Thursday, 27 December 2012

2012 - Hello and Goodbye

2012 has been a funny old year - but I guess that's true of every year.  12 months is a long time, and there are bound to be a lot of things to look back on during the year.  As I've got older, it seems that every year is less interesting than the last, but I'm starting to wonder whether that's just the cynicism of age rather than life getting calmer.

For every "Hello" there is a "Goodbye" and the biggest goodbye I've had to say this year was to my Grandmother.  For as long as I can remember - that's over thirty years - my family has had three strands - my Mum, my Dad and my Granny.  Every birthday I had three main presents, every Christmas I had three phone calls to make and every holiday I had three presents to buy.  That has all changed over the past few years.  Two years ago, I lost my Dad to lung failure and this year I lost my Granny.  My family life will never be the same again, and Christmas just wasn't the same this year.  Of course,  I still have my Dad's relatives and my Granny's relatives and I keep in contact with them, and I love them - but they wouldn't take offence at my saying that it's just not the same.

I have had some achievements this year, though.  I got back into a swimming pool for the first time in over thirty years.  I was proud of myself for doing that, even though ultimately I ended up giving up before actually being able to swim.  Maybe one day I'll pick it up again, but for the moment it remains an experiment I'm proud to have tried, but which just wasn't for me.

I've also had to hang up my badminton racquet this year.  I've played badminton for a few years now, and was actually pretty good.  I had coaching, got the technique and for the first time in my life I learned a sport properly, and thoroughly enjoyed it.  But in August my arm started to twinge.  It had been a little sore after playing for a few months, but nothing which made me worry unduly.  in August, I started a course of physio and things improved - but every time I picked up a badminton racquet my arm would start to twinge.  Eventually, the only way through the day was Ibuprofen and rest.  I had a steroid injection into my elbow in December, having only played badminton a handful of times in the previous few months.  It will improve, and it's already definitely on the mend - but the reality is that once you have tennis elbow it's very likely to come back and much as it pains me, I have to listen to the advice which says that playing badminton regularly enough to maintain a decent level of skill is going to make it happen again sooner or later and so my badminton playing is relegated to the odd social game - and not even that for a month or three...

And so I enter 2013 looking for a new sport to take up.  It can't be a water sport (even kayaking requires you can swim, for safety reasons) nor a racquet sport (for obvious reasons).  I'm still pondering on that one...

Sport has actually featured more in my life than it ever has before.  From the rehearsal of the opening ceremony through to actually watching the Olympics. Yes, I watched some sport!  For once in my life it was fun.  I couldn't quite bring myself to be fully patriotic but I was still waving the odd flag and the odd tear did fall...

So that was 2012 in a nutshell.  A few old friendships have fallen by the wayside and a few new ones have come along.  I've spent more time in the gym than ever before, I leave 2012 the fittest and strongest I've ever been, but searching for a new sport to take up my time and give me a bit of a cardio workout.  But whatever happens, it could've been worse - at least the Mayan Apocalypse turned out to be just a rumour...

Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Driving Home For Christmas...

I hate that song. I really do.  It's been on repeat on the music channels with its truly horrible video of B-list celebrities and T4 presenters faffing around with Lionel Blair whilst all wearing Christmassy jumpers.

I've touched on the subject of "home" before in here, in fact I've written a blog entry about how grumpy I get at Christmas time before, too - it's here

The Christmas grump took over me again this year, too.  Everyone trying to enforce happiness on each other as if we'd all stumbled into some hideous worldwide Disney Park where being "slightly grumpy" is banned and smiles are painted on for all to see.

But Christmas is pretty much over now, and we can get the "cheering at an arbitrary number going up by one" out of the way at New Year and then everyone will return to normal.  I can't wait.

I'm working between Christmas and New Year this year.  Whenever you tell anyone that, they usually respond with a mixture of surprise and sympathy.  It's true that one of the main reasons I'm working this year is that I didn't work last Christmas as I'd only been in the job for a few months.  But I'm actually looking forward to three days in the office where I can get stuff done without interruption, and can do lots of those tasks which have been sitting on my list for a month or two, and have never been urgent enough to interrupt the ongoing day-to-day.

I think I've written about New Year Resolutions in here before, too.  I don't tend to do them.  Although if you take a break at Christmas, it's a good idea to take stock of your life and decide to make some changes, it's unrealistic to expect that if you've been smoking for 20 years saying "I'm going to stop now" will be any more effective just because it's January.  I can feel the Christmas grump still in me, slightly.  It's fading, but it's still lingering, I think.

But whilst I've still got some grump in me, here's a thing - why has nobody cancelled QI yet?  It used to be good.  For the first series or two, it was new and exciting and - dare I say it - interesting.  It's now become some kind of pantomime for Alan Davies to play the jester and Stephen Fry to show us all how clever he is.  Somebody stop it, please.

I was watching an episode in this latest series, and Stephen Fry said "I'm going to do a thing which has never been done before" and proceeded to shuffle a pack of cards.  That was it.  His argument was that because there are so many possible arrangements of a pack of cards (52! is quite big I suppose) that meant that the particular combination he'd come up with had never been seen before.  So many shades of wrong.

Stephen Fry is undoubtedly a genius when it comes to language and the arts - but I do wish that he'd either read some maths and science books or stop trying to talk about the subjects - it's frankly quite embarrassing...

There.  Grumping done.  I'll be happy until next Christmas now...

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Sofie Seliger

Sofie Seliger was born in 1927 in a the small town of Leopoldsdorf on the outskirts of Vienna, in Austria to parents Heinrich and Bertha.  A nominally Jewish family, they farmed pigs, amongst other things.  Sofie had three brothers – Walter, Kurt and Robert.  They used to play in the fields around their home, and generally cause all sorts of trouble.  As the only girl, Sofie used to stick up for herself, and her brother Walter would later describe her as “a bossy sister”.

They were part of a large family in and around Vienna.  Sofie was named after her Danish grandmother, who died before Sofie was born.  Sofie’s grandfather ran a watch-making shop in central Vienna and Sofie used to go in and help him wind up all the clocks.

Life was calm and gentle. A  happy family in the middle of Europe.

However, things were to change forever in the 1930s.  The advance of the Nazis into Austria saw the Seliger family lose their home and be forced to live in a tenement in the middle of Vienna.  Heinrich was put to work in a labour camp, and the family had little or no food.  Sofie and her brothers used to go to neighbours houses, begging for food to put on the table.   Wealthy relatives helped out where they could, but life had become hard.  But family kept them going.  Sofie’s mother always made sure the children were well dressed and as well fed as they could be in the circumstances.  Things got worse and worse in Vienna for Jewish families, and Jewish businesses were targetted – the windows of Sofie’s grandfather’s shop was smashed by the very people who had been his customers until recently.

Sofie’s parents were offered a stark and horrible choice.  Two places were available on the Kindertransport.  A train service which would rescue Jewish children and bring them to the relative safety of the UK for the duration of the war.  Four children and two places left Bertha and Heinrich with an impossible choice. But it was a choice they made.  Sofie was the only girl, and Walter was suffering from TB at the time.  And so Sofie and Walter were put onto the train in Vienna by their mother and sent into the safety of the unknown.

Kurt and Robert stayed with their parents back in Vienna, whilst Sofie and Walter arrived into Felixstowe in the UK.  Walter was straight away taken to hospital in Luton, and Sofie was taken by train to Liverpool St station in London.  The children from the train were lined up and picked by families who had offered to take them in.  Sofie was dressed in traditional green velvet Austrian dress, a feather in her hat and a little case with all her belongings in.  She was chosen by a family who took her up to Edinburgh.

Up in Edinburgh, she would keep in contact with Walter by letter, and when she went to visit him, she would have to report to police stations along the way – making the trip to Luton to see him a very long and difficult journey for her.  But she did it several times.

In Edinburgh, she would sit at the back of the class in school. Her English limited to just a few words, she would read “Janet and John” books to try to learn English as quickly as possible.  She had a strong Austrian accent which she was desperate to lose for fear of sounding “German”.  With the outbreak of war, she was evacuated out of the city with the other children, and she was taken in by Lord Polwarth at his family at Humbie House outside Edinburgh.  A large house, in huge grounds, Humbie was Sofie’s home for many years.  So far away from her parents, and with the only communication with them through Red Cross telegrams, Sofie was taken under the wing of The Hon. Grizell, the daughter of the family.  Grizell would continue to help Sofie learning English, and take her on days out to London for tea, and give her support through the uncertain times.

Meanwhile, Vienna had become too much for Sofie’s parents and one weekend, they decided to make their break and get over to the UK to join their two children.  Somehow, they made their way across Europe and set up home in Belgium.  Keeping a low profile, they drew plans to get illicit passage on a boat to England.   The family had family portrait photos taken in Belgium and sent them over to Sofie.  The family were well dressed, and looked happy together, but obviously so desperately wanted to get back with their other two children.

Heinrich was arrested, however, and sent to a camp in the South of France.  By means unknown, though, he managed to escape and rejoin the family in Belgium.  How he made his way from the southern French coast all the way back to Belgium is a mystery.

Back in the UK, Sofie had now learned enough English to get herself a job as a trainee nursery nurse, and moved to Manchester where she found work.  She also met another Austrian  refuse – Lizzi Sroka – and they became firm friends.  She kept in touch with Walter, and had started to become a woman. The war was still raging, but she was ready for life back with her family after the war, and could now speak English as well as German.

However, in 1942, everything changed.  The Seliger family were taken from their home in Belgium and put on a train.  Carriage number 5 of train number XXII.  The train went to Auschwitz.  It was the last journey Heinrich, Bertha, Kurt and Robert ever made.  On arrival at Auschwitz, Heinrich was separated from his wife and children.  What followed is too horrific to contemplate.

Back in the UK, the news was broken to Sofie by a social worker in Manchester.  She would never see Papa, Mutti, Kurti or Robert again.

Sofie and Walter kept in touch, and after the war, Sofie become a British Citizen and start to create a new life for herself with a job in the British Army as a typist.  Whilst in the army, she met a dashing young soldier called Eddie Diamond, and in 1950 they were married.  They lived together up in Edinburgh where Eddie was stationed and started a family together.  Sofie’s brother Walter came to the wedding, but they lost touch soon afterwards. 

One of Sofie’s uncles from Vienna had made passage to Israel, and Sofie and Walter both kept in touch with him, but not with each other.  Lizzi’s parents survived the war, and so Sofie said goodbye to Lizzi who returned to live in Vienna.  They kept in touch, and Lizzi sent cards and presents for Sofie’s wedding.  Lizzi made a career for herself in Israel and Austria – speaking German, English and Yiddish, she worked with Jewish families who had been forced to move to Israel, helping them to set up home.

Sofie built a new life for herself, had a family and set up home.  Eddie retired from the army and the family moved to Port Sunlight, back near the rest of Eddie’s family on The Wirral.  They had four children, who would then go on to have grandchildren and then there were great grandchildren.

Sofie made it to Israel to see her uncle in 1980, and made one trip back to Vienna in 1992.  She visited Leopoldsdorf and her grandfather’s shop – now a pharmacy.

In 2000, the year of Sofie and Eddie’s fiftieth anniversary, came a letter from London.  “Hello Sofie, this is your brother Walter”.  Back into her life came Walter.  Now living in Wood Green in London, he had been an engineer throughout the years, and spent his time between London and Israel.  He turned up at the house, the spitting image of Sofie and with a similar trace of an Austrian accent.

In 2001, tragedy struck again.  Eddie died from lung cancer.  Not a year or two later, Walter also died.  With his body failing him, he wrote a note and decided to take his own life.  However, between writing the note and carrying out his plan, he fell asleep and died of natural causes. 

In 2003, another letter arrived.   This time from Lizzi in Vienna.  With both Sofie and Lizzi too old to make the journey, they spoke on the phone and exchanged gifts

Earlier this month - on 5th November - Sofie’s time also finally ran out.  On Tuesday 20th November, we said goodbye to her with lots of flowers, a few tears and some happy memories.  

Lizzi responded to the news by describing Sofie as her best friend.  

To me, she was “Granny”.

Ruhe sanft.  Wir alle werden dich vermissen.

Monday, 12 November 2012

Sleepless in Seattle

There, I did it.  A crap joke about the fact that I'm in Seattle and awake at a stupid time in the morning.  I arrived here on Saturday, and applied my usual technique of "staying awake until a normal time on the first night, then going to bed really tired".  It's a technique which has always worked in the past for snapping me into the new timezone.

However, this room has a real flame fire.  It's rather nice.  A little switch by the bed puts the fire on for a timed hour, meaning that you can fall asleep by the light of a roaring fire, and then it'll turn itself off afterwards.  The problem is, though, that a roaring fire makes the room warm.  And a warm room makes for a sleepy room.  And so yesterday afternoon, when I put the fire on to stave off the rain pouring outside, I found myself waking up quite a few hours later thinking "oh, bugger!".  And true enough, despite getting to bed at a sensible time last night, I woke up at 5.30am today.  "Bugger" indeed.

And so here I am, looking out of the window at a sleeping Seattle, with the occasional (well actually rather frequent - and really ridiculously long) freight train rumbling past.  I find it weird the way the train line isn't segregated from the pavewalk (or do I mean sidement?)  in the way we would in the UK.  There are barriers and warning lights for cars and people, but the train line is pretty much open - no fence to stop people wandering onto it.  I guess they just rely on the fact that people won't wander into the path of a train...

Believe it or not, despite having been to a few far-flung places, this is the first time I've been to the USA.  Strange but true - I've made it to the age of 37 without crossing the Atlantic. Until now.  Working at Symbian for so many years meant that my business travel was always in other direction - to Japan, China, Sweden and - erm - Manchester.  Despite the horror stories about US immigration and how many hours can be spent being grilled about the exact nature of your visit; it was under an hour from the plane touching down to when I was in cab heading to the hotel.

I spent yesterday being a bit of a tourist.  "Original branch of Starbucks" - check!  Most of the day was spent wandering around the aquarium.  Then wandering around it again when I realised that I had my camera on the wrong setting and hence all the photos had come out blurred-but-not-blurred-enough-that-you-notice-it-on-the-little-screen-on-the-camera-itself.  Got plenty of photos of sea otters, though.  They are SO cute, it's untrue. Look...

Saturday, 29 September 2012

20 Things I've Learned...

I've not written in here for over a month.  Mostly because I've been busy watching the Paralympics and visiting Edinburgh, amongst other things.  So, to fill the gap - here are a few things which I've learned in the past month.

1. George Michael isn't above plugging his new single at the Olympics Closing Ceremony
2. The National Trust have a strange lack of properties in and around Cheshire
3. Some motorways are really short and can be driven end-to-end in an hour
4. Tim Minchin makes a really good Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar
5. Fireworks can be synchronised to music
6. The absolute nadir of television has been reached with "Sing Date"
7. Southend Pier is indeed very long
8. Chester Cathedral isn't as big as I remember it being
9. Lady Gaga is really quite good live
10. Boron burns with a lovely colour

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Ten Things I Love About The Olympics

Far too often I write in here about things I don't like - so in an attempt to redress that balance I'm going to write the positive.  London has been a genuinely great place to be the past two weeks and so I present - in no particular order - my 10 favourite things about the Olympic games.


Before the games, it wasn't uncommon to hear people talk about how they were escaping London for the games.  Transport would be terrible and they had no interest in sport.  Since the games have started, I've not met a single person who's said that they wish they'd left town.  So, the first thing on my list is the fantastic atmosphere that's been in London for the past couple of weeks.

All around town, people are wandering around wearing their huge Olympic ID badges.  I chatted to some officials from The Bahamas whilst queuing for coffee at Waterloo in the first week.  Even gold medal winners have been getting on the tube.

The atmosphere in London has been tangible.  Smiles all around and I've even seen strangers chatting on the tube.  Far from being the "horrible place to be" many had predicted - London has been an amazing place to be for the past couple of weeks.


Smiles aren't the only thing seen more regularly during the games.  Union Jacks have been everywhere.  The bunting from the Jubilee weekend hasn't been taken down and the whole place is red, white and blue.

Second on my list is the fact that it's possible to wave a flag without being a Daily Mail-reading racist type.  It's nice to see the Union Jack being waved as a flag of welcome rather than a flag of exclusion.


It's also been nice to see the Union Jacks waving as the medals have come in too.  I'm not the overly patriotic type, but seeing people from your home country win gold medals is always nice.  Ever nicer is to see the emotion when someone realises what they've achieved.  So third on my list is the experience of watching people who've worked so hard for so many years finally achieve what they dreamed off.  So many tears...


Fourth on my list of great things is the BBC Coverage of the games.  After the rather lacklustre coverage of the Jubilee Pageant, the BBC had a point to prove.  24 HD Olympic channels covering pretty much every sport certainly proved the point.

But it wasn't just the quantity of the coverage.  The commentators on the sports were people who knew about the sport, and it showed.  Rather than just describe what was happening, they gave an insight which made it more fun to watch.  There were short films giving a bit of context for events.

Before one of the men's sprint races, they ran a film about the fact that almost all top-flight sprinters are black.  For reasons of modern sensitivity, it's something commentators and broadcasters try to shy away from.  But not the BBC.  And that's why we love them!


Fifth on my list of things is Claire Balding.  She's just brilliant, isn't she?


All this coverage has made it possible to watch some less well-known sports rather than just athletics and swimming.  When the games started, I told myself that I was going to watch some sports I normally wouldn't.  Now the truth is that I normally wouldn't watch any sport at all, but I tried to watch sports I knew nothing about.  And it was quite an adventure.

I've experienced the great lighting effects of the fencing piste, the weird reality of a horse dancing to music which is dressage and the all-out pace of handball.  I never knew mountain biking courses were quite that extreme, nor that the movement of a walking race looked quite that silly on the hips.

But I've enjoyed every minute of it - no matter how strange it looked on first viewing.


My only hands-on experience of a real Olympic event came with a trip to Wembley to watch some badminton matches.  We also went to one of the rehearsals for the Opening Ceremony before it had all kicked off properly.  The volunteers (or Games Makers, as they are known) were fantastic in both cases.  Directing crowds of people isn't easy, and is sometimes not particularly pleasant but every single one of them was smiling.  It makes a hell of a difference to the atmosphere of the crowd when they aren't being shouted at...


I've got into trouble on Twitter a few times for sharing my thoughts on the lack of sportsmanship in some athletes.  On the whole, though, the Olympics has been a true sporting competition.  I'm not a fan of football, and I'm even less a fan of footballers and so it's been nice to see true sportsmen who truly respect their opponent and accept defeat with grace and celebrate winning with respect for their opponents. It's - for me - what sport should be about.


Of course, the Olympics these days aren't all about the sport.  There are the ceremonies to think about.  Beijing was a spectacle like no other. China had a point to prove.  A nation moving from relative isolation into a nation heading towards becoming the largest economy in the world.  A lot of people - me included - wondered how London could possibly compete.  The answer of course was that it didn't even try to compete.

The London ceremony had a sense of humour I'd not seen in an opening ceremony before.  The Queen pretending to jump out of a helicopter with James Bond, Mr Bean playing with the orchestra - this was a ceremony with tongue firmly in cheek.  It had the "wow" moments (the rings of fire being forged was the one for me...) but largely it was fun.

It was even so much fun that I can forgive the inevitable and rather tragic wheeling out of Paul McCartney at the end.

(It does amuse me slightly that the US coverage took out the lesbian kiss in the "snogging montage". even Saudi Arabia showed it - though did get upset about it being the first (and only) gay kiss ever shown on TV there.  A little bit of advice here - if you find that the sight of two women kissing causes your blood to boil - direct a little critical thinking at yourself rather than target it at those people who think it's perfectly fine.)


And finally - the true star of the Olympic show.  London itself.  London has looked amazing during these games.  Even the weather has behaved.  From where I'm writing this, I can look out of my living room window and see the glow of the lights from the Olympic Stadium against the dark night sky.  I can see the red lights of the orbit from my back garden.   Forgive the sloppy sentiment, but I really am lucky to call this amazing city "Home".

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Saving The Surprise

So, I’m going to review the Olympic Opening Ceremony.  We were lucky enough to get tickets to the technical rehearsal last night, and so we got to see the show from the opening through to the point where the athletes will walk in on Friday night.

The big theme of the night was #savethesurprise – we were all asked to not give away the surprises of the evening, so that it would still be a spectacular for everyone watching on Friday night.  This isn’t a case of The Olympic Brand ™ being protected, this is simply a case of not wanting to spoil the surprise of what is actually a specatular show.

So, how can I review the show without giving away the surprise.  I’ll give it a go…

So, we’ve all seen the publicity photos of the village green with people playing cricket.  That bit isn’t secret.  But then, loads of people come on and start ****** the ***** so that it changes into an ********** ***** with a big ***** which ***** out ***** with fireworks and turns into an ******* **** which has loads of ********* coming from it.

Oh, that’s not working brilliantly, is it?  Maybe I’ll take a different approach.

Basically, it’s a bit show with lots of spectacle, an awful lot of people and – most importantly – a sense of humour.  The thing is, the UK isn’t a country like China with a point to prove on the world stage with what they put together in Beijing four years ago.  Everyone knows where the UK is, and what’s in London so we can take a more abstract approach.  Of course, there are the “Wow!” moments in the ceremony, and I just hope that the TV coverage manages to capture them.  But I’m sure that’s been part of the planning.

The Olympic Park itself reminds me of EuroDisney.  I mean that in a kind way.  It’s all clean and now, and full of open spaces with huge numbers of litter bits and picnic benches and people milling around.  Given the stadium was full, it didn’t feel stupidly busy.  Queues for food and drink were long, but prices weren’t as stupidly expensive as I expected.  Expensive yes – but the prices didn’t feel exploitative.

The only gate open last night was that from Westfield into the park.  The queues looked huge, and when we joined the queue there was a feeling of dread that we’d be standing around for hours.  I can honestly say it was half an hour from joining the queue to being in the park.  The queuing system was efficient and no major worries.  It helped that the stewards were friendly and chatty; standing in a queue always feels worse when the officials are grumpy and disinterested.  The security lanes themselves were manned by the army who managed to be both friendly, welcoming and efficient.  I can honestly say it was the most efficient operation of airport style security I have ever seen .   I guess it’s helped by the fact that even the most pushy visitor is unlikely to argue with a soldier in uniform who looks much tougher than you, but full credit to the soldiers for doing a great job.

Once in the park, the only thing I would gripe about would be the lack of signage.  Toilets on the way out were quite hard to find, and finding the Greenway Gate to leave was a bit of a guessing game. But still time to iron that out before Friday.

So, the ceremony itself was almost all of the production from the start through to the point where the athletes would parade into the stadium.  Some things were kept secret with blacked out videos screens displaying a message saying “Video will be shown here on Friday”.  A couple of times the video flicked to the actual footage before blacking out, so we got a few tantalising glimpses of what’s to come.  The announcements were in place for some of the people involved in the ceremony who weren’t there, and the music gave a few clues to what was missing at various points.  It’s going to be amazing on Friday when all the missing pieces are slotted back into place.

So, how does the ceremony stack up against Beijing?  Beijing was amazing.  A huge spectacle of 14,000 people.  London isn’t far off in terms of numbers, and is way ahead in terms of sense of humour.  Some of the musical choices are not the obvious and there’s no shortage of poking a bit of fun at the establishment.  This is a show put together with tongue in cheek and a smile on the face.   Technically, it’s astounding.  There are more lights than I’ve ever seen in one place, and the press reports weren’t lying about the enormous sound system.

Logistically, the stadium shows the effects of modern venue design.  The exodus at the end was painless and efficient - except for the trouble of finding the right gate to get out.  The toilets plentiful and convenient (no pun intended).

So, Friday is the big day.  The day when the asterisks above will make sense and you’ll see the part I was talking about (which is my favourite).  Of course there’ll be people who sneer in the oh-so-British way that it’s not as good as Beijing, but taken objectively, it’s a huge show with some real standout moments which will make everyone in the stadium draw breath, and probably most watching on TV, too.

There are fireworks, there are lasers, there are dancers and there are set pieces on a huge scale.  It’s gonna be a good one!

Friday, 6 July 2012

In the SPA

I've spent the past few days at the SPA2012 conference at the BCS in London.  It's the first time I've been, and so I wasn't really sure what to expect.  It was certainly an interesting few days, and I learned a few things and disagreed with a few things - but it was all the more interesting for it.

I'm not a developer.  I used to be, but I left full-time development behind quite a few years ago.  I still remember the rudiments, and still read code from time to time, but it's been a couple of years since I wrote code for fun, and even longer since I wrote it professionally.  When I was a full-time developer, C++ was the language of choice.  OO was the buzzword and Java was a newcomer.  Most of what was being written was being written in C++ and legacy code was in C.  I then moved onto Symbian, an unashamed C++ shop.  So C++ is where I spent the majority of my coding days.

These days, the code at work is Java and Python.  There's a bit of C++ lurking in corners, but it's mostly Java.  I have written some Java, and I can read it, but I have never written it in a serious sense.

Almost everyone else at the conference was a developer.  Even though a lot of the sessions dealt with management issues, there was still a feel of code being key and hacking being the pastime of choice.  So - it's time for an admission.  I don't really like code.  Don't get me wrong, I love solving problems and I love ingenious algorithms, but code doesn't excite me.  The theory of programming languages is interesting, and even compilers are pretty interesting.  But I've never found the code used the implement those things particularly interesting.  When I read a good book, I'm thrilled by the images conjured up by the words - the words themselves are doing their job well when you don't notice them.  When I listen to a piece of music, I'm listening to the beauty of the composition rather than being thrilled by which keys are being played on the piano or which strings bowed on the violin.  And software is the same for me - the beauty is in the design and the algorithms, rather than in the keywords and the variable names.

And so, I felt a bit like an intruder at the party.  I felt like the outsider who wasn't bringing up an iDE and hacking away in every break between sessions.  Maybe that was my natural inclination to feel the outsider, though.

So, I picked my sessions according to what would interest me.  And two sessions stuck out for me as being the most interesting.

Firstly, there was a case study from Oxfam talking about their project to move their server to "the cloud".  It's trendy to move to "the cloud" and it was interesting to hear a well-presented case study from someone who'd actually tried the move.  The move was a success, but a few important lessons were presented learned along the way.  The move was made for economic reasons, rather than for technological reasons.  In a conference where technology was king, and at times it was easy to feel that the geekery was overtaking money-making as the driver for business, it was refeshing to hear someone talk about the economics and how a technological solution actually gave economic benefits.  It was also interesting to hear about the immaturity of the market for cloud-based services.   It's easy to tell a company how many servers you want, or what OS you want to run - but it's harder to find companies who'll provide fully supported services with flexible capacity.

The other session was one I went to on a whim.  There was a session called "A Good Read" - the idea being that three people would present something - most likely code - and talk about why they thought it was a good read.  Two out of the three presentations were fantastic.  The other was Tom Gilb promoting his own book as "A Good Read" which I felt was a little disingenuous.  The middle third of the session wasn't comfortable listening.  Anyway, less of the negative.  The first presentation was a brilliant recreation of this xkcd cartoon in Mathematica.  It was brilliant for several reasons.  Firstly, it was a joy to see Mathematica being used for something other than symbolic integration.  Secondly, many of the computer scientists in the room had never used Mathematica and it was genuinely interesting.  Thirdly, as a mathematician, it was thrilling to see the brilliance of Mathematica again after so many years away.  It's not quick, it's not efficient - but it's pretty much unrivalled for doing wonderful programmatic maths.  It wouldn't be so easy to write a recursive function which outputs a vector graphic of a self-referential cartoon in many other languages.

I had gone to the session expecting to see Java, or Python.  Or Perl.  Definitely Perl.  But the second great presentation was a C codebase.  A TCL interpreter from years ago, written in C.  The structs and associated functions starting to hint at classes and it was easy to see how C++ sprang from this kind of C code as a natural progression.  A historical marvel!

So - would I go to SPA2012 again?  Well obviously not, as it'll be called SPA2013 next year.  But yes - I think I would.  But maybe I'd choose my sessions a little more carefully.  But as long as there's some Mathematica, I'm happy!

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

I'm not so good with heights

I'm writing this sitting in Starbucks. I've turned into one of those people.  You know - the ones who write things in Starbucks.  On a laptop.

There was only a short queue this morning, away from the serving bit, along the counter.  There were three of us standing in the queue, and then one woman - who was American but that's not revelant - who stood in the middle of the floor vaguely near the till.  When someone in the queue pointed out that there was a queue she said "Yes, I know, and I'm in it".  She thus placed a moral obligation on those of us in the queue to remember her virtual place in the queue and cede our turn to be served when it came to the right moment.  Indidivually it's quite a hard task to remember her place in the queue, but we only needed to collectively achieve that effect - so individually we didn't need to remember her place in the queue, but simply remember whether she was in front of us or behind us.  Though not even that.  Those of us in front of her didn't need to remember anything at all, but the person "behind" her in the queue would just need to remember that she was just in front of them.  Those behind that person don't need to remember anything else.  So instead of us all having to remember her position in the queue, we've reduced it to one person remembering a simple fact.

Anyway, I'm sitting in Starbucks.  We've established that.  In fact, I'm sitting quite near to the window.  It's 8.30am and there are people walking by with their heads down - exactly as I did earlier to the Union protestor on Fleet St who tried to shove a leaflet in my hand to tell me why bus drivers deserve £500 for working during the Olmypics but don't get me started - and just trying to get to their desks with the minimum of human interaction on the way.  I tend to be pretty good with faces - I am quick to spot people I recognise even if I've not seen them for a long time.  I see hundreds of faces pass me on my way to work each day, and occassionally recognise a few.  But how I recognise people mostly is through their walk.  I can't describe or copy the walk of people I know, but even at a long distance - presuming I have my glasses on - I can recognise someone by the way they hold themselves and the way they move as they walk.  I can't be the only person to do that, surely?

I may be good with gaits, but I'm terrible with heights.  I could tell you what colour hair my friends have, even what colour eyes they have in some cases, but I couldn't tell you how tall they are.  More than once in recent weeks I've suddenly noticed that someone I know pretty well is taller than me.  I have an idea in my mind how tall people are but, without giving details which may insult those involved, I tend to base that on how I think of them, rather than how tall they actually are.

Talking of heights, we went on the Emirates Airline last Saturday. Highly recommended. Oh, and don't bother queuing for a ticket - just use your PAYG Oyster card on the barriers...

Saturday, 2 June 2012

The Unwilling Patriot

As anyone who reads my Tweets, or has read this blog before, will know - I'm not particularly patriotic.  I don't feel any emotional attachment to the country I was born in.  There's no greater purpose which dictated that I should've been born in this country.

But even my hard British heart has been melting slightly as we approach the Jubilee weekend.  On the TV, and sometimes on holiday, other countries proudly display their flags and we look at it and think "look, it's so nice to see the flags everywhere".  And yet for years, flying the Union Jack(*) was the sole preserve of The National Front and their equally odious successors The BNP.  But no longer.

London looks stunning at the moment.  Every city looks great in the sunshine, but London is dressed up to the nines at the moment with the flags everywhere, and it can't help but put a smile on your face.

It's a very British occupation to do things down.  To pretend not to enjoy things is virtually an obsession.  We are brought up and then driven by society to pick out the details which are wrong with the situation rather than celebrate the fundamentals which are usually right.

Living in the UK isn't perfect.  I wouldn't pretend that I like the current government, and living in a recession is pretty unpleasant no matter where you are.  But there are some great things about living in this country and it certainly could be a lot worse.

No matter what the nay-sayers may have you believe, we have one of the most free and open societies in the world.  Despite the desperate protestations of various Christian churches at the moment, religious freedom is great in the UK.  And so is the freedom to be an atheist.  Even though we don't have a secular state, openly saying that you have no religious faith is not a barrier to being being a cabinet minister, or a party leader.  We may complain that most politicians are private-educated and wealthy - but let's not forget that also in prominent positions, we have women, black people, openly gay people.  And whilst we may criticise their policies and their beliefs, let's be proud of the fact that a gay, or female, or black politician can take part in a debate without their sexuality, gender or race being an issue.

Our democracy may not be perfect, but at least we have democracy.  We have elections in which nobody is going to force you to vote one way or another.  We go to great lengths to ensure that elections are fair.  There was a slight issue with postal voting when it first came in, and there are always local squabbles over tactics used by the parties, but let's be thankful that we live in a country where nobody is going to be pointing a gun to your head when you're in the polling booth.

The NHS has been in the news and minds of most people over the past year.  Some things are happening to it which aren't great, but let's be thankful for the fact that it exists at all.  If you fall over in the street, or if you have an accident in your home, you can pick up the phone, and ambulance will come and take you to hospital and you will get some of the best medical treatment in the world regardless of how much money you have in your bank account.  Yes, there are waiting lists, and yes it's not perfect, but the fact that the NHS exists at all is a great thing.

The press have had a rough ride in the past year.  Their own fault, admittedly.  But let's remember that we have a press and media which can freely report what happens, when it happens.  If the government does something wrong, it will be reported and a government minister will be give a grilling on live TV.  In so many places around the world, the news only reports what the government wants it to report, and so many of the stories we see on the 6 O'Clock News would never be reported at all.

Human Rights covers a multitude of things in common usage.  There are countries around the world where people suffer torture because of who they love or what they believe.  Here in the UK as discussion of Human Rights involves talking about whether gay couples should be given the legal right to marry.  It's an important issue, and we do need fair marriage laws, but let's not forget that if  this is where we are with Human Rights, things aren't too bad.

But, the greatest thing about living in this country.  The one thing this country has which nobody else does.  Radio 4.  It's brilliant.  And no country anywhere else in the world ever produce Radio 4.

So, I'm sure some people will read this and think I'm being sentimental or think I'm missing the point.  I know life here isn't perfect.  I know there is still a way to go.

This country is still a work in progress.  But I don't see the harm in taking a weekend to wave some flags and - yes I'm going to say it - be a little bit proud to be living in this country.  The old UK ain't such a bad place to be.

(* Don't try to tell me it's the Union Flag and not the Union Jack - the name "Union Jack" is officially recognised as a name for the National Flag even when not flown on board a ship. So there.)

Thursday, 10 May 2012

How to travel on the tube

I spend about two hours a day travelling across London on the tube. Westwards in the morning and then back Eastwards of an evening.  Usually without a seat, I stand somewhere out of the way, bury my head in a book and pass the time whatever way I can.  Yet the journey is usually troubled by other people.  Not those people who travel the same route every day and behave well; but troubled by those who stand in the way, swing bags around and generally provide an annoyance.  I am no expert on tube etiquette, but I offer below my ten rules for how to travel by tube without annoying me...

1. Let others off the train before pushing your way on

Tubes are busy.  They are full of people.  Quite often the train will pull into the platform and it's natural to stare into the windows as the train slows and wonder just how any more people will possibly fit on the train.  The answer is, usually, that people will get off the train and you can squeeze on into the space they free up.  But they are not going to be able to get off if you're standing right in the middle of the door.  When the train stops, stand to one side of the door or other and leave a corridor for people to pile off the train.  On the Jubilee Line, you even have the doors on the platform, so you can line yourself up before the train even arrives.  Oh, and wait until the last person is off the train before you rush to board.  It's common sense really - you can't get on until we get off.  It won't kill you to stand out of the way and I'm much less likely to barge you out of the way if you do...

2. Get out of the way of people trying to get off the train

People aren't packed onto the train in any sort of order.  When the train stops, it's very likely that some of the people who want to get off will be away from the doors and if you're one of the people by the door who doesn't want to get off, then you'll have to get out the way somehow.  Getting out of the way means moving.  It doesn't mean smiling in the hope that people won't mind you standing in their way if you look pleasant and apologetic.  It doesn't mean sucking in your stomach in the hope that the extra inch or so created will be enough for someone to squeeze past.  It also doesn't mean standing in exactly the same place and tutting at everyone who pushes past.  It's not hard to do.  When the train stops, step to one side - even if that means getting off the train.  Nobody will mind if you stand near the door and get back on the train first.  The train isn't going to leave without you.

3. Put your bag on the floor

It's pretty normal that lots of the people on the tube will be carrying a bag.  Back packs, hand bags or those stupid bags that woman sling over their shoulder and which stick out two feet behind them.  Next time you see a person, have a look at them.  You'll notice that in most cases they are wider at the top than near the floor.  That means that when you pack lots of them together, there's usually a bit of spare space near the floor.  So if you're carrying a bag, take it off your shoulder or back and put it down on the floor.  Not only will you create more space, but you'll be much less likely to forget you're wearing the bag and whack someone with it when you turn around.

4. Hold tight

Tube trains start and stop.  Sometimes they stop in the tunnel quite quickly.  If you've got a GCSE in Physics (or "Science" or whatever they call it these days) then you'll be familiar with the concept of momentum.  When the train stops, you (and your bag) will still have some momentum, meaning that when the train stops, you will continue to travel forward briefly.  You can stop this happening if you hold on.  There are plenty of handrails (but see below!) and if you stand firmly with one hand tightly on a grip then you won't shove your face, bag or even boobs (yes, I saw a woman with huge boobs hit a guy with them on the tube the other day) into someone else every time the train stops.  If you think you've got good balance, then by all means put two hands on your phone to play that game and use your legs to stop yourself flying around when the train stops or starts.  It is possible.  But it's not easy.  And unless you're really sure you can do it, do us all a favour and hold on!

5. Respect personal space

Even on a packed tube train, personal space is important.  People bang into each other from time to time, and that's just a fact of life.  But please, don't touch my hand with yours on the handrail.  And if you are going to bump into me as the train stops or starts, then please try to avoid bumping into any part of me which you may consider personal.  No matter how attractive you are, I really don't want you to be touching me on the tube, I'm afraid.

6. Give up your seat to someone who needs it more

A tricky one, this.  But if you are young, fit and healthy and there's an old person, or a person with a cast on their leg, or a pregnant woman then offer them your seat.  I'm not particular keen on the idea of a fit healthy man giving up his seat for a fit and healthy woman (though if you are - go for it!) but use some common sense. Everyone likes to sit down on the tube, but for some people standing isn't just an inconvenience; it's a real pain - literally.

Not long ago, I did something to my foot.  Standing up was pretty painful, and so I didn't offer my seat to an elderly woman on the tube.  I got an earful from another guy in the carriage.  So even if those around you aren't offering up their seat, you should offer up yours.  There may be a reason they are staying seated.  But even if they are just being selfish, it doesn't mean you have to be, too!

7. Have a wash

Hot summer days make people sweaty.  Scientists have slaved away in the pay of huge cosmetic companies to make deodorants. The least you can do is repay them by using some.  Your armpits face away from you, so you may not be able to smell it - but they point straight at other people and they definitely will smell it.   Being pushed up tight together with strangers in a metal tube flying underground on a hot day is unpleasant enough; don't make it worse for the rest of us by adding unpleasant smells to the mix.

8. Remember that hand rails are for hands

Those big poles in the middle of the carriage are for holding onto.  They aren't for kids to spin around.  They aren't for women to give impromptu pole-dancing displays (though actually, I've only ever seen guys doing this on the tube).  They certainly aren't backrests.  If you are using a handrest for something other than holding with your hands, then you're taking it away from all those people who want to hold on with their hands.  Turn around, stretch out your hand, and hold on like everyone else.

9. Don't feel the need to give a commentary on  journey

I notice this one the most when there's an event on at the O2.  A group of people will start making conversation with commuters.
"Oh, isn't it busy?" 
"Is it like this every day?" 
"I wouldn't want to do this every day" 
"Oh look, people trying to get off and having to push past other people". 
 All accompanied with chuckling and laughter.

Yes, we do it every day.  No, we don't enjoy it.  But it's a fact of life, and it's much easier for me if I just bury myself in a book and don't have a running commentary on it.  I'm not one of those people who completely eschews conversation on the tube.  Engage me in conversation if you want, I'll happily chat.  But chat to me about something other than the horrible journey we're both currently enjoying.

10. Remember that you're probably not the most important person on the train

Delays happen all the time.  The train will stop in a tunnel.  The doors will jam at a station.  Sometimes we all have to pile off because the train is going out of service.  There are hundreds and hundreds of people on every tube train.  If the train is 5 minutes delayed, then every one of those people will arrive where they are going at least 5 minutes later than planned.  Don't feel the need to tut, or complain about how it affects you personally, or tell us all how you're going to be late for something terribly important.  If it were that important in the first place, then you should've allowed a bit of contingency in your journey.  Whilst I have some sympathy for the fact that you're being delayed; I am being delayed too, so shut it with the moaning!

And if we do have to get off the train. Don't push.  You are no more important than anyone else, and whatever that very important thing you're rushing to do, I bet you that in most cases there's something behind you with something even more important to go and do.  Just be polite and take your place in the queue.  You may have to wait a further thirty seconds to get on the escalator out of there, but at least you can do so without everyone thinking you're a cock.

Saturday, 28 April 2012

Talent? Where?

Over the past couple of weeks, I've watched a few snippets of "The Voice".  The idea is that this is another talent show, but that people are judged on their voice alone without any consideration of their background or appearance.

The concept sounds good.  Interesting at least. But every snippet I saw was awful.  Once the first selection of contestants had been made the second round was a sing off.  The idea being that contestants sing the same song, in pairs, and try to out-sing each other.  With professionals that could be bad enough, but with a group of people without stage experience whose idea of strong singing is to shout the highest note you can for as long as possible, it descended pretty quickly into a bellow-a-thon.

So, I thought I'd watch the first live show just in case it got better. It didn't.  One performance (by someone called Jazz) was OK, although not really my kind of thing.  The others were shouty, out of tune and in a few cases, completely out of time, too.

Don't get me wrong - I know singing isn't easy.  But everyone who made it through the first two rounds of a singing competition should be able to sing in time, and preferably in tune.  The whole thing was awful, absolutely awful.

But even worse was the group performance given by the coaches at the beginning. It seemed incredibly under-rehearsed, if it'd been rehearsed at all.

Needless to say, I shalln't be putting myself through watching it again.  Shame really, as it could've been so good.

Saturday, 21 April 2012

At The Gym

I've been going to the gym for a few years now.  When I'm there, I tend to zone out and not notice other people.  I never watch other people doing their workout, just as I wouldn't want anyone to stand there and stare at me.  But there are some things which you just can't help noticing.There are loads of posts out there about the annoying guys in the gym who make lots of noise, drop weights, hog all the equipment and things like that, so I shalln't talk about those kind of things.

The other day, I was in the changing room after a swimming lesson, and I noticed a guy using the hairdryer provided.  Except he wasn't drying his hair.  He was using it to dry his feet.  Not something I've seen before - but then again, I'm usually in my own little world, so perhaps it happens all the time and I just haven't noticed.

Everyone has ways of timing the rest period between sets.  Personally, I just take a drink, stare into space and go for another set when I feel rested.  But I've noticed some people pace out their rest period.  One rest period equals one lap of the gym, walked along the same route every time.

The gym is the only time when I listen to music truly at random.  Even when I have the music shuffling on my phone, I usually have the phone out of my pocket and skip to a track I want to listen to.  So I always know what track is coming before it starts. Not so in the gym.  The music depends on which of the staff is at reception, but it's all from Spotify and pretty random.  So when a new track comes on, and I'm resting, my mind tries to guess which track it is from the intro.  Sometimes, you can be utterly convinced of which track it is, only to find that it's another track with a very similar intro.  For instance - "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead" by Bon Jovi and "I Hate Myself For Loving You" by Joan Jett.  More interestingly, how about "Modern Love" by David Bowie and "Red Light Spells Danger" by Billy Ocean. I've mistaken one for the other quite a few times now.

I actually use two different gyms.  There's one near work where I see my PT, and then I go to one near to home over the weekend.  Both have similar machines, but with different numbering scales on the plates.  As far as I can tell, neither scale is either kilos or pounds, and they don't seem to bear any relation to each other.  For instance, the cable machine in Chiswick goes up to 15.  The same machine in Bannatyne's goes up to 75 in units of 5.  And no, it's not as obvious a relationship as you may think...  All very confusing.

Thursday, 5 April 2012


Pride is a strange thing.  To have pride in something is to stand by it and say "I'm happy to be part of that".  But to say you don't have pride in something seems to be code for saying that you are ashamed of it.

But for me, I'm "not proud" of pretty much everything in my life.  I'm certainly not ashamed of the colour of my eyes, but I don't have any pride in it either.  I like to believe there is a middle ground where one is neither proud nor ashamed of something.

When I make something I'm happy with, or do a piece of work which I like, then I do have pride in it.  I had a loss of confidence in the middle of a sprint training session last night for instance, and I'm proud of the way I pushed through that and got the session back on-track.  That's something I did, and I can take the credit for making it good.

What I lack is the sense of pride by association.  I am not proud to be British, for instance.  Don't make the mistake of presuming that means I'm ashamed to be British, because I'm not that either.  I'm just British, it's a fact and not something I view as either positive or negative.  Either way, it's certainly not something I had any more control over than the colour of my eyes.

I don't feel any loyalty to my country.  I don't feel any disloyalty or desire to betray my country, but countries are arbitrary inventions.  A country exists because of people long before I were born and wars they fought over where a particular line should be drawn.  Being born on one side of that line or the other is nothing to be proud, or ashamed of.

The notion that everyone should be proud - almost to the point of jingoism - is rife through the media at the moment.  The notion that every member of the armed forces is a valiant hero, fighting to protect the country of which we are all so proud is pushed at us as if it's natural that everyone should think that like.  Whereas the truth is - many of us don't.  I don't wish any harm to our soldiers, but in the absence of conscription, it is job which people have chosen to do, and whilst it's a job which takes courage and training to perform - so is being an airline pilot or a surgeon.  I simply don't hold with the notion that "being British" is somehow better than "being French" or "being Iraqi".  The current fervour for Britishness is starting to resemble a cult, and that's not something I find easy to live with.

There is a fine line between patriotism and racism.  I don't wish to suggest that everyone who is "proud to be British" is a racist, as that is obviously not true - but it's easy to slip from the idea of defending what "we think is right" to slip into a defence of "the British way of life" and that's dangerously close to Empire-building talk.  The truth is that some countries in the world would seek to destroy the British view of the world, but it's also true that a lot of people in this country seek to destroy the other country in return.  Morals, rights and ways of life are all subjective, and whilst there are certain fundamental rights which most people in the world agree on, even that is not as easy as you think.  Think of those people who are happy to condemn a country for having the death penalty still in force, but would then celebrate the murder in prison of a mass-murderer.

The people on the streets of Iran or North Korea don't hate me any more than I hate them.  Governments fight each other with words, and at a certain point that turns into a fight with guns.  But it's ordinary people who pull the trigger and face the bullets.  These days, we mourn the death of every British soldier with a solemn procession through the streets of a small town outside London - yet the same people celebrate the deaths of a member of the opposing army.  They are both men (or women) with families, friends and a life which has ended.  The difference between how many people mark them seems to outweigh the ideological differences of two governments.

I'm not a pacifist, and I accept that war is sometimes the answer.  But we have people who have signed up to fight those wars on our behalf, as do our enemies.  We should mourn death of anyone in a war, on either side, not with an overt display of patriotism, but with a sadness that we the world has grown large and divided enough that the loss of life is necessary to settle an argument over the position of arbitrary lines in the sand.

I can honestly say, that I've written about many things in this blog.  But why do I get the feeling this post is going to get me into trouble more than any other?

Sunday, 1 April 2012

Le monde est plein de fous

"Le monde est plein de fous,
Et qui n'en veut pas voir,
Doit se tenir tout seul,
Et casser son miroir." 
(Thomas Love Peacock,  1831)

Is starting a blog post with a French quotation pretentious?  Now there's a question.  But it's not a question for this posting...  

The world indeed full of fools, and avoiding them is pretty much impossible.  On the tube, in the sports centre, in Waitrose, in the street - the word is full of people who do stupid things without even realising that what they are doing is stupid.

Every Sunday, I have an hour of badminton booked at 9am at the local sports centre in Wapping.  The sports hall has four badminton courts.  The two near the door are in use, and the other two are behind a curtain and the space used for toddlers' football.  So, parents and kids come in through the door and walk around the edge of the badminton court to get over to play football.  Or most do.

Of course, these are toddlers and so as soon as the door is open, they tend to bolt in a straight line for the football and that means straight across the court.

My problem with this isn't with the kids, it's with the parents.  I don't mind too much if my badminton game is occassionally interrupted by a wandering toddler.  Kids are kids, after all.  But I don't really appreciate getting a torrent of abuse from parents like I did today when I simply suggested that three times was fairly often for the same toddler to run into the middle of a game - and I politely pointed out that should I be running backwards for a shot at the time and run into a toddler, then I'm not going to come off as badly as the toddler in that.

The whole thing culminated in my getting so much abuse that I had to go to reception to complain - and which point the father followed me to reception and hurled more abuse at me.

It's true that I just needed to get this out of my system, as it really pissed me off, but it does seem to be quite common these days that parents let their kids run wild and then attempt to absolve themselves of any blame.  I'm not stupid - I know that a five year old doesn't know that they shouldn't run onto the badminton court - that's why I expect the parent to take responsibility and attempt to stop them.. 

I did think I was just getting old and grumpy, but none of my friends would let their kids run amok in a sports hall.  I may have been a little git at times when I was a kid, but my parents wouldn't have let me run wherever I wanted to. 

Of course, it's not just parents who can be stupid.   People who travel up escalators and as soon as they get off the top, stand still looking confused whilst deciding where to walk next whilst everyone behind is thrown into them by the escalator.  People who stand right in the middle of the tube doors on the platform as if they expect that by some magic force, all those people getting off the train can magically walk right through them.

But the fundamental problem is with me - I know that.  Something like the two guys at badminton this morning shouldn't put me off my game; it shouldn't case me to stew on it for most of the day.  But it does, and that's why I had to write this rant to get it out of my system....

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Naked photos on the tube

OK.  So it's not that late.  It's only half past eleven.  But it's late for me.  It's certainly later that I'm usually on the tube.  I know that London has a second "rush hour" around 11pm at night, but it's not something I experience all that often.

But tonight I was out with some work people over in West London and I headed off at a sensible time to make my way across town.  One of the joys of living relatively centrally is that cabs don't break the bank. In all honesty I'm not out that often, and so getting a cab home from the centre of town is so rare it's affordable.  But not tonight.  Not all the way from Shepherd's Bush.

So I plodded my way through West London, Google Maps guiding the way, and ended up at White City.  I jumped onto the Central Line and grabbed myself a seat.  The carriage was mostly full of people lying along the seats, half asleep.  But opposite me was a guy with a funky hair cut eating a bar of chocolate.  He was looking around the carriage in a way which made me think he was going to strike up conversation.

But I'm British, so I buried myself in my phone, playing word games and Reversi and desperately avoiding eye contact.  The carriage filled up as we headed east and soon the guy had two women sitting next to him.  It wasn't long before he struck up conversation.  He was French.  A musician.  He'd just split up with his girlfriend not long after buying her a £6k ring.  But he was a successful musician and could afford it.  I'm sure everyone was impressed.  Then a weird thing happened.  He pulled out his iPhone and started showing naked pictures of himself to the women.  They weren't impressed.  Of course, he had sinned as soon as he struck up conversation on public transport, so he was never going to win them back after that.

So the journey progressed and I changed at Bond St onto the Jubilee Line.  In the same way you can tell which part of London you're in simply by looking at the people around you, it's possible to tell which tube line you're on by looking at the people around you.  The Jubilee Line is much more familiar.  But before I could get there, I came across someone committing a sin worse than "standing on the escalator .  Worse even than "walking up the escalator and stopping about ten feet from the top so everyone behind has to stop, too".  This was someone dawdling up the middle of the escalator.  Worse than showing naked photos of yourself around a tube carriage, for sure.

But I survived the journey home.  Safely through the busy carriages of the late night tube back home to Wapping.  And now I should go to bed.  Goodnight.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Expect the Unexpected

The company I work for (well sort of) has been sending out emails recently with the subject "Expect the Unexpected" and just containing a photo of something supposedly unexpected.

One of the photos, for instance, was a young girl standing next to a tin of blue paint having daubed the walls.  Unfortunate, perhaps - but certainly not unexpected, surely?

Life is full of unexpected things.  Almost every day contains something you didn't know was going to happen. And that's what makes life great.  Well one of the things.  BĂ©arnaise Sauce is another thing which makes life great.  Anyway, I digress.

The other morning I was on the tube on the way to work and there was a guy opposite me.  Probably around 40 years old, he was a portly chap with stubble and a mess of unkempt hair. He was wearing earphones which were leaking sound so I could hear the tinny distant sound of a voice.  That voice was Susan Boyle.  Singing "I Dreamed A Dream".  The guy was mouthing along to the words with his eyes half closed, and then I noticed that there was a tear running down his cheek. I wasn't expecting that.

But it's not only on the tube.  Inside the HSBC in Chiswick, just beyond the cashpoints and automated paying-in machines is a wooden beam.  It's just over six feet from the ground and sticks out in front of the desks of the advisors.  On the beam is a bright yellow sign, reading "Mind Your Head".  Next to the words, there's a helpful picture of someone of indeterminate gender hitting their head on an obstacle - for those who are unsure what someone hitting their head on a beam may look like.  But underneath the words are the same words written again, but this time in Braille.  Handy.

On my way home from Chiswick this evening, I was on the District Line.  Opposite me was a guy talking to a woman who I assumed was a work colleague.  He was relaying a story of how he went for dinner with his fiance.  He told details of the meal, and how lovely the whole evening was.  Conversation then turned to the baby his fiance had just had.  It continued for at least five minutes.  At which point it become obvious that the woman had misheard much earlier, and for the whole conversation had believed that her male colleague had been to dinner with BeyoncĂ©.

What is to be expected though, is that I can't think of a witty way to end this post.  Bye then.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012


It's nearly two years since the UK General Election result which left much of the country scratching their heads, thinking "what now?".  For the living memory of most of the people watching the results come in, UK General Elections delivered a clear winner.  Either the Tories or Labour would win the election and plod away with their own brand of policy for four or five years and then the whole process would be repeated.  An election which didn't give such a clear winner felt, to many people, unsatisfactory.  It felt as though there was unfinished business.

That business unravelled over the following few days.  The Tories had won both the most votes and the most seats, followed by Labour and then the Lib Dems a way behind them.  The maths was such that Tories plus Lib Dems would be enough for a majority in the house; Labour and Lib Dems would give a total greater than the Tories but not enough for an overall majority.

Just under a week after the election, David Cameron and Nick Clegg stood in the garden of 10 Downing St and acted like old friends - a show designed to convince voters that coalition could work.  The initial shock of seeing Lib Dem cabinet members followed, and then the work of government started.  In the time since then, we've seen the public sector cuts, tuition fee rises, benefit cuts, the NHS reforms and many other examples of things largely unpalatable to core Lib Dem voters.  It's the nature of government that almost every policy is unpopular to a sizeable proportion of the population but the fact that the Lib Dems seem complicit in these policies just added to the growing anger.

Nick Clegg became the darling of the middle-class lefties.  "I agree with Nick" was printed onto t-shirts across the country and it felt as though the time of the Lib Dems was upon us.  But when the election came, the share of the vote didn't match the expectation.  And then, dearest Nick signed a pact with the devilish Tories and slowly but surely his fall from hero to pantomime villain had begun.

But, if we remember that this is a coalition of two parties and that there isn't any one person or group or people in the coalition who agree wholeheartedly with all of the policies, did he really have any choice?  What options did he have?  And is he really that much of a villain?

Before striding on, I should declare myself a Lib Dem voter.  It's only fair.  But let's be clear about what that means.  It means that I voted for the Lib Dems because their set of policies was the one which rang the truest with my own beliefs.  I didn't agree with everything in their manifesto, but more of it appealed to me than either the Tory or Labour ideals.

During the days of coalition negotiations, it was hard to drag my heart away from the feeling that Labour was more of a natural fit for the Lib Dems to align with than the Tories.  The fleeting promise of a rainbow coaltion to bring in the Greens and Plaid Cymru felt like a dream.  "Lefties of the world unite" was the unspoken cry floating skywards from Guardian readers everywhere.  But it wasn't to be.  By my head was uneasy with the idea.  The Labour party were unpopular at the time, and Gordon Brown even more so.  A Labour party with a new leader could've joined forces with the Lib Dems and maybe it could've worked, but the lack of an overall majority was a niggle which just wouldn't go away.

Another option was to jump into a Confidence and Supply agreement with the Tories.  Whether or not it's popular, the fact remains that the Tories did win both more votes and more seats than any other party.  And fair democracy means that they should have first crack at forming a government.  They may not have won an overall majority, but the Tories have a greater claim to have "won" the 2010 election than any other party.  I don't like that fact myself (just like I don't like how many copies the Daily Mail sells daily) but it doesn't make it untrue.

A Confidence and Supply agreement would've involved the Lib Dems opposing the Tories on everything but budgetary bills and motions of no confidence.  In effect, this would've involved the Lib Dems handing to the Tories the security usually obtained with an overall majority, even though they never got one.  To my mind, this would've been less satisfactory than a full coalition.  I feel more comfortable working alongside those people with whom I disagree than acting as the crutch to allow them to stand up on their own without my influence.

There is one final option; to simply do nothing.  Labour and the Lib Dems would return to the opposition benches and the opposition benches would be slightly fuller than the government benches in the house.   This would've resulted in either stagnation of policy - with hardly any government legislation getting through - leading almost inevitably to another general election pretty quickly.  And a general election with a similar result.  Or, it would've resulted to behind-the-scenes deals being cut - effectively a coalition in all but name.

So, as history now shows, Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems stood next to the Tories and the coalition was formed.  It's important to remember here that it wasn't Nick Clegg along who made this decision.  The Lib Dem party as a whole made the decision, and there were serious voices of dissent from within the party.  But ulimately, the lure of a few Lib Dem manifesto pledges getting into law, and the thought of having some Lib Dem faces around the cabinet table was too strong.

So there we have it.  The coalition was formed.  Understandably, the Labour party and their friends cried foul, and then sulked. The Lib Dems were the natural friends of the Labour party and they had come so close to retaining power that it was easy to feel betrayed by the Lib Dems.  So the Labour party retreated to the opposition benches with a mope and the Lib Dems took their seats on a side of the house I bet many of them never thought they'd see.

Up until now, I don't think that the Lib Dems or Nick Clegg made mistakes.  Any least not logically or politically. Emotionally, there was an obviously closer bond with the Labour party, but it just wasn't to be.  Had more people voted Labour or Lib Dem at the election then maybe the maths would've worked out, but they didn't.

However, don't think this is going to be a defence of what has happened since, because it isn't.  I must admit the coalition agreement didn't look too bad, and had policy since stuck to the script of the joint press conference in the rose garden, then I think a lot of people would be a lot happier.  But it didn't.

We have to start somewhere, so let's start with the budget deficit.

Going into the last election,  the UK was in deficit.  Of course the Tories pointed at the Labour party and Labour pointed at others.  But the truth was, it was a global problem.  Different governments may have reacted slightly differently to the crisis, but no government would've been able to save the UK from going into the red through the crisis.  And quite seriously into the red.  So who was moving into Number 10 after the election would've had to make some changes.

Some things were inevitable whatever government we'd ended up with after the election.  Some public sector spending cuts and a rise in VAT were in the plans of every party.  The distinction made between the parties was the speed of the cuts.  The Lib Dems, before the election, were very much in  favour of a cautious approach to cuts.  They advocated the Labour party line of saying that some cuts were necessary, but making them slowly so avoid deep pain in the short term and accepting that it would take slightly longer to get rid of the deficit.

The Tories took the approach of making deeper cuts and getting rid of the deficit sooner.  It's absolutely true that the Lib Dems are the junior partners in the coalition, and so I don't think there is any shame in compromise.  But compromise isn't what happened in this case.  Nick Clegg announced that he had "changed his mind" since before the election.  Gone was the desire to take things slowly, and now he announced that he agreed with the Tory policy.  I would've much preferred him to say "I don't entirely agree with this approach, but in order to get some Lib Dem policies into law, I'm afraid we have to just go with the Tories on this one".

The second mistake, and maybe the most serious political mistake, was around tuition fees.  It's not about the fact that tuition fees are going up, it's all around the pledge which senior Lib Dems signed to say that they wouldn't raise tuition fees.  Whilst the vote to raise tuition fees may not sit well with Lib Dem voters, one could argue that they had no choice.  In the same way Tories are (largely) voting for some things they wouldn't normally - legalising gay marriage doesn't strike me as a traditional Tory policy for instance - the Lib Dems are going to have to sometimes walk through the lobby they promised to, no matter how much it hurts.

The mistake with tuition fees happened long before the vote itself.  One could argue that a sensible politician would never sign a public pledge on a single issue if they thought there was ever any chance they have be forced into going against the pledge.  Talk about support for an issue, sure, but politics is about compromise and negotiation and a sensible politician would be very wary about drawing red lines in public.  Of course, if tuitition fees really were such an important issue, maybe the right thing to do was make the public pledge, and signing the pledge was not the biggest mistake...

The biggest mistake was not bringing this up during coalition negotiations.  If the issue of tuition fees was so important to senior Lib Dems that they would sign a pledge in public, and on camera, then why didn't it occur to them during the coalition negotiations to raise the issue.  As junior partners in the coalition it may not have been possible to stop fees rising, but negotiating an abstention would've been a good start, at least.

Having to vote in favour of increased fees after signing the pledge was embarrassing - and rightly so - I was just disappointed that Nick Clegg didn't see this one coming and find a way out before the only solution was an about face.

A coalition is about compromise.  It's about both sides accepting things they don't like in return for getting things they do.  I would prefer a little more openness about that.  I understand that "the markets" want to see a stable government, but I think a healthy coalition is one which isn't afraid to expose differences between the constituent parties and admit that there are differences and that compromises are being struck.  The British public may not be used to coalitions, but I don't think the British public is too stupid to understand the idea of compromise.

Yes, it's true that the vast majority of the policies of the coalition government will be Tory policies, but that's because the Tories won the most seats - and that's a direct result of the number of people who voted Tory.  When the coalition was announced, I lived in hope that the Lib Dems would be a tempering influence on the Tories, and I'm sure they may have been, but it would be good to see a little more of that influence being made in public.

I did vote Lib Dem.  I didn't vote for higher tuition fees and I certainly didn't vote for the NHS to be hung, drawn and quartered.   I don't like much of what the government is doing, but the reality is that if the Lib Dems had not gone into coalition this would all be happening anyway and it would probably be even worse.

But if you really want to worry about what's happening, then consider this.  More people voted Tory at the last election than voted for any other party.  You can blame the Lib Dems and Nick Clegg for many things - and believe me I do - but you can't blame them for that.