Inheriting the family business

Something which I might be considered to have done, insofar as I have spent much of my soi disant career working in the industry that brought my parents together.  Consider it some sort of pay back, if you will.

However, rather than myself, it was the forthcoming Jubilee weekend which caused me to think about inherited position.  Despite being 60 years in the making, it does seem to have come as rather a surprise – neither I, nor most of those I have spoken to this week, seemed aware that next Tuesday was a “bonus” bank holiday.  As a result, my planned trip to the National Theatre on Tuesday evening may involve proximity to both rather more people and a higher risk of encountering Railtrack at their worst than anticipated.

The Queen has now been on the throne for 60 years – you’d think someone would have introduced her to the prune or senna pod by now – and is surely due for parole or time off for good behaviour.  I suppose the promotion in the field of monarchy is still very much a matter of dead men’s shoes.  Why anyone puts up with being royal has always baffled me: I’m sure the role breaches the European Convention on Human Rights and heaps of money (or the Civil List as I believe it’s more officially known) only compensates for so much.  A gilded cage is still a cage.  However, people do still seem willing to sign themselves and their gluteally-favoured siblings up for the whole shebang.

I feel I should be doing more to infuse my life with the spirit of the occasion: either covering everything in bunting and flags or becoming consumed by republican ire – however, I am merely covered in, or consumed by, apathy.  I would appear to be far from alone in my languor in this corner of East Anglia: there is a serious lack of bunting to be seen (with one honourable exception, a house which has more bunting et al than every other I’ve seen put together).

The problem with handing control of the family business down to the eldest son (or daughter) is that one is  at the mercy of a random blending of inherited genes coupled with a sprinkling of mutations.  This fact must have been brought home quite forcibly to Rupert Murdoch of late, with his male heir proving to have a far from fully functional hypocampus and/or amygdala.  Actually, given the amnesia that has also afflicted Murdoch père the trait seems positive Lamarckian; thinking more broadly, the very widespread of symptoms consistent with exposure to the water of the river Lethe afflicting those who came into contact with New International suggests some sort of airborne pathogen might be to blame.  If you value your marbles, I suggest steering clear of Wapping…

I was also reminded of the dangers of primogeniture when viewing last week’s offering from Lovefilm: Thor.  This provided a certain degree of entertainment, but Odin was left with two rather unsuitable children to carry on the Asgard corporation.  Luckily, barely twenty-four hours as a mortal and some associated affection from Natalie Portman was enough to set one son back on the straight and narrow (obviously, her earlier failure with the young Darth Vader has led Ms Portman to up her game significantly).  Sadly, she was quite unable (in the time available) to do anything about his atrocious accent – I’m not quite sure what Chris Hemsworth was aiming for, but it did not sit well in the context of Northern European mythology or with the accents of his parents and brother.

For the mythology connoisseur, there were some indications that the writers had carried out a little basic research, however, there were a number of disappointments.  For a start, the horses of Asgard were very deficient in the leg department: Odin’s steed, Sleipnir, is famed for his eight-legs but only 50% of these were provided to the cinema-goer (presumably the feat of co-ordination of so many limbs at a gallop was beyond the skill of the CGI artists).  In a piece of admirably colour-blind casting, Idris Elba (perhaps best known from The Wire) played Heimdallr: who has many talents (apparently he had nine mothers – which must make for a tense and expensive Mothering Sunday in Himinbjörg) but is described as the whitest of the gods.  It was also disappointing to see the rather limited use made of Yggdrasil, the world tree: it’s all very well equating it to a collection of wormholes but this misses out on Ratatoskr, the squirrel that carries insults from the dragon that lives at the base of the tree to the eagle that lives at its top (and vice versa).  Who cannot help but love a mythology which includes an insult carrying squirrel!  The monotheistic religions may all be well and good, but where are the bad-mouthing rodents?  I am seriously tempted to become Viking by religion: the stories you are expected to believe in are so much more fun and I reckon it would be able to see off even the most determined atheist (Dawkins doesn’t know he easy he has it, plying his “trade” in the 21st century).

But, my biggest gripe, and the one which made me wince whenever it occurred, was the word chosen to describe the inhabitants of Asgard, viz Asgardians: a truly horrible word.  As Snorri Sturluson could have told them way back in the 13th century, the inhabitants of Asgard are the Æsir.  I expected better of Kenny Branagh but perhaps he was over-ruled by his North American paymasters, fearing audience incomprehension in their home market.

Barren superfluity of (pass)words

As you may have guessed, I own a Dictionary of Quotations and I’m not afraid to use it.  Today’s title (mostly) comes to us from Sir Samuel Garth, one time physician to George I, from his mock-heroic poem The Dispensary.  I, like a clueless Mastermind contestant, provided the “pass”.

The modern, computer era requires a chap to keep track of a plethora of passwords – and, not just words but numbers and more complex ciphers as well.  Different organisations have different requirements – some insist on characters that are neither numbers nor letters whereas others won’t permit these at all (though don’t usually reveal this fact until after you have entered your choice: twice!).

Work is even worse, as I am forced to change my passwords on a regular basis.  As an ex-system manager, I recognise this as good practice – but as a user it is nothing but a pain.  The vacancy which overtakes my mind when required to come up with some new, secure password is matched only by that when presented with a leaving card in which to write something suitably pithy.   (And yes, I have thought of “orange” – but fear its use could lead to my early Sectioning.)

Often passwords are supposed to be linked to a particular concept: a memorable name or date, first or last school or that class of thing.  Given the relative ease of discovering information about a chap from the web, and the amount of data available to any cyber-criminal with sufficient time on their hands and a high enough boredom threshold to work their way through this blog, I feel that using birthdays, my mother’s maiden name or real educational history would be a less than secure choice.  As a result, I tend to use bare-faced lies when required to provide this data for security purposes (I do worry that this revelation may reduce this blog’s readership at a stroke, but I am willing to forego my massive cyber-criminal following).

Using fictitious data for passwords does provide significantly stronger security for my various on-line transactions.  However, for sites I use infrequently the security provided is so high that even I cannot gain access as I tend to forget which particular “lie” I found amusing at the time I established the relevant password.  I have never written down the necessary information as (a) this would weaken security and (b) because I think I have such a good memory that I will never forget the witty reasoning behind my choice.  Ah, hubris, my Nemesis!

Yesterday, in common with many across the land, I needed to send some money to the Inland Revenue (sadly, they do not yet accept buttons).  I do this only once every six months and so had (obviously) forgotten all the relevant passwords: either to make payment using my debit card or to set up a transfer from my bank account.  So, I was forced to fall back on human contact and ring my bank to try and reset my passwords and then make the payment.  As you might imagine, the prospect filled me with dread – but how wrong I was!

There was no tedious menu of options to work through, or the normal long wait in a queue whilst being told that my call is important (as I fume that it clearly isn’t or they’d have hired more people to answer the phone).  The phone was answered almost instantly by a very cheery and helpful chap who, I’d guess from his accent, hails from somewhere in northwest England.  The lad even laughed at my jokes – surely well beyond the call of duty on a Friday evening.  We swiftly managed to reset all my passwords and money was soon winging its way (on electronic wings) to HMRC.

So, I have decided to briefly cast aside the mantle of Victor Meldrew and embrace that of Pollyanna: though as the service was so good, I have no need of her ‘Glad Game’ philosophy.  So, GofaDM raises a salute (and a glass) to the fine folk of the Co-operative Bank, it seems their slogan of ‘good with money’ even extends to customer service!

Get lost

It was in the year of the Queen’s silver jubilee (and so, horrifically, 35 years ago) that I started to learn the French language.  I think this may have been the first time that I became aware that my memory was better than that of the average bear (I am also unable to resist a pic-er-nic basket).  Each week the splendid Mr Harlow would set a test, either on current new vocabulary or a verb conjugation we had just learned.  Each week I would do no preparation and each week I would score top marks in the test (I was a terrible swat).  In those days, once seen, never forgotten.   Now, I’m lucky if I can hold a thought in my head for more than a few seconds – though, I do still try to live without any preparation.

Another important part of learning French was translating la plus belle langue du monde (see, I haven’t lost it) into my mother tongue (or failing that, English).  I seem to recall much of this translation involved the rather limited (not to say, dull) adventures of Marie-France, Jean-Paul et Claudette.  I was taught never to use the verb “to get” in these translations, though I no longer remember why: perhaps it was because there is no equivalent verb in French since “get” is used to cover a multitude of sins (Mr Collins has 35 separate meanings, and I’m sure the OED could muster significantly more).

Mr Harlow would probably be pleased to know that this piece of his teaching has stuck fast in at least one pupil.  To this day, 50% of three score and ten years later, I find that I am still almost unable to use the verb “to get” in a blog post, email or other writing.  I can do it, but I it’s always a struggle and when I succumb I feel that I have somehow let myself down.  I find myself wondering whether any readers of GofaDM have a similar aversion to this mainly transitive verb?  Or is it only me?

Berkshire Baking

The Berkshire town of Eton (once of Buckinghamshire, but I believe they were outbid by Berks in a notorious transfer deal back in the 70s) is best known for its school, the eponymous college.  However, it should also be known for its bakery which produces a loaf of unsurpassed quality.

Over the years, many have sampled the local bread and been amazed by its excellence – but, due to a quirk of fate, have later been unable to recall this fact.  So, the secret of the Eton bakery remains inviolate and the town continues to be most famous for its public school.

Perhaps, the Thames holds some distant kinship with the Lethe and the water used in the baking delivers a superlative flavour coupled with a strange amnesia – but that may just be idle speculation on my part.  I suspect we will never know the true reason for this curious phenomenon.  All I can say for certain is that “Eton bread is soon forgotten”.

It’s a poor sort of memory

and does, indeed, only work backwards – though I suspect that any other form would be worse.  Still, it’s always a joy to quote the Red Queen: a woman of rare insight.

I have been thinking about memory of late, which does rather bring the god Odin to mind.  He kept quite the menagerie (rather more than à trois): in addition to two wolves and an eight-legged horse (surely a riding accident waiting to happen) he also kept two ravens named Huginn and Muninn (and mayhap other creatures as well).  The ravens’ names are normally translated into English as Thought and Memory, and I sometimes imagine myself as little more than a pair of corvids trapped in a box – with Muninn probably in the ascendant.

I have always (so far as I can recall – ha ha) had a pretty decent memory.  I am often asked how I remember so much (useless) stuff to which I have no real answer other than “how do you not?”  I certainly do not sit (or stand or lie) around trying to memorise useless facts, somehow it just happens when I’m busy doing other things.

It can be quite a useful skill as, all too often, a good memory can be mistaken for intelligence.  It also saves a lot of mental arithmetic if you can just remember what the answer was last time: one of the many beauties of mathematics is the consistency of arithmetic over time.  It has also served me quite well in both examinations and pub quizes (other quiz venues are available, but rather less fun).  However, it’s not all good news – I do frighten myself at times, for example, when I instantly know an answer with no understanding as to why.  It can also lead people to believe me when I say something about the past, even if I have (literally) just made it up – a power that can be used for both good and evil (mostly the latter).

Whilst my memory is pretty good, it is far from perfect.  I think part of the problem is the sheer volume of junk stored means that memories can become somewhat muddled – for example, when seeing people my brain tends to perform some sort of internal identikit operation enabling me to confidently ‘recognise’ complete strangers (well, he had A’s nose, B’s hair, C’s chin etc).  Repeated actions are also poorly recalled: I can remember locking the front door, but is the memory I’m accessing from today or November 2009?

I believe my visual memory is particularly poor, it seems that my brain stores visual information in a very compressed manner – like a rather extreme form of JPEG.  This can cause trouble: I nearly missed my stop travelling on the bus in Edinburgh as the bus shelter on the opposite side of the road had been changed and this was enough to confuse me.  Yes, of all the permanent landmarks around the stop that I could have chosen – stone buildings, geomorphology etc – the key one I relied upon was a temporary structure. I really need to let Huginn out of his box a little more often.

However, the real tragedy of my poor visual memory is that it impoverishes my recall of great visual art.  Storing it in a highly compressed conceptual form really does not capture the essence of great art.  Strong affect is supposed to improve memory – an important defence mechanism from our evolutionary past – but somehow this doesn’t work for me in a gallery: I just start aching.

Whilst in Edinburgh, I went to the Scottish Gallery of Modern Art: Two – quite a hike on my swollen foot, so I didn’t go the few extra yards to One (I’ll save that for another time). I went there to see an exhibition of photography by Hiroshi Sugimoto which came in two parts: Lightening Fields and Photogenic Drawings.  The first were photographs of electrical discharges (400kV) and were truly extraordinary – I have never seen their like. The second were re-prints of negatives created by William Henry Fox Talbot in the very early years of Victoria’s reign – some of which were truly haunting.  I think it may have been the finest art exhibition I have ever visited – and as a member of the Art Fund, really quite cheap.  As a bonus, they also had some wonderful woodcuts by Ian Cheyne – perhaps trying to keep the Japanese vibe going?

The tragedy is that with my lousy memory for pictures, my recall of the exhibition is already fading and there were no postcards for sale and an original is likely to be beyond my budget.  But, there is some good news: in researching this blog I have found that Google images comes (slightly) to my rescue with a few actual JPEGs of both the photographs and the woodcuts.  Whilst no match for the real thing, they are significantly more faithful to the originals than my ageing neurons.

Surely, there must be a way to train your memory to be better with pictures?  Or perhaps not, as normally you are taught to remember ‘boring’ facts using pictures – a method I find utterly useless.  I can only remember the picture by first remembering the original facts, and then using them to try and re-construct the picture by adding in some recollection of how I might have converted the facts into a visual form.  This does both rather defeat the purpose and make me wonder if I am entirely normal.  Yes, I know you’ve wondered this for some time – or more likely, gone beyond wondering and drawn some pretty firm conclusions (and not just in pencil, but have mentally inked them in).

I have no great desire to be normal – always strikes me as over-rated – but I would like to remember the visual with greater fidelity.  Then again, perhaps a photographic memory is only a desirable thing if it comes with the ability to Photoshop the contents?