Monday, 30 November 2009

ticking away the moments that make up a dull day....

Although it was agreed with work several months ago and isn't really very far away at all, my time off still feels like something of an abstract concept to me. Quite a feat for a nine month break, you would think... but a combination of work's complete failure to announce it, to plan for my absence or to put anything into writing, together with the fact that I'll still be working all the way through to the distant end of January have served to make it all feel a bit remote and somehow not really real.

C. has been really busy at work too, but her time off starts in a mere 12 days time, so the prospect of a life without work is an awful lot closer to hand for her.  What's more, where I am due back at work in September 2010, she's not going to be working until January 2011... a break of longer than 12 months. That's a whole damn year.   I think she's starting to get used to the idea, and although she's not done with work yet, the time off is now close enough at hand that she's turning her mind towards what exactly the hell we're going to do with ourselves.  I've been introduced to the planner that she apparently uses to book her time at work and the trips that she takes to the various offices around Europe (and which I've never seen before.... I just tend to know that she's either here or she's not, and I generally have no idea what country of the world she's in from one day to the next...).  Next year's work planner is obviously fairly clear, so she's started using that to plot how we might spend our time.

No tickets have been booked yet, but the itinerary is going to look something like this:

January: Austria (we've got a skiing trip already booked)
February - April: Hong Kong -> New Zealand -> Australia -> San Francisco
May: East Africa (likely Namibia & Botswana)
June - July: Glastonbury & the cricket, but perhaps also a trip to Eygpt / Jordan.
August - September: Canada (I've a hankering to see the Rockies outside of winter.)

There are still some gaps in our chronology and we haven't booked any flights or anything practical like that.... but it's slowly starting to feel a bit more real and a lot more exciting.

Well that's the thought that I clung to during a dull day in the office, anyway.....

You'd imagine, wouldn't you, that in the 6 weeks or so between C. knocking off work in mid-December and me signing off at the end of January, I might get a taste of what life used to be like for the working man.... you know: coming home from work to a warm fire and my dinner on the table.  That kind of thing.

Apparently not.  It seems that C's time off is going to be quite similar for me -- initially at least -- to her time at work.  I have been informed asked if I mind if she spends a bit of time with her parents in France in January.

Of course not.  Why would I?

Dinner for one?

Friday, 27 November 2009

cleaning, cooking, flower arranging....

Earworms of the Week

> The Prowler - Iron Maiden

Iron Maiden have become so big with Bruce Dickinson as their singer, that it's sometimes hard to remember that they originally sounded quite different (and frankly, what band wouldn't sound a bit different without an air-raid siren voiced vocalist?). Paul Di Anno era Maiden certainly sounded different, but to my ears they actually sounded pretty good too. The sound is much rawer and Di Anno's voice is a rasping snarl, much closer to punk than to metal. As a band, they were still finding their sound and their feet, but even so, the result is occasionally electrifying, as it is here. I can't say much for their lyrical content, mind... I'm not sure you'd be well-advised to write a song about a stalking sexual predator nowadays.... but it sounds great.

> Picky Bugger - Elbow

I've been mulling over my albums of the decade for an end of year list, and I'm pretty sure that I'm going to choose "Leaders of the Free World" above "The Seldom Seen Kid". They're both good albums, sure, but I feel much warmed about the earlier release than their much garlanded last album. When listening to this album, I usually get stuck on songs like the title track, "The Stops" or "Puncture Repair", but this time I got stuck on this song. You can't go wrong with any of them, to be honest.

> Fast Fuse - Kasabian

They're gibbons, obviously, and their desire to be seen as the heirs to Oasis speaks volumes both about their own insecurities and the limits of their artistic horizons....but I do like a few of their songs, so perhaps I'd better not slag them off too much. Their last album was actually a whole lot better than I was expecting it to be too, especially given that shockingly bad front cover. This one trips along quite nicely. I suspect they're actually a lot more inventive a band than Oasis ever were, so perhaps it's time they stopped playing dumb? Tom Meighan has had his hair cut, which is a start, I suppose....

> Them Bones - Alice in Chains

After a while, listening to "Dirt" became a little oppressive in it's relentless gloomy intensity, but it remains a pretty good album and this is an excellent song. Not sure quite why they've reformed with a Lenny Kravitz-alike on vocals though. Good luck to them, I suppose, although I see that the lead guitarist and main man has seized the opportunity presented by the death of his old singer and the recruitment of a new one to adopt a position centre stage, with the new singer relegated to stage right.

> Sarah - Bat For Lashes

Since I put a set of speakers in there and connected them up to iTunes over my wireless network, I think the bedroom has become the place where I listen to the most music. Given that I'm usually either reading or drifting off to sleep, it has meant that I've been listening to a lot of mellower stuff recently. This is a prime example, and that ethereal voice is just perfect for floating off to the land of nod.

> In My Place - Coldplay

Another album that's a candidate for my album of the decade list. This song is simple enough, but remains probably the quintessential Coldplay song. You might not like the band, but surely you can't deny this song?

> Honest Mistake - The Bravery

What happened to the Bravery? They had a brief flirt with stardom around the time of their first album, picked a fight with the infinitely better and more successful Killers, and then pretty much disappeared. A friend gave me a copy of their second album when we were down at football one night, but as far as I know, the CD is still in my football bag, such has been my lack of interest in hearing it. I should probably give it a go, really. I quite liked the first album, and this is a great song... as I was reminded when it drifted onto the PA at the swimming pool as I was having a swim the other day.  Maybe they just timed it wrong: aren't the 80s back now?

> Radio #1 - Air

Air: more perfect late night listening, although "10,000 Hz Legend" does feature a few sound effects that kept snapping me awake as I thought someone was at the door. Good band.

> Dead End Friends - Them Crooked Vultures

I like the Foo Fighters, I like Led Zeppelin and I like Queens of the Stoneage. It doesn't necessarily follow that I will like a band featuring members from all three, but as I happen to like a dose of pretty straightforward rock music, I do quite like this album. Yeah, some of the songs are a bit long, and the album itself is probably too long, but it's a lot of fun. I imagine they would be great live, too. Dave Grohl, incidentally, should drum more often.

> Virginia State Epileptic Colony - Manic Street Preachers

I don't know if this will make my album of the decade list, but it's a pretty firm contender for my album of 2009. The lyrics were all taken from a folder that Richie left behind before he disappeared, and they are so dense and filled with ellipitical references that you'd probably need a code book to interpret them, but it's the best album the band have done in years, and perhaps since "The Holy Bible" itself. It's really that good.


And on that bombshell, I'm going to drive down to my mum and dad's to take enjoy an annual winetasting and to "enjoy" the entertainment provided between wines by my dad's beloved village entertainment's group. I fear there may be carols, including an interactive "Twelve Days of Christmas".

The wine is usually excellent, but wish me luck.

Have a good weekend, y'all.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

change the game....

When I first started visiting a neurologist on a regular basis, I learned two things very quickly: At first I was stunned at how much insight medical science was able to tell me about what was going on inside my body. It's quite hard not to be at least a little bit impressed you are confronted by the most incredibly detailed images of your own brain.


It was cross-section images like these - and those actually are pictures of my brain you're looking at there - from the MRI scanner that enabled my neurologist to find the lesion on my cervical spinal cord and to diagnose the cause of the numbness and pins & needles I had been experiencing. That initial sense of awe was quickly followed by a very clear understanding that, for all that medical science did know, there was still an awful lot that they didn't. It took nearly four years from those initial scans for me to be finally diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, as various neurologists looked for evidence that I had fallen across their arbitrarily drawn diagnostic lines. Some of the tests I regularly undergo seem almost ridiculously random: can I walk heel to toe across the room? can I stand on one leg with my eyes shut? can I feel a scratch across the soles of my feet? can I follow the tip of the doctor's finger without moving my head? From these tests, I am given a score that determines my level of disability.

This score is, in turn, then used to help assess what treatment I may be eligible for. I'm sure it serves a purpose, but how scientific exactly is a test like this when a bad hangover might significantly impact your score?

Multiple sclerosis itself is a well-funded condition and receives millions of pounds worth of research every year, and yet actually very little is really understood about it: we don't know what causes it; we don't know what triggers attacks; we don't understand if it's genetic or hereditary or caused by environmental factors; we don't know why it seems to affect more women than men and we certainly don't know how to cure it. We don't even seem to be entirely certain that MS is a single condition at all or if it's actually an umbrella term we unknowingly use for a number of similar conditions that we cannot tell apart. It's a condition that is notoriously difficult to diagnose, and once diagnosed, it's impossible to say how it will progress from one person to the next: some people will be hardly affected by the condition at all, and other people will quickly end up in a wheelchair, and no one really understands why this is.

This lack of understanding spreads to the treatments: we think that beta-interferon slows down the onset of disability and increases the gap between relapses, but we don't really know why and we aren't entirely sure how well it works, so we inject ourselves, put up with the side-effects and we hope for the best. Research is also looking into various other drugs and that might make a difference to the onset and management of the condition, from anti-cancer drugs through to worms, but basically we're shooting in the dark and have no clear idea of what the hell we're doing or if we're really making any kind of a difference.

Then I read this: the story of how an Italian researcher, inspired by the desire to find the answer to his wife's MS, may have discovered that multiple sclerosis may not be an auto-immune disease at all but a vascular one.  To quote that article:

"Using ultrasound to examine the vessels leading in and out of the brain, Dr. Zamboni made a startling find: In more than 90 per cent of people with multiple sclerosis, including his spouse, the veins draining blood from the brain were malformed or blocked. In people without MS, they were not.  He hypothesized that iron was damaging the blood vessels and allowing the heavy metal, along with other unwelcome cells, to cross the crucial brain-blood barrier. (The barrier keeps blood and cerebrospinal fluid separate. In MS, immune cells cross the blood-brain barrier, where they destroy myelin, a crucial sheathing on nerves.)  More striking still was that, when Dr. Zamboni performed a simple operation to unclog veins and get blood flowing normally again, many of the symptoms of MS disappeared. The procedure is similar to angioplasty, in which a catheter is threaded into the groin and up into the arteries, where a balloon is inflated to clear the blockages. His wife, who had the surgery three years ago, has not had an attack since."

Now, I'm a sensible man, and I'm hardly likely to get carried away by this - not least because Zamboni's sample was of only 65 people with MS and 235 without.  The MS Society is advising caution, of course, but a proper study has been commissioned by the University at Buffalo, New York.... but if there does turn out to be any foundation in this at all, then it could be nothing less than revolutionary.  Just think: it might be possible that a simple operation could take this apparently incurable condition away from me - and everyone else - forever.  The damage that has already been done would likely remain, but it wouldn't get any worse.  Imagine that.

There's a long way to go before we see if this research bears any fruit, of course, but given that everything else about MS seems to be little better than educated guesswork aimed at damage limitation, I can't help but be a little excited at the way that a new hope has emerged that could change the game entirely.  If this research is confirmed, then there will be nothing less than a paradigm shift in the diagnosis and treatment of MS: we won't be talking about damage limitation any more, we'll be talking about catching this disease before it causes any damaage and stopping it dead in its tracks. 

I'll carry on injecting myself once a week as normal, but if that isn't grounds for optimism, then I don't know what is.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

ice age coming, ice age coming....

There are two schools just down the road from me.  Both have been around for a while, but both have just moved into new, purpose-built school buildings over the course of the summer.  They apparently have very good reputations - I'm told that one of the main reasons people live around here is the quality of the schools - but there's one thing about both of them that disturbs me: both have had crosses built prominently into the architecture of their new buildings.  One has a huge cross inlaid in white brick across the front of the building; the other has a cross shaped hole in the brickwork at the top of the roof.  At night, this is bathed in red light and can be seen for miles around.

Needless to say, they're Christian schools - one is Catholic and one is Church of England.  Here's the blurb from the website of one of them:

"We are very much a Christian community, providing an education grounded in the teaching and principles of the Gospel.  This means that Christian faith is reflected in worship and our day to day school life, valuing the personal worth of every member of the school community and fulfiling their personal potential as they serve others."

And the motto of the other one?   Laborare est Orare - To Work is to Pray.


I had a Christian education myself.  The motto of my last school, Orando Laborando - by work and by prayer - is really not so very different from Laborare est Orare.  I seem to have survived that upbringing with my critical faculties intact, so what's the problem?  Is it arrogant to assume that no one else might be able to survive that kind of an education; that other people may be more susceptible to brainwashing?

At the beginning of his book "God Is Not Great: how religion poisons everything", Christopher Hitchens fondly recalls the nice teacher who taught him about both the Bible and the natural world:

"However, there came a day when poor, dear Mrs. Watts over-reached herself.  Seeking ambitiously to fuse her two roles as nature instructor and Bible teacher, she said, "So you see, children, how powerful and generous God is.  He has made all the trees and grass to be green, which is exactly the colour that is most restful to our eyes.  Imagine if, instead, the vegetation was all purple, or orange, how awful that would be"....I was frankly appalled by what she said.  My little ankle-strap sandals curled with embarassment for her.  At the age of nine I had not even a conception of the argument from design, or of Darwinian evolution as its rival, or of the relationship between photosynthesis and cholrophyll.  The secrets of the genome were as hidden from me as they were, at that time, to everyone else.  I had not then visited scenes of nature where almost everything was hideously indifferent or hostile to human life, if not life itself.  I simply knew, almost as if I had privileged access to a higher authority, that my teacher had managed to get everything wrong in just two sentences.  They eyes were adjusted to nature, and not the other way about."

Lucky for Hitchens that he had such clarity of insight at such a tender age.  I myself did not: I used to quite enjoy going to chapel and engaging in the ritual of singing the hymns even when I used to listen to some of the more ill-considered sermons we received with contempt.  I don't believe in God, and I'm not really sure I did then either, but I still find the Bible a fascinating book, even if I would hardly choose it as a detailed guide for living my life.  Whether we like it or not, that book has permeated our society and our culture: how can you even begin to understand the works of a Michaelangelo or a Shakespeare without at least a passing knowledge of the Bible and of the Church? It should be studied.... but the same is surely true of the holy books of other religions too, and don't you wish you'd learned a lot more about them when you were at school?  I know I do.

I'm all for the teaching of religious history in schools - as long as it's inclusive of all religions and doesn't just tell one side of the story.  But really, should schools be joint-ventures between chuch and state?  Should the iconography of one particular religion be emblazoned into the very fabric of a school building?

I don't think so.

I'm sure these are both very good schools, but I can't help but feel uncomfortable at the prominence they clearly give to religion; to one religion in particular.  In a multicultural society, that's not really very inclusive, is it?  And even if these schools do teach a genuinely balanced view of the world, then aren't they still isolating their pupils from children of other faiths and labelling them with their own faith.  They're not just children, they're Catholic children or Anglican children..... As Richard Dawkins says in "The God Delusion":

"There is no such thing as a Christian child: only a child of Christian parents. ... Catholic child? Flinch. Protestant child? Squirm. Muslim child? Shudder. Everybody's consciousness should be raised to this level."

Perhaps it doesn't matter, as long as we teach our children how to think and not what to think.

....and religions can be relied upon for that, right?


Tuesday, 24 November 2009

I'm a pincushion....

Today I have:
  • received a seasonal flu vaccination in my left arm
  • received a swine flu vaccination in my right arm
  • been poked in the back by 10 acupuncture needles at the osteopath
  • injected myself in the thigh muscle of my right leg with beta-interferon
I really do feel a bit like the proverbial wotsit.

Still, as I'm a glass-half-full kind of a guy, I'm choosing to focus on the happy fact that my left leg remains entirely untouched by any kind of needle at all. 

Today, anyway. 

....based upon my experience today, however, I wouldn't care to speculate on what might happen to it tomorrow.

Monday, 23 November 2009

hi fidelity can you hear me?

One of the consequences of shuffling things around in my man room is that I have finally set up my iTunes library so that it can be listened to through my best stereo. Like most people, getting an iPod back in the day was a tremendously liberating experience: suddenly I could carry a huge swathe of my record collection with me at all times. Now, if I wanted to listen to 2ManyDJs on a flight back from Australia or Scott III whilst sat at my desk at work, both albums were only ever a few clicks away. Brilliant. It was an innovation that really opened up the depths of my record collection, and the little CD wallet I used to carry around everywhere has quietly remained untouched since I got a connection that made my iPod work in the car -- with the CDs it contained still filed within, Billy Joel's Greatest Hits and all.

I quickly ripped a hefty chunk of my CDs and put them back on the shelf, where many of them have remained untouched ever since. I discovered a while ago that my CD copy of "By The Way", long kept in my car, was scratched beyond any hope of ever being played again. Given that I almost never play CDs now, it hardly seemed to matter. I had the album on my iPod and on my computer. Why would I ever need the CD again? And even if I did, I could just burn myself another copy. I still buy CDs, but now I rip them and most often never play the actual disc ever again.

Needless to say, this has led a lot of people to look at their CD collections and wonder why the hell they bother keeping them: why not free up the space and perhaps make a few quid by selling the CDs on? I've never been tempted. I have CDs lying all over the house, but just as I like books as tangible things and can't be doing with the idea of a Kindle, I have no desire to shift over to a record collection that sits exclusively online. I back my computer up every day, but the CDs are something of a fail-safe fallback, aren't they? (Rather stupidly, I also don't really like the way that downloaded albums tend to clog up my "recently purchased" playlist, much preferring them to disappear neatly into my artist and album filing on iTunes.)

Real audiophiles talk about how the compressed MP3 is markedly inferior in quality to physical storage formats like CDs and records. Until recently, I wouldn't say that I'd ever really noticed the difference: after all, I do most of my listening to my iPod through a pair of headphones, through my car stereo when I'm driving or on a little portable speaker dock thing that I carry around the house. Since connecting up my decent stereo to iTunes though, I've suddenly realised what they're talking about.

My decent stereo system consists of an Arcam Alpha 3 amplifier, a decent Rotel CD player and some Infinity bookshelf speakers. I say "decent", but in reality it was only a decent entry level separates system when I bought it back in about 1991 and I have no idea how it stacks up in terms of audio performance now. Two things were for certain though - it was better than any of the other stereos I was using and it was totally wasted hidden in the spare bedroom behind the futon. As I rearranged that room to become my man room, that stereo - with some new speaker cable - was suddenly centre stage and the connection to iTunes via airtunes means I am now listening to it all the time.

In the main, the streamed music sounds great, but out of idle curiosity, and a desire to hear how good the CD player still sounded, I did a side-by-side comparison of a song played through the amp/speaker: one streamed via iTunes, the other played directly via the CD player. As it was LB's idea, the song I chose was "Atlantic" by Keane, and the difference was immediately clear.... the CD version was louder, richer and warmer sounding than the MP3 equivalent. At a stroke, I realised the compromise inherent in the MP3 format and the impact if makes on the quality of the music we listen to. Not such a big deal through headphones or a crappy speaker dock, but as clear as a bell on a decent sound system. I'm hardly an audiophile, but the difference really is striking, even to my heavy-metal damaged ears. I realise that you can increase the quality of the files that you rip, but the trade-off is that they take up loads more space. If you want to carry huge numbers of files around, as I do, then you compromise the sound quality. I knew that before I did the test, I just hadn't appreciated how big a compromise that is.

I was never going to be selling my library of CDs, and I'm still going to mainly be listening to my iTunes library through those speakers simply because it is so convenient. What this discovery has done though is to make me even more reluctant to purchase whole albums electronically through the internet. Why would I? It's more convenient, but it's often no cheaper (the Air CDs that I bought on yesterday evening were £4.99 each and £7.99 to download from iTunes). It's not that I won't continue to buy or to listen to MP3s, it's just that I don't like the idea that I'm now knowingly buying something of an inferior quality and, without the CD, will have no recourse to a better quality sound should I want it.


Incidentally, I am having some annoying intermittent drop-out problems with this airtunes set up, where a song will be happily playing, cut out for a few seconds and then come back. I thought this was related to the old stereo connection cable I was using between the amplifier and the airport, but I replaced that and I'm still hearing the problem every so often. I'm not having the problem with my other 2 (newer) airports hooked onto my network, but this one (running v6.3 of the firmware) is the only one that cuts out, even if for a few seconds every hour or so. It could be the amplifier, I guess, but I've heard that airtunes can have these problems. If anyone's got any bright ideas about what I can do to fix this, then I'm all ears.....


... yeah, that's the way.  New URL, new start.... let's really wow'em with the first post proper, eh? Something cool, yet accessible.  Subtle, but witty and erudite.  Above all, something not in the least bit geeky.

...oh. Bugger it.


Saturday, 21 November 2009

hello, hello

...are you all still with me?

Good, then let's carry on the same as always.  Same old guff, new premises.


Friday, 20 November 2009

They put a parking lot on a piece of land......

It's been a while since we had a Guest Editor around these parts, isn't it? Well, as chance would have it, I had a volunteer to have a crack, and I was only to happy to oblige. I think it's fair to say that he's had one or two goes at this in the past, but he's always welcome. Besides, if you don't ask, you don't get, do you?

Without further ado then, it is my great pleasure to introduce (again) for your earworming pleasure.......

Earworms of the week - guest editor #100 -
Fiery Little Sod.

this feels like being greedy, however the kind bloghost has allowed me another go at his pages, so here's a mixed bag of tunes that will hopefully provide some light relief prior to your weekend

> Take it to the Limit - The Eagles

This song was a part of my childhood and though it contains all the California-rock components one might expect, the limit 25 years down the line is a very different place, and the lyrics mean a little more. I apologise for the cheesy AOR, but I am a child of someone else's times

> Die Young, Stay Pretty - Blondie

It is a small step forward from the live fast, die young adage as it assumes the protagonist is pretty in the first place. Anyway, Ms Harry is dishing out some of her finest and the support lacks little. Seems caught on the kinfe-edge of punk and 80's keyboard madness. Not their best known I expect, however provides a pointer to where musical taste may be headed

> Walking Down Your Street - The Bangles

No excuses, no blaming someone else. Chicks with guitars and harmonies. Survived in my head after I had heard it in the car and was walking down your aisle doing my . Very glad the girl bands could play instruments and write songs when I grew up.

> Cash Machine - Hard-Fi

Realised now I am a commuter again it appears that some folk believe I look like the eponymous article. I on the other hand spend an unnecessary part of my life avoiding the things that charge me for acquiring my own hard-earned wedge. Anyway, this cash machine (sorry, tune) is a modern classic and the keyboard harmonica intro is one of the most evocative (and crowd-erupting) I have heard.

> Come Dancing - The Kinks

Was on the way into work and trying to piece together the first verse and realised it is still true today. Unless one has built a "Selection of Executive apartments with underground parking and 35% affordable housing" then the cinema or palais will be left to crumble where it sits. Ahead of its time like most of their later songs and still contained the vital lyrical element I have yet heard matched

> I Love to Boogie - T-Rex

This is very simple. Twice or more a day I stand on (or stomp up and down) London Underground escalators and when I am not the man knocking you out of the way I gaze vacantly at the small adverts for West End shows. I am glad I know no tunes from the many others, but when I see a 'Billy Elliot' billboard I enjoy a touch of Marc Bolan and struggle not to jitterbug across the station concourse.

> The River - Bruce Springsteen

This chap's songs are still hanging around from seeing him live earlier this year and this song stuck. Why an earworm of the week though I pretend to hear you ask? No doubt about it when my neighbour who can play the guitar but needs to work on the voice chose this as his practice song after lights out on a school night. Not the cheeriest of his output but lacks nothing in quality.

> God Save the Queen - The Sex Pistols

Sadly for the monarchy, the only tune I really hear as I walk past Liz and Phil's house each day is this one. I no longer fear a fascist regime, but the one we have just now ain't too clever. Anyway, hardly melodic this, but gets the message across - even if it is a rather bleak one

> Left of Center - Suzanne Vega

This is where you will find me, I am in the outskirts and I have no idea for what I may be looking. But whilst out there I am totally listening to this kind of stuff. More importantly this tune does have some fine drums - oh, and she can properly sing. [ST's note: she can indeed - I like Luka]

> Klunk - Green Nuns of the Revolution

Courtesy of an unlikely source at work I was reminded of a quality tune that not only makes my brain operate differently but contains some of the most inspired samples I have ever had the privilege to hear. The lesson is that music works. Unlike some of the inventions....

that's it......Hasta luego


Thanks my friend - another quality selection. Always welcome around these parts... not least because it allows me (and everyone else who's sick of hearing that I'm earworming Flight of the Conchords again) to have a Friday off!

If anyone else wants to elbow FLS off his monopoly as Guest Editor-in-Chief around here, then just drop me a line in the comments below or via the email address in my profile above.

All welcome.

...And that's your lot. Have a good weekend, y'all. Stay classy.

I'm doing a stint on the Children in Need call centre tonight, so if you call 0345 7 33 22 33 between 9pm and 2am tonight, you might just speak to me (especially if you're from Wales. I always seem to get the Welsh callers for some reason). Be sure to say your name and address nice and clearly for me..... especially if it involves a ridiculous number of letters. My hearing isn't once what it was, and I still find it hard to tell my Caernarfons from my Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwll-llantysiliogogogochs....

Give generously now.

[Previous Guest Editors: Flash, The Urban Fox, Lord Bargain, Retro-Boy, Statue John, Ben, OLS, Ka, Jenni, Aravis, Yoko, Bee, Charlie, Tom, Di, Spin, The Ultimate Olympian, Damo, Mike, RedOne, The NumNum, Leah, Le Moine Perdu, clm, Michael, Hyde, Adem, Alecya, bytheseashore, adamant, Earworms of the Year 2005, Delrico Bandito, Graham, Lithaborn, Phil, Mark II, Stef, Kaptain Kobold, bedshaped, I have ordinary addictions, TheCatGirlSpeaks, Lord B rides again, Tina, Charlie II, Cody Bones, Poll Star, Jenni II, Martin, Del II, The Eye in the Sky, RussL, Lizzy's Hoax, Ben II, Earworms of the Year 2006, Sarah, Flash II, Erika, Hen, Pynchon, Troubled Diva, Graham II, Cat II, Statue John II, Sweeping the Nation, Aravis II, Olympian II, C, Planet-Me, Mike, Michael II, Eye in the Sky II, Charlie III, The Great Grape Ape, asta, Ben III, Earworms of the Year 2007, Cat III, JamieS & Wombat, Pynchon II, Briskate, Craig Cliff, Fiery Little Sod, Cody II, J, Yoko II, Rol, Lisa, Pollstar II, Joe the Troll, Eye in the Sky III, Jerry Cornelius, Stevious, Luke, FLS II, Earworms of the Year 2008, FLS III, Mik, Mark Again, Ben IV, Lisa, FLS V]

Thursday, 19 November 2009

the wrong impression....

My 22 year old colleague was this week the inaugural recipient of a "Plonker of the Week" trophy from some of our colleagues. His mistake was to get a bit confused about the meaning of the word "harem", thinking it was an all-purpose collective noun for a group of people, and then using it to describe someone's new - female - employee. A touch embarrassing, perhaps, but a harmless enough mistake you would have thought.

The plonker of the week is apparently going to be chosen from a shortlist of nominees in a team meeting, with the winner then receiving a little trophy and having their photo taken receiving the award displayed somewhere in the department. It's all pretty harmless and, as he usually does, 22 y.o. took it all in pretty good spirit, even when he then spent the rest of the evening explaining to everyone who asked about the trophy at his desk what he had done to warrant the award.

Apparently the award will be a little like the World Cup, and if you win it three times, you get to keep the trophy. The joke was that bookies had already stopped taking bets on who was going to keep the trophy even though it had only just been awarded for the very first time....

All very amusing.... but 22 y.o.'s boss got in this morning having been working at home yesterday, and she found the whole thing far less funny. She stormed off down the office to take the picture down, and then proceeded to give her young apprentice a long lecture about how he needed to think about how he was perceived by his colleagues and by other people. What kind of impression is this going to make on people who haven't met him before? How much more difficult could something like this make it to be to be taken seriously by these people? This, she said, was nothing more than workplace bullying.

To some extent, I can see what she means: even when marveling at the things that 22 y.o. doesn't know (like the names of three of the four Beatles), I've tried really hard to not make him feel stupid. He may not know loads of things - some of them quite alarming - but that doesn't make him an idiot. I'm not sure that everyone has troubled to make the same distinction between ignorance and stupidity. The Plonker of the Week award is intended, I'm sure, to be taken as a light-hearted bit of banter with no malice. I'm also pretty sure that 22 y.o. won't be the only person to win it (I reckon I must have been a candidate for this). But does my colleague have a point: is he being bullied? Or does her intervention - a little like your mum wading in at school on your behalf - make it all the more embarrassing for him?

Or is it all just political correctness gone mad?

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

I could sleep for a thousand years...

Coming as they do immediately after the night of my weekly injection, I always seem to find Wednesday mornings difficult. My routine on a Tuesday is almost entirely built around my injection: I drink as much water as I can during the day; I avoid alcohol; I take a couple of paracetamol and a couple of ibuprofen and then I go for a run. All of these things - bar the run - are designed to try and minimise the side-effects of the Avonex that I inject into one of my thighs after my shower but before my dinner. The injection itself is usually pretty quick and painless, but the thought of it looms large throughout the whole day.

The purpose of this drug is to try and prevent my immune system from causing any more damage to my nervous system, thus slowing down the onset of disability as my multiple sclerosis advances. The evidence that it works isn't exactly overwhelming, but I'm of the opinion that it's better to try something that might work than to do nothing at all. Not everyone with MS agrees, and lots of people find that they would rather take the chance of the increased relapses by doing nothing than of continuing to live with the side-effects of the drug.

The side-effects vary from person to person, but include things like pounding headaches, shivering, a raised temperature, sweats and other flu-like symptoms. The long-term use of the drug can also damage liver function and cause other blood abnormalities, as well as the more immediate problem of injection site issues where you stick the bloody great needle into your leg. Yeah, it's easy to see why some people decide that it's not worth it... but luckily for me, I seem to be relatively unaffected: my red blood count has been dropping and I'm now slightly anaemic, but my liver seems to be okay, and as long as I remember to take the ibuprofen and paracetamol before I inject, I'm not really bothered by headaches or anything like that (although the one time I did forget, I woke up in the middle of the night with the most incredible pounding in my head, so I'm certainly not in a hurry to forget again).

One side-effect I do experience is that I usually wake up on a Wednesday morning completely devoid of energy. I wake up most days now with very little feeling in the soles of my feet, and have to get out of bed very carefully, but on a Wednesday I struggle to get out of bed at all: I feel as though all of the strength has been sapped from my muscles and I'm weary down to my bones. The main reason I go for a run on a Tuesday night is that I know there's a good chance I won't want to do anything of the sort on a Wednesday. Too much like hard work. Wednesday has become my default (and reluctant) rest day.

This morning I dragged myself out of bed, forced myself to do the strengthening exercises -- that I do every Monday, Wednesday and Friday -- that are helping to stop muscle wastage across my arms and shoulders and got ready for another depressing day at work. The weather was pretty grim, so I think it's fair to say that I didn't exactly have a spring in my step as I left the house.

My energy levels - both physical and mental - are definitely at their lowest on a Wednesday morning. If there is a time of the week when I need a lift, then Wednesday morning is definitely that time. Luckily for me though, that is exactly the time of the week - in term time at least - when I usually receive exactly the boost required: I don't go directly to work on a Wednesday morning, I stop instead at a local primary school to help out with their reading. I often say that it's probably the most valuable hour of my working week, thinking of the kids, but I'm beginning to realise how much of a difference that hour makes to me too.

This morning, I walked into an almost empty classroom to be greeted by the warmest of smiles and a cheery "Good morning Tim!" from a charming seven year-old called Chloe.

It is, I reckon, impossible to feel too sorry for yourself after that.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

hail to the thief...

Statistically, I suppose it was always bound to happen sooner or later: after more than ten years happily buying stuff over the internet, this weekend I was finally the victim of that online identity theft and attempted fraud you read so much about.

I was down in Oxford for the weekend, so I didn't pick up my emails until Sunday morning after a distinctly leisurely start to the day. What I saw quickly snapped me out of my slightly fuzzy, morning after the night before kind of a mood. Amongst the usual pre-Christmas marketing guff, a few emails caught my eye: one was a confirmation from PayPal saying that I'd authorised a payment from, then there was an email from PayPal saying they'd limited access to my account, then there was an order confirmation from and finally there was an email confirming a change to my account details at


This was strange and alarming because I had no recollection of placing any kind of order with anyone, and I haven't actually used at all for more than five years. A quick read of the emails and my fears were realised: someone had placed an order for two Playstation 3s -- worth £598 -- using my long dormant account on and had paid for it using my PayPal account. There was my name and address on the invoice, right above a delivery address somewhere in Telford.

I wasn't immediately sure what to do, but quickly made my way straight to the money and tried to report the fraudulent transaction to PayPal. They were way ahead of me, it seemed, and even as I looked at my account, the transaction was being removed from my account before my eyes. Pausing only to change my PayPal logon and password, I then went off to Dabs to make sure that the order was cancelled at their end. Here I had less joy. may well be very cheap, but one of the ways that they appear to have saved money (and they're hardly alone in this) is by making it impossible to contact them directly: any question has to be put to them either through email or via a "live link" to a customer services operator. According to their site, all their customer service advisors were busy, so I had to fire off an email and hope they got back to me.

It turns out, as I found out on Monday when I tried contacting them again when they hadn't bothered to reply to my email by lunchtime, that the customer service advisors at Dabs were not busy on Sunday at all... they just weren't there full stop... they shut for the weekend (perhaps explaining why the fraudulent order was placed at 7pm on Friday night, when I would have no chance of getting the order cancelled until Monday morning). My email would be responded to, the online advisor told me, but she insisted that she couldn't tell me anything about the status of my order. By now I was reasonably sure that I wouldn't lose any money as a result of this attempted fraud, but I was becoming increasingly frustrated at the lack of communication from Dabs when it was clear that the attack had started on their website with someone hacking my account. They may well have spotted this order as fraudulent the moment it was placed, and it may well actually have been them that cancelled the transaction with PayPal, but they were giving me - the victim here - no sign that they cared about me at all. At one point, the advisor told me that the Web Accounts team had sent me an email to my new registered address.... an address that had been changed by the fraudster when they changed my account details to prevent me cancelling the order myself.

In the end, they sent me an email confirming that the order had been cancelled and that they had deleted my account. The sign off was priceless:

"I am sorry that you have been a victim, but would like to highlight that Plc is one of the most secure e-commerce companies in the UK, unfortunately identity theft can be the hardest type of Fraud to detect."

Right, so in spite of the fact that my details have been hacked out of your systems and someone has tried to steal £600 from me, you'd like to tell me how secure your site is?

How reassuring.

So I'm cross. I'm cross that someone tried to steal from me like this; I'm cross that they were nearly able to; I'm cross that have made it as difficult for their customers to contact them as they possibly can and that they clearly haven't cared about how they handle their customers; I'm delighted that PayPal seemed to react so swiftly to kill the order and were available to me on the phone on a Sunday morning, but I'm a bit cross that my account access has now been limited (even though I was still able to access it fully and change all my account details on Sunday morning.... and if I could, then presumably the fraudster could have done too). Above all, I'm cross that I probably put myself in this position by being lazy with my online passwords and not changing them around enough to make it as difficult as possible for someone to crack them and try to steal from me.

The internet remains an amazing resource and a great place to find and buy the most obscure things at the best possible prices....I'm hardly likely to be giving that up anytime soon. There are, after all, thieves in the offline world too.

But, all the same..... grrr!

In short: go change your passwords and under no circumstances shop at In fact, if you have an account with - even if you haven't used it in years - I suggest you go and delete it.

Monday, 16 November 2009

you're gonna burn, you're gonna burn....

I noticed, about halfway round my run this evening and some nine days after Bonfire Night, that the big charity bonfire in Wilford was finally out. It was still burning when I ran past yesterday evening, and if they hadn't clearly raked it over at some point today, then I'm sure it would still have been smouldering away merrily tonight.

Nine days is quite a long time for any fire to be burning, I would say, but if you factor in the fact that it has been hooning it down pretty solidly every day since the bonfire was lit, then you'll agree that this was quite a big bloody fire. It's so big, in fact, that the organisers of the event apparently have to get a structural engineer to put it all together. It's literally the size of a large house, and this year, they had to build it twice when some of the local youth thought it might be amusing to set the pile alight a week before bonfire night.


That pile of ashes was still smouldering sadly as the organisers somehow managed to conjure up another massive pile of wood alongside so that the show could go on.

Not that I've given this much thought, but a bonfire of that size must burn pretty hot, right? Wouldn't that make it a really good place to get rid of a body? If you could get it into the woodpile somehow, surely it would then burn so hot that nothing would remain? And even if someone did see a man-shaped silhouette in the flames, given that it's traditional to burn effigies at this time of the year, wouldn't they just mistake it for another Guy?

Just as a point of interest and as a terrible history bore, I feel I should point out that Guy Fawkes wasn't burned at all.... he was actually sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered, but was so weak from his torture that he never made it past the hanging bit, sensibly deciding to jump from the gallows, breaking his neck. Spoilsport.

It seems to me something of an overreaction that he is still such a reviled figure in this country some 400 years after the Gunpowder Plot.... perhaps he'd seen the register of Parliamentary expenses and they were afraid he'd publish?

Isn't it time we got over it?

If we must burn effigies of a catholic in a massive bonfire every year, might I humbly suggest we move on to Tony Blair?

Thursday, 12 November 2009


As I casually bit into a carrot the other day, about the last thing I was expecting to find was a stone.... but there it was.
I imagine the carrot must just have grown around the stone and at some point assimilated it. When all you are expecting to bite down on is a nice crunchy carrot, this is somewhat less than ideal. My tooth was a bit sore, but nothing appeared to drop off, so I put the rest of my carrots to one side and tried to forget about it.

A few days later, and my tooth still seemed to be a bit sore, so I thought I'd better go and see the dentist to make sure I hadn't broken anything. My next scheduled appointment isn't until next June, but they managed to find me a slot this morning.

Over my life, I have had absolutely mountains of dental work done. It may come as news to anyone who has had to listen to me sounding off on any number of topics, but I've apparently got a very small mouth. I certainly had more teeth than I had mouth, and over the course of my teenage years I had a variety of extractions and orthodontic work done in an attempt to make my teeth vaguely presentable. If you can think of a type of brace, I've had it. I've had metal train tracks to pull my gappy teeth together; I've had a brace with a key that I turned once a week to open it out to widen the gap between the left and right sides of my jaw; I had a brace I had to bite down onto to level out the massive bow in my bottom teeth; I had a brace with hideous cheek plates that warped my whole face; I had some headgear that used elastic bands to push my teeth further back in my jaw..... even today, I've got a metal wire attached to the back of my bottom teeth to hold them straight. I had my wisdom teeth out too, naturally. No room for them in there, so out they came. Under local. Which wore off halfway through. As the dentist was wrestling with a tooth, practically with his foot on my chest as he pulled as hard as he could. Twist, twist, crack.

Yup. I've spent a lot of time at the dentists over the years and - perhaps oddly - the dental surgery doesn't really hold any fears for me. Luckily for me, in spite of the fact that all this pushing and shoving appears to have softened my teeth, I've not really needed much in the way of fillings since then, and my annual visits are usually short and sweet. I've noticed I'm becoming more nervous of these visits as I get older, but they happen so infrequently and I need so little done, that it's never been a problem.

I was a touch nervous this morning as I sat in the waiting room awaiting my appointment. I didn't know if I'd cracked my tooth or not, and I'd not seen this dentist before and so didn't really know what to expect. He was younger than me, of course, and he insisted on shaking my hand before I sat down in the chair. He then made small talk with me.... Goodness, I'd travelled a long way across Nottingham. Where did I work? Oh, that's not so far away from here. Have they started taking graduate recruits again, or has the programme been affected by the credit crunch? How long had I lived in the area? Where were my family from?

....and so on.

All very well, but as soon as he'd put the chair back, adjusted the lamp and started to poke around inside my mouth, I'd rather assumed that the small talk would come to an end. Does it qualify as small talk if there's only one person in the conversation? Isn't it a bit odd to be attempting to exchange pleasantries with someone who cannot reciprocate?

He seemed nice enough, but I found the whole thing slightly unsettling, and an image crept, unwanted, into my head:

Szell: Is it safe?... Is it safe?
Babe: You're talking to me?
Szell: Is it safe?
Babe: Is what safe?
Szell: Is it safe?
Babe: I don't know what you mean. I can't tell you something's safe or not, unless I know specifically what you're talking about.
Szell: Is it safe?
Babe: Tell me what the "it" refers to.
Szell: Is it safe?
Babe: Yes, it's safe, it's very safe, it's so safe you wouldn't believe it.
Szell: Is it safe?
Babe: No. It's not safe, it's... very dangerous, be careful.

Anyway. Apparently the tooth looks okay and I've probably just bruised a ligament.

I didn't even know teeth had ligaments....every day's a school day, right? Oh, and apparently I eat too much fruit too.

Just 364 days until my next appointment.

Szell: Oh, don't worry. I'm not going into that cavity. That nerve's already dying. A live, freshly-cut nerve is infinitely more sensitive. So I'll just drill into a healthy tooth until I reach the pulp. That is unless, of course, you can tell me that it's safe.....

Can't wait.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

turn it on again....

At some point on Monday evening, my broadband connection went down.

At first I wondered what had happened and if it was my fault: I had, after all, been moving cables and things around in my man room as I attempted a reorganisation that would enable my good stereo to be connected to my airport express to enable wireless access to my music through decent speakers. I'm sure you know what it's like, and I'll bet you have similar forests of cables behind your desks and TVs.....I've often wondered if I'll be able to remember how to put it all back together again if anything ever stops working and I have to risk unplugging stuff, and this was clearly my opportunity to find out.

After a lot of unplugging of cables and rebooting of various routers and modems, I decided - as my internal network still seemed to be working and I was able to connect to everything but the internet - that the fault probably lay with my broadband connection itself.

But how do you check when you can't access the internet?
How can you find out what phone number you're supposed to ring?

In the old days, you could probably rely on a neighbour having an unsecured wireless network. In these untrusting times, however, these seem to be few and far between (and those that exist have a frustratingly intermittent signal from inside my house, the inconsiderate sods....). I was forced to resort, in the end, to disabling the wifi on my phone and using the 3G / Edge network to connect to my provider.


A quick (relatively speaking) phonecall to a lovely man on the helpdesk in India showed that it probably was my cable modem, and an engineer visit was quickly booked... surely I could manage a measley 36 hours without an Internet connection at home?

You'd think, wouldn't you?

But how am I supposed to publish that blog I'd written? How am I supposed to find out the name of that bloke who was in that thing on the telly and what else he had been in? How am I supposed to put a post up onto Freecycle to tell people that someone has come to collect that futon and that they can all stop emailing me now? How am I supposed to look up the postcode of that place I'm supposed to be going to first thing in the morning to attend a course? How am I going to find out what that red button on the side of the scart block I bought is supposed to do?


It all felt so 2004 to be without wireless and it felt positively 1998 to be without any kind of decent Internet connection at all. I was practically helpless.

It's pathetic, isn't it?

Still, all back online now so I can mainline the Internet to my heart's content now.

Honestly, what have we become?

Tuesday, 10 November 2009


A new starter to the department was shown around the office yesterday. She doesn't start for another couple of weeks, but she's clearly very keen and had taken a day off from her current job to be introduced to everyone and to help her get her bearings. She'll be working pretty closely with my team, so her guide made sure she spent a little bit of time getting to know us. My desk is located just opposite the director of the department, and he took a couple of minutes to welcome this new starter to the business. After some pleasant small talk about where she's working now, when she starts and how pleased she is to be joining us, the director then gestured to the desks around him:

"If you want to know what it's really like to work around here, you just have to ask any of these guys. Tim here will tell you what it's really like...."

At this point all eyes turn expectantly to me. This is clearly a golden opportunity for me to stoke the excitement and enthusiasm of this new join as she starts her new job, and also to make a good impression on both the director and several of the senior management team, including my boss, now all waiting with bated breath to hear my easy platitudes about how wonderful a place my office is to work and how we all have such a splendid time together.

I've been put on the spot here, for sure, but I'm certain I have the wit and imagination to come up with something suitable.

So, Tim, what's it really like around here?

" It's..... alright."

Brilliant! Nicely played, I thought.

I was smart enough to feel the disappointment now hanging palpably in the air around me, so I sensed I somehow hadn't been forthcoming enough with my assessment and more needed to be said. Far be it from me to rain on anybody's parade.

"....but then, I do have a window seat."

Stick with me, kid, and I'll take you to the end of the world.

Monday, 9 November 2009

bigmouth strikes again....

As we were driving to work this morning, an innocent conversation about the mist rolling off the river and the number of trees now entirely without leaves suddenly mutated into an argument:

Winter's nearly upon us, I remarked.
Well, said C, actually winter doesn't start until 21st December.
Really? Isn't that the shortest day? Wouldn't you associate that with the depths of winter?
No. It's the winter solstice and it's the official start of winter.

We carried on the debate after we reached the office, with C. sending me something from wikipedia, and me retaliating by sending something back from the met office. As these things tend to do - at least with me - what I thought of as being a trivial, light-hearted discussion seemed to quickly be descending into a surprisingly bitter argument. I'll never learn: just as my dad remains convinced that I used to do a deliberately bad job of mowing the lawn just to piss him off, C seems equally convinced that when we have a discussion like this, I am driven to not only to prove her wrong, but to make her look foolish. Perhaps that's the way it seems, but all I'm trying to do is to understand the basis of the argument. I hope I'm not too grudging when I am proved wrong, but I do like to be swayed by evidence. It's probably my historical training, but even on a subject I know nothing about, I'll never accept anything at face value; I like to be presented with at least some sort of evidence.

I'm the first to admit that this isn't always an attractive trait, and I know that it can have its dark side: I used to maintain that no one is ever more than 80% sure they're right in any particular discussion. With that in mind, I would sometimes chose to make it my position to push at the 20% that wasn't so sure of themselves. All this was originally intended to do was to explore the uncertainty and test the evidence, but in the heat of debate, this probably transformed all too often into a desire to push someone off their point. No matter that the other person may well have been originally more sure of their own argument than I was of my own position, I still found that I could push most people into questioning their own certainty, if not actually making them back down entirely.

I like to think that I've realised that's not actually a very nice way to behave, and it's something to be held back for special occasions. However, in even the most trivial discussion, I have a certain curiosity that compels me to ask questions. It often gets me into trouble at work (in spite of the fact that my analytical brain is the reason I was hired to do this job), and it also gets me into trouble at home.

Why is the shortest day the start of winter?
If it is the start of winter, does that mean that summer doesn't start until 21st June?
If that's the case, why is Midsummer's Day traditionally celebrated on 24th June? Is summer only 6 days long?
When would you say Spring starts? I suppose technically, by this logic, it would be on 21st March - the Spring Equinox. If that's the case, then why is the 1st March called the start of Spring? Is 20th June really still Spring?

....and so on.

These are the questions that I want to know the answers to, and these are the questions that I asked C..... who (perhaps not surprisingly) now thinks that I'm trying to make her look a fool. The thing is, I'm not trying to make her look a fool, and she may well be right.... it's just that I can't stop my brain asking what I see as the unanswered questions, and I then have a need to know the answers. If this is the start of winter, then why? Based on what? Does everyone agree?

Even as C. sent me the wikipedia link, I started searching for more answers.

It seems that winter is traditionally held to start in the UK on 21st December, and has apparently been so for thousands of years, based upon an observation of the stars and the length of the day. Meteorologists don't seem to have much truck with this, and the Met Office for one has the seasons neatly parcelled up: Winter - 1st December; Spring - 1st March; Summer - 1st June; Autumn - 1st September.

But it's all quibbling, isn't it? Aren't the seasons dictated by things other than by dates? The change of the season cannot be marked on a calendar and does not happen at precisely the same moment every year.... there isn't a clock that dictates when birds migrate and animals hibernate; there isn't a calendar that can tell you when the leaves will fall from the trees or when the daffodils will bud. It changes from year to year and is affected by all kinds of things, both natural and manmade...................

And so it goes. More or less every single thing that anyone ever says to me is run through this kind of an internal process, with a succession of questions popping up that can never be fully answered; even if they could be, there are more questions following them up close behind.

I'm not sure why I'm driven to ask these questions, and perhaps more pertinently, I don't know why I haven't yet learned when to stop asking them. I should probably at least be more aware, as I ask all these questions one-by-one, that increasingly the best I can hope for is that I don't lose all my friends by making them feel like they're in front of some kind of ranting inquisition 24/7.

I just can't turn off my brain. Like the scorpion in the fable, I may drown us all simply because it's my nature.

Friday, 6 November 2009

I used to glance beyond the stars....

Earworms of the Week

> "You Think I Ain't Worth A Dollar, But I Feel Like a Millionaire" - Queens of the Stoneage

Their gig at Rock City during One Live in Nottingham in 2002 remains one of the best concerts I have ever attended, and "Songs for the Deaf" is still a fantastic sounding record. I bought it on a whim too, and spent the rest of the day before I listened to it wondering if I'd made a terrible mistake and thrown £10 down the toilet. I needn't have worried: it's a masterpiece. The Josh Homme and Mark Lanegan songs are superb, but once in while I find that I need a little nihilistic screaming in my life, and Nick Olivieri fits the bill just perfectly. What a way to start an album. Dave Grohl returned to the drum stool as a favour to the band, and - naturally - sounds fantastic throughout. Shouty rock. Nice one.

> "D.O.A." - Foo Fighters
> "Keep The Car Running" - Foo Fighters

Jools Holland is an unctuous toad at the best of times, but "Later...." seems to have been absolutely diabolical this series. You used to at least be able to rely on a few really top mark acts to make things interesting, and I quite often found that I'd discover something new - Bloc Party, Ray LaMontagne, Interpol, Devendra Banhart. This series has been so poor though that I'd almost given up looking who was on. Not quite though, and I had a quick look this week to discover that the Foo Fighters were on. Well, they've got a Greatest Hits album to plug, after all. They played "Wheels", one of the new songs on the hits album, and "Times Like These". Neither are from the very top drawer of their ouevre, but they're not bad, and it's great to see a proper band performing on the show. Worth watching, if only to see the handover from a heavily bearded Sting performing awful lute-ridden seasonal music to Grohl kicking straight into "Times Like These". Neither of these two songs, incidentally, is on the Greatest Hits. "D.O.A." should certainly be there, no? I'd have put it on, anyway.

Anothe band appearing on the show were an unsigned band from Oxford called Stornoway. Well, judging by their awful lyrics talking about "going back to Uni", they should probably stay that way, eh?

> "99 Problems" - Jay-Z

Jay-Z was also on "Later....", performing "Empire State of Mind" and this song. He's quite a big deal, apparently, but he seemed happy enough to be playing second fiddle to the Foo Fighters. As I've said before, I'm not a big fan of the Zed, in the main, but I do like "Empire State of Mind", and you really can't go wrong with "99 Problems", can you? It's so good, in fact, that it inspired our team name at the quiz on Wednesday night: If You've Got Deep Fried Seafood Based Issues, I Feel Bad For You Son. I've Got 99 Problems but the Fishcakes Ain't One.

We won, of course... but I think I enjoy the laughs for the team name almost as much as I do winning.

> "Bad Romance" - Lady GaGa

Want your bad romance"

I love Lady GaGa. Official.

> "Protection" - Massive Attack
> "Karmacoma" - Massive Attack

Another set of earworms resulting entirely from listening to music in the bedroom. I try to choose something a little bit mellower as I drift off towards the land of nod. Massive Attack seemed to fit the bill just nicely. Mind you, last night I went to sleep listening to Probot, so it probably doesn't make all that much difference, eh?

> "Hurt Feelings" - Flight of the Conchords
> "Carol Brown" - Flight of the Conchords

Well, sorry about this, but they've brought out a new album and I can't get enough of them.

"Have you even been told that your ass is too big?
Have you ever been asked if your hair is a wig?
Have you ever been told you’re mediocre in bed?
Have you ever been told you’ve got a weird-shaped head?"

Rappers cry diamond tears, you know.

As for "Carol Brown", well she caught the bus out of town.....

If the last album is anything to go by, I'm afraid that you can expect a lot more of this kind of shit over the next few months. Sorry about that.

> "Manhattan Skyline" - a-ha
> "Stay on These Roads" a-ha

Two of the real highlights from Monday night's gig at the NIA, both showcasing Morten Harkett's undiminished vocal power. To be honest, I'm still reeling from the show. They were fantastic. I really wasn't expecting much, and - what with being in Birmingham and all - the whole thing seemed a little bit of a drag.....but they blew my expectations out of the water. They were superb, and I'm so pleased to have seen them. They're splitting up, but there's a farewell tour on the way, and I'm definitely going to see them again.

> "Earth Song" - Michael Jackson

I loathe this song, but you have to take your hat off to it's earwormability...... All together now

Ah aaaah aaaaaaaaaah-ah-ah-ah!
Ah aaaah aaaaaaaaaah-ah-ah-ah!

Grrr. If this has to be stuck on my internal jukebox, where's my internal Jarvis Cocker when I need him?

See you next week kids. Be good.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

the righteous and the wicked....

There's a bit in Joseph Heller's "Catch-22" where Captain Black runs something he calls the "Glorious Loyalty Oath Campaign", where everyone in the squadron finds themselves forced to sign oaths pledging their loyalty in order to get absolutely anything or everything:

"Almost overnight the Glorious Loyalty Oath Crusade was in full flower, and Captain Black was enraptured to discover himself spearheading it. He had really hit on something. All the enlisted men and officers on combat duty had to sign a loyalty oath to get their map cases from the intelligence tent, a second loyalty oath to receive their flak suits and parachutes from the parachute tent, a third loyalty oath for Lieutenant Balkington, the motor vehicle officer, to be allowed to ride from the squadron to the airfield in one of the trucks. Every time they turned around there was another loyalty oath to be signed. They signed a loyalty oath to get their pay from the finance officer, to obtain their PX supplies, to have their hair cut by the Italian barbers. To Captain Black, every officer who supported his Glorious Loyalty Oath Crusade was a competitor, and he planned and plotted twenty-four hours a day to keep one step ahead. He would stand second to none in his devotion to country. When other officers had followed his urging and introduced loyalty oaths of their own, he went them one better by making every son of a bitch who came to his intelligence tent sign two loyalty oaths, then three, then four; then he introduced the pledge of allegiance, and after that "The Star-Spangled Banner," one chorus, two choruses, three choruses, four choruses. Each time Captain Black forged ahead of his competitors, he swung upon them scornfully for their failure to follow his example. Each time they followed his example, he retreated with concern and racked his brain for some new stratagem that would enable him to turn upon them scornfully again"

Of course, anyone refusing to sign one of these oaths is immediately branded as somehow being disloyal to their country, to their flag and to their cause:

"Without realizing how it had come about, the combat men in the squadron discovered themselves dominated by the administrators appointed to serve them. They were bullied, insulted, harassed and shoved about all day long by one after the other. When they voiced objection, Captain Black replied that people who were loyal would not mind signing all the loyalty oaths they had to. To anyone who questioned the effectiveness of the loyalty oaths, he replied that people who really did owe allegiance to their country would be proud to pledge it as often as he forced them to.

Captain Black's rival, Major Major, is actively prevented from signing any of these oaths, even if he wanted to:

"What makes you so sure Major Major is a Communist?"

"You never heard him denying it until we began accusing him, did you? And you don't see him signing any of our loyalty oaths."

"You aren't letting him sign any."

"Of course not," Captain Black explained. "That would defeat the whole purpose of our crusade".

Thus does Joseph Heller neatly skewer empty patriotism.

I was reminded of this when reading about the Daily Mail's latest campaign to try and get every Premier League football club to display a poppy on their matchday shirts during November.

As a result of their bullying, there are now only three of the twenty clubs holding out: Liverpool, Manchester United and Bolton Wanderers. As a spokesman for Manchester Utd not unreasonably said:

"We don’t think it’s particularly necessary. We sell poppies around the ground and all our officials wear them and we work with Armed Forces charities in a lot of other ways throughout the year."

Not good enough, apparently, and the Mail is continuing to try to bully them into changing their minds. Obviously, their readers are full of considered opinions on the subject. Here's lazzruss:

"Yes Yes Yes!!! It is beyond my capacity to put into words how this 'government' has ruined our once Great Britain by sytematically [sic] attacking our spiritual and historical heritage and culture and we have had enough! Banning poppies is the final insult to our nation as this shows a complete disregard and contempt for our Glorious Dead who gave everything including their very lives for the sake of the future of our Nation and every football team owes them their success and privileges - to display a simple poppy proudly on their shirts should be a moral imperative for anyone who loves our Country and what we (not the inept and shameful Labour Government) stand for."

Let's leave aside the fact that the majority of the players in the Premier League aren't even English, eh? Why let that get in the way of a good rant about WHAT'S WRONG WITH THIS COUNTRY?

Um, perhaps it's a statement of the obvious, but if you try to force people to wear a poppy, aren't you restricting our freedom to choose not to wear one? Isn't that the same freedom that "our Glorious Dead' fought for? Like it or not, that's the same freedom that allows a student to get so paralytically drunk that he urinated on a war memorial in Sheffield. Not very nice, for sure, but surely more a story about binge drinking than it is about any calculated disrespect for the dead, whatever the Daily Mail try to make of the story (flogging too good for him, naturally).

This "Poppy fascism" seems to be everywhere at the moment. Apparently the BBC are under pressure because the dancers on "Strictly..." weren't wearing poppies last week. All of the judges were, but none of the dancers. Not good enough, apparently, as everyone on the X-Factor was wearing one.... The BBC initially (and not very bravely) hid behind "Health & Safety issues" as the reason why the dancers weren't wearing poppies, but have now apparently changed their minds in the face of all this public outrage.

Where does this oneupmanship and assumed moral authority stop? Why are we only displaying our poppies for a couple of weeks of November? Does that mean we're being disrespectful and unpatriotic for the other 50 weeks of the year? Should we all be dyeing our hair red and tattooing poppies onto our cheeks so we can be displaying our gratitude and support for the sacrifices made on our behalf every single day of the year?

Of course, you can trust the good old Guardian for an alternative view, and Marina Hyde today has a good rant about this "phony poppy apoplexy":

"So on Saturday, know that every late challenge, every sending-off, will be in the memory of those who fell in battle. Then accept the fact that media campaigns to foreground the poppies that are not being worn, as opposed to the ones that are, serve not as a memorial to the sacrifices made on our behalf, but as a reminder of our hard-wired one‑upmanship and infinite capacity to find ways to divide ourselves."

The commentators are even more strident:

"Forced wearing of the poppy to commemorate a fight against tyranny? Britain seems to get sillier and sillier, and more and more irrelevant every week."

One takes the trouble to remind everyone of the Daily Mail's support of the Nazis in the 1930s, when they praised Oswald Mosley ("Hurrah for the Blackshirts") for his "sound, commonsense, Conservative doctrine", and the proprietor of the paper, the Viscount Rothermere, visited and corresponded with Hitler, culminating, on 1 October 1938, when Rothermere sent Hitler a telegram in support of Germany's invasion of the Sudetenland, and expressing the hope that 'Adolf the Great' would become a popular figure in Britain.

They don't talk about that so much, do they? Why am I now uncomfortably reminded of people being forced to wear pink triangles and yellow stars?

It seems that the spirit of Captain Black is alive and well and still busily hunting out people who won't sign his loyalty oaths.

"You never heard him denying it until we began accusing him, did you?"

Is that the Daily Mail's motto?