Meet me in St Louis

I should start be making clear that I have never been to St Louis, I have no current plans to visit and have little faith in my ability to find it on a map (though could probably pinpoint it to within 1000 miles or so – which would require an absolutely massive pin).

No, last night was my second Playdate – this time a read-through of Tennessee Williams’ play The Glass Menagerie.  This is set in St Louis – well, within a single rather poky apartment in St Louis.  As the bar was full of mermaids (or I think that’s what they said), it was held in a meeting room at the University Club (which is much less exciting than I’ve made it sound – far fewer over-stuffed leather armchairs than I would want in a Club).  For a free gig, it is astoundingly good value – nearly 3.5 hours of entertainment with wine and softer drinks provided gratis.  This time we – the assembled throng – introduced ourselves and so I discovered that everyone else in the room was an actor, director or playwright.  As mere “audience” I felt somewhat of a fraud, though comfort myself with the fact that, in some way, I fund everyone else’s career.

Actually, I also felt somewhat of a fraud at the Nuffield the previous week when I attended 451 (their regular poetry night) and discovered that I was almost the only audience member not performing poetry.  Despite my limited qualifications and complete lack of preparation, one of my poems was read out during the evening.  In the interval, we all had to write a short poem on the subject “Manifesto” and mine was one of the top four (and so read aloud): oh yes, people – be very afraid! –  as I now I have reason to believe that I’m an actual poet!  Given that I have all the emotional development of a teenage boy, expect GofaDM to be taken over by my angst-ridden poesy in the near future.  However, this validation was not the evening’s highlight, even for your self-obsessed narrator – no that was the excellent set by Kate Fox, which would have made the whole evening worthwhile just for the phrase “binge thinking” which graced one of her poems.

But, let’s return to St Louis and such plot as I am willing to provide to this post.  As my first exposure to Mr Williams’ oeuvre I was rather impressed by The Glass Menagerie – though it is not a cheery tale – and surprised to find the title can be taken literally (it is not a metaphor).  Despite the strong competition from actual actors, I was able to play Tom (now) during the first half and had an absolute ball.  Those who follow me on Facebook (or is follow the wrong verb?  Those who poke me on Facebook?) will know that I was wondering whether to attempt the full southern accent – and those who know me in person, will further wonder if I did essay the accent whether anyone else would (a) know and (b) recognise it.  In the end, I didn’t go for the full “Gone with the Wind” but I did modify my normal speaking voice to add a bit of a drawl and move my speech rhythms and pronunciation a little closer to what I imagined would be authentic (and I was given a lot of background to the character by Sam, the director).  This did force the young lad playing Tom (then) – who in play terms was 6 years my junior, but in real life nearer 26 – to also hazard a somewhat American accent (which I thought was a result).  Given the actual nature of the play, I’m glad I rejected my other plan which was to attend wearing a sweat-stained wife-beater (more Streetcar than Menagerie, as it transpired).

I continue to think I make for a rather good actor at a first reading – for a start, I’m rather better at sight-reading than most people (based, I will admit, on a rather limited sample). In fact, my biggest worry about my own performance was that my German pronunciation of the word “Berchtesgaden” was far too accurate for an American youth in 1943.  However, I strongly suspect that by a second or third reading, real actors would improve their performance significantly whilst mine will remain largely unimproved (though I would fudge my German a little more).  Despite this, the lure of the stage is very strong!

After the read-through, we had a very interesting discussion about the play and its themes and characters.  The Nuffield will be staging The Glass Menagerie later this year, and I now find I have very strong views about various aspects of the play – particularly, the meaning of Jim (who, unusually, I am not worried about – a reference there for the Mrs Dale’s Diary fans, who have been cruelly neglected in recent years).

Lifelong learning

Lifelong learning has intermittently been popular with our political masters, so long as it doesn’t cost them anything in terms of either effort or money (and certainly does not cause us to start thinking for ourselves).  For me, the discovery of new knowledge provides much of the grease which eases my way through this veil of tears whilst retaining at least a nodding acquaintance with sanity.  For you dear reader, matters are far less sunny as I feel the need to share at least a proportion of this new learning with you via GofaDM.  Still, in the words of Westley (aka The Dread Pirate Roberts, at the time), “life is suffering, Highness” and so I shall continue unabashed (as previously noted in this far-from-august organ, I have largely out-lived my shame).

Given recent posts have covered Philosophy, Politics and Economics, readers may fear that I am trying to become a rather elderly SPAD (or am hoping for the call to help out in Westminster) – a fear that may not be helped by the knowledge that I studied at Oxbridge (or Camford, if you prefer – though no-one does).  Fear not, gentle reader, my preferred reading of PPE is Personal Protective Equipment (give me a helmet and some goggles any day!) – if only this were more generally the case in the corridors of power!

Sometimes new knowledge comes upon one unbidden – at times answering an earlier question or a seed which may have grown into a question – and at others I actively seek it out.  I think I prefer the former – as a single chap, too much of my life is self-directed (by a fool) and a bit of serendipity is welcome – but both can be fun.  This post will share some of each from the last few days…

Over the weekend, the peerless Ella Fitzgerald came up on my MP3 player while I was working out.  For some reason, I seem to have been paying more than my usual degree of attention to the lyrics of The Lady is a Tramp and so discovered that included in the list of indicators of being a tramp is “I go to opera and stay wide awake”.  On this basis (and no doubt many others), I am a tramp – though most of my opera-going lies a few years in the past now.  Actually, in this specific case it is quite hard to separate being a tramp from chronic insomnia – so perhaps I should withhold judgement for the time being.

Whilst listening to a recent edition of The Verb (an activity I heartily recommend to all readers) I think I discovered the answer to a question I had yet to ask.  In my younger days, every train and airline seat was fitted with a rather cheap and nasty antimacassar – whilst cheap, these were presumably still too expensive for the privatised rail companies as they do seem to have vanished.  Well, the guests on The Verb discussed macassar oil which styled the male Victorian barnet long before the days of L’Oreal Studio Line and its range of gels, muds and fudges, before even Brylcream.  This was made from coconut or palm oil and would make a terrible mess of a seat if the head were rested against it – hence the need for some sort of countermeasure.  I am slightly worried that if macassar oil were brought into contact with an antimacassar they would annihilate with a release of significant energy – or perhaps the Standard Model does nor offer a good description for haircare products?  Time for a Large Hairdron Collider?

Age brings many things, including a modest degree of self-awareness.  As a result, I know that I am far from being an original thinker – but sometimes this is brought home rather forcibly.  On this very blog, I have noted the advantage to be gained by avoiding use of my glasses in conjunction with a mirror (or other reflective surface) if one wishes to retain some illusions about one’s continued contact with fleeting youth.  Last night, I was reading Letter from America by Alistair (né Alfred) Cooke and found he has beaten me to my observation by almost 50 years.  Way back in 1946, he noted that “the great gift of astigmatism is to rob a face of its peculiar lapses from the ideal”.  Whilst he was talking about girls as viewed by his teenage self he had clearly beaten me to the punch.  Given the style of the essays which make up GofaDM, I rather fear astigmatism (and a Y-chromosome) may be all Mr Cooke and I have in common (and I still haven’t left the 1940s).

On Monday, I was able to give blood again for the first time in twelve months – and for the first time in Southampton.  Once again, my blood fell stone-like through a vial of copper sulphate – and so my haemoglobin is officially back to pre-lapsarian levels.  As I lay back, flirting with the NBS staff, I noted a bottle of the fluid used to clean the hands before they are used to puncture the donor with a needle.  This promised to have both an antibacterial and fungicidal action – which left me wondering about the third great realm of prokaryotic life: would it deal with any unwanted Archaea?  Does archaea eschew the hospital environment?  Perhaps it’s squeamish?  Nobody knew, and so I have had to research it myself using Dr Internet.  It would seem that, in general, antibacterial agents do not affect archaea as their cell walls are rather differently constituted – and they are also generally proof against antibiotics.  As a result, long after we have gone, I suspect the fate of the Earth will be decided in a knock-down, drag-out fight between antibiotic-resistant bacteria and archaea – and the archaea may have something to prove having previously been enslaved by bacteria to form the eukaryotic cell and put to work as mitochondria.  If there were any way to collect my winnings, my money would be on the archaea as they have already had a billion years to plot their revenge for past indignities.

So, GofaDM may not be as well written as Letter from America, but to Hades with the quality just feel the width of topics covered!

Election fever

With a bare 10 days to go until the General Election here in the UK, politicians are becoming increasingly febrile – while the populace are engulfed in a thick fog of ennui.  I am finding it rather hard to get excited about the vote, though I’m finding feelings of horror and depression much easier to generate.  It seems that no news bulletin can pass without a political bigwig taking a further swing with a sledgehammer at the very fragile foundations of my respect for their party and the political process – perhaps this is a deliberate process to get the masses to disenfranchise themselves?

Over the last couple of days, those hot-beds of revolutionary fervour – the Sunday Times and Daily Telegraph – have done sterling work to identify those people who will be first up against the wall come the glorious revolution.  Share and enjoy!  But otherwise, the more reactionary elements of the press (i.e. most of it) seem determined (like Chicken Licken) to convince us that the sky will fall-in should the next government by formed by the Labour party with assistance from the SNP – and this collapse of the heavens will find the poor English suffering a forced diet of haggis and Irn-Bru while wearing a kilt.  Of course, a coalition government dominated by its junior partner is a real risk in this country, as the last five years of rule by the Liberal Democrats with barely a whimper heard from the poor Tories has ably demonstrated.  Given the probable experience of the LibDems, if I was in control of the SNP (unlikely I’ll admit) I’d be very reluctant to be the junior partner in a coalition – it does seem to be electoral suicide (though Nick Clegg may yet surprise us – and himself).  And what about the poor Unionists in Northern Ireland – where are the scare stories about them being the junior partner in a Coalition?  I, for one, am not keen on the forced daily marches past my flat (which has the misfortune to lie near a Catholic church) and I really don’t look good in orange, though who does?  Still, I suppose it would be good for the mural industry.

Curiously given the very consistent predictions made by those paid to forecast such things, both major parties seem to be in denial about having to work with a hung parliament (sadly, this involves neither rope nor gibbet – though this might be a way to increase voter turnout!).  Given that a majority government seems rather less likely than Glen Miller winning the National Lottery and investing his winnings in a unicorn farm, it does make me wonder just how well considered the promises about the future contained in their manifestos might be – wishful thinking is all very well, but I’m not sure it’s any way to run a country.

However, despite my disillusionment (which does rather suggest that I once had illusions) I do feel that it is my civic duty to vote – people did die etc, though I’m not sure when laying down their lives the conduct of this current election was quite what they had in mind (though lacking access to a necromancer, I shall never know).  Oddly, when seeking advice as to how to exercise my very limited power, it all seems to assume that I will vote entirely to improve my financial position.  Now, as this blog makes clear, I am at least as self-centred as the next man (unless he happens to be Kanye West) but I feel it would be terribly inappropriate (downright rude in fact) to assume that a vague hope of my slight enrichment is the biggest issue facing this country at the moment.  I feel that my vote should be used to improve the lot of the population at large, to the extent that is feasible.  As a result, I fear I will be seen as a dangerous aberration by many economists (and a source of horror to the late Ayn Rand).

By chance, I have been reading The Price of Inequality by George Stiglitz in the run-up to the election and he has something to say of some relevance to this process.  Initially, I found this work rather irritating as he kept repeating the blindingly obvious but after a while I found whilst he was still saying the obvious, it was stuff I’d never previously realised or thought about.  Whilst I am not necessarily convinced by all his conclusions – he is a much better economist than me and so may well be able to cover my eyes with wool – he has made me doubt (and largely abandon) some previously quite firmly held beliefs.  As I hurtle towards the grave, I have come to realise that conventional wisdom is much stronger on the “conventional” than it is on the “wisdom”.

The book is mostly based around the US-experience – though he does take time out to lambast the ECB and the Euro – but many of the conclusions seem to apply very directly to dear old Blighty.  In particular, in a world in which political parties gain the vast majority of their funding from a few very rich individuals and major corporations it is perhaps no surprise that their priorities do not align with those of the typical voter.  With most of the media also controlled by much the same interests (though The Guardian is, I believe, controlled (or at least bank-rolled) by Autotrader – and so in the hands of the second-hand car business and sheepskin coat) we can begin to see why the public may be disengaged from politics and grabbing at the lifebelt which the fringe parties seem to offer.  It also struck me that whilst we – the great unwashed – get to influence the political process once every five years and have to pick a whole raft of (probably fictional) policies, if you have enough money to pay for a lobbyist you can influence politics every day of the week and on very specific policies.  Money may not buy you happiness, but I suspect it does buy you quite a lot of influence over the world of Westminster, if you chose to use it in that way.

However, I think it may well be the sterling work of Tim Harford and Ruth Alexander on More-or-Less which may have the greatest impact on my voting choice in 7 May.  For now, I remain a floating voter – or perhaps a sinking one.

Never bought a comic

As a child, I never bought or read a comic and I have continued this abstinence into adulthood (to the extent I have reached that state).  I have not even essayed a graphic novel.  I do not believe this makes me better than you (though obviously I do believe this for other reasons), it is probably just something path-dependent and I have clearly not prioritised overcoming my upbringing (or natural inclination) in this area (and given that things I have prioritised can still remain undone after two decades, I fear my lifespan may have to be quite extensive before I make good my lack).

Despite my brain offering this rather unpromising soil, once again I find the seed of a screen superhero has germinated (and even flourished) there.  Perhaps I should move my first assailing of the comic or graphic novel further up my entirely fictional “to-do” list?  This latest blight on the previously pristine intellectual green-belt which occupies the space between my ears (and if you believe that, frankly you aren’t safe to be using the internet unsupervised) has been the Netflix production of Daredevil.  I’m not entirely sure what prompted me to give it a whirl, other than its availability and newness – perhaps residual positive feelings for Charlie Cox from his appearance in Stardust?  I may be the master of my fate and captain of my soul (to paraphrase W E Henley), but frankly my motivations are frequently a mystery to me – someone in “here” may have free will, I’m just not entirely convinced it’s me.

Suffice to say, Daredevil is really very good indeed (well worth several months of my Netflix subscription) – despite its rather unpromising appearance: a Marvel superhero, very dark (both in theme and lighting) and really quite violent – all of which I like to imagine don’t appeal to me.

Daredevil is an odd superhero in that his only superpower(s) are just a replacement for quite ordinary powers that even I possess, viz eyesight (in my case, augmented with some help from my glasses).  The enhancement of his other senses is, I believe, even something that has been known to happen in the real world through the natural plasticity of our brains.  In fact, despite the fact that I view my hearing as pretty useless – it is of little help when trying to find a ringing mobile phone in my very modestly-proportioned flat and is certainly not worth any investment in expensive audiophile equipment – my ears can boast a very modest superpower of their own.  As a frequent cyclist, I find I can often identify a motorist behind me about to engage in a manoeuvre which may place me at risk purely from the input to my ears – a skill which has proved very useful on a number of occasions.  So, unusually for a superhero, one’s belief does not need to be suspended very far.

Belief is further supported by the fact that our hero frequently takes a major beating and takes quite a long time to recover – in one episode, he spends most of it hobbling very uncomfortably around his apartment (an experience which the middle-aged gentleman gymnast can sympathise with).  This does mean he requires a fair amount of medical care and so we see quite a lot of Charlie Cox’s bare torso covered in pretend wounds, contusions and stitches and I suspect this has not just caused the character pain, but the poor actor as well.  Based on his stubble and forearms, I would guess that Mr Cox has much in common with Esau (and I don’t mean a pair of Hittite brides and issues with his brother).  As a result, the poor chap’s chest must regularly have to be waxed to within a millimetre of its life – and I can’t help but wince in sympathy.  I’m afraid that neither vanity nor my desire to support a charitable cause would be sufficient to make me wax any part of my (relatively) modestly hirsute body (though the stray hair that collects around the flat would suggest that I am in fact a gorilla) – a disinclination to pain which also effectively rules out cosmetic surgery (well, that and a distrust of doctors with knives).  So ladies and gents, what you see is what you get with the author – nothing has been artificially enhanced beyond the occasional application of moisturiser.  As a result, when the dating strand of GofaDM kicks-off potential partners are advised to follow my own principle and avoid the use of glasses or contact lenses when gazing directly at the son (of my parents).

Given its almost thirteen hours of running time, the series offers a much broader spectrum of well-rounded characters than typical superhero fare and the added bonus of a decent script.  Even the villain has nuance and in some ways an admirable agenda, though as a follower of Kant (among others) I could tell he was a wrong ‘un (using people as the means to an end is never a good sign).  I suspect I may be in a minority in viewing the series through the lens of Kantian philosophy – or perhaps not?

In the comments section of a webpage, you know that things have gone too far when a comparison to National Socialism is made.  In GofaDM, I feel the equivalent is when I start talking about philosophy – and that seems to have begun.  So, I shall merely recommend Daredevil for your consideration – and, in its support, should perhaps mention much better critics than I have reviewed it positively and it also has the dubious honour of being the most pirated show other than Game of Thrones (despite its dramatically lower levels of both soft porn and dragons).

Being SkyActiv

Readers will recall my disappointment at Mazda’s use of the term SkyActiv to refer to a 14:1 compression ratio in a vehicle engine.  So, I have attempted to give some better meaning to SkyActiv through my own, drab, wretched existence.  OK, that is mostly a lie – but I am going to pin two recent events (with pictures) to this weak conceit, so please stick with me a little longer (or not, frankly I’ll never know whether you bailed at this point or not).

My attempts to master the back lever whilst hanging in the sky, supported only using a pair of gymnastic rings and my general henchness is progressing quite nicely.  Below those with a strong stomach (crucial if attempting the back lever) can see a photo of the current high water mark…

Just hanging around!

Just hanging around!

I will admit that having my legs straddled does make life a little easier, as it engages my glutes automatically, as does bending my legs, which moves the load a little nearer the effort (for those who can remember the workings of mechanical advantage from your school days).  I will further admit that whilst I was just about holding this position at the time the photograph was taken, I did collapse to the ground milliseconds later.

Some of you may be concerned about the absence of sky, what with me being indoors and the sky generally being a property of the outdoors.  In response, I would suggest that my location is unimportant for the feat being attempted, I could as easily be outside – though at this stage, could not readily be much further from the ground (as I need something to collapse safely onto).  I do also wonder whether the sky can perhaps “leak” indoors – through an open window or door, or even through an air-brick.  Further, if the ceiling was very high (1 km say) would you still deny there was sky indoors?  You see, this blog is not just me bragging – there is an actual philosophical component too!

Yesterday, I was in London – not (I wish to make clear) for an interview.  After not being interviewed, I had a brief stroll around the Greek galleries at the British Museum (checking out the stolen goods) using eyes, which inspired by Alistair Sooke’s excellent recent BBC4 documentary, were able to to see the art in a whole new way.  I was then taken to luncheon by a friend (at his employer’s expense – at which stage I should once again make clear that I had not been to an interview).  This took place in the Darwin Brasserie, which offers merely adequate food and fairly slow service, but can supply one killer advantage (in addition to the excellent company) for the luncher (an advantage which, luckily, makes it relevant to this post).  Below I include a photograph taken from my lunching chair whilst my companion was briefly away.

Lunch in the Sky!

Lunch in the Sky!

The brasserie is located in the Sky Garden on (or actually above) the 35th floor of the building popularly know as the “walkie-talkie” (or more prosaically as 20 Fenchurch Street).  It is not the most beautiful tall building in the world, but is far from the ugliest in London (or even its immediate vicinity) – and I believe has melted at least one car (which I view as a positive: a building with a super-power!).  As you can see, it offers quite stunning views of London and does have an actual garden (I was quite tempted to see if a position as gardener might be open, as I can’t imagine many weeds make it up there) – and even a balcony.  I was lucky to visit during a spell of quite beautiful (and poorly forecasted) weather with excellent visibility and the views more than compensated for any minor grumbles about the meal.  You can visit the Sky Garden without dining – and it is even free, though you do have to book in advance.  To reach the dizzying heights on offer, you will have to pass through airport style security scanning and there can be quite a queue for the lift (in both directions) but it really is well worth a visit.  On a clear day (as I was lucky enough to enjoy) you could spend hours looking out over the city, spotting the sights and watching the world go by so far below you.

So, despite the weak premise I think you will agree that I’ve made a much better fist of being SkyActiv than the boffins (or marketing types) at Mazda!

Never judge a guitarist by his fingers

On Wednesday evening, I once again found myself at the Art House Cafe listening to some (relatively) local musicians of improbably high quality.  As the title hints, some of this music involved guitars – of the acoustic variety.

Once upon a time, I could (sort of) play the guitar – taught by my then English teacher Mr Owen (before he fled to Gravesend).  Even at my peak, I was only strumming basic chords in the most plain vanilla manner possible – though I could use a transposition clock!  I actually own an acoustic guitar and fully intend to re-learn how to play it (however, this intent has been “active” for more than two decades now – so readers would be advised not to hold their breath).  As a result, I have a very modest understanding of what a guitar can do and how tricky it can be to play.

The gig involved a support act (guitarist 1) and the headline act (guitarist 2 + drummer).  Support was provided by Alex Bowron who had very unpromising fingers (in my, clearly erroneous view) – rather short and chunky and almost entirely lacking in nails (i.e. much shorter even than mine).  Despite this apparent handicap, he could do things with his guitar that I have never knowingly heard before – and which despite being able to see both his hands very clearly, I have no idea how he achieved.  He also made use of two capos (capi?) – which seem to have come a long way since my time with Mr Owen – to produce some glorious music.

The headliners were Will McNicol and Luke Selby.  Will had fingers which seemed much more compatible with playing the guitar – longish, slender digits with enormous, plectrum shaped nails on his plucking/strumming hand.  These nails clearly required a fairly serious maintenance regime – I assume he has to wear a single glove much of the time to protect them (or he may just be less of a klutz than I am).  He was (if possible) an even more incredible guitar player than Alex and also produced sonic effects I have never heard before (including an unexpected use of a business card and singing into his guitar – where the trick is not to inhale).  Luke was a drummer – and seemed very good at it, but given my previously mentioned lack of rhythm I may be overly easily impressed by drummers.  His drum kit included a foot cabasa – an instrument new to me.  Web investigation suggests that whilst it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, it does offer “a unique new voice for the feet” – which I can think we can all agree is something the world has been crying out for these many years!

They played a very wide range of music, covering inspiration from at least four continents – and for most of the gig wore only one shoe between them (I will leave an air of mystery around which of the four feet  – 1.22m – remained shod).  My musical education as a child was, in many ways, rather deficient – largely due to my lack of interest the subject (though I was very good at music-stand repair).  As a consequence, a surprisingly large amount of my music awareness came from Radio 4 comedy shows of the 1970s.  So, I do have an odd love of both the blues and madrigals as a result of some of the Willy Rushton era rounds of ISIHAC.  Much as I love and admire Colin Cell, hearing the boys playing Mississippi Blues including proper blues “licks” was a wonderful thing and almost brought a tear to my eye (despite a complete lack of vocals: not even a single “I woke up this morning”).

So, once again my musical horizons have been expanded for less than a tenner – and another album has been added to my collection (Hitchhiker by Will and Luke).  Living in Southampton really does have some excellent compensations.

Carfax

My interest in the motor car is only modest (at best) and my interest in the hosting of a comedy show about them almost non-existent.  I do find the engineering used in some fascinating and the aesthetics of most puzzling.  Homo sapiens has (occasionally) demonstrated that it is perfectly capable of designing an aesthetically pleasing car, but mostly (apparently) choses not to.  I struggle to believe that paying the designer(s) makes up a major element of the cost of our vehicles – so can only assume that there is some strategic reason to make cars so ugly: maybe it encourages faster replacement or helps to keep the aspirations of we proles suitably low?

Anyway, yesterday I found myself (and my bike) stopped behind a largish Mazda – which in addition to the usual collection of semi-random alphanumeric characters which identify the model to the cognoscenti also boasted something called SkyActiv Technology.  The car looked perfectly normal to me, so my mind raced as to what amazing features this technology might provide.  Would the car convert into a plane on pressing a button on the dash?  Could the driver confidently state that “where we’re going we don’t need roads” before taking-off vertically and disappearing into the aether?  Did the car offer Satellite TV?  Upon my return home, I used the power of the internet to discover the true nature of SkyActiv Technology: readers should prepare themselves for the disappointment I have already experienced.  Apparently, the technology means that the engine has a compression ratio of 14:1 – which, if Mazda are to be believed, is quite high.  What this has to with the sky or even the partial word activ is beyond me – it doesn’t even seem to be an anagram of something more plausible.  It would seem that in addition to an inability to correctly use the apostrophe (as shown on the SkyActiv portion of their website) Mazda have jumped the product-naming shark.

In other recent car-related news, I understand that the Driving Test is to be changed.  Despite my age, I am no dyed-in-the-wool traditionalist bemoaning every change to a much loved institution – for a start, I never loved the Driving Test, merely endured a brace of them in Herne Bay back in the mid-80s, nor am I all that keen on wool.  However, the change being proposed is to drop the three point turn (which, for the avoidance of doubt, is not a turn in a very small font) – I believe on the basis that it is out-dated.  Even as a chap who tries to leave the reverse gear on his car untouched, I have had to perform the odd three point turn – though I cannot ever remember having to reverse round a corner.  More importantly, rare is a trip out of my garret where I do not encounter someone performing the n-point turn (for suitable n≥3).  Even with it forming part of the Driving Test, the average turner is really not very competent and appears to have little concern about the appropriateness of their chosen location or the inconvenience caused to other road users.  I really don’t see that dropping it is going to help matters.  If you want to drop a now largely unused skill from the driving test, might I suggest indicating?  Given the huge effort required in moving a finger a centimetre-or-two, most motorists have already abandoned this particular skill – so its loss from the examination would go largely unnoticed.

Festive science

The timing of my recent trip to Edinburgh was arranged to coincide with the Edinburgh Science Festival – an event I first encountered by accident in 2014 when I was visiting Auld Reekie to indulge my Passion for the Dunedin Consort and Bach.

The range of events and topics did not disappoint and I thought I’d share a few of the “useful” things I learned.

I have already mentioned the Antibiotics Apocalypse talk which as well as sowing fear of the future also explained rather nicely why relying on market forces for new antibiotics might not lead to success.  If a company comes up with a drug to treat high blood pressure (for example), the patients will take it every day for the rest of their lives.  If you discover an antibiotic, patients will take it for seven days and then stop – but it is worse than this, in order to minimise the development of resistance, a new antibiotic will be used as little as possible and only when all existing options have been exhausted.  Whilst this make a lot of sense for the future health of the nation (and world), it is not a great commercial outcome for a corporation!

At a talk about food, I learned how to prepare a wide variety of offal (though played the mostly vegetarian card to avoid eating it) and the important rules to live by when dining on road kill.  I was even offered the chance to sample some satay squirrel – having previously seen a live squirrel necropsy (the animal version of an autopsy).  This was probably the best talk of the week – against some strong competition.

At a talk on artificial intelligence, I learned the amazing fact that Szechuan pepper stimulates nerves in the skin which normally respond to vibration – so if you rub your lips (for example) with the active ingredient it produces a tingling feeling indistinguishable from vibration (apparently at a frequency of roughly 50Hz – but a great deal safer than licking the mains).  I also discovered that if you apply an external source of vibration to your arm (at the right point) you can stimulate the muscle spindles which the body uses for proprioception.  This means that you could make people believe (when blindfolded) that their arm was somewhere else and, with a little cunning, make them believe their index finger was twice as long as in reality.  This is crying out to be used in a “magic” trick by Derren Brown (or someone of that ilk).

At a talk on femmes fatales, I learned all I need to know about poisoning using arsenic and the issues that might arise (a lot of mess) and the defence to use in court (just refer to Styria where arsenic was used to improve complexion and muscle tone).  I also got to taste flavoured gin and left with a plaster cast of the end of my index finger – I’m not entirely sure how either of these related to murderous madams, but they made for a fun night out.

Finally, at a talk on potential global geological disasters – including meteor strikes, super-volcanoes, mega-tsunamis and huge earthquakes – man’s dwarfing by nature was laid bare.  One potential disaster would be for part of a mountainside in the Canary Islands to fall into the Atlantic ocean – this could produce a mega-tsunami which would take out most of the eastern seaboard of North and Central America (among other things).  In common with all the potential disasters, many have suggested the use of nuclear weapons as a possible solution to geologists: I’m sorry to report that this will make matters worse (and more radioactive!) in all cases (despite what you may have seen in the movies).  In the case of Las Palmas, some have suggested removing the mountainside in question using diggers and trucks.  Even assuming an infeasibly rapid rate of removal, this would take a minimum of 10 (and perhaps as much as 35) million years!  We may like to imagine that we can destroy the planet (or are already giving it jolly good go), but in many ways even doing our best (or worst) we are desperately ineffectual: the planet is likely to be here long after we’ve gone.  The best (or worst) we can hope for is to have a short-term (in the geological context) impact on the climate and mix of living species – perhaps enough of an effect finish ourselves off, but all pretty minor in the 4.5 billion year history of this lump of rock.

The king across the water

When I moved to Southampton a little more than twenty months ago, one of the clear advantages of my new location was its proximity to the widely-admired (if inaccurately named) New Forest.  Given that it lies little more than half-a-dozen miles away (as the crow or drone flies), I could regularly partake of its arboreal delights.  Prior to last Wednesday, the number of trips I had taken to the Forest could be counted using the fingers of one foot (a foot, I should emphasise, unaffected by radiation-based mutation).

Finally, last Wednesday as the temperature soared in a series of events we may come to look back on as The Summer™, I decided the time had come to visit the hunting grounds of William the Bastard (or Conqueror as I believe he preferred).  So, packing up a few essentials into a spotted handkerchief (OK, a messenger bag) I cycled down to the Town Quay to seek passage across Southampton Water.   There is a regular ferry that will take the traveller over to Hythe, but as I discovered, it is very much a no-frills operation.  This lack of frills extends to an almost total lack of any signage (there was in fact one sign, but someone was standing in front of it, totally obscuring it).  The potential user will also be well-advised to carry a lot of change as one’s ticket is purchased from slightly modified parking machines which do not take credit cards, notes or even the current ten pence piece.  I lacked suitable change, but luckily the ferry company will exchange your notes for small bags of change acceptable to the machines – at a very competitive 1-1 exchange rate.  Such formalities out of the way, my cycle and I boarded the MV Great Expectations and made the short crossing over to one of this country’s many Hythes.

In Hythe, the cyclist can join NCN 2 which promises to transport you to the New Forest and thence to Brockenhurst and probably beyond.  I will admit that it does do this… eventually.  The routing through Hythe and Dibden has clearly not been optimised for either speed or distance and the signage is a little thin on the ground, but patience (coupled with a little luck, an A-Z and a 1:25,000 map from the Ordnance Survey) did eventually deliver me to the edge of the New Forest.  Entering the forest proper required my bicycle to make its first ever crossing of a cattle grid – which it handled like a pro (though it was less comfy for the rider).

The first thing you notice about the New Forest is the relative scarcity of trees – or at least on this eastern edge, where gorse-covered heathland dominates the scenery.  The second thing you notice is that New Forest ponies are not rare – there are loads of them, and (in common with most motorists, some cyclists and a few pedestrians) they clearly believe that they own the road.  I am generally quite nervous cycling near horses (or ponies – though the Shetland variety might be OK) given that they are larger and heavier than me and tend to the unpredictable – but luckily, most of the ponies seemed more interested in taking on four-wheeled opponents than a middle-aged cyclist.  Otherwise, cycling around the heathland in the balmy weather was really very pleasant (the scenery is of a type more associated – by me -with a holiday then a short troll from home).  Seeking refreshment I stopped off in the village of Beaulieu and eventually used the Montagu Arms Hotel as it seemed to be the sole provider of a stand to secure my bike (though the stands may have been provide to secure a four-footed form of transport).  This was a long way from the cheapest option for tea and cake, but I felt they should be rewarded for their bike (or horse) stands and they did provide a lovely garden for the refuelling.  They were also very generous with the quantity of tea (nearly enough to refloat the MV Great Expectations) and the parkin (the only cake on offer) was excellent – also very nice facilities to purge some of the tea before continuing on my way.

I then cycled back to Hythe, using my own route through Dibden Purlieu to the ferry terminal which was substantially more efficient then NCN 2 (though did require navigation of a rather busy roundabout).  With a few minutes to kill before the ferry (actually, more than a few as the timetable seems more a suggestion than a rigid commitment) I stumbled upon an excellent greengrocer which provided me with local tomatoes and rhubarb – if only I could find one nearer to home.

All-in-all an excellent afternoon out, and probably my longest cycle ride since moving to the south coast.  My body held up rather well to the rigours, though I was reminded why – when I used to cycle such distances daily – I wore padded boxer shorts.  Still, I have no real intention to pass on my genes and the contents of my under-crackers seem to be healing nicely.  I shall have to obtain a map of the cycle routes in the Forest and try and allow less than 20 months to elapse before my next visit – perhaps next time I shall take my bike on the train and delve deeper into the Nova Foresta (as the Domesday Book would have it).

Nit one

In my day job, parting the mists of time to predict the future, it is often useful to know what is happening now (or has been happening recently).  Much data about the present and recent past does exist on-line, but it tends (either by accident or as a matter of policy) to be rather painful to extract by hand – and so a little bit of “code” to automate the process  comes in very handy.  Given that “the man” has de-staffed those with useful skills rather significantly, on the whole if you want a bit of “code” you better start writing it yourself.

I used to code, back in the day (mostly my teenage days) so have had a punt at this using both Visual Basic and at the command-line in MS-DOS.  I don’t actually know any VB, but I used Basic in the early 1980s on a TRS-80 and a BBC Micro and armed with that fading knowledge, some general views about how programming languages should work, a little macro capture, some guesswork and a bit of focused internet search I found I could write some code to scrape a website and compile the extracted data into a usable form.  This code was very far from elegant, but it was a lot quicker than extracting the data by hand.  As part of this process, I also discovered that based on file naming conventions, I could tell when the person publishing data for a major European system operator took their holidays for the last two years – it can be surprising how much data we inadvertently give away on-line!

However, this is all rather painful and I decided it would be handy if I learned a proper scripting language so that I could write more effective scrapes (among other things).  For the avoidance of doubt, I decided to do this for “fun” in my own time – well, who among us hasn’t been tempted?  My original plan was to have a look at Ruby or Python, but Southampton library seemed rather weak in these languages.  However, it did have a book on Perl which some part of my subconscious seemed to believe might be a scripting language.  So, Fate having poked me with her stick, I came home with Learning Perl – aka the Llama Book – to have a look at and see if it might serve my needs.

The good news was that my Mac has a version of Perl built-in, though it took a little fiddling to get it to actually run programmes.  In my teenage days, even the most complex text editor did just that (if you were lucky), but now even a very basic text editor (like TextEdit) insists on adding all manner of bells and whistles to your putative programmes – and Perl really doesn’t like SmartQuotes or their ilk.   Still, I am now happily using TextWrangler which outputs what you input and even colour codes my code, which does help avoid at least some common syntax errors.

I have rather fallen in love with Perl – mostly because it is just so naughty.  It is the most transgressive programming language I have ever played with, breaking all the “rules” that more square languages insist upon – though it will play slightly less fast-and-loose if you use the pragma strict (but that would just spoil the fun).  It also makes huge use of punctuation marks and other obscure characters which are dotted around your keyboard – so I am now becoming quite skilled at finding these.  As a result, it can produce very compact and powerful – if hard to understand – code and is oft used by System Administrators (and now me).  Learning it is proving great fun, partly aided by the enjoyable style of Learning Perl and its rather well chosen exercises.  I have also found myself learning about Regular Expressions which have a substantial life well beyond Perl and which may improve my future internet searching.  I think I have just about reached the stage where I can start tearing apart data files and reassembling them in a more useful form, so next week I shall be putting my learning to the test!

So enamoured am I with Perl, that I have bought my own copy of the Llama Book (and am considering the Camel Book), but last night matters rose to a whole new level.  Yes, last night (so far as I know) I had my first Perl dream – I cannot remember all the details, though I do recall a rather egregious syntax error I was making and only noticed on waking: printing the number of elements in an array rather than its contents (fool!).  So, I think it may be premature to offer my sleep-coding services to the world – but my more conscious coding should be rather better…