by a cabal of disgruntled, power-hungry geography teachers).

Appliance of the week

Readers should be aware that this feature may not be delivered weekly (though weakly is always a strong possibility) and may never be seen again.

The GofaDM regular with time on their hands and a fully functioning hippocampus/amygdala combo will recall my horror at discovering the “artisan kettle”.  I have subsequently discovered that this abomination has been joined by an artisan toaster.  This latter would only be acceptable were it an actual artisan (preferably clothed in some sort of livery) wielding a tined implement and with ready access to fire (for the avoidance of doubt, this was not the case).

Worse has since followed.  I have now discovered a wifi kettle (no that is not a typo, this kettle can access the web).  Why would a kettle need access to the internet?  Why would you need to command or interrogate a water-boiling device from your smartphone?  I’ll admit my atelier is quite modest in size so that I can physically touch my kettle within 15 seconds of the desire arising – but even if I lived in a 400 bedroom mansion, how much would I gain by discovering that a distant kettle was empty?  Or if not empty, how much time would I save by commanding it to start boiling now – so that its contents will be ready (or already be cooling) by the time I arrive?  Perhaps it is to check up on the servants – you can confirm that they are making excessive use of the kettle (and so must be skiving) and dock their wages appropriately?  Truly, society has jumped the shark.

I suppose this is just the beginning of the “internet of things”, where your fridge can re-order stuff you don’t want or need (but had finally managed to use up).  Actually, I can see some benefit to an “intelligent” fridge: it could warn you about items that you have forgotten which languish at the back of a shelf or in the bottom of the crisper, or when you are at the supermarket you could query whether the flat leaf parsley is still viable or has already passed to the great Herb Garden in the sky.  Sadly, nothing I have read suggests that such a useful, web-enabled fridge is on the horizon.

Whilst talking about appliances, I feel I should also comment on the hand-dryer – that mainstay of hack, observational comedy.  These now seem to fall into two broad types: those with airflow like a cold-blooded asthmatic in the last stages of fatal emphysema and those which hurl air with such force that your hands look like they are pulling about 9g (or 9G, if you prefer) and which are great at moving water from your hands onto your clothing (something I can do without the aid of an appliance).  However, it is the brand names that amuse me.  In recent weeks I have used an Excel Dryer – perfect for those with a wet spreadsheet, but would I need a Powerpoint Dryer for an overly moist presentation? – and a World Dryer which was massively overselling its drying capabilities, frankly it struggled with my hands (which whilst large-ish, are still dwarfed by the world).  I await my first sight of a Danny Dryer with keen anticipation!

Snow day…

like show day.  Like snow day I know?

Today I awoke to see snow from my bedroom window and while I downed my breakfast porridge the skies poured forth their white, flaky bounty with some vigour.  “So what?”, I imagine those of you living at higher altitudes or latitudes shouting at your screens.  Well, I’ve been in Southampton for 18 months now and this is the first time I have seen snow – so my inner 8 year old was quite excited.  If I’m honest, it was pretty weak snow – only a few millimetres worth and it was more air than snow, a sort of snow mousse – but the weather has to be given some credit for trying.  It struggled to lay, though away from tarmac-covered surfaces it had a go – but by early afternoon it was all gone.  I feel that there is a metaphor for life somewhere in that last sentence, but I shall leave its extraction as an exercise for the reader.

The snow was accompanied by quite chilly conditions (for the jewel of the Solent that is, but obviously very toasty compared to 99+% of the universe).  It struck me that if these conditions continue much longer I may have to turn on the heating and eschew the shorts as I cycle to the gym – but not today, my legs once again did their best to make a little vitamin D in the weak winter sunlight.  In lieu of heating, I am currently cooking a raw (golden) beetroot – quite a slow and energy expensive process.  Perhaps foolishly, after cooking I shall allow it to cool (like a sort of vegetable storage heater) and then use it in a salad: nothing says salad like sub-zero temperatures and a mini-blizzard!

Lest readers are left with an image of the author as some sort of hard-as-nails, macho stereotype I can reveal that my other main task today has been sewing missing buttons back onto some shirts.  I wouldn’t want to suggest I’m about to take the world of tapestry by storm, but I am a somewhat competent seamstress (seamster?) in this very limited area.  I may not be quick or elegant, but buttons I have reattached tend to stay attached.  Oh yes ladies (and/or gents), I’m the complete package!

What would Emma do?

As you will discover, in due course, this sentence will be the only reference to the work of Jane Austen – so put Ms Woodhouse from your mind.

Back in January, I spent a long weekend in Cambridge – which does not indicate that it was dull, far from it!  Over this weekend, the teaching of music became a major theme which this post will probably explore (or that is the plan at this early stage).

The theme started with a viewing of the film Whiplash, in which the music tuition is very fierce indeed.  By comparison with the trainee drummer portrayed, my commitment to anything in life would scarcely even be considered half-hearted – despite what I may have thought was serious application on my part.  I have also been spared any teacher even remotely so psychotic – which may perhaps explain my dilettantism, but for which I am suitably grateful,  I’m sure real drummers and jazz aficionados will find much to criticise in the film and others will object to the lack of female characters and rather limited characterisation, but the film is very powerful and gripping and I’d recommend it despite its (no doubt) numerous shortcomings.

At the end of the weekend, I saw Murray Perahia giving a masterclass with the Doric String Quartet.  In contrast with Angela Hewitt last year, Murray is not a natural teacher and much went completely over my head – but there were still some nuggets of interest which I might try and use in my own musical life.

In between these lessons for others, I tried to fit in a singing lesson for myself.  The observant reader may object that this coincided with the time of “the cough” and they would be right – however, the cough seemed to be somewhat in abeyance so I thought it was worth a try.  My voice was not at its best and the cough not as quiescent as hoped.  Under such circumstances finding pitch is quite a challenge as notes tend to be produced much lower down the octave than expected, my breath control (poor at the best of times) was completely shot and even having found a note I had great difficulty maintaining it.  Notes towards the top of my range were particularly problematic.  My performance was not unlike a teenager’s, with the pitch breaking up and down uncontrollably (so my voice, mental age and self-image were in alignment for once).  To help me obtain the best from my damaged voice, my teacher referred me to the advice of Emma Kirkby – famous soprano – as to how to manage under these circumstances.  It seems natural (to me at least) to be somewhat tentative when singing with a cough (or similar), but this makes things worse.  By maintaining good airflow over the old vocal chords, I found that production of the desired note stabilised and my voice sounded pretty good – though I did then run out of air much too soon.  Now, I had been told this many times before, but this was the first time I actually “learned” the lesson – it was instantly obvious the difference that having proper airflow made to my singing.  Today, was the first time I had tried singing since and, old dogs being hard of learning when it comes to new tricks, I started off somewhat tentatively – this is also partly to avoid frightening the neighbours or any nearby cetaceans (well I am a bass living near the coast).  This did not go so well, so I remembered Emma’s advice and went for it (airflow-wise) and my voice worked very nicely thank you.

All I need to do now is sort out my breathing – a skill which, despite having almost reached 49 (not out), still rather eludes me on an all too frequent basis.  That same weekend in Cambridge, the soprano soloist at the Deutsches Requiem was (a) very close to me and (b) wearing a dress that was tight around the lower trunk which made it very clear that she was breathing from the diaphragm (or even below) – rather than (as I do) noisily snatching breaths from the area of the pecs.  My lower trunk is rather too rigid – which is great for the gentleman gymnast and the six-pack, but not so good for proper breathing.  Somehow I need to learn to relax “down there” – something I do automatically when laughing, but can’t do on command.  If only there were more (or indeed any) middle-aged singer-gymnasts I could turn to for advice or inspiration…  Now, what would Emma do?

Bouncing back

After the traumatic events of last Tuesday, and your author coming worryingly close to taking a short river trip with a chap called Karen (or is it Sharon?), I feel sure that many a votive candle has been lit by worried GofaDM readers.  Well, let me put your fears to rest my lovelies – following Tuesday’s wake-up call, my immune system seems to have finally stirred itself from its slumbers and put up a more spirited defence of my health.

From that very Tuesday night, I managed to start obtaining a decent night’s sleep – and last night I even did so without resort to a night nurse (a shot of the lurid green fluid, rather than the ministrations of an SRN).  The cough also seems to be on its way out (at last) and so yestere’en, for the first time since the “incident”, I reintroduced my mouth to some cox and manage to enjoy that sweet, white flesh without choking.  Yay!

My return towards rude, good health also means that I am no longer feeling sneezy, grumpy or sleepy (to continue the conceit of myself as the Snow White de nos jours)  – or no more so than usual.  My prince (charming or otherwise) remains maddeningly absent and I am starting to wonder if the Brothers Grimm are a less reliable source than hoped.  It seems that I may have to continue with gainful employment, rather than living off a minor share of the Civil List riches.

Oddly, during the height of my illness, this blog seems to have become unexpectedly popular in Germany.  I’m not sure if this helps to reinforce or to refute the stereotype held in these Isles that Germans are deficient in respect of their sense of humour.  In my own experience, this stereotype tends to be put about by the Germans themselves, but whilst they seem quite convincing at first they aren’t able to maintain the facade for long if exposed to a determined interlocutor.  Or perhaps I just tend to wear people down?