Tuesday, 2 September 2014

nothing else can save me....

Whilst sitting on a little boat in a harbour last week, I noticed a sign.  My Italian is a little rusty, but it's one of those languages that, if you use your imagination, you always feel as though you can make sense of it.  It was some kind of notice to passengers about what to do in the event of an emergency.  Not panic and run around screaming, I think it said.  Anyway, what really caught my eye was the use of the phrase "SOS".  Save Our Souls, I thought as I idly completed the acronym in my head.

Then I stopped dead.

Is that an entirely universal phrase, or have I just lazily slipped into the assumption that the English (or at least another English speaking nation) invented the phrase and that the rest of the world simply adopted it?

Well, Britannia did rule the waves, after all.

Perhaps SOS stands for something completely different in the Italian acronym?

Curious, I looked it up when I next got the chance.

According to wikipedia:

"This distress signal was first adopted by the German government in radio regulations effective April 1, 1905, and became the worldwide standard under the second International Radiotelegraphic Convention, which was signed on November 3, 1906 and became effective on July 1, 1908...In popular usage, SOS became associated with such phrases as "save our ship", "save our souls" and "send out succour". These may be regarded as mnemonics, but SOS does not actually stand for anything and is not an abbreviation, acronym or initialism. In fact, SOS is only one of several ways that the combination could have been written; VTB, for example, would produce exactly the same sound, but SOS was chosen to describe this combination. SOS is the only 9-element signal in Morse code, making it more easily recognizable, as no other symbol uses more than 8 elements".

Interestingly (to me, anyway), the development of audio radio transmitters rather rendered morse code redundant, and in 1927, "Mayday" was adopted as the internationally accepted audio equivalent of SOS.

As an aside, given that electrical telegraph systems were only invented in 1836, and Morse Code after that, what was the equivalent distress signal for ships before that?  I suppose waving flags is only really useful if there's another ship close enough to see you waving.... and if they're close enough to see that, couldn't they also just see that you're sinking and might appreciate a helping hand? (and apparently flag signalling was only really set down in the late eighteenth century anyway.  It's a real time suck, this, isn't it?)

So, there you go: my casually glib assumption corrected.  Also on this holiday, I learned that my assumption about the origins of the phrase "Indian Summer" was also (most likely) completely wrong.  Never let it be said that I can never admit to being wrong.  Credit where credit is due: my wife had that one right.  I actually confused an Indian colleague of mine by explaining to him what the phrase actually meant.  He just couldn't get his head around the fact that the generally very mild English weather could in any way be compared to a summer in India, where the temperatures - he told me - are often in excess of 45 degrees!

Monday, 1 September 2014

that's what I go to school for....

You'll be pleased to hear that I'm not going to go on and on about our holiday.  We spent five days on the island of Salina, one of the Aeolian Islands just off the coast of Sicily and it was lovely.  Daft though it sounds, we don't often go on holiday just to relax, but actually that's what we did this time around.

Just look at the view from our hotel room.

Enticing enough that even we spent some time just chilling out around the pool, reading a book or just having a snooze whilst listening to "X&Y".  Coldplay certainly aren't to everyone's taste, and I don't really like much of what they've done since this album, but sat around a pool in 30 degree heat, this just hit the spot perfectly.

Salina is a pretty small island, with towns huddled around a pair of extinct volcanos.  We were staying in a lovely hotel in Malfa, and it was nice enough, but the main draw really is the ocean.  We planned to do some diving when we were there, and just look at the colour of the water.  Beautiful.

Salina is volcanic and there's very little sand on the sea bed.  What this means is that the water is crystal clear and visibility underwater is something like 30m, better than anywhere else I've been, including the Great Barrier Reef.  We dived into caves filled with shrimp; we saw a shoal of around 100 barracuda; grumpy looking eels; we swam along lava tubes; we actually saw the line where the warm top layer of water began to mingle with the colder water from the depths..... it was pretty good.  The water was so good, in fact, that we got up early a couple of times and walked the ten minutes down to the little stoney beach near our hotel for some snorkelling before breakfast (crabs, urchin, hundreds of fish, you know: the usual).

As I said, the Aeolian islands are volcanic, and several of them still have live volcanos.  This was the view from the terrace bar of our hotel, with the perfect cone of Stromboli pouring out smoke across Panarea.  We took a trip across to Stromboli during the week and hiked up to a viewing platform in time for sunset.  It was a long, hot hike, but the payoff was spectacular.

I've stood next to an active volcano before, in Ecuador, and felt the ground shaking beneath my feet.... but I've never stood on an actively erupting volcano and felt the heat from the lava as it flowed down towards the sea.  Astonishing.

Best of all was I got to spend some quality time with my wife.  She works very hard and is away from home an awful lot.  Turns out she's quite good company when she puts her mind to it.  It was a fantastic holiday.  Not even the insane Italian driver who drove us back to Catania airport at about 150km/h, the flight home delayed by three hours, the 0230 arrival home on Sunday morning or the pouring rain that greeted my cycle to the office this morning could completely ruin.

This is what you go to school for.

Friday, 22 August 2014


I mentioned yesterday that I did a quiz for a thing at work the other week.  Well, if you're interested, here it is.  Have a go and let me know what you think. 

I think there's something like 77 points on offer in total (including the bonus two in the top ten round).  The winning team on the day got something like 62 points.  I tried not to make it too easily google-able, but also not so difficult as to be ridiculous.  

Have a go! I'll put the answers up in a bit.

Round One – Famous Pauls

1. Ex-Beatle

2. Movie star and salad dressing tycoon

3. Garfunkel's partner

4. Crocodile Dundee

5. Former football midfielder who played his entire 20-year career with Manchester United

6. member of the bands The Jam and the Style Council

7. Nottingham born Fashion designer

8. Actor who played Jesse in Breaking Bad

9. Actor famous for playing Brian Fantana in Anchorman and Phoebe’s boyfriend Mike in Friends

10. The Fast and the Furious actor who died in 2013

Round Two – World Cup

1. What was the score in the Brazil – Germany semi-final?

2. What year was the first FIFA world cup tournament

3. Who won the first world cup

4. Brazil have won the tournament the most times – how many?

5. What was the score in the final in 1966 when England beat West Germany?

6. What is the name of the original World Cup trophy

7. What is the name of the dog that found the trophy when it was stolen in 1966

8. 2 players captained England in this year’s world cup – name them both

9. In which 2 years did David Beckham captain the England World cup Finals team?

10. Which is the the only nation to have played in every World Cup?

Round Three – General Knowledge

1. What is the fastest land animal?

2. What is the most common element in the Earth's atmosphere?

3. If the score is love-15, what sport are you playing?

4. The song "Candle in the Wind" was dedicated to what actress?

5. What country traditionally produces port wine?

6. What brand of beer does Homer Simpson drink?

7. What condiment is sometimes called Japanese horseradish?

8. Who is the Lord of the Rings?

9. What river flows parallel to the Euphrates?

10. Who painted the Mona Lisa

Round Four –Top ten round. 

Countries by population: name 5 of the top 10 most populated countries in the world.
5 points on offer, but a bonus 2 points if you can name the top 5.

Round 5 – Nearest Nottingham (as the crow flies)

1. Derby, Mansfield or Leicester?

2. Glasgow, Dublin or Plymouth?

3. Paris, Brussels or Amsterdam?

4. Madrid, Vienna or Stockholm?

5. Chicago, Nairobi, Delihi?

Round 6 – On this Day in History: 31st July 2014 (the day I did the quiz)

1. It’s JK Rowling’s birthday today. Within 2 years either side, how old is she?

2. It’s Fat Boy Slim’s birthday today. Within 2 years either side, how old is he?

3. Former England Manager Bobby Robson died on this day in history. Within 2 years either side, what year did he die?

4. Including today, how many days have there been so far this year?

5. On this day in history, the Spanish Armada was spotted off the coast of England and Sir Francis Drake finished his game of bowls before setting sail from Plymouth to defeat them. Which century?

Round 7 – Pictures

Round 8 – Cover Versions. 

What song do the following artists have in common?

1. Norman Greenbaum, Doctor and the Medics, Gareth Gates & The Kumars

2. Leonard Cohen, John Cale, Jeff Buckley, kd lang, Rufus Wainwright, Alexandra Burke

3. The Troggs, Wet, Wet, Wet, R.E.M. (and apparently Metallica!)

4. Righteous Brothers, Robson & Jerome, Elvis Presley, U2, Gareth Gates, Duane Eddie

5. Johnny Cash, Nine Inch Nails

Round 9 - Lyrics.  Name that song.

1. Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof

2. U don't have 2 be beautiful 2 turn me on

3. They've been going in and out of style, But they're guaranteed to raise a smile, So may I introduce to

4. I could see that girl was no good for me, But I was lost like a slave that no man could free

5. Anybody could be that guy, Night is young and the music's high

6. And then worst of all (worst of all) you never call, baby, When you say you will (say you will) but I
love you still

7. I think I love you, But I wanna know for sure

8. Look at the stars,
Look how they shine for you,

9. They let you dream, Just to watch 'em shatter, You're just a step, On the boss-man's ladder

10. The Mississippi Delta was shining, Like a National guitar

Round 10 –Movies By Spoiler

1. The planet was Earth all along

2. Verbal is Keyser Soze

3. Darth Vader is Luke's father

4. 299 die

5. The kid's therapist is a ghost

6. Tyler Durden isn't real

7. The detective's wife's head is in the box

8. The killer's mother is part of his split personality

9. They drive into the Grand Canyon

10. The alien invaders are killed by Earth's microbes

Thursday, 21 August 2014

just rhythms and rhymes and melodies in time....

I was the victim of some inverse-snobbery at work yesterday. Some of my colleagues were off to go and watch The Inbetweeners 2 at the cinema, and another girl (who has been to see it twice) was telling them how much they’d laugh and telling them to “grow up” (which I understand is one of the catchphrases in the film). She asked if I had seen it. I said no. She asked if I was going to see it. I said no. Had I seen the first film. No. Had I watched any of the TV series. Well, yes, I’ve seen one episode – the one with the French exchange student – and it made me laugh, but I haven’t really gone out of my way to watch it.
“You’re just a snob”
“What? You think that I’m waiting for it to be dubbed into French so I can watch the subtitled version? I’m just not that bothered about going to see it when there are loads of other things I would want to watch instead”
She shook her head sadly.

I get this quite a lot, actually. People think that I’m highbrow and don’t have any interest in “normal” things. This seems to be because I sometimes use big and complicated sounding words (I used the word “vicissitudes” today, and this was apparently worthy of comment) and because I have a pretty broad interest in most things and have read a number of books and know a bit of stuff about lots of other books. I’m good in quizzes. In fact, the same girl actually volunteered me to write a quiz for a charity day she was helping to organise. She then spent the next couple of weeks worrying that I was going to make it too difficult, because the sample question I gave her, when she told me I had to do this, was to ask the name of the star in Lawrence of Arabia. She didn’t know, and immediately assumed that I was trying to be a smart arse and that literally no one would know the answers to any questions (I’ll maybe post the quiz up here and you can see how you would have done). We had a similar conversation about McDonalds. I haven't eaten at McDonalds for more than a decade, which this girl found incredible. What really blew her noodle was that I don't have a particular problem with McDonalds or with people who eat there; I just chose to go somewhere else instead. Each to their own, right? Or, if I was being pretentious, à chacun son goût

Using “big words”, in the heads of some people, seems to be all about showing off and trying to sound clever. In fact, when I use them, it’s because they’re just words that are in my vocabulary and I use them, in their appropriate context, assuming that people will understand – which is better than assuming people won’t, isn’t it? Why would you try to communicate using words people don’t understand? I can honestly say that I don’t think I’ve ever deliberately used a word to confuse someone.

I do like some subtitled films, it’s true. Crucially though, it’s not the subtitles that make me like them. I like lots of English language films too. Not all of them are award winners receiving high critical acclaim. I like Will Ferrell films. I watch superhero films too. I do read some classic literature, but it’s not to the exclusion of everything else and it’s not as though I sit on a lofty, ascetic perch enjoying only “difficult” books and sneering at everyone else reading Harry Potter or whatever. I’ve read Harry Potter and I mostly enjoyed them. I read a lot of fantasy books too. There’s not too many snob points to be claimed there.

Like everyone else, I like what I like.

Do I want to watch the Inbetweeners 2? No, it’s not my cup of tea really. Does that mean that I look down my nose at everyone who does watch and enjoy the Inbetweeners? No, of course not. Wee and poo jokes can be very funny. Be more secure in what you like and don’t like: it’s only your opinion and you shouldn’t feel so worried about what other people might think about what you like.

Honestly. It’s not hard, is it? Why don’t you just grow up.
(do you see what I did there? There’s probably a fancy literary term for that, isn’t there? No idea what it is, but I’m sure it’s clever)

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

like minded fool....

I had a meeting at work with someone I've not met before the other day.  We were making small talk before the meeting started, as you do, when she stopped talking, looked me up and down and said:
"Do you run?  You look like a runner...."

I assumed that by this, she meant that I looked gaunt, tired and hungry*.

I took it as a compliment, obviously.

Turns out she's a runner too, so we talked about running for a bit before the really boring stuff started.  She likes to fell run.  Crazy fool.

* to be fair, it might also have been the Garmin GPS watch I was wearing too, but that's not as good a story.  Runners are pretty dull at the best of times, but definitely in small groups talking about running.  Can you imagine?

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

lovely spam, wonderful spam....

Yesterday, some an email landed in my inbox at work that made very little sense indeed. It read:

"Harris was wounded in the groin by Miller's fourth shot, and ended up losing a testicle. One will not find any bustling shopping malls there but quiet long trails.  His formal campaign had lasted only three and a half months. It is reported that some units remained in service several more years. This was part of a regular practice of the Tacoma Times of sponsoring events for their carriers. The ACG was formed in February 2002 by merging Tactical Fighter Group with Strike Reconnaissance Group. Concerto for flute and harp in C, K. Byrne played the lead keyboard solo. They are also developing other projects".

Since we switched our corporate email a few years ago so that it was hosted by Microsoft out in the cloud, the odd junk email has made its way through the firewalls and not been caught and filtered into a spam folder before I see it in my inbox.  Generally speaking though, all of these elaborate security precautions work perfectly well and the only real unwanted email I receive is the stuff I get from my colleagues in the course of a normal working day.

This one, however, did slip through the net.

What I particularly like about it is that it seems to serve no obvious purpose: it didn't have an attachment for me to click and unleash a vicious and malignant virus into the network; neither did it have a particular call to action that might induce me to reply or a hyperlink that I might be tempted to click.  Possibly those things were stripped out before I opened the mail, although I like to think that it's just an epically pointless piece of junk mail that has been manually sent to me personally by someone with nothing more than a slightly perverse joy in the use of the English language and in non-sequiturs, perhaps recognising that I was a kindred spirit.

If that's the case, then I salute them for their work.  I especially like the detail, after learning that poor Harris lost a testicle, that K. Byrne played the lead keyboard solo.

If I received more email like this during the course of my working day, then I think I would be a generally happier person.  Who wouldn't be?

It makes at least as much sense as most of the email that I receive, anyway.

Monday, 18 August 2014

you're weightless, you're exotic...

For the last year, I've had various problems on my left side, all apparently deriving from a combination of a loss of flexibility in my ankle and a general loss of muscle strength in my left side... both likely MS related.  I've seen a specialist sports surgeon and various physios, most of whom have acknowledged that they can't address the underlying cause, but they can try and address the symptoms.  That's fine by me because all I really want to do is keep running, pretty much whatever it takes.

The latest stop on my journey was a visit to the orthotics department at QMC on Friday.  The lady was really nice and she gave me a pair of carbon fibre insoles to wear in my running shoes to try and stop the collapse of my left knee inwards when I get tired. I've tried insoles before and they've never really done anything for me.  In fact, things seemed to get get better for me generally when I switched to a more minimal running shoe.  I'm not a barefoot running zealot, by any means, and I never thought that it would be in the least bit sensible for a man of my size and with my mechanical issues to cut down the amount of cushioning in my running shoe.  Well, all I know is that switching shoes and drastically reducing the heel cushioning has cut down the niggles I'd been having *and* made me faster.  I don't run in a completely barefoot shoe and I'm not entirely sure that I ever will, but the change seems to have worked for me.  That said, I'll give these new insoles a try anyway: the collapse of my knee when I get tired is likely to be a key part in the chain of mechanical failures that's been giving me problems in my knees and hips, so as I start to increase mileage towards the marathon, I'll see how they go.  Besides, there's no reason why increased support under the arch of my foot isn't compatible with a drastically reduced heel cushion anyway.

The other thing that the orthotist gave me on Friday was an velcro ankle cuff with an elastic strap that attaches to a hook you put over the tongue of your running shoe.

But that's just for my private fuzzy tingle times.

OK.  No it's not.  That's my Strassburg sock.

The idea is that this particular S&M device provides a bit of tension as you run and prevents you dropping your foot at the ankle. Foot drop is a really common symptom of MS and is related to a loss of flexibility in the ankle.  In my case, this manifests itself when I get tired and I start to scuff my left foot.  This has led to knock-on issues up my left leg and into my left hip, exacerbating the problems caused by the collapse of my knee inwards (I'm learning a lot about biomechanics at the moment).  This ankle cuff is supposed to stop the drop.

I've worn this contraption on a couple of runs now, and it's far less uncomfortable than you might imagine.  Is it helping?  Well, I think time will tell.  The orthotist felt that if I was going to run longer distances, then this was an absolutely vital support to help keep me on the road.  Needs must when the devil drives.

I ran 6.60 miles this evening, and having felt fatigued and MS-y all afternoon, I motored around in an average pace of 7.49 minutes per mile... which for me is really quick.  Either those horrific interval sessions that I've started doing on a Wednesday evening are starting to take effect or I'm now effectively bionic.

Maybe both?

I'm more machine now than man, you know.  Twisted and evil.

Friday, 15 August 2014

iron man...

I generally wear a smart shirt to work. In theory, our dress code is “smart casual”, but in practice most people dress up fairly smart. It’s just easier, isn’t it? I like wearing jeans and t-shirts, but I don’t like wearing them more than I like blending in when I’m at the office. In this instance, it’s just easier to conform, and throwing* a shirt into my cycling bag every morning takes very little thought at all. That being said, I don’t wear a tie. There are limits, and ties are both pointless and uncomfortable.

* Well, carefully folding**
** -ish

The only thing about shirts is that they need ironing. I know how to iron a shirt, of course, but there’s almost nothing more depressing than standing at the ironing board on a Sunday night contemplating a pile of unironed shirts. Sunday evenings are bad enough on their own.

So I took action.

Yes. I’m afraid to say that I outsource my ironing. I don’t mind doing the washing at home, but once a week or so, I take a pile of shirts to the laundrette round the corner, and for the princely sum of something like 50p each, I get someone else to iron them for me. It might only take half an hour to do them myself, but I reckon that’s £2.50 well spent.

It does, however, occasionally lead to the odd problem:

I have quite a lot of work shirts. Each one lasts a few years before it needs chucking out, and I have a rotating cast of shirts of varying types and qualities, from excellent Thomas Pink shirts, via decent TM Lewin shirts, all the way through to your bog-standard M&S easy-iron shirts. I tend to wear them as the fancy takes me: sometimes wanting a skinny shirt with double-cuffs, sometimes a fairly work-a-day button down cuff… I like to live on the edge.  I mix up my cufflinks too.  Yes, I do.

I bought a really nice shirt a couple of months ago, made out of properly soft cotton. At some point this week, it occurred to me that I hadn’t seen it in a couple of weeks. I checked all our various laundry piles and bags of bits and bobs, but it was nowhere to be seen. Then, as I was looking through my other shirts trying to find it, it occurred to me that I might be missing some other shirts as well, including my posh dress shirt with the wing collars that I wear about once a year.


I went to the laundrette, but they had nothing under our name. The nice lady in the laundrette then had an idea: they’ve taken on some new staff recently, and on a hunch, she checked the “unnamed” section. Sure enough, there were my shirts.

If it’s not a middle class problem when the laundrette that does your ironing has taken on new staff who don’t know your name and so incorrectly label your work shirts so they can't be found, then I don’t know what is.  It's not great that it took me the best part of a month to notice they'd disappeared either, is it?

Thursday, 14 August 2014


Check it out!  Me and Steve featured in the latest edition of Open Door, the MS Trust magazine.


Form an orderly queue for autographs, public appearances, etc.

(article starts on page 12)

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

don't leave me dry...

I was out on Friday with some of my colleagues. Towards the end of the evening, one of those colleagues – someone that I’ve worked reasonably closely with for the last five years but who is leaving to take another role – turned to me and said that she found me almost impossible to read because I was so dry. She went on to say that she was actually convinced that I didn’t like her at all.

In actual fact, I do like her, and I told her so.  She was a little surprised, I think.

I first worked with her in around 2009 when she had just joined the business and was very impressed.  As it happens, I told her, I wrote you some feedback on our work together at the time, and I found that I still had that very same feedback on my computer only the other day.  She had absolutely no recollection of this feedback at all but was intrigued about what I might have said, so I promised her that I would send it to her the next time I was in the office.

I looked it up on Monday and had a read before sending it on. I was pretty nice (as an aside, I’m always pretty nice in feedback. I know that our environment can be a pretty thankless place at the best of times, so I try to go out of my way to provide written feedback to the people I think have done a good job and may not otherwise be thanked). Amongst various specific points about her contribution to the project we were working on, I said:

She’s been a real pleasure to work with, and approaches every problem with a smile on her face and a desire to move things forwards.”

I meant it too. Five years later and in a completely different job role, she still displays those traits. I told her so and she seemed quite moved, I think mostly because she’s carried this image around in her head that I’m this icy, remote, critical figure and to know that I actually like her and think she does a good job seems like real praise indeed....although, to be fair, this was quite late in the evening after a long and emotional last day for her.

Actually, I’m a teddy bear. Everyone knows that, don’t they? Why on earth do people think I’m dry?

[looks it up]

…in which humour is presented without a change in emotion or body language. It is usually spoken in a casual, monotone, or cantankerous voice, and expresses a calm, sincere, or grave demeanour, often in spite of the ridiculousness of the subject matter. This delivery is called dry humour or dry wit."

….oh, I see.