Monday, 29 December 2014

This Year's Christmas Cards in Statistics (or... "How bored can one person be at Christmas?")

Someone said to me the other day "it's a very glittery year for Christmas Cards, isn't it?".  So that got me thinking - how many Christmas Cards do have glitter on them these days?  And so I looked through all the cards sitting on our sideboard, and I counted.  The result is below...

So there you have it.  40% of the cards we received this year have glitter on them.

But that's not very rigorous, is it?  So before I start going deeper into some stats about this year's Christmas cards, let me tighten things up a little bit.

Firstly, sample size.  Well to tell you how many Christmas cards we received would be vulgar, and definitely "not a very British thing to do" so I'm not going to tell you the sample size.  But I will tell you that it's large enough that these figures are pretty meaningful.  Of course, the sample is biased by the fact that we only received cards from people we know - and we probably do know people who fit more tightly into some demographics than others.  I've made no attempt to correct the results based on the demographic of the people sending the cards, except in one particular case which I'll come to later.  I can also tell you that I've excluded corporate cards, and those received from companies and organisations.  

Secondly - what do I mean by "glitter"?  

Well I've taken "glitter" to mean that the front of the card has some "glittery substance" on it.  "Shiny" isn't enough.  There has to be something sparkly and metallic sprinkled on the front of the card for it to count.

Of course, this doesn't tell us whether this year is "more glittery than last year" as this only looks at this year's cards.  But still, it did get me thinking.  What else can be tell by looking at this year's Christmas cards?

Well let's stick with glitter for the moment.  "Snow" is something which is also featured heavily on Christmas cards.  And "snow" can also be "glittery".  But you can also have "glitter" without "snow" or indeed "snow" without "glitter".  Or you could have neither.  So here's the Venn diagram of the "glitter" and "snow" on the cards this year...

Again - let me tighten things up by saying that I've taken "snow" to mean that there is some representation of snow on the front of the card.  The ground being coloured in white or there being a single snowflake drawn on the cover counts. So it seems you're much more likely to find a card with "snow but no glitter" than a card with "glitter and no snow". Fascinating stuff, I'm sure you'll agree. 

So how about charity cards?  If you see a card sitting on someone's sideboard in their house, you can instantly see whether it's glittery or not so can you use that to make any judgement about whether it's likely to be a charity card?  Let's see...

 Well the answer is "not really" but "maybe slightly".  If the card is glittery then it's slightly less likely to be a charity card than it if doesn't have any glitter.  But it's marginal, so I wouldn't use to judge the charitable status of your friends.  (Well actually, I guess this would be checking the charitable giving of your friend's friends wouldn't it?)

I can hear you asking "but you've told us what percentage of cards are charity cards" or "what percentage of cards have snow on them" at this point.  Au contraire, my friends.  I haven't told it to you explicitly, but you can certainly work it out from the three graphs above, if the mood takes you.

So that covers glitter on cards, but then I started to think about something which someone else said to me.  "I think women are more likely to write the Christmas cards out than men!".  So let's look at whether the cards were written out by a man or a woman.
So it appears that yes - the majority of cards (72% in fact) are written by women.  I should again say that I judged this by my knowledge of handwriting in the cards, and using other methods (such as looking at whose name is written first, and in some cases asking people...) to have a very good guess at whether the card was written by a man or a woman.  I'm pretty confident in my assessment here.

And for the sake of rigour, I should say that if different people have signed their names on the card, I have taken the card to be written by the person who wrote the names of the recipients.  Of course, in these cases, by matching the handwriting of the greeting to the various samples of handwriting in the senders names, you have another way to find out who wrote the card...

"But no!" I can hear you cry.  "What about those women who live alone and so are bound to have written the cards?"  And you're absolutely right.  The above simply isn't fair.  In one-person households, or gay relationships, there isn't much option about the gender of the people who can write the card.  So I went through the statistics again.  This time removing all of the gay couples, and the people who live alone or whose circumstances otherwise mean that there wasn't a real choice about the gender of the person who would write out the card.  Of course, this also removed some men from the list as well as some women.  What happens now, then..?
As you can see, if you adjust the figures, then 80% of the cards were written by women - and the sample size is still large enough to be significant, in case you're wondering.  So I'm going to stick my neck out here, and say that yes - it's true that - well amongst people who send us cards at least - women tend to write more of the cards than men - by quite some margin!

So now that we're looking at the inside of the Christmas card, what's printed inside?  

I've made some linguistic judgements on this one.  I've distilled what's written in the card, and taken the "main greeting".  So something which says "Wishing you a Merry Christmas" gets lumped in with "Merry Christmas" and something which says "Greetings Of The Season" gets included with "Season's Greetings".  You get the idea.

So it seems that even in these days of "Winterval" and "Holiday Celebrations" people still tend to send cards which say "Merry Christmas" inside them.  

But how about what people write inside the card?  Besides the printed greeting, just how many words do people tend to write.  The minimum possible is - realistically - just the name of one person.  But it's more usual to write who the card is to (although we have 3 cards for which that isn't true...) and so given there are two of us that's two, three (if there's an "and" or "to") or four (if there's both) before you've started to write personal greetings and the name(s) of who sent the card.  Of course, some people tend to get slightly carried away, and write a letter inside the card.  I should say that I've only included words written inside the card itself.  If someone has included a Christmas "family newsletter" then I've not included that in the count. So just how much do people write in cards..?

I guess the answer is "not very much besides who the card is to and from".  I guess that's not surprising given it's Christmas, and people are writing a lot of cards. I wonder whether people tend to write more in Birthday cards...?

And those two outliers.  Some people do write a lot in cards, don't they?

So, now that we know what tends to be printed in the cards, and how many words of their own people tend to add - is it just Christmas, or do people talk about New Year, too?  Below is a graph showing how many cards mention New Year greetings as well as Christmas greetings...
I find this one quite interesting.  It seems that the vast majority of people don't wish you a "Happy New Year" in Christmas cards.  That surprised me...

So that's what people are writing, but how are they writing it?  In case you were wondering, here's what colour ink pepole are using to write the cards...
And yes - that means some people do write out their Christmas cards in red ink.

So who are these people who are sending the cards?  Friends, family, neighbours?
Now let me talk a little bit about this one, as I can hear you shouting at the screen "but I have some people who are both friends and neighbours!".  Well that's true.  But I've listed only the primary way in which we know someone.  So if they live in the same apartment block as us, they are listed as a "neighbour" even though some of the people in this category are most definitely "friends" and good ones at that.  And the same goes for family, too.  If someone is related to either one of use then they are counted as "family".  And if someone isn't either a "neighbour" or "family" under these definitions, then they are counted as a "friend".

So, I hear you shouting, what on earth is the point of all this?  I've already shown that you can't use a quick glance at a card and use whether it's "glittery" or not to work out whether it's a charity card.  But if you find yourself in our house around Christmas, there is something you can tell about a card by giving it a quick glance.  Have a quick look inside the card and count the words - not need to be exact - just roughly count the number of hand-written words...  then look at the graph below...
The graph above shows - for any given number of written words in a card - who is the card likely to be from.  And there's a clear pattern here - the more words written in the card, the more likely it is to be from someone who is neither family nor a neighbour.

There you go - who said statistics were useless...?

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Frying bacon in goose fat

It's Christmas time again.  I can't say I'm a great fan of Christmas. The enforced fun, the endless invites to parties, the queues at the supermarkets to buy huge quantities of food that nobody will ever eat.  It all just leaves me cold.

Don't get me wrong - we do put up a tree, and do send out cards - I just don't really go in for the boozy nights out and the artificial inflation of my mood to match the artificially inflated moods of those around me.  We're not all happy at Christmas and no amount of painting on of smiles and singing of carols is going to force us to be.

Christmas doesn't make me unhappy. It doesn't make me feel anything to be honest.  It washes over me as I hide away from the work parties and drunk people on the tube of an evening.  I isolate myself from it as much as is possible.

Earlier this week I was in Starbucks and after I had paid, the guy behind the till did this strange manoeuvre towards me.  Pointing at me with both hands and cocking his head sideways like a 1980s gameshow host introducing a glamorous lady sprawling over a sports car.  "Have a Happy Christmas" he bawled at my across the till.  I did not reply.

It's that kind of thing which gets to me.  It's the enforced nature of Christmas rather than Christmas itself which irks me.  I don't burn tinsel or stick pins into effigy of Santa on Christmas Eve.  I just prefer to let Christmas happen, enjoy the decorations and don't feel the need to bounce along to Jingle Bells in time with those around me.

As I write this, it's late afternoon on Christmas Eve. I've been to the gym and to the supermarket.  Twice.  I went to Waitrose and only after I'd paid did I realise I'd forgotten eggs and bread.  And by that point I was carrying too much shopping to lug it all back around the shop again, so I headed home, dropped off the shopping and then headed out to Sainsburys to pick up some eggs and bread.  Waitrose was relatively pleasant.  Lots of people picking up the odd few bits for Christmas.  Sainsburys, on the other hand, was like a war zone.  I witnessed two people throwing packs of nappies at each other, and another two people almost come to blows about who was first in line for the self-checkouts.  Why do people do that?  It's only two days.  Nobody is going to starve if you have an inch of spare space in your fridge come midnight tonight.

We don't usually keep bread in the house.  It's not something we usually eat.  But we like to do a proper English breakfast on Christmas morning, and you can't do that without some French toast, can you?   Oh - my tip for the perfect English breakfast - call it my Christmas present to you.  It's this - fry your bacon in goose fat. Trust me. Sounds unhealthy.  But tastes absolutely bloody lovely.  Go on, treat yourself.  It is Christmas after all.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Nothing is missing

A couple of years ago, these adverts started to appear around the place for the annual poppy appeal. The idea is that they make you feel something in response to not wearing a poppy.  "How would you feel if you weren't the one wearing a poppy?".

I resent the assumption that everyone wishes to advertise their charitable donations by wearing a visible symbol.  You simply can't assume that everyone who isn't wearing a poppy hasn't made a donation.

Wearing a poppy has become too empowered over the years.  No longer is it "something that some people wearing around this time of the year" but it's turned into a obligation. You do (genuinely) gets looks and stares and sometimes even get asked about it if you approach 11th November without wearing a poppy on your lapel.

I am a poppy-non-wearer.  I never wear a poppy.  But then again I never wear any other charitable symbol.  Not a red ribbon, nor a pink ribbon, nor a wristband or red nose.

Some people choose to make charitable donations and some don't.  But not everyone decides to advertise their favoured cause with an outward symbol.  If somebody wants to, then that's absolutely fine, but I think it's unfair to judge people for not wearing a charity symbol visibly.  It's fallacy to assume that lack of symbol means lack of donation, or worse - that it means lack of sympathy for the cause.

Personally, I consider charity a private thing.  I may or may not make donations to any particular cause - or to none at all.  But just because I don't choose to pin my donation to my lapel, please don't make any assumptions about which cause I do or don't support.

I may have donated to the annual poppy appeal, or I may not - but I don't see why I need to broadcast the fact to anyone either way.

Saturday, 1 November 2014

The passing of time

I am starting to feel old.  I don't mean that I'm starting to creak and need to hold the banister when walking up the stairs, but I mean that things are happening around me to make me realise I'm not 20 anymore.

I mentioned on Facebook, the story of the survey on the phone, so apologies if you're already read it there, but I repeat it here as it didn't help stop me feeling old.

A guy called and was from a survey firm.  Having done a few such surveys before I actually don't mind doing them, and he said this one would only take a few minutes.  He asked me a few questions about Brazil, and whether I'd go on holiday there.  He asked whether I knew of any events happening in Brazil, and I said "I think the World Cup is in Brazil, but don't know whether it's happened yet. Has it?".  He then went on to ask me whether I went to the World Cup. I presume he was reading from a script rather than being that stupid.

Anyway, we got to the end, and although I'd said a few things such as not wanting to go to the Carnival in Rio, not particular being into nightlife, nor being into beaches, I didn't think I'd come across as particularly lifeless.  But when we reached the part of the survey where he gathers the demographic information, he decided to help me by narrowing down the age options "Are you 50 to 55, 55 to 60 or 60 and over?".  "I'm thirty nine" was my response.

And then on Friday night, we went to "Frankenstein: The Metal Opera".  It was rather good actually. Plenty of guitar twiddling and bombastic drumming.  Anyway, at the Box Office, they were offering ear plugs.  I declined.  Given I list to a lot of music, and have a studio at home where I record my own, I think any damage to my hearing thanks to listening to loud music has already been done.  But the lady at the box office was insistent "Why don't you take a pair, just in case you decide halfway through that it's a bit loud?".

I know I'm not young anymore, I really don't think I come across as being that old.  But these things just keep happening to me as if to act as signposts that death may well be nearer than birth for me now.  The weeks really are flying past more quickly than ever.  Even years are flying past at the rates I used to count the hours.  I blink and find that enough time as passed for the flowers in the garden to grow, blossom and fade.  Best before dates on items in the cupboard which seemed so far away as not to matter come around with disturbing regularity.

And so it seems as though I was young, a University, curious what life would hold in store.  And then I blinked and here I am, fast approaching 40, with my life running its course.  I'm not unhappy in life, I just wish I wasn't flying past me quite so quickly.

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Funerals? God, no!

In recent years, I've lost two close relatives.  My Grandmother died not that long ago (see here for her story - it's worth a read) and back in 2010 my Dad died (see here for a rather different take on the aftermath of a close family death).

When my Grandfather died, over ten years ago, the thing to do was to get a vicar to do the service.  Neither my Granny nor Grandfather actually believed in God (strangely, my Granny's logic was that no God would've allowed the things that happened to her family to happen, and that's when she lost her faith) but it was just the thing to do.

A few years later, and my Dad was ill.  He'd been ill for years and he knew the end was coming.  He had managed years at home thanks to getting on the internet, home grocery deliveries and Amazon for DVDs.  Although he didn't get out of the house much, the computer kept him connected to the outside world.

But in 2010, it was obvious that the ten years of living with COPD were about to change.  His trips into hospital became more and more frequent, and several times the doctors called me up to he hospital to have "that talk".  He knew exactly what was going on.  He wasn't scared of death, but wasn't particularly looking forward to it either.  Amongst the things he did in his last few months was give me instructions for his funeral.  It was a little odd to have him say "do you mind popping along to the funeral directors this afternoon to book my funeral.  Book all the details, just don't set the date yet" he said with a grin.

He was very clear what he wanted.  He wanted a few specific pieces of music, but didn't want religion to play a part.  He wasn't "anti-religious" but his lack of belief in an afterlife meant that he didn't want people at the funeral to be talking about his eternal life and that we would all see him again. He wanted the funeral to be a full stop.

And that was my first experience of a non-religious funeral.  The lady who did the funeral met me and my Dad's sister before the service. We provided some details of my Dad's life and I decided that I'd speak at the funeral too.  The whole service was structured around my Dad's life, and celebrating that life, without any talk of there being a way to see him again.  "He's gone.  And we are all very sad about that.  But let's celebrate the things we remember whilst he was still here" was the honest and - to my mind anyway - positive message of the day.

After the service, many people told me how moving they found the service.  Even relatives who profess a belief in God thought the service fitted my Dad's life perfectly.  There was no explicit anti-religious content in the service, there was just no mention of God or afterlife or seeing my Dad again.  As an atheist, I believe that he is gone.  I won't ever see him again.  I wish that weren't the case, but my belief is that it's over.    The service wasn't upsetting. It was uplifting. It was funny.  Even if I do say so myself, I got a few proper laughs with my speech (which was about swimming giraffes - really).  Everyone was smiling.  My Dad's life was a good one, and we remembered that.

Over the years following that my Granny - on my Mum's side - my Dad's mother died years before I was born - started to say that when she went, she wanted a non-religious funeral.  And that's exactly what she got.  The funeral was tailored to her.  It was more emotional than my Dad's - but that was fitting. I spoke again.  The celebrant spoke of my Granny's life - well an abridged version, it was quite a life - and everyone cried, everyone laughed and everyone remembered my Granny with fondness.  No talk of her being "back with my Grandad".  No talk of her "being back with the family she lost many years before".  She didn't believe either of those things, whilst not denying the right of anyone to believe those things if that's their belief system, it would've seemed wrong to make it explicit as part of the funeral service.

The thing I've noticed since both of these funerals is just how many people have said to me that they don't plan to have a religious funeral.  A few years ago, it seemed that having a vicar do the ceremony was seen as "the thing to do" even if you didn't really believe in God.  For those who believe in God, having a religious funeral seems the appropriate thing to do.  But for those who don't, it feels more honest and more fitting to have a funeral service which reflects their own belief system.  But just because you remove God from the service, you don't remove any of the emotion nor any of the meaning.


I had a dream last night. I dream often, although last night's dream was particularly vivid.

I was on a plane next to man who I took to be Canadian.  I may have presumed he was Canadian because he was wearing a red checked shirt.  Anyway, he appeared halfway through the flight.  He told me that he had suffered from the "Broadport Slip".  Broadport was the town where it first happened to him.  From time to time, he found himself slipping forward in time.  He would walk through a doorway, or wake up, and find that years had passed by, and the world had become alien to him.

He was eternally sad and detached, for every time he got close to someone, he'd find that at some point - it could be tomorrow, it could be next week - he'd suddenly find years had slipped by.  Those he loved would be old.  They would have moved onto new friends, new families.  Or worse, they would have died, having spent the last twenty years of their lifes wondering where he was after the day he suddenly disappeard from their lives.

I've no idea where my mind gets these things from. I'm going to say that watching Doctor Who is responsible for the whole "time travel" bit.  In the hands of a decent storyteller, I'm sure the story above could become a decent story.  Unfortunately, I'm not a great storyteller.  Still, it's fun to have an interesting dream for once.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Doctor Who Cares?

I used to love Doctor Who as a kid.  It appealed to my sense of fantasy, my sense of escapist adventure .  I remember going to the exhibitions in the early eighties.  Tom Baker was the first Doctor I remember in any real detail.  Boy, does that date me.

Anyway, when it came back a few years ago, it was fun.  The first series, with Christopher Ecclestone, was a bit clunky as it found itself, but at least we had a Doctor.  He was a character.  Not quite human, not quite alien.  He doesn't quite understand people, but he empathises with them enormously.  He cares, but not to the point of syrupy nonsense.  I liked it.  A shame he only last one series.

And then there was David Tennant.  At first he didn't have the gravitas of Ecclestone, but it came. It came by the bucketload.  He did "dark", he did "playful" he did "lingering looks at the camera".  And then he started to fall in love with Rose Tyler, and it all started to go wrong.

For me, the thing about the Doctor is that he's not human. He looks it, but the fact that's he's not quite human is part of the character.  He doesn't fall in love with humans, he just cares for them and protects them.

And then all that silly nonsense about the hand turning into a second Doctor and running off into another universe with Rose Tyler.  What was that all about?

And then there was Catherine Tate.  Twitter hated her. I don't quite understand why.  I didn't find Donna particularly annoying at all.  Certainly no more annoying that the latter days of Rose Tyler.

But then David Tennant left.  Well when I say he left, he did take some time about it.  We knew it was coming but then he found the need to potter around time and space saying goodbye to random people he'd met along the way.  Strangely not all of them.  I guess just the ones for which the actors were happy to put in a final appearance.  But anyway, in a very over-dramatic way he sauntered off into the distance and regenerated into an annoying fool.

I'm sure Matt Smith is a very nice person.  Whenever I've seen him talking out of character he certainly comes across that way.  But in character, he didn't nothing other than annoy me.  I just didn't believe that was the Doctor.  Over his tenure in the Tardis I felt myself drifting away from the series.  There wasn't one particular thing which put me off.  There wasn't a single moment of revulsion.  It was more a sense of growing boredom as the years went by.  There was Amy. And Rory. Then Clara.  We'd seen it all before and I just couldn't connect with it.

And then Peter Capaldi was announced. That was a good thing.  I quite liked him in The Thick of It.  But between finding out that Malcom Tucker as The Doctor was coming, we had the Anniversay Episode.  Well several actually.  Paul McGann was back - briefly.  That was cool.  And then there was John Hurt.  And David Tennant was back.  And Billie Piper was back.  And she was good. Very good.

All looked good again.  I actually really enjoyed the 50th anniversary episode.  I went to see it at the cinema. Very rare for me.  But I actually went to the cinema to see it.

And then we had one final flourish from Matt Smith.  If we thought David Tennant had trouble saying goodbye, it had to dragged out to millennia when Matt Smith came to say goodbye.  But then eventually he shuffled off and came Capaldi.

I went to the cinema again to see the first of the Capaldi years.  And I quite liked it.  The robots were lovely and the scene with Clara having to hold her breath was great.  I loved the fact that this series seemed to be a series of fun romps.  Nothing too serious. Nothing too pretentious.  Just running around chasing aliens and having some sarcastic laughs on the way.  All good fun.

Then it went wrong.  What on earth happened with the "Kill The Moon" episode?  Clara went all moody.  The plot was a little thin.  Riddled with holes.  Unclear what was happening.  And then it turned out that actually not very much at all was happening.  All the good of drawing me back in was pretty much undone with that one episode.

And so I find myself bored with it again.  All this stuff about dead people going to a place run by a lady called Missy - and for some reason Chris Addison is also there - could've been an interesting hook into the finale.  But I find myself not really caring what it's all about.

Peter Capaldi is great.  Jenna Coleman is great.  Even the writing is pretty good.  I just really don't like the overall way the series is going.  I am not one of those fans who walks away indignantly if the showrunner doesn't stick exactly to my desired formula. I'm just bored.

Saturday, 12 July 2014

A month

Has it really been a month since I posted in here?  How does time fly by so quickly? I think it's a sign of age catching up with me that the weeks, the months and the years seem to fly by so quickly.

I find it hard to believe that it's four years since my Dad died.  And three years since we went and scattered his ashes in North Wales on our way to a holiday in the Isle of Man.  Four years.

When I was a kid, three years was such a long time.  Three years was the difference between going to secondary school for the first time, and thinking about taking my first GCSE.  My outlook on life was so different between those two points, and yet the truth is that my life now isn't that different to how it was four years ago.  I do have a different job, but other than that, my life hasn't really changed very much.

I have learned a bit more French that I knew before.  Tried (and ultimately failed) to learn how to swim and been forced to give up playing badminton thanks to a slightly dodgy elbow.  I've been to Iceland.  That's quite cool, I suppose.

I've also been to the US.  People quite often find it slightly strange that despite having done a fair amount of business travel in the past, the first time I went to the US was only around two years ago.  I've been to Seattle quite a few times now.  It's a great city, but going there is no longer particular exciting, unfortunately - it's just another destination I go to with work now and again.  I'd have to go quite a few times more to bear the number of trips I've made to Stockholm over the years, though.

Anyway.  I've a month since I've written, and I have nothing interesting to write.  Maybe that's why I write so infrequently.

Sunday, 8 June 2014


A while ago, I wrote about cashpoints with personality.  It gets worse.  There was a recent update to GMail on Andoid which now displays a cheery message with a picture of a smiling sun when your inbox is empty.

I realise that I'm in somewhat of a minority because I operate at Inbox Zero, but  that doesn't mean that those of us with a mail management system which moves things out of the inbox need to be greeted by a Tellytubbies-style smiling face in return.

Is this inevitably what happens as technology becomes more mainstream.  Where there used to be useful messages there are now platitudes and phrases so dumbed-down that pretty much all of the meaning has gone from them?

I don't like the idea of a future where the ideal is a robot who trundles up to your side and says "hello, how may I help you?".  It feels like shooting in the wrong direction for us to strive to make our machines as human as possible.  I don't believe in a dystopian future in which the machines take over and enslave the humans, but I just find it a strange diversion of effort to try to mimic human attributes in technology rather than seeking to advance the technology for its own sake.

I do wonder as though I'm slowing my pace when it comes to keep up with the world, though.   When I was young, I used to think that I'd keep up with the world. I'd always listen to new music, I'd know what was happening in technology and I'd wear the latest clothes.   I looked at those people who were forty and didn't believe I would ever turn into "that".

And yet, here I am, not too many years away from turning forty.  I have no idea who is number one in the charts.  I'm only dimly aware of the person called "Sam Smith" let alone being able to talk to you about his oeuvre.  Shops where I used to buy my clothes now pass me by.  I look in the window and thinking "they just don't suit me like they used to..."  Of course, I tell myself that's because Ted Baker have changed direction, but the reality is that time has dragged me away from being able to wear a flowery shirt without looking a bit like a school teacher trying to look "funky" when on a school outing with the sixthformers.

And I think the same is true with technology.  My PC is years old.  My phone isn't a particularly new model and the last time I wrote any really serious code it was written in C++.  My age is starting to show.

I don't think there's anything else for it.  I guess I have to just admit to myself that I've hit middle age.

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Physics and more physics

Today, we went to the Open Day at the NPL in Teddington.  The NPL is a big building full of physics.  Some chemistry, but mostly physics.  And it's proper physics.  Lots of it.

It's hard to explain just how much fun it is wandering around the NPL.  It reminded me of one of the better BBC science documentaries.  You know the ones.  On BBC2 or BBC4 and presented by a scientist who loves their subject.  It was like one of those, but one that you could walk up to and touch and ask questions about.

So much stuff I could talk about, so I'm just going to present my ten favourite things from the day...

1. A very echo-y room

The reverb chamber is a small-ish room where things echo. A  lot.  there are no parallel surfaces and no right angles.  Standing waves can't easily get set up.  A single noise will reverberate around the room for 30 seconds with the door closed.  Having a conversation in that room involves a lot of whispering and straining to hear above all the noise.

2. A not-very echo-y room

The first of many spiky rooms.  The spikes mean that almost all the sound which hits the walls is reflected against another spike rather than back into the room.  The silence was almost deafening.  The deadest space I've ever been in.

3. A very cool hologram or two

Not just a dodgy green globe.  Full colour holograms so real that you have to get VERY close before you realise they are not real watches and medals.  Full colour holograms are hard to achieve thanks to the different characteristics of the three component holograms you need to create.

4. Counting electrons

The ampère is currently defined in terms of Ampère's law.  These guys are trying to define it in terms of the flow of charge.  They are doing it by letting electrons pass through a space one at a time and counting them.  Roughly speaking.

5. Redefining a kilogram

The kilogram is still defined as the mass of a block of metal just outside Paris.  All of the other SI base units have less prone-to-wear-and-tear definitions.  The leading proposal is to use a rather nifty bit of kit to define the kilogram in terms of Planck's constant and the charge of an electron.  The brilliance here is that the kit to do it is really not that hard.  With A-Level physics and a bit of mathematical jiggery-pokery you could understand what's going on.  But the brilliance comes from setting it up in such a way that so many of the terms cancel meaning that you're not really concerned about the construction mechanics of the kit itself.

The other possible method of defining the kilogram involves creating a single crystal of silicon in the form of a relatively large sphere, measuring the sphere, using the crystal structure to turn that measurement into a number of atoms and then define the kilogram that way.  Also very cool.

6. Applying force

Big machines which hang weights from things to generate known force.  The fun here is that the equipment of so accurate that the weights have to have different mass in order to generate the same force, as the metre-or-two difference in height of the weight is enough for the difference in the force exerted by gravity on the weight to be different enough to be measured.  On the biggest machine, the top weight is 3g more massive than the bottom one, yet it exerts the same downward force.

7. Blowing up balloons

Take a balloon. Inflate it.  Put it into liquid nitrogen.  The air inside turns to liquid and the balloon shrivels up.  Take the balloon out again and lay it on a desk. The air turns back into a gas and the balloon inflates itself.  Such fun!

8. Firing lasers at things

Take a sample.  Fire a laser at it and measure how hot the other side of the sample gets.  Sounds easy.  Not really. Great fun, though.

9. Telling the time

The second most accurate clock in the world.  It's not actually used to tell the time.  It's used to calibrate the clocks which do tell the time.  It's still cool though.  Though it'd be cooler if it had a minute and hour hand going around on it.

10. Science

The best thing about the day, though, is knowing that there are so many people in the world just as nerdy and interested in physics as me!

Monday, 19 May 2014

In defence of Christianity

It's been quite a few years for battering Christians.  Firstly, a Christian says that the floods were caused by the gays, and then UKIP start to mention Christianity in the same breath as some of their other rantings, and the two become linked together.  It's simply not fair.

Christianity is not a political party.  It's not a political standpoint at all.  It's simply a name for the collection of groups of people who have certain faith.  To say that because one Christian says something, that's what "Christians" think is as fallacious as saying that you saw someone with red hair in a restaurant the other day picking the tomatoes out of their salad, and therefore all ginger people must hate tomatoes.

I should declare an interest at this point.  I am not a Christian.  I'm not a Muslim either. Nor a Jew.  (Although with my Mother's mother being Jewish, I know some would argue the last point.)  But anyway, I am an atheist.  That means I don't believe in God.    However, that does not give me the right to treat those who do believe in God with anything other than the respect and tolerance I would expect them to show to me.  Just because I don't believe in God, it doesn't mean that I have a right to ridicule those who do.  Tolerance must work both ways.

There has been a lot of debate recently about whether the UK is a Christian country.  However, I think that debate missed the point.  I don't care whether the UK is a Christian country or not, although I am not in favour of the UK being a Christian state.  By that I mean that the state should be secular.  That is, that no church nor group within any church, should have any more access or right of influence over government than any other.  Nobody should be given privilege because of their faith - but neither should anyone be denied privilege because of their faith.  That does mean I am in favour of disestablishment of the Church of England, but I'm certainly not in favour of the dissolution of the Church of England.

The difference between a secular state and an atheist state is important.  An atheist state might say that a worker couldn't wear a Christian cross around her neck to work.  A secular state should support her right to do so in the same way it would support freedom of expression to others.

I should declare another interest here.  I'm also gay.  In these times, "the gays" and "the Christians" are often portrayed in the media as being warring factions.  Christians are portrayed as being consistently against gay rights, and "the gays" are portrayed as a lobby group who would seek to destroy the power of the church.  The fundamental flaw in all of this, of course, is to presume that there are no gay Christians.  I know two or three at least.

The media loves to set groups of people up against groups of people.  The media (and Twitter!) doesn't do well with representing the views of individuals, but enjoys attributing an opinion or statement to large groups of people rather than to just one.  One Christian says "the floods were caused by gays getting married" and suddenly Twitter is full of ill-informed ranting against Christianity.  Then it's full of rantings of Christians talking about being marginalised and then the Daily Mail draws the battle lines and reports the waging war.

In my life I've had people say unpleasant things about the fact that I'm gay.  Some of those people have been Christians.  But never once would I hold their views against anyone else who happened to be a Christian.  If a black person did something unpleasant to me and I held that against all black people I met- then that would be unacceptable.  Why is saying things about "Christians" acceptable when if we swapped "black people" or "Jews" the same sentiment wouldn't be?  I simply don't see it.

You don't have to be gay to think that gay people deserve equal rights. And you don't have to be a Christian to have respect for those people who are.

For me to deny the right of someone else to believe in what they choose would be for them to deny my right to believe in what I choose.

That's not to say it's easy.  There will always be friction between differently held sets of beliefs - but to seek to demonise or ridicule either side not only shows a huge lack of respect it is also the slowest and hardest path towards progress.

Monday, 21 April 2014


There are things which wind me up.  Plenty of things.  I do have a few blog posts brewing in my mind and I was concerned that if wrote a string of blog posts all of which consisted of me railing against a particular thing, then I may come across as grumpy.  So I'm going to get a few things off my chest and then move on.  Here are a few things which have the ability to disturb my calm.

People who grunt in the gym

It's good to breathe in and out at the right time during exercise.  Breathing out during the exertion is generally good technique.  But there's no need to grunt.  The only reason I can think of to grunt is if you want other people in the gym to look at you.

People who have long conversations in shops

There's a queue of people.  We will want to pay for our stuff and get on with our day.  I know it's nice to interact with the staff, but when they hand you the receipt that's your time over.  It's like when the Queen shakes your hand at an investiture ceremony. Your time is up and it's someone else's turn.  Be polite, be pleasant and make small-talk with the staff.  But if there's a queue of people behind you, their being served is generally a higher priority than what you think of the checkout assistant's hair...

People who count the number of Twitter followers they have

It's the Internet. It really doesn't matter.  Don't get so hung up on it.

People who say "you don't need to lose weight" every time I decline a dessert

Nothing to say on this one really.  It's lovely that you're trying to help me with my self-esteem.  But the reality is that I've chosen to avoid desserts.  I accept your choice to eat dessert without comment... accept my choice not to with the same.

All these shows on the TV which talk about how the supermarkets are "conning us with offers"

Supermarkets are businesses.  They exist to make money.  as long as the correct price is displayed on the shelf and someone makes an informed choice to buy then nobody is being "ripped off".  If you don't like the price, then buy something else, or buy the same thing from somewhere else.  There's a thing on in the background right now saying "food prices have risen since this time last year for almost everyone".  Yes. That's inflation.  The same people complaining about that in the Daily Mail are the ones who shout "double dip" when inflation creeps down towards zero.  The two things are related...

People who think they are too important to press buttons

I've seen men in suits get into a lift and wait for someone else to press the button.  You may have someone take your calls and arrange your diary for you but when you're out of the office you no longer have that status.  Sorry to break it to you, but you're an ordinary person so press the bloody button yourself.

The Big Bang Theory

It's awful. I watch it on planes.  I hate it.  But still I watch it.  Why do I do that to myself?

There.  That feels better. Normal service will now be resumed.

Saturday, 29 March 2014

Nine and a bit hours locked in a metal box

I don't dislike flying.  I don't actively enjoy it.  I guess I just find it a bit boring and quite quickly descend into staring out of the window in the hope that something interesting happens.  Although about the greatest chance of seeing excitement out of the window is if an engine catches fire or something.  Which I don't really want to see.

And so yesterday, I flew across the Atlantic. To here.  Vancouver.

The journey over went quite quickly.  I actually got talking to my seat neighbours on the plane. Well talked at by one of them.  She was drinking a lot of Baileys.  She put it in her tea (yes tea, not coffee) and over the icecream they bring you in the middle of the flight.

Over the years, I've morphed from one of those people who try to take everything onto the plane to avoid the baggage wait into someone who checks in as much as humanly possible.  I didn't even take a coat onto the plane.  Just a few books.  And a copy of the Guardian for the crossword.  Who knew there were so many Prime Minister's names I couldn't recall..?

I watched a bit of TV too.  I watched Gravity. In French.  I thought it'd force me to concentrate a little harder and pass the time quicker.  Which actually it did.  And I watched some comedy. "Kings Of Comedy" from the Montreal comedy festival.  All men, obviously.  Apparently woman aren't funny. Or something. But I guess if you call your show "Kings Of Comedy" you're petty much setting out your stall on that issue, aren't you?

I also watched Dragons' Den. The Canadian version.  Someone came on with a lovebird which rips up paper.  She then uses the shredded paper to make pictures which she scans onto cards and sells for $5 a go.  And she got an investment.  Really.  And the lovebird flew into the studio lighting rig and had to be coaxed down from a big ladder.  Really.

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Animals is bad enough - but a cashpoint?

I was at a cashpoint at Canary Wharf today.  I went there specifically, because there's a cashpoint there where you can get USD and it's easier than bothering to leave time at Heathrow or faff around at the airport at the other end. I just wanted a bit of cash to get me from the airport to the hotel when I get to Seattle.

Anyway, that's not the point.  The point is that the cashpoint was referring to itself as "I".  When did that start to happen?  "Please wait whilst I am counting your money".  It really said that on the screen.

I mean it's one thing that people attribute human emotions and thoughts to animals, but a cashpoint?  It's bad enough that Innocent Smoothies say "I contain twenty bananas" or whatever but I can do without a cashpoint referring to itself in the first person.

That's all.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

Nightmares and coincidences

It's been a while since I wrote in here.  It's simply that I've not really had anything that exciting happening.  I've been struck by coincidence recently.  Made it's the new series of Jonathan Creek has set my mind into "lateral thinking" mode.

Quite often, I'll have a song come to mind which I don't have on my phone, and thanks to the wonder that is Amazon MP3 download, I can have it on my phone within seconds.  I do that with some utter crap - I admit it.  But only a week or two after I downloaded "I Lost My Heart to a Starship Trooper" it was featured on the Graham Norton show on Radio 2 of a Saturday morning.  "That's weird" I thought to myself.  It's a great song - three minutes of space-themed innuendo set to a disco beat - but odd that I should download it on a whim only for it to feature on Radio 2 not long after.

It's the same with crossword clues.  I do the Guardian crossword rather than The Times.  One feature of the Guardian crossword is that there are different compilers and the crosswords aren't run through a editor and put into a house style before publication. So each compiler has their own style.  But quite often, you'll find the same word comes up in two crosswords in relatively quick succession.  Not that long ago, the word Sealyham (a breed of terrier) appeared in two crosswords within a week or two of each other.  What are the chances?

Well actually the chances are quite high.  Think of how you'd compile a crossword.  You'd look around the room, you'd think of things you saw on the TV, you'd think of things you read in the paper.  Even if you didn't do it consciously, you'd be picking up from all these sources around you and putting those words into the paper.  It's how top-secret code words ended up in a crossword during the war (Google it if you don't know the story...).   So two compilers putting together crosswords at around about the same time will probably have seen the same news stories, read the same newspapers and be aware of the same events around them.  So it's not surprising that the same word is going to crop up in crosswords written around the same time more often than pure chance would predict.  And if the crosswords are written at the same time, then chances are they'll be published around the same time, too.

And I bet that whoever wrote into Graham Norton to request that song heard it in the same place I did which made me remember it after so many years and download it onto my phone.

But sometimes the most confusing thing is just one half of a coincidence.  The other evening, I had a nightmare.  I don't have them often, but do have them from time to time.  If you know me at all, you'll know that I don't attribute them to anything supernatural at all (for the record, I don't attribute anything to the supernatural).  But the other evening the part of the nightmare which made me cry out loud (both in the dream and in reality!) was having a threatening man wearing a high-vis jacket walk slowly towards me around the bed.  I could describe him in great deal, but he's not someone I recognise, nor someone I know.  I have no idea who he was - but I'm absolutely convinced that my brain took a real person and for whatever reason decided to make him scary and put him into my dream.

The weird thing would be if I see him on the street.  It's not impossible.  I suspect he's someone I have seen around the place somewhere, and so it's perfectly possible that I'll see him again at some point. But the fact that I can't remember where I saw him has the potential to make "seeing him in the street" after he's been in my nightmare seem like some kind of premonition.  Fortunately, I don't think that way!

Friday, 14 February 2014


When I was a kid, I used to wonder about the prizes on Bullseye.  They'd introduce the prizes when talking around the prize board, and you'd see a VHS player or a barbecue laid out for display.  I used to wonder, if they won the prize, whether they'd pack it up again and send them that one - or would they have another one they'd send to the winning contestants.  And in that case, who would get the display model? Did Jim Bowen have a huge stash of crap HiFi systems at home he'd carted home from the show?

I imagined that big prizes like cars (and the speedboats on Bullseye) would be borrowed by the production company, and then if somebody actually won one, they'd go out and actually buy one.  But that whole arrangement didn't seem worth it for a couple of chairs or a crystal decanter.

I was watching an old (Terry Wogan era) edition of Blankety Blank on Challenge the other day.  It was much more raucous than I remember.  Kenny Everett was a guest, and he was running around the studio and throwing the prizes around.  He broke a couple of mugs from the mug tree prize.  I do hope it realises that Terry Wogan would've got those to take home otherwise!

Another thing struck me in that moment. A mug tree.  Six mugs on a bit of wood.  That was actually a prize.  the reality seemed to be, though, that the contestants didn't really care about the prizes.  It was the thrill of winning and the fun of getting there which they were playing for.  But compared with a modern gameshow there was something missing.

The drama from a modern gameshow is missing.  The prizes on modern gameshows have got larger and larger, and the thread of the show now is about the money.  We are invested in the contestants' progress because whether they win or not has a material impact on their life.  They will either leave the studio with nothing, or leave with their mortgage paid off.  The prizes are greater, but so are the losses.   Deal or No Deal is built entirely around large sums of money being dangled in front of contestants and then whipped away.  We are asked to imagine how much the money would change their life so that we feel true sorrow when they don't win it.  It's an emotional journey, but it just doesn't feel enough fun.

In some shows - Who Wants to Be A Millionaire for example - the host even marks the point at which "this is becoming serious now!".  The first few questions are thrown away and then suddenly the music changes, the lights dim and we start playing with the financial future of the contestant.  And I thought gameshows were supposed to be entertaining...

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Horses for courses

I've always thought that key to success is the ability to change your behaviour to suit your audience.  This weekend, we went down to a lovely little restaurant on the south coast.  The weather was cold and windy but the rain wasn't too heavy and it was a very pleasant weekend.

It was my partner's birthday and they celebrated this fact by piping the words "Happy Birthday" onto the dessert place in chocolate.  It was a nice touch and most importantly, pitched perfectly for the recipient.  We've all been to restaurants where they dim the lights and play "Happy Birthday" really loudly over the PA and bring out a cake covered in candles.  Everyone cheers and sings and it's a jolly lot of fun.  Except that me - and most people I know - wouldn't find that a lovely birthday treat - it'd just be crass and unpleasant.

The sign of a good restaurant is one which can judge the situation and do it just right for the recipient.

But it's not just restaurants.  The best entertainers are the ones who can vary their delivery and material to match the audience.  The best comedians are the ones who can tweak their act to match what works for a particular audience.  The best magicians are the ones who change their patter to match what resonates with a particular audience.  It's no good just rehearsing patter which is fluent and informative.  It has to resonate with the audience.  If the audience don't connect with the material then no matter how smooth and rehearsed it is, they just aren't going to buy into it.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Be careful what you say

I always try to be careful what I say.  I don't always succeed, and from time to time I do say things I wish I hadn't, but generally I try to think of how what I say - and how I say it - may affect someone else.

I was thinking the other day of my time back at Symbian, many years ago.  Back in the day, I moved down to London for work, and was just settling into a new job, a new flat and the idea that I now lived in London rather than just visited.  I was young, excited and eager.  All of those things have worn off with the years, but back then I was keen.  Back at Symbian we used Lotus Notes for email.  Yes, really.  It had this peculiar habit that whenever you set an Out Of Office message, it would retrospectively send a message to all the people who had emailed you during the day.  I'd never used it before working at Symbian, so I wasn't to know this.  A few months into working there, I had a week off and so set an Out Of Office, as did everyone else.  Unbeknownst to me, it sent a message to everyone who'd mailed me that day to say I was on holiday. This included the few people who'd sent emails all around the team.  Most people probably just knew what was going on, and so deleted my email.  One person didn't.  They sent me a single line reply "I don't care if you're going on holiday!".  No smiley. No joke.

Now my point isn't that I'm still smarting from it.  I'm not, by the way.  My point is that to someone who's just started at a company that makes an impression.  Maybe you've had a bad day. Maybe you are trying to tell someone they've done something wrong.  To me, at the time, it just made me think "people here aren't very welcoming are they?".  I never consciously held against against the guy, but must admit I could never warm to him from that day onwards.

When you join a new company, you can only judge what you find and how you see it.

Of course, in these days of Twitter and Facebook and Google and Blogs, it's hard to take back anything you say.  The same is true on TV.  Now that we have UKTV GOLD and Drama and Yesterday and Watch you keep getting glimpses back into attitudes not that long ago.  I had a bit of a shock this evening.  I was watching Harry Hill's TV Burp on GOLD earlier.  I actually quite like it.  Yes, seriously.  I've always thought it's silly but never offensive.

This episode was obviously from a little while back, just after Hayley joined Coronation St.  I know Harry Hill takes a swipe at everything, but a couple of the things he said about Hayley made me sit up.  He jokes about people's characters and funny things they say, and things which happen in the background.  But I could've done without the comments about the fact that Hayley used to be a man.  Specifically jokes with the punchline suggesting Hayley is "a fella".  I'm not prudish about making jokes which are very close to the line.  You should hear some of the things I say.  But I just felt this was over the line, and for Harry Hill I was actually quite disappointed.  I expected better.

So as I say - be careful what you say - you never know when it may come back to haunt you.

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Laying my insecurities burr

I have an accent.  We all do.  Even those without a “regional” accent in England, for instance, have a way of pronouncing words which is different to other people’s way of pronouncing the same words.    I’ve recently decided to pick up French lessons again after a few years away from it.

French is the only language other than my native English which I can use to any degree beyond “stringing a few nouns together”.  I am very self-conscious speaking French, though.  In French lessons over the years, I’ve spent quite a long time working on pronunciation.  French vowels are – in the main – very different to English vowels and the key to making what you’re saying “sound French” is largely about getting the vowels to sound French.

But doing so exposes the accent I have in English.  I have a Liverpudlian accent when speaking English.  It’s really mellowed over the years, but it’s still there and one of the places where it comes across most strongly is in the vowel sounds.  When I’m speaking there’s no difference between “her”, “hare” and “hair”.  They all come out “hurr”.  I’m not ashamed of my accent, but it does make me self-conscious as it’s something people tend to notice.

Learning to speak French tends to make these things seem more pronounced (no pun intended) – or at least in my mind.

Fortunately, consonants are (pretty much) similar in French and English, so you’d think that’d be safe, but there’s one particular consonant I have trouble with in English.  It’s bothered me for years, so much so that I avoid saying words which start with this letter if I’m speaking formally although I can pronounce it quite well at the end of a word.  And it’s a consonant which is the same in French as in English.  I’m not going to say which one it is, because I don’t want people to be listening out for it and making me more self-conscious about it, but it just sounds weird to me.  I’ve mentioned it to people in the past and they tell me all is fine, and they don’t notice – but I can hear a weird noise whenever I start a word with this consonant.

So not only am I hoping that a very pronunciation-based approach to learning French will help me to get back some level of fluency in French, but may even help me to become more confident speaking in English…

Saturday, 11 January 2014

It wasn't a ghost...

... in fact it wasn't really anything at all.

A few days ago, I wrote about hearing a voice in the middle of the night.  I had a few ideas at the time what I may actually be hearing, but it was only a couple of nights ago when I had the chance to try out my theory and see whether it was what I suspected.  And it was.

I actually found it quite an interesting puzzle.  It's a bit like watching a magic trick and trying to work out how it's done.  The first thing you have to do is draw the line on the things you're not going to consider as answers.  So when trying to work out how a trick is done, this is the point at which you'd say "the magician did not really make the rabbit appear from nowhere".  You have to disconnect what you actual saw from what you think you saw.  And so I had to stop thinking about what I think I heard, and think about what it was that I actually heard.

I've written in the past about pareidolia.  It's the thing which causes people to believe they've seen Jesus in a cupcake or a human face on the moon. It's also the thing which causes people to "hear" satanic rantings when playing 70s rock songs backwards.

The answer to the problem was - rather disappointingly - very simple.  Where I was lying in bed, noise drifts up from the street.  Noise from the station right next door and the normal rumblings and humming of a modern home filled with machines and electronic equipment.  Silence is never totally silent anymore.  I had surmised that what I was actually hearing was a combination of background noise of about the right frequency and rhythm to suggest speech.  In the same way that once you've seen one of those autostereogram pictures you can persuade your eyes and brain to let the picture go, or can easily bring it back again - my brain had started to hear something which sounded like a voice and so was interpreting any sounds it heard of about the right type to be a voice - just too unclear to be made out.

So the other night I was in the flat on my own and it was quite late and as quiet as it was going to get.  I lay in bed with the light off and forced myself to listen for voices.  I stopped listening explicitly to the sounds I could hear, and tried to tune out and search for the sound of a voice.  And I heard one.  Well I didn't, but I did manage to trick my brain into being convinced that there was a indistinct male human voice just out of clear earshot.  It was also pretty easy to snap back out of it into hearing just the sounds for what they were too.  It felt exactly like forcing yourself to see and then unsee one of those pictures.

So there you have it. No ghosts, just an artefect of the human brain's love for finding patterns where there aren't any.

Of course, this isn't truly scientific.  I had a theory about what may have caused me to hear what I heard, and I manage to recreate the same result using this theory.  But I know the pedants will (quite rightly) say that doesn't prove what caused it on the original night.  But given that the theory fits the evidence, and gives reproducible results I'm quite happy to live with it as the explanation.

However, unlike people who would dogmatically say this genuinely was a ghostly voice, I'm quite happy to change my view if a better answer should come along.  You tend to find that those people who report these things as genuinely supernatural spend more time trying to discredit any explanation other than their preferred one than investigating alternatives.  A true scientist would never have a preferred answer in the absence of evidence, and that preference would only have a lifetime which matched the lifetime of the supporting evidence.  But then again, how many scientists believe in ghosts..?

Monday, 6 January 2014

Ghostly voices in the night

So this is an absolutely true story.  

The other night, I woke up at 3.14am - the mathematician in me wouldn't forget that time.  Everything was quiet and dark, but I could hear a male voice.  It sounded like a distant radio.  Only one word every now and then was actually discernible, but it was a male voice talking slowly and deliberately as though talking on radio.  It was a calm voice.

I lay in bed trying to make out the words, but couldn't make it out. It was - annoyingly - just too quiet to be made into sentences and understand what it was saying, but it definitely sounded like a male voice.  Almost insistent like a DJ on talk show making a point.  Rising and falling, and the odd word being discernible amongst the mumble.

After listening to it for a few minutes, I decided to investigate.  My first thought was that my bedside radio had turned into on (or I had knocked it and turned it on) with the volume very low.  But no. It was turned off.  As was the radio the other side of the bed.  I then thought of the spare room - maybe the radio  in the spare room was on.  So I got out of bed and walked into the hall.  The voice got quieter as I walked out into the hall.  No noise from the spare room.  I walked through into the living room and all was silent.  I looked out into the gardens in case there was anyone in the communal gardens just over the fence talk.  Nobody around and absolute silence.  I walked back into the bedroom and got back into bed.  The noise was there again - a mumbled voice just too quiet to make out.

I fell back asleep pretty soon afterwards.

This has bugged me for a couple of days.  Was it a ghost..?

More to come on this one, I'm sure...

Saturday, 4 January 2014

Overly helpful - but totally useless

I quite often pop into Holland and Barrett in Chiswick.  It's a shop I love and loathe in equal measure.  They very often have great offers which make ingredients such as cashews, almonds and other bits really cheap - but equally they do stock a lot of new-age pseudo-medical homeopathic-herbal bollocks too.

The staff are very friendly.  So friendly, that it makes it hard to dislike the sheer amount of time they take just to put something in a bag.  They ask for your reward card and then try to push an over-priced and (probably, although I've never read it) content free magazine on your for a couple of quid.  I know they probably have a little sticky label inside the till drawer telling them how many they must shift per week per person, but it still grates.  

The worst thing of all is the way the passive aggressive way they have been told (obviously, as they all do the same in every branch) to ask for your reward card by saying "do you have your reward card with you?".  The tacit assumption in the phrasing is that you do already have a reward card, but may not have it with you.  It's designed to make you feel as though you should have one.  The psychology behind it isn't hard to discern - in fact it's so obvious (yet masquerading as "subtle") that I find it very annoying.  I have succeeded in one way in which I've previously failed though.  A few years ago, I pitted my wits against the staff at a stall in Paddington Station (War Of Words) and failed.  I have never been rude, or even uncivil, to the staff at Holland and Barrett - though somehow I have managed to get myself known as someone who neither has (nor wants) a loyalty card.  I count that as a small personal victory.

I don't have many loyalty cards at all.  It's not through any mistrust of my shopping habits being run through a pattern-analysing supercomputer by Tesco - simply a lack of space in my wallet.  By the time you have membership cards, and driving licence and debit cards and credit cards in there, where would you put all the loyalty cards you get offered?  Having said that, I do have a MyWaitrose card.  Obviously.

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

I don't like 2014 so far

2014 seems to be quite a wet year.  It's not stopped raining and it's quite windy too. I don't like 2014.  It's too wet.

Of course, that's nonsense.  But it's not a million miles away from the response you get if you ask for advice on holiday destinations.

"How was ?"

"It was terrible, the people are all very rude the whole time!"

"How many times have you been?"

"Oh, just the once"

And it turns out that someone was just slightly brusque with them in a supermarket on the second day and suddenly the whole population of is decried as rude.

We're currently in the process of trying to find somewhere to go for a few days to get a bit of warmth in the winter this year.  It seems that whatever destination you mention, someone has something bad to say and it's generally based on a sample size so small as to be meaningless.

Of course, people are made to be good at deducing things from tiny simple sets.  Evolution conveys such judgement a huge advantage.  But whilst that's generally been good at deciding whether a previously unencountered animal is going to eat us or not, it's not that great at judging holiday destinations.

The UK isn't brilliantly place for holidays to "warm but interesting" places.  You can get to the Costa Del Sol or somewhere in a few hours, but I can't say that really appeals to me.  I've never been one for sitting on a beach doing nothing, and given that I'm fast approaching middle age, I don't intend to spend time doing that whilst I still have the energy to walk around and explore.  I just wish there were more "slightly warmer" cities close to the UK and worth a week's holiday!