In need of a hive?

These past few days, Bs have been playing a rather significant part in my life.  For those of you reading this post in person, I am clearly referring to the letter B, rather than to the social insect – however, I assume that most serious readers will have hired a decent Shakespearean actor to read the blog aloud to them, perhaps with their breakfast kedgeree (well, it offers that additional gravitas that GofaDM, if not deserves then certainly needs).  Effectively, in a nod to Sesame Street, today’s post is brought to you by the letter B.

With the second letter of the Roman alphabet uppermost in my mind, the little grey cells started a-whirring.  If Spears were to produce a version of their best-selling board game tailored for the ventriloquist community, presumably the letter B would be worth significantly more points than in the standard English version of Scrabble (whilst G would be lucky to score a single point).  Gut, I gigress…

The last few days I have been enjoying many of the musical offerings of the “main” Festival – and there have been a lot of Bs involved.  Bach, Bartok, Beethoven and Britten have all been performed for my listening pleasure – and have all been excellent.  The standard of classical music I’ve seen from the EIF over the years has been consistently very high – either down to their standards or my skilled selection (you decide).  As is so common with B (especially in this blog), S has also been in close attendance – a pair of Schus – “bert” and “mann” – plus Symanowski.  There was also some Mozart and Tippett – but they are harder to fit into my selected paradigm.

I have once again been reminded of what a stunning pianist Piotr Anderszewski is – apparently, according to another concert-goer, he is a bit of a dish too!  I’ve also had my first exposure to Britten’s War Requiem – rather appropriate in this centenary year – which is a very powerful piece.  As a result, I learned that I do not give good “interview” having been harrowed both emotionally and physically (the upper circle of the Hall of the House of Usher – as I insist on calling it – has the best acoustics but minimal legroom) for 90 minutes – so I hope my incoherent response to the piece is safely languishing on the cutting-room floor by now.  I presume I was picked out as I am so relatively youthful compared to most of the audience at such events – in fact, whenever I see empty seats at an otherwise sold-out event, I do worry that the seat holder has passed beyond the veil between booking and attendance.

I’ve also noticed that mobile phones are far more likely to go off inappropriately in a classical music concert at the Queen’s Hall than they are at a comedy gig.  Is this down to the difference in age or social class of the audience?  Or is it the terror of being picked on by a comedian?  In an episode of White Collar, Mozzie has a device which can block mobile signals over a modest area – assuming this is not fictitious, I’d have one deployed in every entertainment venue.  Actually, I’d quite like to open a cafe/cake shop where not only is there no wifi but all mobile signals are blocked as well. It would act as a welcome haven from the desperate pace of modern life and offer a brief respite from the electronic surveillance of our lives.  Can one purchase lead wallpaper, I wonder?  Or would tin foil be enough?  I feel an experiment coming on…

Looking back over this post, it does have rather too many “gags” that only work if read aloud – so, let’s have a final one.  So full of Bs has my week been, that one day I even had lunch at a restaurant named The Apiary.  Speaking of which, am I the only person who wishes that apes were kept in a beeary?


Intrusive technology

Over my many years trolling round the sun on this rocky planet, technology has slowly been intruding into ever more areas of the human experience.  When I was young, technology knew its place: generally tied to a wall by one or more cables.  It also never tried to out-“think” its operator as the very modest computers of those ancient days needed a large room to themselves and a dedicated team of nursemaids to keep the them in fettle.  How things have changed…

I well remember being issued with my first mobile phone by my then employers.  This phone was mobile in name only, as I tended to keep it my desk where it would not trouble me when I was “on the road”.  Eventually, my secretary started to insist that I lugged it around with me – and then that I actually switched the wretched thing on.  Over the years there have been ever fewer places to escape its demands – the tube is no longer inviolate and I fear it is only a matter of time before aircraft follow suit (thus removing one of the few pleasures of flying).  Luckily, I can use my age as an excuse to forget to carry it from time-to-time and regularly leave it on “silent” for days at a time which does spare me from its siren call.  I fear that the widespread use of mobile phones has had an adverse effect on my ability to properly organise any sort of physical meeting or to remember the contact details of friends and acquaintances – or perhaps that’s just the silken fingers of senility encroaching on my cerebellum?

Recent news has rather brought the more sinister aspects of technological intrusion to the fore.  Apparently, when we give our information to major corporations – usually without paying for the privilege but always without being paid for this valuable resource – they might not be treating it with quite the sanctity we might have imagined (though only if we were afflicted with an abnormally poor imagination).  Obviously, we knew that they would be using it to try and sell us stuff (either themselves or by selling it to others with similar objectives).  This should be very worrying, were it not for the completely useless nature of the attempted sales being facilitated.  I have yet to have anything even remotely relevant pushed at me by the supposed masters of this dark art (though I am often offered other examples of things I’ve just bought) – though I think by pointed at a discrete catheter by Facebook was possibly the low point.

In the days before one rather ill-considered blog post, I used to order my books from an online retailer.  This would always recommend further books for me to buy – but never once offered anything tempting.  Now that I visit real bookshops, I am constantly stumbling across desirable books – to the extent that my bookcase is no longer large enough and I have a Foyalty card (it’s like a supermarket loyalty card, but from Foyles).  The other major driver of book purchasing has been the public libraries of Sawston and Cambridge.  Rather than the soi-disant corporate giants of the internet driving a significant chunk of my economic activity, it is the old-fashioned and underfunded world of the bookshop and library – without them, the contents of my bookcase would remain under control.

With PRISM, it would seem that internet corporations are not just selling us out to the world of commerce but also to the intelligence agencies of the US (and elsewhere).  Not much of a surprise it must be said – but I think if our governments are spying on us, then we should remember that we are paying for this intrusion and should be getting something back.  The very least they could do is provide a helpline to remind us of our forgotten passwords – but I’d like them to go further.  As they are reading all of our stuff anyway, could they not provide some basic editing and proof-reading?  Certainly, this blog is crying out for that sort of input.  Perhaps they could hold texts or email sent in the extremes of anger or drink until more sober reflection has had time to kick-in?  GCHQ (or the NSA or local equivalent) would also be in a very good position to provide a back-up for all our files and would save all this pfaffing around with the “cloud” or external hard drives.   Was it not that doyen of modern philosophers, Stan Lee, who said that with great power comes great responsibility?  Perhaps oddly, I have more faith in our governments not to misuse our data than our commercial corporations – though this may only reflect my view of their even lower levels of functional competence.

Google, a serial offender, when it comes to take our data for its own nefarious (but not actually evil, at least according to their mission statement) purposes, is about to launch its own range of glasses (though these will not will hold a pint).  As a man well stricken in years, such specs have one very obvious benefit: they could remind you of the name of the person to whom you are talking.  Sadly, Google have said they won’t be used for facial recognition – so it would seem you will be spending your money to wear dodgy glasses and be advertised at.  Count me out – I shall continue to use my existing strategies for not revealing my nomenclative ignorance (one really doesn’t need to name one’s interlocutor anything like as often as you might think).

Talking of Google, my mobile phone has recently started telling me how long it will take to get home.  I am far from convinced that it know where I live, though it clearly has some idea.  However, it does seem to think I will be driving up the M11 for my return (well, it does when I’m in London) – and in this it is sadly mistaken (or perhaps, it is planning to go home with someone else, a driver no less!).  Once again, technology tries to be clever but falls rather a long way short of the mark.  I think Skynet may be a little way off yet…

Despite my rather frivolous take on the subject, I do suspect that we should probably be a little more careful in guarding our privacy – or one day we will wake up and it will all be irrevocably gone.  Some might think that this blog has already rung the death knell for my own privacy, but frankly if the world’s “intelligence” agencies can learn any thing useful from it they will probably be doing a lot better than most of the readers.  In the meantime, perhaps I should retreat to the West (well, Cornwall) or Norfolk where modern technology does not yet seem to have intruded to quite the level it has elsewhere – it’s either that or buying a cave and some lead flashing to line it for my “private” moments!

40 Nights in the Wilderness

Well OK, it was only seven nights and it was in Norfolk, so no-one could take me to a high place to tempt me with dominion over all the kingdoms of the world, however, in terms of the world of 21st century communication it was very much a wilderness.

I was staying in a place without wifi, but in this age of 3G (soon to be 4G) communications hadn’t expected that to be an issue.  I possess a modern smartphone which usually allows me to remain in touch, and even blog, when away from the wifi – but not, it transpires, in Norfolk.    Whilst O2 makes up a substantial portion of the atmosphere (though less than in the past), its rays struggle to penetrate the county of Norfolk.  For much of the week, even a weak 2G signal was hard to come by – service seemed even worse than in Wales which, at least, has the excuse of its challenging topography.  I found only three places with a 3G signal: Wymondham station, Norwich city centre and, weirdly, Barton Turf staithes (which was the most remote location I visited – but obviously a priority for O2).

I know that Norfolk and its inhabitants are the butt of many a joke, with the locals allegedly being shocked by the electric light and the wheel – but in the case of modern communications this would seem to be no joke.  Norfolk must lie beyond the hegemony of the iPhone (which is now so ubiquitous that even I have one, which goes to show how far from “cool” Apple has sunk.  Then again, these days it does rather seem to have given up innovation to spend more time with its lawyers) as many of its features are unusable over most of the county.

Still, the isolation was a learning experience for yours truly.  Whilst I am not of the generation that has a panic attack if unable to check their mobile for more than 5 minutes, I found that do like to check on my electronic “life” every couple of days.  I also found that I missed the iPlayer: the radio was once again rendered all too missable.  It would seem that whilst I like to visit the countryside, I’m a city boy at heart (yes, I know that technically I live in the countryside – but I’m only a short, flatish bike ride from a university city and Cambridgeshire seems to be at least 1G ahead of its northern neighbour).  This can, perhaps, be demonstrated by my activities since my return.  With the Cambridge Film Festival in full swing (like the pendulum of a recently wound clock or a busy playground), over the least couple of days I’ve managed to take in films from Québec, Catalonia and Greece – a geographical span of art house cinema which I suspect only a city can furnish.  All the films had their appeal, though my favourite was Starbuck from French-speaking Canada – well, I say French-speaking, but the film did remind me of what terrible French they speak in Québec (which proved quite useful when I visited a few years back, as I also speak terrible French and so managed to communicate rather successfully).  However, before this degenerates into pseuds corner and I mention my plans to take in some Estonian cinema tomorrow, I should allow this post to fade to black.

Low aspirations

One of the features of the looting which accompanied this summer’s rioting in the UK was the rather low aspirations of the looters.  Mindless entertainment and cheap clothing seemed to be the primary targets for their larceny – though some also aimed for cheap, “value” range food staples.  Bookshops escaped almost entirely unscathed – which strikes me as a searing indictment on the quality of today’s opportunist criminal element.

Today, I learned that such low aspirations are not limited to looters, and that paucity of ambition has been the undoing of at least one criminal.  It would seem that someone has been attempting to use my credit card – or at least its details, as I still possess the card itself.  However, the fool used it for a moderately large shop at Tesco and this was immediately detected as fraud (by the splendid folk of John Lewis Financial Services). Had they attempted their scam in Waitrose or the Co-op, it may have gone undetected for months – but I haven’t shopped at a Tesco in many a year (though reading Matathew’s recent post suggests it can be quite a profitable experience for the sharp-eyed shopper!)

My woolly, liberal attempts at middle-class, ethical shopping have finally borne fruit!  My shopping habits are sufficiently unlike those of the typical felon (or indeed, most of the country’s law-abiding citizenry) that they provide me some protection from card crime.

The attempted fraud does mean that my card has had to be cancelled (though it was almost life expired anyway, added to which almost all the writing has already rubbed off), which will that mean my spending habits will be somewhat constrained for a few days.  I should be feeling terribly upset and/or violated – but to be honest I was more amused by the whole incident and rather proud that JLFS had recognised how out of character use of Tesco was.  I suppose the rather poor quality of the modern criminal is rather depressing: it seems we should not be relying on our fraudsters to haul the country out of its current financial difficulties (though, perhaps the banking crisis should have acted as a small clue in this regard).

On a related topic, I heard the splendid Andrew O’Neill on the radio pendant le weekend who had (for reasons unexplained) been without a mobile phone for some months, and had been relishing the freedom.  I am now wondering if I should plan to set aside a few days each year to do without one of modern life’s apparent requisites?  A sort of rolling lent, if you will?  I feel it could be rather good for the soul – or closest humanist equivalent.

Desperately Seeking Signal

Wales has significantly more varied topography than the environs of Sawston and at least one of the reasons for this is down to the underlying geology – at home, crushed dead sea creatures (or their skeletons – the reticulated pseudopodia have, sadly, mostly been lost over the aeons) whereas here igneous and metamorphic rocks (where any original material has been subjected to some serious heat and often pressure too).

This conjunction of factors leaves the wire-free modern world struggling in mid-Wales.  Finding any viable mobile phone signal is a challenge – my greatest success so far was some 450m up the north face of Cader Idris where I had full 3G service and maximum signal strength. (I probably had access to 100% of the bandwidth too, as there were very few other potential users around – unless sheep are on 3).  Sadly, I am unable to report on the signal at the summit, as the clouds descended to 500m, and my ascent was cut short – I climb for the views, rather than the purely to boost my gravitational potential energy.

Any sort of relief can block mobile signal, but I suspect the local rocks may exacerbate this effect.  My holiday gaff is stone-built (and the stones look local to me, and why would you import grey stone when you can’t move for the stuff?) and whilst it has wifi provided, its range is limited to a single room – the walls block any broader distribution of high frequency radio waves.

Talking of grey stone, I can understand why the Welsh would use this abundant local resource for construction (in years gone by, the unfortunate impact on wireless surfing was, presumably, unknown) but it does tend to make the local towns and villages rather grey – some might say dismal or depressing, especially in the wet (though, I feel it gives a real sense of place).  What I find harder to understand is the local predilection for applying grey pebbledash (worse even than the more common brown variant) to so many modern dwellings – which only adds to the encircling gloom.  Why not permit a little colour?  Even the red of a few un-pebbled bricks would add a colourful accent to most local metropoli.  Aberdyfi does have a few brightly painted buildings – perhaps trying to get a starring role in a new CBeebies series (those old Balamory tapes must wear out, or date beyond utility, one day) – but this is very much the cheerful exception.  Come on Wales, pay the extra for a colour license!

But, back to the plot.  In flatter lands (as opposed to the setting for Edwin Abbot’s most famous romance), young people seem rarely to look away from their mobile phones – largely ignoring their current surroundings and companions.  How, I wondered, do Welsh children cope?  Do they spend all their leisure hours, huddled against the wind and rain, halfway up a local mountain communing with their e-friends?

Earlier in the week, I went north using the amazingly cheap local trains (of the Class 158 DMU, rather than heritage steam variety – which do cost an arm and a leg).  I do worry about the financial viability of Arriva Trains Wales with such inflation-busting fares – maybe the quantum effects experienced on my journey here allow them to achieve economies, with a single super-posed DMU simultaneously providing the rolling stock for multiple services.  Both journeys were shared with local youth travelling to, and then from, their places of education – and so I could see signal-free young people in action.  They seemed happy and well-adjusted and quite willing to talk to their physically proximate companions (and, indeed, the guard).  I think employers should be made aware of this pool of young people with a viable attention span – with Welsh youth in charge, I would feel much more confident in the funding of my pension in my twilight years (and, no, moody vampirism is not my post-retirement plan).

A Tough Week for the Mobile Phone

I notice the phone hacking scandal rumbles on. As a sometime user of public transport, I am often forced to “hack” into mobile phone calls – but have yet to hear anything even mildly diverting. I still await the News of the World front page headline, “I’m on the train”.

I must admit I’m not a big fan of the mobile phone – I use it to a very limited extent and, all too often, have it on Silent mode where it can more readily be ignored. When I do use it, it is only as a substitute for proper planning (and I fear what damage the mobile is doing to the ability of future generations to plan successfully). I hanker for the days of my youth when the only phone was tethered to the wall in a chilly hallway.

However, this week a couple of news stories suggest others have taken their dislike of the mobile phone (their own or, more often, that of others) to even greater extremes than myself.

Someone in the Ukraine would seem to have fed theirs to a crocodile in a modern day taken on Peter Pan (certainly, one of the few uses my phone gets is as an alarm clock). I suppose a modern Captain Hook will learn to fear a snatch of some entry in the current hit parade rather than the more prosaic ringing bells of the original tale.

However, today British scientists plan to go still further and send their mobile phone(s) into orbit. As I recall from the strap-line to Alien, “In space, no-one can hear you scream” and this would equally apply to ringtones and inane conversation (though I fear texting and Twitter may still be possible). I can only applaud their efforts to restore peace and quiet to our public spaces and the attention of our young (and not so young) people to their current location and companions.

Excessive optimism?

I recently had cause to buy a Pay-As-You-Go (PAYG) mobile phone, which is not something I do terribly often and I found that the purchase process was surprisingly long-winded. As I was twiddling my thumbs, I found myself recalling a scene in the recent movie “The Bourne Ultimatum” in which our eponymous hero buys a PAYG phone on Waterloo station. This process took a matter of seconds and did not appear to involve any specialist spy-related skills.

Before you object and suggest my ability to separate fact and fiction has been eroded even further than usual, I should make clear that I do realise that The Bourne Ultimatum is a work of fiction and was not intended as a documentary or “how-to” guide. However, I had clearly not realised the degree of artistic licence that this small scene involved – had it occurred in the real world, I fear the film would have ended well before the first reel was over (though it would have been quite a long and tedious first reel).

The actual process takes nearly 15 minutes, including the laborious completion of paperwork by hand – not quite the bleeding edge of technology I might have anticipated. Part of this process required the written transposition of the serial number of the SIM card to paper.

I was amazed to discover that the serial number has 19 digits, this would mean that it could uniquely identify 10 to the power of 19 different SIM cards. This is an awful lot of SIMs – the world has a population of around 6 billion with forecasts that it might reach 14 billion by 2100 (that is – roughly – 10 to the power of 10 people). This means that there are enough SIM card serial numbers available for every man, woman or child on earth to get through some one billion SIM cards (each) during their lifetime. I know some people have several mobile phones, and others are terribly careless – but this still seems a lot of headroom to me.

Do the mobile phone companies have some expectation of an unprecedented population explosion, beyond even Malthus’s worst nightmares? Or are they about to start marketing their wares to a new audience? Termites perhaps? Or some similarly numerous species? I’m not sure I’m that happy for Phylum Athropoda to have access to modern telecommunications. To be honest, I’m far from convinced that the networks can handle it – especially, if our insect friends get into on-line social networking (Bee-bo anyone? Chitter perhaps?).